Lessons Learned About Climate Change Communication in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior

By Rebecca Mcmillin

Barbara Kingsolver is a prolific writer whose favorite topics are class divides and social inequalities. It seems inevitable therefore, that she write a book on climate change. Flight Behavior, published in 2012 by HarperCollins, is a masterful realistic fiction example of the Bildungsroman genre- which Merriam Webster defines as a depiction of the moral and psychological growth of the main character -and realistically depicts the communication struggles that occur between scientists and the general public.

While there are many important issues highlighted in this book, the most important in the context of the youth climate change movement is communication. Unable to vote and mostly too young to have skills we can donate, we are forced to influence the public through our voices, by sharing our stories and empowering each other. It is critical that we understand how to communicate the gravity of the climate situation to those who – through some barrier, whether it be social, economic, or linguistic – don’t respond to our messages. Flight Behavior’s setting in a rural Tennessean farming town and focus on Dellarobia (a farmer’s wife who had to give up on her dreams of college after a shotgun wedding) set up its cast of characters to have truly remarkable conversations about climate change that help us understand what is blocking communications between the struggling farmers and the mainly middle- to upper-class activists and scientists attempting to reach them. 

I will focus on three main things that affect communication between climate scientists and the rest of the world, all of which are represented in Flight Behavior: the media, intended audience, and community bias.

The media appear in Flight Behavior in the form of a reporter whose viewership is primarily local climate-change skeptics. She arrives at Dellarobia’s farm twice to cover the story of a remarkable biological event that occurred there. Near the beginning of the book, Dellarobia was climbing a mountain on her property to meet a lover when she saw a sea of monarch butterflies blanketing the forest. She ran back down the mountain, and then told her husband to look a couple days later. The first time the reporter talks with Dellarobia she is less interested in the butterflies and more interested in how Dellarobia ‘foretold’ of this strange phenomenon. She then edits her piece to make it appear as if Dellarobia were some mystical figure who received a sign from God. The second time she appears Dellarobia is understandably more reserved and brings her to talk to the scientist studying the butterflies instead. It is in this interaction that the relationship between the media and climate change is most visible. The reporter asks leading questions, drawing the scientist to make statements that he might not otherwise have made. She emphasizes how beautiful and special this phenomenon is, and severely downplays the role of environmental changes in the sudden migratorial shift.

This behavior is a classic example of a primary fallacy of many news networks – they are beholden to their viewers/readers. Because popularity is the measure of success, the news network in Flight Behavior bends their story to fit their audience. Keep this in mind when interacting with the media – their stories will always be somewhat influenced by their readership.

The second communication barrier is the intended audience of climate change warnings, from both scientists and activists. Scientists spend years learning how to properly communicate with other scientists, and because of this training have a more difficult time communicating with those who do not have the same training. However, the type of communication barrier that is most clearly shown in Flight Behavior is between those who receive the scientists’ messages and those who don’t. A character in the novel arrives at Dellarobia’s town to educate the populace about how they can reduce their emissions. The pamphlet he carries includes items such as ‘buy energy-efficient appliances’ and ‘fly less’, advice that applies to none of the struggling inhabitants of the town. This sort of accidental exclusion is a large factor in the communication problems between the comfortably middle-class climate activists and those who are impacted most by climate change – those who work with the land or those with lower socio-economic status. 

In Flight Behavior Dellarobia is an ideal go-between for the scientific community and her neighbours. She struggles alongside everyone else, but because of the butterfly research going on on her property she is uniquely positioned to learn from the scientists as well as teach them. In her frequent discussions with the entomologist Ovid Byron she comes to a clearer understanding of why climate change directly impacts her, and Byron learns why the message hasn’t yet been able to reach her. It’s important to have a go-between for any outreach, someone who knows what the target population struggles with and how to explain the direct and terrible impact that climate change already has on their lives.

The final communication problem explored in Flight Behavior is community bias. In a conversation with Byron, Dellarobia says, “The teams get picked, and then the beliefs get handed around”. What she means is that just being a poor farmer in a rural town gets you marked as a climate denier. Later in the conversation she confirms this by saying, “If you’ve been called the bad girl all your life, you figure you’re already paying the price, you should go on and use the tickets. If I’m the redneck in the pickup, fine, let me just go burn some gas.”

These bonds of circumstance bind together communities extremely effectively, and mean that the ‘other team’ is shut out. This leads to very prolonged communication breakdowns – the scientists attempting to explain global events happening on a scale that is difficult – if not impossible – to imagine without the kind of world-wide experiences only available to the relatively high socio-economic classes, with the ‘redneck in the pickup’ distrusting the money and safety that the scientists enjoy while their crops are destroyed by unseasonal rain. As the divide between the factions grows it becomes increasingly difficult to build a bridge across. Dellarobia’s school made only the feeblest efforts to educate the students, preferring to focus on basketball and home ec – skills that might actually pay off for them. When the SAT was offered, Dellarobia was the only student to sign up. She started driving at four in the morning to make it to the testing spot in time, and then spent several hours attempting to complete a test that her teachers never prepared her for, on half as much sleep as everyone else. No wonder she struggled.

This is a universal problem, and it’s not something that we can completely eradicate. However by forming bonds across teams, by really understanding what people need, and by working to educate both sides we close the gap one bridge at a time.

Flight Behavior is a novel that gets into the heart of climate change as it affects those who might not often get to voice their experiences. It teaches us to listen, experience, and act in ways that will bring people closer instead of pushing them away. Remember that to communicate with someone you need to understand their point of view, fight for them because what you fight for aligns with what they need, and always establish as much common ground as possible.

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