Climate-change alarmism: you couldn’t make it up

Not content with haranguing us with The Science, now green campaigners want to scare us silly with The Stories of climate change, too.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Nineteenth-century naturalist John Muir once said, ‘When it comes to a war between the races, I’m with the bears’. A fan of the American wilderness, and a champion of US national parks, Muir’s frequent proximity to those big furry monsters probably explains his respect for them.

But the group of literary luminaries, from Margaret Atwood to David Mitchell, who have just contributed to a doom-laden collection of short stories called I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet… what’s their excuse for siding with clawing-and-biting nature over humanity? Well, their main excuse seems to be their conviction that because human beings lead such ecologically damaging lives, we are inevitably heading towards envirogeddon. And as litterateurs, it is apparently their duty to scare the still largely unworried public around to consumption-light asceticism through the power of dystopian short stories. As the book’s publisher, Verso, describes it: ‘World-class novelists envision the terrors of impending climate change.’

There’s no doubting the ambition of the project: those behind it, such as Bill McKibben, founder of US-based environmental campaign group (which will receive all royalties from the book), actually seem convinced that an anthology of scary stories really will change people’s minds. Where The Science, focusing on complex sciencey stuff, has so far failed to convince the public to change their ways, The Arts, focusing on simple emotional stuff, will succeed. Or something like that. Here’s McKibben explaining the purpose of the collection of stories: ‘Until we’ve really understood at some gut level what kind of a threat we’re facing, we’re unlikely to act with enough commitment. Art gets at the gut. Environmentalists have spent a very long time appealing mainly to that side of the brain that likes bar graphs and pie charts; time to make sure we’re getting this on every level.’ Which sounds particularly depressing. Having spent the better part of the last decade beating us round the head with The Science, environmental campaigners now want to kick us in the gut with The Literature.

Talk of using fiction to bring people into line with environmentalist thinking is not new. At last year’s Guardian Hay literary festival, author Philip Pullman talked about the necessity of fiction addressing climate change, ‘the biggest thing we’ll find ourselves having to deal with for the next hundred years’. Elsewhere, campaigner and author Tony Juniper echoed Booker Prize-winner Ian McEwan’s call for more novels about climate change. ‘Fiction encourages people to think differently’, Juniper said, ‘so as a vehicle for cultural change it will be vital’. Lest one think Juniper approves of novels that stray from the environmentalist line, he averred, ‘How [fiction’s] used is the big question, though’. He then pointed to the late Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear as an example of the wrong sort of global-warming novel. You know, a sceptical one.

The demand that fiction be used as little more than surreptitious instruction is spectacularly philistine. The socio-political ends of such fiction – getting people to recycle more, consume less, and so on – seem to matter far more to McKibben and friends than the actual content or quality of the fiction. Which is always the problem with didactic literature: with so much focus on telling people what to think, the medium of the all-important message ceases to matter.

But there is something else that is very revealing about this demand among our cultural elite for the environmentalist equivalent of the boy-meets-tractor guff Stalin wanted served up as his regime’s self-affirmation. And it’s not just that many liberal-leaning, metropolitan authors clearly all share the same environmentalist outlook. And neither is it that in doing so, they position themselves against us, the little people in need of enlightening and frightening through their good works (of fiction). No, what’s revealing about this demand for green literature is that it sheds light on environmentalism, too.

For what climate change offers our cultural betters, what it provides that politics in its contemporary form no longer can, is an overarching framework for understanding our present, past and future. Much as a religious or social and political narrative might have underlain a figurative or realist work of literature, so environmentalism neatly provides contemporary authors with a similar source of meaning. And here’s the thing. The reason it appeals, the reason famous authors have willingly drawn from it to compose their dystopian short stories, is that climate change is itself a narrative. It was always already fictional.

That may seem counterintuitive, given environmental campaigners’ obsession with ‘the facts’. But to the extent that climate change provides a way of giving our world a direction and ascribing moral value to certain behaviour in the light of a postulated apocalyptic ending, it is first and foremost a grand narrative. Little wonder its proponents always seem to be telling stories. Environmentalist Mark Lynas’s Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (2007) seems almost to protest its factuality just that little too much: ‘This is not a story; all of this really happened to me’, he writes. Yes, his source, his tradition, his authority, is a myriad of peer-reviewed journals, but his creation is dramatic, imaginative. Taking Dante rather than datasets for his dramatic model, he proceeds to describe what will happen to the world as it warms first by one degree, then two, then three and so on.

Others are less classically minded. George Monbiot’s Heat, for instance, begins with a fearsome depiction of the heading collapse, with successive warming-induced causes and devastating effects delivered with almost discernible excitement. And to be fair, it’s an exciting, if terrifying tale. But it is above all a tale.

This is not new. As Brendan O’Neill explained in his essay Our Brave New World of Malthusian madmen, 1970s overpopulation panickers frequently opted for dystopian fiction rather than putative fertility facts. All the better to scare people with. Even Paul Ehrlich, author of the pathologically wrong The Population Bomb in 1968, decided to turn out its fictionalised account, Ecotastrophe, a year later. And in 1971, Ehrlich’s creepy supporters in the Zero Population Group did not choose to publish any demographic treatises; rather, they published an anthology of Malthusian science fiction called Voyages: Scenarios for a Ship Called Earth.

Things may have moved on from the Malthusian moment of the 1970s. But that same almost messianic willingness to imagine our future as wretched, save for the self-elected recycling cyclists, is just as strong as it ever was, and just as regressive.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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