Why We Need More Climate Change Love Stories
Reading about romance and relationships in speculative fiction about scary futures reminds us that a better world is always worth fighting for
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We’re relaunching the Outside Book Club this week, and to celebrate we’re publishing a series on how the booming genre of climate fiction is helping us see our changing planet in a new light. You can learn more about the book club here, or join us on Facebook to discuss our October pick, Bewilderment, a new work of climate fiction by Richard Powers.
Midway through Sally Rooney’s zeitgeisty new novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, one protagonist emails another about the “problem of contemporary life.” The reality, she writes, is that “when we should have been reorganizing the distribution of the world’s resources and transitioning collectively to a sustainable economic model, we were worrying about sex and friendship instead.” Her summation suggests that our private and public worlds are in opposition. On the one hand, romance. On the other, ecological catastrophe. This shame feels all too familiar, but it is a feeling I have come to mistrust. Love isn’t a distraction from climate emergency—on the contrary, its existence is critical for helping us cope. Climate fiction can help us learn how.
Rooney’s novel is perhaps not technically “cli-fi,” in that the plot does not center on environmental concerns in a climate-shaped world. But it joins other contemporary novels—Imbolo Mbue’s How Beautiful We Were, Jenny Offill’s Weather, María Amparo Escandón’s L.A. Weather—in considering how environmental crises strain day-to-day relationships. Reviewing Rooney’s novel for the magazine Jacobin, Amelia Ayrelan Iuvino asserts that though it isn’t fiction’s job to provide political solutions, we can still be mobilized by the existential despair of Rooney’s characters. Iuvino writes that our task is to resist their angst, “to continue loving and caring and being wrapped up in what may seem quotidian, without allowing our knowledge of the exploitation and suffering our daily life rests on to fade into the background.” Fiction, in other words, can help us visualize how to better love during crisis. And when that fiction unfolds in speculative futures, it’s the love stories that make our bodies feel like we are there and, in the process, motivate us to fight for a better world back home.
In early 2017, I taught a multigenre creative writing seminar called “Writing in the Age of Climate Change” at the University of Minnesota. My students had come primarily for dystopia and utopia, craving fiction that rocketed them out of their own lives. At the same time, they were attracted to plot elements that resonated with their concerns as 21-year-olds—story lines, very often, about love. Whether in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow or Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, protagonists fought not only to find their way in an apocalyptic world but also to navigate lust, loneliness, and everything in between once there.
The piece I think of most often from the semester is Carmen Maria Machado’s short story “Inventory,” from Her Body and Other Parties. The story was not immediately relevant to the course. It is a list of paragraphs cataloging every person the fictional narrator has had a sexual encounter with, beginning when she is a teenager. “One girl…Her parents were upstairs; we told them we were watching Jurassic Park,” Machado writes in the first paragraph. A few sentences later, “I still have never seen Jurassic Park. I suppose I never will.” Only on a second read do we understand the line doesn’t refer to the protagonist’s taste in movies but to the dawn of an apocalypse.
Machado’s character crystallizes through the accumulation of these anecdotes. She reveals herself to be a person who “anxiously [makes] so many lists” (“trees that began with M…states that I had lived in”) to wrangle a chaotic world. In the sixth paragraph, a virus appears. This was one reason I taught the story in this course: because environmental destruction causes pandemics. The narrator and a lover first hear about the virus on a 24-hour diner TV; when she loses her job because “no one wanted quirky photography tips during an epidemic,” another lover buys her dinner. Soon family members begin dying. The narrator goes into quarantine. The National Guard comes, as do refugees. The reader learns these details only when they become relevant to the narrator’s sex life.
Reading the story amid COVID-19, Machado’s description of an even-worse pandemic felt horribly uncanny, but so did the persistence of desire and heartache, which creep through the dystopia like a vine. “We married,” the narrator notes. “I’m still not sure if I was with her because I wanted to be or because I was afraid of what the world was catching all around us.” Her personal and public landscapes are not discrete. One oozes into the other, toppling dominoes of plot. My students loved the story, awed by its insistence on centering romance amid horror. The reader is tugged along not just by the question “Will the narrator survive?” but also “Will she ever have a crush again?” In Machado’s deft hand, the stakes feel nearly equivalent.
I now crave speculative love stories that go one step further; that open my eyes not just to what I can lose, but what can be kindled in the world to come.
In the years since that semester’s class, my climate anxiety has spiked, but so has my sense of how to cope. One of the best resources I have found is GenDread, a newsletter by Dr. Britt Wray, a fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who investigates the disproportionate ways the climate crisis affects young people’s mental states and offers ideas for strengthening emotional resilience. In a recent post, Wray cited psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton’s idea of the “prospective survivor.” “While a survivor is someone who has touched death but made it out alive,” Wray writes, “a prospective survivor is someone who vividly imagines how they might perish and gets shaken to the core by its haunting [e]ffect.” Crucially, a prospective survivor does not surrender to a doomsday future. She does not subscribe to what climate justice writer Mary Annaïse-Hegler calls the “deluded belief that this world has ever been perfect and that, therefore, an imperfect version of it is not worth saving, or fighting for.” A prospective survivor lets herself catastrophize and then kicks herself into action. Because she has imagined what she can lose, she knows what she is working to save.
Reading Machado’s “Inventory” made me feel like a prospective survivor, imagining what I would do for love at the end of the known world. It also made me want to fight for habitat protection, not only to prevent zoonotic plagues from causing mass death, but because I had seen how Machado’s story ended. I had imagined myself as the narrator, friends and family dead, alone after having fled to an island where “sand…blow[s] into my mouth, my hair,” nostalgic for the “floral, chemical smell” of fabric softener once used by a boyfriend’s mother. Finishing the story, I thought: I never want to be that lonely.
It is all too easy to see a future of global warming as a future defined by loss. And while I agree with Lifton and Wray that it’s useful to sit in that grief, I now crave speculative love stories that go one step further; that open my eyes not just to what I can lose, but what can be kindled in the world to come. Potowatami biologist and bestselling author Robin Wall-Kimmerer has argued that the pandemic phrase “sheltering in place” is more fruitful than “lockdown” because it suggests “we might have come to pay attention to the things that we have, rather than the things we don’t have,” shifting our gaze away from human stimuli and toward that of gardens and woods. Like COVID-19, human-caused environmental devastation has already narrowed our world, but rather than succumb to the inevitability of future loss, we should seize this chance to marvel at what is still here on earth for us to love and to imagine all that we can still help cultivate in the decades to come, from gardens to new political paradigms to—yes—romances. “It’s the very reason I root for us to survive,” writes Rooney’s character in the email, “because we are so stupid about each other.”
I want to read climate fiction about what happens when we own these feelings. As a teenager, I clung to long-shot rom-coms because I needed to believe I would fall in love. One afternoon on the back of a school bus, I sat next to my friend, her headphone splitter beaming Destiny’s Child to both our ears. She asked me, in the bored quiet, who I had a crush on. I dunno. We were out of snacks, our thighs clammy against the plastic seats. A second later, she leaned in. Pretend the world was ending. I felt a tingle of possibility. Like we all have to pick someone? Her eyes flashed. Exactly. Suddenly the ennui of that field trip began to lift. Our future held more than boredom. That was the day I understood you could choose to kindle a crush. To light a candle that would probably go out, but would, for a time, create a glow in the dark hallway ahead. A crush is a fantasy, which means it relies on the projection of a brighter future. On hope. And what feeling is more pertinent to cultivate as we round the corner of whatever is to come?
Now, as I curl up to read on the sunken couch beside my partner, I want climate fiction that helps me imagine and fight for a world where love will persist: not just for me, but for the kids who live next door and, one day, for their kids too. I want happy endings, not because they provide unrealistic escapism, but as a reminder that the future is—in so, so many ways—still ours to help shape. In the New Yorker last year, science writer Michelle Nijhuis warned against using apocalyptic language in our contemporary day-to-day, because however tempting the fantasy of a clean break with our past might be, for so many of us, “there will be no fresh start.” Climate fiction that centers stories around love can help us project our personal lives into this changing public landscape. It can help us visualize ourselves as “prospective survivors” in a warming world that may not be apocalyptically foreign, but strangely—cruelly, annoyingly so—familiar. As Offill writes in Weather, “Do not believe that because you are a revolutionary you must feel sad.” Into the wildfires and hurricanes we will charge, motored by little engines of lust and heartache.