If you can’t convince people of the need for a global carbon treaty with documentaries and IPCC reports, why not try it with fiction? Rajendra Pachauri has already published Return to Almora, his steaming novel about a tin-hatted, serially sort-of-monogamous Hindu holy man/neuroscientist, but unaccountably this contribution to world literature remains bereft of an American publisher.Now Bill McKibben is getting into the act. That at least is the strategy behind the anthology he’s producing called I’m With The Bears: Short Stories From A Damaged Planet. The book gathered up a few novelists to write short fiction about the scary things that will happen to the planet as the climate changes. Tim Black, writing at spiked!, had this to say:
Where The Science, focusing on complex sciencey stuff, has so far failed to convince the public to change their ways, The Arts, focusing on simple emotional stuff, will succeed. Or something like that. Here’s McKibben explaining the purpose of the collection of stories: ‘Until we’ve really understood at some gut level what kind of a threat we’re facing, we’re unlikely to act with enough commitment. Art gets at the gut. Environmentalists have spent a very long time appealing mainly to that side of the brain that likes bar graphs and pie charts; time to make sure we’re getting this on every level.’ Which sounds particularly depressing. Having spent the better part of the last decade beating us round the head with The Science, environmental campaigners now want to kick us in the gut with The Literature.
This isn’t actually new. Climate change has been a favorite science fiction subject for many years. In most of it, human being suffer the wretched consequences of our heedless assault on Gaia. The shelves are full of dystopian literature about a near future in which climate change has turned the Earth into an unspeakably hot misery stew: Grapes of Wrath set in Calcutta.My own favorite climate change dystopia is Bruce Sterling’s Heavy Weather. Good characters, back story that looks more plausible than ever after the financial meltdown, and the speculative science is plausible enough to keep you up at night. For the other side of the story, there’s Fallen Angels by Larry Niven, blogger Jerry Pournelle and Mike Lee in which misguided greens accidentally set off an ice age. Or there are the wonderful ‘uplift’ novels by David Brin in which humanity, after much suffering, has actually become pretty good about conserving the environment on this and other worlds. Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the writers represented in the McKibben anthology, wrote the wonderful Mars trilogy that looks at the relationship of culture, politics, science and the environment — on Mars as humans fight over whether to terraform it or leave it alone.The weak link in McKibben’s strategy is that like many greens he still seems to be trying to scare the public so badly that it will overlook the many obvious and frequently fatal flaws in the hodgepodge of dubious policy ideas the green movement floats.It’s all been done before, better, and it failed.Science fiction writers used to focus on the horrors of nuclear war and frightened the willies out of readers for many decades. Public worry much more intense than anything the greens can gin up never got the nuclear disarmament movement over the hump — not because nuclear war isn’t bad, or because people weren’t scared, but because the nuclear disarmament movement’s policy ideas emanated from the same cloud-cuckoo-land that the green fantasies do.Panic doesn’t turn an unworkable policy agenda into something that people can actually do. It can waste a lot of energy and time and cause otherwise capable people to sink months or years of their lives into leprechaun chases, and it can cause pandering politicians to gesture in the direction of your agenda without ever actually doing anything significant — but that is all. And it is not much.I’ll read the book with great pleasure; there are some wonderful authors in there. Then I’ll put it on my shelf next to Alas Babylon, On The Beach, and the incomparable A Canticle for Leibowitz. There might even be a dusty copy of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb up there on that shelf of scary fiction that did not change the world.