A hashtag popped up on Twitter last week: #ifonlytheearthcouldspeak. Yes! That’s a good prompt to contemplate right now. The hashtag elicited a range of responses from funny and snarky to thoughtful and earnest. Some tweeters suggested that the earth is speaking, but we’re not listening. Would that be Gaia? The environmental scientist James Lovelock first formulated the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, proposing that the Earth could be seen as one vast living and self-regulating system, and naming it for Gaia, the primordial Greek Earth goddess. The idea has been borne out since then, but its popularity may owe a lot to Lovelock’s naming it for the Greek Mother Earth, thus connecting it in our minds to the much earlier and long-lived human sense of the earth as a living force.
In the last week, the earth’s atmosphere reached an ominous new milestone: atmospheric carbon dioxide levels broke past 410 parts per million, after hitting 400 parts per million in 2013. The last time atmospheric carbon concentrations were this high was in the Middle Pliocene, 3.6 million years ago. Our continuing to pump carbon and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, combined with the unknown effects of climate feedback, are cause for alarm. For those of us who don’t deny the facts, it’s a scary time. I’ll be at the People’s Climate March in Washington D.C. in a few days, one of the hundreds of thousands of people needing to bear witness to the urgency of this moment.
But are facts enough to rally people to action? You can’t see carbon concentrations, and even though the earth is now experiencing changes that are much faster than the normal geological time scale, these changes are often too slow, too big, or too abstract for us to easily take in. As author Kim Stanley Robinson has said, “Fiction can tell us how new situations will feel, and also, what things mean.” Robinson’s new novel, New York 2140, set in a partially submerged future New York, is one of several just-published works of climate fiction (cli-fi), the emerging genre that invites us to picture the human consequences of climate change. Robinson offers a vision of people muddling along and making their lives in the Venice-like canals of New York, both coping with the disasters that have occurred and aware there may be worse ahead.
But where is Gaia in this future? If Earth can be seen as a living thing, couldn’t we also benefit from trying to take its perspective—as different from ours as it may be? Science fiction has gone there already. Apparently inspired by the Gaia hypothesis, Isaac Asimov included a newly discovered, sentient planet named Gaia in his 1982 novel Foundation’s Edge. And Piers Anthony made “Gaea” a main character—an archetype of the Earth, embodied in a mortal—in Becoming a Green Mother (1988), part of his Incarnations of Immortality series.
The Book of Joan, an ambitious novel by Lidia Yuknavitch, just out this month, offers a character who is empathically connected with the Earth. Living only a few decades into the future, the visionary child-woman Joan of Dirt leads a rebellion among the survivors of an environmentally ravaged earth who are now living on an orbiting space-station sanctuary ruled by a billionaire dictator. This Joan of Arc for a nightmare future can manifest volcanic eruptions—her symbiosis with the planet allows it a form of expression that can’t be ignored. It’s a risky novel, also taking on issues of gender, sex and race, and it’s on my to-be-read list.
These and other cli-fi novels do a great service by bringing the human consequences of climate change into vivid focus, at a human scale we can reckon with. If they tend to be dystopian, that is the kind of future that seems to be staring us in the face, given the forces we have already set in motion.
The Earth is speaking to us now, in her own language, not just through beautiful sunsets, but through rising sea levels, droughts, and strange weather patterns. Of course we need to be able to imagine the human costs of climate change. That’s how we think, and it is the most promising way toward changes in policy. But I also feel the need to see things from Gaia’s point of view—even if it means facing eruptions of traumatic scale and strength. What may be dystopian for us, may just be a cloudy afternoon for our long-lived planet. We desperately need to de-objectify the earth, and to try to reengage in something more like an “I–Thou” relationship with Gaia—not of equals, but in respect, and awe and wonder. I hope more writers will take up the challenge of imagining what she is saying, and might be saying in the future.