The Atlantic‘s recent article “Climate Fiction: Can Books Save the Planet?” raises a lot of questions about the role of fiction in the fight for climate justice. Climate Fiction, or cli-fi, has recently become a trending genre in literature, especially YA literature. Perhaps this has to do with the dystopian craze. The loss of food, water, oxygen, land, as well as the increase in volcano eruptions, earthquakes and floods, all seem to provide the perfect inciting incident for the next dystopia.
J.K. Ullrich, in the above article, argues that cli-fi has a certain appeal to youth because it makes the “scary” STEM fields more accessible by cloaking hard science in easier-to-understand fiction. Furthermore, it makes youth more aware of their environment and climate change issues because otherwise they are too sucked into their digital worlds. Besides Ullrich’s obvious lack of faith in the young adults of today (millennial bashing is so last year), there are other flaws to this argument. According to a 2014 study by EcoAmerica, 18-24 year olds are the least likely demographic to believe that climate change is a hoax, and they are also the most likely to believe in solutions to climate change.
While I do not agree with many of Ullrich’s points, that does not mean that cli-fi is not an effective too. Fiction can help personalize an issue that is highly politicized and seems distant from reality. By giving a personal face to issues like drought and food shortages, fiction can give facts and statistics new and deeper meanings.
But there is also a challenge to this—much of climate fiction is too apocalyptic to promote real change. I still have nightmares about the 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. After seeing this film, did I want to go out and save the planet? No. It seemed like too big of a problem that not even the characters in the movie could solve. All I wanted to do was hide in my bed and hope the impending doom of climate change that I was sure would happen tomorrow would at least kill me quickly. (Though I was only 11 when this film came out, I have still not lost my flair for the dramatic. I re-watched this film recently and went to bed with all my clothes on afterward, in case we were suddenly thrown into another ice age.)
Thomas D. Lowe’s 2006 working paper on this topic also seems to agree with my assessment of The Day After Tomorrow and other forms of cli-fi that present a catastrophic, end-of-the-world type scenario for climate change. He argues that this view of climate change depersonalizes it for the public and makes them less likely to act. Instead, the problem of climate change must be made “tangible” and “manageable” in order to truly promote action.
Sarah Holding, author of the SeaBEAN trilogy, suggests that maybe the solution comes not in making the problem tangible, but in providing hope. Perhaps characters who are empowered to take action about climate change can make young people realize that “they too can rewrite our future.”
Cli-fi, like other forms of art that hopes to inspire action and change, is complex. Alone, it will not change the world. But maybe, if it is done right, it will inspire people to change the world.
The real question is, though, do the eco-points I gain from reading Sarah Holding’s book on my kindle (scientifically proven to be greener than paper), make up for the extra-long shower I took this morning? That’s how climate change works, right?
Image: The Day After Tomorrow (2004)