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.

Are We “E”-Overwhelmed?, Do We Participate in Readalongs?, & Other Life and Death Questions

follow me A0a4PNJCUAA-OQFLory’s enjoyable post at Emerald City Book Review, “How do You Follow Other Blogs?”, made me realize that I don’t.   I am “e”-Overwhelmed by notifications of online book group schedules, catalogue sales,  Yahoo book group digests, alerts for newsletters, Goodreads author alerts, Twitter alerts (but I don’t have a Twitter account!), and links to dismaying  articles at my favorite “liberal” publications knocking even the Democrats off the pedestal (please don’t!), and political organizations demanding money. (I gave to Bernie.)

Anyway, I’m too muddled to pay much attention to “follow” notifications, but I do read blogs.  I have bookmarked at least a zillion.

Is anyone else in the e-Overwhelmed category?

2. How about readalongs?  I am happy to say that I have read and written about two books for the All Virago/All August event,  Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights (here) and Louisa May Alcott’s Eight Cousins (here). (Karen of Kaggysbookishramblings let me know about the Virago edition of Eight Cousins.)  Naturally I have American editions, but I love the Viragos.  Here are the Virago covers beside my NYRB and LOA editions!

3. Are you better than other people because you read literary fiction? Yes. I learned all about it in Alison Flood’s article, “Literary Fiction Readers Understand Others’ Emotions Better Study Finds,”  at The Guardian.  It seems that David Kidd and Emanuele Castano at the New School for Social Research in New York did a study of 1,000 participants and found that readers of literary fiction understand other people’s emotions better than others  (and pop fiction does not improve our understanding).    Although I love to read classics and literary fiction (and pop), I find that, though I may understand the emotions of Henry James’ characters , I do not understand human beings’ emotions at all!  And my best friend shattered me when she said of Henry James, “There may have been people like that once, but there aren’t any more.”  Oh my goodness, and I love Isabel Archer!

4. Is there enough “Cli-Fi” to read in this year of new record global temperatures?  Science fiction writer Paul di Fillipo at The Barnes and Noble Review says yes.

Earlier this summer — in a year marked by new record global temperatures — I toured some of the more exotic, outré, and far-fetched works of “Anthropocene fiction” that envisioned how humanity might imprint its often lethal image onto our home planet — even distorting other planets and the whole cosmos at large. After such visions as entire worlds clad in steel, and a solar system whose components were juggled about and reprocessed, the simple notion of Greenhouse Earth — the scenario where an unintentional and relatively tiny incremental change in average world temperature brings vast environmental and geophysical disasters and sociopolitical and cultural disruption and mass mortality — is now hardly science-fictional at all. Climate change is indeed the stuff of daily headlines, to an extent than when we encounter a recent front-page feature in The New York Times reporting on “climate refugees” in the USA and South America, the pairing of those two terms requires little in the way of explanation.

He recommends several novels and new anthologies.

What have we done to our beautiful planet, turned into a hell of our own making?

Time: A Decade of Walks

"Woman in the Garden," Jószef Rippl-Rónai

“Woman in the Garden,” Jószef Rippl-Rónai

I know my urban neighborhood by heart.  I walk it, I bicycle it.

I am outdoors.  I feel the cold air.  I trudge, I skim the pavement, I am bored or happy according to the weather.  It was brown and windy today and I sat on the steps of the Greek Orthodox church to adjust my hood.  I took off my gloves to pull my hood up over my hat, but it fell down too far over my face and made me claustrophobic, so I took it off again.

Tree-lined streets, Arts-and-Crafts bungalows, the meridians with flowers in the spring time (brown dirt or snow this time of year), the neighborhood grocery store, the good indie coffee houses, the hardware store, the health food store, and the library.

There have been a lot of changes in the neighborhood in the last 10 years.

The clock speeds up and the years pass rapidly some time after the age of 40.  Businesses come and go.  The bagel store has closed (weren’t you eating cinnamon bagel bites just yesterday?), a gym has closed, a used bookstore, a record store, an Italian restaurant, and an entire strip mall is empty except for the odd tattoo parlor and DUI counseling office.

Another gym has opened, a small indie bookstore, a cheese store, a candy store, a consignment shop, and a bar.

The neighborhood public library has been renovated. It is now a spacious building with a tower, fireplace, and comfortable chairs.  The old overcrowded library had buzzing fluourescent lights, few chairs, and not enough books.  Now there is room for books and people, too.  Old books have been brought out of storage and reshelved.  I am delighted to find such great browsing.

Then there’s nature.  Nature is the biggest consideration on walks, don’t you think?  There are some beautiful gardens in our neighborhood.  You can’t tell much this time of year, but that scraggy-looking brown wispy twiggy area is a wild flower garden in summer.  See those sycamore trees?   They’ve grown tall in just a few years.  They’re not my favorite, but a very smart buy for a family in need of shade in a treeless yard. See over there? In a few months the crab apple trees will be blooming.  You will walk down the street and the branches of flowers will brush you.

But nature has suffered in the last decade.  Many trees have fallen in devastating storms.  A neighbor’s tree split and crashed on to our roof, the bulk of it falling across the driveway.  A huge branch from our tree fell  across another neighbor’s driveway, extending from the garage in the back yard to the street. You see the wounded trees, the trees cut down, branches dragged to a truck, then the stumps, then the wood chips, then the holes where the trees were.

Future generations, beware of the weather.

The weather has changed in the Midwest. My hometown is a good gauge of climate change.  The Catholic church where my mother went her whole life, St. Patrick’s, was destroyed by a tornado in 2006.   Jackson Pollock’s  painting, “Mural,” had to be moved when the University of Iowa Art Museum was evacuated during the flood of 2008.  It went first to the Figge in Davenport, then to the Des Moines Art Center, and is now being restored at the Getty Museum in L.A.

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

Jackson Pollock, Mural, 1943

The Neal Smith trail on the Des Moines River was closed for a few years due to flooding in 2010.  It had to be repaved and the levees rebuilt.  Bridges on the Chichaqua Valley Trail were wiped out and were not rebuilt until last summer.

If I think about all the changes in my lifetime, it is too much to take in.  When too many businesses close, we worry that people will pack up and move to the suburbs.  When bookstores move to the internet, we are not able to browse and miss items we might have seen in physical stores.  When cities lose population and stores, we lose part of our culture.

We are also seeing a civilization in flux as the climate changes and storms and floods wreck our environment.  There will be rock concert benefits in New York, but not for the rest of us.

And so we cope by walking around the neighborhood.  Know your neighborhood, know the changes.