Climate crisis: how science fiction’s hopes and fears can inspire humanity’s response


David Menidrey/Unsplash, FAL

Chris Pak, Swansea UniversityYou see the forest of cranes before you reach the coast. In the heat’s haze, machinery resounds in the middle distance, shifting and tamping dirt with earth-shattering force. Beyond the construction site, the sea sparkles under the Sun, traversed by ships old and new. It seems the whole city takes its cue from the coast – there is always so much being built, demolished and rebuilt.


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Those in power push ahead with their enduring programme to reshape the world by building new land. This is a society that is being transformed for a particular vision of the future: to build new worlds able to meet the challenges of a soaring population, more space and new modes of living. But what kind of future is being built, and at what cost?

This isn’t science fiction. This is the real story of land reclamation in 1980s-90s Hong Kong, where I grew up. Land reclamation involves the filling of water bodies with soil to extend land or create artificial islands. Housing and infrastructure on the scale seen in Hong Kong is only possible because of how much land – over 70km² of it – was reclaimed. But this has come at a cost to people, biodiversity and the integrity of wildlife habitats alike.

It was during my childhood in this city, part of which was so recently submerged beneath the ocean, that I first began to speculate about the drastic ways we transform space – and the unforeseen impacts this has.

As a child immersed in science fiction classics such as Frank Herbert’s Dune, I quickly realised that fiction can help us consider, imagine, and work through these unforeseen impacts. And so it is no surprise that climate fiction – or “cli-fi” – has quickly become a recognised genre in recent years. From Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour to Omar El Akkad’s American War, people are clearly interested in imagining possible futures as a way of considering how we are going to get ourselves out of this mess.

If there is something that we can be fairly sure of, it is that the future will be radically different to what we had imagined, and that it will demand adjustment. This is why authors of science fiction are consulted by organisations and governments: to help us think about the risks and challenges of the future in ways inaccessible to other disciplines. As COP26, the delayed 2020 UN climate change conference in Glasgow, approaches we urgently need more of this imaginative impulse.

Science fiction has certainly already played a part in this narrative. Harnessing the Sun’s energy has a long history in science fiction, and Arthur C. Clarke is often credited with coming up with the idea of the solar cell-powered geostationary communications satellite. NASA’s satellite system, meanwhile, is crucial for monitoring climate change and can plausibly be traced back, in part, to science fiction’s capacity for thinking about worlds and systems. And of course, spaceships and space stations – indeed, our expansion into space – is an invention of science fiction.


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Inspired by my early days in Hong Kong, I went on to shape a career researching science fiction with a focus on technical systems that transform the planet we live on: the idea of terraforming and geoengineering. If terraforming is the modification of other planets to enable habitation by life on Earth, geoengineering can be defined as the planetary modification of the Earth – such as the deliberate intervention in the climate system.

As the controversial debate about geoengineering becomes increasingly urgent given the catastrophic failure to curb emissions, science fiction about terraforming and geoengineering can help us imagine possible configurations of solutions to the climate crisis and their implications. A closer look at this particular example will also show why embracing this form of thinking is so crucial for the climate crisis more generally too.

The power of storytelling

Proposals for geoengineering and terraforming are informed both by history and by the stories we tell one another. What science fiction can do is imagine and think through the political, as well as the scientific, implications of the technological choices we make. Science fiction stories speculate on, diagnose and illustrate the experiences and the problems wrapped up in global debates about mitigation and adaptation.

The aim of science fiction is not to solve society’s problems (though specific works of science fiction do offer solutions that we as readers are invited to critique, revise, advocate for, and even adopt); nor is science fiction about prediction. We therefore shouldn’t evaluate science fiction according to its success or failure in this regard. Rather, the role of science fiction is to speculate on possibilities.

Giant Earth globe hangs in modern building.
We need to imagine the future before we can get there.
Romain Tordo/Unsplash, FAL

Science fiction, then, shouldn’t be read in isolation. The fictional space is an imaginative realm for testing ideas and values, and for attempting to imagine futures that could inform our societies now. The genre seeks to push beyond the assumptions of a singular time and place by providing a range of alternative ways of conceiving ideas, contexts and relationships. Science fiction asks to be challenged; it asks for us to hold one story up against another, to consider and interrogate the worlds portrayed and what they might tell us about our stances on crucial contemporary issues.

Reading such fiction can help us to think speculatively beyond the technical aspects of adaptation, mitigation and, indeed, intervention, and to understand the stances that we as people and as societies take toward these concerns.

This is the idea behind my book, in which I survey the history of stories about terraforming, geoengineering, space and climate change. What science fiction teaches us is that technologies are not simply technical systems. Science is not simply a theoretical and technical endeavour. Rather, the practice of science and the development of technologies are also fundamentally social and cultural. This is why many researchers use the word “sociotechnical” to describe technological systems.

A geoengineered planet

In the real – policy – world, fictions inform the imagination. Some imagine a future world covered by machines sucking CO₂ out of the air and pumping it into the porous rock below. Others imagine one powered by a portfolio of vast wind and solar farms, hydroelectric and geothermal plants. Some imagine business largely continuing as usual, with only moderate changes in how we produce and use energy, and little to no change to how we organise our economies and our lives.

And some suggest we send planes into the stratosphere, pumping out particulates that will reflect sunlight back into space and turn the sky white.

It is this last vision, solar radiation management (SRM), that has been the subject of particularly intense debate. SRM involves controlling the amount of sunlight trapped in Earth’s atmosphere. A number of scientists, including Ken Caldeira and David Keith (sometimes referred to as the “geoclique”) advocate for further research into SRM, but they are strongly opposed by various pressure groups.

Bill McGuire, a patron of Scientists for Global Responsibility and Emeritus Professor of Earth Sciences at UCL, recently wrote a science fiction novel, Skyseed (2020), which imagines the terrifying failure of a nanotech-based approach to solar radiation management. This novel describes the impossibility – given our current state of knowledge – of foreseeing the consequences of this speculative technology.

Proposals for solar radiation management vary enormously, but the most common forms involve brightening marine clouds or injecting particles into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight away from the Earth. Doing so, it is proposed, would help to cool the Earth, though it would do nothing to remove carbon and other carbon equivalent gases from the atmosphere, nor would it address ocean acidification.




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More extravagant ideas include building sunshades in space and placing them in various orbital configurations. If this idea sounds like it comes straight out of a science fiction novel, that’s because it does: such orbital mirrors feature in James Oberg’s 1981 work New Earths and Lois McMaster Bujold’s 1998 novel Komarr.

Transforming planets

But what can terraforming tell us about geoengineering and Earth? The idea of transforming places beyond Earth – planets or other spatial bodies – to make them more amenable to human life has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades. The necessity of maintaining life support systems in space habitats and spaceships draws on the same science that underpins technologies for addressing climate change. Such stories pose many pertinent questions that we should heed as we consider next steps on Earth – or beyond it.

In its broadest sense, terraforming refers to transforming other planets or cosmic bodies so that life from Earth can live there. Entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, have brought terraforming and the colonisation of Mars to our imagination through an ambitious project to put people on the planet within the decade. Musk is not alone: other entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic) and Jeff Bezos (Blue Origins) are also competing to exploit space and get humankind out there.




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Contemporary visions of terraforming Mars must contend with recent assessments that show it is not possible to terraform the planet with present day technology, given the lack of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that would enable an atmosphere to be created on Mars. But scientific research into terraforming continues to carve out a space for its future possibility.

A man in a spacesuit walks across a Martian landscape.
Will humanity ever terraform Mars?
Nicolas Lobos/Unsplash, FAL

Although it is the subject of current scientific research, the word “terraforming” was in fact coined by science fiction writer Jack Williamson (writing as Will Stewart) in the 1942 short story, Collision Orbit, set on a terraformed asteroid. The story describes terraforming technologies that include a “paragravity installation” sunk into the heart of the asteroid, which provides some gravity. Oxygen and water, meanwhile, are generated from mineral oxides, a process that releases “absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off Sun”.

In the story, the greenhouse effect is harnessed to make other cosmic bodies habitable. What makes terraforming possible here are new ways of manipulating atomic matter. But Williamson is also concerned with the unintended consequences of new inventions and new ways of generating energy. New energy systems make terraforming feasible for small groups and large institutions alike, promising a re-configuration of power throughout the solar system by the story’s end.

Lessons from fiction for the future

I’ve focused here on the ideas of geoengineering and terraforming because they represent the most outlandish theories or proposals when it comes to potential “solutions” to the climate crisis. But of course, everything I’ve written applies just as much to thinking about less grandiose proposals.

The questions and speculations offered by science fiction are endless, and it would be a fool’s errand to attempt to outline those that are the most pertinent, or important, or relevant to COP26. So instead I’d like highlighting those books that have stayed with me the most in my time working in this area, and explain why I think they might prove fruitful food for thought for anyone attending, debating, or simply following COP26.

1. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest (1972).

This short novel by science fiction heavyweight Ursula K. Le Guin describes a forest world, populated by an indigenous society, that early on in the novel is occupied and aggressively deforested to provide Earth with wood. This is not simply a technical project. It is also social because it involves the complete transformation of the indigenous society, who are violently gang-pressed to provide a freely exploitable labour force. It is also social insofar as this supply chain is oriented to the demands and desires of those on Earth.

We might see echoes of this story in James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009); only, in Avatar the target for extraction is “unobtainium”. In Herbert’s iconic novel Dune, it’s a substance called “geriatric spice mélange”. It’s not important what these resources are, but that they are scarce and valuable in the stories’ worlds.

Portrayals of extensive afforestation and deforestation are a form of terraforming or geoengineering because they transform the planet’s ability to regulate its climate. This isn’t addressed directly in Le Guin’s novel; but Le Guin does explore the issue of terraforming in her 1974 novel The Dispossessed, which focuses on the political and economic relationship between an anarchist state on a moon called Anarres and its historical home planet, Urras. This novel explores what life might look like on a Moon that has long been undergoing terraformation.

What these examples tell us is that, in some contexts, afforestation or deforestation that transforms societies and their environments function as a form of terraforming or geoengineering. We must recognise prior claims to the land and work with communities to develop an ethics of care for these environments that resist aggressive exploitation.

2. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1992-1996)

Perhaps the author who has most consistently explored contemporary debates about climate change is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Named the 2008 TIME “Hero of the Environment”, Robinson addresses climate change politics in works set on Earth and the solar system. I’ve written extensively about Robinson’s work, which speculates on a portfolio of sciences and technologies to supplement the creation of new ways of living centred on social and ecological justice. Most importantly, Robinson ties these technologies to the communities being portrayed, and traces the struggles and injustices that such developments risk.

Robinson imagines the terraformation of Mars in his trilogy Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993) and Blue Mars (1996). A host of technologies appear, including orbital mirrors, referred to as solettas, technologies for engineering soil and biologically engineered lichens to transform the atmosphere, among many others.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the Mars trilogy is the consistent reflection on the vision for transformation: for whom is the planet being transformed? Corporate interests on Earth, or the entirety of the Martian population? And what relationship does the transformation of Mars bear for the peoples on Earth?

As one of the key members of the terraforming project on Mars, the scientist Sax Russell’s technocratic, top-down approach to the terraformation of Mars undergoes a sea change after a traumatic brain injury during a Martian revolution. This injury prompts him to reflect on language and communication and leads him to understand that the technical approach that he had thus far adopted — an approach that erases the perspectives and experiences of his fellow Martians — is insufficient for building a truly open society. In his own imperfect way, he begins to move toward an understanding of science as a firmly sociotechnical system, and to realise that the human element cannot be ignored.

The fictional adventures of Russell might as well inform our own response to climate change. By hearing only the voices of specialists and politicians, other avenues for addressing climate change might be overlooked. Worse, we may inadvertently lock ourselves into a technological system that cannot hope to address the effects of climate change, or which may exacerbate the precariousness of many peoples across the globe.

Science fiction offers ways to discuss speculative technologies without presenting them as ready made technological fixes, enabling wider public deliberation about our approach to climate change. Fiction asks crucial questions, revises and reconsiders aspects of science and society in relation to their contemporary moment. But it also transmits a way of thinking – it identifies our assumptions about the worlds we want to live in and challenges dominant narratives about climate change. Most importantly, it offers a range of possible technological solutions, which could and should inform our response to the climate crisis.

3. Ian McDonald’s Luna Trilogy (2015-2019)

McDonald considers the exploitation of resources and people, along with the extension of financial speculation to all aspects of life on the colonised Moon in his trilogy Luna: New Moon (2015), Luna: Wolf Moon (2017) and Luna: Moon Rising (2019).

In this story of power and the exploitation of the Moon’s resources, families who control key industries on the Moon struggle for dominance against the backdrop of an Earth that is adapting to climate change. The trilogy imagines and interrogates the extension of the logic of development outward to the solar system and encourages readers to think about the inevitable economic and political clashes this will bring.

Science fiction can help us think about our own stories of climate mitigation and adaptation. Such stories are experiments in envisioning future possibilities and creating solutions to future problems. Central to many of these visions is an emphasis on social and ecological justice, and an awareness of the dangers of erasing populations from the story.

It is true that attempts to imagine the future are the product of utopian thinking – but don’t imagine for a moment that utopian in this sense equates to a naive idealism. Rather, utopian thinking is a commitment to working through the difficulties and impasses of our contemporary moment without losing sight of the possible futures that we imagine and would like to create.

What makes science fiction valuable in our efforts against climate change is that it does not offer us a final word, but rather invites an open ended exploration and experimentation with stories and ideas. Science fiction encourages us to build worlds and to question the worlds that we are building. It asks us to choose a future from a range of possibilities and to put in the work to create it. Science fiction was crucial in helping me make sense of the radical transformations of 20th century Hong Kong and the UK, and it led to my engagement with the politics of climate change. This is precisely the work of public deliberation and engagement that is crucial as we move toward and beyond COP26.


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Chris Pak, Lecturer in English Literature, Swansea University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change novels allow us to imagine possible futures – read these crucial seven


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Adeline Johns-Putra, University of SurreyEvery day brings fresh and ever more alarming news about the state of the global environment. To speak of mere “climate change” is inadequate now, for we are in a “climate emergency”. It seems as though we are tripping over more tipping points than we knew existed.

But our awareness is at last catching up with the planet’s climate catastrophes. Climate anxiety, climate trauma, and climate strikes are now all part of many people’s mental landscape and daily lives. This is almost four decades after scientists first began to warn of accelerated global warming from carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere.

And so, unsurprisingly, climate fiction, climate change fiction, “cli-fi” – whatever you want to call it – has emerged as a literary trend that’s gained astonishing traction over the past ten years.

Just a decade ago, when I first began reading and researching literary representations of climate change, there was a curious dearth of fiction on the subject. In 2005, the environmental writer Robert Macfarlane had asked plaintively: “Where is the literature of climate change?”. When I went to work in 2009 on one of the first research projects to attempt to answer this question, I found that some climate change novels were only beginning to emerge. Ten years later, the ubiquity of cli-fi means that the question of how many cli-fi novels there are seems irrelevant. Equally irrelevant is any doubt about the urgency of the climate emergency.

But the question of how to deal with such a complex challenge is paramount. The climate emergency demands us to think about our responsibilities on a global scale rather than as individuals, to think about our effects not just on fellow humans but on all the species that call this planet home, and to think about changing the resource-focused, profit-seeking behaviours that have been part of human activity for centuries.

Novels allow us to imagine possible futures from the comfort of the present.
Maria Cassagne/Unsplash, FAL

This is where literature comes in. It affords us the headspace in which to think through these difficult and pressing questions.

Cli-fi has a central role in allowing us to do the psychological work necessary to deal with climate change. I am often asked to identify the climate novel that is the most powerful and effective and, just as often, I reply that no one novel can do this. The phenomenon of cli-fi as a whole offers us different ways and a multitude of spaces in which to consider climate change and how we address it.

Here, then, is my list of a range of novels that offer just such a diverse set of perspectives. These books provide readers with a range of thought (and feeling) experiments, from dystopian despair to glimmers of hope, from an awareness of climate change impacts on generations to come to vivid reminders of how we are destroying the many other species that share our planet.

1. The Sea and Summer, 1987

Australian novelist George Turner’s book is one of the earliest examples of cli-fi and is prescient in more ways than one. Set in Melbourne in the 2030s, skyscrapers are drowning due to sea-level rise: a setting for a stark division between the rich and the poor. Like many cli-fi novels, this novel’s dystopian future provides a sophisticated thought experiment on the effects of climate change on our already divided society. Turner’s book deserves to be reread — and reissued — as classic and still relevant cli-fi.


HarperVoyager

2. Memory of Water, 2012

Water has become a precious commodity in this cli-fi dystopia by Finnish author Emmi Itäranta. In Nordic Europe in the distant future, a young girl must decide whether to share her family’s precious water supply with her friends and fellow villagers and risk being accused of “water crime”, punishable by death. This tender coming-of-age narrative is thus also a meditation on the value of resources taken entirely for granted by the contemporary, westernised reader.

3. The Wall, 2019

At first glance, John Lanchester’s novel could be a comment on the rise of anti-refugee sentiment in Britain. In a not-so-distant future, every inch of British shoreline is guarded by an immense wall, a bulwark against illegal migrants as well as rising sea levels. But through the experiences of a young border guard, the novel shows us how this national obsession with borders not only distracts from the climate emergency at hand; it diminishes our responsibility to fellow humans around the world, whose lives are threatened by climate change and for whom migration is a desperate solution.


Titan Books (UK)

4. Clade, 2015

Australian author James Bradley’s novel chronicles several generations of one family in an increasingly devastated world. The day-to-day detail of their lives, as relationships hold together or break apart, unfolds against the backdrop of environmental and thus societal breakdown. The novel contrasts the mundane miscommunications that characterise human relations with the big issue of global warming that could rob future generations of the opportunity to lead meaningful lives.

5. The Stone Gods, 2007

Jeanette Winterson’s stab at cli-fi offers, like Bradley’s novel, a long view. The novel ranges over three vastly different timeframes: a dystopian, future civilisation that is fast ruining its planet and must seek another; 18th-century Easter Island on the verge of destroying its last tree; and a near-future Earth facing global environmental devastation. As readers time travel between these stories, we find, again and again, the damage wrought by human hubris. Yet, the novel reminds us, too, of the power of love. In the novel, love signifies an openness to other humans and other species, to new ideas, and to better ways of living on this planet.


Constable

6. The Swan Book, 2013

This novel by indigenous Australian author Alexis Wright is unconventional, fable-like cli-fi. Its protagonist is a young indigenous girl whose life is devastated by climate change but most of all by the Australian government’s mistreatment of its indigenous populations. Weaving indigenous belief with biting satire, Wright’s novel is a celebration of her people’s knowledge of how to live with nature, rather than in exploitation of it.

7. Flight Behaviour, 2012

Unlike the other novels on this list, this one, by Barbara Kingsolver, is a realist novel set entirely in the present day. A young woman from Tennessee stumbles upon thousands of monarch butterflies roosting on her in-laws’ land, the insects having been thrown off course by extreme weather events brought about by climate change.

From the scientists who come to study the problem, she learns of the delicate balance that is needed to keep the butterflies on course. Kingsolver’s rich descriptions of an impoverished Appalachian community are combined with her biologist’s training, so that reader empathy is eventually shifted from the likeable heroine to the natural wonder that is the butterflies. We are reminded of how climate change risks not simply human comfort but the planet’s ecological complexity.The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

American climate fiction is fuelling outdated ideas about modern migration


Wild fires on the US’s West Coast displaced many from their homes, making them climate change migrants.
Ringo Chiu/Shutterstock

Bryan Yazell, University of Southern Denmark

Typically set in the future, climate fiction (or “cli-fi”) showcases the disastrous consequences of climate change and anticipates the dramatic transformations to come. Among the various scenarios cli-fi considers is unprecedented population displacement due to droughts and disappearing coastlines. These stories echo assessments from the International Organization for Migration, which warned as early as 1990 that migration would perhaps be the “single greatest impact of climate change”.

The scale of climate change, which has unfolded over generations and across the planet, is notoriously difficult to represent in fiction. Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh elaborated on this problem in The Great Derangement. According to Ghosh, the political failure to combat climate change is a symptom of a deeper failure in the cultural imagination. Simply put, how can people be expected to care about something (or someone) they can’t adequately visualise?

When it comes to representing climate migration, prominent US cli-fi takes on this imaginative problem by returning to familiar templates. These ideas operate under assumptions about what drives migration and depends upon prejudices about who migrants are. For example, in some of these stories characters will be noticeably shaped by the stereotype of “illegal” immigrants from Latin America.

Employing such well-known ideas can help get points across about a potential future but there is a more compelling way to represent climate migration. Stories can be grounded in reality without entrenching harmful stereotypes or
disregarding the very real climate migrants who currently exist in the US today.

Precedents for climate migration

Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel, The Water Knife, is set around the US-Mexico border. Permanent drought in the Southwest has turned the region’s population into refugees who desperately seek passage into neighbouring states and — most optimistically — north into Canada.

Book cover for the Water Knife featuring futuristic trees

Orbit

The novel’s borderland setting is heavy with political subtext. The southern border looms large in anti-immigration campaigns, which perpetuate misleading claims that the region is under siege from migrant groups. However, the novel is less interested in dispelling these myths than in redirecting their emotional power.

Asking readers to imagine themselves in the shoes of Latin American migrants today is an effective tool in literature. For example, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath famously asked readers to sympathise with Dust Bowl migrants at a time when so-called “Okies” were subject to disdain. But Steinbeck’s novel also helped readers imagine these migrants’ plight by stressing how thoroughly American (and white) they were.

However, The Water Knife tasks readers with imagining the whole of the US becoming a country like Mexico. Angel, a central character in the novel, remarks that the violence he sees in Arizona reminds him of “how it had been down in Mexico before the Cartel States took control completely.” The book suggests here that the problems that drive large scale migration are not unique to any single part of the world, which is good. But at the same time, it also imagines a scenario where the societal violence associated with Mexico moves into the US. The warning is “change your behaviour now, lest you make the US like Mexico”. This doesn’t serve to help readers understand Mexico or the plight of migrants but reinforces ideas that both are bad realities we would rather avoid – to become Mexico and a refugee is to fail but if you act now you can avoid becoming like them.

The Water Knife demonstrates how narratives that wish to raise awareness about the plight of climate migrants must tread carefully. Hoards of desperate migrants are a common motif in apocalyptic science fiction, but they are also familiar subjects in xenophobic political campaigns.

So long as people believe that climate migration will only become a problem for wealthy countries in the future, they might also believe that they can simply close their borders to the climate migrants when they come. In the meantime, dehumanising stereotypes about refugee armies obscure the very real harm facing migrants in the US today. So, while these stories want to encourage a more sympathetic view of migrants, they can have the opposite effect.

A contemporary American problem

But climate migration isn’t just a problem for less affluent countries in the future. It is well underway in the US.

Two people walk through a flooded street.
Flooded streets in Louisiana after Hurricane Laura in 2020.
ccpixx photography/Shutterstock

From catastrophic wildfires on the West Coast to mega-hurricanes along the Gulf, environmental disasters already afflict large segments of the population. The effects of forced migration due to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, for example, are apparent in the lower rate of return of New Orleans’s Black population.

To highlight cli-fi’s shortfalls is not to undermine its important contributions to environmental activism. These are stories that want to do more than raise the alarm. They want us to think more proactively about responding to disaster and caring for others now. This sense of urgency might explain why much of cli-fi depends upon pre-existing (and flawed) migrant stereotypes rather than ones more in step with climate migration today. Perhaps it’s quicker to push people to action by mobilising old ideas than constructing new ones.

However, these stories need not look to foreign cases or draw outdated parallels to make climate migration a compelling scenario. Rather, they can look inward to the ongoing climate crises afflicting Americans today. That these affected groups are disproportionately Indigenous and people of colour should remind us that the dystopian elements of many cli-fi stories (widespread corruption, targeted violence, and structural inequality) are facts of everyday life for many in this country. People should be shocked that these things are happening under their noses, enough to inspire action now rather than later for problems in the distant future.The Conversation

Bryan Yazell, Assistant Professor in the Department for the Study of Culture, University of Southern Denmark

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The forgotten environmental crisis: how 20th century settler writers foreshadowed the Anthropocene



Shutterstock/Francisco Duarte Mendes

Philip Steer, Massey University

Just as writers and artists today are responding to the Anthropocene through climate fiction and eco art, earlier generations chronicled an environmental crisis that presaged humanity’s global impact.

The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that powerfully expresses the planetary scale of the environmental changes wrought by human activity.




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Yet almost a century ago, New Zealand and Australia were at the forefront of an environmental crisis that was also profoundly geological in nature: erosion. And it, too, left its mark on culture.

A forgotten global problem

Erosion was first brought to the attention of the western world in the 19th century by the American diplomat and polymath George Perkins Marsh. In Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action (1869), he argued that much of the “Old World” of the Mediterranean had been transformed into desert by deforestation.

Person walking among tress stumps.

Shutterstock/Marc Henauer

He warned that European colonisation threatened a similar fate for other parts of the world. These concerns came back with a vengeance in the 1930s, when the Dust Bowl in the United States began to raise alarm about the long-term security of global food supply.

In the 1930s, south-eastern Australia was also plagued by dust storms. The biologist Francis Ratcliffe, in Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia (1939), described the situation in South Australia as a fight for survival.

Nothing less than a battlefield, on which man is engaged in a struggle with the remorseless forces of drought, erosion and drift.

In New Zealand’s different climate and topography, another version of the erosion crisis was also becoming evident. Geographer Kenneth Cumberland described the growing desolation of the North Island’s hill-country pasture.

Miles upon miles of the Hawkes Bay, Poverty Bay, Wanganui and Taranaki- Whangamomona inlands have slip-scarred slopes […] The recent history of these regions is one of abandonment, of decreasing population, of a succession of serious floods, and of slip-severed communications.

Cumberland argued in 1944 that New Zealand’s soil erosion problems “attain the extreme national significance […] of those of the United States.”

Similarly, in 1946, the geographer J. M. Holmes claimed:

No greater peace-time issue faces Australia than the conquest of soil erosion.

Detail of eroded rock

Shutterstock/photolike

Cultural crisis

Because agriculture is so central to western ideas of civilisation, commentators found that cultural and environmental questions were inextricable. This overlapping of science and ideology is evident in G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte’s The Rape of the Earth: A World Survey of Soil Erosion (1939), written by two scientists at Oxford’s Imperial Bureau of Soil Science.

The organisation of civilised societies is founded upon the measures taken to wrest control of the soil from wild Nature, and not until complete control has passed into human hands can a stable superstructure of what we call civilisation be erected on the land.

The belief that nature must be subdued and remade was especially potent among the settler populations of Australia and New Zealand. There colonial identity and economic survival were both inextricably bound up with the success of agricultural and pastoral production.

Elyne Mitchell, now best known as the author of the Silver Brumby children’s books, wrote extensively in the 1940s about how cultural norms of white Australians were directly impacting the soil.

To fit Australia into the pattern of Western civilisation, economically and socially, we have upset the natural balance and turned ourselves into destroyers instead of creators.

The cultural commentator Monte Holcroft used even stronger language to express a similar thought in Creative Problems in New Zealand (1948).

But we see also the bare hillsides, the remnants of forest, the flooding rivers, and in some districts the impoverished soil. The balance of nature has changed. Are we to assume that a people which possessed the land in this manner — raping it in the name of progress — can remain untroubled and secure in occupation?

As the title says, erosion was now a “creative problem”. Even as they were committed to colonial forms of society, settler writers were increasingly aware that their environmental foundations were not as stable as had previously been assumed.

dead trees

Shutterstock/brackish_nz

Soil mysticism

In New Zealand literature, the landscape wasn’t simply a backdrop: writers often depicted Pākehā identity as being produced through a direct confrontation with geology. The poet and critic Allen Curnow described the sense “that we are interlopers on an indifferent or hostile scene” as a “common problem of the imagination”. As Curnow wrote in his poem, The Scene, in 1941:

Here among the shaggy mountains cast away

Man’s shape must be recast

Settlement was also described as an encounter between “man” and the landscape in an influential poem by Charles Brasch, The Silent Land, in 1945:

Man must lie with the gaunt hills like a lover,

Earning their intimacy in the calm sigh

Of a century of quiet and assiduity.

Critic Francis Pound has described this nationalist preoccupation as a “soil mysticism”. In focusing so closely on the soil, Pākehā writers were also able to overlook its occupancy by Māori and their own deep knowledge of the land.

Awareness of erosion

Yet Brasch’s appeal is to “gaunt hills”: the landscape of literature was more often than not eroded rather than untouched.

Frank Sargeson’s 1943 short story, Gods Live in Woods, drew on the experience of his uncle, who had felled the forest to establish a hill country farm in Te Rohe Pōtae/the King Country.

And places where the grass still held were scarred by slips that showed up the clay and papa. One of these had come down from above the track, and piled up on it before going down into the creek. A chain or so of fence had been in its way and it had gone too. You could see some posts and wires sticking out of the clay.

Erosion also spread into the common stock of literary imagery. In a short poem by Colin Newbury, In My Country (1955), it appears as a metaphor for disappointed love.

He stands close to the earth,

My obdurate countryman,

Drawing from the wind’s breath,

The arid sweetness of flower and mountain;

Knows no green herb for the heart’s erosion.

Such texts demonstrate the ecological concept of “shifting baseline syndrome”, as described by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing and her collaborators, whereby “newly shaped and ruined landscapes become the new reality”.

eroded coastline

Shutterstock/Filip Fuxa

Alternative possibilities

Although so much of Pākehā writing about geology from this time imagines the relationship between humanity and nature as hostile and irreversibly damaged, some offered glimpses of alternative possibilities. One was Ursula Bethell, whose poem Weathered Rocks (1936) stretched her Christian beliefs to find common ground with geology. Through this she imagined a less antagonistic relationship with nature.

And we are kin, compounded of the same elements,

Alike proceeding to an unknown goal.

Another approach is offered by Herbert Guthrie-Smith in Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station (1921). Through the local histories he gleaned from Ngāti Kurumōkihi elders, Guthrie-Smith came to reject a Pākehā view of the Earth as simply a resource to be exploited.

When a block of land passes, as it may do through the hands of ten holders in half a century, how can long views be taken of its rights? Who under these conditions can give his acres their due?

Auē, taukari e, anō te kūware o te Pākehā kāhore nei i whakaaro ki te mauri o te whenua. Alas! Alas! that the Pākehā should so neglect the rights of the land, so forget the traditions of the Māori race, a people who recognised in it something more than the ability to grow meat and wool.

This view of the land as a political partner, endowed with independence and rights, appears to offer a new environmental perspective that in fact draws on the long-standing Indigenous legal principles of tikanga Māori.




Read more:
Dead as the moa: oral traditions show that early Māori recognised extinction


Anticipating the Anthropocene

Mid-20th century settler writing about erosion holds renewed interest today because it conveys a strikingly literal, visible sense of the Anthropocene: the geological impact of colonisation was plainly evident in sand drift, dust storms and scarred hillsides.

Writers were not blind to environmental damage, but in the main their responses are reminiscent of what critic Greg Garrard has called the present-day “gloomy trio of Anthropocenic futures — business-as-usual, mitigation and geo-engineering”.

But writers such as Bethell and Guthrie-Smith demonstrate the ongoing importance of creative work for questioning the values that created and sustain the Anthropocene we now all inhabit.The Conversation

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Imagining both utopian and dystopian climate futures is crucial – which is why cli-fi is so important



贝莉儿 NG/Unsplash, FAL

Bernadette McBride, University of Liverpool

We are headed towards a future that is hard to contemplate. At present, global emissions are reaching record levels, the past four years have been the four hottest on record, coral reefs are dying, sea levels are rising and winter temperatures in the Arctic have risen by 3°C since 1990. Climate change is the defining issue of our time and now is the moment to do something about it. But what?

Society often looks to culture to try and make some sense of the world’s problems. Climate change challenges us to look ahead, past our own lives, to consider how the future might look for generations to come – and our part in this. This responsibility requires imagination.

So, it is no surprise that a literary phenomenon has grown over the past decade or two which seeks to help us imagine the impacts of climate change in clear language. This literary trend – generally known by the name “cli-fi” – has now been established as a distinctive form of science fiction, with a host of works produced from authors such as Margaret Atwood and Paolo Bacigalupi to a series of Amazon shorts.


Faber & Faber

Often these stories deal with climate science and seek to engage the reader in a way that the statistics of scientists cannot. Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour (2012), for example, creates emotional resonance with the reader through a novel about the effects of global warming on the monarch butterflies, set amid familiar family tensions. Lauren Groff’s short story collection Florida (2018) also brings climate change together with the personal set amid storms, snakes and sinkholes.

The end to come

Cli-fi is probably better known for those novels that are set in the future, depicting a world where advanced climate change has wreaked irreversible damage upon our planet. They conjure up terrible futures: drowned cities, uncontainable diseases, burning worlds – all scenarios scientists have long tried to warn us about. These imagined worlds tend to be dystopian, serving as a warning to readers: look at what might happen if we don’t act now.

Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of MaddAddam books, for example, imagines post-apocalyptic futurist scenarios where a toxic combination of narcissism and technology have led to our great undoing. In Oryx and Crake (2003), the protagonist is left contemplating a devastated world in which he struggles to survive as potentially the last human left on earth. Set in a world ravaged by sea level rise and tornadoes, Atwood revisits the character’s previous life to examine the greedy capitalist world fuelled by genetic modification that led to this apocalyptic moment.




Read more:
‘Cli-fi’ novels humanise the science of climate change – and leading authors are getting in on the act


Other dystopian cli-fi works include Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife (2015), and the film The Day After Tomorrow (2004), both of which feature sudden global weather changes which plunge the planet into chaos.

Dystopian fiction certainly serves a purpose as a bleak reminder not to act lightly in the face of environmental disaster, often highlighting how climate change could in fact compound disparities across race and class further. Take Rita Indiana’s Tentacle (2015), a story of environmental disaster with a focus on gender and race relations – “illegal” Haitian refugees are bulldozed on the spot. A. Sayeeda Clarke’s short film White (2011), meanwhile, tells the story of one black man’s desperate search for money in a world where global warming has turned race into a commodity and circumstances lead him to donate his melanin.

The future reimagined

It is this primacy of the imagination that makes fictional dealings with climate change so valuable. Cli-fi author Nathaniel Rich, who wrote Odds Against Tomorrow (2013) – a novel in which a gifted mathematician is hired to predict worst-case environmental scenarios – has said:

I think we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality, which is that we’re headed toward something terrifying and large and transformative. And it’s the novelist’s job to try to understand, what is that doing to us?

As the UN 2019 Climate Action Summit attempts to bring the 2015 Paris Agreement up to speed, we need fiction that not only offers us new ways to look forward, but which also renders the inequalities of climate change explicit. It is also key that culturally we at least try to imagine a fairer world for all, rather than only visions of doom.

When now is the time that we need to act, the rarer utopian form of cli-fi is perhaps more useful. These works imagine future worlds where humanity has responded to climate change in a more timely and resourceful manner. They conjure up futures where human and non-human lives have been adapted, where ways of living have been reimagined in the face of environmental disaster. Scientists, and policy makers – and indeed the public – can look to these works as a source of hope and inspiration.

Futures are built out of our collective imaginaries.
RomanYa/Shutterstock.com

Utopian novels implore us to use our human ingenuity to adapt to troubled times. Kim Stanley Robinson is a very good example of this type of thinking. His works were inspired by Ursula Le Guin, in particular her novel The Dispossessed (1974), which led the way for the utopian novel form. It depicts a planet with a vision of universal access to food, shelter and community as well as gender and racial equality, despite being set on a parched desert moon.

Robinson’s utopian Science in the Capital trilogy centres on transformative politics and imagines a shift in the behaviour of human society as a solution to the climate crisis. His later novel New York 2140 (2017), set in a partly submerged New York which has successfully adapted to climate change, imagines solutions to more recent climate change concerns. This is a future that is mapped out in painstaking detail, from reimagined subways to mortgages for submarines, and we are encouraged to see how new communities could rise against capitalism.

This is inspirational – and useful – but it is also is crucial that utopian cli-fi novels make it clear that for every utopian vision an alternative dystopia could be just around the corner. (It’s worth remembering that in Le Guin’s foundational utopian novel The Dispossessed, the moon’s society have escaped from a dystopian planet.) This is a key flaw in the case of Robinson’s vision, which fails to feature the wars, famines and disasters outside of his new “Super Venice”: the main focus of the book is on the advances of western technology and economics.

Forward-thinking cli-fi, then, needs to imagine sustainable futures while recognising the disparities of climate change and honouring the struggles of the most vulnerable human and non-humans. Imagining positive futures is key – but a race where no one is left behind should be at the centre of the story we aspire to.


This article is part of The Covering Climate Now series

This is a concerted effort among news organisations to put the climate crisis at the forefront of our coverage. This article is published under a Creative Commons license and can be reproduced for free – just hit the “Republish this article” button on the page to copy the full HTML coding. The Conversation also runs Imagine, a newsletter in which academics explore how the world can rise to the challenge of climate change. Sign up here.The Conversation


Bernadette McBride, PhD Candidate in Creative Writing, University of Liverpool

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.