September 27, 2023


Arts Eternal

Climate fiction needs to challenge and inspire, say these Canadian authors

Hello, Earthlings! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Climate fiction needs to challenge and inspire, say these Canadian authors
  • Netflix’s enviro satire Don’t Look Up is polarizing — and very popular
  • How scientists know the New Year’s Day boom over Pittsburgh was an exploding meteor

Climate fiction needs to challenge and inspire, say these Canadian authors

(Arden Wray/ ECW Press/Mike Kalimin)

What On Earth27:01Cozy up with climate fiction

“Cli-fi” is a growing literary genre that, at its best, can inspire hope and spur action. Hear from Catherine Bush, Premee Mohamed and David Huebert about their new works of fiction. 27:01

Floods, record-breaking heat waves and forest fires brought climate change close to home for many Canadians in 2021 — and that includes authors, some of whom have begun weaving climate themes into their fiction. 

What On Earth host Laura Lynch spoke with three Canadian authors about how fiction can inspire action, and the climate-themed books that have influenced their own work. 

Catherine Bush, Blaze Island (2020)

Guelph, Ont., author Catherine Bush begins her latest novel, Blaze Island, with a climate change-induced storm battering an idyllic island off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. Inspired by Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, Bush recasts the character of Prospero the magician as a contemporary climate scientist desperate to protect his daughter, Miranda, from the dangers of a changing climate. 

“I believe that storytelling is actually key to our survival as a species,” Bush said. “All fiction at its root wants to seduce through story, but also transform through story.” 

To that end, Bush aims to inspire positive emotions in her readers.

“I think we need more wonder and awe, not just despair and fear,” she said. “Wonder and awe and care are what are going to transform us.”

Bush said her approach was inspired by Sarah Ray’s book A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety. “[Ray] talks about replacing the idea of hope with desire. Hope is a more passive state, whereas desire leads to purpose and action,” she said.

Bush’s other climate-themed reading recommendations include Darryl Whetter’s novel Our Sands and Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Crusted Snow.

Premee Mohamed, The Annual Migration of Clouds (2021)

Edmonton author Premee Mohamed’s latest novella takes place long after climate disasters have wreaked havoc around the globe. The Annual Migration of Clouds is set on the abandoned University of Alberta campus, where a community of survivors cobbles together an existence as they cope with an incurable disease. 

Mohamed said she sees hope for the future in the collective mindset of her characters. As she watched the flooding disasters unfold in British Columbia last November, the power of community became even more apparent to her. 

“If I’d been in that situation, I actually wouldn’t have been able to evacuate. I don’t have a vehicle and, for medical reasons, I’m not supposed to drive,” she said. “I would have had to rely on my community to hopefully look after me and get me out of there.”

Her publisher, ECW, describes the speculative fiction novella as “hopepunk,” a subgenre with optimism at its core. 

“Hopepunk is not about unbearable naiveté or optimism that ignores the facts of the world,” said Mohamed. Rather, it recognizes the dangers facing humanity and suggests that people can fight back in positive, communal ways. 

“I would like to see more characters and more books acknowledging that these terrible problems and the villains and the antagonists and the systemic issues can be solved together, in ways that don’t devolve into a bloodbath,” she said.

Mohamed suggested Gun Island by Amitav Ghosh as another work of climate-themed fiction.

David Huebert, Chemical Valley (2021)

Halifax author David Huebert named his latest collection of short stories after Chemical Valley, a region in Sarnia, Ont., with a large number of plants and refineries. 

Many of Huebert’s characters make their living from the petrochemical industry, but also see the impacts of climate change. 

“There is a necessity to move beyond the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “But I also wanted to think in more complicated ways about the ways that all of our lives are entangled in oil.”

Huebert’s stories have humour woven through them, something he believes is a helpful way to counter climate dread and anxiety. 

“It can also be a way of processing, and a way of turning these feelings on their heads and examining them. And it’s certainly one of the ways that we can be together as people.” 

One of Huebert’s influences is the book Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age, in which author Nicole Seymour asks readers to rethink the environmental movement’s doom-and-gloom attitude. “I think there’s room for more levity in climate change discourse,” Huebert said. 

His other recommendations for climate literature include Underland by Robert Macfarlane and Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World’s Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell.

Rachel Sanders

Reader feedback

After Emily Chung’s article about homes retrofitted to float during floods, many readers wrote in to ask what happens to sewer, water, gas and electricity lines when a house lifts off its foundation. 

Elizabeth English of the Buoyant Foundation Project said that’s by far the most common question she gets asked. The answer? There are two options: using flexible, extended “umbilical lines,” or self-sealing breakaway lines. 

She added, “This technology has already been well-developed by the marine industry, so I can borrow from what’s already there and not have to invent anything new for this.”

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

There’s also a radio show and podcast! This week, What On Earth has updates from some of our previous guests who have inspired us with their climate action. Hear from a teen trying to change the law, a community that’s building climate-smart housing, and moreWhat On Earth airs Sunday at 12:30 p.m., 1 p.m. in Newfoundland. Subscribe on your favourite podcast app or hear it on demand at CBC Listen.

The Big Picture: Don’t Look Up

If you read the news and/or have a Netflix subscription, you are probably aware of Don’t Look Up, the new film starring Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio. 

The movie, which was launched in December, is a scorching satire about a society that seems blasé about the fact that a comet is on course to obliterate Earth. When a pair of astronomers (played by DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) attempt to get the media and the U.S. government to take this world-altering event seriously, they are met with scorn and ridicule.

The film, which was scripted by director Adam McKay and writer David Sirota, is a none-too-subtle comment on a slower-moving emergency, namely the climate crisis. Given the topic, is it surprising that the reviews have been polarizing? Rolling Stone, for example, said that “while McKay may believe that we’re long past subtlety, it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable.” 

Critics can debate whether Don’t Look Up is art or merely agit-prop, but millions of people have indeed found it “watchable.” It’s currently the most popular film on Netflix and its third-most popular film of all time.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

How scientists know the New Year’s Day boom over Pittsburgh was an exploding meteor

(Steven Adams/Getty Images)

The new year started with a bang in Pittsburgh.

Astronomer Diane Turnshek was in her kitchen on the morning of Jan. 1 when she heard a “humongous crash.” 

She wasn’t alone. People all over the city reported hearing the boom.

After ruling out the weather or any kind of local phenomenon, she came to the same conclusion NASA and the National Weather Service (NWS) would eventually reach — this was a meteor exploding over Earth.

“A meteor just makes total sense,” Turnshek, a lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University, told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.

When she heard and felt the impact at about 11:26 a.m. ET, Turnshek’s mind instantly turned to the stars. “As an astronomer, my immediate thought is it’s something celestial.” 

But first she had to eliminate all other possibilities. For example, could it have been some kind of local incident — a car accident, a shooting or fireworks? 

That didn’t make sense. A quick online search showed that people as far as 80 kilometres away from her had reported hearing the boom.

What about an earthquake?

“I work at Allegheny Observatory and we have a very sensitive seismograph,” Turnshek said. “The seismograph didn’t show anything whatsoever.”

Meanwhile, officials at the NWS and NASA were busy investigating. Shannon Hefferan, an NWS meteorologist in Pittsburgh, said they were able to rule out lightning using GOES-16, a weather satellite operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The NWS tweeted on Saturday that a meteor was “the most likely explanation.” That was just an educated guess, Hefferan said, but NASA later used the same satellite to confirm it was, indeed, a meteor — specifically a chunk of rock from an asteroid.

“It was moving directly north to south,” said William J. Cooke, head of NASA’s Meteoroid Environment Office. “All the data points were in a straight line, and lightning does not behave that way. Only meteors behave that way.”

NASA was able to glean more information about the fireball thanks to scientists at Western University in London, Ont., who examined data from an infrasound station in Pennsylvania that captured the sound wave.

They estimated the meteor was hurtling at 72,420 km/h.

Had it not been cloudy in Pittsburgh on Saturday, people would have seen it illuminate the sky with a light 100 times brighter than a full moon, Cooke wrote on the NASA Meteor Watch Facebook page. 

NASA estimates it was about a metre in diameter with a mass of around 450 kilograms (roughly like a grand piano). Cooke says a meteor that size crashes to Earth 100 times a year, once every three or four days. But it’s extremely rare in Pennsylvania. 

Turnshek spends a lot of time star-gazing, and says she’s never seen anything like it. 

“I’ve seen bolides [large meteors] before at night. They do make a sizzling noise and you can sometimes hear a repercussion in the air,” she said. “But I didn’t think that there could be one that large, that big [and] that noisy. I mean, it was terrifyingly loud.”

The next step, she says, is to search for the meteor’s remnants. It definitely would have crashed to Earth, she said, but it’s hard to say whether it would have broken into tiny shards spread over a large area, or if there are some “fair-sized chunks” somewhere out there.

She says a nice chunk of meteorite could be worth a pretty penny, but for her, that’s beside the point.

“I just think it’s wonderful to have someone touch a piece of rock that was out in space,” she said. “That’s the value of it to me … here’s a celestial wonder right in your hand.”

Sheena Goodyear

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty