How Writing About Climate Change Can Become a Form of Escapism
Deborah Willis on the Existential Contradictions of Writing While Our Planet Is Imperiled
In 1914, astronomer and naturalist William Pickering peered at Mars from a secluded observatory and devised a theory: the planet was a watery, living world. He believed Mars was covered in a network of canals and marshes, continually moistened by storms and squalls. As Sarah Stewart Johnson writes in The Sirens of Mars: as “terrestrial catastrophe loomed in the form of the impending World War, Pickering seemed to take refuge” in his Martian dream.
I think of Pickering often, because I wrote a novel that is partly set on Mars—but the Mars we now know: a harsh landscape where no rover has yet found water or life. Still, as environmental catastrophes unfold around us, I can relate to Pickering’s wish to find a wild and pristine refuge.
This desire is shared by one of my characters, Amber, a recovering evangelical who is tortured by feelings of impotence when it comes to the climate crisis and longs to escape to an Eden. Like Elon Musk, who hopes to die on Mars (“just not on impact”), Amber wants to terraform the planet, using technology to transform Mars so that it teems with life. Never mind that we already live on a planet that teems with life, and that needs our resourcefulness and help.
When it comes to Mars, we see what we want to see: Pickering believed it was a vast, untouched garden, while other scientists of his day believed it hosted an intelligent Martian civilization. And Mars currently lives in the minds of billionaires, men who exploit the Earth so profoundly that it seems they have become terrified of their own planet, and of us, their fellow earthlings. Space has become the rich man’s most coveted refuge.
Right now I am living through the second heat dome of my life; during the first, I was nine months pregnant. The words heat dome make me think of the geodesic domes featured in every CGI “how we’ll live on Mars” fantasy. Would they be as oppressive as the dome I currently find myself in?It strikes me that I wrote a novel speaking against the bunker mindset while also using the novel—those hours of quiet, solitary creation—as my own temporary shelter.
I live in Alberta, and as I write this, we have the worst air quality in the world due to hundreds of wildfires. The smoke is everywhere, unavoidable, seeping through the cracks around doors and windows—invading our lungs even when our shelter seems to be sealed.
I consider the word sheltered. I’m an able-bodied, white woman born to middle-class parents in one of the richest counties on Earth—my whole life has been sheltered.
But even distance from, and a seemingly clear sky, doesn’t guarantee safety. A recent study led by Stanford researchers estimated that sixty percent of the impact of American wildfire smoke is experienced by those living outside the states that are burning. An astonishing eighty-seven percent of the pollution impact is experienced by those living outside the county of the original fire.
We cannot escape what we have wrought, so we must face it. Only then, we might be able to mitigate it. And we can only mitigate it if we work together.
And yet, the bunker mentality emblematized by billionaires is present everywhere—in YouTube clips of preppers sharpening knives, in the pandemic habit of hoarding of toilet paper, in white flight from urban heat islands. My novel argues that this retreat mindset leads to spiritual and literal death. What we need in this difficult moment is not sanctuary for a select few. We need community.
But as a writer, do I indulge in the very bunker mentality that my novel criticizes? Do I want—more than I admit—to escape?
Graham Greene said, “Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how all those who do not write, compose, or paint can manage to escape the madness, melancholia, the panic and fear which is inherent in a human situation.” It strikes me that I wrote a novel speaking against the bunker mindset while also using the novel—those hours of quiet, solitary creation—as my own temporary shelter.
I consider the word retreat, because I wrote the first draft at a writing residency. Is writing a form of retreat or of engagement? I consider the word escapism. Most of us, myself included, dissociate from the terror, grief and shame that the climate crisis invokes. Are books—the reading and writing of them—another form of avoidance?
And there are more concrete questions: what about my not-so-secret hope that the novel will be a success? Is this the same wish for riches—for the sense of security that wealth affords—that motivates the billionaire in my novel? What about the trees felled to print my book? What about the orders for it placed on Amazon, a corporation with a dismal environmental record?
I know that the compromises one writer makes are nothing compared to the choices made by some. One study calculated the carbon dioxide emissions of 125 billionaires, which collectively came to about 393 million metric tons per year—approximately the same annual carbon footprint of France, with its population of 67 million.
But still, my own contradictions make me uncomfortable. What will my daughter think of what I do with my life, once she’s old enough to understand her situation? While her future—no, her present—is stolen, I write books.Writing is a solitary endeavor, the act of creation a refuge, and my motivations will always be hazy—I am not a pristine wilderness. But she is reminding me that writing is also an act of hope, of connection, of communication.
Better to put my time into activism. Or to produce nothing, since production of goods is always harmful to the Earth. So, give up writing? But then I wouldn’t know myself, wouldn’t be myself.
It occurs to me that we live in an era of extinction, and perhaps what will also be extinguished—for some of us, the brave ones, which I don’t think I am—will be our sense of self, the ego, the false and comfortable dreams we’ve constructed of ourselves.
During the days of smoke, my partner and I stay inside with our daughter. Mostly, we read books. Our toddler studies the pictures, deciphers letters, sings along to nursery rhymes, learns about the outside world.
Eventually, books get boring. She points out the window and commands us: “Outside! Park!” I look out at a hazy, orange sky. At night before falling asleep, I’ve been scrolling on my phone, looking at pictures of isolated, rain-soaked islands. Dreaming of a place that resembles Pickering’s Mars: lush, green, empty.
“I’m sorry, love,” I say, as if an apology could be enough. “We can’t go outside right now.”
My daughter nods. “Bad air, bad air.” Not yet two years old and she’s already finding a vocabulary for disaster.
But then: a knock at the door. My neighbor’s nine-year-old, Robin, wants to play with our toddler. They spend an hour running through our living room, tossing a ball back and forth, and we’re all refreshed. I remember that one reason we live in a housing co-op is so that we’ll know our neighbors.
I also realize that my daughter, in the hours I’ve spent reading to her, has been teaching me about what it means to be a writer and a reader. She uses books not just to escape, but to learn, laugh, and process. One of her favorites is Corduroy, about a bear who needs a friend; the story seems to allow her to face her own sadness and fear, and to understand the quiet joy she too has felt when finding connection.
Writing is a solitary endeavor, the act of creation a refuge, and my motivations will always be hazy—I am not a pristine wilderness. But she is reminding me that writing is also an act of hope, of connection, of communication.
After our neighbor leaves, our child painstakingly finds words to make herself understood. “Robin. Friend.” And I consider the verb, to commune.
Girlfriend on Mars by Deborah Willis is available via Norton.