Writing in the Anthropocene
July 6, 2022 § 4 Comments
By E.A. Farro
Today, the stars wouldn’t get between Romeo and Juliet. The lovers could call one another or share locations and avoid tragic misunderstandings. Cell phones and satellites are just two of the technological achievements that require resource extraction and consumption, changing the chemical composition of our air and water. The shipwrecks that begin The Tempest and Twelfth Night wouldn’t be acts of god today. The storms would be extreme weather made more likely by climate change.
While literature has always explored advances in technology and their effect on human health and the environment, we’ve reached an inflection point. The rate of change in how we engage with technology and the associated impacts on our planet are unprecedented. The atmosphere in which characters live and plots unfold have changed as irrevocably as the one in which we live.
Geologic time periods are named to tell a story, starting with the Hadean (the Netherworlds), before life existed. Our current eon, the Phanerozoic (visible life) began 541 million years ago when animals evolved shells that left behind fossils. The proposed name for our current epoch is the Anthropocene—anthropo from the Greek for human—because humans have become the driving force on Earth. There is disagreement about the start of the Anthropocene. Estimates range from the beginning of agriculture, more than ten thousand years ago, to the detonation of the first atomic bomb in 1945. Books like Elizabeth Kolbert’s Sixth Extinction digest how industrialization reshaped not only our own destiny but also that of the more than eight million other species on Earth.
Hurricanes, wildfires, and pandemics are no longer acts of divine retribution. What once formed boundary conditions are malleable. We are the gods. Or, at least, we’ve taken over key elements of their role without approaching omniscience. With all our power, we don’t know if reaching outer space or creating artificial intelligence is good or bad. We increase the quality of our life by removing mountain tops, like a snake eating its own tail. We have never been so powerful or so afraid of our own power. In Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem this self-hatred is enough to fuel a movement to help aliens take over Earth.
Facing existential crisis, we document the fragility and power of nature, like in Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s World of Wonder, Elizabeth Rush’s Rising, Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge, and literary journals like Orion. We meditate on our relationship to place, like in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Annie Dillard’s Tinker at Pilgrim Creek, and literary journals like The Common and Ecotone. This writing soothes us with beauty, alarms us with destruction, and demands that we pay attention. It reminds us that we, too, are animal.
The awareness of climate change, ocean acidification, space trash, and sea-level rise permeate stories far outside of the genre of science and nature writing. In Present Tense Machine by Gunnhild Oyehaug, the protagonists are separated by parallel worlds, and while climate change is not a plot point, the characters’ awareness of it reverberates as an additional anxiety throughout the book.
Imagining our future offers both warnings and hope. LeVar Burton says “By simply accepting the invitation to contemplate the ‘what if’ we unleash our superpower on the very nature of possibility itself, oftentimes resulting in the seemingly miraculous.” Anthony Doerr depicts living in a spaceship for multiple generations in Cloud Cuckoo Land. Octavia Butler shows the collapse of civilized society in Parable of the Sower. Benjamin Percy plays out a new energy source in The Ninth Metal. These books shove our faces in the consequences, intended or not, of human actions and choices.
Writing in the Anthropocene means facing unbearable tradeoffs. The fate of humans and our planet is an active question. Answering requires us to weigh our current food, flights, and fortunes against the lives of our descendants and the continued existence of other species. This reckoning carries accompanying grief and displacement. We need storytelling to integrate science, and what is at stake, into our personal narratives and government policies. Perhaps art can reach our hearts or, more importantly, our imaginations, where statistics and facts fail.
In Romeo and Juliet, the death of the young lovers shocks Verona out of the cycle of vengeance. It heals a broken system. Romeo and Juliet, today, would debate whether or not to bring children into a broken world. What future could their son and daughter inhabit? And would increasing the population only lead to more environmental destruction?
Science cannot answer all of the questions that confront us. Is a lake a spiritual entity worth saving? An ocean? Do we even know what spiritual means anymore? Is bravery in shades of gray or is it black and white?
Where science can go no further, art continues on, alone, into the dark of unknowing.
E.A. Farro is a climate scientist who spent several years working on environmental policy in politics. Her publications have appeared in The Rumpus, The Kenyon Review, and The Normal School, among others. She is a recipient of a Minnesota State Art Board grant, a Nan Snow Emerging Writers Award, a residency at Everwood Farmstead, among others. She teaches at the Loft Literary Center.