For the past year, I have been professionally involved as a researcher in a project called NARMESH, short from Narrating the Mesh, at the Department of Literary Studies at the University of Ghent, Belgium. The project evolves around non-human centric, environmentally oriented literature. My part has focused on qualitative analyses of readings of environmental or climate fiction in a social context. That is, I have studied people’s discussions and meaning-makings of environmentally focused short stories and novels.
Climate change is a massive environmental, cultural, social, and political force and challenge, reaching beyond single human lifeworlds and horizons onto planetary scales, testing the limits of our cognitive and emotional capacities. It mixes scientific knowledge, personal experiences, and human imagination, asking people to re-think their futures, their societies, and themselves in plentiful of entangled contexts (Hulme, 2015). To highlight the human role in climate change, Chakrabarty has introduced the concept of humans as geological agents. He describes how climate change washes away the distinction between natural history and human history, forcing people to realize they have collectively become a geological agent with the power to determine the climate of the planet, causing massive losses of biodiversity, and creating crises in futures we cannot even visualize (Chakrabarty, 2009, 2012). Simultaneously, we have to carry our responsibility as a political agent, aware of how we belong to many vastly different scales of histories in this planet – histories of life, species, and human societies (Chakrabarty, 2012). The problem with the notion of geological agency is that it neglects the fact that the responsibility for and suffering caused by climate change is far from equally distributed on the planet; to talk about all humanity as geological agents behind climate change is to forget that it was modern Western societies creating the crisis. But that’s the topic of another post altogether.
Many scholars have pondered why it is that even if scientific evidence about global, human-caused climate change has accumulated, uncertainty of its existence still lingers and opinions among the general public grow more polarized (Donner, 2011; Harvey et al., 2018; Kahan, 2015; Kellstedt, Zahran, & Vedlitz, 2008; Stoutenborough et al., 2014; Weber & Stern, 2011). In other words, while people know about the concept of climate change, they do not necessarily believe in it or take it seriously. Kahan has argued that this gap between scientific knowledge and laypeople’s opinion is not due to low science literacy or lack of knowledge. The problem is that the conflicting cultural meanings loaded on the opposite positions of the climate change debate are such that ordinary citizens face a dilemma between recognizing what is known to science and on whose side they are (Kahan, 2015). That is, for many people, the stakes in acknowledging climate science are too high, because their identity is embedded within the cultural and social networks where denialism or skepticism are the “right” stances -those adopted by their peers.
The internet has increasingly been seen as a minefield of misinformation, where opposing camps in their separate algorithmic bubbles create polarized climate change conversation, often diverging drastically from climate science (Bloomsfield & Tillery, 2019; Harvey et al, 2018; Minol et al., 2007; Schäfer, 2012; Treen, Williams, & O`Neill, 2020; Trench, 2012). In a world where people attribute less and less authority to science and where climate change denialists are skillfully using the rhetorics of science in misrepresenting climate science (Bloomsfield & Tillery, 2019; Minol et al., 2007), scientists and other people invested in climate change communications have been looking for new forums to talk about climate change. Many have turned towards narratives in looking for alternative and more persuasive ways of communicating about climate change. It is widely believed that narratives are a powerful tool for science communication, because they can persuade resistant people and translate scientific information exceeding the human scale into a more comprehensible form (e.g. Dalhstrom, 2014). Especially science communications and policy research have been invested in looking for ideal narratives to engage the public in climate change. For example, Bushell et al. (2017) describe the need for a strategic narrative that would make climate change more understandable and personally relevant to the general public while empowering people to take climate friendly actions.
It is within this kind of a cultural context where many literary scholars and also professionals from other fields have turned their radars towards climate fiction.
The Great Climate Fiction Expectations
The history of climate fiction, or fiction that more or less explicitly works with the problem of anthropogenic climate change, has its roots in the 1970’s; then, science fiction narratives began to be increasingly located on Earth and grapple with the challenges of ecological awareness (Trexler & Johns-Putra, 2011). The genre has been growing faster since the early 2000’s and is particularly slippery to define. Looking at the mere “aboutness” aspect -is the book explicitly about climate change or not- would close out several novels that seem to be equipped to challenge our understanding of human-nonhuman relationships, provide tools to imagine new futures and new solutions to current problems, and hint at sustainable ways to cope with the climate crisis. Many climate fiction novels do not simply use climate change as a setting, but explore the relationships between humanity and climate change from psychological and social perspectives, offering insights into its global nature (Trexler & Johns-Putra, 2011).
The field of ecocriticism – environmentally oriented literary scholarship- perceives literature as a way to enrich readers’ understanding of a variety of ecological phenomena (e.g. Garrard, 2004) and uses literary analysis to investigate the problems in how humans relate to the environment (Trexler & Johns-Putra, 2011). Recently, ecocriticism has increasingly addressed climate change, stating that fiction and poetry are uniquely equipped to convey the scale and implications of the climate crisis (Farrier, 2019; Trexler, 2015). It has been argued that cli-fi helps people to bridge the vast scale of environmental phenomena to human understanding and mobilizes people to action (e.g. Caracciolo, 2019; Murphy, 2014; Schneider-Meyerson, 2018).
Within empirical ecocriticism, researchers have adopted empirical methods to investigate the claim that engaging with narrative can raise awareness and change attitudes towards environmental issues such as climate change or animal welfare ( Małecki et al., 2016; Schneider-Mayerson, 2018; Schneider-Mayerson et al., 2020; Toivonen & Caracciolo, submitted). Schneider-Mayerson (2018) has demonstrated that climate fiction can, for example, help to bring the abstract and distant phenomenon of climate change psychologically closer to people’s everyday thinking. However, there is reason to be skeptical about the wider and long-term influences of climate fiction reading. It seems to be more effective in nudging concerned liberals towards taking climate change seriously than in changing the minds of skeptics. The effects of climate fiction are, according to him, just as strong as the most prevalent cultural messages about what is climate change and what should be done about it (Schneider-Mayerson, 2018).
In my own recent and still unpublished work, I had interview participants read short stories that portrayed the perspective of the nonhuman world. In this paper we are showing that such stories can trigger people to discuss about the agency -the abilities and capacities- of nonhuman nature in radically new ways (Toivonen & Caracciolo, submitted). Currently, I’m investigating a reading group’s discussions on cli-fi novels -I will tell more when I can! Yet, much remains to be known about the impacts of environmental or climate fiction on people` s attitudes, values, and behavior, especially in the long term.
Sometimes the conversations on the potential influences of climate fiction reflect the naïve belief that fiction -or narrative- is a magic tool to do all the jobs that the concerned scholars want it to do. It is also usually assumed that fiction is somehow always good and beneficial, or advancing the case of environmental awareness. Michael Crichton has been using fiction to portray climate scientists as misguided and selfish, attempting to debunk climate science. Not all climate change related fiction thus tries to convince people about climate change or help them to deal with it. Moreover, trying to make people change their mind from doubting the existence and severity of climate change to taking it seriously just by switching from standard scientific communications to narratives is a probably not realistic. Transparently persuasive messaging easily backfires -people do not like to feel that they are being told what to think (Ma, Dixon, & Hmielowski, 2019).
In addition, there are plenty of challenges in putting something of the scope of climate change into a narrative form. Simon (2020) has reminded that trying to grasp the Anthropocene -the era where humans have become the central agent transforming the earth- in a narrative form will not offer any better understanding of the ecological predicaments occurring, and that in fact, the ecological crises of the Anthropocene are fundamentally not narratable -they escape the human attempts of storytelling. In a similar vein, Raipola (2018) has underlined that because of its abstract nature, climate change lends itself very poorly into narrative form that by definition plays within the everyday contexts of human experience.
The Richness and Complexities of Climate Fiction
So far, it should be clear that both climate change and narratives are incredibly complex phenomena. Narrative is not simply some convenient little story that scientists or policy developers can tell to people to scare them about the realities of global warming or to inspire them to action. The complexities related to writing, reading, experiencing, discussing, and sharing narratives are easy to forget, especially in a cultural environment where narratives or fiction tend to, a bit uncritically, be framed as something that is always and inherently positive. Thus, we need more understanding of environmentally oriented fiction in general and climate fiction in particular, as tools to communicate climate change information and help people psychologically and practically tackle the challenge but also as forms of literature in their own right. The richness and multi-voicedness of fiction defends its place in the landscape where ecological destruction, political passivity, resistance to understanding the viewpoints of other people, negligence of the nonhuman world that is not your own backyard, and opinionated but poorly informed conversations roam free. I tend to think that narratives are especially could at challenging both our intelligence and out emotions to perceive and experience viewpoints we would not otherwise be exposed to and push us to consider the complexities of ourselves and the world where we live in. This does not mean that people ever grasp the kind of narratives it is easy to argue would be “good for them”; I doubt that we humans are very good at voluntarily swallowing bitter medicines. If it is easy to exist in the Internet in one’s own algorithmic bubble, exposed to opinions close to one’s own, it is equally easy to do this in circumstances where one encounters narratives. Picking up books that challenge you and make you feel uncomfortably aware of the limits of your thinking is not necessarily something many people are predisposed to do, especially in a culture where narratives are mostly harnessed to entertain us into to an audiovisual coma.
It seems reasonable to assume that there is no one size fits all solution in terms of what climate fiction can do and for whom. Perhaps not many people skeptical about climate change will experience a “mindshift” by reading one single book. Yet, it is not impossible that a strong reading experience in the right kind of context can have dramatic effects on some individuals. People who need to be convinced of the legitimacy of climate science surely need different kind of narratives than those who have lost their sleep to climate anxiety – feeling of anxiety caused by climate change (Clayton and Karazsia, 2020; Pihkala, 2020). A concerned individual, feeling that they only avoid buying plastic bags and reducing their meet consumption to soothe their conscience while these actions seem irrelevant in the big picture, perhaps needs to read a story displaying the individual actions as relevant through their interconnections and entanglements with bigger actions involving groups of people. However, such a story will probably not trigger the emotions of someone who wants to scientifically understand climate change and the scope of its ramifications, a person likely in need for a completely different kind of a narrative medicine.
During the past year, I’ve had my own personal plunge into climate fiction, because I wanted to better understand the genre that has been so central in the NARMESH -project where I have worked. Next, I will give a brief introduction to six climate fiction novels -or novels that are often listed as climate fiction – that I have myself read and enjoyed to different degrees. Perhaps the reader will be tempted to pick one of them or start Googling around to find out more about an author mentioned here, in this way bumping into a book that will become their personal cli-fi favorite.
Richard Powers: The Overstory
The best comes first. The Overstory by Richard Powers (the interested might want to read the Guardian review here) is my own personal favorite, not only in the genre of climate fiction but in the genre of all the books I have read during my life. This novel presents the most captivating network of intersecting stories of a number of people and trees, resembling the entanglements of the root system of a very old forest. The individual stories are thought-provoking, the depictions of human connections with nature heartbreaking, and the prose lucidly beautiful. This novel opened my understanding about the intricate biology of trees and enhanced my respect and empathy for environmental activism. It managed to put me to a place of connection and care with each one of its characters and human-nonhuman entanglements.
Of the six novels reviewed here, The Overstory comes best to dialogue with the notion of humans as geological agents (Chakrabarty, 2009, 2012); it gently nudges the reader to consider the impact of human actions onto the nonhuman environment while not wiping away the nuances and vast global differences in human influence on the earth. This book invited me to feel for the trees and care about the human characters, and it is this capacity to sensitize the reader that makes me think this book can have a complex impact on a variety of readers, independent of what their stance to climate change or ecological destruction is.
The novel left me with the aching feeling that the vastness of human selfishness and ignorance is unbreakable and unbearable, yet, we must not despair but try to do better, listening to the wisdom of the trees.
Jenny Offill: The Weather
Jenny Offil‘s The Weather is the perfect read for someone who can identify with a middle-aged female with her professional and family worries living in a world where climate change is mostly an intellectual preoccupation, not a here-and-now threat. I enjoyed the dark humor and the spear-sharp clarity of the prose. As to the potentials of this book to make people reconsider their relationships with the environment or re-evaluate their stance to climate change -I wouldn’t bet my money on this one. The narrator is too self-aware, the prose too much reflecting how in love the author is with her snappy one-liners. The novel is smooth and well-written, full of clever citation material, but for me, it was not hugely inspiring in terms of how to comprehend and tackle climate change.
Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behavior
Flight Behavior (the New Yorker analysis here) by Barbara Kingsolver is a well over six hundred pages novel that deals explicitly with climate change in portraying the story of a young Southern Appalachian mother of two, caged in a dead marriage and rural poverty on her husband’s farm. As a group of monarch butterflies finds their way on her family’s lands, she becomes involved with climate science research and environmental activism in a process where feminist emancipation and a growing global ethical stance entangle. Considering how much climate science is included in the book -mostly represented in the speech of the compulsory climate fiction character, the Scientist, in this case the charismatic lepidopterist Ovid Byron- the novel manages to be non-preachy. Also, the depiction of a poor rural community could easily become a caricature, but somehow, Kingsolver succeeds in showing the roots of the climate change skepticism of this community in an empathetic manner. The book does not take sides; the main character is not a climate hero, the scientists are not perfect and all-knowing, and what looks like could have been a caricature hillbilly village is a community of people who have other kind of knowledge than scientific, their social dispositions leading them to give an unwelcoming reception to climate scientists arriving at their lands.
I loved the portrayals of Dellarobia and the other characters in the book, the psychological realism and insight of the many long dialogues, and the beauty in how her environmental awakening was portrayed. Moreover, this novel illustrated beautifully the two very real problems encountered by those trying to communicate about climate change to laypeople; even scientists struggle to hold the complexity and uncertainty of climate change in their mind, and the big public barely has space to think about such seemingly far-away challenges, busy facing their near-and-dear everyday problems such as putting food onto the table (Moser, 2010).
Jeff VanderMeer: The Southern Reach Trilogy
Jeff VanderMeer‘s trilogy, especially its first part, Annihilation, (The Guardian review here) has awaken ample scholarly interest in literary studies -and for a good reason. This novel, a great example of the genre New Weird, is challenging and disturbing; it will not stop sweeping the rug from beneath the reader’s feet. The novel invites the reader to follow the 1st person narrator, the Biologist, into an expedition into a mysterious Area X, occupied by uncanny alien lifeforms and, for 30 years already, under the investigations of a government agency called Southern Reach.
The novel is the Biologist’s field diary, presenting her delving into the area as a part of an all women expedition together with the Psychologist, the Surveyor, and the Anthropologist. The expedition quickly becomes something more than just an attempt to collect samples to uncover the mysteries of the area. The Biologist, inflicted by the alien forces, starts a painful but exhilarating transition towards becoming more-than-a-human -and decides not to go back home but stay in the Area. In quite a Harawayan sense, she is thus choosing to stay with the trouble, as pointed out by Sperling (2019). Thus, as Donna Haraway (2016), a biologist herself, has suggested, we humans need to become more aware of our mutual entanglements with nonhuman life and stay with the various trouble of ecological devastations, not deny them, or pretend to solve them. Annihilation forces the reader to stay with this impossible but exciting multi-voiced environment of nonhuman forces that have taken over the human, profoundly challenging the category of human as something separate and independent.
Annihilation on its own as well as the whole trilogy is a magnificent tool to provoke questions about how humans relate to their environment and about the corruption of our knowledge production systems. It invites the reader to reconsider what is human, what is not, how do we know it, and so what. This novel is not a tool to paint hopeful pictures of the future or to feed grandiose imaginings of humans fixing the mess of climate change. Nor is it something I would necessarily prescribe to a client suffering from extreme climate anxiety, because it is that much unsettling in its refusal to portray any easy solutions to current and future environmental predicaments.
Johanna Drucker: Downdrift
I grasped Johanna Drucker‘s Downdrift (another review here) in the hope of having found a book that would introduce a nonhuman animal narrator and multiple nonhuman protagonists while provoking thinking about nonhuman agency -animals as active doers and thinkers. The book does offer a plethora of humorous, sarcastic glimpses of animals that have started to act in human ways, such as adopting occupations, using technology, and starting to organize a society in strikingly human ways. The language is oozing with delicious humor, but perhaps at the expense of the narrative actually going somewhere. There is no real storyline, no protagonist, but page after page of descriptions of weirdly human behaviors adopted by animals, often seen from the perspective of the housecat Callie, while the narrator remains a 3.8 billion years old Archaeon, the most ancient creature on earth.
When reading this book, my mind wandered away at every third sentence and I kept forgetting what happened one page ago. I never became friends with the language that I experienced as fundamentally alienating me from all the meditations on the nonhuman experiences and the problems of ecological devastations caused by humans that were brewing under the surface. I can imagine Downdrift being appreciated by an avid reader who really -and I mean really- enjoys to see anthropomorphized animals make fun of human habits and societies. In the end, the book offers nice insights into the ridiculousness of humans. However, some of the anthropomorphizations could really have been a little more inventive, aiming at something more than a human recognizing themselves in the mirror of the animal -something I feel that we do enough as it is, making the world into our narcissistic reflection.
Amitav Ghosh: The Hungry Tide
Two hundred pages into Amitav Ghosh‘s The Hungry Tide, I was quite bored. I couldn’t care less of the characters, such as the stubborn American dolphin scientist of Indian origin exploring the species in the Indian tide country, and the bossy Westernized Indian businessman coming to Lusibari to sort out his uncles legacy, a journal. In the middle of the book, something changed. The endless landscape descriptions gave space for a mixture of pieces of dolphin science, Tide Country religious beliefs and myths, and the intricate, insightful glimpses into the complexities of human-human and human-nonhuman interactions. The book turned out to be a captivating story about science, religion, roots, responsibility, problems of translation, and finding your place in the world. The wisdom of ancient and local people met the wisdom of the scientists; black and white merged into endless shades of grey, and love found the people when and where they least expected. The Hungry Tide is probably not the best example of Ghosh’s novels in terms of climate fiction, but it for sure introduced me to a great author of whose works I will continue to read.
Climate Fiction: What It Can and What It Cannot. A Conclusion (Sort of).
While I believe that climate fiction can definitely be one tool to inform people about climate change, to inspire them to learn more about it, to help them psychologically deal with it, or to motivate them to take practical actions, it is not the magic solution for everyone. I do not think that any one single individual is either convinced of the severity of climate change or better equipped to deal with the phenomenon just as a result of reading any single climate fiction novel. At least so far I have not found that one book that would with any certainty do any of those jobs. Finding psychological space for climate change might follow from the impact of encountering several different depictions of climate change, factual and fictional, experienced and shared in social contexts and deeply entangled with the other activities, interactions, and processes that the individual has going on in their life.
When I go to a hairdresser, I’m always amazed at how they seem to think that hair is a priority for me as much as it is for them. If I would do all the things to take care of my hair that the hairdressers tell me I must, I would have no time to do anything else in my life. I would just spend my days motioning products into my hair, rolling curlers, and trying different hairdos. Sometimes academics behave exactly as hairdressers. We think that simply because we are deeply interested in fiction, or in narratives in general, or in environmental questions, everyone else inside and outside academia is, too. Not everybody else spends their vacations reading cli-fi and pondering about the implications of climate change, though. It is easy to make lofty, theoretical expectations and voice them from a very narrow standpoint; it is much more challenging to empirically study these claims while trying to maintain an open perspective.
Back in the days when I was studying psychotherapy interactions, I noticed that all the therapists I encountered -in writing, in papers and books, or in flesh, in conferences and seminars- seemed to hold the opinion that it is the one hour per week that the client spends with them that makes the whole difference in their process of getting better. There seemed to be a staggering ignorance with regards to the fact that therapy is just one part of a complex network of other activities the client is involved in during their week. Sometimes it might be so that the client gets better during therapy, but not because of the therapist -in fact, in spite of him/her. The same logic applies to climate fiction. Just because many academics think climate fiction is an important genre with many fantastic works, it does not mean their “impact” is as straightforward or significant as it’s easy to claim.
More scholarly attention should be directed at investigating fiction reading in a variety of contexts, using different narratives and studying different kinds of readers. Moreover, we need to look beyond the concept of climate change and study fiction that helps us rethink our human role on the earth and explore more balanced ways to coexist with the nonhuman environment. In other words, literature that makes us re-think human interactions with our environment does not need to be climate fiction. It does not even need to be fiction, or come in a narrative form. It can be 19th century travel diaries or children’s books, it can be thrillers or chick-lit, poetry or theater plays. Also climate fiction can be something completely different than what we are used to think it is; it can occur in many forms in many media, touching us in unexpected ways and challenging us to think anew what it means to exist as a human in these times, in relation to all the nonhuman life pulsating within and around us.
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