The Monsters of Climate Change

Image: Paramount Pictures (via Tristan Versluis), (via @BBW_BFF)
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Death lurks around every corner in Alex Garland’s Annihilation, but its most terrifying harbinger is a ghoulish bear with saber-tooth fangs, reams of rotting flesh, and a half-exposed skull that looks part-human. The creature is a microcosm of phenomena from which it emerged, a mysterious air-ooze called the Shimmer where time is warped and life is mutated in impossible ways.

What is the Shimmer? It could be an extraterrestrial invader. But to me, its uncanny creatures feel like a parable for a more familiar monster. A monster that transcends time and space; that can only be measured through its effects on others. That kills indiscriminately, molding strange new ecologies from the carnage. A monster humanity created; a monster called climate change.

Fictional monsters have long given shape to our worst fears, including fears about how we’re impacting the environment. In the 1950s, the perils of nuclear waste were brought to us on the big screen by enormous, radiation-juiced insects. As environmentalists raised concerns about pollution in ‘70s and ‘80s, new monsters emerged from smog and sludge, along with a host of heroes to defend the planet. Now, we face a future of rising seas, worsening storms, and deadly heat waves—all brought about by gases we cannot see or touch, whose effects ripple widely through space and slowly through time. As the realities of our ecological destruction grow clearer by the day, monsters symbolizing climate change are emerging in fiction and film with increasing urgency.

“There is a very strong tradition of monsters being connected with environmental disturbances,” science fiction author and io9 co-founder Annalee Newitz told Earther. “The thing is, how do you personify a global disaster? It’s really hard.”

Weird fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, who wrote the acclaimed novel Annihilation that inspired Garland’s on-screen adaptation, has thought about how to personify the climate crisis more than most. He didn’t have a hand in the film’s ursine horror show, but his 2017 novel Borne features a similar monster: A flying bear called Mord that stalks the cowering residents of a poisoned, post-apocalyptic city.

“I see [Mord] as a kind of embodiment of the effect climate change has,” Vandermeer said. “It’s an inexplicable thing, this flying psychotic monster that appears on the horizon one day an totally changes their lives.”

A monster that’s always there, looming on the horizon, until one day it destroys our homes or worse, certainly seems an apt symbol for a global disaster that occasionally lobs supercharged wildfires or storms our direction. Vandermeer said he wanted Mord to illuminate the idea that while we don’t always recognize climate change in our lives, its ghastly shadow haunts our existence.

Of course, the very things that make climate change monstrous—that is not one entity but a destructive system of events, infecting our lives despite being difficult to see and harder still to interact with—also means physical manifestations can fall short as metaphors.

Newitz pointed to Pacific Rim’s kaiju—monsters that emerge from an undersea volcano in the Pacific and lay waste to coastal cities—as a clear allegory for global warming; a planetary threat that can only be defeated if nations of the world join forces. But how comparable, really, is climate change to a sea monster that can be vanquished by men in giant metal mech suits?

Global warming isn’t something we’re going to slay with a high-tech jaeger sword: We’ll need a sweeping transformation of our economy, our energy system, and our very relationship to the world around us, to rein in climate change. And ‘rein in’ does not mean ‘kill’. Even if we stop emitting carbon tomorrow, the planet will keep warming for decades and changing for centuries as the damage we’ve done triggers untold feedbacks.

Humans, like it or not, are no longer in control. At the same time, we can’t ignore how our actions fuel the climate beast.

It’s with those ideas in mind, Vandermeer told Earther, that his upcoming novel Hummingbird Salamandera thriller set in the Pacific Northwest—attempts to manifest climate change a bit differently. Not a literal monster, but as a sense of uncanny embedded in the pages of the story. Part of the protagonist’s process of awakening, he said, is “recognizing this monster all around her.”

“We keep de-linking the environment from our condition,” Vandermeer said. “We keep thinking of it as ‘this thing over there’ and we’re over here. That’s part of how we manage to kill ourselves.”

One can also see a different kind of climate monster peering through the pages of Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias Bucknell’s The Tangled Lands. Published earlier this year, this series of novellas is set in a fantasy realm overrun by bramble, a rapacious weed that’s fueled by humanity’s addiction to magic. Entire armies fight to keep the bramble at bay, but every time someone casts a spell to warm their home or heal a loved one, the hellacious plant grows back stronger. Anyone who comes in contact with its poison falls into a death-like slumber.

“[The bramble] was a way for us to talk about the general idea of the tragedy of the commons and an environmental disaster and to personify it,” Bacigalupi told Earther. “And it always comes when you do something beneficial for yourself,” just as every flight we take throws the atmosphere out of whack a little more.

Are these monsters more effective than realism at helping us internalize the climate crisis? Bacigalupi isn’t sure. A former environmental journalist, he’s also written climate fiction that adheres closely to our present-day reality. His novel The Water Knife, a thriller about men and women fighting to survive in a future southwestern United States ravaged by drought, is not only terrifying, but it feels like a very reasonable extrapolation from the present—complete with Teslas, cryptocurrencies, and water rights worth killing for.

Bacigalupi said he’s frequently contacted by readers who see echoes of his dystopian future in water crises around the world, from the Colorado River to Cape Town. “It’s given [readers] an interpretive lens they didn’t have before,” Bacigalupi said. “The abstractions are now real and visceral.”