Seeing into the life of things - why climate fiction matters.
The climate crisis has now forced its way into the consciousness of millions, many of whom are feeling its effects on their doorsteps, both literally and metaphorically. My own home town of Bexhill-on-Sea has seen unprecedented flooding in recent weeks, and we seem to be stuck under a cycle of warm tropical-style storms. Apart from the fact that the crisis will seem very real if you feel its effects personally, there will be those for whom - at least superficially - life carries on broadly as it always has. Yet, they too, should be concerned about the impact. It is why so many more people now question the quality of the air they breathe, the sustainability of the energy they use, the packaging that wraps their purchases and the number of insects which arrive (or don't) each summer.
That they do is in no small way due to those who speak or write about the climate crisis. This might be well-known advocates for change such as Feargal Sharkey, holding water companies to account on river quality, or those who report (often in quite dangerous contexts) on the intersection of climate change and poor agricultural management or urban development.
One example is The Guardian newspaper. It has long led the way with a commitment to reporting the climate emergency, and has a dedicated section devoted to news, features and data. One of its reporters, Dani Anguiano, has written extensively on wildfires, and her book, 'Fire in Paradise: an American Tragedy' sets out the events and aftermath of the Camp Fire in 2018 which devastated the rural retreat of Paradise, California. This was the same fire which inspired my own work-in-progress, 'The Storm-chasers' Daughter', the subject of my last blog. Other reporters such as global environment writer, Jonathan Watts, have detailed the destruction of the Amazon rainforest through drought and deforestation.
But, what does fiction have to contribute? About 15 years ago, a friend and I pitched a treatment to a production company. It was for a tv series called 'Supercell' and centred around a community in the Dungeness area of Kent being swept up both physically and emotionally by a flood which breached the walls of the local nuclear power station. At the time, it seemed somewhat far-fetched, more a dystopian thriller than a realistic imagining of what might happen to a coastal community. In fact, it might have been quite prescient ('Dungeness Power Station quietly taken offline for five months over fears of Fukushima-style flood disaster'). Fiction can be about drilling into a future that stretches credibility - in fact, we often seek out that very form of writing precisely for that reason. But, whether it reflects the reality of the present or a leap forward into the future, fiction has a role to play in the climate debate.
I have recently joined a network of writers of climate fiction, the Climate Fiction Writers' League, whose mission statement is pretty simple:
'We are a group of authors who believe in the necessity of climate action, immediately and absolutely. Fiction is one of the best ways to inspire passion, empathy and action in our readers. Our works raise awareness of climate change, and encourage action at the individual, corporate and government levels.'
Founded by Carnegie long-listed author, Lauren James, the league has authors from all over the world, committing to, and writing about climate change. I am honoured to be one of them. When I think back to the books I read as a child and then a young adult, there were few (perhaps none) that directly referenced the impact of humankind on nature. Nevertheless, it was always there. My love of Gerald Durrell's 'The Donkey Rustlers', depended as much on his evocation of his Greek idyll - I still remember the magical description of fireflies - as it did on the funny plot. If this seems a truism - that descriptions of the natural environment bring readers' pleasure - then so be it. Later, 'Lord of the Rings' left its mark not only for my enjoyment of the narrative, but in Tolkien's evocation of so many rural settings. The one that impressed itself on me most was the living forest, 'peopled' by giant trees called Ents, who fight on the side of the good. Tolkien himself has already been cited as an early eco-critic.
Writing to his publisher in 1955, he said, "I am (obviously) much in love with plants and above all trees, and always have been; and I find human mistreatment of them as hard to bear as some find ill-treatment of animals". Then it was the poetry of Ted Hughes and Wordsworth that brought me to a more conscious understanding of nature, how it worked and the fragile state of its preservation. And, in recent years, many nonfiction writers from Robert Macfarlane to Isabella Tree - and the journalists I have already mentioned - have clarified my thinking and fuelled my anger.
But I think it started with fiction and poetry. What these forms have is the ability to stir an altogether different flame in you as a reader. One that fires imagination, indeed exists as a sort of separate world to which you are given a key. The imagination is a sort of secret garden which is rich and precious, and one which you take with you every time you close the page of a novel, or hear the last lines of a poem. I have mentioned before what I consider to be my own foundation text with regard to nature and the environment - Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey'. In the poet's words, what nature does is to enable us to 'see into the life of things': it is a mirror which both reflects back to us our own selves, but is also a gateway into a world to which we are both intimately connected and yet also separate. Roger Deacon in his wonderful book 'Waterlog' describes it in exactly this way when explaining the experience of swimming:
'When you enter the water, something like metamorphosis happens. Leaving behind the land, you go through the looking-glass surface and enter a new world.'
He talks about a changed relationship between the human and the natural world. In his depiction it is unique to swimming - but I think it is also a matter of self-will - something you can seek out on dry land. To my way of thinking, watching a butterfly on a flower, I am conscious of being both the witness of a private, marvellous act which has its own narrative and relative time - but also an act which can only exist within the contract we make with nature, one which places on us the burden of protection and care.
Only if we really 'see into the life of things' will we break through the mirror that reflects back to us our selves, and directs us to a clearer vision of what we need to do to make things better. Writers of poetry and fiction thus have as much of a role to play as reporters, journalists and documentary makers.
Indeed, we have a duty to do so.