If human agency is at the center of climate change, then is *every* novel a climate novel?
It’s instructive to try to explain a complicated thing in not-so-complicated terms, as my family reminds me every time I send out this substack.
One way to learn is to try explaining things in a foreign language.
A few weeks ago I found myself giving a presentation on “Klima Literatur” to the rest of my Deutschkurs, where I was stuck with the halting syntax of a panic-stricken adolescent. The presentations were a class requirement, assigned with the aim of improving our syntax to that of at least a precocious adolescent, and most of the students in my class were Francophones who have trouble understanding German spoken with an American accent and who furthermore have never heard of either “Klima Literatur” or “climate literature”—
This is to say the barriers to comprehension were high.
The basic premise, however, turns out to be simple enough to get across: readers want books about the political realities that matter to them, so there’s currently a demand for climate novels. I talked about a few of my favorites (Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Houellebecq’s In Search of an Island) plus a few more that aren’t usually received as climate novels, but maybe should be: Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, Anna Kavan’s Ice, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, and Lady fucking Chatterley—which, I’ll remind you, is primarily about flowers, coal, and sexual reproduction.
It’s also not too complicated to elaborate on a few tensions (Widersprüche!) between content and form that can make it challenging for novelists to write about climate. For example, the novel, devoted to the representation of human consciousness, interiority, and social relations, is maybe less well disposed to representing the inner thoughts of, say, a tree, or the un-anthropomorphized natural world more generally. And while the novel has historically addressed a national audience, the pertinent readership for the climate crisis is terrifyingly global.
These are basic considerations for anyone considering climate fiction from the perspective of craft. Forced to distill them into Kinderdeutsch terms, I began to wonder if they weren’t so insurmountable as I’d thought.
Klima Literatur: Where are all the jokes?!
A week before that presentation, I spoke with students at Freie and Humboldt Universities on a panel on Klima Literatur, this time in English and on Zoom. The students had been studying climate literature for the summer semester, and I’d been invited in connection with a Fulbright that I’ll be undertaking with Freie and the Potsdam Climate Institute this fall. I shared a short story of mine (was it a “climate story”? an “eco-feminist dystopian story?”), the students asked questions, and the eco-critic Axel Goodbody logged in from Bath.
The Widersprüche at hand were aesthetic and activist in nature but stemmed from many of the same concerns shared by members of my Deutschkurs. “The problem with climate literature for me,” said a French a law student, no fan of sci-fi, during the Deutschkurs Q&A (good to practice your interrogative syntax too!), “is that it is often clichéd and boring.” Touché. (Though also not, syntactically, a question.) On the FU/HU panel, this concern morphed into a discussion about the overreliance of Klima Literatur on dystopian (or utopian) tropes that risk leading the reader into despair or else false comfort, both nonstarters for action on climate change.
Novels, to the extent that people still read them, seem relevant to the discussion insofar as they give shape to gloom and human agency in crisis situations.
A few additional Widersprüche from the perspective of someone writing primarily psychological fiction: Many of the qualities that characterize my favorite books aren’t usually associated with Klima Literatur, and are even presented as counter the genre’s obligation to build a world representing or imagining alternative ecological futures. Like the students at FU and HU, I prioritize irony, humor, rants and irreverence. I like Céline and, yes, Houellebecq, who self-consciously references Céline in In Search of an Island and who shows a similar talent for showcasing his own self-disgust. Maybe irreverence, psychology, rants and disgust are scarce in the existing climate literature precisely because they really don’t have a primary role to play in investigating climate change. On the other hand, this kind of fiction gains immediate traction in the realm of politics and farce—and these days climate change might be framed as a political as much as an ecological crisis.
“Institutional or ecological crisis: Where is the heart of the matter?”
It’s understandable that most discussions of climate literature are also rallying cries for action on climate change. The summer has so far brought the Hochwasser catastrophe in Southern Germany; wildfires in Oregon, Turkey, and Sardinia; flooding in China that drowned 14 subway commuters; cars in washed-out Manhattan stranded in sudden sinkholes; the sudden collapse of a Floridian condo complex that does not bode well for the integrity of US infrastructure in an era of slow ecological decline; and a $1 trillion infrastructure bill from the Biden administration, an important step that we’re urged to consider as a mere down payment on climate adaptation.
Not looking good! All the same, unbridled alarmism and militant moralism can lead to misguided ecological (not to mention aesthetic) assessments of how to address catastrophe. And those judgments, and the attendant attitude with which we make them, have meaningful consequences for the way we communicate, conceptualize, and address environmental crisis: the ecological past and future don’t really care if you, individually, feel like a good person.
This is the provocative sentiment with which German historian Joachim Radkau opens his environmental history (and history of environmentalism) Nature and Power. The book is framed in part as an exploration of the enormous challenge of finding “legitimate norms” and criteria for making ecological value judgements across human history—in other words, the challenge of separating what “ought” to be from what simply “is” in a natural world that for tens of thousands of years has been shaped by human activity.
There is nothing in this approach that denies the crisis we’re facing. It simply helps us reorient away from responding to today’s crisis in ways that risk denying ecological history, paralyzing human agency, and setting us up to cause more problems in the future.
For example, the historian’s descriptive task of determining what “is” plays a crucial role in determining environmental “oughts.” Is it a fact that for tens of thousands of years humans have been nothing more than a scourge? Ought a sustainable relationship with the environment be judged by levels of soil erosion, forest health, sewage management (in which case, not helpful that shit-talk is so taboo), or population control (“crucial things happen below the waistline”)? Or does sustainability lie, above all, with the health of social institutions that can adapt to emerging ecological strain between society and its environs? “Institutional or ecological crisis: Where is the heart of the matter?”
It’s quite possible a “gloomy basic theme of ecological decline runs through all of human history,” Radkau acknowledges, in which case we really are a kind of scourge unto ourselves. But try making this your rallying cry for public funding for charging stations and nuclear fusion. Emphasizing human activity and agency, by contrast, sidesteps many cliches of environmental alarmism as popularly communicated — for example, that all human interaction with nature is fundamentally destructive and exploitative, or that attaining a ‘non-exploitative relationship’ with nature is the goal, or that being an environmentalist in the age of climate change comes down to whether or not to have a kid. This framing also acknowledges that climate solutions might be tailored to regionally specific cultural and geographical factors, and the obvious fact that nature itself is hardly static. The idealization of a perfectly ‘non-exploitative’ relationship between humans and the environment can even work against adaptive solutions by replacing one myth with another: instead of chasing perpetual economic growth, we begin to chase the Edenic illusion of a “virgin wild.” (See: deluded romanticization of the American West.) As with most Edenic myths and Westerns, the gender inflections here are strong, the outcomes often violent.
But if political power and institutions lie at the “heart of the matter” — including the way supranational institutions facilitate or mitigate international Machiavellianism and paralysis — then this cues a kind of perverted hope, both for humans in general and for novelists in particular. The health of political institutions determines the expression of the public will for environmental domination (which usually translates to the domination and exploitation of other people) and our nimbleness in the face of crisis. And if environmental history can be largely distilled to a history of political power and political will, then human agency is at the center of the story after all. In fact Machiavellianism, proxy wars, refugee crises, and a barbaric waste of life at the altar of blind ideology are exactly the themes that animate that other Graham Greene novel, The Quiet American. Or Céline’s Journey to the End of the Night, or Houellebecq’s In Search of an Island, or even Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which troubleshoots alternatives to late-capitalist ruthlessness through Olamina’s Earthseed philosophy.
From this view, climate change is utterly unique—but also not, it being the product of politics. And that should give us even more of a sense of urgency, because it suggests we can do something about it. Novelists included.
It feels worth mentioning that fiction is also good at exploring resentment, which I imagine will come to dominate climate discussions in the near future, if it hasn’t already.
So is everything climate literature??
Back in our FU-HU workshop, shifting the focus of climate literature from imagining alternative ecological pathways to institutional ones led to another impasse: So is climate literature even a genre? Or is it simply a movement in contemporary literature, contiguous with the history of the novel, and which can lay claim to most of the techniques developed in the past two centuries in addition to new aesthetic modes that the attempt to write about climate change and ecological extremes might require?
The immediate implication of this question is to expand the genre boundaries of “climate literature” far beyond what is conventionally imagined. It further suggests that consumers of novels might also simply change the way we read. Taking a cue from Radkau, it may be that a much wider range of human activity belongs in environmental history, and in the environmental novel, than is intuitive to publishing houses.
The wager, I guess, is something like this: Climate is politics. And climate novels are political novels. And politics is the negotiation of relations of power and relations of care. And so if you turn an environmental lens on novels, they will start to reveal their ecological implications.
Take Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, for example, widely received as an exposé of gendered oppression in South Korea, but which might also be read as a indictment of humankind’s unique and primordial condition of consumption. In the final chapters, when protagonist Yeong-hye has been committed to a mental asylum for refusing to eat anything (least of all meat) and for indulging in a series of very dark and florally-induced sexual escapades, we begin to understand that her self-destructive ‘vegetarianism’—including her refusal to cook meat for her husband or eat any herself—goes even deeper than the pain of gender division. It is, perhaps, the primal grief (a climate grief?) of being expelled from nature, of living off the world and off one another like the capitalist parasites we all are. When Yeong-hye’s sister comes to visit, she finds her in the asylum’s backyard, emaciated, upside down, attempting to grow roots straight into the grass. “Look,” she says. “I’ve become a tree.” She is literally trying to grow her way back into the earth.
Radkau suggests that all environmental history stems from a “primary trauma” (historically, this meant floods). Kang captures the more contemporary “primary trauma” of consumption.
Politics for the long haul
There will be further installments of this mini “Klima Literatur” series, but for now I’ll end on Radkau’s idea that “often it is the paralysis of human nature that makes nature into a determining factor.” Unchecked alarmism or its foil, techno-optimism, or else the exhaustingly dumb cliches that “nothing is certain“ and “it will all work out,” risk a state of paralysis. It will be fatal.
And so maybe there is value in taking a long view on climate change, not only into the future but into the past, because even if it is new and urgent and in many ways unprecedented, managing environment and political crises are themes that extend back to the invention of fire and the plow—as does our negotiation of existential terror. And it would be nice if in surveying the evidence of the ways we have failed we also recognize that there are many very obvious things to try that we haven’t yet, and which could even succeed, as long as we muster the institutional will to implement them.
Furthermore, for those in the affluent Global North to turn an awed fixation on their own relatively ‘novel’ ecological precarity—to become captivated by how unsafe you now feel in the face of climate change, however real the threat may be—is to deny that this precarity has for centuries been experienced by billions around the world whose right to life remains under assault by colonial, economic, and political forces (often transmitted through ecological forces).
Maybe novels have nothing at all to do with the effort to turn the sinking ship around. Fair enough. But if you can’t make fun of yourself; or live with ambiguity or irony; or consider competing priorities; or imagine anyone else’s point of view; or imagine yourself as a historical vector—as part of a story—then you’re ripe for another kind of paralysis that will, if nothing else, be sure to make the inevitable decline all the more miserable, all the more inevitable.
In other news…
If you haven’t already come across it (though you probably have), Meehan Crist wrote a very wonderful and life-prioritizing essay on the neoliberal and eco-fascist undertones to the Malthusian “don’t have children” depopulation fixation. It’s worth rereading.
This is part of a longer project on Klima Literatur, narrative, and the politics of alarmism in a moment that gives us great cause for alarm that I’ll be undertaking over the course of the next year with help from the Fulbright Foundation. I’ll be reading a lot of climate literature and focusing on degrowth and zero-growth models, environmental history, the history of environmental movements in the US and Germany, nuclear power, & more, so if that sounds cool to you, stick around.
For Guernica’s Miscellaneous Files I interviewed Rivka Galchen about her funny and dark novel Everyone Knows Your Mother Is a Witch. We talked about realism and Ingmar Bergman and whether or not 17th-century astronomer Johannes Kepler’s mother Katharina — or at least Galchen’s novelized version — was actually a witch. Probably not, but also...?
(In further evidence that human history maybe is environmental history, and that all history is gendered, consider what Nature and Power has to say about the link between climate change and witch burnings: “For some time now it has been argued that the ‘Little Ice Age’ caused the persecution of witches, since the weather magic of witches was held responsible for the deteriorating climate. However, we also find evidence that the rise in limber prices caused by the cooling climate put an end to witch burnings. Climate fluctuations as such do not trigger specific causalities of history.”)