The Ethical Activist Book Club: Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver

Welcome to the first book review in for the Ethical Activist Book Club reading list. We are reading one title every two months, and the book for January and February in 2017 is Barbara Kingsolver’s Orange Prize-winning novel Flight Behaviour.

Flight Behaviour primarily tackles the topic of climate change, with story centring on a fictional (but scientifically plausible) ecosystem disruption which causes a migratory butterflies to overwinter in the Appalachian ranges instead of Mexico. The story centres on Dellarobia, young mother on a failing family farm. What I love most about this novel is that it captures the interconnected relationships between climate change, inequality and poverty, the outsourcing of manufacturing to developing countries, the decline of family farming, and more. Ultimately the book asks the reader to grapple with the broad range of harms associate with the global capitalist system.

I read this book years ago so I knew that the novel contained a rich variety of themes that are relevant to our interests as ethical activists. It was such a pleasure to re-read the novel this month and to delve into it’s pages once again. I filled the book up with so many little paper tags of passages to revisit for this review. There is so much depth to the themes covered that I cannot possibly capture them all here today. But I will pick out a few the highlights.

The experience of living on the breadline was a critical theme. Kingsolver captures the disconnect between the experience of the middle and working class America throughout the novel. My favourite example of this was the climate activist that was asking local residents to take his climate pledge. As he goes through his list of action items it becomes increasingly clear how ridiculous this pledge is to the lives of those he is attempting to sign up. Bringing reusable cutlery is irrelevant to someone who cannot afford to eat out. Putting your heating down, or reducing your miles driven, is impossible for someone who has already been forced to do tolerate the bare minimum due to cost pressures. Reducing the amount of red meat you eat is senseless to someone who can barely afford enough protein in their diet. Flying less is ludicrous to someone who has never been able to afford a plane ticket. By tackling this theme, Kingsolver asks us to examine our privilege. Many of us have the luxury of reducing our environmental impact. Many others do not, and they have already been far less of a burden on the environment than those who are in a position of privilege.

Kingsolver’s discussion of privileged and poverty is not limited to the this discussion of lifestyle and climate impact. Throughout the novel we see the role of global capitalism as a driver of poverty. As corporations moved manufacturing offshore where they could source cheap (unethical) labour, traditional craftspeople such as carpenters and tailors being driven out of work and into poverty, and many traditional skills becoming lost to communities as past generations take their knowledge to the grave. The impact that this has on families and communities is immense. We see this poignantly illustrated with Dellarobia’s lament in the dollar store. She saddened and frustrated by that fact that she was raised by appreciate quality and craftsmanship by her parents, but because these local skills have been replaced by cheap Chinese imports, she (and families like hers) no longer have the means to buy good quality. The consumers in the dollar stores and the factory workers who made these poor quality products are interdependent in system that exploits and marginalises them both.

Kingsolver has a talent with language and a honed ability to draw you in with story. But perhaps her  biggest strength as novelist is her ability to represent different sides of the story with sensitivity and without prejudice. Flight Behaviour examines the differing cultural view points in the climate change debate, and whilst she obviously sides with the scientific consensus on the issue, Kingsolver encourages the reader to develop a more nuanced understanding of climate change denial. In doing so she asks the us to find compassion in our approach climate activism. In the divisive political era in which we live, this message is so critical. As climate activists (and indeed activists for greater equality and progressive political values) we need to find ways to engage in nuanced discussion with those who don’t share our views. We need to understand the human experience across the political divide so that we can better form consensus and transform our economic system. Flight Behaviour asks us to do exactly this.

For me, Flight Behaviour is a 5 star book, and essential reading for ethical activists in the 21st Century. What about you? What did you think about the book? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Our next book is This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein, with the book review coming at the end of April. You can find the full reading list for 2017 here.


  • I love your blog!!
    I am a sustainable living advocate as well and I found this post amazing 😀
    Thanks for all the inspiration around your blog!!

    • Thanks Patricia. I love hearing that from my readers. Your blog looks beautiful too!

  • Hannah Littler

    I really enjoyed the book too. I found the insights around poverty and manufacturing particularly interesting that you’ve highlighted in your blog. The book also left me a bit in despair around what we can do to save the world for our children. I had my first child last year and I wonder what world he will grow up in. I wonder if the small things I try and do can really have any impact or whether we are too late?

    A challenging story nonetheless and a reminder that those who are most affected by climate change are the least to blame.

    My only dislike about the book was that sometimes it was a bit clunky as it was largely focussed on the climate change issues but that didn’t stop my enjoyment.

    I am now concerned that the next book will only deepen my despair… Let’s hope not!

    Thanks for suggesting these books :-)

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Hannah. It is difficult not to feel despair. The next book is heavy going, and you’ll feel more despair. But read right to the end. I promise that it ends on a much more hopeful note about the capacity of human beings to pull together and solve this crisis. These conversations that we are having now matter, but we also need to get active and stay active until the fight is over.

      BTW, congratulations on becoming a mother. I have two sons myself. They are a huge part of my motivation. You also might be interested in my other initiative. Leadership empowerment for working mothers. I am building a movement of mothers who are empowered to lead, in the community and in their workplaces. We can be a powerful force for social change. We just launched online yesterday. I’d love to have you join our community.

  • Linda

    I really enjoyed this book too! So glad I found your blog and this reading list. As well as your points above, I Ioved how Dellarobia’s character developed as she took on the laboratory assistant’s job.

    • Thanks Linda. I am so glad you shared your thoughts. I love Dellarobia’s growth too. I see some of my own mother’s journey in Dellarobia’s. Finding your voice and your own path after having children young. It’s a really wonderful story.

  • Anna Gould

    Who runs this ethical activist book club and do you meet face to face? I am in Melbourne. Interested in joining.