Cli-fi is leading the charge to envision new, sustainable and compassionate social structures. ''In These Times'' explains
June 17, 2019
The Climate Crisis Is Mind-Boggling. That's Why We Need ''Climate Fiction'' aka ''cli-fi.''
George Washington University writing professor Michael Svoboda recently listed a bevy of climate-themed films that hit theaters in 2018, including the dystopian films Downsizing starring Matt Damon and First Reformed starring Ethan Hawke.
Clearly, people, not just Americans, are interested in the topic. According to a 2018 poll conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, a record number of people — a full 73%— believe that climate change is happening. For real.
Yet, according to the same poll, only 29% report being “very worried,” despite an increase in the number and severity of hurricanes and tornados, a worsening of wildfires and the spread of invasive species.
Why do human have such a hard time grasping the dire threat posed by climate change?
In his 2015 nonfiction book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action, psychologist Per Espen Stoknes argues it’s because politicians and the media tend to present climate change as a series of abstract facts and cold statistics, which do little to appeal to the human heart.
Where statistics-heavy media reports fall short, climate fiction writers are filling the gap.
Works of cli-fi bring the present reality—and potential future—of climate change into sharper focus: floods, fires and extreme weather events are depicted as the new normal. But it’s not the science behind the crisis writers are focused on—it’s human behavior.
In a recent panel conversation I moderated that included novelist Omar El Akkad (author of the dystopian American War), one audience member asked El Akkad whether he cares about getting the science right in his work. El Akkad’s response: “I care about getting the irrationality of [human existence] right. I think if you can get people to a place where they recognize their own irrationality, you might have a shot [at convincing them to change their ways].”
By capturing that profound irrationality—the contradiction between our refusal to give up fossil fuels even while using them leads to the destruction of mountaintops, international conflict and global warming to a degree never before experienced by humans—authors like El Akkad serve as witnesses to a transformative moment in history, a moment when we are becoming aware of our disastrous influence over the natural world and what that means for the future of our society.
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, informally "surveyed'' in a very unacademic way a bunch of people and found that works of climate fiction “nudge [their] audience in a slightly more progressive direction” and that “most readers attested to the value of cli-fi as a tool for enabling the imagination of potential climate futures.”
One reader, an IT administrator from Tennessee, was particularly struck by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway’s fictional history, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View From the Future, a harrowing tale in which humans barely survive the widespread catastrophe of global warming.
The reader reported that climate change “was more theoretical before. Now, while fiction, the book has made me more aware of what our planet could become.” The reader also reported “subsequently [sharing] the book with his wife and son, among others.”
Other readers also reported sharing their favorite cli-fi stories with loved ones, a pattern that suggests climate fiction might be a useful tool to open dialogues about the crisis with those closest to us.
While some studies say that dystopian narratives can have a paralyzing effect on readers, despite climate fiction’s ability to drive home the gravity of the crisis, other studies by PhD academics say the opposite and insist that cli-fi does not paralyze readers but in fact can energize them to take action.
In other words, the dystopian framing of cli-fi narratives might actually serve to spur political and social change. And the same holds true for utopian narratives about climate change.
Psychologists suggest that when climate communications are framed positively,” which “might include … ‘values and a common cause’ and ‘opportunities for innovation and job growth, ” they help energize readers to sit up and take action, acording to online research.
Some cli-fi novels are now moving in favor of something politically effective: telling narratives of collective action.
A number of these works -- especially Barbara Kingsolver’s cli-fi novel FLIGHT BEHAVIOR -- were interpreted by readers as containing messages related to ‘preparedness and resilience.’ ”
Such cli-fi that depicts people banding together to address the climate crisis can help readers recognize the power of collective action.
Omar El Akkad’s hope of getting people “to a place where they recognize their own irrationality” might be understood this way: If we acknowledge that climate change is a product of our own collective making, then we might simultaneously realize we have the power to collectively fix it.
The mainstream film industry is lerning to catch on to this “positive cli-fi framing.” While there are not yet a lot of movies about magnificent collective action” there are some and more are in the Hollywood pipeline for the 2020s and 2030s. Downsizing, First Reformed and Marvel Studios’ Infinity War and Endgame all featuredenvironmental concerns.
Of course, reading climate fiction won’t change the world alone, nor will simply imagining climate catastrophe and its potential solutions. Creating real social change requires real political action, such as the massive, youth-led Sunrise Movement, which advocates for the Green New Deal. To achieve a livable future in a climate-changed world, we need policy reforms on a global scale. Ask Greta Thunberg.
So cli-fi novels and movies do have the potential to inspire us to get started. Rather than be discouraged by bleak scientific reports or the doom and gloom of today’s popular climate-related films, novels like Stan Robinson’s New York 2140 — and others, like Richard Powers’ 2018 The Overstory, a Pulitzer Prize winner that features an anti-logging protest camp—are leading the charge to envision new, more sustainable and compassionate social structures.
We already know climate change is happening; now we need to believe we can band together to stop it, worldwide, globally.