[FULL TEXT of major article in an inflight magazine in September 2015] (link not available online since the magazine does not archive articles online)
A decade ago, in the year of Hurricane Katrina, climate change had not yet flooded into fiction. Scientists were wondering if and when the worlds of art and literature would ever collide with the overheating planet that they saw in their projections. “Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” asked the leading US environmentalist Bill McKibben in an article of 2005. His theory was: we still weren’t quite scared enough.
The problem was too big, too diffuse, too complex to provoke a visceral response. “It hasn’t registered in our gut,” he wrote. “It isn’t part of our culture.” In the 10 years since, the weather has worsened and the culture has shifted. The US alone has seen its eastern seaboard half-submerged by Hurricane Sandy and half-buried under arctic snowstorms, while the west coast suffers chronic drought and near-constant bushfires.
As this article is being written, the monsoons are again inundating the streets and buildings of Mumbai, and the heat index in Marshahr just popped the top off the thermometer at a fantastical 165 degrees fahrenheit. Rising temperatures, sea levels and rain gauges seem to have finally released what McKibben calls “a torrent of art” around global warming.
Poems like Ruth Padel’s Slices of Toast. Plays like Richard Bean’s The Heretic. Movies like Snowpiercer and Interstellar. This past May, we even got the climate change opera that McKibben called for, when CO2 – directed by Giorgio Battistelli and inspired by Al Gore’s landmark eco-documentary, An Inconvenient Truth – made its debut at La Scala in Milan.
The last decade has also seen the flourishing of literature on the subject. Relatively recent non-fiction titles like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything and Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From A Catastrophe draw on McKibben’s own work by way of precedent. His pioneering 1989 treatise The End Of Nature is now read as something of a classic, having raised the alarm with an early, mournful note of eulogy. “I love winter best now,” he wrote way back then, “but I try not to love it too much, for fear of the January perhaps not so distant when the snow will fall as warm rain.”
Today, McKibben says he’s too busy organising to get much writing done. He’s an instrumental figure in the 350.org campaign, which takes its name from the maximum number in parts per million CO2 at which the Earth’s atmosphere can sustain our current civilisation. Artists are a vital part of the project, he says, “the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream”. He cites the time-lapse photography of James Balog, which shows city-sized regions of ice collapsing into the ocean, and the aerial tableaux of John Quigley, who arranges crowds into formation against dramatic natural backdrops to militate for urgent action. But writers make images in their own way.
“They help people picture meaning in their minds,” says McKibben. “Nuclear explosions were relatively easy to imagine, because we always had the mushroom cloud. But here we have the explosions of a billion pistons in a billion cylinders every second.” He doesn’t think another treatise from himself or some like-minded polemicist would “move the needle all that much”. “That said, a really good metaphor is probably as useful in the fight as a new kind of car engine.”
And this is where the novelists come in. When Cormac McCarthy published The Road in 2007, a lyrical parable of human endurance set in a near-future of dead trees and starving survivors, the activist George Monbiot called it “the most important environmental book ever written”. Marcel Theroux’s Far North, which traced the grim adventures of US refugees across post-eco-apocalyptic Siberia, was heralded two years later by the Washington Post as “the first great cautionary fable of climate change”. Other acclaimed authors like Ian McEwan, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver have conducted their own extensive research on glacier retreat, fresh water depletion, and species extinction to produce novels as diverse as Solar, The Year Of The Flood, and Flight Behavior, all best-sellers that were peer-reviewed by scientists as well as the usual literary critics. In terms of style, tone, or approach, these books have almost nothing in common.
Though heavily based on his disheartening artist’s expedition to Arctic Norway with the Cape Farewell project, McEwan’s Solar, for example, took the form of absurd and bitter comedy. But if visions of a weather-beaten future have been the stuff of pulp and science fiction for at least a century, we have lately reached the point where they are taken much more seriously. And there is now enough climate change fiction on the shelves for “cli-fi” to become a growing genre unto itself.
The invention of “cli-fi” as a narrative category should be credited to Dan Bloom, an American freelance journalist based in Taiwan, circa 2008. Today he says he came up with it “on the spur of the moment”, while trying to sell a script he’d written for a movie titled Polar City Red, to be set in a dystopian Alaska. His pitch was inspired, in a roundabout way, by renowned environmentalist James Lovelock, who has long since decided that it’s too late to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and that we are effectively “doomed doomed doomed”, as Bloom puts it. Lovelock is his hero, but he doesn’t share that view.
“I’m an optimist,” says Bloom. “I’m not coming from a dark place, I’m working from a reservoir of compassion for the next 30 generations.” He was also thinking of Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach, a work of popular fiction that probably awakened more people to the threat of nuclear war and the horror that would follow than any contemporary scientist or campaigner had managed. It was later made into a hit movie with Gregory Peck that buried even deeper into the public consciousness. Bloom’s own film has not been produced as yet, but he has parlayed his coinage of that resounding new term into an ongoing project called The Cli-Fi Report, a web-based archive and research tool.
He keeps particular track of the literature now making its way into school curricula and college reading lists – “cli-fi” is being rapidly adopted as a subject of academic study, giving rise to new university courses in Cambridge, Norway, India. More important, says Bloom, is the way that subject seems to be engaging and inspiring young readers.
“My hope is that one of those readers might become the next Nevil Shute and write the On The Beach of climate novels. Personally, I’m not so worried about the next 10 or 20 years. No apocalypse will come that soon. But we need to start preparing now, mentally, emotionally, and I think art can help. Visionary storytelling that sounds the alarm.”
As Bloom well knows though, no true storyteller wants to be a preacher, and no serious artist would consent to serve as a mouthpiece for scientists and policymakers. The politics of climate change put art at risk of being read as propaganda, and the whole concept of “fiction” becomes pretty slippery when both sides of the debate use that word to dismiss each other’s “facts”. To sceptics, man-made global warming is a myth. To those convinced of its reality, denial is a kind of counter-myth.
It might be worth noting that certain core arguments about the power of humanity over nature, and vice versa, can be traced back to one of the oldest stories in existence. The Epic of Gilgamesh, written some time around 2100 BCE, begins with the destruction of forests to make way for mighty cities, and builds toward an account of a deluge that drowns the world. That ancient Sumerian poem survives at least in part as the original flood myth, and we tend to resurrect such myths when circumstance demands – witness last year’s odd but timely Hollywood blockbuster Noah, which cast Russell Crowe as the eponymous ark-builder, and recast a biblical apocalypse in a ecological light.
British nature writer Robert Macfarlane has noted that the Norse legends of Ragnarok and Balder became popular again in Victorian England, when eminent scientists like Lord Kelvin were predicting a new age of global cooling, as a prelude to the so-called “heat death” of the universe. The Earth would turn too cold to live, the sun would freeze into a ball of black ice and fall out of the sky, just as the Vikings had foretold. Except, of course, it didn’t happen.
Which is to say that we’ve been burned before. If we need a fitting flood myth for the Anthropocene epoch – what some environmentalists are calling our current geological period of prevailing human impact and influence – then we also need it to ring absolutely true. To be most useful to us, Macfarlane has suggested, the ideal literary response to climate change “would need to be measured and prudent, and would need to find ways of imagining which remained honest to the scientific evidence”. And to that end, Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow might be the very model of a cli-fi novel: the story of a New York risk analyst who is fully exposed to one of his own worst-case scenarios when a superstorm devastates Manhattan.
Drawing on the author’s years of research and reporting on the subject, it was written just before Hurricane Sandy hit the city in 2011, and released only after the offices of his publishing house had been cleared of broken glass and floodwater. Sandy created “complications”, as Rich puts it today. He had set his novel in the near-future, then the present came crashing in. For the sake of maximum veracity, he made a few last-minute adjustments to the manuscript, adding in little details to reflect what had actually happened. His fictional Hurricane Tammy was still a worse event by one or two orders of magnitude, but beyond that, he says, “all the scientific facts are accurate”. “It’s scarier that way, and more honest too.”
Rich did not intend Odds Against Tomorrow to be read as prophesy, or prescription. He wasn’t trying to convince climate change sceptics or play to the worst fears of those already persuaded. “I had no axe to grind,” he says. His protagonist, Mitchell Zukor, obsesses over imminent disaster, while other characters face it down or look away, adopting attitudes that range from nihilism to pragmatism to panic. Rich says he doesn’t feel that any one of these positions is more valid than another, but he does think they raise questions “that all of us must resolve for ourselves”.
“When it comes to environmental issues, should we all quit our jobs and become activists? Or recycle and turn the lights off at night and feel bad all the time? Or should we just do whatever it takes to support our families?” The overriding question is an existential one, and Rich believes that novelists are no less qualified to ask it than scientists or politicians – how are we to live like this? “It’s not just the fear of environmental collapse, but pandemics, terrorism, financial ruin, natural disaster, you name it. What’s it doing to us, this constant sense of threat, the inundation of bad news? And what are we supposed to do about it?” Writing cli-fi might be one answer, and reading it might be one way to prepare.
“Imagination can ready the mind for eventualities that might once have seemed far-fetched,” says Rich. “It can also be a form of inoculation. I don’t think anyone who watches Independence Day is necessarily going to be more afraid of an alien invasion. They’re more likely to be less afraid.”
By 2030, he reckons, every university in the world will be teaching courses in environmental fiction. “But younger novelists will be producing the work. We’re the ones with most at stake. We’re the ones who have to live through this mess.”