Environmental Dystopians: An Underutilised Genre

In the plague of dystopians (particularly in the YA world) that’s currently upon us, there’s one thread within the genre that I’d really like to see more of: environmental dystopians. I can think of only a handful off the top of my head (which doesn’t mean there aren’t more), and of those, many had elements that troubled me, making them unsuitable recommendations as well as unpleasant reads. There’s a tremendous amount of potential in this area, and I feel like it’s often untapped, or worse, actively ignored in the rush to tell a story in a certain way while ignoring the implications of that story and ways it could have been told more effectively.

Take The Windup Girl, which has a totally fascinating and great premise. In a world where the oceans are rising and food has become corporatised, people are living post eco-apocalypse, and there’s a lot to explore there. Sadly, the book fell into the twin traps of colonialism and racism, exoticising Asian cultures and objectifying Asian women. This transformed the book from something that could have been something totally fascinating and amazing to yet another dull entry in the parade of books that made reading so dangerous for people who object to racist content. Contrast that with Ship Breaker, in which Bacigalupi apparently learned some lessons and explored environmental catastrophe from a more racially sensitive (though far from ideal) perspective.

We are living in a world where it’s very easy to imagine a completely plausible environmental catastrophe scenario, which means there are a lot of different threads and directions authors could be picking up when it comes to talking about this subject. Books about rising sea levels, food scarcity, pandemics, and more can be such great reading, if an author is willing to tackle the underlying social issues here. And these issues are about more than the environment and caring for nature. To stop there is to miss the larger picture.

Environmental catastrophe is inevitably tied in with race, class, and geography, and a true thriller, a fantastic dystopian, in this genre needs to admit that and explore it. Some of the best examples are, can, and should be originating from the Global South, where writers are challenging Western narratives and telling stories of environmental devastation, resistance, and global change from their perspective. Many former (and current) colonies stand to bear the brunt of climate change because of systematic exploitation of their people and resources, and this should be honestly confronted in books about a dystopian future where the planet is falling apart because of what we have done.

And ‘we’ is largely the West, which has consumed far more than its share of the resources, devouring everything in its path and leaving the rest of the world more vulnerable than it would have been on its own to the vicissitudes of climate change and all that comes with it. If we hadn’t disturbed the complex ecology of Central and South America, for example, these regions would be in a much better position to deal with radical changes in the climate. Likewise, Western pressures on Southeast Asia and Africa have fundamentally changed the landscape there, for the worse.

Fascinating speculative fiction on environmental dystopias could directly challenge the role of the West in such dystopias; and not in a self-flagellating ‘we didn’t recycle enough’ sort of way, as often seems to be the case when such texts are written by Western authors, but in a serious way that looks at how racism, colonialism, and classism combined to destroy the global climate. Without the capitalist systems creating a steady demand for the resources of the Global South, without the attitude that the West is superior to all the rest, without Western expectations about how the world can and should be, the world’s environment would look very different right now. To pretend that this isn’t a factor in climate change is ridiculous.

I want to see books where the West is not a hero, where the people most severely affected by climate change are at the centre of the story instead of being relegated to the sidelines. If I see one more book where the only mention of the Global South comes up when the heroine catches part of a news broadcast or newspaper mentioning ‘untold horrors’ in other parts of the world, I’m going to scream. Somehow, environmental dystopians only seem to be able to find ways to reference entire continents in the form of throwaway lines meant to show readers how terrible things have gotten; ‘millions dead in African plague,’ say, or ‘flooding in Central Asia washes away crops again.’ And then, boom, back to the central narrative, which is, of course, Western-centric.

Are there exceptions to this rule? Of course, but the fact that they aren’t widely circulated in the West is telling, as is the fact that Westerners themselves aren’t writing or exploring them, for the most part. By reading narratives which enforce our own point of view about the state of the climate, who is responsible, and who will survive, we tell ourselves repeatedly that there is no other point of view. How could there be, when we’re not seeing it, and no one is representing it?

Yet, I would caution Western authors to tread carefully when taking up these narratives, because while they should be told, they also need to be told in a way that doesn’t feed further racist and colonialist attitudes. No noble savages, please, no romanticisation of nonwhite cultures, no great white rescuers. Do your research, and do it with care.