The writer’s role in climate emergency
It’s all too easy to feel impotent when it comes to saving the planet. We can recycle, take the bike to work, have our meat-free Mondays – and even go on a march. As writers we can use biodegradable pens, recycled paper and search engines that put their profits towards planting trees. But deep down, we fear our individual efforts are a drop in the plastic-choked, over-fished, polluted ocean.
But I’m here to try to inject a little optimism. Because individual writers, and artists of any kind, can do something huge. They can change the way we think. The arts make us empathic to the plight of others and they can make us change what we do, every day.
As writers, we take note of the world and we hold up a mirror to it. So we can’t ignore the threat to our world that comes from the known climate emergency.
How can we bring this into our writing, whatever form we choose?
A good start is to take a note of how the very best writers have already written about the environment. Start with your favourite novelists: try the ever-prescient Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake trilogy, 2003 – 13), or Barbara Kingsolver (Flight Behaviour, 2012) or Michael Crichton (State of Fear, 2004). If you want to know how early writers spotted the looming danger to the planet, read Jules Verne’s The Purchase of the North Pole from 1889.
There are many, many more excellent examples of writers from the 1960s to the present day, imagining and re-imagining the effects of human behaviour on the earth. Here, journalist Dan Bloom, who is credited with coining the term “cli fi”, explains why fiction can often reach people in a way that factual writing cannot:
“They use heart to write stories about these issues, not brain. They create characters the reader will care about and perhaps even identify with. Novels are about empathy. Scientific and political discussions in the media are never about empathy.”
Perhaps there’s a good reason why it’s young people who’re leading the calls for action on climate change. Just maybe, it’s because it’s been a theme for children’s writers for some years now. How many of us grew up with Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972)? To see how you can get a message about the environment across and still keep the story engaging, try Sarah Crossan’s Breathe (2012). If you’re a YA fantasy writer this US-based competition is well worth a look (closing date December 2019): https://www.davidhartenwatson.com/cli-fi-anthology-call-for-submissio
Screenplay writers can be expected to deal with current concerns. See what you can learn from The Day After Tomorrow (2004) or Avatar (2009). And there are some award-winning documentaries too, such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
Arguably, any artistic response to the environment is a statement, of sorts, on conservation. Never feel that you have nothing new to say. Just because a subject is huge, don’t be afraid to consider it as a theme in your work. One day, it could speak to someone and change how they live.
And if you’ve produced some writing on the environment, do consider submitting it to the new OCA creative writing magazine vOCAb, which is planning a themed issue on the subject in the near future.