Having your head stuck in a book about climate change seems useful when considering how to take action in saving the environment, but reading fiction? Just like any old fiction book? That may warrant some side-eye but (while I may just be desperately trying to bridge two things I care about together) there’s something there.
Most of us are on the same page: Climate change is no longer a distant threat but a present reality. The world is changing rapidly, and it’s crucial that we understand the ways in which human actions impact the environment. Blah blah, we know this. But how can we extend our “yeah we know. It’s crap.” attitude and actually learn and engage more with the conversation? Maybe a book or two. Fiction has the power to transport us to different worlds, allowing us to see the perspectives of diverse characters and cultures. This can be valuable in fostering empathy and understanding of the impact of climate change – what is Dystopian fiction if not a social critique of our potential future? Think The Handmaid’s Tale. Anyway if you keep reading, I’ll explore how fictional worlds can help us better interpret environmentalism and climate change.
Fiction as a Tool for Empathy
Words have power, especially when arranged in a story. Literature has literally been one of the most integral parts of human history. It’s a medium of inspiration, influencing and shaping our growth since the dawn of time. It’s a catalyst of development for the logical and creative minds we have today and critical in the evolution of our collective human consciousness. It’s also a fundamental tool for fostering empathy. So it can better help us understand how climate change affects different communities around the world. Books such as The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell illustrate the impact of rising sea levels on coastal cities. Goodell writes, ‘Adaptation is not a free ride. It is not the easy way out. It is not an excuse to keep burning fossil fuels.’ These words remind us of the urgency of addressing climate change and how disconnected and corruptly we approach advancement.
7/10 of those who participated in a recent poll by Woodland Trust said they were worried about the environment.
In a mental health crisis and an epidemic of climate anxiety, reading fiction (maybe even outside in some green space) can not only have a significant impact in helping us comprehend and connect with the impacts of climate change but can show us that we’re not alone in our concerns. Don’t let reading sink you into climate dooming – allow it to guide you into how to propel forward.
Empathy (giving a crap) = positive [environmental] action.
Fictional Worlds and Marginalised Communities
Marginalised communities have been disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental degradation. Fiction written by and about these communities can offer valuable insights into the ways in which they have adapted to environmental changes. Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer explores the connections between plants and people, and how traditional ecological knowledge can help mitigate the effects of climate change. Kimmerer writes, ‘All flourishing is mutual.’ The quote reminds us of the interconnectedness of humans and the natural world. Thanks to the wonderful internet, we can learn about different lifestyles and practices that can inspire positive change in our own lives. Our current location or upbringing doesn’t have to limit us to rigid binaries perhaps set in place. For example, some studies suggest that, on average, people in Western countries may be more likely to prioritise economic growth and material consumption over environmental protection, compared to people in some other parts of the world. Pew Research Centre found that people in Western European countries were less likely than those in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Asia to say that protecting the environment should be a top priority and were more likely to say that economic growth should be prioritised even if it leads to environmental damage!!!
86% of people surveyed in a recent study by YouGov felt that being around nature had a positive effect on their mental health and yet…
A recent report published by the UN states: ‘The world is blindly travelling a dangerous path of vampiric overconsumption and overdevelopment’.
Fiction and Action
Fiction can inspire action toward mitigating the effects of climate change. The Overstory by Richard Powers is a novel that follows a group of characters whose lives become intertwined with trees. Powers writes, ‘We’re cashing in a billion years of planetary savings bonds and blowing it on assorted bling.’ This quote reminds us of the urgency of addressing climate change and the consequences of our actions on the environment.
I also thought this was a quote worth sharing: ‘We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.’ – Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
I think it’s worth mentioning I don’t just think Dystopian fiction or novels with themes of climate change in the backdrop argue this point. Being immersed in the mind of someone else is going to open your mind to a different perspective and circumstance no matter what it’s about. Plus, climate change as a theme is subtly in the background of pretty much everything.
Fictional Worlds and Hope
While climate change is a pressing issue, fictional worlds can also offer hope. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler imagines a future where a young woman creates a new religion to survive the collapse of society. Butler writes, ‘All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.’ These words are so striking. They remind us that we have purpose and the power to create a better world, even in the face of adversity.
One last uplifting time… fictional worlds have the power to connect us with environmentalism and climate change. They allow us to see the perspectives of diverse characters and cultures, fostering empathy and understanding. Moreover, fictional worlds can inspire action and hope for a more sustainable future. As we face the challenges of climate change, we should try not to forget the power of storytelling to help us connect with this beautiful, chaotic, and ineffable world around us.
Pew Research Center. (2019). Climate Change Still Seen as the Top Global Threat, but Cyberattacks a Rising Concern. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2019/04/18/climate-change-still-seen-as-the-top-global-threat-but-cyberattacks-a-rising-concern/