Perhaps it’s the term ‘global warming’ that’s made many of us believe that the end will come in a ball of fire. Or maybe it’s the old Biblical image of apocalypse that determines how we see the future. Films like Interstellar show a dry world, uninhabitable because of a lack of rain and soil erosion.
The warm winter weather might for many of us in Western Europe be one of the first ways in which climate change hits home. Of course the warming narrative itself is also very risky: one really bad winter storm is all climate crisis deniers need to ‘disprove’ that something is really going on. One of the best-known examples of a climate change denier in literature in undoubtedly Michael Beard, the protagonist of Ian McEwan’s Solar. When his penis freezes to his zipper following Beard’s attempt to urinate outdoors in the Arctic, he uses this as proof that radical warming is not happening above the Arctic Circle and is instead just “a figment of the activist imagination”.
But especially in low-lying countries and island nations in western Europe, there’s another narrative that deserves attention: that of flooding.
Interestingly, since among countries outside of Asia the Netherlands is often named as a nation especially at risk when sea levels rise, the risk of flooding doesn’t get a lot of attention here. Instead, the emphasis is on ways of ‘living with’ the water. This attitude is a spin on traditional Dutch perspectives of conquering the water – like in the creation of large areas of new land following extensive draining. The phrase ‘living with’ also holds a sense of control, the idea that if we give a little, we might be safe. In the town where I live, a big project is underway to ‘give space to the river‘ that includes widening the river, leaving the houses that used to be on the river bank on an island.
Britain on the other hand, has had its share of extreme flooding over the past decade – most recently in southern Scotland and northern England. Exploring climate change narratives for my book Climate Change and the 21st-Century British Novel, I discovered that the flood narrative as a climate change narrative is becoming ever more popular in British literature as well.
Like drought and fire narratives, flood narratives also have ancient roots: the story of the Biblical Flood and Noah’s ark is very close to the story of an all-destroying flood in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. A similar story appears in the Epic of Gilgamesh and in numerous other mythical narratives. In his discussion of Anthropocene novels, Adam Trexler writes that the flood is one of the most popular climate change narratives. Yet there’s something different about contemporary narratives compared to mythical flood narratives. In the Bible, as in Ovid and other myths, the cause of the flood is usually fairly clear: humans have misbehaved in some way or another, and therefore the gods decide they must be wiped out. In some sense, this seems to fit contemporary circumstances as well: although flooding is of all ages, the kinds that many areas are facing today are ever more linked to human-induced climate change.
Yet in contemporary narratives such as Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army and Maggie Gee’s The Flood, two other flood novels, the causes are never revealed. Instead, in Hall’s novel we get a narrative that we are told is not wholly complete – certain records have been lost – and in The Flood the anonymous narrator talks of a before and after without giving any wider context for the floods that eventually overwhelm Britain, and possibly large parts of the world. This narrative unreliability, or incompleteness, is typical of many climate change novels, including Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, in which apocalypse in some form or other recurs time and again without much more being said than that collapse is caused by ‘human greed’.
In The Carhullan Army, Hall describes a future England controlled by an authoritarian power. Along with politics, the climate has also literally changed. The young female narrator recalls how “Each year after the Civil Reorganisation summer’s humidity had lasted longer, pushing the colder seasons into a smaller section of the calendar”. Large portions of the countryside are flooded, the rivers are “brown and swollen”. By not making explicit what caused climate change – the narrator even implicitly connects it to the regime change – The Carhullan Army does two things. One the one hand, it suggests that the causes of climate change should by now be so obvious to all of us that it is not necessary to spell them out. On the other, not making the cause explicit points towards the unpredictability of climate change and the fact that it has taken the international scientific and political communities decades to commit to the idea that human-induced climate change is really happening.
The Flood is as cynical as The Carhullan Army is grim. In Gee’s novel, the city in which the narrative unfolds is nearly always flooded, although this did not used to be the case. The novel focuses primarily on those well-off, people who do not believe that they too will one day feel the consequences.
It rains for a year in the city in The Flood. Environmentalists are never mentioned in the novel, nor do any of the characters ever mention climate change. Instead, the rain and flooding are hijacked by a religious cult believing that these are the last days of mankind. Although the narrative as a whole is highly cynical towards this cult – as it is towards everything – no alternative is given. What I found peculiar is that in the end the novel bends away from the floods being caused by climate change. The final flood, the big wave that either drowns everything and everyone or, depending on your interpretation, leaves some parts unharmed, is caused by a tsunami, supposedly triggered by a comet.
The point I want to make is not that novels should be moralizing, or should provide clear-cut answers as to what to do with our world in crisis. I’m much more interested in why narratives remain implicit and how this comments on our contemporary societies. From that perspective, novels such as The Carhullan Army and The Flood are timely not only by taking flooding as their topics, but also through the apathetic attitudes of their characters, especially in The Flood.