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Can fiction fight climate change?Poet, writer, presenter, model and activist, Karuna Ezara Parikh speaks with UN High Level Champion for Climate Action Nigel Topping about authors, poets and the power of words to mobilize action.
Karuna Ezara Parikh: There’s been a surge of books recently that focus on the planet and what happens if we don’t activate ourselves to help it. Would you say that your reading lists of late have been influenced by this genre?
Nigel Topping: I’ve been a fan of science fiction for a long time, because it’s a way of allowing us to imagine different alternative futures – a way of shining a light on the present, what I’ve now learned is called “critical utopias”. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a great example of that. But yes, I’ve become more and more interested in the way that fiction deals with the planetary crisis.
[Frank Herbert’s] Dune is a great example of this too. One of the stars of the plot is an ecologist, and preserving water in a desert environment is at the heart of the story. More and more, I’m interested in how we harness the power of our imaginations to tackle the problem. And literature is a great way of helping us to think better about the future. [Reading] is not just a retreat. For me, it’s a way of improving our thinking ability so that we can act more smartly as well.
Do you do have an example of a book you’ve read that’s mobilized you in some way?
The book that I’m recommending to everybody right now is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. It’s set in the very near future and it assumes that the Paris Agreement fails. It starts with a brutal chapter, but it then becomes a storytelling of how gradually, in a very messy human way – not a simple, utopian silver bullet way – we figure out how to address the problem. I found it really inspiring, given the work that I do, which is trying to try work with people to find solutions from all different sources.
I read The Overstory last year, and it’s a massive book about five trees whose unique life experiences with nine Americans bring them together to address the destruction of forests. As someone who felt that they really knew trees and loved trees, I was surprised at just how much it brought my attention back to nature. And it made me realize that eco fiction is imperative. There’s an attitude that it’s maybe not that important in the fight against climate change, but I don’t think that’s true because I’ve seen it work on me personally. I found myself so thoroughly absorbed by this book. I would take my dog for a walk every day and when I went out, I started noticing things that I hadn’t noticed: the moss growing on top of the bricks. And I would notice that each leaf has a different pattern; I noticed the size and I notice the translucency. And I hadn’t paid that kind of attention to nature in a long, long time. So, I do think that to underestimate the power of these books is perhaps wrong.
This is also a question about whether eco fiction written by non experts plays an important role. And the answer is yes, I think, definitely. You don’t need to be an expert to write something which reawakens the sense of wonder; the miracle of life. As you say: moss growing in a crack in the pavement.
Earlier before this chat started, you showed me a pile of books around you. Could you talk us through them?
I’ll start with Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. It’s a wonderful book about the importance of our imagination, and the fact that it’s often been co-opted. He says early on that “most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight.” In part, he’s saying that a lot of mainstream literature has become part of the problem: what he calls “The Great Derangement”; that we’ve lost the ability to see.
The bit I like the most about it is that he’s studied the Paris Agreement, that defines the role that I have. And he says, “In clause after clause, the Agreement summoned up mysterious structures, mechanisms and strange new avatars of officialdom. As for example, when it decides that two high level champions shall be appointed”. He then basically makes fun of the role I have…which is fine!
And then there’s the type of fiction that opens your eyes: China Miéville wrote a book about division and how often we live with division that’s so stark, that we learn not to see it. And that can be gender division, class division, political division or religious division.
There’s also another genre, and I’m thinking of people like Robert McFarlane and Barry Lopez, who wrote Arctic Dreams a long time ago. And then [Lopez] wrote River Notes and Desert Notes, which are more like poetic essays. They’re not fiction but they sort of give you this almost physical feeling of being in amazing landscapes. And I don’t know what we call that: eco nonfiction? But they’re evocative and make you want to spend time, and do what you can, to prevent what’s happening now.
It’s incredible just how long nature has inspired writers, isn’t it?
I spent quite a lot of time reading about The Romantics, who I think were inspired by nature as a way of connecting to the Divine. One of the things I hadn’t known until recently was that they were also very politically active. The Romantic poets, I thought, were people who retreated from the world as it were, but I realize now that The Romantics, and people like Coleridge, and before him Milton, were very active politically: they were reformist, critics of the status quo.
It actually reminds me that, when I started thinking about the role of poetry in climate change more seriously again, about three years ago, I was working with Anand Mahindra, the chair of the Mahindra group. We had agreed that he was going to commit to getting to net zero and he was going to issue a call to all his business colleagues to do the same. We were both at the World Economic Forum in Davos, a live televised event, and the interviewer asked him: “So Mr Mahendra, do you think technology is going to save the world?” And I remember, thinking what a terrible question! He’s just going to come up with three brilliant bits of Mahindra technology that’s going to save the world. But, instead, he said: “No. I think poets and activists are going to save the world.”
Karuna Ezara Parikh studied Journalism, Film & Broadcasting at Cardiff University. Her writing has featured in Vogue, Wire, Outlook, Tehelka, Firstpost, Open and Lonely Planet. In 2015, she co-founded the sustainable company The Burlap People. She lives in Calcutta, India with her husband and their dog. She recently published her first book, The Heart Asks Pleasure First.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It took place on April 13 2021.
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