What is Cli-fi?

Dan Bloom, the man who coined the term “cli-fi,” gave this great review to Weather Menders:

Weather Menders is a pioneering cli-fi novel that combines science fiction with time travel and spiritual fantasy in a unique and captivating way. The message is clear: we must act soon and be woke. Oh, and there’s a telepathic time-travelling cat!”

Juniper Fiery Sky

When I first conceived of the story of Weather Menders in the spring of 2013, I had no idea that I would be writing in a genre called cli-fi (rhymes with sci-fi), or even that such a genre existed.
I have been aware of and troubled by the specter of climate change since the first Earth Day in 1970. I remember writing an essay in high school on how carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution could lead to global warming due to intensification of the Earth’s natural “greenhouse effect.” I learned that the greenhouse effect is actually a good thing for Earth’s eco-system. A chemically balanced atmosphere acts as a sort of blanket that holds in the heat necessary for life and prevents its escape into space. But when the natural balance is disturbed by an increasing atmospheric concentration of carbon due to the unsustainable burning of fossil fuels, excess heat is trapped, rather like a greenhouse with no ventilation.
In 1970, understanding of climate change was still limited. A few years ago I saw a PBS documentary on Earth Day. Several scientists voiced their concern that if fossil fuels continued to be burned at the then-current rate, the global climate system might start to be impacted by excess warming as soon as 200 years in the future!
No one thought we would start to experience a trend of extreme climate events a mere 30 years later, or that 1980, an important Pivot Point in Weather Menders, would in retrospect prove to be a significant year in the acceleration of anthropogenic (human-caused) climate disruption.
Despite my Buddhist and other spiritual training, I’m not always good at accepting the “what-is”—especially if it means the Sixth Extinction threatening all life on Earth. Mere mitigation of climate change seems to me a pitifully inadequate response to the magnitude of the problem, and adaptation almost laughably impossible. Humans, in my view, are possessed by a spectacular failure of imagination and vision if we can’t even conceive of a way out of the current planetary emergency.
So why not think big? Why not envision reversing the trend entirely, rebalancing atmosphere and eco-system, celebrating and increasing biodiversity? What would it take?
I started fantasizing about time travel. If there are parallel worlds and timelines, as posited in science fiction and on a quantum level, when did the timelines diverge? When was the point that it all went wrong on Earth? What would time travelers from the future need to change in order to alter the cascading slide towards tipping points in the current trajectory towards extinction?

And so Weather Menders was born.

As I traveled through the UK in the summer of 2013, joining in ceremony inside the circle of Stonehenge at dawn, and visiting the intentional spiritual community of Findhorn Foundation in Scotland, the characters began to come to me. They came alive like spirits in alternate timelines. I first saw Tara as a hale elder leaning against the standing stones at Avebury on a sultry autumn day in 2050. Her feisty great-granddaughter Leona the Shaman interrupted her meditation. Georgie the telepathic gray cat intruded on her thoughts. Her backstory, her great love for Xander, began to whisper itself to me. I could feel their presence and hear their words. I knew their stories, which only had to be written and interwoven.
Sometime later, during the writing process itself, I stumbled upon the term cli-fi—fiction, written or cinematic, dealing thematically with different aspects of climate change—and realized that Weather Menders fits into that emerging genre.

Unbeknownst to me, spring of 2013 was when Dan Bloom’s term, cli-fi, began to seep into the collective consciousness after an NPR story referred to cli-fi with quotes from novelists Barbara Kingsolve and Nathaniel Rich.  Bloom, a journalist and college teacher with a passion to awaken people to both the existence of this genre and to what it might teach us, subsequently contacted many media outlets and authors in order to keep cli-fi in public awareness.

Bloom is now the editor of the Cli-Fi Report, a site that bills itself as “a research tool for academics and media professionals to use in gathering information and reporting on the rise of the emerging cli-fi term worldwide.”

In future, I will be blogging about other cli-fi offerings, including Deena Metzger’s beautiful A Rain of Night Birds, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.

A lot of cli-fi novels are dystopian—almost by definition—and I honestly don’t know how many of those I can bear to read (I figure I can just read the science pages if I want to get depressed). I find I cannot live without hope, despite the Buddhist admonition to live life beyond hope and beyond fear. For what else is the wish for the liberation of all sentient beings other than a form of hope?
I’ve always believed that the purpose of fiction is to re-imagine the future—and in the case of a time travel novel, the past. Cli-fi stories can be set in an increasingly dystopian present, ripped right out of the headlines of the recent summer of disasters, or in a very near probable future. Many authors proceed on the twin assumptions that severe climate breakdown is already upon us (true) and is irreversible (I beg to differ).

Perhaps the real question cli-fi poses, and at its best answers, is: how does the human heart and spirit respond to what Buddhist scholar and environmental activist Joanna Macy calls “The Great Turning?”

Can we transform our industrial society to a truly sustainable civilization in time? Do we give the process our all, when success—or even survival—appears far from certain, perhaps even impossible and hopeless? Do we give voice to our deepest fears by imagining, and perhaps co-creating, a vicious future of few survivors amidst a horror of competition for whatever is left on a dying planet? Or do we give our energy to the re-envisioning of an alternate possible future, against great odds?

The process of writing Weather Menders led me to ask the question: besides my fantasy of time travel, what could reverse climate change in our current reality? Somewhat to my surprise, I have come upon a surprising number of answers and solutions, from practical to radical, spiritual to secular and scientific, and will be continuing to search for and blog about those visions.

Meanwhile, enjoy reading Weather Menders! I hope the book will help lots of people “be woke,” in Dan Bloom’s words. I hope we can start a conversation, a re-imagination of our future, and back it up with actions to reverse climate change by rebalancing our eco-system and atmosphere and returning to the rich biodiversity of Mother Earth.