Thursday, April 20, 2017

Cli-Fi @ 2y: ''Learning Geoscience through Climate-Change Fiction''

Cli-Fi @ 2y: Learning Geoscience through Climate-Change Fiction

by Professors Steve Winters and Elizabeth Trobaugh

Holyoke Community College, MASSACUSETTS, USA

Responding to the challenges of teaching geoscience in the liberal arts setting, we have developed an interdisciplinary course that fulfills both lab science and English graduation requirements. At Holyoke (Massachusetts USA) Community College, we team-teach a course called “Cli-Fi: Stories and Science of the Coming Climate Apocalypse.”

 “Cli-fi” refers to climate-change fiction, a now-popular subgenre of science fiction. Our course combines introductory literature and composition with first-year physical geology (including laboratory and field exercises).

With interdisciplinary/thematic content and a seminar-style learning environment, our course attracts a variety of students -- science majors, English majors, environmentalists, science fiction fans, etc.

We read Paolo Bacigalupi’s cli-fi novel The Windup Girl and shorter works from recently published anthologies. Standard college-level geology texts and excerpts from science magazines and journals complement our literary readings. To help students focus on climate change issues and themes, we use a “climate-change stress index” that we have developed to tabulate and categorize climate change impacts.

For each story we read, students locate and describe several features of the climate-changed world, such as adaptation/mitigation, breakdown in civilization/social order, climate imbalance/disorder, extinction, illness/disease, and resource scarcity. For the final project, students write their own original cli-fi stories using the storytelling techniques and the climate change science they have learned and researched.

Our students present their projects at an end-of-semester cli-fi/science mini-conference on campus.

Learning in Communities at Holyoke Community College

Holyoke Community College (HCC) has a well-established history of interdisciplinary learning. For over 30 years, our college has supported and promoted learning communities, courses that integrate two disciplines united by a shared theme. Two professors from different divisions combine their curricula and join in one classroom to deliver a course that invites students to actively participate in a community of learning where the professors, too, are learning each other’s disciplines alongside the students. Our course fulfills three graduation requirements for the largest degree program HCC offers, the Liberal Arts and Sciences Associates Degree: college composition II, a lab science, and integrative learning. While also teaching the principles of good writing, research, and using supporting evidence, our course provides students with a first-year geology curriculum, including labs and field exercises. Labs and field trips offer particularly rich climate-science learning opportunities: trips to a local natural history museum and dinosaur trackways to study species extinctions face-to-face; visits to a local community garden to assist rain-garden installation and other green-infrastructures to conserve and enhance our threatened water supplies.

What is Cli-Fi?

''Cli-fi'' is a term coined by climate change blogger and activist Dan Bloom to describe an emergent sub-genre of science fiction. Modelled after the assonance of sci-fi, cli-fi refers to a body of literary fiction that is responding to anthropogenic global climate change.

As cli-fi novelist Claire Vaye Watkins says, cli-fi brings the imagination to the problem-solving equation.

We use literature to ignite students’ sense of wonder and curiosity. Some believe that literature, in fact, can play a role in galvanizing people’s attention and interest in the changes occurring across the globe.

Some even believe that climate-change fiction – i.e., “cli-fi” – can motivate people to take action to protect the planet.

For example, articles in The Atlantic, The New York Times and the Natural Resources Defense Council magazine On Earth have all recently suggested that cli-fi is capturing a growing awareness and concern about environmental degradation, and these works of fiction and imagination are pushing people to care.

Some popular cli-fi novels include The Year of the Flood (Margaret Atwood); Science in the Capital Trilogy and (just out) New York 2140 (Kim Stanley Robinson); The Windup Girl and The Water Knife (Paolo Bacigalupi). Some of the best cli-fi storytelling takes the form of short fiction. Some anthologies we've used are I’m With the Bears (edited by Mark Martin, Verso); Drowned Worlds (edited by Jonathan Strahan, Solaris); and Loosed Upon the World (edited by John Joseph Adams, Saga).

It All Begins with a Story …
and the Climate-Change Stress Index

For our course, we have developed a tool we call the Climate-Change Stress Index (CCSI) to help students identify the evidence of climate-change impacts in the fictional setting of each story. This stress-index technique helps us use cli-fi’s settings, plots, and characters not just as jumping off points for general discussion but as windows through which students get an integrated view of science and fiction in one lesson.

For example, when reading The Windup Girl, students notice that resource scarcity, specifically the scarcity of fossil fuels, not only propels the plot but also leads to technological regression: in the world Bacigalupi has created, machines run on animal and human power, rather than on electricity or fossil fuel.

This adaptation has the benefit of reducing carbon emissions in a runaway greenhouse atmosphere, but it also places a premium on
calories in a climate-changed world of extinctions and agricultural plagues. Identifying real climate science in a literary text motivates students to take the projected outcomes of climate change fiction seriously and to engage critical thinking and research skills to assess a story’s verisimilitude.

The CCSI marks the beginning of the students’ critical analysis of the climate fiction and acts as a window through which students can get an integrated and in-depth view of fiction and science in one lesson.

The CCSI lists nine climate-change impacts on society and on the natural world:

❏ Adaptation/mitigation
❏ Breakdown in infrastructure
❏ Breakdown in civilization/social order
❏ Climate imbalance/disorder
❏ Ecosystem imbalance – flora and fauna
❏ Illness/disease
❏ Positive/negative feedbacks
❏ Regression (psychosocial, biological, technological, etc.)
❏ Resource scarcity

For example, with student contributions, the CCSI for Robert Silverberg’s “Hot Sky” (from Loosed), looks like the example on pages 12 and 13.

Science-story Intersects

Once CCSI impacts have been tabulated, students are ready to dig deeper into the text using a technique we call story-science intersections: a series of probing and/or leading science questions that critically explore the science that underlies the narrative. Intersects also provide a model for the final cli-fi science project.

Intersects are essentially fact-finding/fact-checking activities that ask believability questions:

▪ What is the science, if any, that underlies the fiction?
▪ Is the science used in a believable way?
▪ Does the story seem plausible?
▪ Does the story have verisimilitude?

For example, following a reading of Paolo Bacigalupi’s story “The People of Sand and Slag,” (, we ask students to dig deeper into the following story excerpts:

Excerpt from “The People of Sand and Slag”

We ate sand for dinner. Outside the security bunker, the mining robots tumbled back and forth, ripping deeper into the earth, turning it into a mush of tailings and acid rock that they left in exposed ponds when they hit the water table, or piled into thousand-foot mountains of waste soil. It was comforting to hear those machines cruising back and forth all day. Just you and the bots and the profits, and if nothing got bombed while you were on duty, there was always a nice bonus.
After dinner we sat around and sharpened Lisa’s skin, implanting blades along her limbs so that she was a like a razor in all directions . . .
Lisa laughed and took a spoonful of tailings. “We can eat anything. We’re the top of the food chain.”
“Weird how it [the dog] can’t eat us.”
“You’ve probably got more mercury and lead running through your blood than any pre-weeviltech animal ever could have had.”
“That’s bad?”
“Used to be poison.”
Intersects from “The People of Sand and Slag”:
Text: “We ate sand for dinner.”
Example questions:
▪ How is it possible any living thing could “eat” sand or rock? Have you heard of lichens?
Text: “Outside the security bunker, the mining robots tumbled back and forth, ripping deeper into the earth, turning it into a mush of tailings and acid rock that they left in exposed ponds when they hit the water table or piled into thousand-foot mountains of waste soil. ”

Example questions:
▪ Where does the acid come from?
▪ Can you describe the geochemistry of the tailings ponds?
▪ How would you describe the “waste soil”? Is it a soil at all? How is the presence of acid related to absence of normal vegetation?
▪ How are the soils of “The People of Sand
and Slag” similar to the soils on the Moon? On Mars?
Intersects from “The People of Sand and Slag”:
Text: “We can eat anything. We’re the top of the food chain.”

Example question:
▪ But if you can eat anything, aren’t you on the bottom of the food chain?
Text: “You’ve probably got more mercury and lead running through your blood than any pre-weeviltech animal ever could have had.”
“That’s bad?”
“Used to be poison.”

Example questions:
▪ What’s “weeviltech”? (A central concept in Bacigalupi’s imagined world. We generally define it as genetically modified organisms or cellular organelles designed to catalyze and metabolize inorganic, otherwise poisonous foodstuffs such as native metals and minerals.)
▪ What other (real!) organisms may also have adapted weeviltech-like metabolisms?
▪ In what way do extremophiles have their own version of weeviltech?
▪ Where on Earth today or in the geologic past have we seen organisms that possess a kind of weeviltech referred to in “The People of Sand and Slag”?

The Cli-fi Final Short-Story Project and End-of-Semester Celebration

“An imaginary garden with real toads in it.”
– Marianne Moore
“Cli-fi is where art meets science, where data meets emotions, and where science meets art, too.” – Dan Bloom

As the culmination of the semester, we ask students to write their own cli-fi short stories. We encourage them to explore any of the ideas, themes, settings, climate/Earth science concepts that have come up in class or that they’ve generated in their imagination. While climate change often brings visions of dystopian settings and situations, we have also read stories that offer more hopeful visions of problem-solving and adaptation. In their stories, we want students to explore how humans might adapt to a new environment, a new reality. On the final day of the semester, we celebrate each student’s final cli-fi science project and short story with a reception, including refreshments and invited guests (faculty, former cli-fi students, and administrators). Our students never fail to amaze us with the stories they create out of science and imagination.


We are fortunate at HCC to have a tradition of innovative, interdisciplinary learning that has allowed us to develop a rich climate-science curriculum centered on the popular literary sub-genre of cli-fi. It is our belief that the best science and technology are always creative, and cli-fi helps add the imagination to the geoscientist's toolkit.

Our curriculum combines the techniques of critical thinking and textual analysis from the sciences and the humanities. The fictional settings and scenarios of cli-fi expand the imagination and show geoscience principles in a fictional context, inviting students to confront the role of humanity in a climate-changed world and perhaps inspiring students to learn more about how humanity might cultivate a more cooperative relationship with the Earth.

Works Cited

Adams, Joseph, editor. Loosed Upon the World: the Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction. Saga Press, 2015.
Bacigalupi, Paolo. “The People of Sand and Slag.” Windupstories, 15 Apr. 2017,
Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. Night Shade Books, 2015.
Martin, Mark, editor. I’m With the Bears: Short Stories from a Damaged Planet. Verso, 2011.
Silverberg, Robert. “Hot Sky.” Loosed Upon the World: the Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, edited by Joseph Adams, Saga Press, 2015, pp. 203-228.
Strahan, Jonathan, editor. Drowned Worlds: Tales from the Anthropocene and Beyond. Solaris, 2016.

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