I hope that that sort of revelation will inspire people to some kind of collective action. Lifestyle choices are ultimately so small that anything other than political action and organizing seems to me effectively a diversion. But I also am not approaching the subject really as an advocate, but as a truth teller and storyteller.
Meyer: Do you think there’s a way to write that kind of narrative that doesn’t wind up feeling like The Jungle? Which ends with a giant Socialist rally, and the narrator being absorbed into the fervor of the crowd. Or, I really enjoyed [the 2018 film] Sorry to Bother You, but it has a very similar kind of arc in which the politics save the main character.
Wallace-Wells: I guess it depends on whether what you’re looking for in a narrative is polemic or humanity. I actually think that one of the features of my writing on this subject is that it—I hope this doesn’t sound too grand to say—but it demonstrates that if you handle them right, the simple accumulation of facts can take on an enormous narrative force. And I don’t really think that that’s something that many other writers about climate have done before.
We are still in the infant stage of figuring out how to tell stories about this issue. Going forward, I suspect that the more interesting narrative forms are likely to background climate change and make it appear like the theater in which human dramas are unfolding. Think about, for instance, a climate refugee camp, where the story is effectively some rivalry between two quasi-criminal-like figures in the camp. Or a honeymoon where people are going snorkeling through Miami Beach.
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There are whole imaginative theaters for storytelling about climate that we haven’t yet begun to explore. But if all that is considered “responsible” is optimistic hopeful storytelling about how we can solve the problem, then that’s just—from a narrative perspective, it’s kind of corny. The best climate storytelling is likely to be written by people like J. G. Ballard, or William Gibson, or Margaret Atwood, who are really thinking about all the weird ways that these forces could transform our lives.
Meyer: Gibson’s really recent novel, The Peripheral, seems like one of the better presentations of how you’re talking about history now—about how day-to-day, lived existence would feel like in a world where progress has gone wrong, where there are cataclysms in the past from which people really haven’t recovered.
Wallace-Wells: I know [Gibson] a little bit because I did the Paris Review interview with him. We were emailing a few weeks ago and I was like, Oh, I’m just adding a couple sentences to the book, last minute, about how science-fiction writers are likely to be understood even more as prophets because of climate change, and he wrote back and he was like, You know what, every time people say that to me, I always say “We haven’t successfully predicted anything! We got all of our predictions wrong. The only thing we’ve gotten right is the mood.” And I wrote back and I was like, No, the mood is a prediction! It’s a really important prediction, and actually you guys got it extremely right.