Burning Worlds is Amy Brady’s monthly column dedicated to examining how contemporary literature interrogates issues of climate change, in partnership with Yale Climate Connections. Subscribe to her monthly newsletter to get “Burning Worlds” and other writing about art and climate change delivered straight to your inbox.
Young activists like Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida, and Isra Hirsi have changed public discourse surrounding climate change. Rarely anymore is the crisis discussed as a distant possibility; instead, it’s seen as here, now, and unless greatly mitigated, as profoundly impacting the lives of these young people and their peers. The kids are angry with the older generations — their parents and their parents’ parents — who failed to imagine a more sustainable and just way of living, who refuse to change their ways now, even as evidence mounts that they’re destroying everything they claim to hold dear.
Author and conservationist Lydia Millet captures the spirit of those young activists in her latest novel, A Children’s Bible, a slim but poignant (and often darkly funny) account of a group of kids and their hapless parents who attempt to survive a hurricane while on vacation. As the storm whirls over their rented beach house, the children become problem solvers and voices of reason, while their parents drink more, do less, and fall deeper into situational depression. Meanwhile, Jack, the youngest among the kids, becomes captivated by a picture Bible gifted to him by one of his parents’ friends. Teeming with stories of floods and storms and strange animals, the book seems to predict what’s happening around them. But rather than reading those stories as prophecy, he interprets them as metaphors for what happens when humanity distances itself from nature and science.
I spoke with Millet about what inspired A Children’s Bible, why she sees young people as integral to climate activism, and why it’s important to think of art and science as complementary disciplines — rather than entirely distinct.
As the title of your latest novel — A Children’s Bible — suggests, a young boy’s Bible is featured prominently in this story. That boy, Jack, draws parallels between what happens in the book with what’s happening in the world around him, while remaining a firm believer in science. What inspired you to write about biblical imagery in such fresh and creative ways?
I’m interested in the language we use to talk about God. Among other things, how the line between secular and religious worldviews — a problematic distinction to begin with, in many respects — has become, at least in the U.S., a political tool instead of a philosophical or theological differentiation. For example, it’s still considered out of the question by the mainstream that someone who doesn’t say he or she is a Christian could be elected president.
So a verbal profession of Christian faith remains, for the majority of the electorate, a prerequisite for leading the country. Even in candidates like Donald Trump who break the mold on so many other fronts. You have to say you’re a Christian, but meanwhile it’s manifestly clear that you don’t have to embody Christian values one iota. You only have to embody capitalist values, and that gives you a pass. Though market capitalism and genuine Christian morality aren’t really natural bedfellows. In Trump’s case, you follow up the assertion that you’re a Christian — which is supported by no actual knowledge of the Bible or other evidence of familiarity with the basic tenets of the creed — with policy gestures and judicial appointments that promote a far-right fundamentalist agenda, anti-choice, pro-semiautomatic weapons, etc. And that seems to constitute proof that you’re putting your money, or in this case taxpayers’ money, where your mouth is.
But you don’t have to behave like a good Christian or in any way emulate Christ. You don’t have to try to lift up the poor or try to help heal the sick. You don’t have to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You’re free to commit adultery, bear false witness, and even, according to the president’s own words, kill, since he’s “joked” aka boasted that he could probably shoot someone in broad daylight and, at least in the eyes of his base, get away with it.
Which is all to say that when we publicly talk about faith in America, we’re no longer usually talking about authentic belief but about affiliations to particular groups and powers. Some of which cloak their social agendas in the mantle of Christianity. In this novel of mine, the little boy, a character who’s been raised in a secular home, brings innocence of this context to his reading of Bible tales. So he doesn’t see any conflict between believing in God and believing in science and in the primacy of nature. Because, of course, there is no conflict. The conflict is pure politics, a cynically manufactured artifact.
Several climate change novels have been written from the perspective of adults, many of them parents. But few from the perspective of children and teens. What drew you to their perspective? Is there something that can be shown about the climate crisis from a child’s point of view that is perhaps absent from an adult’s?
My generation of adult — and those older than us who are still around — has failed, as a collective, to see ourselves as parents, even when we are parents. Real parents aren’t just producers of younger, newer beings. Producers of new life are simply breeders. Real parents are ancestors, who act out of a duty to the future of those under their care. Real parents are those who understand that the future has to be guarded, not only for their own children but for all who come after them. If we’re derelict in that duty — which we should take to be a sacred one — we may as well abandon the idea that we’re parents and admit we’re nothing more than breeders. There’s zero nobility in the act of reproducing on its own, despite what greeting cards and folks fawning over cute babies tell us to the contrary. Nobility only comes when we do things that are hard for us, even things that hurt us or make us suffer, for the good of our children and the children of others.
And the climate and extinction crises, along with the systemic injustices and abuses that have allowed them to spiral out of control, are the legacy we’re leaving. The terrible gift that keeps on giving — that will continue to propagate misery and hardship long after we’re personally gone. I’d say it’s hard not to see that from the point of view of the victims.
Your novel is critical of how the kids’ parents handle the crisis that befalls them. As I read I couldn’t help but hear the echoes of damning things said by real-life child climate activists about how adults have all but completely ignored what we’ve done to the planet. Did you have these young activists in mind as you wrote?
I finished the book before Greta Thunberg became so famous, but if I were a child now, I’d blame us just as she does. I blame us as an adult, too. But as a child now, or a teenager or even someone in their twenties or thirties, I’d feel rage at not only the situation the older people who run the world’s economies have caused through their willful denial and their greed, but at their casual dismissal, complacency and smug entitlement in the face of it. And their seemingly infinite corruption. I wanted to write a book about the anger of people who don’t yet run the world as they begin to bear witness to the effects of our negligence. And admittedly to attest to the legitimacy and the beauty of that anger. Because it’s right.
You’ve written about climate change and other environmental concerns before. How does your background in the sciences influence your writing about these subjects — or any subjects?
I have a little background, but I’m certainly no scientist. In college, for instance, I took astrophysics pass-fail. I made an agreement with the friendly professor that, on the exams, I wouldn’t answer any math questions. Just the word ones. So that tells you something about my attention span when it comes to science. I love reading about it, but I’ve never practiced it. It’s too methodical and painstaking and repetitive for someone like me. I did do a little quantitative work at the London School of Economics and then in grad school at Duke, frankly because it was mandatory, but mostly my studies were qualitative. Social-science oriented, not hard. For my day job, though, I edit plenty of things written by scientists, as well as by lawyers, and my brief includes making their presentation of the work they do more accessible to reporters and laypersons like myself. “Dewonking” is what we call it. So maybe in my better moments I’m a kind of translator, at least when it comes to conservation biology.
In my own writing, too, I sometimes try to translate notions from science and other fields of inquiry into ideas with affective power, abstractions with a certain emotional resonance. Resonance to me, anyway.
Without giving too much away, I’ll say that the novel’s ending seems to suggest that both art and science are vital to human knowledge, perhaps even to our survival. I found this deeply moving, because often in literary and academic circles, those two things are thought of as entirely separate pursuits. Would you share your thoughts on this? Are the arts and sciences related? Can practitioners of each learn from the other?
It’s been my observation that literary and artistic producers tend to give more deference to hard scientists than vice versa. And that this is also true of mainstream opinion, where art’s often taken to be a frivolous or luxury pastime and science a serious and useful pursuit — a bias that arises quite naturally out of material and materialist culture. Science gives us tangible objects we can use to make our lives more enjoyable and convenient and art gives us mostly the intangible: ways of understanding and interpreting reality. As a culture based on getting and having, rather than on being and knowing, we often fail to acknowledge the critical, life-saving importance of expanding our ways of seeing the world and our place in it.
Recently science has been devalued in the public domain and taken some painful body blows. And scientists in the realm of climate change, say, or biology — and medicine, in the pandemic — are beginning to suspect there may be some added value for them in the work that communicators do.
What I think is just that science and art are of a piece, different but complementary forms and systems of knowledge. When hard science is decoupled from philosophy, and placed on a separate pedestal, we do ourselves a grievous injury. Hard science deployed without wisdom is exceptionally dangerous. And wisdom is what art and abstract thought can offer us. If we’re willing to treat them not just as entertainment but as a search for enlightenment and meaning in our lives.
Finally, and I know this may be a funny question for someone whose book just hit shelves, but what’s next for you?
The book I’m working on now is nonfiction, a memoir in the sense that it’s grounded in my own memories, but a bestiary in structure. Medieval Christian bestiaries were illustrated encyclopedias of real-life animals and mythical creatures that used descriptions of animals, and versions of their life histories, as moral fables. So it’s a book that celebrates animals and plants while also looking at religion and colonialism and other historical forces, as well as the ways we manage our own personal lives, to try to understand their connection to extinction and climate change. Their effects on how we treat the other and the wild.
A Children’s Bible
By Lydia Millet
W.W. Norton & Co.
Published May 12, 2020