The best books reflect the times in which they were written. They capture the zeitgeist by addressing the social issues that are central to writers.
So, it is no surprise that climate change has made its way into the pages of the books I’ve been reading recently.
Richard Powers’ Bewilderment was a paean to the natural world that a father explores with his child. The two camped in the wilderness and marveled at the beauty around them. At the same time, the two explored the interstellar world, and alternative ways of living on different planets, depending on their geography. It is hard not to pick up on the sense that humans have not treated the earth as we should have.
In Chloe Hooper’s Bedtime Stories, the natural world is a constant source of joy as she and her family encounter a health crisis. It is also a source of sadness as Hooper wonders about the health of the natural world that her children will inherit.
The theme of climate change in literature is prevalent enough that it has it’s own genre: cli-fi.
I have mixed feelings about the prominence of nature in literature. I realise the role of literature in reflecting society’s concerns, fears and flaws. I also want everyone to understand the seriousness of the climate crisis, and to do anything that can be done to prevent further damage to our beautiful planet.
I am all too aware of the seriousness of the situation, and whenever I think about it I feel a visceral sense of fear, anxiety and regret that we have caused this to happen.
But … I don’t love reading about it any more.
When I lied down in bed to read myself to sleep, I want to escape from my own problems and concerns, and enter someone else’s life, preferably in some other place. I want to relax, be entertained, or learn. I don’t want to come face-to-face with my biggest and deepest fear.
For I am more affected by stories of ecological destruction and climate change than any other topic.
When I read Kate Mildenhall’s The Mother Fault, I was not nearly as uncomfortable about the dystopian world where populations were tracked by the government as I was by the climate-damaged landscape they inhabited.
Similarly, I was untroubled by the representation of misogyny in Vox by Christina Dilcher, even though women’s equality is a concern of mine.
I struggled with Lucy Treloar’s Wolfe Island, not because of its representation of a damaged family, but of the consequences of climate change that underlies the characters’ experiences.
There is just something about climate that makes me more upset than any other themes in modern literature.
Reading more about the beauty of the natural world just makes me feel desperate and hopeless, as if we are depending on writers to bring about gradual change rather than the governments and corporations that can make a difference now.
I understand that sometimes the point of literature is to make readers uncomfortable enough to act. And I know that I can in my own behaviour and vote. But I also know there’s only so much difference an individual can make in the face of such a massive problem.
So for now, I’m going to take a break. I’ll choose a classic that centres on romantic escapades played out in ballrooms, family dramas enacted in grand manors, the battles of Russian siblings, and professional rivalries on Wall Street.
Perhaps I’ll come back to cli-fi in the future, once I have hope that something concrete is happening to help address it. Otherwise, I’ll never get to sleep.