By Sarah Moorhouse
In the wake of the ‘final warning’ on the climate crisis delivered by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the end of March, it is more urgent than ever that each industry addresses its impact on the planet. Books are among the more sustainable of consumer products. Whilst we bring to them the same appetite for possession that we extend to the big polluters, such as fast fashion or new cars, they are objects that gain value precisely as they pass through cycles of reuse and borrowing. We don’t see books as something to be thrown away once we are finished with them: our bookshelves function as a kind of intellectual status symbol, and the more second-hand curiosities housed on them, the better. We book owners are collectors, proudly displaying the sum of what we have read, or claim to have read.
Readers of books share a commitment to extending the lifetime of these objects, and the publishing industry has always shared this approach. Susie Nicklin, the founder of the small London-based publishing house Indigo Press, tells me that publishers are well placed to develop environmentally conscious practices. Books that don’t sell, she explains over Zoom, are sent back to distributing houses, where they are pulped and made into magazines. They are, she declares proudly, a product that has ‘always been recyclable’. It makes sense when books about the climate emergency appear in print. By overseeing decision-making processes about what to print and how to print it, publishers can facilitate better education around the issue of climate whilst also spearheading models of sustainable consumption.
sounding the alarm sounding the alarm sounding the alarm
I was keen to find out how publishing houses are acknowledging and responding to the climate emergency, and when I found out about Indigo Press, I was intrigued. Founded by Nicklin in 2018, Indigo Press publishes a wide variety of titles relating to the social justice movement, and environmentalism books are at the heart of their mission. Their nonfiction environment list aims, it seems, to inform their audiences about the research behind the alarming headlines to which we have become rather inured. At the same time, as a small publisher, the team at Indigo Press can monitor their own production processes to become ever more sustainable: for example, Susie tells me, they don’t use embossed lettering on their covers, since the material required for this is not recyclable.
But the most powerful tool publishers have in their involvement with environmentalism is the ideas their books can communicate: ‘our main resources are human in publishing’, Susie declares. I wanted to understand what kind of message Indigo is transmitting in their list of titles on this subject. This undertaking required a rather unusual reading practice: working my way through a series of books by one publisher in swift succession. I wanted to see if, and how, Indigo Press takes up a specific position in the climate debate through the books they publish.
Susie sent me three of Indigo’s recent climate nonfiction books: Paul Behrens’ The Best of Times, The Worst of Times: Futures from the Frontiers of Climate Science (published in 2020), Richard Seymour’s The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism & Barbarism (April 2022), and Eliane Brum’s Banzeiro Òkòtó: The Amazon as the Centre of the World, released this month. Read together, the three volumes paint a grim picture of our planetary situation. They agree on where to lay the blame: squarely at the feet of the capitalist system that lauds economic growth and personal agency with scant regard for sustainability.
The most powerful tool publishers have in their involvement with environmentalism is the ideas their books can communicate
In The Best of Times, The Worst of Times, Behrens explains that we are approaching various environmental ‘tipping-points’ of no return. He states in stark terms the human excesses that have led us to this position, giving us images like the following: humans have made enough plastic that ‘were it cling film it could wrap around the Earth completely’. Such reminders of the self-created nature of our predicament are delivered throughout his book. Behrens tells us that the ‘Holocene’, the period of geological and biological harmony into which humanity emerged, has now been replaced by the ‘Anthropocene’, in which human actions are irreversibly altering the earth’s climate and ecosystems. Behrens describes two different futures that may now be realised, depending on how we respond to our current situation. In the first, we will have to fundamentally recalibrate our expectations and ambitions for a well-lived life. Where we travel, what we eat and what we own will have to be reimagined but, according to Behrens, the result may be lives of greater fulfilment than what is currently offered to us in our GDP-obsessed economies. The second version of humanity’s future is much darker. Behrens is quick to inform us that, without decisive action now and throughout this century, large parts of our planet will soon cease to be habitable for the human species.
Behrens’ vision, which advocates huge shifts in our behaviour as consumers, has found a natural home with Indigo Press. Susie tells me that Behrens approached Indigo with his book, whilst Seymour’s was commissioned, and Brum’s was acquired in its finished form. The three books share a hope that by galvanising enough people to want change, we might avoid or at least postpone extinction. Behrens and Seymour both cite the findings of a study on civil resistance by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, which states, as Seymour tells us, that the ‘threshold of political change is met if you can non-violently mobilise 3.5% of the population’. This attitude is implicit in the goal displayed on Indigo Press’s website: ‘we publish books’, it reads, ‘to make readers see the world afresh, question their behaviour and beliefs, and imagine a better future’.
Seymour’s book chronicles his own experience of having apparently accomplished such a goal: it centres around his ‘ecological awakening’. Originally an activist with ‘little time for earth-talk’, Seymour realised that ecology could no longer be treated as a subsidiary concern even whilst governments stubbornly continue to do so. Non-violent mobilisation is his answer to this predicament. Galvanising people’s minds—spreading this ‘ecological awakening’—is the effect of successful writing about the environment. Books, more than any poster or protest, claim direct contact with the imagination. Behrens explains, with the scientist’s pragmatism that characterises his writing, that ‘research suggests that stories are many times more memorable than facts alone, but how can the story or the facts of climate change be memorable if they’re not being told?’. This statement reads like confirmation of the urgency of Indigo Press’s mission.
Choosing which story to tell is only part of the publisher’s role. Susie, who began her career as a bookseller, sees cultivating a good relationship with retailers as the fundamental way to get the story of climate change heard by more people. She explains that her relationships with booksellers around the country ‘make a real difference’ when trying to bring the books she publishes to larger audiences. By doing so, Indigo Press is taking a place within a larger transformation in attitudes towards literature about climate change. With the emergence of ‘cli fi’ and ecocriticism, this topic is no longer the preserve of ‘activists who actively choose to be badly dressed’ (as Seymour puts it). We have reached a point where books about the environment are increasingly being displayed in bookshop windows and climbing up bestseller lists (Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book was a New York Times Bestseller in 2022). In these conditions, ignorance—as Behrens, Seymour and Brum drill into us—is no longer an option.
Ignorance is precisely what their books seek to dispel. I came to these volumes as someone who liked the idea of being ‘eco-friendly’ without really knowing what that entailed or whether my actions could have any impact. The kind of person who liked to buy the eco-brand of shampoo and fussed over a recyclable yoghurt label, my idea of ‘nature’ was of verdant pastures, craggy mountains and glinting turquoise sea. I had subscribed to what Seymour describes as ‘eco-Disney’, a ‘glib enchantment’ with natural beauty that expects nature as ‘a king of reliable ‘experience’’. I did not, I soon realised, know much about climate science. The great proponent of this vision of the environment, Seymour claims, is David Attenborough, a figure whom he characterises as a ‘syrupy, benign, white, patriarchal god’.
At this point in my reading of Seymour’s book, indignation set in. What, I wondered, is he seeking to accomplish in this performative and unfair dismissal of David Attenborough, whose programmes bring such wonderment to so many? Seymour’s cynicism about nature-worship detracts from what is otherwise an urgent and compelling message; I remain convinced that our ‘enchantment’ can and should endure even as we are educated about the climate crisis. In this sentiment, I was also at odds with Elaine Brum, author of the most recent of these volumes published by Indigo Press. Brum’s Banzeiro Òkòtó, which has been translated from Portuguese by Diane Grosklaus Whitty, is part memoir, part diatribe against deforestation. It chronicles her relocation from São Paulo to Altamira, a city along the Xingu River that has been virtually destroyed by the building of a huge dam there. Brum, like Seymour, is often overcome by bitterness when describing the devastating impact that human behaviour has had on our environment. Brum feels that hope about the climate, of the kind propounded by Blue Planet fans, is itself an indication of the capitalist desire to possess and manipulate the environment. Instead, her stance is as follows: ‘No, I don’t have any hope. And no, I’m not unhappy or happy’. Hope, Brum tells us, is ‘a luxury we can’t afford’.
I had subscribed to what Seymour describes as ‘eco-Disney’
The danger of spurning hope in this way is that it can create what Seymour and Behrens elsewhere identify as ‘environmental melancholia’. This is a state of despondency in the face of the climate emergency that makes people think they should stop trying, since nothing they do can help the situation. Books about climate change must tread a fine balance between realism and creating apathy: they have the power to inspire readers and an overabundance of cynicism undermines this potential. Unfounded hope, Brum tells us, can cause inertia when it comes to acting on climate issues: we believe, unreasonably, that ‘things will turn out alright’. Doom-mongering can have the same effect. On the point of hope, distinctions between Indigo Press’s mission and that of the various books they publish emerge. Susie tells me that she seeks to create a hopeful message in the work of her publishing house; she wants to show, by providing these books, that ‘it’s possible to change your mindset’ on difficult subjects like climate.
Of the three books, Behrens’, which takes the reader through different possible futures, is the most instructive and inspiring. Practising empathy and avoiding blame, Behrens makes a more sustainable society seem necessary, but also desirable. I realised that Indigo Press does not curate a selection of books that present a unified position on the climate crisis, and this is to its credit. The variety of ideas they are publishing promise to generate discussion and indeed disagreement; these debates are needed to galvanise that critical 3.5% of people towards change. Books, objects that show us the possibility of a less-destructive system of consumption, can help us to heed our final warning in the race to take climate action.
SARAH MOORHOUSE graduated in 2022 with an MSt in English Literature from Oriel College. She now works as an Editorial Assistant at Sage Publishing and writes regularly for The Bookseller, Necessary Fiction and LitHub.
Art by Iris Campbell-Lange