I haven't made too many changes to this essay since having handed it in. The general thesis of the work is the same with the only notable changes being the correction of grammar and spelling. I also corrected my spelling of Chris Beckett's surname, which I original wrote as 'Becket'.
The original deadline for this essay was the 14th of December 2020s.
Freazy Warr, 25th August 2021.
In a review published in Nature (Barnosky, et al., 2011), twelve scientists explore what is known about previous mass extinction events and compare it with modern data. In it they note that our current trajectory could 'resemble the “perfect storm” that coincided with past mass extinctions’ (Barnosky, et al., p.56). Whilst a mass extinction may not necessarily include the end of humanity, it would result in a great societal change. The 2018 Worldwide Threat Assessment cited climate change, which is a component of that ‘perfect storm’, as having the potential to ‘raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages’ (Coats, 2018, p.16). Within fiction there exists a wide range of scenarios which result in the human apocalypse. One such apocalypse is the result of war; something made more real with the invention, and upgrading, of the atomic bomb. However, fiction based around atomic annihilation is often based around human action, and thus a clearer picture of the perpetrator is created. Meanwhile, the inevitable consequences of climate change are based on human inaction. Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes (2020) and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966) both depict environmental disasters. How important is the environment to these texts, and does the author place the blame of environmental collapse on any group or individual?
Chris Beckett’s Two Tribes (2020) features two temporally different settings. The earlier of these settings is a post-Brexit referendum 2016. This time is where the diaries of two people, Harry and Michelle, cross paths. The later period is given no specific year but is some 250 years in the future. This later dystopian period focuses on Zoe, a historian and archivist for the Cultural Institute, who wants to use Harry and Michelle’s diaries to create a historical novel. Beckett writes the 2016 period of the novel as though it was being written by Zoe. Interspersed within the romantic narrative of Harry and Michelle is the origin story of the Warring Factions, a period of history which led to the future dystopia. The main political event of 2016, the Brexit referendum, with which the novel focuses greatly on, is portrayed as being insignificant in Zoe’s time. The artistic license Zoe uses to include the start of the Warring Factions, which she justifies as being there to ‘help the reader understand the historical context’ (p.22), is demonstrative of Brexit’s insignificance. Of course, political discourse is not the only destructive component of Chris Beckett’s 23rd century vision of the past. There is a pessimistic attitude towards 21st century humans which seems to place the blame of climate change on the individual. ‘That’s why some people these days refer to their era as the Age of Selfishness’, (p.154).
Throughout the 2016 period of the novel there is a focus placed on the way people live, and the resources they consume. As this vision is from the future, Beckett is framing our present in such a way that it seems alien, just as imagining the 18th century would be alien to him or the reader. However, this framing of the present is still limited to the author’s perception, one which happens to come from the very present he is criticising. The views of the early 21st century, which are expressed by the 23rd century characters, are an extension of the author's. Regarding climate change, the novel’s focus on individual actions. ‘Harry was driving himself, as people often did then, in a metal car with an internal combustion engine that consumed a litre of refined oil every ten minutes’, soon followed by a description of London, ‘whose streets at that time of day were packed with several hundred thousand crawling lumps of metal (each of them burning a litre or so of fuel every ten minutes, and emitting the acrid residue into the air)’ (p.8). What is being discussed here is the human burning of fossil fuels, which releases greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere thus affecting the climate. We see this mentioned later in the text as well, often framed as strange and selfish that people would willingly pollute their own environment. During a date, Michelle expresses to Harry her fears on climate change, but concludes with the thought that she, like her friend Cheryl, does nothing to change it, and thus she shouldn’t worry so much (p.153). This is followed by Zoe’s future view that Harry and Michelle’s generation were ‘indeed fucking up the world, and that theirs was the first generation in history knowingly to fuck up the world, and yet still carry on doing it’ (p.154). The use of italics here is used by Beckett to demonstrate the irony, or perhaps insanity, to the way our present society deals with climate change. However, Beckett’s equalising of a ‘generation’ with the people within that generation, such as Harry and Michelle, seems to support a certain view that individuals are responsible for the environment.
Two Tribes isn’t about climate change. Environmental collapse is only a component of that future dystopia, a component which is seemingly more important than the novels real topic of Brexit. As such, it is reasonable to accept that the novel doesn’t dwell too heavily on the varying perspectives of dealing with climate change. Wynes and Nicholas, in an article for Environmental Research Letters, approach the issue of climate mitigation through individual approaches (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017). They identify four areas in which individuals can have the greatest impact in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, listed from most to least effective, these are ‘having one fewer child, living car-free, avoiding airplane travel, and eating a plant-based diet’ (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017, p.7). Beckett touches on each one of these in his novel. The dystopian future comments on ‘how much flesh everyone gobbled down’ (p.95), and that this level of consumption was so great that the Earth couldn’t ‘support a lifestyle like theirs for anything but a small minority’ (p.95). Whilst going vegan is an individual choice, to expect that everyone does it would require a great cultural shift. Two Tribes deals heavily with the cultural divide between the middle class and the working class, so for such an individualistic approach to combating climate change to take hold, veganism would have to cross that divide as well as all the other western cultural divides not represented in the text. This criticism of 21st century consumption doesn’t attempt to reconcile this. Commercial airplane travel doesn’t occur in the novel, but the inclusion of an American warplane is described as having ‘left in its wake a kind of wasteland’ (p.65). References to car usage, and the criticisms Beckett makes of them, have already been made in this essay. The most effective individualistic method to combating climate change, which according to Wynes and Nicholas is having one fewer child, is perhaps ironically the one which Harry and Michelle have both, unintentionally, succeeded in by virtue of their children being dead. According to Wynes and Nicholas’ own article, having one fewer child saves an average of 58.6 tonnes of CO2 from being released annually, compared to living car free which is only 2.4 tonnes a year (Wynes and Nicholas, 2017, p.1). Whilst Beckett’s novel seems to criticise the individual choices of people for climate change, it doesn’t criticise people for wanting or having children. There is one line from Michelle, when she is contemplating the impact of climate change, where she decides that she will be ‘doing everyone a favour if I stay on my own and never have a kid again’ (p.65).
Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (1966) concerns itself with that same criticism Beckett makes about human overconsumption. However, before approaching discussions of this text so quickly, certain concessions should be made. Firstly, Harrison’s text is much older than Chris Beckett’s recently published Two Tribes. Thus, the age of the novel should be considered when discussing climate change and environmental collapse with our modern understandings. Secondly, the novel is set in the future of 1999. For the sake of clarity, the publication date of the text, 1966, will be referred to as the present, whilst the setting will be referred to as the future. Discussions of environmental collapse aren’t as explicit in Harrison’s text as they are in Becket’s. Where Beckett makes direct reference to climate change and its causes, Harrison mainly presents the aftermath. As well as this, Harrison is more focused on the issue of population growth and its relationship with consumption. It is best described in the prologue of the novel, ‘should our population continue to increase at the same rate, this country’, the United States, ‘will need more than 100 percent of the planet’s resources to maintain our current living standards’ (p.iii). The dystopian future of 1999 is a vision of that future, where population far exceeds what can be provided for the people. There are immediate parallels with Beckett’s 23rd century London. For example, commenting on the present from the future, Beckett writes ‘English homes had at least one bathroom with hot and cold running water’ (2020, p.10). To parallel, Harrisons future has people collect water at fountains, where it is rationed. ‘The reservoir level is low because of the drought, they gotta save water’ (1966, p.7). Water is, of course, one of the base necessities of life which we often assume will always be there. Although modern language relating to climate change did not exist in Harrison’s present, the issues relating to the environment did. Where would we be without water?
In an article introducing the effects of climate change to water resources, Frederick and Major state that ‘warmer temperatures will accelerate the hydrological cycle, altering precipitation, the magnitude and timing of runoff, and the intensity and frequency of floods and droughts’ (1997, p.9). In their summary they also mention that other factors which will influence the supply of water include ‘population, technology, economic conditions, social and political factors, and the values society places on alternative water uses’ (1997, p.21). For Harrison’s text, it is population growth which is the cause of drought. Of course, the relationship between population and resources is a relationship between humanity and nature. The finite amount of resources which nature can provide, whether that be food, land, or water, is a major component in an environmental collapse. The human redistribution of natural resources has consequences which are present in both Beckett and Harrison’s texts. However, Harrison's text doesn’t blame environmental collapse on individual actions. Overconsumption of the finite natural resources, and the consequences of this overconsumption, is the result of population growth. It could be argued that this population growth is presented as the actions of lots of individuals having children and consuming as expected, this essay has already discussed how having less children is beneficial to the environment. However, it is not necessarily fair to blame individuals for something which requires great societal change.
Assuming this interpretation of Harrison’s dystopia is like Beckett’s, one where the consequences of a collapsing environment are at the hands of individual choices, it only seems reasonable to ask whether this individualistic approach to environmental action is fair? The characters within these texts are, of course, fictional, but the fears of environmental collapse are real. Looking at Harry and Michelle, and treating them as real for the sake of example, could it not be argued that these people, and not characters, would be influenced by the world they live in to live with certain expectations? Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman discuss the ways in which media is controlled and censored by market forces in their text Manufacturing Consent (1988). This idea of ‘manufacturing consent’, when applied to the world of Harry and Michelle, would suggest that individual actions are made by the desires of market forces. Is it, therefore, still fair to blame environmental collapse on the individual, when it is in the interest of the economy that nothing changes? The environment is exceptionally important in both texts, but the lack of criticism towards capitalism puts the blame of environmental collapse in these texts at odds with reality.
Barnosky, A., Matzke, N., Tomiya, S., Wogan, G., Swartz, B., Quental, T., Marshall, C., McGuire, J., Lindsey, E., Maguire, K., Mersey, B., Ferrer, E., 2011. Has the Earth’s sixth mass extinction already arrived? Nature, 471, pp.51-57.
Becket, C., 2020. Two Tribes. [Kindle version] London: Atlantic Books Ltd. Available at: Amazon.co.uk <https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B084H54M72> [Accessed 9 December 2020].
Coats, D., 2018. Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community. [pdf] Washington: Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Available at: <https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/2018-ATA---Unclassified-SSCI.pdf> [Accessed 9 December 2020].
Frederick, K., Major, D., 1997. Climate Change and Water Resources. Climatic Change, 37, pp.7-23.
Harrison, H., 1966. Make Room! Make Room! Reprint 2008. [Kindle version] London: Penguin Books Ltd. Available at: Amazon.co.uk <https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B01K90RM06> [Accessed 9 December 2020].
Herman, E., Chomsky, N., 1988. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Reprint: 1998. London: Penguin Random House.
Wynes, S., Nicholas, K., 2017. The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions. Environmental Research Letter. [Online] 12(7).