The heavy smoke from Canadian fires that colored the skies and forced Americans along the East Coast to stay indoors was sufficiently ominous to have come from some threatening tale about the coming environmental apocalypse.
In fact, it is very close to a novel I recently read that described a similar event, although the danger was from a giant dust storm that had scraped off the topsoil of Texas and Oklahoma to create an atmospheric slurry that engulfs New York and Washington, D.C.
I’m now awaiting other scenes from similar novels to become reality. You see, over the past year or so, I’ve read several large novels of what seems to be a growing category: science-fiction about the global environmental collapse now likely to happen within the lifetime of most readers. The stories are set in this century, often starting in this decade.
Many of the characters are identical to those featured in mainstream fiction. They work in offices, spend too much time with social media, work too hard and have difficult relationships with some family members. Like us, they live in a world of melting ice caps, uncontrollable wildfires, populations fleeing drought-ravaged land, deadly heat domes, hurricanes of unprecedented size and more fearsome natural phenomena. However, unlike today, the combined destructiveness of climate change is undeniable.
These novels – "The Deluge" by Stephen Markley, "The Ministry for the Future" by Kim Stanley Robinson and "Termination Shock" by Neal Stephenson – are filled with powerful, made-for-IMAX set pieces – a wildfire that incinerates Los Angeles, starting with the iconic Hollywood sign; a massive storm that overcomes the surge walls designed to prevent The Netherlands from flooding; and a heat dome that sits over a city in India long enough to kill 20 million inhabitants.
What they also have in common is an undercurrent of hope. Each has descriptions of steps taken to reverse the environmental damage. This is consistent with the claim made in many quarters today that the fixes needed to reverse climate change already exist. In fact, it matches a belief I encounter in conversations I have with leading ESG experts: Our society is reacting too slowly to avert climate catastrophe, so we will almost certainly turn to geo-engineering steps such as seeding sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to block sunlight.
The novels also touch on the economic and political factors that have prevented the world from making changes to stop global warming. The arguments on both sides are very close to the ones we hear today, except they take place at a time when society is battling the effects of climate change with an intensity equivalent to war. Life goes on. Businesspeople still seek to make profits. Politicians still cater to their constituencies with maddening single-mindedness.
Why am I describing these novels in such detail? Because I think that they are but the vanguard of many more novels addressing climate change, and I believe this trend reflects a deeper truth – our environmental predicament is simply too expansive a topic, too technical and expressed through too many facts for most people to comprehend and analyze on their own. The best vehicle to engage the public about the unfolding environmental catastrophe is fiction.
There is a rich history of novelists informing and activating society through works of fiction. Charles Dickens wrote movingly about the plight of the poor, especially child laborers. Upton Sinclair exposed dangers of the meat packing industry in "The Jungle." John Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath" portrayed the social and economic conditions battering the lives of tenant sharecroppers during the Great Depression. Ralph Ellison’s "The Invisible Man" tells a story of a Black man battered by racism in the United States. There are countless other examples, of course.
The three novels I described earlier are not just being tracked by publishing industry insiders. They are being read and seriously discussed by leading environmental experts. Two of the titles were recommended to me by people who attend Davos and Committee on Planetary Protection (COPP) meetings. Actress Jane Fonda – now focusing on environmental activism – told the Wall Street Journal last month that she was reading "The Ministry of the Future." Make of this what you will.
"I think climate change is well-suited for fictional application because it is, at its core, a human problem."
I think climate change is well-suited for fictional application because it is, at its core, a human problem. We unwittingly started global warming when we entered the industrial age, and sharply accelerated it through globalization. We have devised the remedies and yet we are blocking their application, all for very human reasons.
The question underpinning the three novels and many more to come is whether humanity can survive and overcome an existential problem of its own making. If that can’t get people engaged, I don’t know what will.
Header credit: Financial Times