Sharman Apt Russell Guest Post–“BFF: Science Fiction and the Environmental Movement”

In 1864, a hundred years after the start of the Industrial Revolution, the American scholar George Perkins Marsh wrote about the impact of a society rapidly cutting down its forests, destroying its topsoil, and polluting its water. Marsh thundered, “The ravages committed by man subvert the relations and destroy the balance which nature has established, and she avenges herself upon the intruder by letting loose her destructive energies.” He predicted an impoverished Earth with “shattered surface,” “climatic excesses,” and the extinction of many species, perhaps even our own.

In his own way, Marsh was an early science fiction writer.

About the same time, the conservationist John Muir was saying more plaintively, “Are not all plants beautiful? Or in some way useful? Would not the world suffer from the banishment of a single weed? The curse must be within ourselves.”

In the next hundred years, we would parse out that curse. The Age of the Anthropocene had so begun. And science fiction—in short stories, novels, and anthologies—was there to chronicle this brave new epoch, paralleling almost every major environmental concern.

I know because I was reading those books, having lived most of my life in the last half of the twentieth century. The stories I inhaled as an adolescent and young adult crept under my skin, entered my bones, and whisper to me still in their archaic language of the middle of the night. I went on to become an officially-designated environmental and “nature writer” who still reads and sometimes writes science fiction. My homage, below, to the way science fiction has kept pace with the march of the environmental movement is purely arbitrary, a list of the texts I personally remember. For each category, many readers of this will be able to list many others.

Nuclear war: On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) by Walter Miller, “A Boy and His Dog” (1969) by Harlan Ellison.

Pollution: okay, actually, I have not read John Corbett’s 1934 “The Black River,” about an oil spill destroying Los Angeles—but I learned about it from the anthology Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction (2014) and have searched for a copy ever since. Anyone out there have one? As a college student majoring in environmental studies in the 1970s, however, I did read Silent Spring (1962) by Rachel Carson, which opens with a sci-fi-ish fable. And Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976) by Kate Wilhelm, which starts with the devastating effects of pollution, includes climate change and nuclear war, and works up to cloning.

Overpopulation: John Brunners’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968), Robert Silverberg’s The World Inside (1971), and Thomas Disch’s 334 (1972). Of course, Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” (1969) was turned into the film Soylent Green (1973) starring the quintessential craggy and superficially pensive sci-fi hero of that time, Charlton Heston.

Climate change: from Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) and The Burning World (1964), science fiction has always addressed Marsh’s nineteenth-century fears of “climactic excesses,” “the shattered surfaces” of Earth, and the extinction of many species, perhaps even our own. Sometimes the problem was solar flares, sometimes aliens. In the last few decades, science fiction has directly addressed global warming caused by human activity, including George Turner’s The Drowning Towers (1987) and John Barnes’s Mother of Storms (1994). The 21st century has seen a spate of such books, coined by the phrase cli-fi, tweeted by Margaret Atwood to describe her own work (MaddAddam Trilogy).

Two recent cli-fi books point to two very different approaches: Green Earth (2015) by Kim Stanley Robinson and The Water Knife (2015) by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Green Earth is an updated, mashed-up version of previous books Robinson has written in his series Science in the Capitol. This is global warming in the developed world, with likeable characters who are healthy, smart, powerful, and privileged. Kayakers paddle on the National Mall as Washington DC floods. Hikers in California mourn the loss of favorite alpine meadows. We read this book while traveling in an airplane, or at home surrounded by our middle-class stuff, and we think—yes, I recognize these people. This could really happen! Green Earth is deeply, weirdly—refreshingly—hopeful. Its most science-fictiony leap may be the thought experiment of American politicians and scientists teaming up to save the world together.

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is Mr. Hyde to Robinson’s Dr. Jekyll. The United States has fallen apart into warring states, with refugees from the south desperately trying to reach the north. Bacigalupi draws directly from scientific research (environmental writers William DeBuys’s The Great Aridness and Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert) about what extreme drought will look like in the Southwest, mixes into that the horrific violence of the drug cartels happening along the border now, adds everything we know and feel about corrupt politics and amoral multinational corporations—and the result also feels frighteningly real. Yes, we think. Get the family in the car! We’re moving to Canada.

To my mind, both books are powerful examples of a new “nature writing” rooted in the tradition of science fiction as the literature of the environmental movement.

And there, I’ve said it: science fiction has long been the unofficial literature of the environmental movement, whether that was consciously recognized or even welcomed by either the genre or the activists. Perhaps this was inevitable. The Age of the Anthropocene—the current geologic era defined by the degree to which human activities are shaping the planet we live on—requires what might also be the defining quality of science fiction: some serious and imaginative thinking about the future.


About the Author

Sharman Apt Russell’s most recent nonfiction, Diary of a Citizen Scientist, won the 2016 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Nature Writing, whose recipients include Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson. She is the author of some dozen books published in a dozen languages. Her debut science fiction Knocking on Heaven’s Door (Yucca Publishing, 2016) begins in a Paleoterrific utopia and spirals out to some very strange places. Knocking on Heaven’s Door is available in audible as well as print and digital. For more information, go to

6 thoughts on “Sharman Apt Russell Guest Post–“BFF: Science Fiction and the Environmental Movement”

  • June 27, 2016 at 2:49 pm

    Impresionante este post tuyo, desde luego has ganado un seguidor :). Creo que hace tiempo vi una pelicula que trataba sobre este tema precisamente, pero no recuerdo el nombre, no se si alguien me puede refrescar la memoria.

  • July 21, 2016 at 3:25 pm

    My undergraduate thesis was on the work of George Perkins Marsh (40 years ago). It is good to know that someone else remembers a man whose thinking about the environment was as revolutionary as Darwin’s was (though far less well known).

  • December 28, 2016 at 8:51 pm

    Try van Gelder’s collection, WELCOME TO THE GREENHOUSE.


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