As weather extremes hit home around the globe, these works capture the harsh reality and future of climate change
The dog days of summer offer a perfect time to catch up on unread books and unwatched films. After all, what else can you do when enveloped in wildfire smoke and searing heat? We offer our annual list of favorite reads and views, from cli-fi, to gardening; from poignant novels to European art house films, all touching on climate in a way that will make you laugh, smirk, rush for a meadow or jump into bed with a friend to escape the coming reckoning with nature. Here is some of what we like:
An early contender for one of the best cli-fi thrillers ever, The Water Knife is all about life without water in a climate-changed world. Bacigalupi, who also wrote The Windup Girl (another great read), sets his story in the near future when the impacts of extreme weather are everywhere, and parts of the U.S. are so drought-stricken that competing factions control water supplies. It’s a world of class divide and water haves and have nots.
Angel, a former gang member turned “water knife” — a covert operative who protects corrupt water authorities — meets Lucy, a journalist known for the art of “collapse porn,” ie. voyeuristic coverage of their stricken region, who is investigating the murder of a friend. Add in Maria, a Texas refugee caught up in drugs, violence and prostitution, and the adventure begins. Every element of The Water Knife, from 3-D printers and designer face masks, to ethical debates over who owns the right to life, could very well be a piece of our post-climate-changed future. Give this one a read!
– Blair Palese
by Ben Okri
“Read slowly” is the very discreet, two-word preface (small type, bottom right-hand of page) to Tiger Work, Ben Okri’s cry from his artistic heart to address the climate crisis before it’s too late. An anthology of poems, fables, essays, and stories within stories, the renowned Booker Prize-winning author deploys the full range of his considerable writing abilities to make a passionate case for acting now. It takes deep reading to fully absorb the emotional impact of his lyrical messaging. Incantatory and by turns angry, sad and visionary, Okri evokes the magic of nature and the urgency of protecting our environment. “I sing the spirit fantastic/I sing the death/of fossil fuels/I sing a new/dawning of bright/fresh energy.” Okri dedicates his book to “those who love the world enough to fight for it.” Amen.
— John Howell
New on the cli-fi scene is Canadian writer Michelle Min Sterling with her debut thriller Camp Zero. Her book asks an interesting question — what could happen if, due to growing global extreme heat and colder temperatures could become valuable assets? The novel takes place post-oil in 2049, where money is made through renewable energy, rare earth minerals and off-grid cities. Humans are implanted with devices known as Flicks that not only keep them web-linked at all times but also record and keep their memories. Wealthy Americans seeking an alternative lifestyle are drawn to a town called Dominion Lake. A menacing mastermind plots to access minerals underground to make an upgraded Flick. Mix in flashbacks, sex workers, spies, climate refugees and a feminist utopia north of the town called White Alice and you have a heady combination and a page-Turner.
— Blair Palese
by Owen Wormser
What do lawns have to do with climate change? A lot. In America, there is more acreage dedicated to lawn than to growing corn — more lawn than all the land in Greece — requiring nine billion gallons of water a day to maintain. And to keep them green, lawns are drenched in pesticides and fertilizers. Add it all up, and this grass produces more greenhouse gasses than it absorbs.
There is an alternative: meadows. Landscape designer Owen Wormser explains how to replace this deadscape with low-maintenance, eco-friendly fields. This how-to book on meadow-making shows re-establishing wildlife and pollinator habitats can be low-maintenance and low-cost. Meadows also have built-in resilience that helps them weather climate extremes and can draw down and store far more carbon dioxide than any manicured lawn. With the planet overheating, meadow builders are the pollinators of a regenerating planet.
— Peter McKillop
Ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are junk food — packaged with sugar, salt, starch and chemicals, designed to taste great and promote excess by addicting consumers. These UFPs — frozen pizzas, soda, cereals and other packaged products that jam supermarkets, created on an industrial scale at the lowest possible cost — are responsible for a global epidemic in obesity and diabetes. And they are highly profitable. Last year, the global food and beverage industry grossed more than half a trillion dollars.
UPF is also a climate killer. Ultra-processed foods, typically manufactured using ingredients extracted from a handful of high-yielding plant species including maize, wheat, soy and oil seed crops, are a significant driver of agrobiodiversity loss. But UPFs, so far, have been largely overlooked at global food system summits, biodiversity conventions and climate change conferences. Maybe with this deep dive into the problem, van Tulleken will give UFPs a place on future agendas.
To do your part, eat less junk food while you tend your new meadow.
— Peter McKillop
Rethinking Humanity: Five Foundational Sector Disruptions, the Lifecycle of Civilizations, and the Coming Age of Freedom
In Rethinking Humanity, the brilliant futurist Tony Seba and co-author James Arbib of ReThinkX outline a vision in which technological innovation can transform the economy from a model of scarcity to abundance, and cutthroat competition to shared prosperity. They argue that transitioning from resource-intensive, centralized, fossil-fuel-based production to a more community-based, green energy-powered economic model could create a far more equitable, resilient and collaborative society and make the “American Dream” accessible to all. This optimistic vision of ways in which technological innovation could transform humanity’s future for the better might not account clearly for some of humanity’s darker impulses. It’s an exciting, even galvanizing vision of how humanity could secure a bright and healthy future — if it acts on the potential.
— Ethan Berg
This brand new novel kicks off its tale in 2013, with a scientist immersed in the study of undersea methane deposits who has come up with alarming data receives a death threat for the direction of his research. His fate becomes entangled with a top advertising executive, a neurodivergent mathematician, a broken drug addict, an environmental activist, an eco-terrorist and others. This is a suspenseful story set against the very real and complex drama of the accelerating climate crisis. In this tale, Markley, a journalist who also authored the acclaimed 2018 novel Ohio, takes us through two decades — including some of the key political decisions in the real world — past our current moment and into the 2030s. At 880 pages, it might look like a heavy lift, but it is as hard to put down as it might be (initially) to pick up.
— Kari Huus
The state of Florida is under siege from increasingly volatile weather and relentlessly rising sea levels. As a powerful hurricane approaches a small town on the southeastern coast, a woman suddenly separated from her family gives birth to a baby girl, Wanda. The story of the changing earth, the dissolution of low-lying places like Florida, and the struggles of humans to adapt are told through the child’s journey to adulthood and her pursuit of love, community and purpose. This tale recalls the critically acclaimed 2013 film Beasts of the Southern Wild, set in a Louisiana engulfed by rising tides.
— Kari Huus
For your viewing pleasure
Just in time for a summer of wildfires around the world comes the German coming-of-age film Afire, set against the backdrop of a looming red horizon of a distant wildfire. That red sky soon burns its way into the all-too-real climate crisis. Without knowing it in advance, German filmmaker Christian Petzold brilliantly captures the northern hemisphere summer of 2023, when the usual stretch of warm weather, rest and relaxation, becomes a living hell for many.
Afire sees the climate crisis through the banality of friendship, romance, jealousy and enmity of four young European lovers and wannabe lovers. Filmed over a rainless summer in a Baltic seaside town, Afire is a European art-house fantasy, not the typical Hollywood apocalypse. That makes Afire feel all too real, showing the rest of us the new generational reality of waking up to daily climate disaster is as normal as waking up next to whichever person they slept with the night before.
— Peter Mckillop
on Apple TV+
Extrapolations is an eight-part series on dystopian life on a climate change-ravaged planet between 2037-2050. It has been compared to other films of the apocalyptic genre — The Day After, a 1980s mini-movie of life after a nuclear bomb blew up Kansas City, or Don’t Look Up, showing how commercial interests distract humanity from saving itself from a giant climate metaphor in the shape of an asteroid that ends the earth. But what sets Extrapolations apart is that the film’s sci-fi fantasy is happening now. In early episodes, cities are permanently enveloped by the thick smoke of raging wildfires, heat waves in India force people to live at night, and millions of displaced climate refugees are on the move.
Extrapolations is a must-watch because it melds probable global warming forecasts with Hollywood binge-worthy drama to bring to life a harrowing future that was best depicted by that other Climate & Capital favorite, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 sci-fi novel The Ministry for the Future. Watch Extrapolations to get a sense of the new and uncharted climate era we have entered. But also watch it because the climate crisis can be entertaining as, for example, Meryl Streep and Sienna Miller talking with a whale.
— Peter McKillop