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March 25, 2014
Literature and Climate Change
    by Robert Kropp

In which this writer turns to a writer of creative literature for inspiration and understanding in considering the climate crisis.

The distinguished novelist Zadie Smith has composed a brief essay entitled Eleg y for a Country’s Seasons that was recently published in the New York Review of Books. If I were to presume to describe Smith's eloquent prose, I would call it a poetic reverie on climate change.

Smith writes, “There is the scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather, but there are hardly any intimate words. Is that surprising? People in mourning tend to use euphemism; likewise the guilty and ashamed.” Her use of the word euphemism is critical: “A mild or indirect word or expression substituted for one considered to be too harsh or blunt when referring to something unpleasant or embarrassing,” the Oxford Dictionary states. And euphemisms do not make literature.

The creative writer summons from deep within the forces that move her to speak. My point may be arguable, and may become even more so when I contend that literature's impact has been so great throughout human history because those forces summoned by the writer are forces shared by all of us. Smith frames her essay in terms of what her imagined granddaughter might experience at the age of seven in 2050, after climate change unleashes effects far more destructive than we are comfortable thinking about today.

As the science journalist Dianne Dumanoski wrote in her 2009 book The End of the Long Summer, “It is already too late to ‘prevent’ global warming or to ‘solve’ the climate crisis, too late to prevent powerful forces from altering the trajectory of human history.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will publish its Fifth Assessment Report on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability this week; having obtained a leaked draft, The Independent reports, “The warming climate will place the world under enormous strain, forcing mass migration, especially in Asia, and increasing the risk of violent conflict.”

Of her seven-year-old granddaughter, Smith writes, “Her teachers will already have explained that what was happening to the weather, in 2014, was an inconvenient truth, financially, politically—but that’s perfectly obvious, even now.” She imagines a present-day “ruthless pragmatist” who might say, “I understand very well what’s coming, but I am not concerned with my grandchildren; I am concerned with myself, my shareholders, and the Chinese competition.”

Sustainable investors know they cannot right the world's many wrongs by themselves, and I don't know exactly what they can do about such matters beyond the filing of shareowner resolutions, engaging in dialogues with corporations, and moving more of their investments into clean energy technologies. In the US, they look to regulators and Congress to make their efforts less quixotic; they have found too little assistance there. Those investors who focus on environmental and social justice have made great strides, and are to be commended for pressuring many of the world’s largest corporations to consider such issues. But their success has necessarily been incremental, and global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to rise.

“A global movement of the people might have forced it onto the political agenda, no matter the cost,” Smith writes as she envisions that dialogue with her granddaughter in the not-too-distant future. “What she will want to know is why this movement took so long to materialize.”

My youngest child is 15 years old, and even to leave it to her relatively proximal generation would be irresponsible and morally bankrupt, especially considering what we know by now of the threat of climate change brought on by human activity.

“That we have already crossed some ominous thresholds, however, does not mean that it is too late to do anything at all,” Dumanoski wrote. “We humans are at a critical juncture – an historical moment that requires courage and sober realism.”

Robert Kropp can be contacted at


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