Where Dystopian Fiction Meets Water Journalism

Photo by Patrick Pahlke on Unsplash

One way to help students become climate stewards is to model how reading paired climate texts enhances our ability to both problem-spot and problem-solve.  In our haste to offer solutions, we may insufficiently consider the root causes of environmental problems.  While reading Neal and Jarrod Shusterman’s novel Dry, my students and I pore over local newspaper headlines concerning water scarcity.  Reading a fictional account of the day the water supply runs out in Southern California—and all the chaos that ensues—makes us uncomfortably aware of how little we know about the water we enjoy: where it comes from, how it’s managed, and what we are doing to mitigate prolonged drought conditions in our state.

By pairing Dry with an article written by Ian James, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times focused on water in California and the West, my students and I were better able to understand the time-sensitivity of addressing water supply concerns.  Using this pair as a case study, below I offer three suggestions for leveraging climate text pairings to deepen our students’ environmental literacy.

Paired Texts: Los Angeles Times article and the novel Dry

#1 Layering Reading Strategies

So what does this look like?  It means that I consciously link our reading practices to assessing climate impacts.  Let’s take a common reading strategy: “Say, mean, matter.”

As we zoom in on passages, I still guide students to consider foundational questions, such as, “What does the text say?  What does the author mean?  Why does this matter?”  But I then layer on questions such as, “What are the stakes?  What gets a say?  How do we repair and restore?”  This means, for example, that while we’re reading Dry, we’re asking ourselves:

  • What are the stakes?: Who will feel the most immediate impact of prolonged drought conditions?  Which regions rely most heavily on imported water?  What water efficiency models can be replicated?
  • Who gets a say?: Who makes decisions about how water is allocated and shared?
  • How do we repair and restore?: How can we manage our water supply equitably and avoid the problems with water privatization seen in this story and already happening in our home state?  What water efficiency models can be replicated in a wide-scale manner?

Layering reading practices in this manner helps us think about how the environmental problem appearing in a fictional story is emerging in recognizable real-world contexts.

#2 Weaving Hindsight and Foresight Noticings

In James’ LA Times article published on April 12th, California could shrink water use in cities by 30% or more, study finds, he demystifies the findings of a report conducted by the Pacific Institute, a water think tank located in Oakland.

My students and I take note of an emphasis made by the study’s authors: “they found the biggest water-saving potential in the South Coast region of Southern California, which includes Los Angeles and San Diego […].”  Dry is set in this region, which is depicted as relying too much on imported water.  The expectation that water from the Colorado River would flow west in perpetuity is identified as one of the major reasons for the apocalyptic conditions besetting the novel’s characters.  By treating the river as a “lifeline,” one character says in disgust, Californians made themselves vulnerable.

While pairing the article and novel, I invite students to weigh the roles of hindsight and foresight in environmental problem-solving.  Because dystopian storytelling frequently shows us the link between reckless human behavior and environmental degradation, we can develop foresight about the best way to augment local water supplies, as discussed in the article.  Alyssa Morrow, the main character of Dry, speaks directly to the role of hindsight:

The dwindling window of opportunity becomes clear in retrospect, which is why it is so important to not only consider the symptoms of climate change, but its root cause: the high amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide causing warmer temperatures, due to the burning of fossil fuels.  The novel shows the impossibility of FEMA addressing the needs of hurricane victims and the needs of the water shut-off victims simultaneously.  Because climate change makes it likely that we’ll be navigating multiple emergencies at once, we need to develop foresight to build our collective adaptive capacity.

#3 Linking to United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

If your students are like mine, they understandably can feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the damage we have done to our planet home.  For this reason, I suggest linking discussion of climate reads to the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals set up by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015.  The goals offer a blueprint for peace and prosperity for all countries in global partnership.  By selecting the icon for Goal Six: Clean Water and Sanitation, students can access information about events, actions, and publications geared toward making that goal a reality.  Through considering the importance of water access in relation to the other goals, we can help students see how solutions intersect.  This activity can help them better weigh the benefits of a proposed environmental solution.  For example, if weighing the feasibility and attractiveness of a proposed water supply solution includes thinking about the advantages it creates, then capturing stormwater could potentially reduce flood risks and protect fragile aquatic ecosystems, supporting Goal Fourteen: Life Below Water.

There is a multiplying effect that comes with preparing our students to weigh ideas for problem-solving, which is necessary for participating in environmental stewardship beyond our classroom doors.


What climate text pairings do you suggest? How do you help your students develop environmental literacy?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

At Moving Writers, we love sharing our materials with you, and we work hard to ensure we are posting high-quality work that is both innovative and practical. Please help us continue to make this possible by refraining from selling our intellectual property or presenting it as your own. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s