Copyright and written by Stephen Siperstein
“Stories are much bigger than ideologies. In that is our hope”
– Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto
Eugene, OR—In my backyard garden this morning the bees are hurrying through the last lavender blossoms of summer and the tomato plants are releasing their resinous fragrance. Such a space seems like it could be a refuge from the world, a place apart. And yet I cannot fully escape into the idyll because I am thinking about climate change. I am thinking about the wildfires in the northwest part of our state. About the drought in California. Even about the rusty dragonfly that just landed on my picnic table. It’s a beautiful insect, with bead-like eyes and an intricately patterned red and black thorax, but I have never seen one here before. I wonder whether, as a native of the southwest, it’s “supposed” to be in Oregon. Perhaps it’s a sign of what’s wrong, a sign of that now-pervasive climate change euphemism: “the new normal.”
Seeing everywhere evidence for climate change is not new for me. Neither are the emotions that come along with viewing the world this way: the sadness, the guilt, the anger. Many of you might be familiar with these feelings. Bill McKibben first wrote about them in his 1989 work, The End of Nature, one of the first books about global warming, and more recently the American Psychological Association even convened a climate change task force to study the emotional fallout of climate change. As for myself, I have been studying, writing about, and teaching climate change for only the past five years, but not a day goes by now when I’m not registering climate change’s effects on the world and on my own heart. That’s not to say thinking about climate change is straightforward or comfortable. It’s not, and that makes it easy to tune out.
Describing the reluctance some of us might have in considering climate change, British author John Lancaster has explained, “we’re reluctant to think about it because we’re worried that if we start, we will have no choice to think about nothing else.” When you really start thinking about this stuff, as Lancaster suggests, it can be difficult to stop. Yes, there are many people who don’t give climate change a second thought (or a first). In the United States and Canada especially, there is rampant denialism, skepticism, and “climato-quietism” (Bruno Latour’s term for that laid-back attitude that somehow, without acting, things will take care of themselves). However, even with the sobering statistics about how many people don’t “believe” in climate change, I would propose that more people are thinking about climate change more often than ever before. That is, so many of us, whether we admit it or not, are becoming people who seem to have no choice but to think about climate change all the time.
This is the “new normal” of our cognitive and affective lives, and to help us figure it all out, we need help. We need guides and maps. We need emotional resources. In short, we need the literary and cultural arts.
A quick caveat: I do not want to characterize myself as a kind of martyr. Yes, cognitively and emotionally confronting climate change is difficult, but it is a lot more difficult when you’ve lost your home, or your community, or your livelihood. There are many—too many—victims of climate change in the world today, and there will be even more tomorrow: individuals and communities who are facing not only extreme weather events but also the effects of what Rob Nixon has called the “slow violence” of climate change. I live a privileged life in a bike-friendly, food-secure, and climatically stable community in the Pacific Northwest, and thus I don’t claim to be one of those victims. Yet climate change presents many difficulties, with different representational challenges associated with the various positions of privilege and vulnerability that mark life in what has become known as the Anthropocene. As Nixon, along with many other contemporary scholars and writers in the field of environmental literary and cultural studies, has shown, literature can help address these challenges of representation and of environmental justice.
It’s not surprising then to see more novels, poetry, drama, and other literary forms registering climate change these days. We turn to literature for help thinking through difficult questions that are beyond the ken of politics, pop culture, business, or even science. This is not to claim literature can provide the answers that other ways of thinking don’t provide. Literature often withholds answers, even refuses to cooperate with our existing mental frameworks for what “should” be done, and that’s precisely why it’s so good for us. Literature neither solves nor resolves. Rather, it immerses us in the experience of our own ignorance.
Thus, sitting in my garden today I’m also thinking about the literary effects of climate change and specifically the genre of climate change fiction: what is it, where did it come from, what can it do, and what do we want it to do. Climate fiction, or “cli-fi” for short, includes fictional texts that take on climate change—usually anthropogenic climate change—as either their explicit or implicit subject. Though the term has been around for several years now, in recent months it has received more publicity, including being featured in pieces in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Washington Post. The term itself is incredibly useful. For one, it’s catchy—no small feat for a literary term (literary studies is filled with useful but clunky terms like “heteroglossia” and “ecocosmopolitanism”). Its popularization has helped expand interest in novels and films that deal with climate change and, less directly, it has opened a space in the mainstream media for discussions about the power of culture, the role of the environmental humanities, and the necessity for humanities focused climate change education. Furthermore, the genre has spawned growing collaborations and communities of writers, advocates, and academics, like this one here at Eco-Fiction (with a strong emphasis on cli-fi books).
Highlighted by all this interest and activity is the growing diversity within this potentially expansive genre. I emphasize potentially because I want to argue that it is crucially important that at these still early moments in the genre’s crystallization, it be approached as a flexible framework, not a rigid category. As literary scholar Jonathan Culler has pointed out in his still essential essay, “Towards a Theory of Non-Genre Literature,” a genre can be approached as a taxonomic category in which we locate texts that share similar features, or it can be approached more dynamically as “a set of expectations, a set of instructions about the type of coherence one is to look for and the ways in which sequences are to be read” (255). Working from this latter conception means that the most interesting texts are those that are located at the margins and at the interstices of genre. That is, those works that challenge our expectations.
Thus, it’s important to note, as many others already have, that cli-fi isn’t just speculative narratives of dark or depressing futures. And cli-fi is definitely not the same as science fiction. Yes, the central problem of climate change is the problem of the future (how to create a resilient, just, and sustainable future for all), and many works of cli-fi register this problem by drawing from the conventions of the apocalyptic, dystopian, or sci-fi traditions. Some examples of cli-fi date back to the 1990’s (such as Octavia Butler’s important Parable novels), or even earlier, to works like J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel, The Drowned World (even though Ballard’s novel isn’t about anthropogenic climate change specifically). Even Mary Shelly’s 1826 novel The Last Man, with its apocalyptic vision of a climate changed and plague-ravaged 21st century, is a stylistic predecessor of cli-fi.
More generally, it’s important to recognize that climate change fiction draws on narrative patterns, tropes, and modes from prior periods of environmental discourse and other genres of environmental literature, including the U.S. nature writing tradition of the pastoral, including writers like Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, and Bill McKibben. Understanding the legacy of climate change fiction is crucial for placing it within larger historical and literary contexts as well as for understanding its mixed ethical inheritance. As ecocritics Michael Ziser and Julie Sze have suggested, the uncritical redeployment of narrative patterns and tropes can simultaneously obscure the environmental and social justice dimensions of current environmental problems like climate change and reaffirm the distressing racist, patriarchal, and xenophobic tendencies of traditional environmentalism (386). For example, a cli-fi novel like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road ( 2006) perpetuates a particularly pernicious set of assumptions about the relationship between masculine individualism and survival and also makes invisible the racist and sexist dimensions of environmental risk. This is not to claim The Road is a bad novel or doesn’t have a place in the genre. But we must not be afraid to engage in the kind of literary and historical critiques of climate change fiction that will only—in the long run—make the genre more robust.
We must also be willing to expand our vision of the genre. Examples of cli-fi are more varied than just the apocalyptic or the pastoral. They include realist novels, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012), and Ian McEwan’s Solar (2010); short stories, such as those in Helen Simpson’s collection In Flight Entertainment (2010) and in the Bill McKibben introduced anthology I’m With the Bears (2011); drama, such as Steve Waters’ The Contingency Plan (2010) and Chantal Bilodeau’s ongoing Arctic Cycle of plays; and films, such as Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) and Snowpiercer (2014). These are all fairly traditional cultural modes—fiction, drama, and film—but if we are really to take cli-fi seriously in the 21st century, we must attend to examples of the genre that also push on the boundaries of form. Thus, I would suggest that cli-fi also include narrative and slam poetry, novelistic podcasts, alternative reality games, and other participatory and collaborative new media projects that address the impacts and challenges of climate change. Although some may argue that cli-fi hasn’t yet produced the next great American novel, or that even the best cli-fi novels have so far disappointed, the real hallmarks of the genre should be its diversity, resilience, and liveliness. Climate change narratives come in many forms, and climate change culture in general is a big and exciting tent. With every year, even every month, more exciting texts are appearing and cross-pollinating with each other all around the world.
But this brings us, finally perhaps, back to the question that’s been getting the most attention: what can cli-fi do? Much of the discourse surrounding the genre has so far been focused whether or not it can change attitudes or get people to care more about climate change. This is a valid, yet only partial response to the question, why cli-fi? Claiming that the primary role of cli-fi, and literature more generally, is to change attitudes and generate caring limits not only shows how we understand the problem of climate change (one for which we just need “more caring”), but also prescribes the critical approaches to understanding and judging literature. In seeing cli-fi this way, we limit the proper role of literary writing to the mimetic (texts that accurately represent climate change) or the didactic (texts that urgently teach the issues). Such a valuation of literary texts would then, as ecocritics Hayden Gabriel and Greg Garrard argue, task ecocriticism and literary criticism more broadly, “with assessing how accurately climate change has been represented in particular texts and how useful they might be in the ‘fight’ against ‘climate chaos’” (117). Though it is important to ask whether a novel or a short story or a film “accurately” and “convincingly” represents “the issues,” a much wider range of critical and creative responses to climate change is both possible and desirable, as Gabriel and Garrard suggest. I do not mind a cli-fi novel teaching me or telling me what I should do, but I’d like it to do something else too, something a little more mysterious.
When I read a cli-fi novel I want it to absorb me, hold me, handle me, and I want to do the same with it. If this sounds almost bodily, that’s because it is. I want a novel to offer itself up to me as a transformational object while simultaneously withholding part of itself. I want it to surprise and startle me, and be a little more than I can handle. I want it to help me dwell in what’s difficult and to help me puzzle through my own emotions regarding climate change without necessarily resolving them. Borrowing terminology from the literary critic David Palumbo Liu, I am suggesting that cli-fi—whether in the form of novels, short stories, film, or even computer games—can be “a delivery system” for climate change. Scientific models are another such delivery system. So are mainstream news reports. So are our daily conversations with neighbors and coworkers. But unlike these other delivery systems, literature delivers climate change to us with all the paradox, all the otherness, all the ugly feelings, and—I dare to say—all the hope intact. And it does it without explicitly trying to change us.
I thus turn to literature and the arts not for answers, but for hope. I’m not talking about the easy brand-name hope that has become so pervasive in our culture, but the “radical hope” that Allen Thompson defines as “a novel form of courage appropriate to a culture in crisis” (43). By tapping into a radical hope that is built, as Thompson suggests, on both ethics and imagination, cli-fi can mobilize the creative and critical powers of communities and it can help us all confront the emotional and cognitive fallout of confronting climate change on a daily basis. Literature can help us traverse the turbulence of feeling that is a hallmark of living in a time of global climate chaos and lead us—even if imperceptibly and from an odd angle—towards a future worth living in, a future that we cannot control, and maybe not even imagine, but a future nonetheless filled with resilience, joy, and environmental and social justice for all.
Stephen Siperstein lives and writes in Eugene, OR. He is a PhD candidate in the Department of English at the University of Oregon where his academic work focuses on the intersections of climate change, literature, and affect. He is also currently co-editing a volume of international essays on Teaching Climate Change in Literary and Cultural Studies.
Culler, Jonathan. “Towards a Theory of Non-Genre Literature.” Surfiction, 2nd Ed., ed. Raymond Federman. Athens, OH: Ohio UP, 1981. 255-62.
Gabriel, Hayden, and Greg Garrard. “Reading and Writing Climate Change.” Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. Ed. Garrard. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 117-29
Palumbo-Liu, David. The Deliverance of Others: Reading literature in a global age. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2012.
Thompson, Allen. “Radical Hope for Living Well in a Warmer World. (Report).” Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics 12 (2010): 43-59.
Ziser, Michael and Julie Sze. “Climate Change, Environmental Aesthetics, and Global Environmental Justice Cultural Studies.” Discourse 29.2&3 (2007): 384-410.