After spending years avoiding books about the environmental crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic finally pushed me to confront my uncomfortable fears about the Earth’s future.
Over the last year, I read more than a dozen eco-themed books, searching for answers. But when I opened the final book in my stack—The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac—I did something I’d never done before. I opened the book to the last page. What I wanted to know, more than anything in that moment was: How does this story end? Will we end? How did it end? With six more pages of recommended reading! And the authors’ conclusion: “Let it be a story of great adventure, against overwhelming odds. A story of survival. And of a thriving existence.”
Humanity’s capacity to survive, let alone thrive, is unequivocally related to Earth’s survival, and Brock University professor Ana Isla positions women at the heart of the crisis. Isla’s anthology, Climate Chaos: Ecofeminisms and the Land Question, illustrates how present-day patriarchal, capitalistic development practices violate both nature and feminized bodies. From Costa Rica to India, from biopiracy to environmental racism, women’s lives are impacted daily. As Isla explains, women recognize water problems because they launder; their caretaking responsibilities intensify when families suffer from environmental illness; they cope with increased risk of miscarriage, stillbirth and birth defects.
Women’s unique roles also position them to be frontline changemakers. “There are two powerful phenomena unfolding on earth: the rise of global warming and the rise of women and girls,” Katharine Wilkinson declares in her TED Talk “How empowering women and girls can stop global warming.”
This powerful awakening seeks to change our thinking. Katharine Wilkinson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson cofounded The All We Can Save Project to facilitate “climate renaissance” and to nurture “more characteristically feminine and more faithfully feminist” leadership that is “rooted in compassion, connection, creativity and collaboration.”
This renaissance they describe in their introduction to the project’s print anthology is similar to the revisioning that Naomi Klein describes in her climate-change bestseller This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Klein urges us to discard the seventeenth-century view of nature as a machine or device whose only value is to be harnessed to generate profit and satiate appetites. Her urgent plea to transform the concept of nature as “motherlode” into nature as “mother” intersects with the concept of ecofeminism.
Another writer in this uprising is Indigenous land defender Ailton Krenak, whose book, Ideas to Postpone the End of the World, describes how all the “ancient civilizations referred to the earth as Mother, Pacha Mama, Gaia.” This destructive “apparatus that we have gradually layered over the body of Mother Earth,” as Krenak explains, threatens all life.
Suzanne Simard, a professor of ecology at the University of British Columbia, unearths that body in Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering the Wisdom of the Forest. She repositions forests as family systems, grown and facilitated by elders and below-ground networks that absorb and relay nutrients to the trees. Many Indigenous languages, Simard observes in her New York Times-bestselling book, contain words that ascribe agency, learning, memory and decision-making to trees’ behaviour—phenomena the English language terms “intelligence” but restricts to humans.
Increasingly, personal memoirs delve into the human cost of patriarchal exploitation and extractivism. In Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land, Metis writer Toni Jensen writes: “The taking by force of our land always has been twinned with the taking by force of our bodies.”
To document the fracking industry’s devastation—on land, on bodies—Jensen booked hotel rooms where women had been assaulted, and from which they had disappeared, after men sought “company.” She shares one woman’s enduring hatred of the word “company” and in Carry she asks: “Who is responsible to and for the language, the words that will not take their leave?”
Responsibility, relationships and colonialism are entwined. Larissa Lai (pictured above), in an email interview about the future imagined in her eighth book, The Tiger Flu, explains that “traditional peoples knew a lot about living in concert with the earth. Colonization has disrupted that.”
Lai’s imagined future is a community of sealife-like, parthenogenic women living in exile, their values contrasting with corporate, patriarchal culture. She researched de-extinction, drugs, traditional Chinese medicine and parthenogenesis to write her Lambda-Award-winning novel.
“Knowledge, my sisters,” the character Myra declares, “is the most important tool we have.” This knowledge includes not only logic, reason and science, Lai believes, but “a way of opening the mind to modes of thought that are not necessarily logical, or goal-oriented.” In creative space, “there’s pleasure and learning.”
In Lai’s 2021 book-length poem Iron Goddess of Mercy, she tells us: “Dear Tomorrow, your zombies are already upon us munching the mesh of our towers and boardrooms our hobbits and hovels heave a hunger you can’t resolve.” Imagination can bridge the gap between what we know and what we fear.
“The way that I address people who are reluctant to face the reality of climate change (or racism, or sexism) is to tell them stories.” Lai explains. Story reveals ideology, Lai notes, and human behaviour can shift when we understand how ideologies work. “Then we might find our way to action through desire or outrage”—which is why “story is so important.”
Madhur Anand, a scientist and writer, integrates the imagination into creative solutioning. Her approach, as director of the Global Ecological Change and Sustainability Lab at the the University of Guelph, is interdisciplinary, rooted in “a place from which one is forced to imagine,” where discovery and invention reside. “I do try to put enquiry/discovery first,” she writes in our email interview. Anand explains that she prioritizes pathways that are “open to learning, not just confirmation of past tendencies.”
Anand’s experimental memoir, This Red Line Goes Straight to Your Heart: A Memoir in Halves, won last year’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. Anand presents her parents’ experiences (living during partition in India, immigrating to Canada) and her own (working in ecology and writing poetry) as two sides of a coin, displaying her non-linear exploration in a flip book. To write it, she relied on fiction-writing practices to compress lifetimes into compact narratives. It’s “almost equivalent to empathy,” she explains—and, with intentionality, inquiry creates a kind of “feedback” where “seeking is entwined with finding truths or realities.”
At this point, my thoughts loop in that kind of feedback too, when I think about confronting climate change and Anand’s positioning: “I often start from a position of acceptance of not knowing.”
Uncertainty need not be a reason to look away from the climate crisis, I tell myself; it can be a springboard for transformation. In this place that begins with our imagination, we can begin to transform the narrative of domination, as Oakland, California, artist, writer and activist Favianna Rodriguez outlines in her essay “Harnessing Cultural Power” in the collection of women’s voices, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions to the Climate Crisis, edited by Johnson and Wilkinson. “We need our storytellers—a mighty force—to help us shift our mythology and imagine a future where together we thrive with nature,” writes Rodriguez.
Indeed, stories engage readers in challenging, imagining and transforming their environments. Stories rooted in the unanswered also allow readers to experiment with resolutions: learning and un-learning, visioning and re-visioning. Both speculative fiction and an ancestral saga, Katłia’s debut novel is set in a mythic Dene territory in Canada’s far north and titled Land-Water-Sky/Ndè-Ti-Yat’a. Like Anand, she has also written a memoir, (Northern Wildflower, under the name Catherine Lafferty), that aims to expand southern readers’ preconceptions about life in the north, including the “struggles and beauty” in communities with a “rich connection to each other and the land.”
Expected out later next year is Carrianne Leung’s third novel, The After, which is set in urban Toronto in an imagined future. In this work-in-progress, Leung reaches “for a world where we can live without doing harm…to one another, to other life forms, to the planet.”
For Leung, the pandemic reveals “how we are fractured, divided” and the varied nature of our experiences and spaces. She posits: “How do we live, go on, proceed when all is lost?” Going forward, she focuses on “relationships, kinships, what it means to be ‘together.’”
“How can we grow and reflect if not through our interactions with others?” muses author Doreen Vanderstoop. She views hope as a transformative tool in her first novel, Watershed, a family story set in 2058 Alberta, where fresh water—instead of oil—flows through pipelines. Her research about water supplies and climate modelling is just part of the inspiration for this inter-generational story.
For Vanderstoop, “environmental protection is…a motherhood issue,” but even so, “women shouldn’t have to be the superheroes.” Confronting the climate crisis need not overwhelm: “hope can exist in the act of facing up to and dealing with reality.”
Each of these writers employ non-linear structures that unsettle conventions around perspective or throughline—or both. Saleema Nawaz’s third book, Songs for the End of the World, evolved structurally in manuscript. The network of characters revolves around a writer, whose published novel about a coronavirus pandemic suddenly thrusts him into the spotlight when such a pandemic actually spreads. The novel’s publication put Nawaz in a similar position, that of being seen as prescient.
With her pandemic-novelist-turned-expert protagonist, Nawaz was “interested in the way in which the stories we tell about ourselves can influence our behaviour.” If we can be influenced “by imagined versions of real-life scenarios,” if those “fictions could therefore become self-fulfilling prophecies,” could we orchestrate a more hopeful future?
“Certainly, climate change issues were on my mind…more and more, over the long course of writing the novel,” Nawaz explains, adding that as her awareness of humanity’s impact on ecosystems grew, her novel’s structure became more complex.
Lai’s creative process moves away from the everyday, to “imagine really wacky stuff—lots,” and construct “pathways for readers.” Her world-building is influenced by early feminist writers like Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time) and Octavia E. Butler, whose Xenogenesis trilogy demonstrates that “imperfect presents have ways of leading to imperfect futures.”
Though these writers from the 1970s overlooked some key issues, Lai says “it’s important to imagine better futures,” even knowing that “as we do this work, there will invariably be problems we can’t see.” Viewing herself as “intuitively an extrapolator,” Lai works to bring her “fictions back to earth and the present moment as most people understand it.” She looks to Zebra sharks, Komodo dragons, pythons and sawfish and then imagines beyond them: her Grist sisters are wondrously regenerative.
“We need our storytellers—a mighty force—to help us shift our mythology and imagine a future
where together we thrive with nature.” —Faviana Rodriguez.
Katłia’s characters, meanwhile, transform their flaws into “tools of empowerment and perseverance” and rely not only on their present-day experiences to resolve problems but find transformative power in their memories, in kinship. In our email interview, she highlights irony and human contradictions over stereotypes, to remind readers how “solutions for change” emerge from increased awareness.
Nawaz, in her writing, subverts the trope of a dystopia characterized by competition. Later in her disaster research, she discovered Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which explores and cites sociological research supporting Nawaz’s idea “that people in general will act for the common good, rather than selfishly.”
The primary conflict in life and fiction alike resides in the obstacles between the world people want and the world they currently inhabit. Can despair be a tool for transformation? For Leung, yes: “To acknowledge despair is a move towards action, grief, rage, sadness.” She admits she is “not a big proponent of hope,” a position she admits “provokes strong reactions” from others. She likens this to “taking away a child’s favourite toy.” By way of explanation, Leung is not convinced that “this shorthand that we call ‘hope’” effectively generates change.
“Why should I go along with a project of hope just as a performative exercise?” Leung challenges. Her book The After includes non-human and human characters in search of transformation.
“Not a return to hope, but to leave what we think of as hope behind”—a kind of rebirth. “I want to depart from the old ways of thinking” and how they “cloak all kinds of discomforts in us.”Pandemic life refreshes discomforting realities: “I want to be unsettled,” she says, “to see where things may land.”
Another fiction that questions where we might land is the French-language novel-in-stories Faunes by Christiane Vadnais (translated in 2020 by Pablo Strauss, as Fauna). Set in the future, Fauna feels like a primordial return to a distant past when humans recognized themselves in nature. Fauna challenges the “thinking that ‘nature’ is something that exists outside of humans.” In her world, “human characters feel this nature deeply in their bodies,” even consider themselves ecosystems after “being parasitized.” They incorporate “something bigger than humanity” by recognizing that it has “always been there, inside.”
“How do we live, go on, proceed when all is lost?”—Carrianne Leung
Transformation is a natural aspect of survival. Kai Minosh Pyle also explores existential truths in fiction. In their story “How to Survive the Apocalypse for Native Girls,” published in the anthology Love After the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit & Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction, kinship and resilience figure prominently. And their first rule for survival? Bring your kookum.
Conflict in Pyle’s story includes an external apocalypse but also intimate conflict. Their narrator copes with intergenerational trauma alongside contemporary (futuristic) threats.
“I could try to write a nonfiction piece explaining those things, but sometimes a story lets you get at the tangled-up issues in a more nuanced way,” Pyle explains, adding that teachings from “other beings and interacting with them” can provide “answers to our problems.”
This “practice of taking wisdom from our other-than-human kin” is “within the norms of Michif and Anishinaabe culture.” Language, too, is of primary importance in Pyle’s writing, including “different aspects of what we call in English ‘nature’ (which has no clear translation in either of my languages).” They view “writing in my Indigenous languages—especially without translation—as a kind of world-making.”
Katłia, in her novel’s acknowledgments, describes her lifelong experience of hearing Indigenous stories “that I did not know at the time were teachings.” These contributed to her decision to name her characters as part of the natural world in Wiiliideh: Dahti (dew), Deeyah (calm water), Goli (ice), Lafi (girl), Na˛ahga˛ (bushman shapeshifter) and Ama (mother).
Leung further challenges readers to consider the limitations that the English language itself presents. “The shape of stories is ingrained in me because I can only read in English,” she explains, adding that she values the “oral storytelling tradition in Cantonese.” Leung strives to allow a story “to meander and find its own shape and way” and courts innovation: “The question of coherence fascinates me because many of us who have been historically marginalized from literature have often been rendered ‘incoherent’ when we depart from the rules, conventions, terms of telling and engagement.”
Learning and un-learning is a vital force in creativity as well as in our survival. Vadnais explores possibilities that exist in the tension between different understandings of “progress.” In Fauna, the “slowness” of non-human existence resides in a “cosmic” sphere, which contrasts with the “technological world and its speed.” Transformation characterizes Vadnais’ narrative: her characters un-learn and re-learn, en-vision and re-vision.
By creating characters that embody the “tumult of human existence, which has changed something as huge as the Earth’s climate in less than a few hundred years,” Vadnais invites readers to join in slowing and opening to the “strange and marvelous.” Understanding that humans cannot disconnect from the environment, that “everything we do to the Earth will affect us eventually, coming back into our bodies”—this “opens a space where we can rethink our systems,” rooted in our “need to care.”
Vadnais embodied inter-connectedness when she “began to run regularly alongside a river, among the trees, and doing so, to feel deeply the air I breathe in and out, in and out, in and out.” Borders dissolved. “I breathed pollen,” she writes: “I swallowed mosquitoes by accident.” She realized that “even though we live very different lives, we share many things on this planet, most importantly its future.”
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