Women Writing the Environment Into Fiction

Katy Pye

Katy Pye

Blog Post by Katy Pye

The signs are clear: we’ve backed the planet into a corner. Climate change impacts are real, and the 350 (ppm CO2) line is a fading marker in our exhaust dust. Scores of practical and ethical questions lack easy answers. Our responses to bad news range from fearful paralysis to full denial. Science and scientists are often targets in the middle. As Dellarobia, in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, tells Ovid, the butterfly scientist, “You guys aren’t popular. Maybe your medicine is too bitter.” Sometimes a reality pill is swallowed easier with a glass of fiction than a barrel of factual reports and sound bites.

I recently finished Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder waits on my bedside table. Women writing about the natural world isn’t new, but these current works dig deeper, illuminating more directly our relationships—and our ethics—toward the planet and each other. Dystopian, sci-fi, and fantasy genres migrate to end-of-the-world scenarios or recreate our dilemmas in alien worlds. Romance novels pitch us into the bedroom where the conflicts and solutions are oh-so-familiar. They allow us intimate escape from life above the sheets. Yet, all turn first on personal emotions and choices.

A biologist, Kingsolver says her novels embrace three core themes: diversity, community, and hope. The first two are reflected in all species. Purely human, hope is a “mode of survival” and a “mode of resistance,” primarily through action. Clearly, a yet-undefined critical mass of diverse humanity must change flight behavior to a fight for change, if we are to remake our future. As the saying goes, “We may have come here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”

In Gilbert’s Signature of All Things, Alma studies a community of mosses (and her family and friends) to discover what Darwin concluded. Adaptation is a critical coping mechanism to the inevitable battle for finite resources among and between too many species. Over eons, species losses have been high, but so have replacements. Given the potential cost to us, Alma wonders, why are human beings the only fully altruistic species? What motivates our acting to benefit another when there may be clear costs to our immediate family, even our kind? I have to wonder if and how this trait will change, now that our global house is threatened by the torch.

An early reader kindly said my novel, Elizabeth’s Landing, reminded her of Flight Behavior. Now I see why. Community, family, and hope anchor both books. Written on a smaller scale than Kingsolver’s, like hers I intended to give readers a realistic view of an environmental crisis, its impacts, and complexity in finding solutions. Elizabeth acts first and always from her heart, but like Dellarobia, not alone.

Women have always written about women and the societal problems of their era. The reach of climate change has redefined community. Last September, world leaders Dr. Jane Goodall, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Dr. Vandana Shiva, and 93 others gathered at the International Women’s Earth and Climate Summit to “further a women’s climate agenda.” Delegates included “grassroots activists, economists, scientists, businesswomen, Indigenous leaders, policy-makers, faith leaders, and culture shapers.” Notably absent were the story-tellers like Kingsolver, Gilbert, and Patchett, writers who hold up the mirrors to all we are and can be.

Reasons to tell and read stories about women and the environment:

According to U.N. studies and WECAN (Women’s Earth and Climate Action Network) “Why Women are Key”:

  • when women are empowered populations stabilize, local economies and children’s health and education improve;
  • women get out the vote and vote more often;
  • women are an essential component—and in some cases the main one—in

making peace;

  • women are the main recyclers and decide how family income is spent;
  • women in developing countries are responsible for half of the world’s food production and produce between 60-80% of the food in these countries;
  • women in North America now control over half of the wealth and are behind 80% of all consumer purchases Translation: leverage;
  • indigenous women, those from low-income communities and developing countries, bear a heavier burden from the impacts of climate change. They are more reliant upon natural resources and/or live in areas with poor infrastructure, thus vulnerable communities. 


About the author: Katy Pye, author of the award-winning debut novel, Elizabeth’s Landing, lives and writes on California’s north coast. Visit katypye.com to learn more about the book, sea turtles, and kids making a difference. 


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