How Fiction Changed the Way I View the Climate Crisis
Last night I dreamt of monarch butterflies
in their hometown of Michoacán Mexico
As their wings danced delicately in spiraling flames of orange
Something far less delicate awoke inside me
A cheesy poem inspired by Flight Behaviour, a Cli-Fi novel
by Barbara Kingsolver
Since time immemorial, authors have drawn inspiration from the world around them to create literature that has inspired ideological and psychological shifts in its readers – shifts that have translated into concrete societal change, thus moulding our world’s journey through the Anthropocene. This silent reciprocity between art imitating life and life imitating art is uniquely evident as a new genre of literature rises into centre view to confront the climate crisis: Climate Fiction (or ‘Cli-Fi’!)
The first time I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, I didn’t even know I was reading a novel about climate change until I was halfway through the book. Set in the present-day, in a rural town in the Appalachian mountains, Flight Behaviour tells the story of a young woman named Dellarobia – her day-to-day adventures, her love life, her struggles, aspirations, and unexpected trysts with personal growth. At first glance, it seemed like any other skillfully written work of literary realism. However, what enthralled me, and what elevates Flight Behaviour into a league of its own, was its silent, more powerful, enigmatic secondary protagonist: the environment. Only as I reached the end of the book did I realize, to my surprise, that most of Kingsolver’s narrative had revolved, almost unwittingly, around the non-human agency of climate change. This subtlety is what sets Cli-fi apart from the popular genre of Sci-fi with which it is often confused; Kingsolver does not paint the environment with a dystopian brush, nor does she use ‘Deus Ex Machina’ (a literary trick which means ‘God on the Machine’ in Latin whereby authors create convenient climate catastrophes to move the plot forward when at a loss for ideas). Instead, her narrative is rooted in real climate events that have actually happened or are currently occurring in our world, such as the extinction of Mariposas Monarcas (Monarch butterflies), The Tragedy of the Commons (a flaw in our economic model that perpetuates the degradation of natural resources), media misinformation, and changing weather patterns. She captures the human experience of climate change as well as the scale, complexity and sheer force of these scientific phenomena better than any textbook.
This unique scientific authenticity imbues Kingsolver’s work with a kind of palatable activism that is capable of monumental impact. While reading her book, I was able to do something I’ve been struggling to do for a long time – that is, “de-compartmentalize” my thoughts on climate change and my thoughts on my own life. Due to cognitive biases, we tend to be limited in our ability to perceive unprecedented existential threats like climate change. This widespread oversight (or, this “handicap” we have when it comes to even visualizing the problem in our minds) has led to what Amitav Ghosh calls “the broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis." I think this shortcoming is understandable – Although we are well-versed in the science behind phenomena like global warming, climate change indeed remains incredibly difficult to wrap one’s head around. A blanket term for an ever-changing multitude of events whose causes and impacts extend across time and space and disciplines, climate change is a problem with no static definition. So, for many of us, reality has still not sunk in. We cannot help but think of it as detached from ourselves - distant - despite its immediacy. I’m also guilty of this fleeting attentiveness and hypocrisy – reading headlines about the Aarey News Colony deforestation and then moments later, forgetting, despite my good intentions, and continuing on with life as usual. Or sitting conflicted in my bedroom, with my air conditioner running, guiltily aware of my carbon emissions. We compartmentalize, because if we didn't, our cognitive dissonance would be unbearable. However, I believe that achieving progress requires us to reconcile our conflicting beliefs, not ignore them, and that experiencing emotion in relation to climate change is an important step towards starting to see its connection to our own lives. Climate Fiction has the power to foment this emotion.
While reading Flight Behaviour, I felt the characters’ despair as their crops got flooded, and Dellarobia’s enchanted awe as she climbed up the hill to find a valley full of beautiful monarch butterflies that had arrived there due to disrupted migration patterns. I felt scientist Ovid Byron’s cathartic release of frustration when he finally confronted the reporter who had perpetuated climate change denial propaganda, and understood the burden of the statement “ignorance is bliss” as the butterflies he had studied all his life fell to the forest floor one by one in a beautiful tragedy. Most importantly, perhaps, I felt a glimmer of hope, when at last a few butterflies flew towards the sunset, carrying with them the future of their species, and, as Caren Irr puts it, the “expectation [around which all the varying efforts of cli-fi unite] that humanity and the planet can survive the changes associated with the Anthropocene.” While reading cli-fi, I was able to attach to the science the emotional investment it actually warrants. That emotion motivated me to continue making sustainable decisions long after I put down the book.
The environmental issues we face today require urgent and systemic change. Yet, we struggle to respond. Literature can reach those hearts that are, unfortunately, not moved by science.
The Appalachian mountains, where Flight Behaviour is set. Image source: https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/8a31c2f9c64e4eacbd6eea8e632c220f
Climate fiction is vast and variegated! Here’s a list of recommendations:
“Warmer”, Amazon online compilation of seven short stories containing work from a Pulitzer Prize winner (Jane Smiley) and two National Book Award finalists (Lauren Groff and Jess Walter), among others.
“I’m with the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet,” published in 2011.
Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy including The Year of the Flood
Nathaniel Rich’s “Odds Against Tomorrow”
Barbara Kingsolver Flight Behavior
Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus
James Bradley, Clade
Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God
Ashley Shelby, South Pole Station
Alice Robinson, Anchor Point
Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140
Ling Ma, Severance
Amitav Ghosh, The Hungry Tide
Emmi Itäranta, Memory of Water
 Ghosh, Amitav. The Great Derangement, Climate Change and the Unthinkable. Penguin Random House India, 2016. P.10.
 The mental discomfort arising from the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change
 Irr, Caren. “Climate Fiction in English.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature, Oxford University Press USA. Online publication Feb 2017