Author Of The Polar Express On Predicting Our Ecological Dystopia

Author Of The Polar Express On Predicting Our Ecological Dystopia

In 1990, artist and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg’s future was bright: the award-winning author of Jumanji and The Polar Express had published his first 11 surreal, vividly imagined picture books in as many years that were (and continue to be) beloved by children around the world. A year later, he and his wife Lisa would welcome their first of two daughters. Yet Van Allsburg also foresaw a very dark future in light of then-new projections and warnings about our environment (things have since only gotten more dire).

In response, the acclaimed author spent that year creating what many have called his most realistic book to date, Just a Dream, filled with visions of a choking, trash-covered planet as seen by a sleeping child who prefers robots to recycling. Nearly 30 years after his eco-dystopian kids’ book was published, it feels shockingly prescient as our world continues to struggle over next steps amid climate and ecological crises. Thousands of researchers declared a climate emergency last month against warnings of “untold suffering.” And more recently, world governments bungled the COP25 summit with a few rich countries with right wing governments blocking stronger avenues to address the worsening crisis.

“It is kind of bewildering to me that stewardship of the Earth seems to get sliced along political lines,” Van Allsburg recently told Earther.

A small cadre of governments and large corporations stopping climate action could mean that the landscapes immortalised in The Polar Express—the boreal forest, the towering mountains, and the ice-encrusted North Pole itself—could all be lost, fairytales for future generations.

As families settle in for a reading of Van Allsburg’s iconic book (or a viewing of the Tom Hanks movie adaptation), Earther caught up with him about the prescient Just a Dream, seeking real environmental change, the pros and cons of manual mowers, and whether or not we’ll finally wake up to the ecological risks we face. This discussion has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Janet Burns, Earther: What inspired you to start working on Just a Dream?

Chris Van Allsburg: The motivation was simply an exposure to more and more reports in the media about the environment—the degradation of the environment, the human impact on our environment—culminating in The End of Nature, [Bill] McKibben’s book. I was really kind of shocked by the premise that what we think of as the immutable force of nature was actually being modified and changed by human behaviour.

It seemed like a remarkable proposition, and I was moved by it. For the most part, when I’ve written books, they were always fantasies—if anything, they had to do with psychological ideas related to my own childhood. This was a different kind of story I was inspired to tell, and I knew from the beginning that it was slightly polemical. I wondered if I could present this polemical kind of story in a fantastical way that would appeal to kids.

This may sound kind of defeatist, but I knew that changing the feelings and behaviours of my principal audience was going to have a modest impact: kids don’t make a lot of consumer decisions and don’t make up a large part of the population. But I was tempted to use my tiny platform to share this idea that I had.

So I went ahead and thought about this fantastic notion, about how we tend to imagine a technologically advanced future, and how very different our [real] future might be: Walter can’t behold the beauty of the Grand Canyon because of pollution, he finds out there aren’t any fish left in the ocean, that there’s no place for water fowl to land because wetlands are being decimated, that there’s deforestation for toothpicks.

Earther: At the time, some readers found Just a Dream a little too message-heavy. To me, it always seemed pretty straightforward, even hopeful, given the situation. What has the book’s reception been like over time?

Van Allsburg: Positive, I think. I still get letters from readers, and often it’s Just a Dream they mention, maybe that they feel slightly empowered by it. Despite the fact that I was somewhat driven by a sense that things were headed in the wrong direction—and maybe contrary in some ways to my own instincts—I was still inclined to end the book with a hopeful dream: a visit to a [greener] future that actually includes Walter’s own past, with the tree he planted by the [neighbour] girl’s.

It creates a sense of hopefulness and also a connection between an individual’s future and the same individual’s past and the decisions you make as a child that you can look back on. Because I’m kind of a fantasist by nature, I was sort of applying that innate artistic impulse to create fantasies of the future but also embracing the idea of a tract, of sorts, that has fairly sophisticated ideas about how our behaviour will affect our future.

Earther: Just a Dream focuses on garbage and recycling, air pollution, deforestation, the number of cars on the road, and over-consumption. In 2019, the situation isn’t much different: we now know that recycling programs have largely been ineffective, that our air, water, and soil contain microplastics, and that methods exist for burning garbage as fuel with total carbon recapture, but most of our society’s strategies are the same. Have you seen any change, or been surprised by any scientific developments?

Van Allsburg: The sort of pessimism that drove the conception of all the [book’s] bad dreams of the future, I’ve had to temper this with somewhat optimistic developments. I mean, 30 years ago, the possibility of eliminating fossil fuels for electricity production seemed very remote. Maybe it’ll happen in my lifetime, maybe it won’t, but it’s quite easy to imagine now. That transition is happening more quickly than I would have imagined 30 years ago. At least the technology is conceivable—and even exists. The book doesn’t address that issue, but it’s something that was definitely on my mind then.

Air quality [in the U.S.] is actually pretty good, too. The EPA’s done a pretty good job over the last 30 years, and American cities are cleaner than when I wrote the book. Nonetheless, we have forces in the country who would like to deregulate, and [we] could actually see [the gains we’ve made] go backwards. And if you look at other parts of the world, [air pollution] has gone sharply downhill, in places like New Delhi and Beijing, and you hope that Los Angeles doesn’t end up like that.

So that’s kind of demoralising, actually, that sort of development. I live not far from Gloucester, Massachusetts, so I’m sort of aware of the kinds of limitations being placed on fisherman near here, because the cod fisheries are so depleted. [LAUGHS] No big reason for optimism on that front.

I remember the [real-life influence] for the first [dream scenario] in the book: how prominent it was in the news, this idea that Americans have to start recycling because landfills will be overcapacity—what would they do with the garbage, where would it go? It seems like that’s a subject which has almost vanished. I don’t think recycling solved the problem, I just think people made peace with the fact that they’d have to start digging bigger holes.

Earther: The last page of the book, the sort of “pleasant dream” of the future, features a clothesline and a manual lawn mower. These seem like they’d be charming but also reasonable to most kids and their parents [or grandparents], who can say, “Yes, I’ve done that, it works.”

Van Allsburg: That’s part of the idea I was trying to propose on the last page, that this one-way traffic of technological innovation and progress—which includes the [futuristic] planes Walter thinks about, but also, in his own life, washing machines and gas lawnmowers—gives people convenience, but as we start to contemplate living without it, we get kind of panicky.

Not so long ago, we were living without those things and everyone was fine. When I wrote that and my lawn was small enough, I used one of those lawn mowers. I really enjoyed using it and keeping the blades sharp. I did it once a week.

Earther: The book’s foreword is a quote from Walt Kelly’s long-running comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.” It’s a play on an old military line which Kelly borrowed twice, to address both the environment and McCarthyism. Just a Dream addresses the environment and consumerism. In what ways do you think we’re being our own worst enemy today?

Van Allsburg: It is kind of bewildering to me that stewardship of the Earth seems to get sliced along political lines. I know it is profoundly political, but I don’t understand why it’s become that way. It just seems to be common sense, and the human and humane thing to do, to conduct yourself on the planet where you live in a way that doesn’t destroy it.

The idea that this should become politicized still bewilders me. Just open your eyes, see what’s going on in the world, and try to make it better for our children and grandchildren—I can’t think of any issue that’s more deserving of invoking that cliche than taking care of the environment.

Earther: I’ve always found the title especially powerful because, aside from the time travel and dream space aspects, the book is very much rooted in reality. It’s not a dream. Like the scene where Walter is coughing and itching from the fumes of a cough-and-itch-medicine factory, which basically encapsulates where we’re at. I have to ask, 30 years later: do you think we’re stuck in the nightmare, or can we still direct ourselves to that greener future?

Van Allsburg: We have to change the way we live on the planet, and prepare for a planet that’s changing. Being a parent, or even having a close relationship with a child, can be the thing that just completely fixes your attention on what you need to do—and should do. I wrote this book before I was a parent, but when I became one, it became so much clearer.

Earther: A few years after Just a Dream and The Wretched Stone [about a hypnotic screen-like rock found by pre-industrial sailors] came out, you gave the following answer to Scholastic when asked which of your characters is most like you, and why: “I don’t know. That might be captain in The Wretched Stone because sometimes I feel like I am a captain on a ship with a crew that won’t listen to me.” Do you still feel that way? Was it about the environment, or just raising kids?

Van Allsburg: [LAUGHS] I think I may have been using the expression more broadly, yes, and being metaphorical about what it’s like to live in a world where so many people didn’t listen. Not just to me, but to reason.

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