Living with Climate Change: Poetry, Science Fiction, and Nonfiction about the Environment

Flash flooding.

On the Fourth of July, I’m reflecting on climate change. We live in a divided America, but the issue of climate change unites us.  Everyone is against floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and 90+ temperatures.  Rah, rah.  But what can we do about it?

On Saturday night, thunderstorms caused flash flooding here.  Three hundred twenty-nine people were displaced, a duplex exploded, people had to be rescued in boats, and one man died after he got out of his van and was swept away by the flood.

We’ve had worse. Every storm is a potential disaster.   Well, if you can’t act, you might as well read.  Here are 10 great books about the environment, a mix of science fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.   And do recommend your favorites in the comments below.1. The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner (1972).  In this postmodern science fiction classic, pollution has rendered the U.S. a wasteland.  The poisoned air blows into Canada and sometimes across the ocean to Europe; everyone is sick; antibiotics no longer work; fleas and rat infestations in houses and apartment house can no longer be controlled because they are immune to poison; the acid rain in NY is so bad that you need to wear plastic outside; the water is poisoned (there are frequent “no-drink water” days); intelligence levels are dropping (lead in the air and water); a virus causes spontaneous abortion; the oceans are so polluted that people vacation in Colorado rather than California; and big businesses are profiting by selling air filters, water filters, etc.  (I posted about this book here.)

2. The Girls on the Roof by Mary Swander (2009).  Set in Pompeii (pronounced Pom-pee), Iowa, this novella in verse is the story of Maggie and Pearl, a mother and daughter who get stuck on the roof of Crazy Eddy’s Cafe during the flood of 1993. And when the corpse of Mike Fink from the junkyard washes up, they realize he was the lover of both mother and daughter.

Here is a description of Maggie in a cottonwood tree:

She dangled above the flat roof of Crazy Eddy’s,
the flood waters gurgling below.
Why me? she wailed to the wind,
the leaves and twigs brushing her face.

3.  Dune by Frank Herbert (1966)Dune, winner of the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1966, is an ecological classic.  It is, to a large extent, about the politics of water. Water is the most precious commodity on the planet, though the ruling class are never dehydrated and live in luxury.  The native Fremen in the desert must wear “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of sweat and urine while they travel or work in the spice mines.  When someone dies, the water is taken from the body to be reused, because 70% of the body is water.  Plastic dew collectors save every drop of condensation for growing plants. Dangerous sand and dust storms blow up to 700 kilometers an hour and “can eat flesh off bones and etch the bones to sliver.”  There are also giant worms.  But the planetologist, who knows exactly how much water is needed to make the planet green over the next few hundred years, teaches the people how to change.  (I posted about this here.)

4. The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World by Jeff Goodel (2017).  From the Goodreads book description:  Across the globe, scientists and civilians alike are noticing rapidly rising sea levels, and higher and higher tides pushing more water directly into the places we live, from our most vibrant, historic cities to our last remaining traditional coastal villa ges. …By century’s end, hundreds of millions of people will be retreating from the world’s shores as our coasts become inundated and our landscapes transformed. From island nations to the world’s major cities, coastal regions will disappear. Engineering projects to hold back the water are bold and may buy some time. Yet despite international efforts and tireless research, there is no permanent solution-no barriers to erect or walls to build-that will protect us in the end from the drowning of the world as we know it.

5.  Hothouse by Brian Aldiss (1961).  In this modernist SF novel, the earth has heated up in a distant future.  The sun is burning out, the cities are long gone, and the few humans left live in small tribes in trees.  Ironically, the vegetation is more intelligent than people.  And since I recently read that IQs are dropping and brains are shrinking, I’m thinking Aldiss was prescient.  (I wrote about this book here.)

6. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein (2014). From the Goodreads book description:  “In her most provocative book yet, Naomi Klein, author of the global bestsellers The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, exposes the myths that are clouding climate debate.

You have been told the market will save us, when in fact the addiction to profit and growth is digging us in deeper every day. You have been told it’s impossible to get off fossil fuels when in fact we know exactly how to do it – it just requires breaking every rule in the ‘free-market’ playbook. You have also been told that humanity is too greedy and selfish to rise to this challenge. In fact, all around the world, the fight back is already succeeding in ways both surprising and inspiring.

7.  Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a collection of Greek and Roman myths in the form of an epic poem.  In Ovid’s version of the Deluge myth (Book I, lines 253-312) Jupiter’s bad temper resembles the Old Testament God’s.  Human beings are evil: therefore Jupiter will destroy the earth with a flood. (He realizes his thunderbolt might destroy the earth.) Two good people are allowed to live, Deucalion and Pyrrha, and they repopulate the earth by throwing stones over their shoulders.  Very strange indeed.  No Ark.

8. The Memoirs of a Survivor by Doris Lessing (1974).  A dystopian classic about societal, environmental, and psychological breakdown. The intelligent middle-aged narrator must confront the  the demise of her city, as the air worsens, supplies and food are scarce, and the media so unreliable that she walks around the city gathering information. Only the rich are still on the grid, and most of them are leaving the city which is now dominated by gangs of young people.  A stranger drops off a girl, Emily, one day in the narrator’s flat, and she is in the unenviable position of a guardian without much authority.  She travels through walls to an alternate world where she learns about her own past and an alternative future.  And together, she and Emily help each other.

My favorite new book of the year.

9. The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch (2017).  Shelved in the literary fiction section, this haunting science fiction novel has been widely reviewed–deservedly so.  Set in 2049, it consists of the meditations of Christine Pizan, an artist, rebel, and “skin writer,”  on gender, ecology, devolution, and the dictatorship on the space station where she lives.  We also read her book about Joan of Dirt, a post-apocalyptic Joan of Arc who led the Resistance on the now devastated Earth.  The rumor is that Joan is still alive.  (You can read my post on this intriguing book here.)

10.  Fight Global Warming Now:  The Handbook for Taking Action 
in Your Community by Bill McKibben (2007). From the book description:  This is a hands-on guidebook to stopping climate change, the world’s greatest threat.

Hurricane Katrina. A rapidly disappearing Arctic. The warmest winter on the East Coast in recorded history. The leading scientist at NASA warns that we have only ten years to reverse climate change; the British government’s report on global warming estimates that the financial impact will be greater than the Great Depression and both world wars—combined. Bill McKibben, the author of the first major book on global warming, The End of Nature, warns that it’s no longer time to debate global warming, it’s time to fight it.

6 thoughts on “Living with Climate Change: Poetry, Science Fiction, and Nonfiction about the Environment

  1. I suppose disaster provides a story? But climate change is serious — so much destruction. The people of Puerto Rico are themselves dying by the thousands literally, no aid whatsoever is being given them, they are being preyed upon by privatization, real estate people — just one example.

    This is the fourth day in a row in the DC area where the temperature has been well above 100 with high humidity.

    Local solutions emerge in places where voting has not been so gerrymandered or nullified by money that public solutions emerge.

    Like

    • Well, I’m sure you know that these are more than “stories.” Climate change causes severe weatther events: hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, wildfires, droughts, etc. We have suffered much in Iowa from flooding. The flood of 2008 and 2015 caused much damage here: houses underwater, roads and trails destroyed. The 2008 flood destroyed downtown Cedar Rapids and many buildings on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City. FEMA has STILL not given the University of Iowa funds to rebuild the Art Museum, though finally, almost 10 years after the event, they rebuilt Hancher Auditorium.
      And flash flooding has become the new normal. NPR recently ran a story about the consequences in a town in Maryland.

      Like

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