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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.