science of us

The Difficulty of Imagining Climate Change Isn’t Just in Your Head

Photo: Carl Mydans/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“[W]e think the lit and art being produced now is going to be historicized for its relationship w the Digital,” feminist theorist and visual artist Audrey Wollen tweeted in the wake of this week’s terrifying climate-change news, “but actually it will be remembered as the last Seasonal work, abt livable temperatures, easy travel, trees and flowers, food to eat and many different animals.” She may be right, but her tweet raises another, interrelated issue. Since climate change has already begun to impact the world, where is its presence in literature today? Almost nowhere, novelist Amitav Ghosh suggests.

“That climate change casts a much smaller shadow within the landscape of literary fiction than it does even in the public arena is not hard to establish,” he writes in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which came out in 2016. Ghosh cites a slew of [Important City] Review of Books and the type of climate-based writing mentioned within them. “When the subject of climate change occurs in these publications, it is almost always in relation to nonfiction.” He argues that even when highly regarded novelists write about climate change, they almost always choose to do so outside of fiction, citing Arundhati Roy as a primary example of a phenomenon Ghosh is also guilty of. (He’s primarily a novelist; The Great Derangement is nonfiction.)

In the West, a significant quantity of literature addressing climate change has been corralled into genres like sci-fi or automatically called “activist,” which might scare those with lofty literary aspirations from addressing the subject. Instead of fiction, we get what the New Yorker called a “nightmarish tale”: that is, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. Today, climate change is mostly the domain of official PDFs, charts, studies, and satellite imagery, the latter of which is probably most compelling.

But the scale of the satellite image is both its greatest asset and its most significant liability. “Satellite photography is distinguished by two of its most pronounced limitations: it can capture neither people (because of the resolution) nor incidents (because of orbit time),” Eyal Weizman writes in Forensic Architecture: Violence At The Threshold of Detectability. “The [resulting images] are thus the very opposite of the focused, time-bound incidence of spectacular violence scaled to the human body, the central trope of photojournalism.” Weizman is talking about satellite photography’s ability to capture war, but the same holds for our own war on the planet.

If charts and studies are too dry for the average reader, shocking before and afters succeed in capturing attention but fail to implicate human involvement. Before and after shots of glaciers disappearing seem sort of natural, since this type of imagery has historically traced the impact of things like hurricanes and earthquakes, events that reinforce our powerlessness.

According to Ghosh, one issue of rendering climate change in fiction is that the catastrophic natural events of climate are out of place in the modern novel, with its reliance on man’s dominance of nature. He argued that the sort of once-in-a-lifetime storms and freak fires seem too improbable in a novel, even though they’re becoming an increasingly standard part of human life.

But many people find it hard to believe climate change, both outright deniers and those who understand the world’s scientific consensus. “I’ve been saying for many years that environmental crises are unthinkable,” explained environmental psychologist Renee Lertzman, Ph.D. “They exceed our capacity to go there.”

As Lertzman and others argue, climate change comes up against a human mind hell-bent on denial. “We are really good at denying and avoiding input that arouses any kind of cognitive dissonance, guilt, shame, confusion, fear,” she said. “That’s climate change in a nutshell.” Therein lies one of climate change’s biggest paradoxes: We are at once incredibly powerful (in our ability to bring the entire ecosystem to the brink of collapse) and powerless (in our seeming inability to stop doing what we know will destroy the planet). Reckoning with that is enough to make even the most devoted environmentalist feel depleted.

Uncertainty further fuels our denial. Susan Clayton, Ph.D., is a professor and chair of psychology at The College of Wooster with a research focus on our relationship to the environment. She said, “While we’re getting more and more clarity about the impacts of climate change every year, there’s still a range of possibilities, and we can’t say, ‘In your neighborhood, these are the effects you’re going to see, and this is exactly when they’ll happen.’” But a novel could.

Ghosh is not alone in his call for fiction writers to take on climate change more directly. When Lertzman told me we need a “cultural, social imagination to allow us to go there,” she’s including filmic and literary takes. “There’s a tendency for people to think things are more probable when they’re easier to visualize, and we have a hard time visualizing climate change,” Clayton said.

Thankfully, some writers are offering precise renderings of climate change’s slow, creeping impact. Barbara Kingsolver’s 2013 Flight Behavior excels in both that and documenting the psychological responses that information about climate change induces. “I’m not saying I don’t believe you, I’m saying I can’t,” the protagonist says after a scientist details what global warming will bring.

And Ghosh would likely be thrilled by Ali Smith’s Autumn, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and called one of the “10 Best Books of 2017” by the New York Times. In her recent review of the novel, Namara Smith noted how (novelist) Smith uses bucolic fall imagery to a haunting effect. “So familiar is this picture of autumnal transformation that readers are easily lulled into a false sense of comfort,” she writes. “Smith’s novel turns out not to be a paean to the season at all; it is about how soon we may no longer have something called ‘autumn.’”

The representation of climate change’s catastrophic elements may be trickier to render in fiction because they still seem unbelievable. But Clayton raised an interesting point when I brought up Ghosh’s ideas. “To the extent that people are talking about really massive changes in the climate, it almost, by default, becomes science fiction,” she said. Maybe our destiny as humans is to accidentally enact the kind of sci-fi story that seemed eye-rollingly improbable and downright cheesy only a few decades ago.

Ghosh himself is not convinced by simply switching to other literary genres. He dislikes how sci-fi, or “cli-fi” as the subgenre of climate-fiction is known, focuses so much on future worlds, not the present one. A slightly different focus in these types of disaster narratives concerns Smith, namely that a “single apocalyptic event obscures what [climate change] really is: a war of attrition whose consequences have accumulated slowly enough to be almost imperceptible and through the repetition of millions of individual actions.” In that way, cli-fi disaster narratives fall closer to before and after satellite photos than other fictional explorations of climate change.

For all his frustration, Ghosh isn’t interested in giving up on the novel. He believes that to render climate-change-induced natural events (gradual and catastrophic) through other literary forms like magical realism or surrealism is to “rob them of precisely the quality that makes them so urgently compelling — which is that they are actually happening on this earth, at this time.” Here, I disagree, slightly, in that the sheer unbelievability of our current crises might paradoxically be made more clear by a dose of surrealism or magical realism.

But I think Ghosh is right when he suggests that future generations (if they exist!!) will look back on our time and blame more than just politicians and bureaucrats. It is artists and writers they might take umbrage with, according to Ghosh, since creativity and imagination aren’t exactly what politicians are known for. “[T]he great, irreplaceable potentiality of fiction is that it makes possible the imagining of possibilities,” Ghosh writes. Maybe that’ll lead to the kind of change we need to adequately address climate change before it’s too late. But first, fiction, if it’s to do anything, needs to make possible to humans the impossible-seeming changes that are already unfolding around the globe.

Can Novels Help Us Care More About Climate Change?