Over the second week of October, daily NOAA sea surface temperature measurements showed a steady rise. At this point in the year, these temperatures typically fall—or, at least, have fallen almost every single year prior to this one. For the entirety of 2023, sea temperatures have soared above all existing precedent. This is a just miniscule piece of climate data which, taken as a whole, tells a sweeping tale of unprecedented pattern-breaking, crisis, and breakdown.
A week prior to this uptick in sea temperatures, Pope Francis published Laudate Deum, a follow-up to the 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’, which was the first papal encyclical to focus on the environmental crisis and the need for global solidarity in saving “our common home.” It was a rallying cry for action, but in the opening passage of this new apostolic exhortation, Francis declares that “our responses have not been adequate, while the world in which we live is collapsing and may be nearing the breaking point.”
Sheila Heti’s 2022 novel Pure Colour takes collapse as a given. The book is a contemporary fable, beginning with a creation story and eventually explaining “that the world was failing at its one task—of remaining a world. Pieces were breaking off.” This failure is explicitly ecological: “Seasons had become postmodern. We no longer knew where in the calendar we were by the weather … The ice cubes were melting. The species were dying. The last of the fossil fuels were being burned up.”
In terse sentences and chapters often only a page or two long, Heti considers many large questions about living on this troubled earth. As with the devastated, dystopian worlds found in many works of climate fiction, an omniscient narrator prompts readers to consider the horrors humankind hath wrought. But the tone taken by Heti surprised me in its quaint wonder, with humor to complement mourning.
Mira, the novel’s lead character, trains to be an art critic and wishes to stand cooly back and assess creation. The narrator explains that those with “a cool head and a cold heart are needed to help art prevail.” Throughout the novel, the cold is associated with the pure, detached, and virtuous. “Back then,” at the start of the world, our narrator explains, “the fresh cool air felt like the beginning of something special. Adam and Eve in their Garden of Eden enjoyed a nice spring chill.” The air is completely clear.
Now, however, the earth warms and “we walk through our days in the dust of the dead. Two minutes out of the shower and already we are filthy.” The air is contaminated, in the world of the novel, by the material legacy of every person who has lived and died on earth.
Humans are painted as foolish—“apparently all the water had plastic in it, even the safe water that came in plastic bottles.” We are also made incurably sentimental. Although people live surrounded by detritus of those who have lived before, we are all left craving the dead’s living presence. Heti writes that it is lonely “at the end of the world, not to have all the people who lived before us, with us here to share it” and tells readers that “we understood why, in apocalyptic tales, the bones of the dead rolled over the face of the earth, and everyone who ever lived gathered in one place.”
After the death of her father, Mira, who aspires to detachment, is physically overcome with grief. The narrative moves into magical realism, and Mira leaves her training as a critic to join his spirit where it now resides, in a leaf on a tree overlooking a beautiful lake. For pages, she debates remaining in the leaf or returning to the human world. The loss of her father draws Mira’s soul to a liminal zone, symbolically straddling the material existence of person and plant.
Of the many things I stubbornly, frustratedly have faith in, the greatest may be my conviction that we can, within my lifetime, pivot the planet’s trajectory away from destruction. Plenty of things, frankly, are already irreversible. Many of the steps we must take to scale the crisis back from total annihilation feel impossibly out of reach.
Heti’s novel radically pushes back against a view dominant among many who care about the climate—a view that I, too, am apt to defend—that we have all the solutions and have just failed to enact them, and instead suggests that our inability to conceive of the issue is essential to human nature in this version of creation.
By socially constructing our way out of nature, humanity has made the climate crisis into a problem to be solved, rather than an existential threat calling us to entirely reinvent our way of being in the world. Rather than proposing solutions, I believe Heti offers language to weave ourselves back into the planetary story, which is a worthy undertaking, if an incomplete solution.
Theologian Lisa Sideris writes, in her book Consecrating Science: Wonder, Knowledge, and the Natural World, that “mysteries involve us in a way that problems do not; this sense of involvement is a key element of wonder. We cannot stand back objectively from a mystery and evaluate it, as we can a problem.” Ecological crisis is a mystery of this sort, with humankind centrally situated. Whenever we stand back to evaluate, we see ourselves embedded in every system and systemic breakdown. Where this might prompt us to hostile blaming or bleak resignation, I am struck, in studying the tragedy of our current crisis, by our vast involvement in the natural world.
Sideris also connects her conception of wonder to Martin Buber’s account of I/Thou encounters: the transcendent experiencing of the agency and singularity of another life, human or otherwise, in which a casual, momentary revelation of our mutuality on earth is cause for great wonder.
During her time in the leaf in Pure Colour, Mira is indivisible from the tree in which her soul has taken shelter, as well as from her father’s spirit with her in the leaf. Humans certainly sin against nature in the novel, as they do in our world. But boundaries between people and plants are not enforced. We are fundamentally situated in the destruction, both as creatures undeniably in community with other species and as the violent but generally-unwilling perpetrators of the end of the world.
I think the most important thing that Pure Colour suggests is that disenchanted resignation is not the only honest way to contend with the enormity of harm we have inflicted on the planet. In this apocalypse tale, Heti establishes a theology in which the ugliness and heartbreak of our world are merely characteristic of a first draft which is soon to come to a close. In the second draft, people will live in perfection, yet with a distant longing for the disorder and passion of the first draft. From this noble, better world, “they will look back on the world in which we are living with a certain bewilderment and awe.”
As chaotic as Heti describes the first draft of creation, we who exist in this time are not jaded and blindly cruel. Rather, we have been unable to embody and act upon our love for the earth, just as war and violence reflect a failure to love one another. Critically, we have visions for a better world, even if “nothing would be as we hoped it would be, here in the first draft of existence.”
Pure Colour offers an unconventional call to action, proposing—rather than solutions—that we simply take stock of our verdant hopes and recognize how grief, distraction, and worldly struggle may have withered them. From there, we may be able to move into a candid and caring community with all the lives that share this earth.