Planetary Annihilation

Best-selling author Jeff VanderMeer rethinks environmentalism through New Weird fiction.


Jay Bramhall

A writer’s greatest tool is the state of the natural world. The family of raccoons living in a neighbor’s ravine, a raptor’s predatory gaze through the treetops, the ever whining hum of mosquitoes flitting about delicate skin, roads that scar the countryside and skyscrapers who carve into territories of the sky—reducing animals to roadkill and decrepit petitions. Literature functions as an extension and dramatization of these preexisting conditions, and The New York Times bestselling author and environmental enthusiast Jeff VanderMeer is a veteran at recognizing and employing such tools in his writing.

VanderMeer is frequently affiliated with “new weird” literature, a subgenre where anarchy reigns over the typical conventions of horror, fantasy, and science fiction. More notorious, however, is his emphasis on ecology and the vital roles of wildlife throughout all his works. His Nebula Award-winning novel Annihilation, that has been translated into a feature film, follows a group of varied specialists whose job entails exploring Area X, a biological dome that subverts scientific speculation and rejects any and all taxonomic classification. The novel analyzes the centuries old power struggle between humanity’s capitalists and nature, a battle that’s scarred the natural world to inconceivable extents, rendering landscapes virtually unrecognizable. 

Annihilation recognizes how humans have become intrinsically separated from the earth on which they operate. VanderMeer writes, “that’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you, from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality.”

 The subconscious becomes utterly disconnected from nature to serve contemporary desires and dissuade acute inconvenience. VanderMeer highlights a war fought on countless fronts, the climate crisis is an adversary overwhelming in its vastness. The ground cracking under droughts, tides rising in tandem with temperatures, and ice caps melting into obscurity are the result of a history of colonization, often misrepresented as salvation. VanderMeer recognizes the multifaceted complexity of the problem and accepts that the solution is not a simple one. It can’t be easily described by an ornate metaphor or resolved by blaming a singular entity.

He says, “please don’t feel guilty about it, there’s only so much you can do as an individual. The burden of this should be falling on corporations, on governments, and the reason we’re having to be more proactive is they’re falling behind in dealing with these things.” 

The only solution comes from an admission of the barbarism that’s been permitted against the planet in colonization and exploitation, and an awareness that individual action is the first step towards global change. 

The path forward differs for all, twisting and turning with varying motivations and objectives. VanderMeer truly began his journey in 2016 after the election, searching for respite he began rewilding his yard in Tallahassee, Florida. Rewilding refers to the act of fostering biodiversity via the removal of invasive species and allowing space for native ones to be reintroduced. VanderMeer explained how a singular pine tree can foster two hundred species versus an invasive plant harboring only one. His own yard houses a family of raccoons who now have a very active Twitter following and enjoy the provisions of a largely left-alone ravine. Armadillos, hawks, hummingbirds, lizards, owls, turtles, and personable rabbits are other frequent visitors of the VaderMeer residence, each leaving a footprint in one way or another. Pollination, fertilization, the dispersal of seeds, all contribute to the complexity of the ecosystem. Biodiversity springs from the simplest of actions. VanderMeer explains, “if you put out wildflowers on your balcony you might actually help hummingbirds on their migration to South America, and that’s not a small thing.” 

Placing fresh water sources, planting native wildlife, or putting up a bird feeder to aid birds in a time of uncertainty all contribute in their own concise but nevertheless imperative manner, following in the footsteps of indigenous groups who for generations cultivated a society that worked with nature and not against it. “Using ‘us’ when thinking about the environment erases all the different versions of ‘us,’” VanderMeer writes. “Many indigenous peoples don’t think this way.”

 The beauty of rewilding is it takes as much time and money as a person wishes it to, making it an easily accessible act of conservation. For those who don’t have abundant resources, VanderMeer suggests benign-neglect. Putting away the herbicides and recognizing the value of the life seeping from the ground is a prominent step in the journey to fostering ecological growth. Simply letting nature run its course and allowing leaves to fall—and stay fallen—permits a number of organisms to use foliage as a habitat and personal mini fridge. “I think that doing something, even small, helps you get past the frozeness and kind of connects you to the world,” says VanderMeer. 

Involvement beyond one’s backyard is as simple as looking locally. VanderMeer himself is a part of Florida’s Apalachicola Riverkeeper, a group dedicated to the advocacy for and preservation of the Apalachicola River and Bay. Their work encompasses several fields, including research, public outreach, and education. Regional conservation efforts such as the Apalachicola Riverkeeper are abundant worldwide and present an opportunity for any individual to advocate for what they feel is important. Allocating resources to preserve ecosystems, enforcing corporate accountability, or recognizing and repairing the devastation indigenous genocide is reaping on the planet, no issue is insignificant. “I do think on the local level it is incredibly important what we do individually,” VanderMeer says, “…in certain other aspects we should be going right to the source.”

Globalizing the necessity of action through advocacy proves a herculean undertaking as the vilification of protesting has led to gross increases in militarized responses towards both ecological and humanitarian protests. “You see protests dealt with very harshly… you see prison terms being given out for what is basically civil disobedience,” VanderMeer explains. “In that context I think what you might call repressive forces have been successful in sliding the scale of what eco-activism is versus eco-terrorism toward a situation where it’s difficult to even engage in peaceful protests.” 

Eco-terrorism is a decisive topic explored in VanderMeer’s novel Hummingbird Salamander. A tale of government conspiracy and taxidermy, the book explores the two extremes of humanity’s dichotomous nature. The teetering balance between self preservation and exploitation,  illuminated by the impending apocalypse and the flames that accompany it. 

“I think one reason why I put all that in a novel is that a novel can be a laboratory that’s not reality, but allows you to talk about things that you don’t want to talk about and shouldn’t talk about,” says VanderMeer. Hummingbird Salamander’s exploration of extremist ideals gives readers the chance to understand their own stance on the climate crisis, as well as the opportunity to re-evaluate the actions they are willing to take in face of biological ruination.

 Refusing to shy away from the molten pressure time has placed on climate change, Hummingbird Salamander’s summation is bleak in its admission that humanity is profoundly unprepared, but optimistic in its understanding that action is critical. VanderMeer says, “it does actually help to foresee a future where by some of our own actions we can preserve species. That actually in this intricate web of ecosystems and earth systems we don’t know what it is that’s going to fall apart, that’s going to be the link that’s actually going to create feedback effects that affect our quality of life and make it impossible to get past the climate crisis.” 

Green technology is at the frontlines of this brigade, encompassing a large scope of environmental issues as it represents the fundamental ideologies of many advocates and governmental bodies pushing for change in the United States. Unfortunately, the efforts of enacting these reconstructions have fallen short as green technology has demonstrated some unsatisfactory effects on the environment. Birds face a new predator in the substantial sprawling of wind farms as they are cut from the sky with fiberglass blades and barbecued to sweet, simmering perfection by the construction of new powerlines necessary for sustaining the rural turbines. Solar power plants are hard to recycle on a large scale and require toxic materials such as lead and cadmium for the manufacturing process of photovoltaic technology. Electric vehicles demand lithium to power their battery-operated systems, the mining of which has caused drastic unsettlement in many indigenous communities and native habitats creating droughts, water contamination, and air pollution.

Acknowledging the conundrums of green technology presents a new age of more considerate conservation.Environmentalists have begun working with wind farm companies to install preventative measures in their designs, whether it be painting turbines ultraviolet or selecting low impact areas to build the farms, the deliberation initiated progress in one realm of preservation without damning another. The European Commission requires solar power companies to implement proper recycling methods, with other countries such as Japan and Australia following suit. People have begun recognizing and creating platforms for indigenous groups as the true voices of expertise on environmental preservation.

The progress of preservation is frustrating in that it’s not linear. VanderMeer writes, “progress: a word to choke on, a word to discard and then pick up again… I embrace it, and I repeat it, and yet I know no word I or any other human could use will ever be the right word.” There is no one company to blame, no one novel that can embody the annihilation of climate change, no one solution that acts as Earth’s salvation. There is only the competence to understand the devastation, the maturity to recognize it is self-inflicted, and the sophistication to wander back to the naked reality that humanity exists as nothing more than a cog in a machine that is much older, and much more powerful in the timeless eyes of the universe.  That, and the fervor of hope found only in the most foolhardy of visionaries.