When talking about climate change with peers, I tend to receive varying ideas on what the future could look like. Will it result in the extinction of humankind? Or will we ultimately be saved by advances in technology? Will California run out of water? Are we going to find ourselves in a post apocalyptic world where society as we know it today has collapsed? Depending on the media that we consume, we will have different levels of concern. Deciding to focus my area of interest on climate fiction is a rather recent decision, but one what I find that I am very interested in.
For decades, scientists from around the world have known that human behavior, consumption, and its by-products are causing profound and dangerous changes to the planet. Despite the dire warnings from reports like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), many do not seem affected enough by the gravity of climate change to take the preemptive actions necessary to mitigate it, and there is a large field of discourse on how seriously to take climate change predictions.
Unlike many other ecological problems, climate change is not always visible and can therefore be ignored or put on the back burner. Issues such as deforestation or plastic pollution have very visible and more direct effects. It doesn’t take imagination to know what deforested mountains or islands of oceanic garbage would look like, both are well documented in photos and videos for those who have not seen the likes of them in person. But a climate crisis is trickier to observe. Storms over the past four decades have been getting increasingly strong, and other extreme weather events have not only been more intense, but also more enduring. These trends, however, cannot easily be seen in daily life.
Therefore, ideas about what the future of the climate could look like are rather abstract and large scale. We can predict that there will be several degrees of warming, followed by a positive feedback loop which would warm the earth exponentially. We can predict millions of climate refugees and an increase in both floods and famines. The changes that are beginning to occur are unprecedented, however, so we do not have a reference for how this global crisis will truly feel.
Most of the authors seek, at least in part, to warn, translating graphs and scientific jargon into experience and emotion.(Tuhus-Dubrow 2013)
Science fiction offers an avenue for people to become estranged from their present life and enter a world altered by science and progress. In climate fiction, “most of the authors seek, at least in part, to warn, translating graphs and scientific jargon into experience and emotion” (Tuhus-Dubrow 2013). A popular manner of seeing and understanding the role of Cli-fi is that the created narrative allows those who immerse themselves in the fear, uncertainty, and sense of doom that comes with the data to make climate change personal.
- In what ways does cli-fi help or hurt our collective response to climate change?
- This first question hopes to discover base assumptions about the role that the climate fiction genre plays in public perceptions of climate change. Fiction, as a functional tool, serves to create and strengthen empathy by offering a perspective outside of the reader’s own life (Schneider-Mayerson 2018). Climate fiction potentially brings the problems of ecological and societal collapse to the forefront of the reader’s mind, personally involving them in the issue. This connection could be an aid in encouraging the readers to take action in order to prevent global warming, as their heightened empathic connections to the people who will be or are currently affected increases a sense of urgency.
- Whether readers are inspired to take action or not may also come from how the story plays out. In The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells expresses concerns over the popularity of millenarian outcomes in fiction. He believes that millenarian storylines, where death and complete destruction is avoided by some savior (ie medical breakthrough, technological advancement, the discovery of a new land or resource), create a false sense of security that even though we are headed down a potentially lethal path, we will not see complete collapse or catastrophe (Wallace-Wells 2019). True apocalyptic narratives, meaning complete and total destruction, Wallace-Wells believes, will scare the audience into urgency.
- Alternatively, could these popular apocalyptic narratives or certain other forms of climate fiction have the reverse effect, and instead create fatalists and romanticize aspects of a catastrophic future? In a similar vein Shellenberger, author of Apocalypse Never: Why "Environment" is a word so embedded in environmental discourse and scholarship that it has effectively disappeared. We all know what the environment is—or do we? And what do our unexamined assumptions about environment mean for how we approach environmental issues? A careful examination of the word might lead us to... More Alarmism Hurts Us All, writes “the trouble with the new environmental religion is that it has become increasingly apocalyptic, destructive, and self-defeating,” and favors a more cornucopian approach to environmentalism (Shellenberger, 2020). Perhaps both down-playing and up-playing climate change are complicated, both useful and damaging.
- I also wonder if Cli-Fi authors are qualified to relay a scientific future. Is scientific accuracy an important objective of climate fiction? Could misunderstandings of scientific data in a work of fiction work counter to the aims of the story? These smaller questions may be important to address here as well.
- Does climate fiction manifest differently across distinct cultures? And if so, why?
- I am curious to explore how culture and history affect trends in climate fiction. While much of United States’ cli-fi views the climate crisis as a futuristic problem, base explorations of the genre lead me to an interesting article about Indigenous climate fiction. The author points out that in mainstream climate fiction about the Anthropocene, Indigenous groups are often left out or perceived as belonging to the Holocene. Beyond that, many Indigenous situate the present as dystopian, having already endured deep transformations to their societies due to colonial violence (Whyte 2018). I would like to explore this aspect of climate fiction more thoroughly.
- Nestled into this question is also an exploration of climate justice, that often ends up ignored or underrepresented in science fiction. Many key cli-fi writers ultimately framed their works in limiting and even problematic ways, portraying “climatic destabilization primarily as a problem for white, wealthy, educated Americans and secondarily gestured toward its consequences for human beings in general” (Schneider-Mayerson 2019). Climate justice challenges some of the dominant narratives in the CF genre.
My fascination with the combination of literature and nature was recognized in my CORE Exploration & Discovery class: Human. Animal. Nature., where we discussed how rhetoric in storytelling alters people’s perceptions of it. I saw fiction being used as a device to influence our understanding of the nonhuman world.
During that same semester, I was also in my first ENVS class, 160, where some environmental theorists created a fictional example to frame their ideas on human and ecological relationships, such as Callenbach’s Ecotopia. The book, a mix between utopian and science fiction, allows Callenbach to illustrate his philosophies through the lifestyle within Ecotopia, and effectively invites the readers into his dream of the future (Callenbach 1990).
In Global Environmental History 261, Richard Powers’ science fiction novel Gain spoke to the dangers of chemical pollution which come with the advancement of modern goods (Powers 1998). While this does not speak directly about climate change, it exemplified the ways in which fiction can convey information and perspectives in a way that connects more deeply with readers than simply reading a study on how contaminants affect health.
In Environmental Sociology 305, we talked about what the future might hold. David Wallace-Wells illustrated the value of fiction in illustrating the deadliness of climate change, particularly stories of apocalypses. Wallace-Wells, an optimistic alarmist when it comes to climate change, expresses his concern over the popularity of millenarian storylines, in which the world is saved last minute (Wallace-Wells 2019). Alternatively, others we looked at during the semester indicate a need for maintaining hope in order to avoid fatalistic resignation (Macy et. al 2012).
I am currently taking a Science Fiction Spanish 440 course for my Hispanic Studies major, and one of the first short stories we looked at was Flor de Crepuscula, which is set in a world that has warmed by 3 degrees celsius. The tragic story is apocalyptic, and leaves little room for hope (Quijano 2009). It serves as a warning of what could lie ahead should we cut corners when trying to stop climate change.
These examples, as well as many others that I have read while at Lewis & Clark, often align with what I have learned in my ENVS courses. The stories are shaped by the ongoing dialogues of how much time we have, if technology will save us, whether humanity will be its own undoing, what the end of the world as we know it could look like, and how the problems we face can be solved. Climate fiction explores such ideas.
Next steps would be continuing and completing the science fiction course that I am currently enrolled in, reading more climate fiction, and paying close attention to the elements of Cli-fi that appear in our daily lives. Above all, my late start on this area of interest has set me back in terms of accumulated scholarship. While I am more intrigued by my new topic, I will have to work and read extra to reach a better level of understanding.
Adruegas Ortiz, Diego. 2019. “How Science Fiction Helps Readers Understand Climate Change.” BBC Culture. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190110-how-science-fiction-helps-readers-understand-climate-change.
Callenbach, Ernest. 1990. Ecotopia. New York, NY: Bantam.
Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone. 2012. Active Hope: How to Face the Mess Were in Without Going Crazy. Novato, CA: New World Library.
Powers, Richard. 1998. Gain. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Quijano Vincenzi, Laura. 2009. “Flor De Crepúsculo.” Essay. In Posibles Futuros: Cuentos De Ciencia Ficción, 61–81. San José, CR: Editorial Universidad Estatal a Distancia.
Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew. 2018. “The Influence of Climate FictionAn Empirical Survey of Readers.” Environmental Humanities. Duke University Press. https://read.dukeupress.edu/environmental-humanities/article/10/2/473/136689/The-Influence-of-Climate-FictionAn-Empirical.
Schneider-Mayerson, Matthew. 2019. “Whose Odds? The Absence of Climate Justice in American Climate Fiction Novels.” ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 26 (4): 944–67. doi:10.1093/isle/isz081.
Shellenberger, Michael. 2020. Apocalypse Never: Why Environmental Alarmism Hurts Us All. New York, NY, NY: Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers.
Tuhus-Dubrow, Rebecca. 2013. “Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre.” Dissent 60, no. 3 (2013): 58-61. doi:10.1353/dss.2013.0069.
Wallace-Wells, David. 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. New York, NY: Tim Duggan Books.
Whyte, Kyle P. 2018. “Indigenous Science (Fiction) for the Anthropocene: Ancestral Dystopias and Fantasies of Climate Change Crises.” Environment and Planning E: Nature and Space 1, no. 1-2 (2018): 224–42. https://doi.org/10.1177/2514848618777621.