Protagonist Earth

Can a good novel be written about climate change?
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In “Enough About ‘We’” [Summer 2021], Phil Christman faults Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future — a novel about how humanity survives and solves climate change — for, ironically, its lack of humanity. “As a novel,” Christman writes, “it is a failure. As a compendium of research on possible solutions to climate change, strung together by story-like thought experiments, it has genuine value.” The subjectivity of the characters is swamped by the technical details of geoengineering projects, blockchain schemes, and carbon coins. While he concedes that “we need books that depict human life in a climate-shifted world, in a mode that is neither dystopian nor utopian, on a canvas big enough to contain the many questions such a world poses” — a need he appears to think Robinson fulfills — Christman finds little solace in the decarbonized future Robinson projects:

… there is not, finally, much aesthetic interest to be found in the story of we. That entity is too pallid, too abstract, too busy Surviving and Enduring to develop much of a personality. We is a gesture: an acknowledgment that there are still particular people alive somewhere. But it is not itself alive, and novels are for the living.

Put another way, Robinson tells us a story that could plausibly come true and would be generally good if it did, but one that is not quite beautiful. The novel gives us many viewpoints — not just those of bureaucrats and scientists and refugees but of the sun, an atom of carbon, and history itself — but not richly rendered points of view: the singularity, particularity, and idiosyncrasies of individual characters, the stuff, Christman insists, that real novels are made of. Christman’s answer to the question he poses at the start of his review — “Can a good novel be written about we?” — is apparently no.

This raises the question, of course, of what a good novel is and, beyond that, how we ought to think about climate fiction as a form of the novel. Interestingly enough, the most prominent work of literary criticism about cli-fi, Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, not only addresses this question head-on, but pre-empts Christman’s critique. Ghosh provides an apology for Robinson’s approach to the novel, and Robinson’s novel meets the challenge Ghosh poses. Wondering why science fiction and fantasy came to be banished from the province of serious literature, Ghosh suggests that the challenges climate change poses to writers today “derive ultimately from the grid of literary forms and conventions that came to shape the narrative imagination in precisely that period when the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere was rewriting the destiny of the earth.” It follows that a novel about climate change that did not resist that grid would suffer from a lack of imagination. Put another way, a truly imaginative climate change novel would necessarily resist what Ghosh regards as the conventional, carbon-based narrative imagination.

But the conventional grid is precisely the one through which Christman sees Ministry. Ghosh illustrates this idea by citing John Updike’s 1988 review of Abdelrahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt. Updike’s qualms eerily reflect Christman’s:

Mr. Munif … appears to be … insufficiently Westernized to produce a narrative that feels much like what we call a novel. His voice is that of a campfire explainer; his characters are rarely fixed in our minds by a face or a manner or a developed motivation; no central figure develops enough reality to attract our sympathetic interest…. There is almost none of that sense of individual moral adventure — of the evolving individual in varied and roughly equal battle with a world of circumstance — which … has distinguished the novel from the fable and the chronicle; “Cities of Salt” is concerned, instead, with men in the aggregate.

The exclusion of the collective — of we — from our political, economic, and literary imagination, Ghosh insists, is bound up with the burning of carbon at scale. “Climate change is often described as a ‘wicked problem,’” he writes. “One of its wickedest aspects is that it may require us to abandon some of our most treasured ideas about political virtue…. What we need instead is to find a way out of the individualizing imaginary in which we are trapped.” The individual is so far from being in a “roughly equal battle” with the circumstances of the contemporary world that it only makes sense for the struggle to be primarily depicted in collective terms.

What I wager rankles Christman is that Ministry is a pointedly postmodern novel, a non-linear, fragmented bricolage where, as its final line declares, “we never really come to the end.” It is telling that Robinson dedicated the novel to Fredric Jameson, who famously chronicled postmodernism as the “cultural logic of late capitalism.” Central to Marxist and postmodern thinking is the de-centering of the human subject. One of the novel’s chief themes — and theses — is that neoliberalism, the political economy of the post-World War II period, is premised on a hyper-individualistic, consumer-driven society that is ecologically unsustainable and spiritually unsatisfying. The intellectual hero of Ministry is, of course, John Maynard Keynes, who resisted the instantiation of the neoliberal order at its inception. Ghosh points out that the grid of literary forms mentioned above is composed of a “distinctive fusion of economic, religious, and philosophical conceptions that was brought about by the Scottish Enlightenment,” and cites Keynes’ sarcastic distillation of it: “by the working of natural laws individuals pursuing their own interests with enlightenment in conditions of freedom always tend to promote the general interest at the same time!” It is this — what Keynes called the “everyday political philosophy of the nineteenth century” that still suffuses our culture and political economy — that restricts our collective imagination and ability to make sense of the climate problem.

I suspect that Christman’s queasiness over “we” stems from skepticism about the limits of humanity’s ability to identify with a people and a place. In his magisterial book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet, the late Roger Scruton claims that oikophilia, “love of home,” is an essential, ineradicable ingredient in any plausible environmentalism. The appreciation and attachment to particular places and particular people seems to be what Christman sees as the spiritual hole in Ministry. Despite Robinson’s clever skewering of the World Economic Forum, as Christman correctly notes, Switzerland serves as a sort of cypher for utopia in the liberal imagination, and thus unsurprisingly figures as the hub of the eponymous ministry, an empty space that spokes out toward actual places. Conservatives tend to be skeptical of any kind of global we — the novel’s gauzy Gaia religion may summon the specters of “Workers of the world, unite!” and “watermelon” politics — but how do we know that such identification is impossible? If we can make the shift from egocentric to ethnocentric, and from tribe to nation, why not to worldcentric or planetcentric? Given that they will be growing up in a world that is increasingly globalized economically, ecologically, epidemiologically, and digitally, it seems reasonable that the children of the twenty-first century will identify more with humanity and the earth as such. Such identification is not mutually exclusive with particular, overlapping attachments to nation, state, community, family, and so on; it simply requires a more expansive and complex moral imagination and sense of self.

Finally, following Christman’s logic, it is worth considering the effect the novel might have on the interiority of individual readers. The potential of Robinson’s iconic opening scene to haunt the dreams of millions of readers interests me far more than the details of the “weird dreams” it causes in Frank May’s head. One of the bedeviling features of the climate problem, of course — one that plagues climate journalism and science communication more broadly — is that there is no “smoking gun.” The probabilistic nature of the science, the dispersion and indirectness of causes and effects, and the spatial and temporal scales involved make it hard, if not impossible, to picture and feel climate change. Invoking the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11, Ghosh asks, “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’”

In The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells relays Ghosh’s answer: “Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves … Almost everything about our broader narrative culture suggests that climate change is a major mismatch of a subject for all the tools we have at hand…. Collective action is, dramatically, a snore.” As Wallace-Wells points out, novels by Margaret Atwood (the MaddAddam trilogy) and Ian McEwan (Solar) pass for cli-fi and “test Ghosh’s thesis, since they are climate-powered novels with the narrative architecture of the classic bourgeois novel.” But these novelists lack the qualifications that Christman argues make Robinson so exquisitely equipped for the task at hand: “a writer working in the tradition of ‘hard’ science fiction … the branch of science fiction most concerned with scientific accuracy,” as well as “seriousness about politics.” Moreover, the relevant collective identification achieved by Robinson’s approach is less a virtual drum circle singing hymns to Gaia and more what Christman himself calls “the terror and thirst and exhaustion that anyone would feel” in the midst of a heat wave that kills 20 million people. That this “de-individuates” the protagonist is the point. I am unaware of a more effective and imaginative response to the smoking-gun problem than the fictional Indian heat wave of 2025; indeed, it is why I have decided to assign the opening chapters of the novel for the first class of a course I am teaching on climate ethics this fall.

I suppose it is fair to claim that Ministry is not a great novel, or perhaps not even a novel, by conventional standards, but it ultimately seems like a quibble against such a heroic feat of imagination.

David E. Storey
Associate Professor of the Practice
Boston College Philosophy Department

Phil Christman responds: Thanks to Professor Storey for a lively letter that raises important questions about consciousness, the individual, and the novel. If I have followed his argument correctly, it can briefly be restated thus: I judge Ministry for the Future as though it were a traditional novel. But traditional novels are associated with the very forces that caused climate change. Therefore, any novel that deals with climate change well must disassociate itself from those forces by being untraditional. In particular, the thing that is wrong with traditional novels, that makes them so inadequate for our era, is their tendency to depict or evoke human consciousness, in all its particularity and graininess. The insistence that novels continue to do so is preventing them from doing brave, new postmodern things, things that will affect the reader’s consciousness such that the reader will begin to learn to think globally, as we have already learned to think nationally — this latter process being the thing that will allow us to finally address climate change.

Even stated this barely, Storey’s argument seems to me to rest on tenuous connections. The way he makes the argument exacerbates this problem significantly. He starts by effectively forcing John Updike’s words into my mouth, so that I must now, for example, disassociate myself from the whiff of racism in Updike’s critique of Abdelrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. (Perhaps this is the kind of thing you get to do when you have dispensed with individuals and their petty subjectivities.) I never asked Robinson to write a novel in which individuals are in a “roughly equal battle” with circumstances. Being in such a battle is not a constitutive feature of individuals as I have known them, frankly. Circumstances are big; I am small. Nor do I think fables are an exhausted mode of storytelling. Those are Updike’s problems, and I am, in any case, very happy to concede that John Updike was not the writer climate change needed. (Though even in saying this, I’m tempted to try the experiment. Imagine a xenoarcheologist of the far future, who, needing a bit of amusement during the long, tedious trip home after an afternoon scavenging written artifacts from a blasted Earth, feeds a particularly durable copy of Self-Consciousness or Couples into the shipboard AI and asks it to bring “John Updike” back to life. There follows a series of monologues in which a stylistically brilliant, morally obtuse, breast-obsessed speaker attempts to piece together the disaster that has befallen his beloved country, a disaster that can be traced precisely to the actions of his caste and class during his lifetime…. Et cetera.)

Prose fiction can clearly do a lot of things, and authors should try more of them. Storey and I agree on that much. One of our disagreements is this: I think prose fiction often deals best with the collective by dealing with the individual; the second thing is not automatically a refuge from the demands of the first. When Ghosh’s Great Derangement came out, it faced criticism for sidelining science fiction writers; this criticism makes sense, because SF as a field has already thought through the problem of representing vast collective problems in precise, human-scaled, and therefore memorable ways. Faced with the asymmetrical struggle between individual women and sexism as a world-historical force, for example, Joanna Russ made that asymmetry one of the things her characters struggle against and meditate upon; she flings it in the reader’s face. She depicts women traveling back and forth between parallel worlds, navigating different options; or she shows us women who are so constrained by sexism that they can’t make a good choice, and who therefore knowingly make a bad one, and wrestle with the guilt that arises from it. The reader’s experience is intense, suffocating. And formative. Years after reading much of her oeuvre, I still find myself using it to make sense of the world around me, despite significant differences in worldview from Russ. Yet mere months after reading Ministry for the Future, I struggle to recall whole sections — and this after writing about it, an exercise that tends to fix even mediocre books in the mind. Convincing evocation of individual minds: this is a complex phenomenon, and it can cut more than one way.

It’s not simply a question of what’s “conventional,” and whether Robinson has run afoul of convention. It’s not about whether or not my limited brain can handle the innovations of “postmodernism” — aren’t we all tired of this cumbersome, noncommittal committee-word yet? It’s about the affordances of the medium. What does writing do well? What does it do badly? Writing places demands on attention in a way that, say, TV does not, but it can repay the reader for the hard work by sounding a particular way, evoking a presence, a sense of a person nearby. It can have voice even when it doesn’t have coherence (viz. John Ashbery, whose sound is as recognizably his as is Coltrane’s). Storey imagines a scenario in which Kim Stanley Robinson, fun and imaginative and postmodern as he is, says, “Hey, what if blockchain were a character,” and I, crying like Wojak, say “No!” My actual response to Robinson, however, is more of a Yes-And. Yes, what if blockchain had a voice? And what if, moreover, it had an interesting voice? What if I remembered its voice after I put the book down? What if it did not sound exactly like every other Kim Stanley Robinson character? What if it did the thing that writing must do if it is going to remain in my brain: evoking an interesting human presence? It is true that didactic novels, novels that sideline psychological believability for the sake of making a point, have changed the world before. But it seems telling that the most dramatic such examples I can think of — Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Max Havelaar — come from an era when writing did not have to compete with moving pictures or recorded voices. I too might be willing to ignore Ministry’s aesthetic flaws if I thought it were going — as Storey imagines — to “haunt the dreams of millions of readers” and drive them all to harass their congresspeople into letting in more refugees. My review is an explanation of why I think it won’t, at least not in this medium.

Nor do I agree with Storey (and Ghosh) that our tendency to think or imagine on the scale of the particular is necessarily the biggest reason for our collective failure to reckon with climate change. It’s quite easy to think about climate change on this scale. I do it all the time. Did I say easy? I meant simple. It feels lousy, and it makes you depressed, so it’s hard that way. But I know that there are people, individuals, who are having to decide whether to leave an island country or stay, in large part because of choices that my and other governments, and a handful of large oil companies, made during the last several decades, knowing all the facts; and in very small part because sometimes I drive to the movies. I imagine the rage that that would engender. Or I think about the Ojibwe people just a few states away from me, in Minnesota, who are currently having a pipeline rammed through lands that they consider sacred. I think about how overwhelmed and insulted they must feel — punched again on a very old bruise. I think about particular pain in particular landscapes felt by particular people — or other animals. I think about these things a lot, and they inform my worldview and my donating and my vote and my actions — because I, too, can only access “the collective” through the medium of my one life. To be a person is to be limited in this way. My living as I do doesn’t fix climate change by itself, but neither will the kind of gestural “global thinking” in which I imagine some token that stands in for “collective humanity” or “the Earth as a whole” and then feel protective about it. Many climate activists, especially in the last few years, have in fact suggested that we try thinking of climate change in ways that foreground individual people more: These several dozen oil company executives; these several hundred enabling politicians. This approach risks eliding the ways that the individual lives of the well-paid-but-not-actually-rich will also have to change, but it at least gives the climate activist a place to go, tactically speaking. “Think globally” does not. Thinking about and as a person: this, like the “individual consciousness” of the “bourgeois novel,” also cuts more than one way.

It’s true that people have learned, via generalization and synecdoche (and propaganda and violence), to identify with ethnic groups, and with nations. I am not sure that this is the accomplishment Professor Storey presents it as. Or perhaps, that it is the accomplishment he thinks I think it is. If these are models for the cognitive miracle that he wishes us to perform in learning to think “globally,” he can keep it. I don’t know whether my species will survive climate change, or whether, if it does so, it will learn anything. If we do survive, I hope one of the things “we” learn is our own limitations, and to love what we cannot identify with; to love what isn’t “we.”

Correspondence: “Protagonist Earth,” The New Atlantis, Number 66, Fall 2021, pp. 131–136.
Header image: Dr. Seuss National Memorial Sculpture Garden, Springfield, Mass. (Randy Duchaine / Alamy)

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