By Kelly S. Ramirez
Hello Readers, Happy New Year and welcome back to Early Career Ecologists! We are excited to get back into our normal posting schedule. Here’s to a productive and stimulating 2013.
Over my holiday break I read The Dog Stars by Peter Heller. (I finally got around to reading it after hearing this NPR interview). Briefly, The Dog Stars is a novel about a man, Hig, living in post apocalyptic Colorado, nine years after a plague has wiped out most of the human population; he is left with his dog, the stars and a neighbor with a massive weapons arsenal.
What I found so great about the novel, first, was Heller’s use of poetry and disjointed prose to highlight Hig’s loss – of his family, his surrounding environment, really the entire world. Amidst the sorrow though, Heller maintains a sense of hopefulness and lightheartedness that makes this a beautifully written and enjoyable novel.
But I am not here to write a book review- check out here and here if you stumbled upon this page for that reason. Though if you are wondering, I would say the catastrophic feel of this book falls somewhere between The Road, by Cormac McCarthy* and WALL×E, the lighthearted animated Disney film about a futuristic robot. This post is instead focused on the role of literature and film in public understanding of climate change.
What I also found so great about the novel was the way Heller uses Hig to comment on the state of our own environment. As the book progresses we realize that Earth is not just without humans, but the residual effects of humans still linger. Climate change is visible: the growing season is shorter, Spring and Summer are warmer and the streams dry up earlier every year.
The loss of biodiversity is also prevalent in the book. Hig is a naturalist, a fisherman and a hunter; he truly loves nature. But the fish are gone. So too are many animals. Hig briefly mentions the last elephant, pointing out how unlikely it would be for an elephant to ever evolve again. This book goes beyond the last human on earth story and explores the importance of caring for our planet and the consequences of our actions (or inactions).
What is more, Heller creates an eerie ‘this could and may happen in your own backyard’ feel through Hig’s visceral reaction to the obvious environmental changes. It is not difficult to imagine the state of Colorado in 50 years with or without a cataclysmic plague event. And if you are familiar with the Colorado front range you will appreciate the detailed descriptions of the landscape. In this way Heller poetically and poignantly addresses the most pressing environmental issues of our time.
No more sugar coating
With global carbon dioxide emissions at a record high and species disappearing at an alarming rate we need to continue to discuss human pressures on the planet. Fine arts media can be a powerful tool in that discussion. Beyond literature, films and television can provide commentary on the role we play in shaping our environment. From futuristic movies starring Will Smith to the Portlandia sketch, “Is it local?” increasingly we are confronted with the sustainability of our Earth. The continued focus of mainstream media on the state of our planet and the harms humans cause, no matter how far fetched, makes me feel optimistic that our population is not truly as complacent as our inaction suggests. And this message of optimism is what Heller uses in The Dog Stars. Hig’s life is a message of warning, but also one of hope. We may be past the point of no return, all efforts may seem wasted, but maybe, just maybe, there still is something left to try.
*Authors note: I have not actually read The Road, as I am somewhat terrified after reading Blood Meridian… but it is on my list!