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Response to climate change – some assembly required

I just happen to serve two of the best churches ever.

One church gathers in a village, Gaines, just north of the Erie Canal, in Orleans County, in western New York. Persons of sometimes differing beliefs on both politics and religion form a small but glowing group that really does earn the often said chestnut — We are just like family.

One church gathers in the afternoon in a cottage on Grand Island, New York, built in 1938, with extensive property including wetlands and forest. And an adobe mudhut out back by the pottery shed.

you say dystopia logoThe village church, which meets on Sunday mornings, has three ministers and a PhD among its 40 members. The level of discourse is gratifying.

The cottage church has ties with Buffalo’s aging yet durable activist community. We also made strong ties with the Occupy Buffalo movement.

It would be the work of a New York minute to figure out which one of these assemblies has been talking about and agitating about global climate change for many years now.

One thing that you would not know if I did not tell you is that the one who has been holding back the village church on the subject of global climate change is its pastor. I have been reluctant to broach the subject. However, I am beginning to hear evidence that my folk in Gaines are every bit as concerned as I would expect them to be. I asked the colleague who teaches the adult Sunday School class to consider using a module from The Thoughtful Christian, our curriculum publisher, on global climate change. He was amenable. Others are beginning to express interest.

Last Sunday afternoon, at the cottage church, which I co-pastor with my spouse, I presented a program on what dystopian literature can tell us about climate change.

Here is the outline.

You Say Dystopia: How Literature Can Help Us Change Ourselves and the Climate

First things first — define the term

This is a quote from a Wikipedia article on the word dystopia ( —


A dystopia is a community or society that is in some important way undesirable or frightening. It is the opposite of a utopia. Such societies appear in many artistic works, particularly in stories set in a future. Dystopias are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments, environmental disaster, or other characteristics associated with a cataclysmic decline in society. Dystopian societies appear in many sub-genres of fiction and are often used to draw attention to real-world issues regarding society, environment, politics, economics, religion, psychology, ethics, science, and/or technology, which if unaddressed could potentially lead to such a dystopia-like condition.

Famous depictions of dystopian societies include … Nineteen Eighty-Four, which takes place in a totalitarian invasive super state; Brave New World, where the human population is placed under a caste of psychological allocation; Fahrenheit 451, where the state burns books out of fear of what they may incite; A Clockwork Orange, where the state undertakes to reform violent youths, but at what cost?; Blade Runner in which genetically engineered replicants infiltrate society and must be hunted down before they injure humans; The Hunger Games, in which the government controls its people by maintaining a constant state of fear through forcing randomly selected children to participate in an annual fight to the death; Logan’s Run, in which both population and the consumption of resources are maintained in equilibrium by requiring the death of everyone reaching a particular age, and Soylent Green, where society suffers from pollution, overpopulation, depleted resources, poverty, dying oceans, and a hot climate. Much of the population survives on processed food rations, including “soylent green.”

Jack London’s The Iron Heel was described by Erich Fromm as “the earliest of the modern Dystopia.”

The Argument (AKA executive summary)

How literature can help us change ourselves and the climate —

I believe that reading works of dystopian fiction can help us with our inner climate of turmoil and terror concerning global climate change, by giving a gentle focus on the problem and offering calming, pleasing story-telling that spins out the possibilities, including the triumph of human love in the face of mindless destruction and the utter durability of the planet. Reading can help us avoid agitation and prepare us for effective action. Reading helps us stay in the here and now.

A Map of the Territory

I. Define “Dystopia”

          a. Wikipedia definition of the term.

          b. Atwood’s definition – sci fi vs. speculative futures.

          c. “All futures are dystopian”.

II. Define our concerns — inner and outer climate

          a. We seem to be bleeping bleeped by the ever increasing changes in global climate.

                   i. We seem to be poorly informed and largely unable to

                   articulate any firm sense of what the problem is.

                   ii. Left to ourselves, we get stuck in agitation and mistake agitation for action.

III. Responses to our dangling-person stance

          a. Chicken Little (the sky is falling)

          b. Tut, tut, looks like rain (Winnie the Pooh)

          c. You will weep and lament, and the world will rejoice, and you will have sorrow, but your sorrow will be turned into joy (John 16:20).

                   i. The Bible as Dystopian Literature?

          d. At the intersection of Past and Future

IV. What can Dystopian Literature do for us?

          a. Define the problem.

          b. Distract us from the problem.

          c. Serve the State, serve Activists, or find a middle way between instruction and delight?

V. Next steps

          a. Write a study resource.

          b. Suggested reading

          c. URLs

Selected Reading


 Here is Margaret Atwood’s definition of speculative fiction (In Other Worlds, p. 6): “What I mean by ‘science fiction’ is those books that descend from H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, which treats of … things that could not possibly happen … whereas for me, ‘speculative fiction’ means plots that descend from Jules Verne’s books … — things that really cold happen but just hadn’t completely happened when the authors wrote the books. I would place my books in this second category: no martians.”


Recent works of Dystopian Fiction

Good —

       The Divergent trilogy, by Veronica Roth (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant). Post-war society where the victors decide to group people by their dominant traits. The trouble is, you had better not have more than one of those traits. They are killing folk like you. The first book has been made into an excellent film.

Better —

The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. After a war to end all wars, the victors confine the surviving people to provinces based on economic contributions. Each year, each group sends two teen-agers to a battle-to-the-death spectacle. Something was bound to happen. Books one and two have been make into excellent films.

Best —

       The MaddAddam trilogy (Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam), by Margaret Atwood, who lives and writes in Toronto. Atwood, the oldest and most gifted of these three writers, spins a tale about the end of the world as we just might, and could, come to know it. Atwood calls these books speculative fiction, for this reason. These are apocalyptic stories that could be(come) true.

Lit. Crit.

Margaret Atwood’s essay on speculative futures appears in her collection titled In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination.

Recent works on alternative worlds

       In this category, the books imagine our world as different than it is, but the goals is not at all political or polemical. One of my favorites is a series titled The Wildwood Chronicles, by Colin Meloy (leader of the musical group out of Portland, Oregon, the Decemberists), with deft illustrations by his spouse, Carson Ellis. This is good, clean fun, and the third title in the series is newly out. These are works of imagination rather than speculation.

Recent works on climate change

       I am reading The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert, who writes for The New Yorker and has written other books about climate change. Kolbert tells of the excitement and the horror of the times we live in. She describes a scientist who tells his wife that 1) things are gong well in his research and lab work, and 2) his work points to the end to life as we know it.

Recent works from a theological perspective

       I have purchased but not yet read Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key, by Larry L. Rasmussen, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. One of his previous books won the top yearly book prize at the theological seminary I was graduated from.

Recent works – variations on the theme

       Two novels I have been reading lately point to the reality that not all negative futures are strictly communal. I recommend these books in their own right. Before I Burn, by Gaute Heivoll, and The Martian, by Andy Weir. Before I Burn explores a series of arson fires and the young man who set them in a region of Norway. The Martian tells the story of an astronaut left for dead by his fleeing colleagues after a disaster hits their team, on the surface of Mars. These works mute the political in favor of the personal, another contrast to dystopian works.

Selected URLs

* Additional background on this web site, > click on You say dystopia at top of home page.


* I maintain a web site for each of the two churches that I serve. Visit News for the Pews and News from the Woods.


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