WE live in a funny old age, don’t we? As the impending climate cataclysm looms, us humans continue to go about our day; driving excessively big cars to work, buying meal-deals wrapped in plastic that will outlive our great-great-great grandchildren, and saving up to afford a budget flight that will burn millions of years’ worth of energy from dead organisms in two-and-a-half hours.

Climate change forms the subtext for everything we do – and yet we have trained ourselves to ignore its presence.

In the art and literature we create, this subtext remains. As consumers of said art, it’s often challenging to be confronted by a subject which affects us in the here and now. As a writer, it’s difficult to write about something as you’re going through it; how many novelists write about heartbreak or loss or grief as it is happening to them? There is a need to process, to internalise and sit with a feeling, until it offers itself up as a form of inspiration, rather than an all-consuming pain.

In what I think is a related sense, whilst there is an abundance of dystopian and climate fiction (“cli-fi”) set in post-apocalyptic worlds – where the disruption has already begun; where seas have swallowed cities and humans have departed earth, leaving behind a dusty, desolate husk – there is a dearth of contemporary fiction which folds the current discourse surrounding the climate crisis into its fictional world in an effective and realistic way.

Not all, but most of the literature that explores climate change is set in the near or distant future. As Amitav Ghosh writes: “It is as though in the literary imagination climate change were somehow akin to extraterrestrials or interplanetary travel.”

In part this is because the mention of climate change confronts us with our own reality – and breaks the fictive spell, so to speak. As a result, we have not yet become completely at ease writing climate change into our contemporary and popular fiction genres, as it holds up an uncomfortable mirror – like a shadow falling over the pages of the book.

Whilst this literary device hasn’t yet found its place within the likes of romantic or crime fiction, it’s essential in dystopian fiction – in fact, it is the very premise on which it relies.

Ironically, fiction that doesn’t mention climate change requires a deeper suspension of disbelief, and an overwhelming reliance on the ability to obscure what is terrifyingly real. In Ghosh’s book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, he asks: “Why does climate change cast a much smaller shadow on literature than it does on the world?”

In other words, how do we learn to convey climate change as the ever-present subtext in fiction, as it is in the real world? The book Mineral Rites by Bob Johnson sheds light on where we could start overcoming what he calls our “fossilised inertia”. The book’s synopsis describes it as “an archaeology of Western energy culture that demystifies the role that fossil fuels play in the day-to-day rituals of modern life”.

Johnson proposes six different types of energy use which can be identified in texts of all genres “to drill deep into those subterranean [energy] flows that were percolating, whirring, beneath our texts”. The first, Ambient Energy, is “the fossil fuels which shape the sensory, affective, and emotional substructure of life in our texts” such as light and heat sources. Second is Congealed Energy; this takes form in the high-energy materials like concrete and steel used to construct our dwellings and cities. Polymerised Energy is the fossil fuel which “plasticises” our world, “expanding our fibre supply for clothing, home furnishings, architecture, and consumer goods”, whilst Embodied Energy is the “absent centre of today’s demographic boom” – energy used to operate our food supply chains, such as in the production of fertiliser or food transportation and refrigeration.

The fifth is Propulsive Energy – the kinetic energy which propels cars, trucks, chainsaws – the supplements to human labour. The final type is Entropic Energy, which Johnson calls “the destructive impulse, the “death drive” that is “internal to modernity” – our degradation of nature through emissions and waste.

Johnson’s teasing out of these factions allows us to recognise the energy consumption that is bubbling away under the pages of our literature. We can normalise the acknowledgment of climate change within literary worlds, past and present, cli-fi or not, rather than waiting for an entire climate fiction canon to be built for this purpose. After all – we don’t have enough time.