Literary comment and ecological crisis

Today is World Oceans Day, designated by the United Nations as a “reminder of the major role oceans play in everyday life”. Over seventy per cent of the Earth’s surface, our oceans are under threat – from plastic pollution, waste, overfishing, the destruction of coral reefs, and a calamitous raft of human activity.  Not least is ocean warming, with an increase in ocean temperatures by 1-4°C over the past thirty years.

Since Pliny the Elder (ACE 23–79), author of Naturae historiae (Natural History), wrote of geography, zoology, botany, and a host of environment topics, writers have turned their attention to humans’ natural surroundings. In the late twentieth century, authors of fiction began to sound a warning note. Literature is now filled with environmental concerns and ‘ecocriticism’ (a term most prominently used by William Rueckert in 1978). Fiction is used repeatedly to highlight environmental ethics and related societal values. Some powerful examples are given below, spanning over fifty years.

The Drowned World (1963) by JG Ballard. At a time of less awareness of climatological threat to our planet, Ballard’s early novels, including The Drowned World and The Crystal World (​1966) depicted the outcomes of climate-related disaster. Set in 2145 (which may, at present, seem an optimistic date), global warming has melted the polar ice caps, creating the ‘drowned world’ of the title. Humid jungles overrun a now tropical London, with few survivors remaining of human civilization. Dr. Robert Kerans’ biological testing station is all but submerged as he observes the insect and plant life that has begun to exert biological dominance. Kerans is our guide and companion to a descent from what we understand as a civilised world, where humans were pre-eminent, into primitive savagery, where humans must fights to survive against the odds. This book delivers a strong warning about the precariousness of humankind’s technology-driven “superiority”.

The Year of the Flood (2009) by Margaret Atwood is the second book of her dystopian Maddaddam  trilogy, set in ‘Year 25’. To emphasise the impact of ecological catastrophe, and the fallout from man’s widespread experimentation with bioengineering that was the theme in its predecessor Oryx and Crake, the novel narrows its focus to God’s Gardeners, a frail community of survivors. Amongst other environmental challenges, these surviving humans are beset by an unnamed epidemic, one that appears to affect sufferers to different degrees of severity (sound familiar?) ‘The Corporations’, most in evidence from their security arm CorpSeCorps, hold totalitarian control, the results of animal genetic experimentation roam wild, and any teetering ecological balance of the planet that remains is under threat. We see this world through the eyes of main protagonists Ren and Toby, and any remaining hope for the world lies in their humanity.

Gold Fame Citrus (2016) by Claire Vaye Watkins draws on California’s history as a hub for those seeking fame and fortune – or simply an honest living. Set in the near future, climate change has wrought its doom and the once Golden State has become parched desert – largely deserted of people, too. Fugitives from their former lives Luz and ex-soldier Ray are squatting in an abandoned LA mansion, a tarnished relic of the past, with its symbolic empty swimming pool. Joined by ‘adopted’ toddler Ig, the small family’s journey further west echoes the pioneering spirit of old, the quest for betterment becoming a desperate search for survival in an arid landscape populated by fanatics, survivalists, and conspiracy theorists. A world where fresh water is the new gold.


The above are set against a context of global environmental catastrophe. Yet for many communities and areas of the natural world, environmental disaster is not future threat: it has already struck. In his (non-fiction) book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Amitav Ghosh ponders why it is so difficult to get climate change into a modern English-language novel that is not science fiction – or dystopian fiction.  Examples of work that explore current, ‘real-world’ impact include: Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, which explores the impact of Hurricane Katrina on a poor black family in Mississippi, as they exist through the storm and deal with its aftermath and The Overstory by Richard Powers, in which the passage of time is marked around the life of an old – and doomed – chestnut tree on the Hoel family farm, through Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Any further suggested examples are welcomed.

Images thanks
Main image Victor Serban on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “Literary comment and ecological crisis

  1. An intriguing selection, Libre

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There are so many other examples, such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, but I want to include those I have read. Not sure I have the stomach for The Road at the moment; it looks very harrowing!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Michael Graeme Jun 9, 2021 — 12:17 pm

    I’m quite a fan of Ballard, and realize I have yet to read Drowned World. I shall look it up. I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read Atwood at all. I have read McCarthy’s “Road” and wished I hadn’t, which isn’t to say it’s not a good book, just unrelentingly nightmarish – too much for me really. Harrowing is the word. I’ve recently begun re-reading “After London”, by Richard Jeffries, a post apocalyptic novel from 1885.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ballard’s output is extraordinary. Not sure why I haven’t read more by him – note to self. I’ll look out for the Richard Jefferies – a new writer to me. A reminer that London has long been at risk of flooding (predicting 1928?) Yes, on The Road, I don’t think I have the mental strength for it at the moment! Perhaps some of the threat is too close to home.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Michael Graeme Jun 10, 2021 — 4:15 pm

        I’m fond of Jeffries. He was a naturalist, a romantic, and a bit of a nature mystic.
        All the best.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ll have to check out Ward’s book. I enjoyed Men We Reaped, so I’m sure what you’ve suggested is eye-opening.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I haven’t read Men We Reaped, but I’ll look out for it. Ward’s writing is excellent in Salvage the Bones; it’s a wonderfully plotted coming-of-age story.

      Liked by 1 person

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