How writers can read The Grapes of Wrath as climate fiction

Farmer and sons during a dust storm.
John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath serves as a model for speculative fiction writers interested in portraying the effects of climate change. Photo credit: Library of Congress

Great fiction dramatizes times, places and attitudes it was never meant to illuminate. Shakespeare’s plays are loved today, despite the sometimes impenetrable language and unacceptable sexism and racism, because they reveal the universal. For several years, I’ve been interested in how fiction authors deal with climate change, and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one of the better attempts, if you choose to interpret it this way.

In case you skipped your American Literature class, or forgot to watch John Ford’s film adaptation, the 1939 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel follows the Joad family from the loss of their Oklahoma farm during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s through their migration to California’s Central Valley. They descend from a life of gentile poverty to one of desperate survival.

Climate change had nothing to do with the Dust Bowl, though both were at least partly caused by humans. A long, severe drought and poor tillage practices combined to inflict dust storms on the Great Plains that blotted out the sun for days. The ecological and agricultural disaster, magnified by the economic apocalypse of the Great Depression, forced many Midwestern farmers to sell out or banks to foreclose, pushing 2.5 million people off the land. About 200,000 of these evicted men, women, and children, like Steinbeck’s fictional Joads, packed up for jobs (mostly imaginary) picking peaches and cotton in the Golden State.

Steinbeck relies on heat, dryness, and dust as symbols of a once-verdant landscape ravaged by nature’s variability and humanity’s ignorance. Most speculative and science fiction with strong climate themes translate the phrase “global warming” into a hot, dry landscape as devoid of life and succor as the (nearly) waterless dunes of Mars. Scientifically, global warming doesn’t always mean dry and hot, though deserts will likely expand over time. Counter-intuitively, wet parts of the planet will become wetter, though the watery part of global warming will express itself in rising sea levels, as portrayed in George Turner’s The Sea and Summer. If you read The Grapes of Wrath while substituting climate change for the natural causes of the Dust Bowl, the novel fits in to the same category as Karl Taro Greenfeld’s The Subprimes or Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, both published in 2015. Each rely on deserts and dust as emblematic of a damaged earth.

The less obvious device that a modern reading of Steinbeck’s masterpiece offers climate fiction writers is eye-opening and frightening. Steinbeck shows how the ecological disaster of the Dirty Thirties destroys the Joad family. They start as dispossessed, journey as refugees, find work as laborers paid starvation wages, and end up, in many cases, insane, on-the-run, or dead. Steinbeck offers authors interested in the impacts of global warming one way to portray its downstream effects on individuals and families en masse. The uprooted, forced by nature and broken institutions into an unfamiliar world, do not always endure.

These effects are not fantasy. While no one has identified a current mass migration as caused primarily by climate change (except maybe this one), the 2010 non-fiction book Climate Refugees brings together stories of families and communities facing life-wrenching decisions forced by desertification, rising sea levels, intensifying storms, and other impacts of a warming world. In the writer’s imagination, it’s easy to scale up the known, real impacts on a few human beings to tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people, not to mention the secondary effects of economic dislocation and the political or military consequences of mass movements of people from one place to another.

Steinbeck’s novel presents all these consequences in a wrenching, almost obscene narrative that makes the preventable ecological and economic disaster of the Dust Bowl as maddening as sand in your eyes. Speculative writers can use Steinbeck as a case study in how to imagine the future consequences of climate change, showing in a personal way how life might play out in world turned inhospitable and heartless.

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