Can a Book Really Save the World?

Can a Book Really Save the World?

The Atlantic‘s recent article “Climate Fiction: Can Books Save the Planet?” raises a lot of questions about the role of fiction in the fight for climate justice. Climate Fiction, or cli-fi, has recently become a trending genre in literature, especially YA literature. Perhaps this has to do with the dystopian craze. The loss of food, water, oxygen, land, as well as the increase in volcano eruptions, earthquakes and floods, all seem to provide the perfect inciting incident for the next dystopia.

J.K. Ullrich, in the above article, argues that cli-fi has a certain appeal to youth because it makes the “scary” STEM fields more accessible by cloaking hard science in easier-to-understand fiction.  Furthermore, it makes youth more aware of their environment and climate change issues because otherwise they are too sucked into their digital worlds. Besides Ullrich’s obvious lack of faith in the young adults of today (millennial bashing is so last year), there are other flaws to this argument. According to a 2014 study by EcoAmerica, 18-24 year olds are the least likely demographic to believe that climate change is a hoax, and they are also the most likely to believe in solutions to climate change.

While I do not agree with many of Ullrich’s points, that does not mean that cli-fi is not an effective too. Fiction can help personalize an issue that is highly politicized and seems distant from reality. By giving a personal face to issues like drought and food shortages, fiction can give facts and statistics new and deeper meanings.

But there is also a challenge to this—much of climate fiction is too apocalyptic to promote real change. I still have nightmares about the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. After seeing this film, did I want to go out and save the planet? No. It seemed like too big of a problem that not even the characters in the movie could solve. All I wanted to do was hide in my bed and hope the impending doom of climate change that I was sure would happen tomorrow would at least kill me quickly. (Though I was only 11 when this film came out, I have still not lost my flair for the dramatic. I re-watched this film recently and went to bed with all my clothes on afterward, in case we were suddenly thrown into another ice age.)

Thomas D. Lowe’s 2006 working paper on this topic also seems to agree with my assessment of The Day After Tomorrow and other forms of cli-fi that present a catastrophic, end-of-the-world type scenario for climate change. He argues that this view of climate change depersonalizes it for the public and makes them less likely to act. Instead, the problem of climate change must be made “tangible” and “manageable” in order to truly promote action.

Sarah Holding, author of the SeaBEAN trilogy, suggests that maybe the solution comes not in making the problem tangible, but in providing hope. Perhaps characters who are empowered to take action about climate change can make young people realize that “they too can rewrite our future.”

Cli-fi, like other forms of art that hopes to inspire action and change, is complex. Alone, it will not change the world. But maybe, if it is done right, it will inspire people to change the world.

The real question is, though, do the eco-points I gain from reading Sarah Holding’s book on my kindle (scientifically proven to be greener than paper), make up for the extra-long shower I took this morning? That’s how climate change works, right?

Image: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)


The Power of Laughter

Watt Samuel Beckett
Samuel Beckett

As we have seen, art can do a lot of things. Art can help us think about things in different ways, it can delve deeply into the lives of people, it can make us feel intense sadness or anger. Art can call us to action. But art can also do something else, something that we enjoy very much but don’t always think about. Art can make us laugh. Paul Astor, in a interview in the Atlantic, describes one of his favorite passages of Samuel Beckett’s work and argues that laughter is essential to writing. Astor claims that laughter, and the power that literature has to make us laugh, has a cathartic, healing effect. He claims that Beckett “worked on the pages of the-never-quite-finished Watt at night. He said he wrote the book to keep himself from going insane.” Laughter had a cathartic effect for Beckett, helping him to survive the German occupation during WWII. But it also has a cathartic effect on the readers. Astor claims that literature, even serious literature, should have comedic moments because it’s “the way we’re built as human beings, and often when we’re in dark circumstances we survive them by cracking jokes.”

Reading is Good For You

The Abbey Bookshop, Paris, France. Photo by: Zoe Rand
The Abbey Bookshop.  Paris, France.
Photo by: Zoe Rand

A recent study published in the journal of Science found that after reading literary fiction people performed better on tests that measure empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence. They also tested people who had read popular fiction, or nonfiction, and those people performed worse than those who read literary fiction. For us book nerds out there this seems like good news. Science has proved something that we have known all along–that reading immerses you so completely in the world and characters it creates, worlds that  are complex and sometimes even perplexing, that it can help you to understand the world that you live in. What’s interesting about this study is that it gives a quantifiable effect of reading literature and that this effect was produced after only minutes of reading literature.

Pam Belluk, a journalist for the New York Times, seemed to have some questions on why these results were produced from reading literary fiction but not popular fiction. Belluk quotes Albert Wendland who claims that in literary fiction “each character presents a different version of reality, and they aren’t necessarily reliable. You have to participate as a reader in this dialectic, which is really something you have to do in real life.” Literary fiction asks the reader to work to understand the characters, and in this way helps us to understand the world around us. But what I find particularly interesting is that, unlike most of the high school English curriculums I’ve encountered, this doesn’t mean we should discount popular fiction entirely. Wendland suggests that “maybe popular fiction is a way of dealing more with one’s own self, maybe, with one’s own wants, desires, needs.” I think that this is a really interesting distinction–that literary fiction helps us understand the world, but that popular fiction helps us to understand ourselves–and one that I agree with. Perhaps someday science will find a way to quantify that as well. But in the meantime, I guess we’ll just have to keep on reading.