Barbara Kingsolver is a rarity—a trained scientist who became a graceful novelist. Now she’s trying something even more unusual, making the very wonky subject of climate change the heart of her new novel Flight Behavior. Kingsolver spoke with TIME’s Bryan Walsh recently about global warming, the environmental movement and the responsibility of an artist.
TIME: With this novel you really did something that I thought was impossible. You created a compelling story where climate change is a driving issue. Why did you choose to make climate change an important part of Flight Behavior?
Kingsolver: Because I wanted to write about that particular culture war. I live in southern Appalachia and I’m surrounded, literally, my home is surrounded by farms and by coal mines. Our agriculture here has gone through one disaster year after another, so climate change is not some kind of abstract future threat here. It is literally killing our farm economy. We’ve had record heat years. We’ve had record drought years. So the people most affected by climate change already are people among whom I live: rural conservative farmers. And it strikes me that these are the same people who are least prepared to understand and believe in climate change and its causes. Our local politicians are quite deliberately misinforming us and fighting every kind of environmental regulation that could possibly slow down the release of carbon for the very obvious reason that they’re beholden to the big player in this region, which is the coal companies. Here we are, caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. What can I do but write a novel?
Is there something else that goes with that sense of identity, something that makes them not accepting of the message coming from scientists, of what they’re actually seeing with their own eyes?
Of course there is. And again we’re not alone. I think people in every part of the country are bombarded with information and misinformation. Fundamentally I wanted to write about why humans have stopped listening to each other. It was important not to take sides in this novel. I feel profound sympathy for everyone in this novel. That includes the people who come down on both sides of this culture war. If I had to pick a side, it would be that we desperately need to listen to each other. Disagreement should be a healthy thing and instead in the modern era, disagreement has become debilitating. Particularly on the subject of climate change. Particularly on any subject that is informed by science. If I had to sum up the heart of this novel in a sentence I would say it’s about why people can look at the same set of facts and come away with absolutely different convictions about what they’ve seen.
People who are in the environmental movement, as well as scientists, are constantly trying to determine how do you get this message out to more people. How do you break this resistance?
I don’t have any answers. I’m only a novelist. I only ask questions. But throwing more facts at people clearly isn’t working and there is an element of condescension in assuming that people who don’t agree with you need more facts that you have. We all think that we gather the facts and make our judgment from that. But I had a hunch that humans really work differently. We decide what we believe first, and then we go looking for facts that support what we believe.
First we decide whom we trust, then we believe what they say, then we look for supporting evidence. So I went looking into the literature of cognitive psychology. It turns out that experimental psychologists have done a lot of work on this question question: how do we decide what we believe.
Is there something about human nature that it makes it very hard to focus on these long-term problems, to sleepwalk through this rather than confront it? Are you hopeful then that we can push through this?
Of course, there are a lot of things, a lot of strikes against us as human animals. It’s very hard for us to believe in things we don’t see. We don’t see the effects of climate change, we don’t see that melting sea ice. It’s hard for us to believe that the world under our feet could ever be any different than how it’s always been. I think the human animal has a fundamental trust in certain kinds of continuity. It’s hard to convince ourselves that that’s not the case. But most of all we’re wired to fight or flee. That’s the title of this novel. It’s Flight Behavior. Every cell in our body wants to run away from the big scary thing. So this is a novel about flight behavior, all the ways that all of us are running away from scary truths.
I think every one of us operates in our various modes of denial. It’s how we survive. We’re made that way. You asked if I’m hopeful. I would say I’m not optimistic but I am hopeful because hope is a renewable option. And I don’t really feel like I have a choice. I have kids and I care about other kids beside my own. I have an investment in the future so I have a duty to stay engaged here with these questions and that’s what I’m trying to do, just keep my hands on the reins of these big questions, these big scary questions that are kind of pulling us along.
Why choose the monarch butterfly—which comes north due to climate change—as the symbol here?
I don’t like to give it away, but the freak biological event that drives this whole story just came to me in a vision. I just woke up one morning with that sight behind my eyes, behind my eyelids. There it was. I pictured that valley of flame in an Appalachian forested mountainside and I thought, “Wow, there’s a novel right there.” Half the people would see it as a miracle organized by God and the other people would see it as horrifying proof of global warming. And there began the novel. The more I studied it, the more I realized this was a perfect vehicle for what I wanted to say. Because I’m trained as a scientist, it was really enjoyable to dive into the literature of migration and how climate change is already affecting migrations of all kinds.
What responsibility do artists have when it comes to a problem as big and complicated as climate change?
The only responsibility artists have is to understand the power of our craft and use it carefully. It’s something like owning firearms. Pay attention to where it’s aimed. Make sure you’re using it carefully and well. Fiction has enormous power. It’s funny—people talk about political fiction or apolitical fiction. That’s nonsense. I think all fiction has a point of view, and all fiction has the power to create empathy for the theoretical stranger. It has the power to bring the reader inside the mind of another person. Only fiction can do that. Journalism can’t do that. Journalism describes from the outside. Photography describes from the outside, but in fiction, really, you put down your life. You enter the mind of another person and you inherit her children and her financial problems and all these things, you inhabit them for a while. That’s an audacious to do to another person. So I try to use that power as well as I can.