Apocalypse How? What Novels Screw Up About Climate Change

We're obsessed with grim environmental tales, but most of them miss the point.
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If you live somewhere other than under a large rock, the premise of The Tangled Lands will sound familiar: A declining empire owes its former splendor to a miraculous energy source. Now, emissions from that source threaten to destroy the empire. Everyone’s freaking out.

The story is (maybe too) obviously an allegory of climate change. Instead of hydrocarbons, the fictional world Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Buckell create in their recently released novel draws power from magic, which also fertilizes the voracious, writhing, poisonous weeds now bearing down on one of the last great cities. Migrants pour in from the bramble-choked periphery. The rich and powerful seek to turn the crisis to their advantage while ordinary citizens resist. Al Gore is … not there, but you get the point.

Novels like The Tangled Lands are seismographic readings from a trembling society. They register a profound anxiety that the world we know is collapsing under our feet. Literary critics interested in climate change are currently debating whether these works can also give readers tools for addressing the ecological crisis. Perhaps fiction, the thinking goes, makes it easier to wrap our heads around complex environmental changes and dream up useful ways of dealing with them.

The stakes are high. “If there is any one thing global warming has made perfectly clear,” wrote novelist Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement, “it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a form of collective suicide.”

Fiction that wrestles with the changing world takes a number of forms. Some aspire to a kind of gritty realism (David Simon’s television series “Treme,” for example). Other works pine for better days or “trade in the nostalgic dreams of empire’s many lost wonders,” as a character in The Tangled Lands puts it. In general, science fiction and fantasy are the preferred genres for staging the sometimes slow, sometimes holy-shit-I-should-write-a-will-fast transformation of the world.

While some of these works avoid apocalyptic themes, such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York: 2140, much eco-fiction plunges readers into near- or post-apocalyptic futures. Think movies like “The Day After Tomorrow and “Snowpiercer” or novels like Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus and Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Even “Game of Thrones” is a story about cataclysmic changes in the weather.

These stories can be powerful aids for thought. Novels like The Tangled Lands let us sample catastrophe from a safe distance. Films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which tracks a bayou community through a violent storm, make familiar dangers strange so that we might escape ourselves and reflect on a bizarre, broken world.

The best of these works, like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (published in 1993, well before the current craze), highlight the uneven violence of large-scale environmental change. Butler’s novel follows Lauren, a black teenager, as she travels from Los Angeles, bone-dry and full of bandits, to the relative security of Northern California. Lauren’s journey through the wilds beyond walled middle-class enclaves reminds us that ecological pressures lay some lower than others, while inviting us to imagine more egalitarian ways of organizing future worlds.

Such speculations aren’t confined to fiction, of course. Journalist David Wallace-Wells’ 2017 article “The Uninhabitable Earth” fuses literary conventions with hard reporting to conjure apocalyptic visions of a warming world. Even Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, remembered as the nonfiction book that sparked the environmental movement back in the 1960s, begins with a “fable.”

“There once was a town at the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings,” Carson wrote. We know how the story ends: Humans lugged in their cars and pesticides, and broke the balance.

Nonfiction does as much aesthetic work as any novel. Indeed, if people relate to the world through culture ― through images, tropes and social scripts that give meaning to the raw data of the universe ― then every book, movie and cereal box reveals something about how someone somewhere is puzzling through life on a changing planet. So too does every scientific report, news briefing and presidential address. There is something profoundly cinematic about footage of oil gushing from Deepwater Horizon’s blown wellhead (watch it again and try to look away). And there’s something deeply haunting about the “hockey stick” graph that has come to symbolize the planetary warming trend.

Fictional or factual, these stories matter because they frame people’s moral and political responses to ecological change. Activists who shut down several major oil pipelines in 2016 risked lengthy prison sentences because their culture (white liberal American) tells itself stories about personal moral heroism and understands the theatrics of righteous lawbreaking. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Seattle valve turner Michael Foster is a lover of Henry David Thoreau. “I’m just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison,” he told The New York Times as he stared down the possibility of decades behind bars.

There are plenty of reasons to be afraid. Global average temperatures creep higher each year; superstorms ravage coastlines; droughts and floods wipe out homes and farms and city blocks. As usual, those denied wealth and power suffer most from the intensifying disaster.

Over 100,000 Puerto Ricans remain without electricity seven months after Hurricane Maria tore through the island. “No electricity, no water, no food, no fuel, no hospitals and no means of communication,” Puerto Rican journalist Omaya Sosa Pascual wrote of her post-storm home. “It seemed unreal that this could happen in the 21st century.”

It’s tempting to read worsening disasters as portents of the apocalypse to come, a preface to some final lethal bang. But this isn’t usually how environmental change, and especially not climate change, works. Climate change doesn’t describe a single future catastrophe, but a slow and uneven unraveling, a drawn-out apocalypse that began long ago and that will stretch to an end that probably won’t feel like much of an ending at all.

For most people, climate change is ordinary danger amplified, enduring injustice heightened. For those few who have enough wealth or power to recuse themselves from the vicissitudes of planetary change, global warming will probably feel like banal anxiety: a vague worry here, a twinge of guilt there. Anyone waiting for the apocalypse is likely to be disappointed, over and over again.

Journalist Kathryn Schultz summed up the problem nicely. “We excel at imagining future scenarios, including awful ones,” she wrote in a New Yorker article about a mega-earthquake threatening the Pacific Northwest. “But such apocalyptic visions are a form of escapism, not a moral summons, and still less a plan of action.”

Some recent environmental literature is resisting the easy spectacle of apocalypse. Take Ben Lerner’s novel 10:04. The novel’s action is bookended by fictionalized versions of two actual superstorms ― Hurricanes Irene and Sandy ― that fail to live up to the apocalyptic hype that precedes them. When Irene hits, the narrator expects catastrophe, but none arrives. “I went into the kitchen and drank a glass of water and glanced at the instant coffee on the counter and it was no longer an emissary from a world to come,” he says. “There was disappointment in my relief at the failure of the storm.”

The narrator’s disappointment contains a lesson: Reckoning with the complexity of climate change means acknowledging one’s desire to turn it into a spectacle, an art object, a moment of personal transformation, a dramatic tale to which one can append existential anxieties like so many railcars on a train barreling over the edge. Lerner asks readers to confront an unsettling possibility: For the wealthy and well-connected, climate change will not feel catastrophic most of the time.

For Lerner, as for Butler and Bacigalupi and Buckell, confronting climate change isn’t about staving off some future disaster, but dealing with the everyday injustices that make the present unbearable for so many.