This week, temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (about 104 degrees Fahrenheit) were recorded in the United Kingdom for the first time in history. Across the ocean, more than 100 million Americans were under a heat warning. In May, a brutal heat wave swept across India and Pakistan. The planet is getting hotter and the weather more unpredictable, and events like this are becoming more frequent and more severe. That knowledge is making its way into every facet of our world, including our literature, Heather Hansman argues: Even writing that’s not about warming can’t help but acknowledge it. Thinking about climate change is now just part of life on Earth.
In a recent anthology of essays, The World as We Knew It: Dispatches From a Changing Climate, a group of writers reckon with that fact, addressing their feelings of grief and responsibility. In their hands, old myths become templates for understanding our new world. Their blend of anxiety and optimism brings to mind the work of the marine biologist Rachel Carson. In The Sense of Wonder, she writes that finding awe and joy in the natural world is an “antidote” to disillusionment and crucial to the success of the environmental movement—although she emphasized, in her writing and her life, that wonder isn’t enough; a sense of urgency is required too.
The destruction climate change is wreaking on the planet doesn’t exactly have a silver lining. But some authors, like Kathleen Jamie and Terry Tempest Williams, have argued that it presents us with an opportunity to radically change our societies. The climate crisis is a wake-up call to align ourselves with “what indigenous communities have always known, and are increasingly willing to share—that we are one with the land, not apart from it,” Williams writes.
And we’ll need to do that soon. In “A Very Small Animal Surrounded Entirely by Water,” the poet sam sax writes in the past tense: “when the [oceans | fires | droughts] came / when the [rains | bomb | flu] came / when the [weather | weather | weather] came.” The catastrophe’s already arrived, the speaker contends, and “we [weathered | welcomed | watered] it.”
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What We’re Reading
As the climate changes, so does fiction
“An increasing number of writers are weaving climate change into their domestic dramas or their comedies of errors as an unavoidable part of life today or in the very near future … This new breed of environmental novel can make the stakes of future choices, and their effects on ordinary individuals and scenarios, seem clear: When survival is on the line, books can drill into the core human question of how we take care of one another and ourselves.”
📚 The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
📚 How Beautiful We Were, by Imbolo Mbue
📚 How Strange a Season, by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Adam Maida / The Atlantic
What Greek mythology can teach us about the climate crisis
“To write about the connection humans have to the changing climate, one must nurse two competing anxieties at once: We are both willing participants in and at the mercy of the systems that are destroying us. As the authors of this collection share personal stories about global collapse, a tricky question materializes. How do we think about the idea of individual responsibility when its relationship to climate change is so slippery?”
California sea lion hunting sardines in Los Islotes, La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico (Nick Polanszky / Alamy)
What it would take to see the world completely differently
“Is wonder still possible, given our climate crisis? Wonder implies some degree of leisure and time; it requires slow, sustained, and contemplative attention—a luxury that, perhaps, we can no longer afford. Even Carson, when she wrote the new preface for the revised 1961 edition of The Sea Around Us, couldn’t help but inject an urgent warning about the practice of dumping nuclear waste into the ocean. She called the previous assurance that the sea was so large as to be inviolate a “naive” belief. Today, as dire emergencies unfold, rationalizing time spent merely appreciating the natural world seems even more difficult.”
📚 The Sense of Wonder, by Rachel Carson
Bill Owens / Gallery Stock
Nature writing that sees possibility in climate change
“The U.S. government’s 2018 National Climate Assessment provided some idea, finding that 49.4 million ‘housing units’ are located within shoreline communities across the country and that flooding ‘from rising sea levels and storms is likely to destroy, or make unsuitable for use, billions of dollars of property by the middle of this century.’ Amid this destruction, a pair of new books suggests, may lie the secret to surviving it.”
Trent Parke / Magnum
“A Very Small Animal Entirely Surrounded by Water”
“the world was already [young | sick | lost] when we came to it
we were busy looking [for | at | through] god
went to the dance and brought our new [shoes | father | flask]
borrowed a [shirt | religion | mask] & sat in the bleachers
[music | oil | trash] filled our rivers
stayed up for the after [party | life | math]
the forests were [protected | sold | ash]
wrote [letters | checks | ads] against corruption
blamed [science | systems | depression] for our cities”