Climate Literacy

February 7, 2013
By: Kristen Poppleton, Senior Director of Programs

Book of the Month: Flight Behavior

Note: This is part of a regular series of posts focused on integrating literacy and climate science and energy issues. The posts are a basis for or based on discussions in the “Not So Serious Climate and Energy Book Club.” The book club is sponsored through ICEE: Inspiring Climate Change Education Excellence. Book suggestions, (especially hopeful ones!) are welcome in the comments area below.

Please join us for discussion of Flight Behavior this month!  More information below.


I often joke that Barbara Kingsolver writes her books just for me. In my wandering, long-term relationship seeking 20’s I read The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams.  As I developed my awareness of politics and social justice, Small Wonder and The Poisonwood Bible came along, and when I had begun my career integrating biology, education and a love for the wilderness, Prodigal Summer was published.  Animal, Vegetable, Miracle sits on my shelf as inspiration and a reminder that I can always just make that jump off the grid if I so choose.

I have always loved Kingsolver’s use of language and her ability to elicit a sigh or a “wow” with just one sentence of absolute beauty.  As she has matured as a writer, her works of fiction have become much more than just stories, but have sought to educate her readers about something.  Her commitment to this kind of fiction is demonstrated through her established of the Bellwether Prize, which was created to  “promote fiction that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships.”

With her latest book Flight Behavior, Kingsolver truly outdid herself writing ME, a fiction loving climate change educator, a book of fiction about climate change.  The story is told through the eyes of Dellarobia Turnbow, a young mother with a yearning for something more from life.  Flight Behavior takes the reader to the rural southeastern United States where a strange phenomena has occurred making the Turnbow farm of national scientific interest.  Monarch butterflies, turned off their migratory course for unknown reasons, have congregated in the slated to be logged out woods above the farm and a research team of scientists led by Dr. Ovid Byron set up a lab to discover clues that might tell them why.

There are a number of directions I could take in this review.  I could spend time critiquing Kingsolver’s sometimes forced, but always accurate, approach to integrating the climate science.  I could also talk about her portrayal of small town rural life which some reviewers have called patronizing, yet much of which seemed well done as I remember my former life in a small town as an environmental educator trying to make friends with “townies”.  There are also pages of quotes I could list that I found so lovely my copy of the book is practically entirely underlined.  Professionally, I appreciated Flight Behavior’s snapshot of the struggles climate change educators face when up against a media focused on the news cycle, an education system that often doesn’t provide students with a real understanding of science and the polarization of political parties today.  What resonated most with me, however, was Kingsolver’s spot on description of the grief and sensation of loss most of us in this business of climate change education, communication and science carry around daily.

Kingsolver describes this grief and loss from the perspective of scientist Ovid when he comes to the realization that the majority of monarch butterflies in North America are on the Turnbow farm and at great risk.  She writes, “The one thing most beloved to him was dying.  Not a death in the family…but maybe as serious as that.  He’d chased this life for all his years; it had brought him this distance…Now began the steps of grief.  It would pass through this world…while most people paid no attention.”  Dellarobia also goes through this journey of grief as a mother becoming more aware of the impacts of climate change.  “Dellarobia felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the tide.  She didn’t know how scientists bore such knowledge.  People had to manage terrible truths.”

The management of these “terrible truths” is one of the biggest challenges I face as a climate change educator and as a parent.  In Flight Behavior I find that once again Kingsolver had written ME a book that helps me feel less alone in my grief for the changes facing our planet and that demonstrates the powerful role literature can play in bringing climate change into the public conversation.


Book Club Discussion Update February 28, 2013

In our book club discussion about Flight Behavior on February 28, we were lucky enough to be joined by special guest Dr. Karen Oberhauser, Monarch Butterfly researcher and source for Kingsolver’s novel.  Overall she enjoyed Flight Behavior and found that the content on monarchs was fairly accuate, minus a few inaccuracies including Kingsolver had mixed up the actual way to identify male and female monarchs.  She thought the choice of monarchs as an organism to learn about climate change was good because researchers do have a sense of how they might respond to cliamte changre and because they resonate with people as organisms.  Obserhauser also thought that Kingsolver did a fairly good job of representing the three ways that climate impacts organisms.  This includes ckaunte as a large scale habitat changer, climate as a signal and climate as a direct cause of mortality or survival.

Please join us for a discussion of Zenith at our next Climate and Energy Book Club meeting hosted by ICEE, March 28 at 4:30PM CST.    We meet online and via conference call.  To access the webinar go to: and sign in as a guest using your name. You may use a headset with your computer to access the audio or call +18778659544 .