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In Adam McKay’s recent film, Don’t Look Up, scientists try to warn the American public about a comet that’s on course for a direct hit with earth. Battling public indifference, government ineptitude, conspiracy theorists, and meddling billionaires, they struggle to convince people to take the threat seriously. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Americans continue living their lives, and even when things get really dire, the comet is visible in the night sky, and the impending apocalypse is evident, the conspiracy theorists among them urge the American public: Don’t look up!

That feeling of impending doom and disaster (and corresponding apathy and outright denial) is a theme shared with the two novels I read to cap off 2021, two of the best novels I read all year: Bewilderment by Richard Powers and Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. The most compelling part of both stories is that they are set against the backdrop of climate disaster and the concomitant political unrest it causes. Both feature characters trying to live their lives amidst these challenging circumstances.

In Bewilderment, a father and son navigate their own personal tragedy while the world around them roils with climate disaster and creeping authoritarianism. In Cloud Cuckoo Land, a community is hit by the effects of climate change, with its local economy and population suffering. Watching this decline, a young man gives in to anger and despair, committing an act of violence that ruins his and others’ lives.

I resonated with many of the characters in each story who were trying to live normal lives, while acutely aware that climate disaster and political unrest were happening around them. In Bewilderment, the father tries to recover from the death of his wife, support his grieving son, and maintain his academic career all while political unrest embroils the country. Similarly, in Cloud Cuckoo Land, we follow several characters as their lives are upended by climate change amid hints of creeping global unrest.

Both novels offer reflections on how we treat the earth and how humans will respond to climate disaster, and both offer stark warnings about what will happen if we don’t respond to climate change.

At the same time as I was reading these books and watching Don’t Look Up at the end of December, hundreds of homes in Colorado burned in a fast-moving wildfire. People in Kentucky were still recovering from a tornado outbreak just a few weeks earlier. Parts of Iowa were recovering from the state’s second derecho in just a little more than a year.

It made me think of how we’ve had to continue to live our own lives as if everything were normal, despite an ongoing pandemic and repeated climate disasters across the country and around the world. Despite clear evidence that things aren’t right or safe or normal, we’re expected to go to work and school and generally live our lives and keep acting as if nothing is wrong. Moreover, there are segments of society in active denial about both the pandemic and the real threat of climate change, insisting that everyone around them also act as if everything is normal.

As we reckon with climate change and disasters and live through a pandemic that has shown just how callously and ineptly our government and communities can respond to disaster, we have to know that things can certainly get worse. It’s all a reminder of how precarious this home of ours on earth can be.

I subscribe to journalist Anne Helen Petersen’s newsletter. This week’s edition was on resilience, and not just individual resilience, but ”How to Build a Rugged, Resilient Society.” While thinking about climate change can seem bleak, she draws on the work of climate futurist Alex Steffen to argue that we can’t give in to “doomerism.” There are still plenty of ways we can act now to respond to climate change before it’s too late.

Things don’t need to get as bleak or as dire as in Bewilderment or Cloud Cuckoo Land or Don’t Look Up. There are steps we can take now to shore up our communities and infrastructure to withstand the worst effects of climate change. And ultimately that is the theme of all three works. Without spoiling anything, I can say that they demonstrate human perseverance in the face of climate change — finding connection with each other, the local community, and the natural environment, and acting boldly to protect the most vulnerable.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She earned her doctorate in history from Boston College, Her research explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence in subsequent years. Though she swore she'd move back to the Midwest after grad school, Allison still resides in the Boston metro area and now works in academic advising at Tufts University.


  • Tom says:

    Now you know how some of have felt for a long while about the US government’s finances: the absolute certainty of financial disaster and the associated hardship that it will eventually visit on our society; the certainty of that hardship hitting the most vulnerable the hardest; and the knowledge that it is completely avoidable if people will just look up and realize the truth.

    Yet, people continue to live as though things are normal, look around and convince themselves that because everything’s fine today, it will still be fine tomorrow; denialists claim that we are not increasing the debt because it’s all “paid for”, some economists concoct crack-pot theories like Modern Monetary Theory to explain that deficit spending is actually good and then double down by pushing for even greater deficits. Politicians and commentators who start out speaking the truth quickly are corrupted by the power and celebrity that come along with their speaking out and eventually become part of the problem by using the ‘argument’ to enhance their own power and wealth rather working for real solutions. Etc., etc., etc.

    (None of this is to say that climate change isn’t real), just sayin’ it ain’t the only one and in a free country addressing big issues is pretty messy. But, in the end, two things: first, we’ll probably figure it out somehow because we usually have; second, even if we don’t, God is in charge so it will be alright.

  • David A Hoekema says:

    A thoughtful and eloquent appreciation of three recent contributions to the potential for climate catastrophe. Among the many intractable problems we face, in North America and in the world, this is the one that should draw the most sustained and creative reflections and proposals from political, religious, and scientific leaders. Alas, most in the first group and many in the second just put it out of mind and hope it will fix itself (as, evidently, do some RJ readers).
    But I’m not quite as enthusiastic as Ms VanderBroek about the Powers novel and the Adam McKay film. (The Doerr book is on my desk and I’ll get to it soon.) “Don’t Look Up” is a mostly entertaining mishmash of right-on-target allegory, superb acting by stars who seem to be in several different films, and over-the-top satire. When it ended my first thought was, “There might be a good 90-minute film lurking in its shambolic 138 minutes.” (But if you watch don’t give up before the extraordinary prayer at a Lansing dinner table near the end.)
    And Richard Powers’ Bewilderment, which utterly captivated me at first, also seems to wander off and lose its way by the end. For me it had only a small fraction of the impact — the punch-in-the-gut wake-up-to-the-world-you-live-in impact — of his previous novel The Overstory.
    For those still unsure just how to assess climate threats I’d recommend a much lighter but still solid alternative point of entry, Hope Jahren’s The Story of More. She packs a punch without being preachy (pardon the alliteration).

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