Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Claire Vaye Watkins visits Chicago and talks about her cli-fi novel, as Dick Munson listened in...

OPED ''to-fight-climate-change-we-must-change-our-vocabulary'' by Dick Munson

Recently Amy Brady says she was also thrilled to read a commentary by Dick Munson, Director of Midwest Clean Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund, wherein he described his visit in November in  2017 to the  Chicago Humanities Festival.

At the festival, he listened to  cli-fi author Claire Vaye Watkins (Gold Fame Citrus) discuss her work. Dick's  main takeaway? “To be effective, [climate activists] need to expand our cultural vocabulary [to include the new literary term of cli-fi.]”

She later spoke with Munson for her blog about what he meant by this, about his other takeaways from the festival, and the important role he sees the humanities playing in climate activism.

Amy Brady
Which speaker surprised you?
Dick Munson
I was struck by how initially unwilling Al Gore was to talk about his faith.  His book focused on the science of climate change and the mechanics of political organizing, but the moderator’s questions seemed to move him to reveal a depth of conviction, which conveyed to his audience a fresh appreciation for the science and politicking.
What do you think would happen if activists and scientists began using a vocabulary usually reserved for spiritualism or religion when talking about climate change?
Dick Munson
I think all of us switch our perspectives or voices throughout each day, moving from, say, a political voice to a music-focused or sports-analogy voice. Most of us also have a faith-based, religious or spiritual voice.  I think Al Gore’s observation that climate change is a “moral issue” made me realize that my environmental colleagues and I must incorporate that powerful moral voice if we are to tackle the clear threat to our planet.
Amy Brady
Have you read any cli-fi novels that address issues of climate change?
Dick Munson
There are, of course, the classic ecological books, such as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, but perhaps the first novel that I associated with climate fiction was Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. It conveys the threats to the beautiful monarch butterflies. After this year’s Chicago Humanities Festival, I took up Claire Vaye Watkins’s cli-fi novel Gold Fame Citrus, which is framed around a global-warming-induced drought in Southern California.

DICK WROTE: Although it wasn’t her intention, the second speaker that Saturday afternoon in Chicago, Claire Vaye Watkins, revealed another way in which environmentalists need to expand their vocabulary. In this case, the author suggested literature, too, can help defend the planet. Her cli-fi novel, Gold Fame Citrus, uses a global-warming-induced drought in Southern California to frame her story about hope and cherished relationships. Hers is a surreal landscape, an ocean of sand that reflects a world broken by environmental disaster. Into this nightmare she describes how families cope, introduces a tender humanity, and conveys a nostalgia for the living world.
Watkins, after her presentation, suggested that environmental advocates can take better advantage of imagination. Humans, she said, love stories and activists must use them to reveal threats and offer hope.
Watkins is not alone in setting novels and short stories where the climate is stressed. An entire genre, in fact, is developing, what some call climate fiction, or “cli-fi” for short. It focuses on a dystopian present in contrast to the dystopian futures highlighted in conventional sci-fi.
This cli-fi genre coined by Dan Bloom serves two key purposes, one for writers and one for environmentalists. “I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality,” said Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow. “And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?”
Environmentalists, moreover, need to appreciate that novelists can reach people in ways scientists and political activists cannot, that fiction, in fact, may be the best untapped means to deliver information and messages. We can learn from Barbara Kingsolver, winner of the National Humanities Medal and author of Flight Behavior, who asked: how is it “possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides, between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative—that when it comes to understanding the scientific truths about the world, there must be another way to bring information to people … that’s beyond simply condescending and saying, ‘Well, if only you had the fact. If only you knew what I did, then you would be a smart person.’ That gets you nowhere.”
Environmentalists, in their effort to combat climate change, have turned increasingly toward science and rationality. Those languages, of course, are valuable and necessary. ....To be effective, we need to expand our cultural vocabulary.

Dick Munson is the Environmental Defense Fund’s Director of Midwest Clean Energy. In this role, he works to advance the use of clean energy in Illinois and Ohio.

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