J.G. Ballard Was Wrong (Sort of) About Climate Change

Ballard's foresight likely came from his rumination on the fate of the planet, not environmental study.

As I wrote this, from the corner of my eye, I could see CNN providing coverage of a gargantuan hurricane, racing resolutely towards the eastern coastal arc of the US, extending from Florida all the way up to the Carolinas. The footage shows fierce winds roiling the waters of the Atlantic; wave after wave, crashing against the shore, slopping out over the edge of the sea wall. It could have been an event such as this that prompted J.G. Ballard to write The Drowned World — a forerunner of a genre, dubbed in the 21st century as “climate-fiction” — in which he paints a nightmare landscape, where the seas have swelled and swallowed up the land.

Marine biologist Robert Kerans is a member of a United Nations military team, mapping the drowned harbors for future reoccupation. As he and his crew make their way through the waters in a catamaran, they enter a “wide circle of dark green water” through whose layers they can see the “outlines of buildings looming like giant ghosts”. A straight gray promenade stretched away between the buildings, the remains of some former thoroughfare; the rusting humped shells of cars still standing by the curb. “That is a lagoon. Beneath it is a ‘spectra;’ metropolis: London. The British capital had sunk sometime in the ‘closing years of the second millennium.'”

All over the world, mean temperatures rose until the polar ice caps melted and the glaciers turned into torrential rivers and the contours of the continents had altered. At 180 degrees, the equator had become an oven. “Europe became a system of giant lagoons.” The American Midwest had become an “enormous gulf opening into the Hudson Bay.” Only the polar regions offered a feeble refuge from the encroaching searing heat.

As the mercury soared, and the air boiled, the fauna and flora rapidly reverted to what they were during the Triassic, a geological period that ended 200 million years ago. The wheat fields of the temperate climes had been overrun by dense groves of towering calamites, ferns, horsetails, clubmosses, transforming them into Amazon-like rainforests on steroids. Darwinism dictated that creatures better adapted to a life in jungles, swamps, and lakes flourished; the rest perished. Iguanas “perched in the windows of the office blocks and department stores.”

Today, there’s a growing worry that rising oceans will overcome low-lying areas around the world. It’s now known — at least, to some — that the agent of the recent climate-change is the results of industrial and post-industrial humankind. Over time, the relentless release of greenhouse gases (those that trap heat) has taken its toll on the planet. Three years ago, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million, last known to have existed during an epoch called the Pliocene. The New York Times reported that experts fear that more emissions could trigger a return to primitive climate conditions.

Writing in 1962, in envisioning that the global climate would be thrown off-kilter, of course, Ballard is prescient, but his foresight likely came from his rumination on the fate of the planet, not environmental study. In this particular novel, he attributes the alarming shift in Earth’s ecosystem to “a series of violent and prolonged solar storms” triggered by a “sudden instability of the Sun.” Humans have no role in the causes of the environmental catastrophe in Ballard’s story.

His thoughts in this regard have shades of H.G. Wells. In Time Machine (1895), as the temporal tourist travels forward in time, he remarks how much hotter it is in the future than it is in his own age. He can’t understand why that should be so, but he reasons: “It may be that the Sun was hotter or the Earth nearer the Sun.” “Planets must ultimately fall back one by one into the parent body. As these catastrophes occur, the Sun will blaze with renewed energy; and it may be that some inner planet had suffered this fate. Whatever the reason, the fact remains that the Sun was very much hotter than we know it.” As he journeys, he watches the Sun grow bigger and bigger until it fills the sky. It “halted motionless upon the horizon, a vast dome, glowing with a dull heat.” Sometime, in the very distant future, it comes to obscure a good slice of the heavens.

The narrative of The Drowned World, likewise, is laden with the fiery power of the Sun and its engorgement. It’s no longer a “sphere”, but a “wide, expanding ellipse that fanned out across the eastern horizon like a colossal fireball.” It “filled the sky, turning it into an enormous blowtorch.” It even takes the form of an organic entity, pulsing, its “volcanic pounding” beckoning the men to sail southward as if it were a beautiful siren.

In most works with the science-fiction postmark, typically, victims flee from a catastrophe. Not in this. One fine day, when a swashbuckling buccaneer and his crew pull off a feat of derring-do by resurrecting the lost metropolis and London emerges “like an immense intact Atlantis”, there are those who think it’s hellish. They choose to stay instead in their surreal, silent, waterlogged reality.