Most mainstream fiction has steered clear of climate change. It has appeared merely as an alternative to nuclear war or pandemic as the cause of the apocalypse in post-apocalyptic fiction, and while the list of non-fiction books on how we should deal with climate change now grows ever-longer, fiction writers have tended to look elsewhere for their topics. That is, until recently.

Solar, Inflight Entertainment and After the Flood

Ian McEwan, Solar (Jonathan Cape 2010), 285pp | Helen Simpson, In-Flight Entertainment (Jonathan Cape 2010), 132pp | Margaret Atwood, The Year of the Flood (Bloomsbury 2009), 434pp

This year has seen two works from acclaimed literary authors which take climate change as a central theme – Ian McEwan’s Solar and Helen Simpson’s In-Flight Entertainment – and there was a major contribution to the climate-change-as-apocalypse genre in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood at the end of last year. The way that climate change appears in the former two works presents a very particular picture of the causes of the problem and what solutions we should be striving for. Literary fiction as a genre tends to be more a left-liberal than a right-wing project, so you might expect these books to reflect this in their portrayal of climate change. In fact, they’re quite startlingly reactionary.

Solar tells the story of a Nobel-prize winning physicist, Michael Beard, trying to develop a new solar power technology as his womanising private life brings him ever closer to personal and professional disaster. In the stories in In-Flight Entertainment, the various characters mostly seem to be from the same professional, wealthy background as Solar’s Michael Beard. They have affairs, take trans-Atlantic flights, pitch new business ideas to investors or go on holiday with the shadow of catastrophic climate change. In the penultimate story, the shadow becomes a reality, as in ‘Diary of an Interesting Year’ we discover that in 2040, the effects of climate change have destroyed modern civilisation, and reduced society to a collection of brutish and frequently murderous individuals. In The Year of the Flood, the agent of destruction is actually a killer virus, but humanity’s contribution in destroying the environment and, ultimately, itself, is very clear.

These are not, to put it mildly, happy or optimistic books. For Simpson, we seem to be definitely doomed, and there is little in the way of a more hopeful message in Solar. It’s worth asking why their message is so negative; why these authors don’t appear to see any hope that we will be able to avert catastrophe, and whose fault they think that is.

It isn’t for want of climate campaigners, who are a continual presence in both Solar and In-Flight Entertainment, but portrayed in such an unsympathetic light that they seem to be a considerable part of the problem. In The Year of the Flood, the leader of the Gardeners, a cult-like group who aim to live without causing environmental destruction, describes how his group is seen by the mainstream: ‘They view us as twisted fanatics who combine food extremism with bad fashion sense and a puritanical attitude towards shopping’(p.48). He could have been talking about McEwan and Simpson. For both of these authors, greens are judgemental, holier-than-thou and tedious, achieving nothing except to irritate everyone else.

In Solar, this is mostly shown through the character of Tom Aldous, one of Beard’s assistants, who eats only salad and yoghurt, has a ‘wrist bracelet of grubby red and green string’(p.28) and talks non-stop about saving the planet. Beard comes to dislike him intensely, and while this is the character and not necessarily the author, we aren’t given any sign that we are supposed to disagree. ‘This was what he disliked about political people – injustice and calamity animated them, it was their milk, their lifeblood, it pleasured them.’ (p.36). This is Beard thinking, but it’s difficult not to read this as speaking for McEwan as well.

The various green characters in In-Flight Entertainment don’t come out any better, such as Angelika in ‘The Tipping Point’, who ends her relationship because it involves too much travelling and is therefore bad for the planet:

‘You could not bear it that our love was sustained at the expense of the future. By making it dependent on cut-price flights we were doing the single worst possible thing in our power as private individuals to harm the planet.
“Love Miles” I countered, morally righteous, fighting fire with fire.
“Selfish miles” you retorted: “We are destroying other people’s lives when we do this.” Very truthful and severe you are Angelika: very hard on yourself as well as others.’ (p.66)

The moral certainties of the environmentally-conscious might be off-putting and annoying, but they are also right. Both Simpson and McEwan pull off the odd trick of agreeing with their least likeable characters, as in these books climate change is being caused by the greed and selfishness of individuals, and we are shopping and holidaying our way to destruction.

Simpson says this plainly in her title story, in which she identifies flying as ‘far and away the fastest-growing source of man-made greenhouse gases’ (p.17) and as both unnecessary and inescapable. ‘We don’t need to fly’, the typically-irritating Jeremy tells his neighbour on an overnight flight, ‘But nobody’s going to give up flying, because it’s the biggest perk of modern life – so cheap and fast and easy.’ (p.16) In fact, the flying population of the rich world will happily destroy the rest, as the effects of climate change won’t hit them first. ‘And it doesn’t look like we’ll be voting for constraints on our flying until there’s mass death at home. First to go under will be Bangladesh, but until Miami and Sydney join it we’re not only not going to stop flying, we’re not going to fly less either. In fact, quite the opposite, we’re all set to fly more. Much more.’ (p.17)

McEwan is less direct, but one of the messages of Solar is surely that individual greed and selfishness will ruin attempts to deal with climate change, just as Beard’s personal life eventually puts an end to the launch of his new solar power technology. It’s quite a subtle argument, as McEwan is not characterising all greed as problematic. Capitalist greed for profit is an essential part of the solution. At the mid-point of the book, Beard delivers a conference speech on climate change, which McEwan makes a set piece, elegantly summarising right wing arguments about how there is no way of dealing with climate change except through market mechanisms. At a key point, Beard says:

‘This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow…For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and co-operation, the satisfaction of profit…You have the data in front of you, you have the choice – the human project must be safely and cleanly fuelled, or it fails, it sinks. You, the market, either rise to this, and get rich along the way, or you sink with all the rest.’ (pp.149-150)

This is a remarkable expression of faith in the centrality of the market, considering it was published over a year after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the whole passage has a surprisingly Thatcherite tone for an author beloved of The Guardian. For McEwan, capitalist greed is not only good itself, it is clearly more virtuous than other, more individual forms of greed, especially those relating to food.

Beard has come straight to the conference from the airport. He has eaten, we are told, a ‘meaty Germanic breakfast’ (p.118), lunch on the plane, a packet of salt and vinegar crisps on the train, and a plate of smoked salmon at the conference tea. As he is speaking, he is fighting not to be sick, and does actually have to slip behind a curtain to throw up as soon as he finishes. Capitalist greed might be beneficial, but Beard’s individual greed is certainly not. The irony of this passage above does not undermine market ideology, it is rather that for McEwan, human indiscipline and irrationality inevitably does undermine the discipline and rationality of the market.

Beard’s eating habits are something of a feature in Solar. We’re told that his weight increases throughout the nine years of the book’s action, and he seems to eat more as his behaviour becomes more reprehensible. Indeed, his final undoing interrupts his most gargantuan meal so far, consisting of ‘Four wedges of skinless chicken breast, interleaved with three minute steaks, the whole wrapped in bacon, with a honey and cheese topping, and served with twice-roasted jacket potatoes already impregnated with butter and cream cheese.’ (p.278) Clearly, anyone who eats this, and the culture that produces it, deserves all they get.

Beard starts the book as a womaniser, but his food intake is such a feature of the later sections that it overtakes his sexual behaviour as the main symbol of the greed and self-indulgence which will be his undoing. If this sounds as if McEwan is saying that humanity can’t deal with climate change because we eat too much, he wouldn’t be alone. There have been some academic attempts in the last few years to argue that fat people are destroying the planet, and equation of obesity with climate change is something of which Simpson also makes extensive use. In ‘Ahead of the Pack’, for example, a pitch for new business funding casts dealing with climate change as a diet for the planet:

‘And my point is? My point is: either we can carry on stuffing our faces and piling it on; or we can decide to lose weight. We’ve suddenly acquired this huge communal spare tyre of greenhouse gases; our binging has made the planet morbidly obese and breathless. Food, fuel; same difference. See where I’m coming from? And that was my eureka moment, when I realised that what’s needed is a global slimming club.’ (p.32)

The effect of this is to make climate change into something caused by individual self-indulgence – as opposed to, for example, capitalist production – and specifically, self-indulgence by fat people. Obesity is strongly identified with the working class in the West. There does seem to be a correlation at population level between poverty and obesity and, just as pertinently, the portrayal of obesity in the media is overwhelmingly as a problem of the working class. So we end up with the message that that the greed and stupidity of ordinary people will stop responsible capitalists from saving the planet for us.

This is not a progressive view of the problem of climate change or of climate change campaigning. Even Margaret Atwood, politically light years away from this sort of conclusion, seems to be arguing that the best we can do in the face of climate change is withdraw ourselves from our doomed society. But it isn’t inevitable that fiction on climate change should take these often reactionary lines.

Fiction writing inherently focuses on individuals, but this doesn’t have to mean that all problems in fiction are reduced to being individual responsibilities. McEwan and Simpson seem unaware of any possibility of a collective response to climate change. Such a collective response could be a fictional subject. After all, nearly 20 years ago, Marge Piercy used her dystopian novel Body of Glass (Penguin 1991), an example of a dystopia caused by climate change, to draw an effective portrayal of collective struggles against corporate domination. There are plenty of characters in this novel who see climate change as a result of innate human greed, and who see corporate profits as the only way forward, but they are shown to be wrong. The way towards both healing the planet and creating a fair society, despite the environmental destruction, turns out to lie with the groups fighting against the power of the corporations.

This isn’t a message which has to be restricted to futuristic writing. From Copenhagen to the parties at the pumps, there is surely much material for novelists to use in showing that it is possible to struggle together now against climate change. For a long time, climate change has not appeared as a subject for mainstream fiction. Maybe we won’t have to wait so long for the issue to get the fiction it deserves.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.