Since 1970, the world has been celebrating Earth Day as an international incentive for environmental protection. But even when we came up with the holiday 40-odd years ago, the guilt upon which it’s based was already clearer than the atmosphere. Historically, humans have not been very kind to Earth—and the same is true in fiction. We’ve rounded up five natural disasters and their sci-fi analogs, many of which seem to comment directly on the accident. It’s important to clarify that “environmental disaster” refers to damage wrought upon the natural environment by humans, and not natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis. Yes, we have our own genre. No, we shouldn’t be proud.
Real-world crisis: Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989
Fictional disaster: Oil spill of some undetermined future date
The Exxon Valdez spill, which released between 260,000 and 750,000 barrels of crude oil into Prince William Sound, is regarded as one of humanity’s biggest screw-ups. But in James K. Morrow’s speculative novel Towing Jehovah (written in 1995), a very similar accident winds up being the inciting incident. While the real-life captain of the Exxon Valdez was blamed for sleeping off a hangover when his ship struck the Bligh Reef, Jehovah’s disgraced captain Anthony Van Horne gets a job offer from the Vatican: Pick up the two-mile long corpse of God found floating in the Atlantic and tow it home without the atheists finding out.
And if you want to see the Exxon Valdez spill actually repeat history, pick up Max Allan Collins‘ tie-in novel Waterworld. Yes, based on the poorly received Kevin Costner movie.
Real-world crisis: Black Death spreads through medieval Europe
Fictional disaster: BlyssPluss pills spread Ebola-like virus
Perhaps the closer real-world comparison would be AIDS, but except in areas where the deaths of HIV-positive laborers affects agriculture, it’s difficult to classify that disease as an environmental disaster. However, the Black Death (one variation on the bubonic plague) seems like it could have served as inspiration for Margaret Atwood‘s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake. Carried by rats, the Black Death reduced the world’s population from 450 million to 350-375 million. In Atwood’s world, the BlyssPluss pills seem like yet another genetically engineered miracle: Not only do they prevent pregnancy and STDs, but they also make sex more fun! Too bad that piggybacking in the pills is a virus that wipes out almost the entire human race.
Real-world crisis: The Dust Bowl in the United States and Canada
Fictional disaster: Humanity retreats into a massive Silo underground
In a textbook example of humans not grasping far-reaching consequences, deep plowing of the Great Plains in the 1930s left soil with neither moisture nor natural anchor. Winds picked up this dust, causing storms that blacked out the sky in parts of the country and damaged farmlands. Worst of all, people had to leave their farms for cities that weren’t faring much better during the Great Depression.
Although Hugh Howey hasn’t said that his Wool series was inspired by the Dust Bowl, the parallels are pretty clear, at least when it comes to the consequence part. As in most dystopia, we don’t know what caused humanity to retreat to the Silo, an underground city hundreds of stories deep. However, the glimpses of the brown land outside—not to mention the criminals who perish in their punishment of cleaning the grit off the external cameras—makes us think it was a similar disaster.
Real-world crisis: Health problems caused by 9/11
Fictional disaster: Apocalypse caused by financial ruin, missiles and disease
You might at first be surprised to see 9/11 listed as an environmental disaster, but consider the inarguable spread of smoke and debris that still plagues first responders and New York City civilians with asbestos and other complications over a decade later. It goes without saying that the cause was entirely manmade. Similarly, Kurt Vonnegut‘s Galápagos details the seemingly unconnected chain of events that lead to a massive evolution of the human race.
It starts with financial ruin in Ecuador; things escalate when governments turn missiles on one another; and throw in a disease that renders most of the world sterile. Except, of course, for the handful of survivors who randomly made it to the Galápagos Islands. The first baby born in their new home comes out covered in fur thanks to leftover radiation from Hiroshima residing in her mom’s body. As Vonnegut warns, every disaster in this book can be traced back to humans and their too-big brains.
Real-world crisis: Shrinking of the Aral Sea
Fictional disaster: Hostile terraforming by the Yuuzhan Vong
In both cases, the parties involved knew that they would be changing the face of the land they stepped on for their own profit. Sure, the Soviet government felt some regret that their irrigation efforts would decimate the Aral Sea, but they also called the sea “nature’s error” for evaporating in just a matter of decades. Then there are the Force-resistant aliens in the Star Wars: The New Jedi Order series, who base their entire ethos on reshaping humans and planets alike. They can’t afford to be sorry, because to not engage in hostile terraforming is to reject their deities.
However, even the Yuuzhan Vong have their standards. In one New Jedi Order novel, a commander agrees to a personal duel in order to save a planet from reshaping. If only humans went that far.