Is Climate Writing Stuck?
Heather Houser on Spotting the Oft-Repeated “Tics” of the Genre
Climate writing is stuck. Climate action also hardly budges. Among the ample evidence of its stuckness: the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) ended in frustration for many and the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment report declared “code red for humanity,” both in a year, among many, of devastation. This is the sixth IPCC report in 30 years, with each one anticipating more dire scenarios than the last. In those decades, climate writing has been bounteous. Fiction and nonfiction about the climate emergency have exploded as if in lockstep with the increase in greenhouse gas emissions. As this corpus has grown, though, it’s been stuck in a set of microconventions—or, climate tics—that are as revealing as they are ubiquitous. They show that certain topics, climate crisis notable among them, can entrap us in set ways of writing.
The genres of climate writing are familiar and include elegy, speculation, dystopia, utopia, thriller, disaster, domestic realism, memoir, travelogue, and journalistic reportage. Authors working in these genres also draw from a ready-to-hand grab-bag of metaphors that indicate how bad things are: bellwether, tipping point, a canary in the coalmine, frog in a boiler, running a fever, time bomb, game over, code red. When writers use these genres and metaphors, they feel deliberate. Climate tics, on the other hand, seem to slip out of the writer’s pen or fingers with less thought. These tics—the hopeful ending, ecocide aside, and catalog of despair—pop up throughout climate writing. They index the inevitability of climate impacts and the stalemates of climate response, dispositions that the work might otherwise disavow.
Climate tic #1: The Hopeful Ending
Jenny Offill’s Weather (2020) calls out this tic even as it performs it: as the reader turns the page on what seem to be the novel’s last words, they find www.obligatorynoteofhope.com. The URL calls back to a professor-turned-doomster’s remark that she’s “about to send off this article, but I have to come up with the obligatory note of hope.” Even the most alarming of essays must conclude with reassurances to the reader that catastrophe is not inevitable; you, frightened reader, can do something. Offill’s URL is a bit of metafiction, but it also works, and, unlike the professor whose hope has withered and who wants to run off to the darkest part of the US, the site is true to its name. It refuses fatalism—the fatalism of the rest of Weather?—and counters despair by suggesting “tips for trying times” ranging from the individualistic “structure your days” to the collective “answer the call.”
The link is part of Weather‘s paratext; readers might flip right past it or not enter it into their browsers. Other writers’ hopeful endings are harder to miss. Lydia Millet’s novel, A Children’s Bible (2020), ends a harrowing adventure through tempestuous chaos with speculation about the power of art and the endurance of earth: “‘So maybe art is the Holy Ghost. Maybe art is the ghost in the machine.’ ‘Art is the ghost.’ ‘The comets and the stars will be our eyes,’ I told him. And I went on. The clouds the moon. The dirt the rocks the water and the wind. We call that hope, you see.” It may be a wry hope, and you have to wonder whether these concluding words counterbalance the weight of what came before, but the tic appears and does its work.
This climate tic also extends to nonfiction. I displayed it in both of my books, Ecosickness in Contemporary US Fiction (2014) and, to a lesser extent, Infowhelm (2020). Anne McClintock’s lyric climate essay, “Monster: A Fugue in Fire and Ice,” ends with what might be the quintessential statement of climate hope, “No act is too small to make a difference.”
The hopeful ending compensates for being what Min Hyoung Song, in the forthcoming Climate Lyricism, calls “the climate killjoy: the one who, in insisting on talking about climate change and all that it entails, finds ‘solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness.'” It’s hard to be the killjoy who reminds people that their happiness is delusional or comes at the cost of others’ suffering. Yet Sara Ahmed, whom Song cites here, calls on feminists and women of color to reclaim this denigrated figure. Song does the same for environmentalists, but the persistence of hopeful endings to otherwise grim narratives shows just how undesirable it is to position oneself as the killjoy.
Climate tic #2: The Ecocide Aside
To spot this microconvention of climate writing, look for parentheses or dashes: inserted in the flow of a passage that may have little to do with climate collapse, the narrator pauses to take note of it nonetheless. Flight of the Conchords’ “Robots” is one comedic example of the device: “(There is no more unethical treatment of the elephants.) Well, there’s no more elephants, so (Ah) But still, it’s good.” A more literary example appears in Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School (2019), when the narrator flees the Met as his acid trip turns bad. He finds himself at the Central Park Zoo and a memory of a past visit interrupts: “(the animals laughing at my plight—although, since that afternoon in 1969, over half of the world’s animals have disappeared).” Even more on the nose is Amitav Ghosh’s in The Great Derangement (2016), “the air too can come to life with sudden and deadly violence—as it did in the Congo in 1988, when a great cloud of carbon dioxide burst forth from Lake Nyos and rolled into the surrounding villages, killing 1,700 people and an untold number of animals.” Animals frequently meet their end, and en masse, in the ecocide aside.
The tic smuggles environmental concerns into a text where they might otherwise be absent or only tangential to the primary narrative. In a work more focused on climate change, like Ghosh’s, it intensifies the eco-talk at hand. As a parenthetical, an aside, it reads as noncommittal or even dismissive; not quite worth being the main event but meriting mention, ecocide briefly deflects from the story or argument and can even deflate it. Alternatively, the aside might identify the author or character as woke to the realities of climate crisis, as if signaling, “Look, I know it’s happening; I’m no denier. I might not know what to do about it, but my daily, often white, middle-class, educated, otherwise protected life registers its existence.”
In this respect, the ecocide aside signals infowhelm: internet-dwellers experience a deluge of climate data in their daily lives, mostly describing devastating death now or in decades to come. The ecocide aside works as a detox, an outlet for all this poisonous if true data. We might need these constant reminders, these disruptions of domestic demands and professional strivings. But the aside also perpetuates climate infowhelm by passing it on to readers; it is easy to read over and past, something the use of parentheses and dashes encourages.
Climate tic #3: The Catalog of Despair
The ecocide aside finds close kin in the catalog of despair. The aside might even morph into the catalog if it goes on long enough. Millet’s characters in A Children’s Bible confront planetary and social upheaval through the catalog: “Over time, though, a new darkness settled on them. Crashing stock markets were a factor, and weather. It wasn’t storming where we were, but there were many storms elsewhere. Also droughts and heatwaves. Cold and hot fronts, defunct trade routes. Everywhere seemed to be in flux. The weather shut down airports, and ruined crops were ‘destabilizing’ the markets. The North Pole was far too warm. Parts of Europe were freezing.”
As with the other climate tics, the catalog of despair isn’t faithful to one genre, drifting between fiction and nonfiction. Rebecca Solnit writes in Hope in the Dark (2016), “There is tremendous devastation now. In the time it takes you to read this book, acres of rainforest will vanish, a species will go extinct, people will be raped, killed, dispossessed, die of easily preventable diseases.” These lists inventory destruction with a tinge of despair rather than a fulsome expression of it: “darkness” in Millet, “tremendous” in Solnit.
Climate tics don’t produce these outcomes; they presage them by showing where climate action stands.
McClintock’s “Monster” offers multiple catalogs capturing climate collapse. “Now the ice sheets are vanishing faster than ever thought possible. Greenland is melting. The ice is leaving Iceland. Lightning torches the tundra, turning permafrost into permafire. Firestorms so vast they are visible from space rage across Amazonia, Australia, Siberia. In Harare, Zimbabwe, the taps run dry. Farmers watch mile-high dust storms rub out the sky. The great burnings of the trees, the vanishing of the bees, and everywhere the stealthy rising of the seas.” Here, the catalog often comes in fragments or staccato declarative sentences in the present tense, situating the reader in the destruction as much as possible. Catalogs of despair dwell in the now through another feature—think of it as a sub-tic of these others—the trope of “by the time you’ve finished this sentence/paragraph/book, these awful things will have transpired.” Lerner employs a version of it, on a longer timescale, in his ecocide aside above.
In identifying climate tics, I’m not assigning pass-fail grades to climate writing. I’m not calling for authors to abandon them for more “ideal” climate forms that, by dazzle of words alone, burst through shortsightedness and selfishness, topple oil and gas Goliaths, curb consumerist enthusiasm, or unseat deniers or deflectors. Waiting for that perfect form while going about our business feels as delusional as waiting for Elon Musk & co. to save the world or colonize a new one. Instead, I notice these tics to register the stuckness that’s evident in most environmental writers’, including my own, reliance on these microconventions. The hopeful ending, ecocide aside, and catalog of despair are gestures that at once feel disposable and insignificant, yet are carrying the weight of planetary and social upheaval. They provide a strange sort of comfort when paths forward feel elusive or blocked. We are ensnared in the stalemates of climate action. The unbreakable habits of climate writing don’t gnaw through those snares but at least provide the assurance of the familiar.
Early in Naomi Klein’s blockbuster, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), she asks, “Can we pull it off? All I know is that nothing is inevitable. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.” Seven years later, climate tics suggest her anticipation of change was foolhardy. Climate tics encode inevitability even as much writing like Klein’s seeks to forestall the inevitable, or at least the worst and most unjust damages of it.
We need to face some inevitabilities and endeavor to avoid others. The happenings of climate crisis are unfolding now, and the ones to come are projected to accelerate. The damages fall “first and worst” to those already harmed by colonialism and neoliberal capitalism. But we need to cast out the effects of considering these outcomes inevitable, lest our minds, hearts, and politics freeze in incredulity and the wisdom of the past and of alternate realities gets blasted out by shock.
Inevitability dictates the future as the collective travels, rudderless, and elites make the most of the bewilderment; things then proceed according to prescribed scripts of disaster capitalism, deeper denialism, and sacrifice of the “disposable.” Climate tics don’t produce these outcomes; they presage them by showing where climate action stands. While nothing will be solved by writing alone, climate microconventions are barometers of states of mind that speak as loudly as the more overt visions and policies on the page.