Despair in the Anthropocene: On climate fictions and our futures

Fiction can help us navigate and alter our threatened future.

Art by Khanh Tran.

CW: mentions of sexual violence.

Too much writing on the climate crisis could be reduced to the phrase ‘I’m sorry for your loss’: the sort of clinical, absurdly detached cliche inflicted upon the bereaved, as though ignoring their grief can extinguish it. 

We read IPCC reports in smoke-choked summers and watch global climate summits fail in too-warm winters. The physical immediacy of the crisis is now all too apparent, but less acknowledged is the social toll. Beyond the occasional mainstream media piece discussing the rise of climate anxiety, a permanent and prominent discussion of the emotional, cultural and psychological impacts of the crisis is not yet a mainstay of climate writing. Thankfully, this gap is slowly being filled by a proliferation of climate fiction, or cli-fi for short. 

Climate fiction has its origins in the Australian literary canon, with the late George Turner credited with producing the first work of the genre, The Sea and Summer (1987). Since then, cli-fi has exploded globally. American author Richard Powers has epitomised the rise of the genre, with the wild success of Pulitzer Prize winner The Overstory (2018) and Booker short-listed Bewilderment (2021).

Of course, much of this work is built on the contributions of First Nations culture, learnings, and writers. Waanyi writer and Miles Franklin winner Alexis Wright has made significant contributions to the genre, most recently in her dystopian novel The Swan Book (2013). Wright’s writing deals with both the specific impact of the climate crisis on the land Indigenous people have protected for thousands of years and the crisis’s disproportionate impact on marginalised groups. 

The fundamental paradox of climate fiction lies in individualised emotional experiences of climate devastation within a context of pervasive despair. As acclaimed Indian writer Amitav Ghosh notes in his critique of climate fiction The Great Derangement (2016), fiction is normally unequipped to deal with the sheer magnitude of the crisis. Good climate fiction solves this by focusing on particular, almost-autobiographical accounts of the climate change, representing the massive in a microcosm. 

Of particular interest to Sydney students is Madeleine Watt’s Miles Franklin shortlisted debut, The Inland Sea. The book’s unnamed narrator has taken up a job as an emergency dispatcher after completing her honours in English at Sydney University. As her personal life unravels, so too does the environment: the book is set in 2013, and builds to an accurate and devastating account of that summer’s bushfires through the eyes of Watt’s narrator. 

The genius of this book lies in its representation of the climate crisis as bleeding into the emotions and psychology of those living through it. Watts adopts an ecofeminist lens that blurs the boundaries between the sexual and ecological trauma the narrator undergoes. An example of this is the narrator’s mane of auburn hair being deployed as both a symbol of her femininity as well as an appendage on which the physical trauma of the climate crisis plays out. A chapter following a bushfire closes with the narrator smelling “the smoke in my hair” while the next opens with, following an experience of sexual violence, her hair floating in the bathtub “around my head, great chunks of it broken”. Hair being a site of both misogyny and ecological devastation purposefully connects the personal and the scientific. 

While I adore Watt’s work, perhaps a limitation lies in the distinctly American traditions it appropriates, from the melancholic summer novel premise, popularised by the likes of Sylvia Plath, to its distinctly American MFA feel. 

It raises another paradox of climate fiction: Given the dominance of hegemonic and colonial traditions within the canon, can novels properly render the localised, individual treatment of the climate crisis Ghosh calls for? 

Hopefully, yes: the genre as a whole has the invaluable potential to capture marginalised authors’ perspectives on the crisis. Wiradjuri author Tara June Winch’s The Yield (2019) won the Miles Franklin for its deft portrayal of the fight to save local land and its community from the development of a tin mine. The Yield explores the failures of Western language and culture to understand First Nations systems of knowledge. This is elucidated in the narrator’s mediation on the titular phrase:

“Yield in English is the reaping, the things that man can take from the land, the thing he’s waited for and gets to claim… [In Wiradjuri] it’s the things you give to, the movement, the space between things”

These works could have political potential in driving their readers into the environmental movement, and calling for substantive climate action. How might they do this? In his memoir Warmth (2021), American climate organiser Daniel Sherrell posits the notion of an “honest sorrow”, a righteous and indignant grief about the state of our planet, borne out of true engagement with despair. This sorrow, in Sherrell’s words, is the only thing that “makes a real fight even possible”.

If there is to be a future other than ecological devastation, people must experience and be fuelled by honest sorrow. This sorrow cannot be driven by statistics alone: it requires empathy for ourselves and others, a mourning for all that we have lost and stand to lose in the climate crisis. In other words, it requires stories from the Anthropocene. It appears we have an answer in climate fiction.