Things I learnt reading climate change fiction this year

For the second half of the year, as part of a book-length research project that I started working on, I began reading a few books, fiction mostly, to go along with my academic reading about climate change, environmentalism and renewable energy. I learnt quite a bit from these, and this is my attempt at putting into words (or excerpting) some of the key things from each, plus a short note at the end. Most are not from this year, but they’re all reasonably recent. In the order that I read them:

Aurora – Kim Stanley Robinson

Not really climate fiction, per se, but the story of a generation ship with several fully functioning ecosystems that eventually makes the return journey to earth there’s plenty of relevance. One of the main themes that causes the colonists to give up on their mission (aside from the inhospitable location that was chosen for settlement) is that the generation ship, despite featuring lots of futuristic 3D printing for any kind of material they could want (and a generous amount of raw material to print from) there are ecological issues to do with staying in such a small total biosphere. The bacteria and viruses reproduced (and thus evolved) at quite different rates to plants and animals – imagine the situation in a modern hospital and then lock everyone inside for three hundred years and you get the bacterial picture. This was but one problem facing the ship, others were recycling and ‘fixing’ certain elements: nitrates in the soils, calcium in human and animal bones, and salt, always ‘too much salt’ and so on and so forth. The ecological aspect of it was one of its most compelling dramatic engines, and one of its chief engineers talked about the problem of maintaining the ship in this way as an issue of metabolism which is one that has come up in other theory that I’ve been reading lately (Jason W. Moore’s ‘Capitalism in the Web of Life’).

Once the ship gets back home, however, they arrive to (naturally) a climactically changed planet – and though this isn’t fleshed out a great deal in this book I think his other one set in the same time period does more. Still, there’s a really great passage about beaches and an implied expansion of the littoral zone of beaches. Naturally, all the beaches are gone, but there are some who dedicate their lives to rebuilding them. I found it a seriously compelling image, and here’s an excerpt:

The earthmover moves sand from the giant piles of it in their receiving area, out onto the strand itself. In the horizontal light of late day they rumble and bounce down a long ramp to the new beach, now covered with vehicle tracks. Past smaller vehicles of various kinds, some plowing smaller and smaller piles of sand into flat surfaces or pushing up dunes at the back of the beach. The important thing is to accept the new sea level and work with it, the people operating the earthmover tell her; it won’t go back down for centuries at best, and may never recede at all. But they are confident it won’t go any higher either; all the ice in the world that is likely to melt has already melted. There’s still a considerable ice cap in eastern Antarctica, but with temperatures stabilized at last, that one is likely to stay there. If not, well, too bad! More beaches to build!

For now, this is sea level. Tides here slosh up and down a vertical distance that averages three metres, more in the neap tides when the moon is closest to Earth. Tides really are a matter of tidal attraction between Earth and Luna. Tug of gravity, spooky action at a distance. Source of a great deal of life on this planet, possibly even the appearance of life, some say.

They are making sure the high-tide mark is well below most of their new strand, which will be one hundred meters wide at least. Behind the strand they are building dunes, and planting and introducing all the dune life. And during low tides, the wet strand that is temporarily exposed is made mostly of sand, with only some rocky areas under points in the bluff, for tide pools and the like. All these parameters and elements are designed, engineered, built, monitored. Freya sees it: this beach is their artwork. These people are artists. (p.443)

The Year of the Flood/MadAddam – Margaret Atwood

The next book(s) I read after that was The Waterless Flood by Margaret Atwood, which is about a group of back-to-nature fundamentalists who, responding to the environmental depletion around them and the advancement of corporate control (Corp’s control basically everything) have decided that there will come a disaster to wipe everyone off the planet and they alone might escape it. They life full vego lives, have saints like Jane Goodall and other environmentalists, are generally harmless and kind of wonderful actually. The Waterless Flood is a calamity that does indeed wipe everyone out and mostly the God’s Gardeners do actually survive, but that’s kind of just the backdrop on which everything plays out.

The main thing that I took away from it was actually quite similar to what Timothy Morton calls ‘ecology without nature’, and it’s essentially that there is no pristine earth/Nature/environment and there can be no going back. In response to the massive, unabated extinctions of the time it’s set in (the semi-distant future, I’d guess 20-50 years from now?) the corporations actually genetically modify a small number of animals to survive and be profitable and so on. Mo’hairs are goats/sheep but with human hair (wigs!) and there are a bunch of other weird things too.

The other thing that’s just kind of interesting from a climate fiction perspective is that climate change is just another kind of silent, unspoken and assumed facet of the world they live in – everyone goes out wearing sunscreen all the time, it’s always hot and horrible, and there are constant afternoon thunderstorms because that’s the new climate. Meanwhile, life in all its fucked up forms goes on. It’s not a bleak image, but it’s not a particularly one either – it just is.

A few fleeting mentions of climate change consequences that I took note of – there’s a mention of a “Wisconsin desert” which is a nice and effective way of communicating that particular image, someone says at some point “used to be a fall variety when we still had fall”, a couple mentions of off-shore unstable high-rises (sea level rise) and then this really quite evocative passage. It comes in a kind of flashback to an even earlier period that the main character has:

By the time she had moved to college, the wrongness had moved closer. She remembers the oppressive sensation, like waiting all the time for a heavy stone footfall then a knock at the door. Everybody knew. Nobody admitted to knowing. If other people began talking about it you tuned them out, because what they were saying was both so obvious and so unthinkable.

We’re using up the earth. It’s almost gone. You can’t live with such fears and keep on whistling. (p.319)

From the acknowledgements at the end of the book, Atwood writes: ‘The year of the flood is fiction, but the general tendencies and many of the details in it are alarmingly close to fact.’ (p.573)

I also read the sequel to the trilogy MadAddam, which is interesting as well, but maybe not quite as good. Less to say about climate anyway, because a lot of it is just in the set-up – though we do get some more backstory on how things deteriorated – e.g. one main character is involved in dumping garbage up north in order to feed starving polar bears. It’s a kind of rich charity folly, and perfectly extrapolates from contemporary coordinates.

The Water Knife – Paolo Bacigalupi

This one was really interesting, it’s basically near-future sci-fi genre fare, with fairly workmanlike prose, pretty neat characterisation and a story that gets really, really interesting as it all revolves around tight water restrictions. The gist of it is that in the future Dustbowl America expands from Texas on up, spreading desertification, chaos, and social dysfunction to the point that state borders are closed. It’s the disintegration of the united states with an ecological driver behind it. Water doesn’t so much become a defacto currency, so much as access to water becomes highly constrained and commodified. Arcologies of entirely sealed habitats are the realm of the 1% and the rest of the population (including a great huddled mass of refugees from the state of Texas) are forced to eke their survival out in the dusty exterior world. Solar power is ubiquitous, fossil fuels are rare, and states have their own militaries – extending their quasi-legal property rights through military might in order to secure water for their populations. The titular ‘water knife’ is a character well versed in cutting off whole cities, towns and suburbs access to water. Highly fascistic and militarised regimes ensue, violence and exploitation are everywhere as people are so economically desperate to obtain enough money to buy water just for the bare essentials. Water is charged by the gallon through taps and ‘red cross relief wells’.

The plot spirals out of control as ancient senior water rights once belonging to a group of Indians (the hohokum tribe – whose name literally means ‘used up’, a rather foreboding omen) are lost, chased after by every political actor in that part of the world (Nevada, Arizona, California) as they try to get their hands on a legal guarantee to a lot of access to water. At first I found it all a bit extreme – I didn’t think it was actually all that plausible… but then I started reading around a bit and talking to some people about the stuff that the book assumes about water in that part of the world and all of the issues that he extrapolates out into the future become a bit more worryingly plausible. It’s based around (and features frequent mentions of) a 1986 book about water history and access in western America called ‘Cadillac Desert’. I haven’t read it yet, and I might not get around to it, but just looking through some of the topics it covers has already been interesting. Learning from where, and how, Los Angeles gets its water was a bit of a shock.

Like the other books I read this year that feature climate change as a feature of their fictional settings, this one too – even in spite of how terrible it a vision it is – left me at the closing with a strong sense that all these challenges that we are likely to face aren’t insurmountable, and that human life will probably continue in the face of tragedy. Having engaged with some of these climate scenarios now, and having spent the time dwelling within them, what was formerly the shroud of not-knowing that enveloped the future of our unfolding planetary disaster has been slightly pulled back. Now instead, I feel like I have a slightly better handle on if not the specifics, since the specifics may well be wrong, then at least the dynamics that may come into play. Once again, it seems, fear of the unknown is a large part of the problem wider society faces in addition to the other practical challenges of climate change.

I said in Melbourne at my talk for DiGRAA about the book-length work on this that I’m writing, and that if I were an artist, I would make climate change art. If I were a painter, I would paint climate change. If I were a labourer, I would try to labour on projects that will in some way contribute to the larger efforts to address climate change. I really do believe that a fundamental reorganisation of society is not just necessary, it is already starting to happen. A colleague of mine is doing research on public sector unions in the US who are starting to acknowledge the problem that heat in the workplace is a health and safety issue for people like police, emergency services, and so on. Climate change is just at the start of a process of moving out of the periphery and into a central concern of the political sphere – going from being just an “issue” to a central, everyday aspect of our lives. It’s going to happen quicker than anyone imagines, and we should try and get out in front of it as much as possible. Imagining these futures and how we are likely to exist within them, how they are going to impact on our own areas of work, our daily routines in our lived environments is going to be a critical project for the next several years if we are to avoid a reactionary political force taking advantage of it.

Please join me in this in whatever small ways you can – read some climate books and let us have a chat about them. Think about what climate change means for you and your workplace, where you live, and what you might want to start doing now to prepare. Maybe it’s planting a drought tolerant tree in your backyard. Maybe it’s adding another angle to your art, or your research, or your consciousness when you engage with media. Maybe it’s getting your landlord to sign up for solar power. Maybe it’s simply getting involved with a group like Solar Citizens or reading more stories from Renew Economy. Whatever it is, there is nothing too small that it’s not worth doing. There’s also no time to lose, and I promise that eventually, rather than climate change being a scary or fearful thing, knowing more about it actually lessens the worry. The fear eases. It’s hard but important work to imagine the future – any future, let alone a better one. But that’s what we’re here for.