Imagine you live in a world where a significant percentage of the population has a simple but necessary job: they sit in a booth, and every so often, a light comes on, and when it does, they push a button in front of them, and the light goes out. As long as they do that, all day every day, we have electricity and fuel and plastics and all these conveniences we rely on in our modern age. Except there’s a catch (there always is): one day, perhaps quite by accident, we discover that sometimes—not always, but sometimes—when one pushes the button, a person in another country dies. At first this just seems like gross coincidence—there couldn’t possibly be a connection, people die all the time, how could the buttons be killing people? But 99% of scientists eventually agree, based on extensive evidence and modelling, that there is a link. And so many people begin to suggest, tentatively at first and then with increasing agitation, that we move away from the buttons, that we explore alternatives. The politicians deny, then resist, then most of them start to agree—in principle, at least. But they shrug and hem and haw and say things about “the economy” and “jobs” and “sensible transition timelines” and meanwhile we go on still pressing the button and killing people because jobs.
If this metaphor has been too subtle for you, perhaps you need to read The World According to Anna, which is incredibly unsubtle in its portrayal of the consequences and costs of ignoring climate change yet harrowing and effective nonetheless. I’ve read a few novels that imagine the terrible consequences of our anthropogenic future—Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife comes to mind—and often they imagine post-apocalyptic scenarios. And fair enough. What strikes me as interesting about Jostein Gaarder’s approach is how he portrays a future every bit as quotidian and stable as ours (at least in Norway), just different (and certainly rueful).
Anna is on the verge of turning sixteen, and she has a lot on her mind. She has just inherited her aunt’s ruby ring. She has a brand new boyfriend, Jonas. And her vivid imagination has her dreaming that she is other people—most notably, her great-granddaughter, Nova, who lives in a world ravaged by climate change. This weighs so heavily on Anna in the present that she determines she must do something to change this future; she must give the future generations one more chance. And so she and Jonas discuss how best to do this, while she continues to experience episodes from Nova’s perspective, and worry about the kidnapped daughter of a psychiatrist she met once in Oslo and liked because he talked to her like she was an adult.
Look, if you came here expecting a riveting plot or character development … you are going to be severely disappointed. This reads more like a novella than a novel, and most of the characters, save maybe Anna, are one- or two-dimensional stock characters who are there to help hold up a mirror to Anna’s thoughts. The plot itself is very much on rails and isn’t so much about what Anna does or doesn’t do as it is about how her state of mind changes from beginning to end of the book, about grappling with and wrapping her head around the incredibly large and serious problem of climate change.
Normally I’m all about story, and I’m the first person to criticize a book for sacrificing story at the altar of polemicism. So maybe I’m a hypocrite … but I really liked The World According to Anna. I think it’s the earnestness with which Gaarder portrays his agenda, the seriousness he assigns to young Anna. This isn’t supposed to be a rah-rah inspirational piece about a girl who suddenly stands up for climate change and “makes a difference”. It’s a message to us, a reminder that this is not an issue we can dodge. Though this book has a young adult protagonist, I wouldn’t say it is a young adult book, necessarily: adults can and should read this too, if only to be jolted from our tacit complacency when it comes to climate change.
The book starts off fairly basic, broaching the subject with the standard warnings about how climate change leads to habitat loss, extinction, refugees, etc. This is hopefully not news to most of us, even if our opinions on the severity of the phenomenon and what we should do about it vary. And if Gaarder had stayed on this level, I definitely would be more critical of the book. Instead, he goes deeper. He doesn’t just lament the lack of political will to do something (such as failing to meet emissions targets)—he laments the fact that we seem to have made our peace, as a species, with our failure to do something:
We are a selfish generation. We are a brutish generation. There is little understanding of the idea that the generations after us may need some of this energy. A word we rarely use is “save”. But words like “eco-conscious” and “carbon-neutral” appear more and more in newspapers. We have developed a language, almost a nonsense-language, which has nothing to do with reality.
Uggggh I so identify with this. Look, I live in Canada, not the United States. Most of our country, and at least the current federal government, acknowledge that climate change is anthropogenic and a serious problem (or they say they acknowledge it). Even though we’ve moved past that denial stage, though, we’ve yet to really do much about it. And often anything that is proposed gets couched in that language—carbon-neutral in particular rings so many bells. Especially here in Canada, where, yes, a significant portion of our economy is driven by resource extraction, including bitumen extraction from the Alberta oil sands: as much as our government makes noise about climate change and energy innovation, time and again it supports oil sands development, to the extent that it literally bought a pipeline to make sure the pipeline would be built. And when people protest and call the government on this hypocrisy, the politicians shrug and remind us that as much as they like the environment, this is first and foremost about jobs and the economy—because they know that “jobs” are what get them elected.
But there has to come a point where we ask what moral price we are willing to pay to guarantee “jobs” for people in our country. The button analogy might seem simplistic, but that’s basically the effect of the fossil fuel industry, albeit on a more attenuated, less one-to-one scale: the actions we take to extract and then export or consume oil and gas here in Canada have a tremendous effect on a global scale, up to and including endangering the lives of other humans (not to mention the mass extinction that Gaarder harps upon in this book). So far we seem OK with these negative consequences because they are indirect enough and far enough away that we can ignore them long enough to sleep soundly at night. They aren’t “in our face” yet.
Gaarder is quite critical of the way politicians spin this to be about jobs and economics:
The world needs more oil and gas to lift more people out of poverty, they say. But they’re lying. They know they’re not driven by the interests of the poor. They know better than anyone that the rich countries’ consumption of yet more oil and gas will only make matters worse for the very poorest. It is the oil companies and the richest oil-producing nations who want more profit.
Nailed. It. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in the aftermath of the ridiculous straw ban debacle, and this is why my environmentalism, like my feminism, must be intersectional and anti-capitalist.
So much of the rhetoric around climate change today is predicated upon our obsession with individualism and individual action. You need to do your part: use less, consume less, buy less, waste less, recycle more, shop more responsibility, etc. Company not environmentally-friendly enough for your liking? Don’t buy from them! It doesn’t matter if they’re the only game in town (or the only viable option sometimes, cough, Amazon, cough)—you have a duty to use your wallet to vote! If you use a straw, you are morally responsible for the death of every single dolphin. Ever.
Individuals definitely have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions. I use LED bulbs and turn the lights off when I’m not in the room. I try to drive less and cycle or walk more. I hang my clothing to dry, weather permitting and provided, you know, a tree hasn’t fallen and knocked over the clothesline pole (sigh). I’m not trying to say that we are all, individually, off the hook. We should try to reduce our individual footprints, consume less, recycle more, avoid extraneous plastic, etc. That’s a laudable goal.
But it isn’t enough. It will never be enough. Individual action alone cannot stop, reduce, or ameliorate the effects of climate change. Because the biggest polluters, the biggest consumers, the most egregious offenders, are the corporations that profit from carbon emissions and the governments that enable this behaviour. And I’m very happy that The World According to Anna goes there, that Gaarder actually makes this case, rather than simply charging his readers to be more eco-conscious or environmentally responsible on their own recognizance. We need to shift the paradigm from “save the whales” to “burn down this capitalist system and build a more compassionate one in its place” (less catchy, I know, but I bet we can fit it on a T-shirt if we write it in Comic Sans!).
There is one more quotation I need to draw your attention to, because when I read it, I literally said, “Whoa.” It crystallizes Gaarder’s thesis, and indeed, is probably the most direct address from the author to the audience:
We’re young. We have to testify that the climate crisis is not a conflict between nations. There’s only one atmosphere and no national borders are visible from space. This is a conflict between generations, and the victims are young people today.
Let’s unpack this, because there is a lot gong on in these four sentences, and I love all of it. First, I love the phrase “climate crisis”. Can we use that instead of the weak-sauce–sounding “climate change” from now on? Because we are in crisis. Second, although the whole “no national borders are visible from space” chestnut is about as old as the Apollo program, it is still true and obviously needs repeating, since many people still don’t seem to get it (what is the point of America being “great again”, lol, if the rest of the world is on fire?). Third, the idea that this is a conflict between one generation and the next might seem obvious once you hear it articulated in that way, but it is still a potent statement. And that’s why I disagree with people who might pan this book for lacking direct conflict: the whole point here is that the conflict is between Anna’s generation and Nova’s rather than with anyone in Anna’s life directly.
I really like the way Gaarder frames this. So many stories about climate change frame it as human-vs-nature conflict: we have to survive these extreme weather events; we have to rebuild after some kind of climate-related disaster. That might make for an entertaining blockbuster movie, but it disguises the fact that climate crisis is not human-vs-nature. The Earth is not and has never been “in conflict” with us as a species; it is simply doing what it does best: adjust until it returns to equilibrium. We have upset that equilibrium, and while it is unfortunately too late to return to how things were, we could at least reduce how far the pendulum needs to swing. If we don’t, we suffer and the next generation suffers even more.
Gaarder doesn’t ignore the fact that climate crisis has negative consequences today, either, as demonstrated by the subplot involving Ester Antonsen’s kidnapping. I recently finished In Search of a Better World, last year’s Massey Lectures, which is all about how we need to do better at acting on our convictions about human rights the world over. So maybe this is just more on my mind lately, but it occurs to me that climate crisis is a human rights issue. So many people are affected by the loss of habitat and environment—and more broadly, the next generations have a right to inherit a planet that is as diverse and beautiful as it is now, not less.
Sophie’s World is one of my favourite books of all time. This is not Sophie’s World and nowhere near to it—and actually, that’s fine. I’d be concerned if Gaarder could churn out a bunch of novels as compelling and sublime as that (although Eco managed it, I suppose). Not every novel needs to be Sophie’s World to be moving or important, and although The World According to Anna might be too didactic and bare-bones for some people’s tastes, for me it definitely stirred up and provoked a lot of thoughts and feelings. And that is really all I can ask a good book to do.