Authors and global warming: why don’t they care?

Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder is out with a new book, ‘Anna – A fable about the Earth’s climate and environment’. Fiction, in other words, about climate change. Something we haven’t seen much of among international bestsellers til this date. But, when you give it a thought, then why is it actually so? Wouldn’t you expect authors, of all people – with their sharp eyes for changes, their writing skills and their visionary, creative minds – to be the first ones to understand that the planet badly needs their contritution to something which can cause greater public awareness and consciousness about the catastrophic mess humanity has ended up in?

Jostein Gaarder and his new book about Anna

Obviously not, judging from the answers that two Danish authors gave to the Danish newspaper Information which on 25 February 2013 published an article about Gaarder’s new book under the headline ‘The crisis of the Earth also concerns authors and intellectuals’. (Klodens krise angår også forfattere og intellektuelle)

The acclaimed Danish author Ib Michael cannot see why it should be specifically the authors’ responsibility to deal with the climate and environment: “The sole responsibility of the author is to write good books, no matter what it’s about,” he told Information.

I would like to challenge that attitude.

And so would Jostein Gaarder. His new book is so far only available in Norwegian, but Gaarder is not just any author: he has another book out which is translated into 60 languages. 22 years ago, he wrote the bestseller ‘Sophie’s World’ which sold in 40 million copies. In 1995, it was the most sold book in the world.

With some of all the royalties which trickled in on his bank account, Jostein Gaarder and his wife established the environment award, the Sophie Prize, which each year since 1997 has rewarded a person who has made special efforts to create awareness about climate change and the environment, with 100,000 US dollars.

With the new book, Jostein Gaarder simply wants to increase awareness — both among young people and adults — about what climate change and environmental matter is about, he told the Danish newspaper:

“Namely that for the first time in the history of mankind we see, at worst, the contours of a collapse of our civilization. Today, we have an economic system which is on a collision course with what nature can endure.”

“We cannot just keep writing about relationships, about our relationship to one another — which is, of course, what literature is all about these days. We must also write about our relationship with the planet we live on, and we must be consistent in our ethical reflection,” Jostein Gaarder was quoted as saying.

The Danish author Susanne Staun, who was asked for a response to Gaarder’s statement, disagreed. She only wants to deal with issues that she’s passionate about, and she can certainly not see why it should be the authors’ responsibility to inform citizens about climate change and the environment. “If Jostein Gaarder is passionate about climate, he must of course write about that. But he must also allow the rest of us to write about what we are passionate about,” said Susanne Staun, while admitting that among Danish authors there is “a massive black hole” as far as their knowledge about climate change and the environment is concerned.

According to Gaarder, an ignorance of huge dimensions exists among even prominent Norwegian intellectuals. If you ask them a very basic, scientific question such as: “How much have humans increased the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere since industrialisation took off?”, they don’t know it. “They know nothing!”, Gaarder exclaimed to the Danish journalist of Information, Jørgen Steen Nielsen.

Well, how about the rest of us? Do we know the answer? I didn’t. Do you?

The answer is that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased by around 40 percent since humanity began burning off oil, coal and gas.

The two Danish authors’ statements provokes me. Couldn’t help it, half an hour after I had read Jørgen Steen Nielsen’s article, I couldn’t resist posting much too long comment below it on the webpage.

Artists, filmmakers and — sorry to say — not least our dear novelists, authors and writers at all levels and in almost all countries around the world have failed completely in relation to this question of how — or if — we can handle the climate catastrophe that common people only much too slowly are waking up to realise that all of humanity will be facing in just a few years’ time.

The news of 4°C degrees global warming by 2060 — and the consequences of this — are too incomprehensible. And too uncomfortable. Too hard to deal with.
Apparently also for the artists.

Literature plays — or could have played — a very special role here. Authors and artists carry a special responsibility, in my opinion. Much would have looked differently today if an army of artistic and creative talents already a long time ago had begun to play on all keys of their keyboards and use all their specific artistic skills to move us, alert us and give us the inclination to engage in these questions of climate change — if, with both seriousness and humour, with nightmare scenarios as well as ingenious solutions, they had shown the way — if, with commitment and passion, they had thrown themselves into the huge project of visualizing and articulating to the world’s population what kind of future the grown-up generations of today are in the process of creating — or rather: destroying — for our children, grandchildren and future generations — only because of convenience, indolence, laziness, materialism and short-sighted protection of yesterday’s investments in oil-based industry and infrastructure, the jobs related to it, and the share which a good number of those people with political power have in the profits from the extraction of oil, coal and gas.

Jostein Gaarder speaks about the ignorance of Norwegian intellectuals. At the risk of generalising, and solely based on the few authors I know personally, it is my impression that Jostein Gaarder’s statement is absolutely fitting and true in regard to Danish authors just as well.

(I don’t know about other countries… but please fill us in if you, dear reader, are from another country: how is it with the intellectuals and authors in your country?)

It is only when you begin to dig deeper down into the matter that it dawns on you how ignorant you have actually been for so many years.

I speak for myself here. It is just a few months ago I got a wet ‘wake-up’-cloth thrown in my face by the Danish climate minister, when he, in December 2012, returned from a Global Climate Summit in Doha, and in a television interview had difficulty concealing his anxiety and frustration with the situation. The situation which, according to a newly published report from the World Bank with its estimated four degrees global warming by 2060, means that we should begin to prepare ourselves for a collapse of civilization as we know it — a collapse of the day to day with all its relatively safety and cosiness as we have become so used to, not least in the Nordic countries.

Wow! Now they talk about a possible collapse of our civilization? That opened my ears and eyes. The world stood still for a second: Did someone say, “collapse of our civilization”? Was I the only one hearing the minister say that?

Until then I had lived in a kind of certainty our good world leaders would deal with this climate change problem, and eventually, after some negotiations back and forth, fix it.

But “No!” sounded the word from Doha: “We will not fix it. We cannot handle it, simply. This problem is a political dead duck because it is border-crossing and has such long-term impacts that it is impossible to solve by political means,” was how the message from Doha could be understood between the lines.

Well, so what?!

Can the Danes not hear it, inside there, in their closed cheese bell? Can’t they be reached?

Apparently not. We know nothing, because we would rather not know anything. We are very sorry, dear Mik, but we do not want to be disturbed in our comfortable, busy daily lives which are so rich and full with our facebook updates, children, Oscar awards on tv and horsemeat-scandal headlines all over the newspaper — or in our affluent writer-hideaways in tropical safe havens where we can really immerse ourselves and be passionately writing about our personal relationship experiences and concerns…

Why is it this picture reminds me of children playing in the sandbox, not looking up, while the dark clouds pull together over them?

Dear friends, authors, artists. The level of consciousness must be raised now. And it could very well be the authors and writers in this world who took the lead in a wave of new sustainable consciousness.

The urgency is hair-raising. Too much CO2 already floats around in the atmosphere. The polar ice is melting and some climate change scientists have already long considered it a battle lost. But there is still much we can change and achieve if we manage to saddle, change priorities, and start to be much more CO2-conscious in our behavior and the things we spend our time, money and energy on.

The transition to a sustainable lifestyle with renewable energy and green consciousness is not a long-haired, leftist dream. It’s fierce survival. Not for that businessman who currently feels untouchable in high-tech surroundings of glass and steel. But certainly for his/her children and grandchildren.

I actually had always thought that sensitive, intelligent and humane personalities as artists often are would be those who would walk in front in such a process. But I have noticed by the reactions I get on my Facebook page and blog notes that this is not the case — which is also well reflected by the two Danish authors’ comments on the article in Information.

Therefore, all thumbs up from here to this single Norwegian writer who, as a one-off in his own Oil Country with this fiction novel ‘Anna’ dares to make the attempt to bring the biggest story of our time, The Drama about Our Climate in under the skin of all of us.

I will buy his book because he should know that the signals he is sending out are so highly commendable.
It is the thought that counts here.

And even if the book turns out to be… maybe not so good, and even when it doesn’t turn into a new bestseller for Jostein Gaarder, wouldn’t that be exactly what’s needed in order to inspire others to try and do better?

For we have, for instance, yet to see a novelist create the ultimate eye-opening drama about what life will be like in Denmark when the global temperature has risen four degrees, the water stands 1.5 meters higher, and entire nations have been plunged into homelessness, drought, crop failure — yes, and everything we just did not even imagine yet … but which a good writer maybe would able to. And done in such a way, that we actually feel like reading it.

Global warming — and our reluctance to address the problem, although we could easily do it, if only we would get out of our comfortable sofas — is absolutely the biggest and most important question of our time. So we close our ears. We don’t want to hear about it. It’s easier to keep blinders on and stay in the ‘sandbox’ under the ‘cheese bell’ with a vague hope that the sinister storm will pass by itself — or that some clever engineers will solve the climate problem for us with a technical solution in the last hour.

Whatever… It won’t be affecting us — us, the decision-makers of society today, who according to the calendar will be long gone by the time the ‘shit hits the fan’.

As Jostein Gaarder points out: In the relationship between the present and future generations, lawlessness prevails. Our children will be facing a problem if they should want to go to court to ask for compensation from the fossil-fuel riches for the terrible destruction the CO2-emissions have caused: by the time the catastrophe begins to roll out, the culprits will probably more or less all be dead and gone.

So we can stay in our cozy cuddly cheese bell some years more where we can keep discussing and chitchatting about what is close around us — and leave it up to our children and grandchildren to deal with the mess and the guarding of themselves against the man-made climate chaos we — their parents — hand over to them.

Or …? should we, in the 12th hour, throw away the blinders, “take the spoon in the other hand,” as we say in Danish, and — like Jostein Gaarder — individually and separately begin to take personal responsibility for the mess, spend time and energy to study and enlighten ourselves on the matter, and then use all the combined forces we have participating in a joint effort to reverse the CO2 catastrophe before it is really too late?

If you are a parent, you should be doing it because it is your duty. You can make use of just those skills and that training, that starting point, that you have right now. You can start contributing simply with what you are able to:

If you are an architect, you begin to familiarise yourself with how to build the most sustainable houses.

If you are a home owner, you begin to recycle, buy green products, put solar on the roof and teach your kids about sustainability.

If you are an author, wow! you have readers already… You throw yourself into the brainstorm and considerations about how you can write a fantastic new book, a masterpiece that will change the world because it makes such a deep impression that it motivates its readers to go straight into action, into a sustainable lifestyle, or both. You could actually also do something different this time around: who says that writers always have to write books? You could use your talent to write an open letter to the Prime Minister or the United Nations, an essay, a play, a screenplay, an action plan.

“It is with our thoughts we create the world,” said Gautama Buddha 2,500 years ago. That concept, which I believe is true in many ways, places authors in a special position. With their intellect, insight and imagination they also are carriers of a unique potential: The ability to articulate visions as well as horror scenarios for the future. Stuff we can take inspiration from. Learn from.

We need to take responsibility at a personal level now. Simply because this is a matter of urgency. Not for you and me. But for those children we have brought into the world, because we thought we could give them and share with them a good life. And because we naively thought that planet Earth would just continue to be a great place to live.


‘Anna – A fable about the Earth’s climate and environment’ by Jostein Gaarder is currently being translated into Czech, German, Greek, Indonesian, and Spanish. It is for sale in Norwegian on
Dagbladet Information – 25 February 2013:
Klodens krise angår også forfattere og intellektuelle
“Throughout history literature has been dealing with the great human issues such as war, love, illness, etc. Now the climate is also one of those big questions, but an ignorance of huge dimensions prevails among the intellectuals, says the Norwegian author Jostein Gaarder, who is out with a new youth novel.”

Wikipedia, the open encyclopedia:


‘Anna. A fable about the earth’s climate and environment’

Here is the publisher’s description of Jostein Gaarder’s book:

‘Anna. A fable about the earth’s climate and environment’ is a typical Jostein Gaarder novel with a crafty build-up of events that makes the reader curious and excited. How is all of this connected?

When Anna turns 16 on 12 December 2012 she receives Aunt Sunniva’s red ruby ring, an old heirloom. Anna thinks about the people who have lived on the earth before her. Perhaps that is why she is so concerned about the fact that the earth is in danger, that with our eyes open and at a rapid pace, we are actually in the process of destroying the biological diversity − and thereby the foundation of existence for future generations. This upsets Anna. She also has a rich imagination. She has an imaginative capacity that is so intense that she has lately begun receiving images and thoughts from another reality, perhaps from another era. It is therefore not so strange that her parents send her to Dr. Benjamin, who is a psychiatrist. But he does not believe that there is anything wrong with Anna; on the contrary, he thinks she is a strong girl who is concerned about important things.

In another reality Nova awakens on 12 December 2082. She is in bed in her room with the terminal that provides her with all of the information her heart could possibly desire. It can retrieve photos from the whole world whenever she wants. She receives all of the information about the earth’s condition subsequent to the global warming that ran amok a few decades before. Nova receives messages constantly about animal species that have become extinct, the Earth is no longer as fertile, green and beautiful, and Nova is furious about the human beings of previous generations who did not succeed in saving the earth in time. But this morning she just wants to enjoy herself and sets the terminal so that it only gives her pictures of the earth as it was before 12 December 2012 – which is the date of great-grandmother Anna’s 16th birthday. Her great-grandmother is still alive and at this moment she enters Nova’s room dressed in a blue kimono and wearing a red ruby ring on her finger. The red ring has magical powers …

‘Anna’ is a fabulous story that glides back and forth between time frames and the two main characters Anna and Nova. The plot of this exciting novel goes beyond the limits of possibility. At the same time, this is a serious story about how things may turn out for the Earth if we do not come to our senses and recognise our responsibility as residents of this planet. It’s still not too late. Is it? We can certainly be given another chance?

First published in 2013.


 Update 2014 | Literature festival session: 

Artists for the Environment

Artist, performer, activist Michael Pulsford and writer Tom Doig discuss new ideas about artists and writers responses to environmental concerns. What can a writers and artists do that makes a difference to or effectively highlight these problems? In conversation with Miyuki Jokiranta. Duration 60 minutes.

• Tom Doig
• Miyuki Jokiranta
• Michael Pulsford

Date & Time: Friday 29 August 2014 at 4pm
Venue: ACMI The Cube in Melbourne, Australia


 Update 2016: 

“A crisis of culture”

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of imagination.”
~ Amitav Ghosh, acclaimed novelist

» The Guardian – 28 October 2016:
Amitav Ghosh: where is the fiction about climate change?
“The climate crisis casts a much smaller shadow on literary fiction than it does on the world. We are living through a crisis of culture – and of the imagination.”

 Update 2016 | Panel debates in New York: 

The difficulties that writers face when trying to address climate change

In 2018, Guernica magazine co-sponsored a three-panel conversation series with the New York Society Library titled ‘The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene’.

The first panel met on 11 April 2018, at the New York Society Library, and included National Book Award–winning novelist William T. Vollmann, playwright Chantal Bilodeau, and New York Magazine journalist David Wallace-Wells. It was moderated by Guernica’s deputy publisher, Amy Brady.

» A transcript of the evening

In the third panel, photographer Nathan Kensinger and the novelists Helen Phillips and Amitav Ghosh in a panel discussion about the difficulties that artists and writers face when trying to address climate change in their work — and the reasons why it’s important to do it anyway.

»


» Find out more about literature, climate fiction and climate-related books:
Books – with links and summaries