Writing the Climate Change Story

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Original Air Date: 
August 14, 2021

One of the toughest things about trying to understand climate change – arguably the most important story of our time — is wrapping our minds around it. To even imagine something so enormous, so life-changing, we need a story. Some characters, a metaphor, and even some lessons learned. For that, we turn to the novelists and journalists telling the story of climate change – as we – and our children – live it.

Greenland ocean sunset

In "Our Biggest Experiment," climate advocate Alice Bell traces the history of the scientists who have been studying the impact of humanity on the climate since 1856. She tells Anne Strainchamps that science has been critical for spurring the world to act. 

a barren tree in Nambia

Lydia Millet mined Bible stories and parables to write her very contemporary novel about climate change, "A Children’s Bible.” She says that fiction can help us sort through hard feelings about climate change in a way daily news stories can't.

earth from space

Lidia Yuknavitch’s apocalyptic novel “The Book of Joan” is one of the most stunning examples of climate fiction. It’s the story of a near-future where Earth is decimated and the last few survivors are stranded out in space.

sea wall on a cliff

British journalist John Lanchester’s recent novel “The Wall” paints a very chilly picture of climate catastrophe. It begins in the future, when rising sea levels and an immigration crisis pit children against parents.

Show Details 📻
August 14, 2021
April 02, 2022
January 21, 2023
November 11, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:15):

It's To The Best of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps. The Earth's climate has changed in ways that can't be put back. And now we're looking at a future that is beyond most people's capacity, even to imagine. So how do we come to terms with the unthinkable? In part through fiction. Writer, Alice Bell kicks off today's show with a true story of how just one summer of bad weather changed the course of British literature.

Alice Bell (00:58):

It was the summer of 1816, Lord Byron had taken a mansion by Lake Geneva, Lord Byron the poet, probably to escape a bit of debt and scandal. And his friend and doctor John Polidori had joined them. Meanwhile, another friend of his, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who's another poet, had brought along his girlfriend, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, and has stepsister Claire Clairmont, who had quite a crush on Lord Byron, I think.

Alice Bell (01:29):

They had all these lovely ideas of hanging out in Switzerland, and it's going to be beautiful weather and they'd be in the outdoors and there'd be the mountains and the lake, but the weather was just terrible. It's debatable, but it said that the weather was so bad, because right over almost the other side of the world in Indonesia, there'd been a huge volcanic eruption the year before. One of the largest laconic eruptions ever recorded. It put so much ash into the sky, that then swirled around the Earth's atmosphere, settled around Europe, and made the sky's very dark, and the weather very, very bad. It's sometimes known as the year without summer. And people have argued that music gets really miserable and there's lots of paintings that are very dark and seem really grim. Coleridge, who was another poet at the time called it, end of the world weather.

Alice Bell (02:29):

So not only could they not go outside, because the weather was a bit rubbish, but I think the grimness maybe influenced what they chose to do while they were sitting inside, which is sharing ghost stories. John Polidori wrote what was seen as kind of the first vampire novel, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, she'd been reading about Italian scientists in London who traveled actually all around Europe, doing these experiments, electrocuting a dead man, which had managed to make the body kind of shake, and it looked like an eye popped. Mary Shelley working from that, came up with her tale of a scientist, creating a new man. She wrote what we now see as the origins of science fiction, Frankenstein. Maybe, just because the year before a volcano had erupted in Indonesia.

Anne Strainchamps (03:43):

If one summer of bad weather could change the course of English literature, what will global warming do? What kind of stories are people writing now in response to permanent climate change? And what kind of stories do we need if we're going to do something about it? That's what Alice Bell asked herself, before sitting down to write a definitive history of climate change from the 1800s to today, it's called Our Biggest Experiment.

Anne Strainchamps (04:14):

One of the big surprising things for me is how far back the history of climate change goes. You tell this great story about one of the first people to raise an alarm about climate change was an American scientist and women's rights activist, Eunice Newton Foote, and this was 1856.

Alice Bell (04:32):

With the book, I really wanted people to appreciate how deep these roots go. And so, yeah, Eunice Foote, in the 1850s, she was interested in gases and how heat could be trapped by gases. She did a little experiment where she collected one cylinder full of carbon dioxide and left the other one with just normal and put them on the window sill to see how the heat from the sun would flow through the cylinders and whether there was any difference between them. And she noticed that the cylinder full of carbon dioxide got very, very hot and then took quite a long time to cool down.

Alice Bell (05:02):

So she said, almost in passing and have paper, "If we had an atmosphere that was very full of carbon dioxide," if, "it would lead to a very warm climate." But then people seem to have forgotten about it. And she's hardly mentioned at all until just the last decade or so, when her paper was dug up and people realized there was this amazing story of this American female scientists in the 1850s, she seems to have kind of said something, which now seems so visionary.

Anne Strainchamps (05:27):

But this seem like the beginning of a long string of pivotal moments, some of which were paid attention to, some of which were ignored, kind of like lost chances.

Alice Bell (05:39):

I mean, it is, the story of the climate crisis is a gradual discovery, like most science. I mean, the other side of it is, though, in some ways we're quite lucky that we had the knowledge as early as we did. Because climate change is not obvious, even at the moment when we can see, the last few weeks, I think, a lot of us have really felt it very strongly. Even when there's these fires and floods, we don't necessarily know that that's climate change.

Alice Bell (06:02):

We need science to be able to recognize it as the climate crisis. And we could all so easily have not done those research. I mean, so many scientists who studied the climate crisis up until the 1950s, it was just a weird side project for them. It was like a little hobby when they should have been doing something else, and they could have done something else with their spare time. Then looking over temperature data, or messing around with vials and carbon dioxide. It could have been so much later that we would have had that knowledge.

Anne Strainchamps (06:28):

On the other hand, there are some moments like this 1974 CIA climate report you write about, where there's this searing realization that they knew and still no one did anything about it.

Alice Bell (06:42):

I mean, I think roughly up until the 1970s, we can say it's kind of remarkable that we knew what we knew. And then after that, it's almost remarkable that we didn't pay attention to what we knew.

Anne Strainchamps (06:51):

But why did the CIA even care?

Alice Bell (06:53):

Well, they could see that it was going to have a big political impact. They could look back at earlier points in history, whether there'd even be even small amounts of climate change from things like volcanic eruptions or period of bad weather, which can sometimes happen, and how that could lead to famine and then fuel other physical problems. And they were just really concerned about the geopolitical consequences of it.

Alice Bell (07:14):

They were also worried that countries will want to fight back against climate change, but they won't necessarily fight back by stopping burning fossil fuels. They'll fight back with weapons to control the weather. I mean, we've kind of seen this recently with stories about, in Dubai using drones to electrocute the clouds, to make it rain. They were worried that one country would use weapons like this and that that would affect the weather in the country next door. They'd seen about fights play out in terms of nuclear weapons, and they were concerned about what weather weapons might do.

Anne Strainchamps (07:44):

It is striking how much of the history of climate change is a history of these battles over narrative. So when and how did the fossil fuel industry start really pushing climate skepticism? And how effective were they?

Alice Bell (07:58):

That sort of happens in the late '80s onwards and in the 1990s. And I think you can see a shift from... it's very well discussed in books like Merchants of Doubt, brilliant book, really outlines it in a lot of detail, how the fossil fuel industry worked off a playbook that the PR companies that were working with them had already applied in tobacco to delay action on the link between tobacco and cancer, by having lots of questions, which were, they were both legitimate and disingenuous, in that they were sort, "Oh, what about asbestos? Or what about this?"

Alice Bell (08:28):

You're like, "Well, yes, what about that? But that doesn't mean we need to stop talking about tobacco and cancer." The same way people are, "Oh, what about the sun? And what about the El Nino effect?" "Yes. Yes, but also what about fossil fuels?" And they've been very effective at derailing the conversation with a lot of questions, and what became, I think, what we now understand as climate skepticism.

Anne Strainchamps (08:47):

Well, I was thinking about this, because I think that one predominant narrative we have right now about climate change is guilt. We all know we could have made more radical lifestyle changes, collectively, but also individually. We could have not taken all those plane trips. But I also wonder if that isn't blaming the victims, because there is so much power and wealth invested in the fossil fuel driven global economy. So I wonder if we need to tell more stories about the vested interests behind climate change?

Alice Bell (09:19):

Oh yeah. I mean, and this is very much a well established tactic, the oil companies PR agencies are thinking about, how can we delay action? We know that BP sort of boosted ideas of things like carbon footprinting and the idea that, you, as an individual, might need to worry about your carbon footprint. They did that because it makes them look green, but arguably it has a really useful impact for them, in that it makes people think, "Oh, it's my fault."

Alice Bell (09:42):

What happens is that people feel guilty and then they stop. And that's one of the genius bits about pushing the carbon footprinting idea about making it about individuals is, it's not just that you get lost in the small things, but-

Anne Strainchamps (09:54):

That's paralyzing.

Alice Bell (09:54):

... it's paralyzing. And so you get lost in that, and then you forget about it.

Anne Strainchamps (09:58):

So thinking about the climate change narrative today, the stories we do or don't tell, the way we shape them, what do you think we need more of? What stories are we missing?

Alice Bell (10:09):

I think we need lots of stories, great investigative journalism and that kind of model. I think we also need lots of stories of people doing things right. My day job is co-running a charity that works on climate action. Just today, one of my colleagues, we'd been spending the morning puzzling over how we can do stuff on decarbonizing the heating system in the UK, because the heating system in the UK is so based on natural gas, so we need to stop doing that. And we were just like, "Oh, it's so difficult." And then he found the story of a project that's happening in France. And it just helped lift our spirits and helped us think, oh, we could do something like that. How could we learn from that? We need stories of things going right, so that we can learn from each other, and find the action at the kind of speed that we need.

Alice Bell (10:46):

And I also think another type of narrative we really, really need is stories from people who are living at the harsh end of climate impacts. So we've seen a lot of stories in the last few weeks about the heat dome. I have family in Canada, so I was paying attention to that and hearing what they were saying. Meanwhile, there was huge climate impacts happening in all sorts of other parts of the world that weren't necessarily being told so strongly, particularly, African countries. There's so many different African countries that feel climate change so tightly, and people who live in the US and Europe, don't often get those stories from different parts of the world that the rich countries too often ignore.

Anne Strainchamps (11:24):

I guess, personally, I kind of feel like we're drowning in negative bias today. It's a very scary moment right now, when it's clearer every day that this is not just weird weather, it's permanent change. I do wonder whether, I mean, is it responsible to tell any kind of positive or hopeful story? Or is it too late?

Alice Bell (11:50):

I think we have to be careful with hopeful stories, in that it's very easy to come over as crass. And also I think that we don't want to make people think that it's okay. I think there's a way in which it's another form of denialism, "Oh, it'll be all right." I don't think we should let people fall into that kind of denialism. But at the same time, one of the things about climate change is it's not a win or lose issue. Kate Marvel, a climate scientist from NASA always says, "Climate change isn't a cliff you fall off, it's more of a slope you slide down." Now I'd add that, that slope is getting very, very steep. We're sliding down it very, very fast.

Alice Bell (12:23):

But at the same time, there's still always something to save in the world. That's the thing that I hold onto, that there is still always so much of the world out there to save, so much of a future that could still be bright that we can still make. And so that we don't have to just dwell on all of the negative things, although we shouldn't just go, "Oh, look it, shiny solar panel, it'll all be all right," because then that might be comforting. It's crass as well, there are people out there dying.

Anne Strainchamps (12:50):

Well, if you were to counter some of our fear and paralysis with a story of a moment in the history of climate change, where decisions were made or things happen that really did lead to a positive change, is there a story you would tell?

Alice Bell (13:05):

Oh, I think there's quite a few. Actually, one of the stories I really liked reading was autobiography by Bert Bolin, who's one of the scientists who help set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He was very, very aware that politicians were going to need to be briefed on climate change by scientists, and that this needed to happen at an international level, not just at a national level. He worked with another scientist, Mustafa Tolba, and the two of them, I think, had quite different approaches, but together those two different approaches kind of came together and built something pretty incredible.

Alice Bell (13:35):

And then the modern IPCC, they're meeting, actually right now, as we're speaking, they're going over, they're finalizing their final report. It's an incredible thing. The number of scientists that were involved that give their time, voluntarily, collecting all these different bits of knowledge together for briefing the world's governments on climate change. It's a wonder of the modern world up there with an incredible building. So many people working together, pooling so much knowledge that stretches back centuries. I guess that's an example of the things that we can do when we work together.

Anne Strainchamps (14:06):

And I love that, because it's a reminder that, it may be very, very late and the slope may be terribly steep, but there are things that we can do that can make a difference. I'm curious, what kind of emotional toll did writing and researching this take on you? Because, I can only imagine how difficult it must've been to write this story.

Alice Bell (14:26):

There were bits where I did feel quite depressed. I think particularly when I was researching bits on the late 20th century, like in last 40, 50 years. I just felt some anger, especially when they're dead and they can't fight back. And thinking, if somebody's written something in 1961 and you're swearing at it, and you think, oh, that's a bit unfair of me to do that. But that sometimes it was a bit depressing.

Anne Strainchamps (14:48):

One of the things I really enjoyed is the way you use to kind of add a bit of humor and also more suggested reading on the subject. So I wanted to end by asking you, are there two or three other books on climate that you think people should read, like some of the greats of climate literature?

Alice Bell (15:06):

Well, I'd really recommend Merchants of Doubt, it's a great book. I'd also say Roland Jackson wrote a really lovely biography of John Tyndall, who was a scientist who basically said very similar things that Eunice Foote said, but a few years later. And many people now look back on John Tyndall and go, "Ha, you were the man that got the credit that should have gone to Eunice Foote." But that's not exactly how it works out. There's so many books I enjoyed reading. I there's a Katharine Anderson's book on a Victorian weather, it's really, really great. I mean, there's lots of books on Victorian weather makers that are great.

Alice Bell (15:39):

There's also The Weather Experiment by Peter Moore about some of the pioneers of weather science, really beautifully written. When I was reading it for the second time, I realized that he kind of put weather imagery in the writing. So as you are reading about these people researching the weather, you kind of got a sense of storms brewing and things like that. I mean, I wish I could write a book by that. It's a real joy to read.

Anne Strainchamps (16:01):

Well, so is yours.

Alice Bell (16:02):

Thank you.

Anne Strainchamps (16:04):

So thank you so much for talking.

Alice Bell (16:06):

Thank you for asking me.

Anne Strainchamps (16:16):

Alice Bell is a writer, co-director of the climate charity Possible, and author of Our Biggest Experiment: A History of the Climate Crisis.

Anne Strainchamps (16:40):

I asked her about her personal, emotional response to climate change for a reason. I've been living and working in Vermont for the past few months in a borrowed house, on a back road, halfway up a big hill, and the other week I woke up to this weird kind of muddy fog. It was so thick I could see little wisps of it in the air. And then I went outside and I smelled smoke. And at first I thought, wow, somebody nearby must be burning a lot of logs, like an entire forest worth. And then it hit me, it was smoke from the wildfires out West. I'm standing in my front yard in Vermont and suddenly the wildfires aren't just out there somewhere on the other side of the continent, they're here. I could feel my chest tightening, my throat beginning to sting, and my eyes were burning. And that was the day that I realized that there will be no escape from climate change. And so, now what? Well, to prepare for whatever kind of future is ahead, we're going to have to get better at imagining it.

Anne Strainchamps (18:17):

Coming up, we'll meet some novelists who are trying to do just that. And don't worry, I promise it will not be unrelentingly depressing. I'm Anne Strainchamps. And this is To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (18:49):

Lately, I've been remembering a conversation we had just a few years ago with the novelist and critic Amitav Ghosh he had just published a long essay called The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, in which he argued that people in Western countries have been in denial about climate change for a long time. And case in point, where is the great novel about Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy or the Mendocino wildfires or any recent climate-driven catastrophe?

Amitav Ghosh (19:22):

It is largely absent. I mean, if you look at the mainstream of literary fiction today, it's carrying on much as it was 20 or 30 years ago. And there seems to be absolutely no recognition of the profound rupture that divides the world of today from the world of 1990.

Anne Strainchamps (19:46):

Well, the landscape of environmental fiction has changed a lot since then, and many of today's top writers are tackling climate catastrophe and stories that feel all too probable.

Lydia Millet (20:06):

Before we left, we carved our initials into the waterlogged posts of the arc. I felt melancholy saying goodbye to the house. It was flooded, cold and dark, and boarded up, but once it had been the site of splendid parties. "More than a century ago," said Terri, "empire builders and criminals, famous artists and actors, and ass kissers had floated in their finery beneath the Roosevelt chandelier." "And in the future," he said, "maybe a new generation of partiers would arrive, much like us, but strangers to us forever. They'd look upon our names and wonder who we'd been." "Or after us there won't be anyone," said Rafe, "maybe we're the last." "The oceans are rising," said David. "The plagues are coming," piped up Jack. "This forest too will fall," said Jen. They didn't know if they were joking.

Anne Strainchamps (21:34):

Lydia Millet, mined Bible stories and parables in her recent and very contemporary novel about climate change. It's called A Children's Bible. Shannon Henry Kleiber caught up with her to talk about how fiction can help us sort through tough feelings about climate change, in a way daily news stories can't.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (21:55):

Lydia, I want to set the scene for your book. There are 12 kids on a forced vacation with their parents at this Lakeside mansion, and a hurricane happens. I want to help the listeners picture this. There's this game the kids are playing, where they're trying to guess whose parents are attached to which kids, and the parents are never named, and the kids are very embarrassed about their parents and kind of angry at them. Can you tell us a little bit about this relationship between the parents and kids in your book?

Lydia Millet (22:27):

Well, I have to admit it was partly inspired by the moment when my own children refused to dance with me anymore. They were actually quite small, but we used to have these just freewheeling dance parties that were absurd and foolish and fun in our house in the evening, just the three of us acting goofy. And then there came a time when they were suddenly embarrassed by probably the movements in my body or the look on my face or just the unholiness of seeing their mother dance. That sort of moment of repudiation sat heavy with me in a way.

Lydia Millet (23:08):

I mean, of course it made me laugh and I understood, and I remembered similar feelings about my own parents at a certain moment, but it also is a departure, like a leave taking, a kind of loss when your children have the self-awareness and self-consciousness to separate themselves from you in that way, and sort of not be a part of you in the way that they were when they were small. So I wanted to bring that, the sort of embarrassment and humiliation that they felt, but also kind of the sadness of that to this book. And since the book was about rage in general, the rage of the young, which is, to me, a sort of righteous rage, it was necessary to make that moment of refusing to dance about something a bit more grandiose.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (24:02):

Oh, I still get that. I have two teenagers and they do not want me to sing in the car ever.

Lydia Millet (24:08):

No, nope. Nope. Sure. Sure.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (24:10):

I really get that. But this book too is about the relationship of generations with climate change too. And so they're angry about these small things, but you make it so much about the little things and the big things.

Lydia Millet (24:28):

Yeah, because they coexist in our relationships among and between the generations. There are sort of smaller irritations that you can talk about, and then there's the matter that sort of lies beyond speech, often. The great abandonments, the great betrayals, I think, that the generations perpetrate upon each other. And of course, my generation, so I'm 52, my kids are also teenagers. And I think the crises of extinction and climate change are really the single greatest legacy betrayal I can conceive of, and really are what I would have to lay at the feet of my own generation. And what I believe, some people, many people that are my children's age and older up into their 30s even, maybe, also lay at our feet.

Lydia Millet (25:23):

When I wrote this book, I wasn't aware of anyone having written really a fiction about that anger of the young, specifically, on the matters of climate and extinction. And so I wanted to do it, at least I wanted to do it in my own fashion.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (25:38):

I feel that generational guilt. And in reading your book, I felt like we've really messed this up for our kids. And I knew that, but as you tell it in these parables and allegories, I felt even more guilt.

Lydia Millet (25:52):

We just seem to have had this vast blind spot that eclipsed everything, almost, all the things that matter the most. The matter of what parenthood really is, which is protection and love and care for the future of the children.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (26:09):

So let's talk about little bit more about what happens in the book as people are listening and thinking, well, that sounds really interesting, but how does this become climate change? And how's this a natural disaster in it? So these kids are all with their parents in this Lakeside mansion, and they're making fun of their parents, and their parents are drinking a lot and it's kind of this hedonistic thing, and then this hurricane happens, right?

Lydia Millet (26:30):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Shannon Henry Kleiber (26:31):

A natural disaster, and then what?

Lydia Millet (26:35):

Yeah. There's this cataclysmic storm, the likes of which we almost have seen or have seen depending on where you live, and its ramifications are just larger than anything we've seen in this country. And it's sort of has a biblical structure where the house and the kids are stranded in this flood, and Eve, the main character's little brother, Jack, who she is devoted to, tries to build his own version of an arc, in a way. And then the children end up being separated from their parents for quite a long time. And in the course of that, change somewhat, and in some ways, become their own parents.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (27:26):

So I have to tell you, I grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school, and I was always taught the Bible was a collection of stories. I guess, I had a more liberal Catholic education. And then as an English major, I studied the Bible as literature, and have thought about these plagues and the baby born in the manger, things that you have in this book. Did you go back and reread the Bible to write this book? Did you pluck out the stories purposely? Or did they kind of come to you as you were writing it?

Lydia Millet (27:54):

Well, I actually, specifically, looked at some old illustrated children's Bibles and Bible stories that I dug up. I was remembering, when I sat down to write it, remembering the sort of children's Bibles that I'd seen when I was a child, and went down to visit my grandparents in the South, and so these were like, my mother's old children's Bibles. And they had the kind of illustrations in them, the sort of style, on the cover, actually, of the children's Bible. They were sort of from the '40s and '50s, and had these often sort of pastel colored pictures in them. And many of these sort of greatest hits of the Bible selected for children were canonical. They'd be the same from edition to edition or version to version.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (28:45):

So do you think that you can do things with novels that maybe other writing on climate change can't accomplish?

Lydia Millet (28:53):

For sure. I also think other types of writing can do things that fiction can't accomplish, but I guess that's more obvious to your average reader. Because you can't, in a novel, effectively deliver journalism on the climate crisis or the science of it. Although there are some who try, like Kim Stanley Robinson's science fiction, his new book about the climate is very much a sort of form of journalism conducted around speculation on the future, because it's very analytical and descriptive and rational. But no matter how much information we have, information doesn't always sway our affect or sort of insight our passion, and it's really story that does that, and story in kind of all forms.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (29:45):

I read this book in my book club for the first time. There were 12 women, and we had such a great conversation about it. Because it made us all feel really guilty. And I mean, I think, I'm sure you hear that from people who have read this. But you don't usually read a story in the newspaper about climate change, and you might think, oh, I really should do something. But we all felt, wow, we're really letting down this next generation, what can we do about it?

Lydia Millet (30:15):

That's great in a way, although I'm just gratified that this book evoked feeling of any kind, of course, it was not intended as a guilt trip, exactly, because I think that guilt can be really flattening. We're not necessarily inspired by guilt. But also, just, I think, sometimes to feel the weight of something, to feel the grief of it, and almost the fear. I actually am a believer in fear. I know some climate activists, climate scientists and stuff who are sort of visible and public figures, they're sort of opposed to fear as a tactic in rabble-rousing or rallying people or trying to create social change, massive structural change around the future. But I believe in fear. I think hope and fear are both needed in this. I guess, if some twinges of guilt are coupled with fear, then maybe they can be productive, because fear is rational in this circumstance, where life support is at stake.

Shannon Henry Kleiber (31:23):

Yeah. It's a feeling and it's waking up in some ways, and it's not pretending like it's not happening.

Lydia Millet (31:29):

Right, right. It's okay to feel fear. We need to fear in order to not be burned on the stove. So, yeah, fear can be just as righteous as rage can be.

Anne Strainchamps (31:40):

That was Lydia Millet author of A Children's Bible, and Shannon Henry Kleiber was talking with her.

Anne Strainchamps (32:03):

Coming up, why does imagining the end of the world matter? Maybe so we can stave it off. We'll have more eco apocalyptic fiction next on To the Best of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (32:23):

For a certain kind of novelist, there's nothing like imagining the end of the world. There are just so many options. Steve Paulson is a fan of Lidia Yuknavitch's description in her novel, The Book of Joan. It's a contemporary version of Joan of Arc set in the smoking ruins of an environmental apocalypse.

Steve Paulson (32:41):

Okay. So you have re-envisioned Joan of Arc, and you've set her into this near future world. Who is the Joan in your story?

Lidia Yuknavitch (32:53):

Well, you may have noticed I took God out, it's a minor character in the historical drama. When I did that, it wasn't for any kind of irreverent reason or anti-religion reason. I just rerouted the idea that she heard voices or that she heard the voice of God as a kind of more the voice of the planet and the voice of the cosmos, in a Carl Sagan kind of way. And in that way, the wonder and the bigger than you and creator kind of themes, I could retain them, but just kind of reroute them through what we know about science and the natural world.

Steve Paulson (33:38):

So in your story, there's a big battle, kind of the last war on earth between Joan and her nemesis, this cult leader named Jean de Man. And it happens as life on the planet is crumbling. And you have a passage that describes some of this. Could you read that?

Lidia Yuknavitch (33:55):

Sure. I remember what and where her first action was, thousands of improvised explosive devices covering the tar sands in Alberta like malignant cancer cells invading a body. And I remember the last battle of the wars, her epic face off with Jean de Man. In the face of a final battles at the Alberta Tar Sands, she dropped to the dirt and rested their face down, arms and legs spread. An army of resistance soldiers creating a sea of human protection around her, for days.

Lidia Yuknavitch (34:49):

First, a series of violent solar storms occurred one to top the other, and for awhile, everyone thought, my God, a natural disaster beyond imagination. And the skies wore clouds and colors we'd never seen me for. And then the world supervolcanoes, the enormous calderas at Yellowstone and Long Valley and Valles and North Sumatra's Lake Toba. Taupo and Aira in Japan erupted in chorus, almost as if by cosmic design. Tsunamis and hurricanes and typhoons followed as if in accompaniment. Ice caps speed melted. The waters rose, not gradually as they had been swallowing up coasts and islands worldwide, but in a matter of weeks.

Lidia Yuknavitch (35:40):

In America, New York, and the upper and lower East Coast, Florida gone, San Francisco and most of California drowned and sank Atlantis-like. Geo catastrophe, the Sun's eye smoked, organic processes like photosynthesis and ecosystems dead. The relation between Earth and its inhabitants, dead. War, dead. Earth reduced to a dirt clod floating in space. The atrocity of speed and destruction. The magnitude of those days, still makes me hold my breath.

Steve Paulson (36:24):

What was it like for you to imagine this level of destruction and death?

Lidia Yuknavitch (36:30):

Well, it was not jolly. I don't find those images and those narrative lines to be unimaginable. We're halfway, if not more, there. And so what a novelist can do, if we're of any use to anybody, it's that we can enter the facts of our present tense and wade the waters of imagination to see what else is in there. I mean, we can go places that are too scary to go in regular life, and we can ask, "Well, okay, we see that the ice caps are melting. It is true. It is scientifically fact, but where do we take our imaginations from there?"

Lidia Yuknavitch (37:18):

And so a novel can hold the horrible, you know?

Steve Paulson (37:22):

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Lidia Yuknavitch (37:22):

In this space where the reader can enter, but you can still eat dinner and love your family afterward. And I think that's one of the powerful things about novels is that it can suspend the unimaginable and play it out without killing anyone.

Anne Strainchamps (37:50):

Lidia Yuknavitch, with a scene from her novel, The Book of Joan. You know the line from the Robert Frost poem, "Some say the world will end in fire, some in ice." Frost, of course, wasn't writing about climate change, but British journalist, John Lanchester's recent novel The Wall paints a decidedly chilly picture of climate catastrophe. It begins in the future when rising sea levels and an immigration crisis, pit children against parents. Steve Paulson loved it.

John Lanchester (38:32):

It's cold on the wall. That's the first thing everybody tells you. And the first thing you notice when you're sent there. And it's the thing you think about all the time you're on it. And it's the thing you remember when you're not there anymore. It's cold on the wall. You look for metaphors. It's cold as slate, as diamond, as the moon, cold as charity, that's a good one. But you soon realize that the thing about the cold is that it isn't a metaphor. It isn't like anything else. It's nothing but a physical fact, this kind of coal anyway, cold is cold is cold.

Steve Paulson (39:18):

Okay. You have set us up in this dystopian, kind of scary world. Tell me about this wall in your story. Where is it? And why was it built?

John Lanchester (39:28):

The novel's set in world after catastrophic climate change, by which I mean something in the range of four degrees Celsius, eight to nine degrees Fahrenheit., you can go online and look up maps of that. And it's a terrifying place. It's a world where human reality is almost unimaginably altered, large parts of the planet that we currently live on an uninhabitable. And that's the premise of the book. The world's had this catastrophic climate change, and it sat an island in the north Atlantic. You may well think it has lots in common with present day Britain.

John Lanchester (39:59):

And this island has a wall all the way around its coast, 6,000 miles, 10,000 kilometers of coast with a 15 foot high concrete wall. That's there for two reasons, it's to keep the higher sea levels out, and it's to keep outsiders out. It's to keep people from fleeing, the millions of people who are desperately fleeing the now uninhabitable parts of the Earth, and it's to stop them getting over the wall into this, in relative terms, safer place. And every citizen of this country has to spend two years standing guard on the wall to keep the people they call the others, which is basically everyone else in the world, to keep the others out. It's a two year obligatory form of national service. And as the book starts, the protagonist and the writer, Joseph Kavanagh, is beginning day one of his two year tour on the wall.

Steve Paulson (40:47):

It's a miserable job to have to stand on the wall for two years.

John Lanchester (40:52):

It is. The daily reality is quite oppressive and nothing much happens. And you spend 12 hours at a time just standing guard there. And at the same time, if anything does happen, you're in immediate mortal peril. So the way I imagined it was very like people report military services. It's this mixture of long stretches of nothing much happening with occasional terrifying bursts of life-threatening action.

Steve Paulson (41:17):

So who's trying to, to get over the wall. I mean, obviously people who are fleeing their native countries, but they're just desperately looking for some piece of safety?

John Lanchester (41:27):

Yeah. Mainly, because large parts of our planet don't really sustain human life anymore. We don't appreciate, we don't fully understand it, but New York, Madrid, and Beijing are all on the same latitude. And those latitudes are the ones that will no longer be able to sustain people in a significantly warmer world. So you-

Steve Paulson (41:45):

I mean, let me just pause for a moment there. You're saying that all of New York, or just downtown New York, is basically going to become uninhabitable without some serious major wall.

John Lanchester (41:55):

No, no. I'm talking about catastrophic climate change, several degrees centigrade of climate change, because you have, there's a bunch of factors, it's rising sea levels, increased levels of drought, increased levels of flooding, but the really big one is massive crop failures, that you have, effectively, things not being able to grow in what are, by current standards, Saharan temperatures.

Steve Paulson (42:17):

One of the points you're making is that climate change is connected to a lot of other issues. There will be climate refugees, people forced to leave their native countries, because of droughts, because of political conflict caused by environmental destruction. It's part of all the debates over immigration, over borders. This is not just about rising sea levels or rising temperatures.

John Lanchester (42:41):

No, it's not. It's about the way that that feeds through into all sorts of complicated and interconnected other realities, some of which we don't really yet know about. It's an effort of the imagination to try and unpick or unravel the consequences, because let's face it, this is a world we're not living through, and we don't really fully understand what that would be like.

Steve Paulson (43:02):

I heard that the original idea for the story came to you in a recurring dream. Is that true?

John Lanchester (43:09):

It is. Yeah. I was writing another novel, different novel, and I started having this, it's like an image in a dream recurring thing about somebody standing guard on the wall, in the dark and the cold, on their own, at night with the water on the other side. And that was the germ of the book for me. And sometimes in between when you're falling asleep, you can sort of will yourself back into the same place in a story. I kept going back to it, and then was wondering, well, who is that? What's happening? And then realized that actually the real question was, what's the world he's living in? And realized, oh, actually that's an image about climate change.

John Lanchester (43:46):

And I was then thinking about, oh, okay, well, what's happened to the world? What's gone on? What's it like living in that altered world? And really answering that question, in a sense, unraveled or unpacked itself into the book. It was this sort of image that turns into a person that turned into a world, and then into a story that sort of leads him and leads the reader through the world. It's a very unusual process for me. I've never written anything else like that.

Steve Paulson (44:12):

And one of the subjects that you tackle in your book is, how angry young people are at their parents' generation, basically, who did nothing to prevent climate change. I mean, they just stood by watched it happen. And you have a passage where you get at this, could you read that?

John Lanchester (44:28):

Absolutely. This is when Joseph Kavanagh, my narrator and protagonist, they do two week tours of duty in the book, two weeks on, two weeks off, which incidentally I borrowed from a veteran of the First World War. I heard talk about what it was like being in the trenches. So they have two weeks off, and this is the end of his first two weeks off. And he's gone back to visit his parents.

John Lanchester (44:50):

None of us can talk to our parents. By us, I mean, my generation, people born after the change. You know that thing where you break up with someone and you say, "It's not, you it's me." This is the opposite. It's not us, it's them. Everyone knows what the problem is. The diagnosis isn't hard. The diagnosis isn't even controversial. It's guilt, mass guilt, generational guilt, the olds feel they irretrievably screwed up the world, then allowed us to be born into it.

John Lanchester (45:25):

You know what? It's true. That's exactly what they did. They know it. We know it. Everybody knows it. To make things worse, the olds didn't do time on the wall, because there was no wall, because there'd been no change, so the wall wasn't needed. This means the single most important and formative experience in the lives of my generation, the big thing we all have in common, is something about which they have exactly no clue. The life advice, the knowing better, the back in our day wisdom, which according to books and films was a big part of the whole deal between parents and children, just doesn't work. Wants to put me straight about what I'm doing wrong in my life, grandad. No, thanks.

Steve Paulson (46:18):

It's so sobering for me to read that passage, because I fit squarely in that generation of the olds, as I'm guessing you do. I think we're around the same age. So I have to ask, I mean, do you feel any personal responsibility for global warming?

John Lanchester (46:35):

I feel, if we don't act, I think from where we are now, I think we're at a tipping point really. Because I think, all reasonable people can regard the science as settled. The lesson from the science is pretty clear. It's that it's not too late. It's that we can act now. Kavanagh chooses to very, very directly and personally blame his parents. And I think that's perfectly likely to be a thing that happens, especially in some of the accelerated versions of climate change in which it happens within a couple of generations or one generation. I think that could well happen.

John Lanchester (47:10):

But I want you to read it to feel that it's more complicated than that. And everything Kavanagh says is true, in that he's telling the truth about his perspective, his feelings, how he sees the world. That's not quite the same thing as being fair. And I did want to leave the reader with a sense of, okay, fair enough. That's how you see it. But his poor old parents sitting there in the suburbs on their sofa, watching the TV, I mean, are they really responsible for everything about the state of the world.

Steve Paulson (47:36):

My sense is that up, until very recently, maybe even just the last few years, novelists have pretty much stayed away from writing about climate change. I mean, yes, there were always the apocalyptic stories, especially kind of in the scifi genre, but mostly I think it just felt too big or maybe kind of boring to write about. And as you say, it's overwhelming, if you actually sort of stare climate change in the face. Did this pose any particular challenges to you? And it's worth pointing out, also, that you are a lot of non-fiction. I'm interested in your choice of pursuing this in a novel.

John Lanchester (48:12):

Yeah, I agree with everything you said. The thing about too big, too overwhelming. This is the thing La Rochefoucauld, the French aphoristic, said that, "Death, like the sun, cannot be contemplated directly." You can't look straight at it. And I think, climate change is like that too. It can leave you feeling despair. It can leave you feeling there's nothing to be done. And I was trying to figure out, why this dream came? And why the dream turned into a book? And actually in a funny way, I think it's exactly because it's too difficult to think about. It sort of forced its way through my unconscious, instead.

Steve Paulson (48:46):

I'd love to end with one last reading, and I'm actually thinking, the very last paragraph in the book. Could you read that for us?

John Lanchester (48:55):

Absolutely. "Tell me a story," said [Hefa 00:49:05]. I tried to think of one. "Everything's going to be all right." I said. That's what a story is, something where everything turns out all right. But I said that and I could see it wasn't what she wanted to hear. That's another thing a story is, something somebody wants to hear. But my mind was blank, and all I could think was, she wants me to tell her a story, a story where something turns out all right. "That's what a story is, something that turns out all right."

John Lanchester (49:45):

I said this to myself over and over again. "That's what a story is, something that turns out all right." "That's what a story is, something that turns out all right." And then it came to me. And what I said out loud began like this, it's cold on the wall.

Steve Paulson (50:11):

Great ending.

John Lanchester (50:14):

Thank you.

Steve Paulson (50:15):

Thank you. This was a pleasure.

John Lanchester (50:16):

Thank you very much, Steve.

Anne Strainchamps (50:17):

That was John Lanchester author of The Wall.

And that's it for today, To the Best of Our Knowledge is produced at Wisconsin Public Radio by Shannon Henry Kleiber, Charles Monroe Kane, Mark Riechers, and Angelo Bautista. Joe Hardtke is our technical director and sound designer. Steve Paulson is our executive producer. And I man Anne Strainchamps. And if you would like to hear more from our producers, subscribe to our newsletter at ttbook.org/newsletter. Thanks for listening.

Last modified: 
November 10, 2023