No point in putting a caption to this image. This is our present, this is our future. Unlike some images of flooding, where trees and fence posts emerge from great reflective lakes, it isn’t pretty. We know enough now to smell the sewage. It isn’t dramatic, yet it contains hope: some human beings are helping other human beings. Without that, where are we? Where will we be?
As with the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, the pretence is that floods in Britain, typhoons and tsunamis elsewhere, are temporary episodes. That they may be crises, but they can be contained by the very societies that produced them. We can safely carry on our normal lives, ‘business as usual’, waiting for – what? For some scientists or politicians to guarantee those ways of life, to stamp them ‘normal’.
At some level, we know it’s not true. I write as if from a great height, but of course I’m no different from anyone else. I’ve had my breakfast. I had an orange driven from Spain, an organic apple in a plastic bag shipped from I don’t know where, a sliver of sheep’s cheese. I was still hungry, so I got a small plasticised sachet of oats and made myself a bowl of porridge in the microwave, topped with yogurt and flaked almonds. I put the sachet in the bin – I didn’t think it could be recycled. The economics of these foodstuffs, the faces and lives of the people who produced them, of those who brought them to the shop where I bought them, of those who managed the process, of those who benefited (did the dividends silently flow into their bank accounts while they sipped cocktails by a heated pool? laid down the law in the Board Room? or were the beneficiaries small people on pensions?) – all this is hidden from me. We don’t know the reality of what we’re doing, any more than most of us understand what happens when we switch on the light.
For people to demand – in crowds, in masses, loudly, inescapably – that politicians make changes that will stop further climate change, the reality of what’s happening every moment of every day has to become widely understood.
Obstacle: we don’t want to kn0w. Or even if we do know, we don’t want to feel. And that’s where art comes in. Somehow it can make it possible to absorb unbearable information. Nearly. Just. Sometimes.
I’m writing a novel about climate change. I’ve been reading a number of them. I quickly tired of the North American ‘survivalist’ literature. In those, after some disaster wipes out all electronics, or flattens and contaminates conurbations, or an inescapable virus sweeps across the continent, the American pioneer spirit (usually drawing on traditional gender roles) and small town community virtues win out among the survivors and become the basis of a new society. Urban problems have conveniently been removed. A comforting fantasy at best, but I shouldn’t think it would help anyone face reality.
Here are three novels that are engaging to read, yet help us face and think about the reality of climate change.
This novel is a metaphor rather than an adventure. In a post-catastrophe world, a teenage girl and her parents embark on a rescue ship for 500 of the most worthy. This theme of ‘the chosen’, of a new Noah’s Ark, is a common one in dystopian literature. (See the end of ‘The Bone Clocks’ by David Mitchell, or Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Island’.) It is very like the middle and upper class dream of a ‘gated community’, a safe place from which an elite sadly watches the rest of the world go down. But ‘The Ship’ exposes the unreality of separation and escape, the poverty and pretence of a cut-off life. I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s about rejecting all that.
How does the writer make it possible to read about unbearable things? Well, not everyone does find this novel readable. It’s introspective and literary. But for me, the width of the metaphor – it is a coming of age story – the focus on integrity and the difficulty of recognising and reaching it, and the poetry of the style were what kept me reading.
Lalla cannot be satisfied the life of the ship, which has written off the past and the lives of all those still struggling on land. She confronts her father, the captain.
‘Where are we going?’
‘…We’ve arrived. This is the ship, my darling. When you get to where you are going, you stop.’
…’You’re turning the ship,’ I said at last. ‘You take us so far, then at night you turn the ship around and go back the other way. That’s why the sun never rises and sets where it should. We’re going round in circles.’ I paused for a moment. ‘The people will kill you when they find out.’
‘Why would they do that?’
‘Because they think they are going to a place where we can make a new start, where we can leave the misery behind…’
‘Which is exactly where we are.’ page 205. The ship has stores enough to last for several generations.
‘The Book of Strange New Things’ also looks at climate change disasters from a safe place – the planet Oasis, conceived by a corporation (USIC) as another Ark. The unbearable information of what is happening to humanity is received as interplanetary email by Peter, who has been sent there by the corporation as a missionary to the alien inhabitants. Peter is preoccupied with his relationships with the welcoming, engaging alien community, and cannot take in the messages from his wife about the breakdown of all systems on Earth. In this very different novel, less ‘literary’ (whatever that means!), with more characterisation and action, the same metaphors are under the surface. The possibilities and temptations of escape, and its price. Again the writer’s imagination broadens the dilemmas we face, reminding us that colonies on Earth were built by people who exported their own oppressive systems instead of transforming them. And this broadening gives us perspective, takes us away from our ancient panic and desperation, and gives us a bit of a space to think.
As in The Ship, the prospect of a new generation focuses the minds of the protagonists. Eventually Peter writes across the light years to his pregnant wife (whose life has been made precarious and terrifying by the effects of climate change):
‘I’m sorry if I’ve given you the impression that I’m not interested in what’s going on in the world – our world, that is. Please tell me more… There is no news here whatsoever – no newspapers… Yes, there’s an industrious little USIC censor vetting all the magazines and tearing out any pages they don’t approve of!
I finally met Tartiglione, the linguist who went missing. He’s a very addled individual, but he told me the truth about USIC’s agenda. Contrary to our suspicions, they aren’t here for imperialist or commercial reasons. They think the world is ending, and they want to make a new beginning on Oasis. They’re getting the place ready. For who, I don’t know…’
He… pressed the button to transmit. For the usual several minutes his words trembled on the screen, waiting to be released. Then, superimposed on the text like a burn from a branding iron, a terse warning manifested in livid letters: NOT APPROVED – SEEK ASSISTANCE.
‘Salvage’ is set firmly on Earth, at an unspecified time in the future. In the UK, all farm animals have long been culled. It is unclear how the country supports itself and where food comes from. Edric’s spare style is perfect, though, for showing the corrupt and insincere bureaucracy that dominates a country trying to reconstruct itself after massive and continuing flooding. The protagonist and his female lover are good middle-class functionaries – middle-class in the sense of being professionals expected to legitimise a dishonest and greedy system. Quinn is conducting a ‘Strategy Audit’ of a town destined for major development and renewal, where thousands of flood refugees will be resettled. Anna is the ‘Chief Vet’ who is to supervise the exhumation and burning of diseased carcasses so that building can safely begin. Their discoveries of continually rising water and contamination of the water table are suppressed even as they make them. Here the only Ark on offer is to remain in their place in the class system. There is no available non-complicit course of action. Those who attempt to expose the truth are ridiculed and excluded till they destroy themselves.
The lessons for us are obvious, but how on earth does Edric make this readable? Distance – this is a long time in the future (we hope). The distancing, dreamy effect of the minimalist style. There are still human relationships. There is still love. Most importantly, the writer communicates to us, via his creations Quinn and Anna, that this should not be happening. This need not happen. The novel is about a defeat, but defeat, we are left thinking, is not inevitable.
From the first meeting between Quinn and Anna, in the motel bar:
‘I envy you,’ she said unexpectedly.
‘…you get to do everything you have to do behind closed doors… you’ll probably be long gone before anything untoward’ – she seemed surprised at having used the word – ‘comes to light.’
‘Whereas you get to start and then feed the biggest, dirtiest looking fire anyone for twenty miles around has ever seen, you mean?’
‘Nearly thirty miles on a bad day.’
‘They all know why I’m here,’ Quinn said. ‘Once, an audit meant money…’
‘And now it means whatever you want it to mean?’
‘Not me personally,’ Quinn said. ‘This is a so-called Strategy Audit.’
‘”Democratic renewal through decentralisation”?’ she said.
Quinn smiled at hearing the phrase.
‘No need to tell me how impressed you are,’ she said.
‘Next you’ll be talking about “Deliverology Strategies”.’
‘Do they hide things from you?… Irregularities, misappropriation, bad decisions, money being wasted, spent where it shouldn’t be spent?’
…’The development here is a big thing. It’s coming whatever I uncover. Besides, most people still think it’s all about money and then hide the things I was never looking for in the first place.’
‘But they still expect their own particular slates to be wiped clean?’
‘Something like that. They prostrate themselves before me and receive my blessing.’
This time they both smiled.
And now there’s no space to tell you about my own novel, ‘Blank Times’, and how it attempts to give hope while communicating things which feel unbearable but that we need to face. That will be for another post.