(The New Yorker) – “We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society,” President Obama said last week as he outlined his climate-change plan. The gibe was widely tweeted and repeated, the message clear: when it comes to global warming, Obama won’t tolerate any more anti-science bunk. He will direct the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, adapt the country’s infrastructure to protect against extreme weather, and use federal funds to increase renewable-energy production. To justify all this, the President cited recent national disasters, like Hurricane Sandy, the worst wildfires in recorded history, and the most severe droughts since the Dust Bowl. He even mentioned a long-running drought that has “forced a town to truck in water from the outside.”
That town is Spicewood Beach, a subdivision in the hill country outside of Austin, Texas. In February, 2012, according to the Times, the town’s well ran dry. Four thousand gallons of water still have to be hauled in many times a day.
Of course, no single weather event can be linked to the increased concentration of human-produced greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. And yet the increased frequency of extreme weather is a scientifically proven result of those gases. In the past month alone, floods in Canada killed four people and forced seventy-five thousand to evacuate Calgary; floods in central Europe killed eighteen; and floods in India killed a thousand. The drought in Spicewood Beach is, by comparison, mundane. Still, it is an example of an inconvenient, costly impact of climate change. And, unlike mass death and trauma, it’s a story that we can picture.
This liminal moment, when the signs are everywhere that the climate in which human civilization developed is gone, seems a natural subject for fiction, and a number of recent novels have grappled with it—Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, and Ian McEwan’s Solar among them. These books have been labelled “cli-fi,” but chances are that the name won’t stick. It makes the genre sound marginal, when, in fact, climate change is moving to the center of human experience.
* * *
Traditionally, environmental havoc has flourished in postapocalyptic fiction, where it makes for vivid, frightening atmospherics and, paradoxically, fosters a sense of unreality. In John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, from 1956, a new virus infects grasses across the globe, causing mass famine. The Drowned World, by J. G. Ballard, published in 1962, is set in 2145, after solar radiation has melted the polar ice caps and London has become a tropical swamp. T. C. Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth, from 2000, is set in a nearly apocalyptic 2025—a hot, food-scarce U.S. that is plagued by mass extinction. Margaret Atwood’s great dystopian trilogy, Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and the forthcoming MaddAddam, engages with similar disaster scenarios.
Today, novels that would once have been called science fiction can be read as social realism. Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow tells the story of Mitchell Zukor, a young mathematician who models disasters for a private Manhattan consulting firm in “the near future.” Midway through the book, an actual disaster—not unlike one of the “worst-case-scenarios” he has calculated—strikes the city in the form of a category-three hurricane, leaving much of it underwater. Zukor and a colleague canoe north, through Manhattan. “On a fire escape off Forty-fifth and Second a man was preaching to the sky, a waterlogged copy of the Bible bloating in his hands like a sea sponge.” Bodies are stacked in a stairwell of Grand Central Terminal, like a “grotesque human dam.” The Rockaways are missing. Rich has said that he was editing the final proofs of the book when Hurricane Sandy hit, last October. He may not be the last novelist of environmental disaster to find his story overtaken by events. Rich has pointed out that the term “climate change” does not appear in the novel. That was wise. It’s become a tired and increasingly meaningless trope, loaded with distracting political implications. Instead, Zukor thinks, “A few more years of these new meteorological patterns, a few more disasters, and every person on the street would be able to speak intelligently about drought, methane pollution, UV poisoning. The intricacies of planetary collapse would be general knowledge. Kid stuff.” Rich isn’t righteously threatening what might happen to us; rather, he’s writing from a conviction that it’s already begun. He’s doing what the best novelists do: by imagining the near future, he illuminates the present.
Kingsolver’s novel is set a world away from Rich’s flooded Gotham. She has no qualms about mentioning climate change. Her heroine, Dellarobia Turnbow, a smart young farm wife in impoverished rural Tennessee, is a stand-in for the millions of Americans who might have heard the words “global warming” but don’t have the time, money, or education to care what they mean. They’re too busy getting by. The novel is the story of Dellarobia’s transformative education in climate science. Kingsolver’s hook is the predicament of monarch butterflies.
Monarchs migrate farther than any other tropical species of lepidoptera. They start as far north as Saskatchewan and Maine and fly to Michoacán, Mexico, where millions of them land for the winter, covering every fir tree. But a combination of tourism, illegal logging, and severe mudslides, exacerbated by increased rainfall, has wiped out large swaths of the monarchs’ Mexico habitat, threatening their survival. Kingsolver adds a fictional twist: with no habitat left in Mexico, the entire monarch population moves northward, landing, one autumn, deep in the Appalachian Mountains, out Dellarobia’s backdoor.
When Dellarobia first encounters the butterflies she doesn’t recognize what she sees: “The flame now appeared to lift from individual treetops in showers of orange sparks, exploding the way a pine log does in a campfire when it’s poked. The sparks spiraled upward in swirls like funnel clouds.” Within weeks, her discovery makes national headlines, and lepidopterists descend on her town. An entomologist camps out behind her house and becomes her and her son’s mentor.
The characters are charming but can seem utilitarian—the means for Kingsolver to debate ideas and educate the reader. Nonetheless, I fell in love with her gorgeously described monarchs, which struggle scrappily to survive. Their story conveys a visceral sense of urgency about the natural wonders that are disappearing.
* * *
Many of the works in I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet, published in 2011, impart a similarly haunting sense of loss—the most universal feeling, perhaps, that global warming incites. Nathaniel Rich’s eerily comic story “Hermie” is about a coastal scientist who, in a hotel bathroom in Salzburg, is reunited with the talking hermit crab from his boyhood summers on a Sarasota beach. Hermie (he’s less cloying than he sounds) evokes both the scientist’s lost innocence and the beach’s recent degradation from development, hurricanes, and sea-level rise. The scientist is alarmed and moved, but soon reverts to a present in which he is most concerned with what people at a cocktail party think of his new paper. In David Mitchell’s brilliant story “The Siphoners,” set in 2033, a roving gang of young men rob an anthropologist and her husband, who has Alzheimer’s, of the last of their gasoline, then offer them suicide pills. The most stinging moment comes after the gang leaves, when the narrator, faced with the end, decides to sip nettle tea and retreat into her and her husband’s “best-known contribution to the now-extinct discipline of anthropology.” It is an article from the nineteen-nineties titled “On the Inadvisability of Geronticide.” The article, which we also begin to read, concerns a common folk tale with a moral about respecting elders.
In “Sacred Space,” Kim Stanley Robinson describes a man who has hiked in the Sierra Nevada Mountains each summer and then sees, for the first time, that because of a drought and higher temperatures his beloved high alpine meadows have died. Lydia Millet’s “Zoogoing” tells the story of a man who breaks into zoo animals’ cages and spends the night with them. He becomes obsessed and tormented by the mass extinction that is underway outside the safety of the zoo. “Each time one of the animals disappeared … it was as though all mountains were gone, or all lakes. The quiet mass disappearance, the inversion of the Ark, was passing unnoticed.” In each of these stories, the main character cares deeply about something—her work, the dying mountain meadows, mass extinction—which causes the reader to care, too, and to feel the loss. [more]