“Trashlands” Explores the Possibilities of a Worst-Case Climate Scenario

Wildly imaginative and told through a series of differing, yet intertwined, perspectives, Trashlands by Alison Stine transports readers into Scrappalachia, a place where the past’s trash is the ultimate ruler and plastic acts as currency. Scrappalachia is the former Appalachia. Instead of sprawling, lush mountains, forests, and fields with quaint towns and two-lane roads nestled in between, Scrappalachia, and specifically Trashlands, is a toxic, waste-filled, and polluted place where women dance for strangers and the town’s unofficial mayor rules with brutal violence.

In Trashlands, however, an unlikely character exists — Coral. In Trashlands, Coral is an anomaly: creative, artistic, and sensitive, Coral her essence is the antithesis of Trashlands. When she is not collecting trash in order to save up enough plastic to pay to rescue her son, Shanghai, from one of the many recycling factories where children are forced to work, she is creating. Despite the pain caused by her son’s absence, Coral ekes an existence — including her union with Trillium, a talented tattooist — from Scrappalachia’s hopelessness.

Of course, readers might notice that the Scrappalachia of Stine’s novel isn’t necessarily an unfamiliar setting. Instead, it’s a fictional portrayal of hypotheticals that could unfold if governments and individuals do not begin to curb their consumption of and reliance on fossil fuels. However, Trashlands isn’t merely another climate change dystopian novel. Its ecological philosophies resonate with those exhibited in nonfiction books like Rose Metal Press’s collaborative feat The After-Normal: Brief, Alphabetical Essays on a Changing Planet by David Carlin and Nicole Walker.

Trashlands simply depicts a future where viable, yet fragile, Appalachian ecosystems are only a small portion of the globe affected by humankind’s insatiable wants. In its stark, meditative reflections, it offers readers philosophical tidbits onto which they can latch and draw correlations to current extreme weather events. The novel reminds readers that in regards to Earth and its resources they can “no longer assume you could take from what you had always taken – water and energy and shelter and food – and expect it would not ask you for anything in return.” Such passages prompt readers to think about their own individual, transactional relationship with nature.

Centering the novel’s conversation is the individual’s relationship to art, an ever-present and relevant conversation happening more frequently as artists, writers, poets, and artisans everywhere grapple with the realities of climate change and process their grief, loss, and reckoning through a variety of mediums and artforms. Her artistic processes and approaches are also a gentle insight about how from trash and chaos, one can create something beautiful: “She made pieces when they struck her, when they all but declared themselves.” Coral’s need for art sometimes outweighs her pragmatic survival approach, even though Coral admits she “created when she felt the plastic she found wouldn’t be missed, couldn’t be used for anything else.” For Coral, art is a solace, a space for “when she was alone, when she saw an opportunity.” It is also a place for healing: “And, she began to learn, she did it when she had a bad day.” Coral’s character is not only an implicit commentary about humanity’s fragile relationship with nature; Coral is also a representation of why, in times of crisis, art and the artistic process are essential.

Other readers will take notice of the novel’s focus on strong female characters who overcome adversity and survive in Trashlands’ extreme environments and horrifically abusive situations. While Coral’s character is the primary female character, other strong females like Foxglove at first present a sense of powerlessness that correlates to nature’s inability to quickly overcome humankind’s abuse. Foxglove, a tattooed dancer who suffers in the strip club, acts as a corollary to and antithesis of Coral. Foxglove’s character is the embodiment of the collective literal and figurative depression permeating Trashland. Nonetheless, Foxglove survives and endures, and her experience becomes a lesson about the power of perseverance.

Trashlands makes readers pause and consider the current climate crisis situation. Globally, countries committed to meeting their climate goals within the next few years are failing. The current climate crisis requires that countries committed to combating the consequences of excessive carbon emissions reduce their impact by 45% by 2030 in order to prevent global warming (United Nations). However, in the past two years, countries have reduced their emissions by only 8% (EPA). To meet their climate goals, countries face a drastic overhaul which requires a change in collective commitment and mindset, and government entities, corporations, and individuals must do their part in order to avoid an even larger climate disaster than the world already faces in the next ten years. Such dismal news leaves one wondering what the world could look like if scientists’ predictions come to fruition, and Alison Stine’s Trashlands takes an all-too real look into what could potentially happen if humanity as a whole does not alter their consumption and reliance on fossil fuels.

By Alison Stine
Mira Books
Published October 26, 2021
Paperback November 1, 2022