When Fiction Isn’t Enough

I was taken aback when our class was asked about our willingness to make lifestyle changes if we were given a list of concrete actions that would help the environment. Intellectually, I wanted to say that I would absolutely be willing to make sacrifices and alterations, but internally, I knew that a combination of laziness, selfishness, and unwillingness to acknowledge or admit the impact that my tiny life has on the world around me. I remain far removed from the effects of climate change both at Duke and back in Tennessee, and I still struggle with finding a sense of proximity to these issues.

Theoretically, this is when fiction and storytelling becomes most important. Although I may not live out an environmental crisis in my suburban surroundings, I can witness their effects on others on the page or onscreen. Yet even these experiences are difficult for me to truly relate to. I am neither an immigrant, nor a journalist, nor a farmer, and while I can feel sympathy for these individuals and their struggles, at the end of the day, I am unable to muster up the deep connection and sense of responsibility that their tales ought to invoke.

Oil on Water made me feel guilty about the impact of American greed on Nigerians and its ecosystems, but internally, I am able to redirect the blame onto oil companies and large companies rather than myself, a single student. “The Petrol Pump” also induced a sense of concern for an unavoidable future when we have exhausted our oil resources, but again, I perceive the responsibility for finding a solution to be that of scientists and businesses, not myself. And while the world depicted in Pumzi is rather frightening, it is different enough from the world I experience every day that I do not feel the sense of urgency or concern that it might arouse if I felt more of a personal connection to the story.

Climate change and environmental degradation may be a process measured in years, but action and change must occur now if we are to avoid a catastrophic future. Writers, directors, producers, artists, and especially scientists and academics must work together to find a way to catch, and more importantly, to hold the attention of the public. I consider myself to be more interested in sustainability issues than the average person, and even I tend to view such problems as belonging to either a time or a place far removed from where I am today.

If fiction is to be a pathway for spreading messages about the importance of solving climate challenges with adequate speed, it has to start being more direct and vivid in its stories. It should worry less about being artistic or having allegorical messages, and not shy away from the frightening, the painful, and the taboo. It must be willing to confront its audience personally, speaking to them individually and in terms that will strike them with a sense of responsibility and urgency. I need to hear the stories that are brutal, that are ugly, that are inconclusive. But most importantly, they must feel very, very real. In a society where we are too often numb to real tragedy and horror in our media, it is the responsibility of those who want to make an impact on people to find a way to cut through the fog and strike directly at our hearts. Then we may get the message, and I hope it won’t be too late.


Works Cited:

Calvino, Italo, and Tim Parks. “The Petrol Pump.” Numbers in the Dark: And Other Stories. New York: Pantheon, 1995. 170-75. Print.

Habila, Helon. Oil on Water: A Novel. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

Dodocutepoison. “Pumzi”. Youtube. Youtube, LLC. 2013