Fiction for a way through the climate crisis

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” wrote Amitav Ghosh in 2016. In his book The Great Derangement, he notes that literature has failed to grapple with climate change. Our artists haven’t equipped us to imagine ways beyond our current predicament.

It’s a theme echoed by Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Towns movement. In his book From What Is to What If, he writes that “we face vast crises that demand imaginative and urgent responses and a reimagining of everything.” And so far, “we are not up to it.”

For Christians, there is something prophetic about this too – the prophets called people beyond their immediate circumstances. Sometimes they foretold the consequences of bad decisions. When times were hard, they cast forward for a positive vision of restoration, something hopeful for people to strive towards in faith. Storytelling is not just for entertainment. It can open new possibilities.

Fiction has not been entirely silent on the crises that we face. What novels might we draw on as we try to re-imagine the economy in the face of inequality and the ecological emergency? Who is writing prophetically about the climate crisis, and what can we learn from them?

When browsing the bookshelves, it’s not hard to find novels that are set in a context of climate crisis. Writers have been drawing on the imagery of global warming for decades, such as J G Ballard in his novel Drowned World, or The Sea and Summer, by George Turner. These are both works of ‘speculative fiction’ written at a time when rising seas felt a long way off. More recent and more personal is Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Bangkok Wakes to Rain, which weaves stories of past, present and future lives in a city that climate change will render uninhabitable.

Other books look at the experience of living in changing times. My personal favourite is Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, which contrasts ordinary lives and extraordinary natural phenomena, capturing the sense of the uncanny as landscapes we think we know change around us. Rumaan Alam does something vaguely similar in Leave the World Behind, where characters struggle to maintain a sense of normality in the face of a threat they don’t understand.

The climate crisis unbalances us, and pushes us towards difficult decisions as individuals and as societies. There are books exploring this too, often dystopias. The classic Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler, looked strangely prescient with the era of Trump, as her imagined America wrestles with chronic wildfires and extreme politics. Closer to home, John Lanchester’s The Wall combines rising seas with rising nationalism to offer a bleak vision of fascist protectionism in the face of climate migration.

Dystopia can be instructive, highlighting the self-destructive tendencies in our current politics by extrapolating them towards their logical conclusion. But we can also turn our imaginations towards the solutions, as Tony Emerson suggested in an interview for Joy in Enough last year. Are there any novels that explicitly point us towards a way out of the climate crisis? I can think of two, and I’d love to hear suggestions for more positive examples of climate fiction.

One is the young adult fiction novel The Summer we Turned Green, by William Sutcliffe. Inspired in part by his teenage son’s interest in the climate strikes, he told me that he hopes the book “can get young people engaging with this topic in a way that doesn’t fill them with despair.” A major theme of the book is overcoming differences in order to work together to save what we love – a crucial skill that young people need in the age of climate change, and one that is explored with humour and humility.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s epic The Ministry for the Future is another example, a novel that is all about climate solutions and ideas. Though it reads at times like a thriller, it is once again about diplomacy, about trust, the importance of working together and overcoming self interest. And while it has main characters, it has multiple perspectives and clearly makes the point that climate change needs everyone.

That is, of course, a cursory glance at the wealth of fiction we could learn from. What else have you read that inspired you to think differently about the climate crisis?

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