After seeing a few people recommend it at year-end, I read The Uninhabitable Earth this weekend. Beyond wanting to learn about the things I didn’t know about carbon emissions and the feedback loop, I was seeking a better way to understand the state of the world we’re in today, and what we can still do about it. (Hint: beyond just acting now, because every day or year that goes by it becomes a bigger problem for us to solve, it’s to elect better politicians and to build more-efficient carbon capture plants and nuclear power plants and move us off of fossil fuels).
One can barely put the book down, because besides feeling a bit of panic as you read it, you think, “why isn’t this constantly in the back of everyone’s minds all the time?” Is it that I’m thinking more about it because of Baby and because I wonder what world we’re leaving for him between now and the 2100s? Is it because there isn’t a clear thing one single individual can do or even know what to do? I’m reminded of a Simpsons episode, where Homer and Marge are having an argument about something which he can clearly solve, but he just asks “What can I do? I’m only one man.”
Above all, one particular part stood out to me most: why is it so hard to tell the story of climate change?
Others call it “cli-fi”: genre fiction sounding environmental alarm, didactic adventure stories, often preachy in their politics. Ghosh has something else in mind: the great climate novel. “Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ or ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ ” he writes. “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’ ”
His answer: Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in conventional novels, which tend to end with uplift and hope and to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the miasma of social fate. This is a narrow definition of the novel, but almost everything about our broader narrative culture suggests that climate change is a major mismatch of a subject for all the tools we have at hand. Ghosh’s question applies even to comic-book movies that might theoretically illustrate global warming: Who would the heroes be? And what would they be doing? The puzzle probably helps explain why so many pop entertainments that do try to tackle climate change, from The Day After Tomorrow on, are so corny and pedantic: collective action is, dramatically, a snore.
The problem is even more acute in gaming, which is poised to join or even supplant novels and movies and television, and which is built, as a narrative genre, even more obsessively around the imperatives of the protagonist—i.e., you. It also promises at least a simulation of agency. That could grow more comforting in the coming years, assuming we continue to proceed, zombie-like ourselves, down a path to ruin. Already, the world’s most popular game, Fortnite, invites players into a competition for scarce resources during an extreme weather event—as though you yourself might conquer and totally resolve the issue.
As Harari wrote, telling stories and believing in myths are what gave us a lot of the social constructs we have now. It is one of the things that not only separated us from the animals, but also brought us closer together as humans and achieved large-scale human cooperation – from tribes to farming to churches to cities. Sure, we have disaster movies, and books like The Uninhabitable Earth and leaders like Al Gore making it easier for all to understand. But all of those just seem…so far away…there’s always bad stuff going on in the world, and there always has been. Not only do they seem like, “What can I do? I’m only one man”, but there’s no way to wrap the story around one’s head. There are no heroes, there are no clear villains, there is no “we will randomly discover some pathogens that will destroy the attacking Martians immediately”.
Telling this story requires a different way to tell a story – beyond just your usual structures like the hero’s journey. As Wallace-Wells writes, we need an alternative: many problems we face now aren’t just one person’s problems where they go out into the world, selfishly solve it for themselves and come back home victorious. Most big problems are hard to define and hard to tell stories about. Global climate change, in particular, is known as a super wicked problem. We just may need some super wicked stories.