Literature and Climate — Part II

Glacier comparison at Svalbard, early 1900s and 2017, by Christian Åslund. Source: National Geographic

In the second of a two-part series to mark last week’s global climate strike and the U.N. Emergency Climate Summit in New York, K-State English department faculty and alumni explore literature’s engagement with the natural world. Through quotations and short, reflective essays we reflect on how literature can help us understand humanity’s historic relationship with the environment and the current climate emergency, perhaps even offering a roadmap to sustainable future — should we choose that path.



UNLESS someone like you

cares a whole awful lot,

nothing is going to get better.

It’s not.

— Dr. Seuss, The Lorax (1971), submitted by Phil Nel, University Distinguished Professor


Sh. Galbadrakh, “Davaan Deer” [“On the Mountain Pass”] (2016)
Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem is one of many contemporary Chinese novels set during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A fictionalized memoir, it tracks a group of Beijing college students who depart for Inner Mongolia to integrate themselves with Mongolian herders and learn something about pastoral life. The Beijing students become sympathetic towards Mongolian environmental philosophy — although Jiang Rong is idealizing and romanticizing these beliefs — and they learn about the delicate balance among the grasslands, wolves, antelopes, marmots, and herders and their horses and livestock. Wolf Totem has been a publishing phenomenon in China, inspiring a new “wolf” genre and marketing strategy, radio plays, children’s books, an international movie, and an award-winning English translation (Penguin Press, 2008, translated by Howard Goldblatt).

Phillip Marzluf, Associate Professor



If you find yourself overwhelmed by the emotional appeals of Climate Change discourse, one of the best strategies for coping is to dig into tangible examples of how humans’ interactions with the environment have consequences. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt from the UMN Press) is an anthology of just such examples presented by a range of scholars from different fields with different perspectives. The first thing you will notice when you pick up the book is that both covers are front covers. By orienting the book around two themes (Ghosts and Monsters, or echoes of places and creatures that have been altered by Climate Change), the editors present a multi-faceted approach to discussing the real, human interest in the global crisis we face. From essays about aboriginal relations to fruit bats to accounts of spelunkers deep inside the already melted-down Chernobyl reactors, this anthology has so much to tell about why we cannot turn away from the uncanny face of global Climate Change.

— Phillip Howells (MA ’18), Ph.D. Candidate, University of Nebraska, Lincoln



The remarkable book Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush recounts and reflects upon the way the warming world’s rising seas are already affecting Americans. Maybe you’ve read about the loss of Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, the fact that the familiar boot-shape of maps reflects “land” that is land no longer. Or you’ve seen the photo-essay from National Geographic (2016) about the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw tribe’s retreat from their homes on Isle de Jean Charles, climate refugees moving to the mainland following the loss of 98 percent of the island’s land to encroachment from the Gulf. Rush got to know some of the last individuals to leave the island, people still hanging on though the oaks the climbed as children are all drowned, though their houses have been raised and raised again on stilts, has been a guest on their ocean-front porches and in their kitchens, un-remodeled since the last hurricane. How can they maintain community — tribal identity — when they lose the place that’s been the community’s collective home for at least eight generations? She’s also visited individuals from an entire neighborhood on Staten Island who chose not to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy terrified them through the night of the worst storm surge, and destroyed their homes—they moved, together, re-establishing their neighborly ties further inland. She spent time with residents and city planners alike in Pensacola, Florida, where even in clear, rainless weather, “sunny day flooding” indicates the influx of rising seas and the vulnerability of high-priced real estate — while exploring the power of the wealthy who do not wish to change their beach-front lifestyle.

The reporting Rush offers from these three locations is deeply human — rich with the emotional complexities that people experience in the face of change, whether they face it head-on or try to look away. I learned, and thought, a lot. But it’s the beauty of the writing that really wrings my heart. From the opening chapter, I learned that tupelo means “swamp tree” in the language of the Creek — and so it is, a beautiful tree that loves a little time in standing water. But not salt water — not the invasion of sea water from increasing storm incursions, and infusions of salt into the water table. The dead tupelos where Rush used to bicycle signaled to her of the changing climate’s effects taking place where she didn’t even suspect it — below the soil — and she listened.

“Sometimes the password arrives before the impasse,” she writes. “Speak it and enter a world transformed by salt and blue. Say: tupelo.”

Elizabeth Dodd, University Distinguished Professor



Set after a global environmental collapse, John Lanchester’s The Wall offers a nightmarish vision of Britain in the near future. An enormous wall, nearly 10,000 kilometers long, has been built around the entirety of Britain’s coastline to protect the country from a catastrophic rise in sea level — and from climate refugees fleeing, quite literally, for their lives. The government has introduced a new form of national service for Britain’s youth: all must serve two years as a “Defender” on the wall, preventing anyone from entering Britain. For these young people, the stakes are high: for every “Other” who succeeds in breaching the Wall, an equivalent number of “Defenders” will be put to sea.

Lanchester’s novel is at once a Brexit allegory and work of speculative fiction about climate change that points to the inextricable connection between right-wing nationalism and environmental degradation. The Wall implicitly argues that existing environment pressures have already contributed to the rise of nationalism across the world — and that the connection between the two is likely only to intensify in the coming years as the world faces ever more frequent floods, fires, storms, and droughts.

While Lanchester has reported in interviews that he started this novel before Donald Trump began his presidential campaign, its title and premise now seem chillingly prescient. But the most important lesson of The Wall is bigger than its implied rebuke to Donald Trump or to Britain’s Brexiteers. Crucially, Lanchester’s novel argues the relatively secure lives that many of us enjoy in United Kingdom and in the United States are not the result of any special merit or virtue on our part, so much as sheer, dumb luck. And it’s through this reminder that Lanchester calls on his readers to reject populism and nationalism, and think globally instead as we begin the arduous task of attempting to limit the damage of climate change and repair our broken planet.

Anne Longmuir, Associate Professor


Table of Contents for Sports Illustrated (21 Dec 1970), with John Fowles’s “Weeds, Bugs, Americans.” Source: Sports Illustrated Vault

This, I am convinced, is what practical conservation needs behind it, or beneath it, if it is to work: a constantly repeated awareness of the mysterious other universe of nature in every civilized community. A love, or at least a toleration, of this other universe must reenter the urban experience, must be accepted as the key gauge of society’s humanity, and we must be sure that the reentry and the acceptance are a matter of personal, not public, responsibility. So much of our communal guilty conscience is take up by the cruelty of man to man that the crime we are inflicting on nature is forgotten. Fortunately there seem to be many signs in the United States that this “lesser” crime against natural life is being recognized for what it is — not the lesser crime at all, but the real source of many things we cite as the major mistakes of recent history. You may think there is very little connection between spraying insecticide over your flower beds because everyone else on your street does the same, and spraying napalm over a Vietnamese village because that’s the way war is. But many more things than we know start in our own backyards. Social aggression starts there; and so does social tolerance.

— From John Fowles, “Weeds, Bugs, Americans,” Sports Illustrated (21 Dec 1970), pp.84-88, submitted by Darren DeFrain (MA ’89), Associate Professor, Wichita State University

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