Last November, Waterstones named Greta Thunberg as their ‘author of the year’. Her collection of speeches, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, certainly encapsulated the passion and anger of the global climate movement. The book was showcased on stands in Waterstones stores alongside other environmental bestsellers: David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth, Extinction Rebellion’s ‘handbook’, This Is Not A Drill, and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, to name a few. At the moment, writing about the climate crisis is dominated by non-fiction and polemics; where are all the stories?
Obviously, in order to better understand what’s happening to our planet, we need to understand the science and policy that’s driving the crisis. Long-form journalism and non-fiction give us a deep dive into the research and the facts in a way that social media can’t; they’re an essential part of climate activism. The thing is, it’s becoming increasingly clear that information alone is not enough. This is a crisis which is underpinned by cognitive dissonance; most of us agree that humans have had an adverse effect on the planet, and yet we go about our lives as if little is the matter. Environmental crisis requires us to change the way we see the world, and one way we can do that is by telling stories.
Indeed, Thunberg’s upcoming book, Our House Is On Fire: Scenes from a Family and a Planet in Crisis, seeks to tell a story. The memoir, written with her parents and sister, tells the tale of how the family adapted to Thunberg’s sudden rise to eminence. The title alone suggests there is a parallel to be drawn between stories about family and stories about the planet. Rather than simply setting out to argue, as Thunberg did in No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference, it seems that this new book will to confront the ways in which the climate crisis manifests itself in our daily lives, refracted through the lens of relationships and community. Framing an environmental message in terms of a family story appeals to the way our brains work; we respond to emotion better than reason. Stories galvanize; they give us a common cause. Science and psychology writer David Robson says that storytelling is “a form of cognitive play that hones our minds, allowing us to simulate the world around us and imagine different strategies”. We know that we need stories to help us confront the climate crisis; the question remains of how to tell them.
Let’s look at who’s currently writing eco-fiction. Richard Powers’ lengthy novel, The Overstory – shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2018 – traces the lives of nine intersecting characters and their experiences with trees. The first chapter reads as a beautiful short story, charting several generations of an Iowa farming family as they take a picture of a chestnut tree on the same day every year. It’s a lyrical reminder of the interdependent relationship between humanity and nature. As the story progresses, however, the novel gets bogged down by an account of radical activists protesting the destruction of a redwood forest. Rather than ask complicated questions about conservation and activism, The Overstory becomes a back-and-forth between two oversimplified standpoints; the evil capitalist corporations and the angelic environmentalist do-gooders. A writer with an explicit agenda is one thing; a writer who is reluctant to challenge and interrogate the intricacies of what they stand for is quite another. It’s not Powers’ environmental morality which poses a problem – in fact, it’s quite refreshing to see such a standpoint embraced by the literary world. Rather, it’s the fact that The Overstory is a missed opportunity. Good literature should not just persuade or preach; it should start a conversation and complicate issues in a way we wouldn’t have done ourselves.
This is the potential pitfall of eco-fiction. The majority of writers who want to explore the climate crisis come to the topic with environmentalist principles. Thus, at the root of all eco-fiction is a desire to draw attention to the climate crisis and to persuade people to act. Can anything new and exciting be said in the face of this overarching moral? Is there space for imagination and innovation when all writing about climate change is ultimately saying the same thing?
Part of the answer is to be found in genre fiction; for the last two decades, writing about environmental disaster has largely been the remit of dystopia and sci-fi. These genres have provided an ample playground for imaginative thinking about how human action will impact our planet. While N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, for instance, isn’t explicitly about our current crisis, it asks some brilliant questions about how we should live in a climate-changed world. Jemisin shows us a society thwarted by constant ecological threat, only to reveal the human-made systems that lie at the foundation of the cause. Likewise, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy imaginatively engages with the consequences of hypercapitalism and genetic engineering. Atwood, praised by critics and readers alike, is somewhat of an anomaly in the field, though; much of science fiction lacks clout, and many of its most exciting voices are pushed to the literary sidelines. We need to shine light on these genres if we are to establish a powerful canon of climate crisis writing.
This being said, there’s a danger that speculative fiction in particular only tells one side of the story; the side that involves catastrophe and apocalypse. Indeed, in the first of the MaddAddam series, Oryx and Crake, Atwood’s sentiment borders on alarmist. A ravaged Earth can serve as a warning, but can also potentially feed into feelings of fatalism and passivity. Alarmism was an accusation also thrown at novelist Jonathan Franzen last year, following his New Yorker essay ‘What If We Stop Pretending?’. The essay stands out from other climate crisis writing because Franzen says something new; he tells a story of climate change in which catastrophe is now inevitable. He proposes preparation, rather than prevention, should be our plan for survival. The backlash fell into two distinct, albeit related, categories. The first camp found fault with Franzen’s pessimism, arguing that his view perpetuates inaction in a world that desperately needs something doing. The second camp rallied against Franzen’s shaky use of science; he treats the IPCC’s figure of two degrees of warming as a magic number, and runs his own quasi climate models in his head. While valid in some respects, this criticism raises questions about who can write about the climate crisis. On the one hand, it needs hard facts and reliable experts in order to be believed in a fake-news world. On the other hand, however, this mentality excludes creative voices who exist outside the field of expertise. We need to find a balance between talking about the crisis in an accurate way whilst also allowing for new ideas and perspectives.
While it’s clear that we need to tell stories about the climate crisis, it’s equally clear that the shape these stories should take is not straightforward. As more and more writers are drawn to the ever-pressing discussion, it’s paramount that we fully think about the consequences of how we talk about climate change. Writing about the environment can take us to faraway lands or it can shed light on the mundanities of everyday life on a rapidly changing planet. It helps us to navigate crisis and to discern exactly what our relationship to the environment is. We need to combine imagination, diversity and hope to create sustained engagement with environmental issues. With writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, Amitav Ghosh and Claire Vaye Watkins leading the charge, the story we are telling about the climate crisis is looking ever more hopeful.