Climate Inaction Will Lead to a Dystopia

Peacock, Clevver in "Riddley Walker"

Poppy Alexander Peacock, Clevver in “Riddley Walker”


Representatives from most of the world’s countries are currently meeting in Paris to face what they all acknowledge to be one of the greatest crises ever to confront humankind. The challenges of working together are daunting but at least everyone is admitting that climate change is a problem. Everyone, that is, except for the GOP.

Actually, according to conservative New York Times David Brooks, even many Republicans think that humans are causing the planet to warm up. But because the rightwing has hijacked their party, they feel they can’t admit it. As Brooks puts it,

on this issue the G.O.P. has come to resemble a Soviet dictatorship — a vast majority of Republican politicians can’t publicly say what they know about the truth of climate change because they’re afraid the thought police will knock on their door and drag them off to an AM radio interrogation.

I’ve written on climate change denialism a number of times (see the links at the end of this essay) because I find it appalling. How can anyone be willing to sacrifice our children and grandchildren on the altar of political expediency.

The U.S. military is among many declaring that, because of a warming earth, we face the prospect of a dystopian future, which makes Russell Hoban’s science fiction classic Riddley Walker a good work to turn to. To be sure, Hoban’s novel is about world that has been been devastated by nuclear war, not by climate change. The passage that catches my eye, however, is the story of a couple who sacrifice their child for their present convenience. This is what anyone who stands in the way of reducing carbon emissions is doing.

Riddley Walker is a challenging novel because of the way it engages in language play similar to Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake and Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange. One can understand what is being said with a little patience, however, and then the novel’s nightmare vision becomes clear.

The time is 2000 years into the future. Because of an atomic Armageddon, the world has descended into a new iron age. (Riddley Walker is like Walter Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in this regard.) Riddley becomes a wanderer and seer (hence his name) who learns that the authorities are seeking to rediscover the secret of gun powder and the atom bomb. The passage I have in mind is one of the origin stories that has arisen in the centuries since the nuclear cataclysm. The fable, which seeks to explain why the world is as it is, demonstrates how selfishness led to disaster. It applies to our own circumstances only too well:

There come a man and a woman and a child out of a berning town they shelter in the woodlings and foraging the bes they cud. Starveling were what they were doing. Dint have no weapons nor dint know how to make a snare not nothing. Snow on the groun and a grey sky overing and the black trees rubbing ther branches in the wind. Crows calling 1 to a nother waiting for the 3 of them to drop…

The child said, “O Im so col Im afeart Im going to dy. If only we had a little fire to get warm at.”

The man dint have no way to making a fire he dint have no flint and steal nor nothing. Wood all roun them only there weren’t no way he knowit of getting warm from it.

The 3 of them ready for Aunty [Death] they wer ready to total and done when there come thru the woodlings a clever looking bloak and singing a little song to his self.

“Cleverness” is looked upon with suspicion in this world since it has led to the atom bomb. (The same suspicion exists in Canticle for Leibowitz and, for that matter, existed amongst Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, who executed people who wore glasses.) For our purposes, Clevver stands for the technological prowess that had led to climate change. He offers the family fire but demands something in return:

The clever looking bloak said, “That for you and what for me?”

The man and the woman said, “What do we have for whatfers?” They lookit 1 to the other and boath at the child.

The clever looking bloak said, “Iwl tel you what Iwl do Iwl share you my fire and my cook pot of youwl share me what to put in the pot.” He wer looking at the child.

The man and the woman thot: 2 out of 3 a live is bettern 3 dead. They said, ‘Done.’

They kilt the child and drunk its blood and cut up the meat for cooking.

The clever looking bloak said, “Iwl show you how to make fire plus Iwl give you flint and steal and makings nor you don’t have to share me nothing of the meat only the hart.

The clever man then predicts that, essentially, the old technology will one day return. The man and woman, meanwhile, pay a price for their decision:

The man and the woman then eating ther child it wer black nite all roun them they made ther fire bigger and bigger trying to keap the black from moving in on them. They fel a sleap by ther fire and the fire biggering on it et them up they bernt to death.

We’re not living in a post-apocalyptic world yet, but we’re on the way there. Are we willing to eat our children—or at least the resources they will need to live on—just so we can hold on to our accustomed life style? If we do so, the shadows of black night will move in on us and any number of people will be “bernt to death.”

A note on the artist: Poppy Alexander Peacock has illustrated a number of scenes from Riddley Walker. His artwork can be found at


Past posts on climate change and climate change denialism

Tolstoy and Climate Change Denial

Donne and Climate Change Denial

Leslie Marmon Silko: Climate Change, a Sign of Witchery

Scott Bates: An ABC of Our Attack on the Earth

Scott Bates and the California Drought: The Rivers of Blood Turned to Stone

Melville and Climate Change Denial

Scott Bates: The Animals Are Trying to Warn Us

The Haiyan Typhoon, Climate Change Denial, and King Lear

Scott Bates on the Koch Brothers: Oligarchs of Order and Ordure

Hydrocarbons Unleash an Angry Dionysus

Ibsen’s Enemy of the People: Being Right on Climate Change Is Not Enough

Barbara Kingsolver Tries to Save the Planet

Richard Shelton: Mass Extinctions Followed by Life

MaddAdam: Atwood’s Vision of Unregulated Capitalism

Alexander Pope: Reflecting on “A Little Learning”

Gulliver’s Travels: The GOP Denies a Giant Problem

Frost’s Fire and Ice: This Is the Way the World Ends

All the King’s Men: Out of Denialism and into Responsibility

Scott Bates: Letters from Mrs. Santa Claus

Pope’s Dunciad: A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall

Scott Bates: Everyperson’s Environmental E-Car

Scott Bates: An Environmentalist’s Revenge Fantasy

Scott Bates: Mama Grizzly (Sarah Palin) vs. the Real Grizzlies

GOP Denialism in General (not just on climate)

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods: When American Fantasies Are Dangerous

The GOP Descends into Poe’s Maelstrom

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