Jenny Offill started thinking about what would become her novel Weather more than seven years ago. But she resisted the idea – a book about someone who wakes up to realize how disastrously and quickly the climate emergency is progressing – because she worried it would not appeal. “I was like, oh my God, who wants to read this novel about somebody slowly becoming a climate-change doomer?” she told me during a Vancouver Writers Fest interview this week. “But books sort of have their way of getting in your head one way or the other. So that was my starting point, in a way – wondering why I wasn’t more interested in ... the great existential crisis of our time, maybe of all time.”
While some people are keeping their heads firmly in the sand on this terrifying issue, Canada’s literary festivals are taking it on. The climate crisis has caught the attention of not only authors of doomsday texts thick with factual information and panic, but also novelists and writers of accessible non-fiction meant for the general population – and the literary festivals that feature them.
The Toronto International Festival of Authors, now under way, has curated a critical conversation series, with a nightly discussion involving authors, journalists and other experts. Among other issues, the series is taking on Black Lives Matter, Indigenous Rights, the pandemic and climate change.
“This time last year, the environment emergency was what people were protesting about,” TIFA director Roland Gulliver says. “It feels like it’s been put off [because of COVID-19]. But we have a sense there’s going to be a lot of leftover plastic from this pandemic.”
The featured author in that TIFA session is Seth Klein, who presents a compelling thesis in his very readable debut book A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency. In the book, Klein lays out his argument that the government needs to confront the climate crisis with a wartime approach, taking lessons from Canada’s actions and the mobilization of the population during the Second World War.
“What is clear … is that politics as usual won’t cut it, and the status quo is a recipe for disaster. The incrementalism of the last 30 years will see us burn,” writes Klein, who will also appear at a Vancouver Writers Fest event on Sunday (moderated by me, I should add). That event will also feature Shaena Lambert discussing her novel Petra – a fictionalized account of the German Green Party’s co-founder Petra Kelly – and French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, whose stunning Adrift: How Our World Lost Its Way traces modern events that have resulted in severe geopolitical breakdown, leaving the world “utterly incapable of marshalling the solidarity necessary to deal with a threat of this magnitude" – the climate emergency.
Klein, founding British Columbia director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a non-partisan but progressive (you could say left-leaning) public-policy think tank, does not set out in his book to prove that we are in a climate crisis; that is taken as a given. He lays out his argument in the book for this wartime approach, which will involve every one of us, including politicians, economists, the media and artists.
“There’s a role for the arts in all of this, because as I have increasingly appreciated – and this is hard for me as someone who spent two decades as a policy guy – what we remember are stories that touch our heart and connect with us on values. That’s what motivates us,” Klein, who lives in Vancouver, said in a telephone interview this week.
Klein, who remains a research associate with CCPA, notes in the book that much of the climate-related art and literature produced to date has offered terrifying and apocalyptic visions of what the world will be after we fail to act. And he writes that we need more than that. “We need art that expands our political imagination.”
It reminded me of something U.S. novelist Jonathan Safran Foer said during a Jewish Book Festival/Jewish Community Centre Literary Consortium online talk this week: that when it comes to communicating about climate change, facts are necessary, but not sufficient. “As essential as information is, it doesn’t move most people to do the right thing,” he said about his non-fiction book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast.
Offill, who lives in upstate New York, has long been cognizant of climate change intellectually, but when she began to read deeply into the issue, she woke up to the speed and scale of the disaster. “Somehow, and I think this can be kind of common, it never hit me emotionally,” she said. And so she began to explore the idea through fiction.
Weather, told in Offill’s signature packed, poetic and precise fragments, unfolds through the ruminations and experiences of Lizzie, a university librarian, mother and wife, whose brother is struggling with a drug addiction. Underneath it all and woven throughout Lizzie’s day-to-day experience is her thrumming anxiety about the climate emergency.
“Something in the distance, limping toward the trees,” she thinks, looking out the bus window on her commute home from work, listening to a podcast about climate change. Throughout the book, Lizzie wonders how to prepare for the approaching emergency. How to channel her dread into action. This anxiety swirls along with the contemporary political landscape. She reads fascism historian Timothy Snyder’s book On Tyranny.
In A Good War, Klein makes it clear that climate change is a very real and present danger; there is no sugar-coating the issue with phony platitudes.
“If we fail to act quickly, then over the course of the rest of this century, things start to get horrific – a world that is unlivable and catastrophic for many, deeply disruptive for all others and quite possibly ungovernable,” Klein writes.
He applies what he calls “responsible truth-telling” (a term he borrows from his successor running CCPA’s B.C. operation, Shannon Daub). “Effectively our leaders are saying to us, you don’t need to make any hard choices – and that’s not true. We need them to tell the truth. But on the other hand,” he continues, “there are certain climate communicators out there you listen to, and all you want to do at the end is slit your wrists. And so it’s a delicate balance of being forthright and not Pollyanna, but also offering hope.”
He writes that a question he most dreads being asked at public talks is where he finds hope. He has a hard time with that, knowing what he knows – what we should all know. And yet he says writing this book has given him hope. The technology and policies to make the needed changes exist. “And the story of the war woven through this book is a helpful reminder that we can do this, because we have done it.”
He is able to address COVID-19 in the book’s epilogue, where he notes the many similarities between Canada’s wartime experience and its handling of the pandemic.
On the issue of climate change, there’s a specific Second World War-related question Klein asks of his readers, a theme that also appears in Offill’s novel. Transport yourself back to that horrific time in Europe and ask, as Offill’s Lizzie does, reading Snyder’s On Tyranny: “How can I tell if those around me would become good Germans?” In other words, people who will help – not turn away, not collaborate – in a disaster. Or as Klein asks readers to consider in his book: “What would I have done, if I had lived then and there?”
There’s another wartime analogy in Offill’s novel that chilled me. She asks her war-correspondent friend – a French Canadian, incidentally – whether it feels like the United States, under Donald Trump, is a country at peace or at war.
“He says it feels the way it does just before it starts,” she writes. That last “it" is loaded – war, oppression, tyranny, the dismantling of life as we know it. “Even while everybody’s convincing themselves it’s going to be okay, it’s there in the air somehow.”
When I asked her if that’s how things feel in America these days, she answered, “absolutely.”
Seth Klein will appear at The Interviews at the Vancouver Writers Fest on Oct. 25 and Critical Conversations: Environmental Emergency at the Toronto International Festival of Authors on Oct. 27.
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