- Published: 24 September 2015 24 September 2015
by Barbara Kingsolver Faber & Faber 2012
Review by Adrian Tait
In its use of climate change as a central 'character', Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012) is, to date, probably the outstanding climate novel of the 21st century.
Dellarobia Turnbow, lives on a struggling Kentucky sheep farm. Her life falls sadly short of fulfilling its potential, a tragic thread that runs through the book. But Kingsolver’s genius is evident in the intricate and exquisite way that human-scale heartbreak and struggle interweaves with the global climate and biological disaster that is currently unfolding. The book engages our feelings; in fact it is full of passion, but its gritty narrative style helps to ensure that we remember the wider point. No sentimental side alleys are on offer.
Dellarobia’s relationships with her husband, children, mother-in-law, and her one close friend are the spokes of a wheel on which the story turns. And at the hub are other life forms, disturbed and endangered by human activity. Linking these is her interaction with the biologist who comes to investigate what is happening. Their discourse is the vibrant medium which carries the weighty environmental subject in a way that is never laboured.
That weight, and depth, of subject stem from the many layers of the problem which Kingsolver addresses. We have the biological and meteorological evidence of climate disruption. She reminds us in a narrative that is both calm and forceful that this is happening now, here; it is largely or wholly of our doing; it is massive and it is very bad. But the impact of the book hinges on the way this analysis is linked to an exploration of denial. In her author’s note, Kingsolver includes Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species amongst the acknowledgements. She has made good use of the material provided by Hamilton and others, outlining the mechanisms and forms of denial. Once again, her narrative takes us through this difficult material in a reader-friendly, compelling way. With forensic economy, she exposes the aspects of our mass media that serve this subject so poorly: obsessed with wordbites and popular entertainment, beholden to sponsors, profoundly confused, if not disdainful, about the workings of science and the boundaries between fact and opinion. At the more malign end of the spectrum, she addresses what Hamilton calls denialism (and Monbiot refers to as the denial industry): the cynical and self-interested use of disinformation by those with most to lose from a wider understanding of the truth. Then there is the dimension of human susceptibility, both to these distorted messages and to our own fears, anxieties and desires.
Flight Behaviour is not breaking new ground in outlining these findings of natural or human science. The book’s value lies in the skill and compassion with which it narrates them, which will surely assist in the vital task of extending public knowledge and engagement. There is also a morale-booster here for all the scientists, activists and communicators who, as climate psychologist Ro Randall has commented, have had difficulty facing their sense of defeat since Copenhagen 2009.
Kingsolver’s project reminds me of the age-old quest of psychotherapy, finding ways to make the unbearable bearable and the unthinkable thinkable. At the poetic heart of the book and in its conclusion is a paradox: We are in a dire situation. And we need to face it in order for there to be genuine hope. The act of facing up to what seems hopeless can be the very thing that instigates change. In Dellarobia’s own words:
“You did well, though…..Explaining it to me. I’m not saying I don’t believe you. I’m saying I can’t.”
The anguish distilled in her “can’t” is the essential ingredient in her struggle to reconcile internal and external realities, her quest to be fully alive. Barbara Kingsolver manages to convey this, in a thoroughly readable book. So she entertains us and at the same time links one of the most profound truths of human existence to the biggest challenge that humanity has ever faced.