by Rebecca Valley
In 2017, the U.S. spent more than ever before on natural disaster relief — an astonishing $306 billion. In September and October, as I sat through the first few weeks of my graduate writing program in a peaceful (though unseasonably warm) Massachusetts, three record-breaking hurricanes ravaged the Caribbean and Gulf Coast.
Now, wildfires and mudslides sweep California. The Eastern seaboard has frozen over, with windchill temperatures at -20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower for weeks on end. Our Earth is not the same as it used to be — it is not as stable, or as certain. And so, this week we bring you books that look directly at the heart of our complicated, unstable Earth. These books span genres, but are connected in their critique of our current social and political systems, and in the way they urge us to change how we interact with and understand our environment.
They are the books we need right now; books which refuse to look away.
In Seasons, Lebanese-American poet Etel Adnan questions a capitalist model of forward motion and instead considers a seasonal consciousness — one which builds and repeats. Striking in its juxtaposition of both natural and human violence with moments of peace, Adnan’s book moves slowly, but urgently, toward a stormy future, while her human characters look the other way.
Amitav Ghosh is an Indian writer best known for his novels, but in The Great Derangement he tackles the question of art and climate change — specifically, he wonders why fiction as a genre poses such a challenge for those trying to represent the realities of the natural world. This is a stunning and well-researched book of literary criticism that questions the novel, and seeks new forms and methods of story-telling that better reflect the almost-surreal chaos of our contemporary climate.
A more in-depth review of Susanna Antoinetta’s generational, landscape-driven memoir will come in a few weeks in our spring issue. For now, I’ll say that this book grapples with pollution — particularly the polluted environments of the rural poor — and how exposure to industrial toxins can have lasting effects on our bodies, our minds, and the bodies and minds of future generations.
Though I haven’t yet sunk my teeth into Maja Lunde’s History of Bees, it’s been compared to a favorite, often-mentioned novel — Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Beginning with a story from 1852 and ending with China in 2098, History of Bees explores three connected stories about beekeepers, and how our relationships to the world and each other shift as bees begin to disappear.
We reviewed Joan Naviyuk Kane’s Hyperboreal in our first special edition, and I couldn’t be more pleased to recommend her latest book, Milk Black Carbon. Kane’s work is driven in by her Inupiaq heritage, and in her roots in the abandoned King Island and Mary’s Igloo, AK. Her work is lyrical, contemporary, and reflects the lost world of a warming Arctic. It is a highly personal, and as such highly political, account of how climate change has and will continue to impact our lives.
I love mortician and alternative death care advocate Caitlin Doughty. She is funny, honest, and deeply concerned with death. Her latest book explores death rituals around the world, and questions westernized rituals around death that separate dead bodies from their loved ones, contaminate the environment, and alienate us from our own mortality. Doughty pushes for greener death practices, and reminds us that we have the power to change our own preconceived notions about death, and in that way, about how we live our lives.
For more information on climate fiction and climate change activism, see the links below:
- Imagining the Anthropocene, a blog about poetry and climate change from Ploughshares
- 350.org , an organization focused on climate change activism, run by scientist and scholar Bill McKibben
- Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a collection of accessible climate change data, with affiliated links to other resources and media