WHAT WE ARE THINKING: Sustainability in literature by Roseann Campbell

Article published on June 8, 2015.

Roseann Campbell presents her views on the ways in which fiction can portray sustainability.

Societal issues filter through to literature in diverse ways. Fiction can highlight societal problems of gender, cultural and political differences. Similarly some contemporary novels explore sustainability by illustrating how to preserve vital resources.

Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms (1995), Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003) and Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010) deal with the direct impact of sustainability. These novels discuss the issue of maintaining essential resources, communication and the way that society exploits nature. They look at issues of climate change and I will attempt to open this up through an emphasis on the natural resource of water.

It is central to maintain clean water supplies and stable water systems to support civilisation. Clean drinking water, biologically diverse rivers and oceans support human life. Furthermore, pollution can have disastrous effects on weather systems. One of the major cooling influences of our planet is the mass of water that we are surrounded by (71% of the earth is covered in water). Scientific research indicates that if climate change continues at the current rate, then subsequently the sea level will rise 2 meters by 2100: enough to flood parts of London and other coastal areas.

Linda Hogan’s Solar Storms highlights the effects of flooding. The characters in Hogan’s novel suffer from floods as it invades their homes, destroys specific habitats where key botanical plants live and drives away species of hunted mammals: “In the first flooding […] they killed many thousands of caribou and flooded land the people lived in and revered” (p57). The floods destroy the resources this Native American community depend on. Hogan’s illustration of this community’s battle with rising waters on their land speaks from a global issue to a local one.

The characters in Solar Storms have to deal with how to build houses, grow crops and hunt for food despite the floods on their land: “Those with the money, the investments, the city power, had no understanding of the destruction their decisions and wants and desires brought to the world” (Hogan, 1995: 343). The characters find it difficult to adapt to the changing landscape that those in charge of making decisions make in relation to dams and floodplains.

Margaret Atwood portrays a new future world in Oryx and Crake that also shows a tension between those in power and those who are not. In this future world Crake develops a pill that sterilizes people whilst giving them a heightened libido:

“As a species we’re in deep trouble, worse than anyone’s saying. They’re afraid to release the stats because people might just give up, but take it from me, we’re running out of space time. Demand for resources has exceeded supply for decades in marginal geopolitical areas, hence the famines and droughts; but very soon, demand is going to exceed supply for everyone. With the Blyss-Pluss Pill the human race will have a better chance of swimming.” (p347)

Atwood uses the swimming metaphor in this section to hint at how this novel ends and highlights how people can not live in water. Humans need to be able to swim to survive in water.

The Blyss-Pluss pill in Oryx and Crake while created to help humanity ends up massacring most of civilisation. After this epidemic the remaining characters head towards the sea. It is symbolic that at the end of this novel Snowman and the tribe of Crakers return to water. Snowman looks forward to going to a landscape he has never seen and suggests he might even go swimming (p408). This future world goes away from cities and buildings back to a natural landscape by the sea. The repetition of swimming here shows that Atwood is concerned with how water provides but also inhibits humanity.

Ian McEwan’s Solar follows Michael Beard’s trip to the Arctic to discuss climate change. In doing so McEwan includes the importance of water to sustainability. Water in Solar is envisioned in its solid state: ice. In the Arctic water is a dangerous natural element that they need huge protective gear to explore. Michael says that it is ‘claustrophobia’ that ‘drives’ him out ‘so soon’. (p69). In this landscape we are made very aware of Michael’s, and so humanity’s, restriction by and vulnerability to the natural world.

McEwan’s novel does not portray his central character in a positive light. Michael has disdain to begin with for the central rules of the ship that concern the boot room. In Solar the boot room is where all the gear needed to leave the ship is kept and all passengers on the ship are told how to hang up their gear in the boot room and use their numbered pegs. However, Michael quickly loses his gear and so uses someone elses’. Michael wonders: “how were they to save the earth … when it was so much larger than the boot room?” (p78).

Sustainability is the next societal challenge to be discussed in literature. Hogan, Atwood and McEwan show some of the ways it can do so and be related to our lives. Through a focus on water these novels illustrate how climate change can affect communities and individuals directly. In Solar Storms a reader is taught how much we depend on a stable climate for food, water and living quarters. The solutions designed for our expanding society in Oryx and Crake dramatically fail and Atwood suggests that preserving resources like the ocean should be a priority. Furthermore, Solar discusses the power of nature to limit human design and restrict our movements. A stable climate would halt dramatic flooding, ensure we did not need to resort to chemical sterilisation and allow more flexibility in living. All of these texts point towards how nature must be respected and worked with to ensure resources can be protected for future generations. Nature can be hostile and in these texts cooperation is the key.

Roseann Campbell, London



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