Literature and Climate Change The Hero and the Weather

Climate Change
Climate Change | Photo (detail): © Colourbox

How do writers imagine something as invisible and intangible as climate change, a phenomenon that is taking place on a global scale and may well influence our lives only at some point in the future? More and more German climate change novels have been rising to this challenge since the dawn of the new millennium, and critically question the role humankind plays in the climate crisis.

Until now, our understanding of climate change has been shaped by abstract climate prediction models and discussions conducted by scientific experts. It tends to be difficult for us to recognize ourselves as actors within these scenarios. It is only recently that aesthetic and cultural forms of interpretation, which illustrate the personal and social impacts of a climatically changed future, have become increasingly important.

German authors have also been devoting greater attention to this subject in recent years. In the mainstream German-language literature of the last few years, climate change has served as the backdrop to the story itself, as the cause of a greater catastrophe, or indeed as an important topic for the individual characters. What all kinds of climate novels have in common is their ethical dimension: they ask how far we can and should go in this new age, characterized as it is by human activities, of the “Anthropocene” (Paul J. Crutzen). The degree of responsibility attributed to humankind differs very considerably from one novel to another.

Nature fights back

Frank Schätzing’s novel The Swarm (2004) is without doubt the best-known German eco-thriller devoted, amongst other things, to the subject of climate change. The book describes how the yrr, a single-cell, maritime, intelligent life form, punishes humankind for its environmental crimes and in particular for its destruction of the oceans. Nature fights back with tsunamis, underwater landslides and aggressive attacks by various species of marine life.

At first, it seems that the protagonists in The Swarm are powerless to prevent the yrr from wiping out all of humankind. Finally, however, they succeed in communicating with the yrr. When the protagonists promise to live in harmony with nature in future, they are able to avert the ultimate devastation. In this sense Schätzing’s book reflects to some extent the so-called Gaia theory formulated by the British scientist James Lovelock, which regards the earth as a self-organized dynamic system that can and will take action against humankind for the sake of its own preservation and balance. The thriller, however, ends with the hope that humankind can after all be persuaded to rethink.

“Conspiracy” as leitmotif

“Conspiracy” is a motif that frequently appears in climate change literature. One prominent example in the English-speaking world is Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004), which portrays climate change as a deception invented by environmental activists, thus absolving humankind from blame. The conspiracy motif, however, also appears in German climate change books, such as Nele Neuhaus’s Wer Wind sät (2011) and Sven Böttcher’s thriller Prophezeiung (2011).

Neuhaus’s crime novel ignores the seriousness of climate change and limits itself to criticizing the renewable energies market for its hunger for profits.

Böttcher’s thriller also focuses on the financial aspects of climate change: in the novel, the director of a major climate institute, who has invested heavily in a wind farm, senses an opportunity to eliminate his biggest rival, a photovoltaic manufacturer in China. Using a precise computer forecasting system, he plans to prove that millions of people will die as a result of climate change, China being to blame as the worst carbon emissions culprit. In fact, however, the dramatic weather events that were forecast fail to materialize.

Böttcher’s climate thriller critically illuminates climate research in a somewhat more nuanced fashion than the book by Neuhaus, showing that humankind should not be subject to blanket condemnation even if it is responsible for climate change.

Elegy

In Ilija Torjanow’s climate change novel Eis Tau (2011), humankind is explicitly held responsible for climate change. This time, however, the accuser is one of them: Zeno Hintermeier, the novel’s protagonist, is convinced that humankind will destroy everything “that places itself on nature’s side”. As a glaciologist and the leader of cruise ship exhibitions in the Antarctic, he becomes a key witness to the environmental destruction that goes hand in hand with technological progress exploited for tourism: the Antarctic, formerly a desolate continent of courageous explorers, can suddenly be “conquered” even by old-age pensioners thanks to modern ships.

In Eis Tau, Zeno’s elegiac grief at the melting of the poles serves not only to give greater emphasis to the “inconvenient truth”; it also serves as the basis for a more general criticism of human ignorance about climate change, the destructive power of which is embodied in particular by the tourists on board the cruise ship. Zeno condemns this through an act of self-administered justice: he throws himself overboard, thereby abandoning the tourists to their fate.

Call for action

Dirk C. Fleck’s science fiction novel Maeva! (2011) is part of a larger political project initiated by the Equilibrism movement, which is searching for ways out of the ecological and economic crisis within the framework of a holistic concept. Rather like Trojanow’s Eis Tau, Fleck’s novel presupposes that humankind is to blame for the natural disasters of the future. It describes how extreme weather, droughts and conflicts over resources will already dominate world events by the year 2028.

In response to the ongoing “tortilla fights in Mexico” and the “pasta demonstrations in Italy”, many industrialized nations have stepped up their military presence. This is the backdrop against which Maeva, the Tahitian president, embarks on a journey around the world aimed at bringing about a paradigm shift. Maeva is battling for an ecological restructuring of all areas of life, for a shift towards a natural circular economy and for sustainable monetary and land regulations and cosmopolitanism.

Dirk C. Fleck is thus one of the few German authors to propose concrete changes aimed at averting the imminent climate crisis. He illustrates ways in which humankind can escape its “sentence”. For this to be possible, however, it must start acting right now, as the book demands.