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How Science Fiction Can Inspire Environmentalism and Climate Action

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Source: Earth • Food • Life

Harnessing the power of story may help us survive and thrive on a climate-altered planet.

The Dead Sea - woman reading a book.jpg
Katherine Dolan is a writer, editor, and researcher at the Independent Media Institute from Dunedin, New Zealand. She has held previous posts as a senior writer for Fairfax Media Custom Publishing in New Zealand and Lifestyle Magazine in Moscow, and as a copy editor for the U.S. news site NSFWCORP.
This article was produced by Earth • Food • Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.
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Introduction[edit | edit source]

Climate change is, by far, the biggest story of our era, an existential threat that has already profoundly affected life on Earth and promises to change it even more radically over the next few centuries. As our most pressing problem, it has inspired numerous non-fiction texts—news articles, science journalism, documentaries, academic monographs, and pop-science books (think Greta Thunberg’s The Climate Book or Anri Snaer Magnason’s On Time and Water).

In mainstream fiction, though, climate change took a long time to appear. In 2016, the novelist Amitav Ghosh observed in his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and The Unthinkable that “it is a striking fact that when novelists do choose to write about climate change, it is almost always outside of fiction.”

Ghosh’s distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction implicitly discounts remarkable early treatments of climate disaster in science fiction—Laurence Manning’s The Man Who Awoke (1933), J.G. Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere (1962) and The Drowned World (1962), George Turner’s The Sea and Summer (1987), and Octavia E. Butler’s Parable series (1993-1998), to name a few.

What’s more, at least two ‘serious’ novelists have recently tackled the subject: Margaret Atwood in her dystopian MaddAddam series (2003-2013) and Barbara Kingsolver in Flight Behavior (2012). Even so, in 2016, Ghosh’s point largely held true: Climate change was not a hugely popular subject for mainstream literary novelists.

Since then, however, more stories and novels about climate change have been published and are attracting recognition. Ghosh himself marks the turning point as 2018, a year that saw a wave of extreme climate events, and the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction going to Richard Powers for The Overstory (2018), a book that foregrounds the usually invisible world of trees.

What Is Cli-Fi?[edit | edit source]

Cli-fi encompasses narratives about climate change. The tag was first coined by journalist and climate activist Dan Bloom, who used it in print in a review of Jim Laughter’s 2012 novella Polar City Red.

As the rhyme suggests, cli-fi is a sub-genre of sci-fi. It tends to be speculative, to focus on anthropogenic global warming, and to examine the effects of climate change on human communities. Frequently, as with Atwood’s trilogy, there is a dystopian slant.

In keeping with the complexity of climate change itself, cli-fi is multiform, encompassing science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, magical realism, fable, satire, and everything in between.

Speculative works set in the future in a world where climate change has already transformed the Earth offer models of possibility and cautionary tales. Bangkok Wakes to Rain (2020) by Pitchaya Sudbanthad takes place in the Thai capital in the late twenty-first century when the city is submerged by the rising sea. American War by Omar el Akkad is set in 2074 when a ban on the sale of fossil fuels ignites a new American Civil War. Similarly, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2016) imagines a near future in which the Colorado River drying up leads to bloodshed.

Many books foreground the human cost of climate change rather than explaining its scientific basis. Salvage the Bones (2011) by Jesmyn Ward, for example, describes a family drama in the lead-up to Hurricane Katrina, a storm whose intensity presaged the increasingly destructive storms caused by climate change. How Beautiful We Were (2021) by Imbolo Imbue takes a different approach, showing African villagers standing up to a big American oil company, and The Book of Fire (2023) by Christy Leftieri traces the tragic aftermath of a wildfire in present-day Greece.

Some novels offer elegiac depictions of climate change’s costs to other species. These include Migrations (2020) and Once There Were Wolves (2021) by Charlotte McConaghy, The Effort (2021) by Claire Holroyde, and Hummingbird Salamander (2021) by Jeff VanderMeer. Science historian Daisy Hildyard privileges nature’s perspective in Emergency (2024), her novel about the interconnectedness of life.

A growing theme is familiar to many of us: climate anxiety, the psychological toll of waiting for the end of the world as we know it. Weather by Jenny Offill (2020) is centered firmly on the day-to-day life of a Brooklyn woman who must carry out her usual tasks with the threat of climate change always looming in the background.

Why We Need Fiction About Climate Change[edit | edit source]

In an interview with author David Thorpe, Dan Bloom pointed out that fiction can express what cold facts can not:

“We need to go beyond abstract, scientific predictions and government statistics and try to show the cinematic or literary reality of a painful, possible future of the world of climate change. I do believe that cli-fi is a veritable cultural prism, a powerful critical prism that we need to cherish and nurture among our artists and visionary storytellers.”

In 2019, climate writer Dominic Hofstetter asked former European commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard what it would take for humanity to get serious about our common plight. Hedegaard’s reply was simple: “We need compelling narratives.”

Bluntly, storytelling is the best way—maybe the only way—to inform, persuade, and inspire people to act. It helps us assimilate facts, contextualize them, and understand and share their meaning. A good story moves us emotionally, allowing us to register its import “in our gut.” As author and story coach Lisa Cron, author of Story or Die, says, “We don’t turn to story to escape reality; we turn to story to navigate reality.”

An engaging story is not just persuasive; it also has the potential to build community. A Princeton University study revealed that when a group of people listened to an emotionally engaging story, their brain activity synchronized during the telling—as a group, they imagined the same world and felt the same emotions.

Barbara Kingsolver, speaking of her book Flight Behavior (2012), explained why fiction, in particular, is valuable as a medium for communicating urgent environmental issues:

“Fiction has enormous power. It’s funny—people talk about political fiction or apolitical fiction. That’s nonsense. I think all fiction has a point of view, and all fiction has the power to create empathy for the theoretical stranger. It has the power to bring the reader inside the mind of another person. Only fiction can do that.”

For author, psychologist, and futurist Dana Klisanin, author of the young-adult novel Future Hack, stories are a way to travel to a different universe:

“I was an avid reader as a child. Even when I was told to turn off the light and go to sleep, I would grab a flashlight and hide under the bed covers to finish a story. In other words, I was completely absorbed in the world of the book.”

This experience, familiar to many of us, is known to scientists as “narrative transportation,” which happens when readers assume the thoughts and feelings of a character and when they mentally simulate a narrative world.

In Klisanin’s words:

“This deep engagement leads to greater absorption and enjoyment and can profoundly impact the reader’s attitudes and behaviors, making the lessons from the story more likely to be internalized. High narrative transportation has also been shown to enhance empathy, supporting understanding and connection with the emotions and experiences of others.”

Considering its influence on attitudes and actions, storytelling has the potential to make an outsized impact on things like community engagement, and many governments and organizations are starting to pay attention to this.

In 2017, the American Public Health Association (APHA) launched an initiative encouraging people to share personal stories about how climate-related events affected their health and what actions they or their community took to address the situation. The idea was to build a sense of community, resilience, and hope. According to an APHA guide to storytelling:

“Stories make climate change relatable by drawing on common experience and core human values, like health. Compelling stories generate empathy and understanding. They take listeners on an emotional journey and offer a sense of hope that inspires positive change.”

Visions of Hope[edit | edit source]

The most important emotion fiction can inspire is a sense of hope, a necessary factor for climate activists working toward the best possible outcomes in the face of impending catastrophe.

In an interview with NPR, Imbue says she derived the hopeful aspect of her protagonist Tula from the writing of revolutionary figures like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“I mean, you have to have a whole different level of hope to believe that you can bring an American oil company to justice, an American oil company that has resources and lawyers and all kinds of powers at its disposal. But Tula does believe that. And that is something that I learned from reading, from looking at their lives.”

Another hopeful cli-fi writer is Kim Stanley Robinson, who weaves scientific findings into a compelling narrative. A prime example is his bestselling The Ministry for the Future (2020), which posits a body whose political mission is to advocate for the people of the future. Responding to a description of the work as a utopian novel, he welcomes the judgment:

“You could probably name the most important utopian novels on the fingers of your hand. …But they get remembered, and they shape people’s conception of what’s possible that could be good in the future.”

Klisanin has a similarly positive yet realistic view. Her novel Future Hack features young characters who face climate-related problems with boundless energy and a problem-solving spirit. Her intention is to reassure and inspire confidence. Klisanin wrote:

“I hope that Future Hack will inspire readers with a sense of hope and possibility for the future and embolden them to take action to protect the environment and endangered species. As the series unfolds, I also aim to help readers struggling with eco-anxiety by showing them that they are not alone and by introducing them to some coping methods.”

The climate crisis has not yet generated a single written work as powerful as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) was in mobilizing mid-twentieth-century audiences against DDT and other toxic chemicals. But we can at least be cheered by the number of talented writers who, in varied ways and multiple genres, are working to produce such a story.

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