Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel

By | November 2, 2017

Guest post by Astrid Bracke

At some point early into my research on climate crisis, I began to get the feeling that climate crisis was everywhere. I saw it referenced in films, novels, in food advertising. This, of course, happens to anyone who immerses herself in a topic: suddenly, her new interest seems all over. I quickly discovered, however, that references to climate crisis really are everywhere. Especially in the years since the beginning of this century, climate crisis has moved from merely an ecological or political problem, to an issue that has become firmly entrenched in our cultural awareness. 

In Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel I write about how the stories we tell about climate crisis are how we try to understand, imagine and come to terms with it. Novels, I argue, don't only reflect awareness of climate crisis, but shape how we tell its story.

One of the dominant stories (or narratives) I write about in Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is that of climate crisis collapse. This story is familiar from contemporary films as much as novels. What I found particularly interesting is that environmental collapse never comes alone: it always coincides with social, economic and political collapse. In Sarah Hall's The Carhullan Army, for example, the disappearance of the seasons is described in the same breath as the rise of a totalitarian regime in Britain.

Yet in writing my book I particularly wanted to show that climate crisis isn't only depicted in the story of collapse, but that it influences all of the stories we tell about our natural environment, and quite a few we tell about ourselves.

Another story I explore is that of urban nature. In cities people engage in unique ways with nature and climate crisis, for example through the "real" or local food movement. In Zadie Smith's N/W the farm-to-table spinach that Natalie serves illustrates both her rising social status and the extent to which purchasing local foods is believed to be environmentally beneficent.

Climate crisis, livestock-diseases and the decline of agriculture have changed the most quintessential of British stories about nature: the pastoral. Pastoral is usually associated with idealization, but critiquing that idealization is as much part of it as many contemporary novels show. In Graham Swift's Wish You Were Here, for example, the Robinsons' enjoyment of their new house as an idyllic part of the countryside is time and again interrupted by references to BSE, death and war. 

The final story I write about in Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is that of the North and South Pole as dominant depictions of climate crisis. Interestingly, a lot of literary fiction about the Arctic is historical fiction. I discuss how past explorations of the Arctic hold up a mirror to contemporary engagements with the region, from tourism to environmentalism. In The Collector of Lost Things (Page) and The Deep Water (McGuire), for example, the nineteenth-century hunt for whales and bears foreshadows the Arctic as a canary in the mine of climate crisis – as well as a popular 'last chance to see' tourist destination.

Climate crisis really is everywhere – not just literally, as it is unfolding in the physical world around us, but also culturally. Twenty-first-century novels provide a perfect space in which to explore these stories of climate crisis, as well as how crisis affects our ideas about ourselves and the world we live in.

I've written more about Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel on my website.


Familiar from contemporary films:

Urban nature:

My website:


ClimateAstrid Bracke is Lecturer in English Literature at HAN University of Applied Sciences (Nijmegen, The Netherlands). Her book Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel is now available from Bloomsbury's Environmental Cultures series.

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