Book Box | Why I changed my mind about reading climate change books
A picture book, a thriller, environmental reporting and YA novels help me change my mind about reading on climate change
It's a winter evening, and you're climbing the mountainside toward your family home. It’s quiet, too quiet. The mellow lights of the hotels glow around you, but there's no light in the rooms —they are all unoccupied.
"It's been like this since August, since the rain, the floods, the landslides," your friend tells you. She runs the cafeteria at Manali’s Mission Hospital."You don't know how bad it's been. It was carnage. Sitting here, we saw the bodies come in."
You had read the news reports: The river Beas overflowing its banks, hillsides caving in. "All that dynamite blasting, tunnels through the mountains," the papers said. "It's the contractors dumping debris in the river, you can't do this to a river; it will hit back", the climate activists said.
The elements, so powerful and frightening, have been taken for granted by city dweller decision-makers. You think back to a picture book—The Mysteries. Its author Bill Watterson, the famous creator of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, has moved from existence to existentialism. The stark black-and-white images of the picture book dance before your eyes; when people dismiss the elements and build all over, climate change catastrophe strikes, it seems to say.
But you stop, not wanting to dwell on climate change. It feels too overwhelming. Besides, you can’t do anything about it, so why depress yourself by reading books about it?
You turn instead to a thriller, to Terry Hayes's The Year of the Locust. Like his earlier book, I Am Pilgrim, you land directly in the intrigue and non-stop action — moving stealthily from Afghanistan and then to Iran. You find yourself amidst American drone pilots directing surgical strikes on Islamic terrorists.
And then something shocking happens. A rogue country starts to extract ore from asteroids in outer space, neglecting all human and planetary costs and safety measures. The consequences are catastrophic.
So much for burying your head in the sand; reality may strike you anywhere, even in the pages of a thriller. "Oh my God, this could happen," you think as you find yourself trying to survive in the underground tunnels of a wasted world. Yes, this is a dramatic thriller, but it's also a story of what could happen to your world. It's a warning.
Shocked out of your denial, you bravely pick up a book everybody is talking about—on forest fires in Canada. If The Year of the Locust blames the Iranians and Russians for the state of the planet, Fire Weather by John Vaillant is more balanced. It is also more excoriating of how rapacious your world has grown to be.
Suddenly you are pulled into the boreal Canadian provinces. “In the forest, out of sight, things were changing. Winter snowfall had been far below average for two years running and though it was still early spring in the north, leaves and pinecones crackled underfoot as if it were late summer" says an early description.
Fire Weather goes deep into the roots of climate change, connecting the policies established in the days of fur trading, to oil and gas, and the current forest fires.
“By making beaver skins a standardised unit of currency, and offering irresistibly attractive and useful things in return, the Company and its aggressive competitors turned the inhabitants of the boreal forest, human and animal alike, into a huge, surprisingly efficient profit-making machine—until they exhausted the resource. In so doing, the fur trade shaped Canada’s creation myth and set the tone for how extractive industries continue to operate there.”
People choose to work in these oil and gas extractive industries for the money it gives them, says the book. But working here wreaks a terrible toll on their lives, with scarily high statistics of accidents, depression and drug use.
Reading about climate change gives you a sense of the scale of the problem. It shows you this stems from the capitalist systems your world has established. It helps you discern patterns of disasters worldwide—a tsunami here, a cyclone there, forest fires elsewhere. These are not just isolated disasters; they're part of a unified whole.
You reach home and pull out the book by your bedside—Wintering by Katherine May, a story of using the quiet of winter to retreat and rejuvenate. The book matches your mood, as you look at the bare apple trees outside your window, set against the dark winter sky. You put on the kettle for your mug of cocoa, pull on your chunky woollen socks and dive into your duvet with Wintering.
The next morning, the sun is out, and you wake up hopeful. As you walk through the forest to the marketplace, you breathe in the air around you, savour the smell of the pines, and even drink in the pollen dust on the path. Reading about the bareness of a post-climate-change world has compelled you to stop and look at the earth around you. It's true what Arati Kumar-Rao says in her book Marginslands, you've lost touch with the landscapes around you.
Reading about climate change doesn't mean you have to become a climate activist. It means being more cognizant of the power of the elements and more aware of the implications of the hidden costs your economic systems don’t measure. Reading about climate change means embracing the many measures suggested by people around you—small and significant—recycle, buy local, buy less, and postpone that transcontinental trip.
Reading about climate change means you are propelled to give your children the right books to catalyse change. You begin with gifting copies of The Little Rainmaker and Between Sea and Sky – climate change stories in which children are the agents of change.
And this, dear Reader, is why I changed my mind about reading books on climate change. What about you - are there any climate change titles that you recommend?
Or have you chosen to pick up another stark book that is in the news - the Booker Prize-winning Prophet Song?
Whatever you choose, here’s to an energising weekend of reading!
Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at email@example.com
The views expressed are personal
Books recommended in this edition of Book Box
The Mysteries by Bill Waterstone and John Kascht
The Year of the Locust by Terry Hayes
I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes
Fire Weather by John Vaillant
Wintering by Katherine May
Marginlands by Arati Kumar -Rao
The Little Rainmaker by Roopal Kewalya
Between Sea and Sky by Nicola Penfold
Prophet Song by Paul Lynch
Further reading on climate change
The Ministry of the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: In this eco-thriller, the governments of the earth scrabble to work together in a United Nations like climate ministry, fighting climate change, eco-terrorists and their own petty jealousies. Scarily prophetic yet ultimately hopeful.
Hot Mess by Matt Winning: A comedian uses humour to make climate change understandable in a funny yet informative mix.
Silent Spring by Rachel Carson: The original environmental expose, this 1962 publication has fired the beginnings of the environmental movement.