Reading an Endangered World

Creative narratives about environmental crisis are acts of psychological adaptation

The Year of No Summer
Rachel Lebowitz

The Luminous Sea
Melissa Barbeau
Breakwater Books

The Rest Is Silence
Scott Fotheringham
Goose Lane Editions

Carla Gunn
Coach House Books

“Inspiration sometimes comes straight out of facts,” says Nova Scotia author Rachel Lebowitz in her Biblioasis interview for her linked lyric essay collection, The Year of No Summer. “I read about birds falling dead from the skies and I knew I had to write about that.” (The facts as I write this: oil tanker protesters are dangling from the Ironworkers Memorial bridge in Vancouver, the Rusty Patched Bumblebee is now an endangered species, and the headlines scream “Red Hot Planet: All-time heat records have been set all over the world.”)

Much environmentally themed creative literature arises from real-life events. The year following the eruption of Indonesia’s Mount Tambora on April 10, 1815, for instance, is what inspired Lebowitz’s collection. She weaves prose with direct quotations from historical documents, novels, poetry, myths and parables, and in doing so provides a darkly fascinating account of how people responded to global weather disruption, disease and famine. Whereas we may take amusement in apocalyptic films and movies, during this particular summer not so long ago, many believed the world was ending.

Along with “acts of God,” though, today’s writers have a broad array of human-caused environmental crises from which to choose. These, of course, have provided fodder for contemporary apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, such as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy. The magnitude and complexity of environmental problems and conflicts loom large, and with the pace of destruction ramping up, writers can’t help but reflect this in their fiction.

Take, for example, plastic. There is a constant stream of news stories about the negative impacts of this impervious stuff. In the recent novel, The Luminous Sea, a story of a sea creature and the conflict over her fate (which can be read, I think, as an environmental allegory, with the sea creature emblematic of nature), Newfoundland author Melissa Barbeau draws our attention to the way plastic has changed the landscape:

“Broken bottles transformed into sea glass. Boats rotted into the grass, ropes disintegrated in the water. Now you have all this plastic everywhere and it’s getting harder and harder to disappear us…We’ve finally found the way to immortality, found a way to keep company with everything ancient down there, and it’s through trash.”

In The Rest is Silence, a 2012 novel by Nova Scotia author Scott Fotheringham, plastic is central. In the very near future scientists have discovered a bacterium that breaks it down and effectively recycles it—but these bacteria are released into the ecosystem with dramatic unintended consequences for humans.

And plastic inspired my own eco-novel, Amphibian. When my son was nine and biking along the trails near our home, he suddenly hit the brakes, jumped off his bike, hurled it aside and raced toward a plastic bag that was floating across the path. “Don’t people know sea turtles choke on this stuff?” he screamed, shaking the bag in his clenched fist.

Anxiety (do you see what I see?)

As you might expect with “crisis” fiction, anxiety is palpable. In The Rest is Silence, Benny experiences increasing frustration by what she sees as inaction on environmental issues. In The Luminous Sea, Vivienne is deeply disturbed by the callous treatment of the sentient sea creature her supervisors refer to as “the specimen.” And in Amphibian, nine-year-old Phin is overwhelmed by anxiety in response to the destruction of the natural world.

Although one reader told me that by page 30 she experienced so much anxiety that she hurled Amphibian at the wall (which struck me at the time as odd as I thought I had written a funny novel), if you’re among the one third of pre-teens who believes the Earth won’t be around by the time you’re an adult, crisis fiction may simply be imitating what you already know—and you find comfort in the knowledge that others know it too.

As Scott Fotheringham puts it, “Environmental fiction offers some solace to know that there are others out there who care about the world. Isn’t that one of the most beautiful things about fiction—that we get to not feel so alone?”

“He suddenly hit the brakes, jumped off his bike, hurled it aside and sprinted toward a plastic bag floating across the path. “Don’t people know sea turtles choke on this stuff?”

Despair (processing, processing)

In Amphibian Phin created stories to help make sense of and cope with dark realities. In The Year of No Summer Lebowitz highlights the parables, fables and myths we humans created to weave meaning into our lives and to

which we return for comfort. We need stories to help us process our experiences.

Dystopian environmental fiction, like The Rest is Silence, may be of particular importance to us collectively as it introduces scenarios that we can imagine (and may already have imagined) happening. Since we humans are horrible at responding to events that we perceive as far off in the distance, this sort of fiction elicits the sense of urgency that we need to feel before we act. Many environmental advocacy groups are aware of this and craft messages to overcome the problem of temporality.

In particular, I am reminded of a climate change public service announcement from about a decade ago: “Climate change? That won’t affect me,” says a man standing on railway tracks. Suddenly he steps off the tracks and his young daughter takes his place as a train comes hurtling toward her.

Moreover, although set in different times, The Year of No Summer and the Rest is Silence both prompt us to explore how people respond to a crisis that has already occurred or is in the process of occurring, and then to use these stories to project ourselves into the future. After relating the horror of the sinking of the ship, Medusa, in the summer of 1816 and what hunger incited the surviving crew members to do, Lebowitz muses about the future: “I’d like to think it takes thirty days, not two, for us to bite.”

For some, fiction with such severe themes may be too intense. For others, it helps them prepare psychologically for possibilities. I have a friend who may or may not have inherited a fatal disease. She has envisioned what the future may hold and has mentally worked through various options. This exercise has, to a certain extent, relieved some of the anxiety. For many, a sense of predictability—even when what’s predicted is horrific—is better than unpredictability.

Love (break it to me gently)

For some readers, however, more of a “Love not Loss” theme may be most palatable. In fact, in recent years some organizations, such as the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), advise that environmental organizations move away from fact-based campaigns that emphasize death and destruction and instead toward messages that draw attention to the beauty and value in our natural world. The idea is that we will want to protect what we love.

Deep love and respect for the natural world are reflected in many Atlantic Canadian works of fiction. Along with descriptions of seasons, flora and fauna—which pepper Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence—New Brunswick author Beth Powning’s beautiful prose springs to mind.

Whether the intention is to encourage a deeper affinity with our natural worlds, this perhaps is a consequence, especially if the prose evokes the reader’s own memories and love for natural areas.

When it comes to what dosage and intensity is best suited to which reader, the jury is still out. I’m reminded of a cartoon I show in my psychology classes when we talk about therapies and how there needs to be a level of “readiness” before clients can accept insights: Kermit the Frog is seated in his doctor’s office and is about to be shown an X-ray of his spine, revealing a human hand that extends right up to the base of his skull.

“Sit down,” says the doctor, “what I am about to tell you may come as a huge surprise.”

From US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Kingdom Collection, taken at the Gulf of Aqaba, Red Sea, by Ben Mierement

Heartless (I really don’t care, do u?)

Recently Rebecca Solnit, in a Literary Hub article titled “Not Caring is a Political Art Form,” argued that many of the crises we face—gun violence, climate change, agendas of the “alt right”—are all “exercises in not feeling and not connecting,” or what she calls the ideology of disconnection.

Many novels, including environmentally themed fiction, explore how injustice is facilitated by callousness. Some bring attention to how this enables the destructive corporate mindset of “progress” at any cost, which often involves the exploitation of “others”—whether those others be humans, animals or the natural environment. Lebowitz references multiple historical examples of cruelty in the Year Of No Summer, such as in the early rubber industry:

“You walk more than twenty miles to the European agents, who weigh the rubber. You are paid with a piece of cloth, a handful of beads, a few spoonfuls of salt. You skirt this spot here where Rene de Permetier has all his bushes and trees cut down around his house, so he can sit on the porch and use passerby as target practice.”

In The Luminous Sea, Vivienne’s supervisor warns her that her efforts to blow the whistle on an act that reflects an astounding callousness (that parallels the treatment of the sea creature pivotal to the story) will be futile:

“Telling anyone else about this will not make things better for you. Your story will be like one of those dolphins…This dolphin swam right into the beach where all those Spring Breakers were getting pissed, and someone spotted it and hauled it in and everyone had a picture with it, everyone got a selfie, and rubbed their tits on it, and the next thing they knew it was dead. Mauled to death.”

By focusing on injustice and the heartlessness that so frequently underlies it, environmental fiction can be emancipatory. It prompts us to examine both the individual and systemic variables at play and consider where we stand—and perhaps collectively emboldens us to take a stand.

Empathy (walk with me)

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “I learn by going where I have to go.” You can exchange “going” for “feeling” and it also holds true.

In contrast, psychology literature is full of examples of what people do when they can no longer consciously experience emotion: nothing. The Year of No Summer, The Luminous Sea, The Rest is Silence and Amphibian all evoke big doses of emotion: anger, sadness, curiosity, disappointment and joy, albeit in different proportions. One emotion they are all effective in eliciting, though, is empathy. And when it comes to environmental issues, this may be the most important of them all.

Researchers are attempting to tease out the relationship between fiction and empathy. In one experiment, participants read literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction or nothing, and only literary fiction had the effect of markedly increasing levels of empathy. Another study found that those who read fictional scenarios about an individual dramatically impacted by climate change spent more time afterward reading educational materials about climate change and voluntarily took this material home.

“We’ve finally found the way to immortality, found a way to keep company with everything ancient down there, and it’s through trash.” -Melissa Barbeau in The Luminous Sea

Action (a kick in the pants)

Does the empathy elicited by fiction inspire action on environmental issues? To attempt to answer this, let’s return to plastic.

Many of us know that straws and other plastic waste are negatively impacting wildlife. We’ve read the statistics—like how over 100 million marine animals die each year due to plastic debris. We know all of this but we don’t feel it. However, when a straw is lodged up sea turtle’s nostril and there’s a video documenting this poor creature’s plight, well, we’re suddenly mobilized.

Why? The simple explanation is the psychological finding that when something horrible impacts many lives we care less about it than when it affects few lives, but the deeper explanation may be that when something is personal and woven into a narrative, it engages our emotions and not just our minds. That individual sea turtle’s struggle makes it relatable (imagine a straw stuck up your dog’s nose, or your own) and children take up the cause.

In a similar, albeit more horrific vein, the image of the body of a little Syrian boy washed up on shore saw donations to the Swedish Red Cross jumped from $8,000 over a period of months to $430,000 in just a few weeks.

One of the powers of fiction is that, like real-life stories, it draws us into a personal narrative. Stories engage the heart and this is key to motivating us to act. Although it’s anecdotal, readers of Amphibian wrote to tell me that Phin’s struggle changed the way they viewed animals and that this was in turn influencing their product choices.

I am reminded of a parable: a starfish is washed up on shore and a young boy throws it back into the ocean. An old man scoffs, “But there are thousands of dying starfish, what difference does it make?”

The boy replies, “It made a difference to that one.”

California Clear-cutting photo by Tomas Sennett, US Environmental Protection Agency

Hope (storying a way forward)

In order to act, people need to feel that what they do will have an impact. But when the scale of disaster looms large, we feel helpless and are often thus paralyzed. “What’s the point?” we think.

We may look to God for meaning and direction, or to those we believe have more knowledge than we do. “If there is wisdom, it’s nothing I know. It’s all just birds and storms and hauntings. We look behind and scoff, as if those ahead weren’t doing the same,” writes Lebowitz.

These days we turn to science and government for reassurance that something effective can and will be done. But when these institutions fail to give us the reassurance we seek, we end up feeling frustrated and disillusioned. This is what happens to Bennie in The Rest is Silence: “What was needed was rapid planetary triage. Throwing a spanner in the gears was the obvious means of disabling the machine that continued to spew all over the planet.”

How do we collectively overcome feelings of futility? That’s an open question. Recently, however, I came across an exciting project funded by The Trudeau Foundation called Storying Climate Change. Headed by York University professor Catriona Sandilands, the goal of this project is for writers, artists, activists and academics to work together and produce a collection of stories that the group can use as a vehicle to engage the public and start meaningful conversations.

In this collection, I anticipate that we will see protagonists who choose to act and for whom these actions have consequences that are positive and affirming. Turning pessimism into optimism is not a one-dose cure, but the more we are exposed to these stories, the more they will seep into our collective consciousness, perhaps inspiring us to respond to the very real threats facing us.

Adaptation (“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything” -George Bernard Shaw)

We hear a lot these days about physical adaptation to climate change, like using scarce water resources more efficiently, but I would argue that psychological adaptation is just as important. This sort of adaptation takes many forms and can be fostered through reading environmentally themed fiction in all its variety.

We relate to the anxiety and frustration experienced by Benny in The Rest is Silence and we feel not so alone. We witness Vivienne in The Luminous Sea respond to injustice and we are prompted to consider how individual acts are important. Through reading fiction like The Year of No Summer, we come to a deeper understanding that both continuity and transformation are imbedded in the human experience, and in doing so we ourselves are transformed.

Written By

Carla Gunn lives in Fredericton, where she teaches psychology and works on ongoing writing projects with a focus on environment.

More from Carla Gunn

Reading an Endangered World

Creative narratives about environmental crisis are acts of psychological adaptation
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