I never tire of it. The way stories emerge from words on a page, each one twisted and bent out of form by our perception. The way a few splotches of ink on a page can stir something primal and emotive within us in the same way a rolling landscape or glowing sunset can is magical. We like stories, us humans, because they provide frameworks for the ultimate story that is never finished, until suddenly it is: our own. Stories are like peering down pathways of what could be, but they also offer peepholes into the lives of those we may never meet. As Yuval Noah Harari says in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, “Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.”
Fiction, too, can coax people from a liminal awareness of an issue right into the beating heart of it. As humans, we have always made that which confuses, astounds and terrifies us into art, both to communicate our feelings and in an attempt to exert some control. Art always alters your frame of reference, and writers are using this fact to propel people towards awareness and action. For example, the ecological message in Richard Powers’ The Overstory is stronger, more compelling and more far-reaching than journalistic reports or polemics could ever be. The affinity created through his intricate characters draws you in. Fiction moulds reality into something we can grasp and heightens its impact.
That’s why in 2020 I began speaking to young people all over the world. The stories I assemble in The Children of the Anthropocene are scattered across the globe, each one messy and emotive and deeply inspirational. From Lesein, who started planting trees every time he scored a goal, to Belyndar, who watched her beloved island being submerged from her window, to Iris, whose home and family’s livelihood was ravaged by floods, young people all over the world are experiencing the environmental crisis in different ways. I could pore over statistics for hours and churn them out on social media trying to propel people to action, but in a time when we need people to be invested deeply, personally in combatting this crisis, I wanted to use these stories as vehicles to move people from apathy to action.
The biggest environmental problems are not exclusively biodiversity loss, climate change and pollution, they’re greed, apathy and a lack of imagination which makes environmentalism nothing more than a way to contemplate disaster, rather than a driver of action. Stories can act as portals into an improved society where innovation and sustainability prevail over decimation. When one third of the world’s natural resources are degraded, the story of Harvey Tweats, who is breeding and reintroducing functionally extinct reptiles to the British countryside, allowed me to imagine a future brimming with life rather than the apocalyptic wasteland we seem to be heading for. When it’s so easy to buckle under the weight of what is required of us as a species, the story of Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, who was propelled to act upon the illegally high levels of UK air pollution after the death of her nine-year-old daughter, demonstrated the sheer resilience we must show. It is stories which allow us to escape the weight of the problem, and fall in love instead with the possibility of a solution.
26 September 2022