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.

More Baths on “Dune” and Five Dystopian Classics

Dune frank herbert newish 71c5xWv-fkLThere was much interest in my post on Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune, probably because I asked the question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”

So here’s a little more background.

Dune was a groundbreaking ecological novel, originally published in 1965 by Chilton Books, a press known for auto repair manuals.  (it was rejected everywhere else, according to the afterword of my paperback.)  Herbert, a journalist, got the idea for the novel while researching a magazine article on a government project in Oregon.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture planted “poverty grasses” (which grow in sandy soil) on the crests of dunes to stop the drifting of sand on to the highways.

Fascinated by the idea that the change of an ecosystem could green a planet, he wrote Dune.

Set on a desert planet, this SF classic focuses on the paucity of water and the exploitation of a planet’s resources for the mining of a valuable, addictive spice called Melange. The rich live luxuriously, with access to all the water they want, while the native Fremen survive by wearing “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of moisture, from sweat to urine.  A radical planetologist, Kynes, plots a scientific system that several centuries on will green the planet.  But after the assassination of the sympathetic Duke Atreides, Kynes, too, is killed.  The duke’s priestess-witch concubine Jessica and psychic son Paul flee to the desert, where Paul becomes a T. E. Lawrence-style leader and champion of ecology and the Fremen culture.

Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert writes in the Afterword that Dune sold slowly in the ’60s but eventually became a best-seller.  It received a good review in The New York Times and was promoted in The Whole Earth Catalogue.

He writes,

By the early 1970s, sales of Dune began to accelerate, largely because the novel was heralded as an environmental handbook, warning about the dangers of destroying the Earth’s finite resources. Frank Herbert spoke to more than 30,000 people at the first Earth Day in Philadelphia, and he toured the country, speaking to enthusiastic college audiences. The environmental movement was sweeping the nation, and Dad rode the crest of the wave, a breathtaking trip. When he published Children of Dune in 1976, it became a runaway bestseller, hitting every important list in the country.

I in high school, a very clean young woman!

Here I am in high school, a very clean young woman!

It is easy to see why this hit a nerve in the ’70s.  In  my hometown, we read The Environmental Handbook and The Population Bomb (two books still pertinent today).   The professor/political activist family I lived with for a few months in high school recommended Dune.  They were very aware of the advertising culture (soaps, detergents, deodorants, makeup) that defined American lives and made us heartily dislike our bodies.  They showered only a couple of times a week, while I admired their philosophy but continued to shower daily and washed my hair at least twice a week. “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.

But if my use of water was high in those days, imagine how it increased over the next decades.   By the ’80s, I washed my hair every other day. In the ’90s, I washed my hair daily.   It is only in recent years that I have rethought this and bathe according to my activity level.  (Today  I rode into a fierce wind that whipped my hair into my eyes and my bike chain fell off twice, so I came home with filthy hair and hands covered with grease.  Thank God for water!)

In answer to yesterday’s question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”, two commenters mentioned that they do not wash their hair everyday, because it is not good for it, while another says she washes it daily and considers it her water therapy. (I find it relaxing to sit in a hot bath, which is even more taboo than showers in terms of water usage.)  In an article in Buzzfeed, “How Often You Really Need to Shower (According to Science)?”, two dermatologists said that showering too often can dry out and irritate skin and wash away the good bacteria that naturally exists on your skin.  Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a Boston dermatologist, said, “We overbathe in this country and that’s really important to realize.  A lot of the reason we do it is because of societal norms.”

Yes, we want very much not to smell our bodies.  Isn’t it wonderful that we live in such a luxurious clean culture?  But one wonders:  how long will it last?  Probably through my lifetime, but I have real doubts about the future.

And now here is a list of five more classic dystopian novels.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver1 Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  Is Kingsolver the best writer working in the U.S. today?  In 2013, I wrote, “When Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change. Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is. Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family. She creates a plausible fictional overview of a problem that will not go away.   One day the heroine, Dellarobia, a bored housewife, is on her way to a rendezvous with a hot telephone repairman. She sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees, but it turns out to be monarch butterflies that have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change. Soon Dellarobia is working with a scientist and graduate students who have followed the butterflies.  It changes her life.

2 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  Many of you know Shteyngart from his short stories and memoirs in The New Yorker.  This is a brilliant satire of a dystopian future where everyone is tuned constantly into apparati (essentially smart phones which everyone has to carry or be arrested as a traitor). The dystopia is a reality where attention is fragmented by cyber-lives.  Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society and tries to interest his Asian girlfriend in books. Reading books is a suspicious activity: books “smell.”  And unfortunately Lenny’s “fuckability” score, which is posted on a screen when he enters a bar, is low.

Super Sad True Love Story3 City by Clifford D. Simak.  This classic SF novel is divided into eight linked stories, told from the point of view of genetically altered talking dogs who are guardians of the history of an Earth abandoned by humans.  The first chapter,   “City,” is about urban sprawl. Very few people in the late 20th century remain in cities – atomic airplanes and helicopters have replaced cars and made it possible for a dwindling population to live on big country estates and commute hundreds of miles to work. Only renegades are urban dwellers: old-fashioned residents reluctant to give up the traditional ways and farmers displaced by hydroponic farming who have developed their own urban culture . A crisis occurs when an insanely controlling police force decides to burn down the farmers’ houses. Webster (the first of many Websters in the novel) supports the rebel farmers and gives a speech on how the city is a dying structure, and “the automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it.”

City by Simak 61e1-z87MhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4 Kevin Brockmeier’s graceful novel, The Illumination, is reminiscent of Saramago’s Blindness. The beauty of the language, the strangeness of vision, and the starkness are almost mystical. Unlike Blindness, however, The Illumination is not a political allegory. A twist of science fiction keeps this novel spinning in the world of story.

Divided into six stories, the novel is an elegy for the ill and dead, underpinned by rage about why people must suffer.  In Brockmeier’s alternate world, human pain suddenly begins to glimmer and glow. Every bruise, wound, cut, lesion, toothache, cancer, or heart ailment lights up. As people walk down the street, you can see their illnesses glinting and shining. Pain sometimes defines people, but does not make people kinder.

The Illumination Kevin Brockmeier 0224093371.02.LZZZZZZZ

5 Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. One of the best-written post-apocalyptic novels of all time, it is set in Australia in 1963 after a World War kills everyone in the northern hemisphere. The winds will bring the fallout to Australia soon, and all will die of radiation by the next September.

The characters in this chilling 1957 novel are well-developed, and the plot is horrifyingly realistic–people worried about the Bomb then, as they should now, and Shute gives us one of the best arguments for disarmament I have ever seen. The popular writer Shute’s book was categorized as fiction instead of science fiction, and that gave it a wide readership.  The movie is good, too.

onthebeach by nevil shute