As part of Wales Climate Week 2020, creatives and academics came together via zoom to discuss ‘the role of storytellers in shaping the narrative and communal imagination towards action and engagement with the climate crisis?’ In this article Holly McElroy explores the issues covered in the conference and interviews panellist Liz Jensen, author and founder of Extinction Rebellion Writers Rebel.
When promoting his 2017 novel American War, Omar El Akkad predicted that ‘the term climate change fiction as a descriptor of genre, will eventually fall out of use-much the same way we don’t tend to use the phrases of love fiction or loss fiction to describe stories about foundational component of the human experience’. What he was describing is the fundamental predicament we are beginning to find ourselves in as the climate crisis emerges and becomes a more clear and present threat. Regardless of occupation, whether you are a scientist, politician, care-giver or artist, those who are engaged in the climate crisis are being tasked with considering what their role is in society and how they can use their skills to tackle our biggest global challenge yet.
It was this sense of collective responsibility that inspired the live streamed event in which Dr Stuart Capstick, Ben Rawlence, Liz Jensen and Kay Michael came together for Wales Climate Week 2020 to explore the role of storytellers in engaging and acting for the climate crisis. With an eclectic mix of backgrounds, from theatre directors, novelists and academics, the panel touched on a range of issues including the psychology of using fear as a method of engagement and the difficulty of covering the immense scale of climate change in the traditional novel structure.
What ultimately underpinned the discussion was the importance of this current moment. An unfortunate issue with climate change is that by its nature it occurs discreetly. Unlike war or apocalypse, climate change does not appear with unmistakable urgency. It does not force a precise moment of deliberation and thus it is far easier for our collective imagination to retreat, dismiss and deny. And this is why now, as we deal with the aftermath of a pandemic, where all concepts of ‘normal life’ were thrown up in the air, we have been forced into a phase of reflection.
In fact, research conducted at the Centre for Climate Change and Social Transformations (CAST) earlier this year found that the amount of people who regard climate change as an issue of high priority increased in the midst of coronavirus. And thus, now is the time for storytellers to step up to their mark. In business and in law new models have been developed and implemented in order to tackle climate change and the creative sector should be no different. We need new ways of telling stories, and to reframe climate change as something interconnected to our own lives and economies through compelling narrative. Fiction writing is uniquely equipped for this task through its ability to counter the paralysis of dealing with such an all encompassing issue as climate change. By bringing readers a direct and human size experience of climate change, such as one family’s battle against rising water, these stories can trigger a personal response.
And so, I caught up with Liz Jensen after the conference to further explore the role of storytellers in tackling the climate crisis.
Holly McElroy: During the conference you discussed the ways in which the pandemic has forced individuals to recognise their role in wider society and how their actions affect others (e.g. wearing masks in public spaces or not leaving our homes in order to protect the most vulnerable). Dr Stuart Capstick linked this idea to climate change, stating that ‘a major failure of the collective imagination is that we have not managed to see our own personal choices and actions as part of a bigger change’. While I recognise there are many good examples of collective action during the pandemic, there has also been evidence of waning motivation to follow the rules as we entered a second lockdown. Therefore, when it comes to climate change, do you think we can rely on individuals to sustain action for the greater good on a national scale?
Liz Jensen: I do, because a growing number of people are becoming more aware – and now, with Trump defeated, this is a moment to seize. Revolutions of thought can happen fast. There are still massive challenges, but I’m feeling more hopeful now than I have in the last four years.
On the national and international level, millions of people have been hit brutally hard by coronavirus, and are not in a place where they can take action on the wider ecological crisis that triggered the pandemic in the first place. It’s hard to imagine how radical change can be the way forward, when you are struggling to pay the bills. In emergencies, our survival instinct kicks in, and we do what we can to stay alive. So I don’t think we should ask too much – or indeed anything – of people who are having a hard time. But those who aren’t completely coshed by the current situation owe it to future generations to do all in their power to stop humankind being not just the scourge of other species, but our own worst enemy.
As a private citizen, when you perform any socially or environmentally positive act on a regular basis, it becomes so baked into your routine that you take it as a given. It’s just something you do. But it’s quietly doing important work in your subconscious mind. Because as well as taking you out of yourself and lifting your spirits, it also makes you feel less helpless about the climate and ecological crisis. So whatever your baked-in good habit is – be it recycling plastic, eating less or no meat, donating money and an ecological campaign or a thousand other things – your modest action will be noticed by those around you. And magically, some of those people will consider doing the same thing themselves. So you are contributing to their wellbeing without even doing it consciously.
This is how I came to cold-water swimming: I noticed others doing it, and they reported feeling good. So I tried it. Now I’m not claiming that my freezing morning plunges are saving the planet in any direct way. But they deepen my connection to the sea, and remind me I’m an animal, and the endorphin rush lifts my spirit. The better I feel, the better those around me feel: if I’m readier to smile, then they are too. It might seem like a small thing. But I think there’s enormous value in the small things, especially in a world where so many people are grieving over the loss of a loved one, or of a way of life, or the destruction of our ecosystems. Or in my case, all three: my 25-year old son Raphael died in February, to an undiagnosed heart condition, just as Covid was hitting. Over the months since I have learned the value of small, good moments adding up in a way that can make life not just more bearable, but meaningful.
Having said all that, while the changes we make as individuals are a vital part of the imaginative revolution we need, if politicians fail to rise to the occasion of our times and remain fixated on the suicidal neoliberal fantasy of perpetual growth, we’re cooked. We need them to take convincing, urgent action to safeguard the ecosystems and future generations they claim to care about.
When it comes to increasing political will to act for the climate crisis, is this an area storytellers should be specifically tackling? While I would love it to be true, I am unsure that many people in power both in the UK and wider world are looking to literary fiction for inspiration to enact climate policies. How do you think we can change this or bridge the gap between a political system that relies heavily on facts and statistics and literature that evokes imaginative and emotional responses?
Liz Jensen: Climate science shows us that we are on the path to irreversible climate and ecological breakdown within the lifetime of any child born this century. The vision of most politicians is hopelessly shackled to the four-year election cycle, so they’re not used to taking the long view. That said, don’t be too sure that the more far-sighted among them aren’t reading novels by prophetic writers like Kim Stanley Robinson for inspiration. If they’re not, they should be. For years, he has been building a whole series of future worlds which picture ways in which the future can actually be bright. New York 2140 is a good example of what’s being called “solarpunk” – a new, more optimistic take on the apocalypse novel.
Culture works from the bottom up, not from the top down. It speaks from one heart to another. That’s powerful. Politicians are all obsessed with reading human hearts, in order to change them. But they’re just not very good at it. If they don’t pay attention to what culture is up to, they’re immune to the Zeitgeist – which is changing faster than they know. They seem to have missed that memo. Take those recent polls that show that only a small percentage of people in Britain want life to go back to how it was, pre-Covid.
What are politicians doing with that astonishing finding? Nothing – because they can’t find a way to square it with their bust model of economic growth. What are writers and artists doing with that? Exploring it. Playing with it. Seeing where it can take them.
Many climate fiction novels are set in some post-apocalyptic, dystopian future where the remains of humanity are struggling to survive. A criticism of these novels has been that they rely on fear, an emotion which has been suggested as ineffective in motivating genuine engagement with climate issues. In the conference, you touched on hope as being a powerful message and way of making people empowered through literature. What does the hopeful climate change novel look like?
Liz Jensen: The hopeful climate change novel is set in the near or distant future, it’s full of ingenious, humorous people, living lives both utterly different and uncannily similar to those we live today, against backdrops that are far more luscious, varied and vertical than the landscapes we know.
But I’d still like to come to the defence of dystopian fiction because I believe that it is also a path to hope. In positing worst-case scenarios, dystopian fictions are red flags. And without red flags – specific, embodied warnings of what might happen if things take a certain course, how can we picture the dangers we must avoid?
In his infamous 2005 essay addressing the absence of climate change as a central theme in literature, Bill McKibben laments that ‘though we know about global warming, we don’t know about it yet. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t in our culture’. Do you think this is still true 15 years later?
Liz Jensen: I think he has been right about that, until recently. But I think our guts are registering it now, and as Covid has shown us, we are good at taking in unpalatable information and adapting to new constraints at speed if we have to. And we do have to. I see the pandemic as part of our training for facing a harsher world, and for learning to properly listen to science. Epidemiologists have been warning us for years that a zoonotic pandemic was on its way. But precious few governments listened, and prepared for one.
During the Year of Covid there has been an enormous psychic and spiritual reckoning, both on a personal level and in the wider community. Many people have scrutinised their lifestyles and come to the realisation that life is better when it’s lived more simply. And that having more stuff does not translate into having more joy. In the process of this quiet revolution, people are waking up to the natural world around them: noticing the beauty of that snail, or the smell of that shrub, or the crash of those waves, or the texture of that spider web, and spending time savouring small family moments, or time with friends. This is all part of the altering Zeitgeist.
The climate and ecological emergency is becoming more and more apparent in fiction, though as Amitav Ghosh pointed out in his cogent rebuke to literature, The Great Derangement, writers have left it shockingly late. But we’re catching up fast, as the success of the group XR Writers Rebel has shown. When we started up, we were just a handful of writers in a pub, desperate to take action, rather than just observe the ongoing catastrophe and wring our hands. Within a couple of months, we had attracted top literary figures to read their work for free in the pouring rain in the middle of a rebellion in Trafalgar Square. There had been no literary festival like it, and the mood was euphoric.
The recording of ‘the role of storytellers in shaping the narrative and communal imagination towards action and engagement with the climate crisis?’ is available at Wales Climate Week 2020.
Liz Jensen is the author of eight novels including the eco-thrillers The Rapture and The Uninvited, and the Hollywood-adapted The Ninth Life of Louis Drax. She is also a founding member of Extinction Rebellion’s Writers Rebel, a literary movement using words and actions to highlight the climate and ecological emergency. Sign up to the writers rebel newsletter and look out for On the Brink, to mark Remembrance Day for Lost Species on the 30th of November.
Holly McElroy is an Environmental Sciences graduate from Cardiff University and the Environment Editor at Wales Arts Review.