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What impact is climate change having on literature?

ByLeila Shafiq

Feb 15, 2024

Literature has long been a way to explore societal concerns and challenges. We can see how previous generations perceived the environment in novels like Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, or poems such as Lord Byron’s Darkness. Dickens describes London just after the Industrial Revolution as ‘inanimate’, ‘a dark sooty spectre’, while, in 1816, Byron imagines the freezing of the whole planet following a season of freak weather conditions. 

We can also trace early responses to environmental exploitation in world literature, especially to the disruption of rural economies. One example is Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart from 1958, which depicts the arrival of the British in precolonial Nigeria. Achebe initially describes how the Igbo community live in harmony with their natural resources but, by the end of the novel, the land has become ‘choked by weeds’. 

Contemporary literature has become more explicit in tackling environmental destruction and climate change as subject matter. This is reflected in the work of authors like Arundhati Roy and Amitav Ghosh. In Roy’s Booker Prize winning The God of Small Things from 1997, she describes ‘The rats racing across the ruined landscape with dollar signs in their eye. The world crashing around them’. 

Both Roy and Ghosh took to writing non-fiction to share their concerns about climate change and to press the need for action – both in a political and a literary sense. In Ghosh’s The Great Derangement in 2016, he describes the lack of cultural depictions about climate change as deranged. Just two years later though, Richard Powers’ novel Overstory, which directly deals with the issue of deforestation, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. 

Ghosh considered this the turning point at which the environment and climate change became mainstream in literature. This can be seen in novels such as Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, which received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2018, and Leave the World Behind, which was recently made into a Netflix film. 

But, while it’s great that climate change literature is starting to get its moment in the sun, we might question why Overstory, by a white American, was one of the first novels to garner international respect and attention specifically for exploring environmental damage when postcolonial authors like Roy and Achebe have been writing about the same issues for decades.

Truncated Spurs in an Alpine Glacial Environment” by Richard Allaway is licensed under CC BY 2.0