Writer Rod Raglin discusses his novel The Triumvirate and how a story about power, love and religion finds echoes in our unfolding climate crisis and how we try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.
1,160 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes
I wonder if other writers of climate fiction get the feeling of life imitating art as they watch events unfold this summer.
All my novels have a subplot that addresses one or more environmental issues, however, The Triumvirate – Love for Power, Love of Power, the Power of Love is the only one that could be labeled climate dystopia, “the global collapse of human civilization as either a direct or indirect result of anthropogenic climate change.”
One of the reasons for writing The Triumvirate was to try to imagine the future impact of climate change on where I live, British Columbia, Canada. I looked at how we were responding to the stresses that were developing in our everyday life, the society we lived in and influences beyond our borders. Then I tried to imagine, not dramatically, but realistically how they would manifest in the years to come. I took into account local, national and global attempts to mitigate effects.
The Triumvirate was completed in 2019 and one of the issues addressed included the likelihood of pandemics. A year later COVID hit and the world was in lockdown. Others were drought, human migration and the breakdown of social order including insurrection and secession.
These last two weeks, the news is validating many of my premises. For example:
— In B.C., Drought Level 5 is the highest level. It means adverse impacts on both communities and ecosystems are almost certain. As of August 3rd, most of B.C.’s water basins are at Drought Level 4 or 5. Officials blamed the conditions on unusually low amounts of rainfall recorded over the last year.
— 366 wildfires currently ravaging B.C. have 30,000 people on evacuation order and 36,000 more under evacuation alert.
— As of August 21st, 5,849 fires had burned 15 million hectares (over 37 million acres), about four percent of the entire forest area of Canada and more than six times the long-term average of 2.46 million hectares (6.1 million acres) for that time of the year.
— “Sell them for nothing or watch them starve”. As B.C.’s drought worsens, farmers are scrambling to protect their livestock and crops. The impacts could be felt for years to come.
— July 3rd-6th, 2023, were the warmest days on record, crossing 17°C for the daily global mean surface are temperature. The global mean temperature statistic masks the extreme events taking place worldwide.
Those stories are climate specific, but other more disturbing stories are emerging, and though not directly attributed to climate change are the result of it. Consider:
— A new survey finds more Canadians would vote for a political leader who promised to cut immigration levels than would be repelled by this. This is partly a response to the pressure on healthcare and housing.
— In an op-ed piece, Jason Opal, Professor of History at McGill University, suggests that “America is on the brink of another civil war, this one is fueled by Donald Trump”.
Power, love and religion
In The Triumvirate, the three main characters begin as childhood friends, each with strong principles and character.
Shyloh watched the dynamic develop. Judith and Aiya were opposites. Judith was strength; Aiya feelings. Judith was about action; Aiya considered consequences. Judith looked to the end; Aiya the means. This natural adversity seemed to challenge them, bring out their best.
When the dissension, disagreement, and at times hostility threatened to destroy this triumvirate, a word Shyloh borrowed from history class which meant a group of three powerful people, it was up to him to take the heat and energy generated from the polarity and craft a consensus, identify a goal and, most importantly, create a process for getting there.
They emerge as adults with their personalities leading them to pursue their principles. Shyloh becomes a politician, Aiya an inter-faith leader and Judith a commander in the military.
When economic and social pressures spawned by climate change make the Canadian federation untenable, Shyloh leads a political movement for secession and wins when Aiya encourages her followers, primarily new immigrants, to support it. But when the government reneges on a promise of citizenship for illegals now in the country — a promise that was key in getting the ethnic vote — violence flares.
As the government equivocates, Judith, now head of the security forces, doesn’t, and declares martial law.
Making a better world — but which one?
Now cast in key leadership roles, could they come to a consensus as they so often had in the past, one that would restore order and democracy, or would circumstances harden their positions, leaving no room for compromise — as so often is the case today?
They sat at the table, Aiya across from Shyloh and Judith.
“Your gesture in the Legislature was appreciated,” Aiya said.
“It was reckless,” Judith said. “It was an implicit approval to break the law.”
“If laws are broken it won’t be because of Shyloh’s act of solidarity with the new immigrant population,” Aiya said. “It will be because of the betrayal of the government.”
“Will laws be broken, Aiya?” Shyloh said.
“Civil disobedience becomes a sacred duty when the state has become lawless or corrupt,” Aiya quoted.
“In a democracy, there is only one rule of law, Aiya,”, Judith said. She leaned forward and fixed the other woman with a hard stare. “And it applies to everyone.”
Aiya didn’t flinch. She folded her hands on the table and stared back. Black coals met grey steel.
“A citizen who barters with such a state, shares in its corruption and lawlessness,” Aiya said.
Judith stood. “The army is sworn to support the democratically elected government of Cascadia. We will uphold the rule of law.”
“Shyloh?” Aiya said.
Both women looked at him. In the past, he’d been able to broker a compromise, or better still a third way, which was ultimately stronger. He’d never taken sides before. He wasn’t about to now. Sometimes the best response was no response.
The question posed to the three characters in the novel is already being debated at a societal level, among families, even between partners. If there can only be one better world, whose will be best?
The Triumvirate is a story about love and loyalty, politics and power, race and religion, and sacrifice and survival. More than that, it’s a story I’m seeing unfold before my eyes as I watch us try to come to grips with a hostile and uncertain future.
Four writers of fiction and nonfiction (all members of Bristol Climate Writers and ClimateCultures) share the ‘Desert Island Books’ they discussed at a recent library event on climate change: Nick Hunt, Caroline New, Peter Reason, and Deborah Tomkins.
3,000 words — approximate reading time 12 minutes
At a time of enormous cuts to library funding all over the UK, Bristol is not an exception — in 2017, seventeen of its 27 libraries were under threat of closure, including Redland Library, the second most used library in the city. The Friends of Redland Library — which campaigns to keep libraries open all over Bristol, initiated a series of evenings — Desert Island Books, in which “a panel of interesting people” discuss a particular topic through books.
On 9th January 2020, four of the Bristol Climate Writers took part in a climate change Desert Island Books event at Redland Library. We were each invited to bring a book to discuss, and also a ‘wild card’, a book which could be on another subject completely, although only one of us took that option, with persuasive reasoning. This was followed by Q&A.
Members of the panel were Nick Hunt (travel writer, freelance journalist and editor of Dark Mountain), Caroline New (fiction writer and Green Party Campaigns co-ordinator), Peter Reason (writer and Emeritus Professor, Bath University), and Deborah Tomkins (fiction writer and founder of the Bristol Climate Writers network).
Climate change — a background hum
Nick Hunt's choice:
- Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin- Culture and Climate Change: Narratives, edited by Robert Butler, Joe Smith and Renata Tyszczuk
Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home is not really a novel. It’s a collection of stories, anecdotes, folklore, songs, rituals and even recipes describing the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California”. Le Guin herself described it as an ‘archaeology of the future’.
Post-apocalyptic fables mostly fall into two categories: eco-utopias where everyone lives in harmony with nature, and dystopian nightmares prowled by murderous, looting gangs. One is invariably misanthropic, highlighting the savagery into which humans plunge as soon as the veneer of civilisation is stripped away, while the other is often extremely dull (perfection always is). Always Coming Home belongs in the utopian category — although, beyond the valley of the Kesh, there are signs that other societies are falling back into hierarchy, expansionism and misogyny — but there are several qualities that make this book different.
Le Guin’s exceptional skill as a writer is the first. She builds her world so delicately that only halfway through the book does it become apparent that this quasi-Native American society of hunter-gatherers has access to a technology that resembles a god-like internet, which permeates their lives so thoroughly that, like the wind or the rain, it is hardly even mentioned. Another quality is what I can only describe as her honesty, which seems a strange thing to say in relation to a sci-fi/fantasy book.
The daughter of anthropologists, Le Guin does not present herself as the writer or creator, but simply as an archivist whose role it is to record information and pass it to the reader.
In one Kesh folktale, a man steps through a hole in the air to find himself ‘outside the world’, a duplicate version of his own valley that is filled with roads and houses as far as he can see. This shadow-place is populated by monstrous backwards-headed people who smoke tobacco ceaselessly, eat food that is poison and can only say the words “Kill people, kill people, kill people”. The story is a shamanic voyage: the backwards-headed people are us, glimpsed with nightmare clarity by a culture to whom pollution and war are practically incomprehensible. It is an invitation to see ourselves, and the violence of our civilisation, as indigenous cultures might have seen us at first point of contact, or even as non-human creatures might regard us now.
“Stories about climate change don’t need to be about climate change”, writes critic Robert Butler in an essay in the anthology Culture and Climate Change: Narratives. “Stories written before people knew about human-made climate change — Faust, Galileo, King Lear — may now resonate in ways that hadn’t been seen before. Even if climate change is not the subject matter, or the principal theme, its presence may still be detectable. It could be, in Ian McEwan’s evocative phrase, ‘the background hum’.”
Always Coming Home is not a story about climate change, or not directly anyway (an unspecified cataclysmic upheaval is buried so deep in time that the Kesh retain no knowledge whatsoever about its cause). But a ‘background hum’ runs through the book, permeating it as thoroughly as the digital intelligence that invisibly fills Le Guin’s world; not a note of anxiety or despair but of trust in human kindness, and a celebration of our place not at the top of a hierarchy but as one small part of a living, breathing universe. Above all, it is a book about hope… even if that hope lies 20,000 years in the future.
Navigating unbearable things
Caroline New's choice:- The Turning Tide, by Catriona McPherson
- The Ship, by Antonia Honeywell
I broke the mould in our team presentation of climate fiction by talking about the witty, escapist detective stories by Catriona McPherson, the excellent Dandy Gilver series, rightly called ‘preposterous’ by one reviewer. As a climate activist I read new and terrifying information every day. I don’t go to bed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, I go to bed with Dandy Gilver and her ilk. I need to sleep. Maybe the human mind needs a little denial as it needs chocolate.
Set in the 1930s, their upper-class female detective protagonist shares the classism of the period, modified by humour and compassion, but prevails against sexism. She notices poverty, or we could not like her, but the resilience and humour of the poor stop poverty threatening the benign nature of reality. We readers know what is coming, but we let ourselves be rocked along with Dandy in the comforting hammock of interwar privilege. This is high-class denial for the intelligentsia.
As a writer of climate fiction myself, I have to ask: ‘Why would anyone want to read about unbearable things?’ And yet they do. Fiction about the Holocaust, violence and war, the slave trade and other atrocities pulls us straight into the terrifying opposite of love. What makes it readable? I can think of two obvious ways.
Firstly, when the horror is interwoven with stories of love and courage the relief of this truth about human beings lets healing emotions soften the rigid horror of the trauma.
Secondly, fiction can counter the bland numbness of privilege, which can be a relief. By saying ‘This is real! This happened!’ it can afford us the catharsis of grief. Or it may amount to the cry ‘Stop!’ One way or another, these works forbid denial, which in theory should bring us closer to action. If, that is, we have the faintest idea of what to do.
Climate change is perhaps different from the other sorts of unbearable things I have mentioned. The enemies are structures, although worked by human minds. We are all deeply implicated. We all did this. This unpleasant fact may be what made climate fiction slow to take off.
The Ship is actually about denial, but not of climate change. It is metaphorical but entirely to the point, and in that sense more realistic than the US survivalist post-apocalyptic genre where women in cross-gartered trousers peer irresistibly from wattle-and-daub shelters and take aim at small game with home-made crossbows. The Ship is set in an unspecified time when there are no apples left, only ersatz apple juice and wax replicas. Most of the eco-systems that support human life have already broken down, and the government’s only solution is to allow the weakest to die so as to protect a surviving elite. The horrors are mostly off-stage, which makes it possible to contemplate them out of the corner of an eye.
The Ship itself is the ultimate middle-class solution; a floating gated community which tries to create its own truth. In reality it is going nowhere, forever. The on-board leadership (the heroine’s own father) parrots the message of many dictatorships: forget the past, erase it: it never happened and only traitors make us look at it. The teenage heroine has to grow up in the face of this thick denial, and the book charts her adventures up to the point that she sees the clear outlines of her moral dilemma and takes steps to end it.
Closing the species gap
Peter Reason's choice:- Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, by Robert Bringhurst and Jan Zwicky- The Overstory, by Richard Powers
Learning to Die, by poet/philosophers Bringhurst and Zwicky, is a tiny book of essays, but it explores a huge theme: How should we die at the end of times?
The first essay, by Bringhurst, considers the nature of the wild Earth, “living life to its full… self-directed, self-sustaining, self-repairing, with no need for anything from us”. Humans are, of course, part of this, but we are ‘liminal creatures’, on the margins of the wild, sometimes tempted to believe the ‘witch tale’ that we can live entirely outside it. The wild world has been pushed by humans beyond its limits, bringing about mass extinction of life on Earth, one that may well include humans. If anything survives, “it will again be the wild… that is responsible for the healing”.
Bringhurst is demanding we look reality in the face, challenging us with the realities of death: “You, your species, your entire evolutionary family, and your planet will die tomorrow. How do you want to spend today?”
Jan Zwicky picks up this essentially moral question: “What constitutes virtue in such circumstances?” The answer, she tells us, is surprisingly straightforward: it is “what has constituted virtue all along. We should approach the coming cataclysm as we ought to have approached life”. Harking back to Socrates, she explores six core virtues:
Awareness coupled with humility regarding what one knows.
Courage: physical, civic, and moral.
Self-control: knowing when enough is enough
Justice as ‘the order of the soul’.
Contemplative practice: attending to the beauty of brokenness
And this must all be approached with a sense of humour, a lightness of touch that comes from not taking one’s self too seriously. “We will sense it as a smile: the absence of fear and the refusal to despair. Even in the face of death.”
In contrast, Richard Powers’ The Overstory is a novel that sets out to close the gap between people and other living things, and in particular, trees. It challenges human exceptionalism, so, while there are nine human characters, key protagonists are the trees themselves.
This may sound over-serious and philosophical for a novel, but it is also a gripping read. The lives of the human protagonists become intertwined with each other in the so-called Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest of the 1980s, when activists attempted to stop the logging of the last virgin forests. The narrative builds to a series of thrilling climaxes as the protestors blockade logging machinery, occupy trees, battle with police, and eventually engage in illegal direct action with appalling consequences.
The great achievement of this novel is that it draws the reader into a different worldview in which we know — really know, not just as scientific abstraction — that trees communicate with each other; that forests are not collections of individual trees but living, collaborating organisms; that they can, in their own way, communicate with us. How does this change our attitude toward them and to the plant world in general? It is often said we will not solve the ecological crisis through facts and figures but through good stories that engage our imagination in alternative ways of living. The Overstory is such a story.
Climate change in a realist tradition
Deborah Tomkins' choice:- Flight Behaviour, by Barbara Kingsolver - Don’t Even Think About it: Why our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall - What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, by Per Espen Stoknes
Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour is a quieter book than what some may imagine climate fiction (or ‘cli-fi’) to be, with little overt drama, and in the realist tradition. In other words, it’s not shelved in fantasy or science fiction, nor is it a thriller.
I chose this book because I tend to write realist climate fiction, and know therefore just how hard it is to do without breaking into dystopia (current or future), or upping the stakes with some kind of environmental disaster. But I have also written a speculative cli-fi novella, and found it a good deal easier. There is something freeing about putting your story on a different planet or several hundred years in the future.
Flight Behaviour is set in the Appalachian Mountains, in a dirt-poor community, an area that Barbara Kingsolver knows well and writes compassionately about. The people are ill-educated and never travel beyond the nearest town. Climate change means nothing to them in their struggle for existence — except they’ve noticed the weather doesn’t behave as it used to, and constant rain and flooding threatens their farms and livelihoods.
The main character, Dellarobia, has her life upturned when she spots ‘fire’ in the woods — in reality, millions of monarch butterflies which have somehow gone astray from their usual migration route. If they all die in the Appalachian winter, the whole species will become extinct. The local community sees it as a sign from God not to fell the trees — tree-felling is likely to be the only source of income that winter for Dellarobia’s family — and Dellarobia appears on TV, to her dismay, as some kind of mystic figure (the portrayal of the manipulative TV reporter is a joy). Into this confused mix comes Ovid Byron, a black professor of entomology who is passionate about the monarchs; and Dellarobia, bright but uneducated, begins to learn about ecology and climate change.
Flight Behaviour isn’t perfect — it’s a little wordy, and the story could have been told in perhaps half the length, but it’s one of the very few novels that address climate and ecological issues in the realist tradition. It’s worth noting that Kingsolver has been writing fiction exploring these themes for several decades.
I chose two wild cards, both non-fiction, similar but different: George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, and Per Espen Stoknes’ What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming.
They both look at the psychology of denial, all the mental tricks people play on themselves in order not to deal with the reality of climate change. Both are engaging and easy to read, drawing on research. Marshall is a communicator, and approaches the issue from the point of why climate communication so often misses the mark; Stoknes is a psychologist. Of course, none of this is simple, and there are many and multifarious reasons, some overlapping, some wildly incompatible. Both books offer useful insights about how to “retell the story of climate change and embrace strategies that are social, positive and simple” (Stoknes).
I have found both books of immense value, both for my writing and in my campaigning, as I have learned (and am still learning) about how to communicate with people who don’t want to hear. Perhaps the tide has turned in the past two years, with the Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough effect, but we still have a long way to go, and I recommend these two books for insights into communicating effectively.
The Desert Island Books evening — one of torrential rain and floods, incidentally — ended with questions from the audience, who had turned out in good numbers, despite the weather, and the animated discussion showed how much people enjoyed the session.
Find out more
Bristol Climate Writers was founded in 2017 to provide a network for writers in the Bristol area who are writing in any genre about climate change. We consist of fiction writers, poets, science writers, travel writers, journalists, memoirists and more. We meet monthly for discussion, and also provide occasional public workshops. The Desert Island Books event is one of a number of public events Bristol Climate Writers has engaged with.
The Friends of Redland Libraryspun out of the 2015 campaign to save Redland Library from being closed. It must have worked, as only one of Bristol’s 28 Libraries was closed but some other cuts were made. In 2017 there was a new move to close seventeen of the city’s now 27 Libraries. FORL became more active, organising one or two events a month. This included the Desert Island Books format, where a panel of speakers nominated books on the event theme plus a ‘wild card’. The main driver is that the audience wanted intelligent discussion on serious subjects. The city’s libraries now look safe until March 2021.
Always Coming Home, by Ursula Le Guin, is published by Gateway (Orion, 2016; originally published 1985).
A mother, grandmother, activist, environmentalist and writer, currently editing 'Blank Times' - a humorous fantasy set in a post-apocalyptic neo-fascist regime run according to Ten 'Planetary Principles'.
Paul Allen, Project Director of the Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain programme, shares his reflections after taking part in the COP23 climate talks in Bonn, and looks ahead to the cultural challenges for COP24 next year.
1,010 words: estimated reading time 4 minutes
We humans live by our values, shaped through communities, experiences and culture. Our communities and our experiences are increasingly compelled to engage with climate change, but can our culture also grasp it?
At the next year’s UN climate summit, we will have reached a point in the negotiations where all nations must raise their ambition if we are to deliver on the Paris Agreement. As we prepare, it is vital we recognise the influence of culture; in helping us grasp exactly where we are in the world and the scale and speed of the actions we must take. The arts and creative community, in many ways the beating heart of culture, has a powerful role to play in this.
From the bubble of forgetting where we are …
From shifting seasons to wild weather, communities across the UK now experience both the large and small effects of climate change in their own back yards. On top of this, as we watch the global news, we see increasingly frequent extreme weather events, such as forest fires, floods, hurricanes and droughts, hitting communities in other parts of the globe. But then, as the news ends, and normal TV returns, the characters in our films, soaps, dramas and reality TV series simply never discuss this. They never take any of the actions we know we must all take; they never discuss any of the changes we know we are seeing. This creates a bubble in which we have forgotten where we actually are in the world, where we can ignore what we know we need to do, and where we never witness the positive co-benefits that rising to our challenge could offer.
To make matters worse, every time contemporary culture tells a story of human interactions set a decade or two into the future, we paint it against a background of ecological collapse and zombie-ridden dystopia. Turning us into zombies works well to dehumanise society in ‘collapse’ scenarios, so making the mass-extinction narratives more palatable. Be it a novel, theatre, film, a TV or the gaming world, any future setting is dark — and a whole new generation is now growing up within this, transforming the way we think. We have shifted from that exciting 1960s vision of progress and anticipation, to a dark, uncertain and fearful future; which makes us easier to manage. If we only tell future stories set against chaos, collapse and devastation, no one can imagine positive solutions, so nothing happens.
So, as we move towards COP24, with its urgent need for ambition, it’s time to re-think the future. Evidence-based art, firmly rooted in the reality of where we are and what we must achieve, can bring to life exciting new stories. In stories of a future where humanity has delivered on Paris, and is enjoying the co-benefits — what would change and what would remain? What would we be doing, wearing or eating? How would we get around? Where and how would we spend our holidays or leisure time? What will drive our happiness in this new chapter of our story?
To visualising a climate safe future
A decade of Zero Carbon Britain research from the Centre for Alternative Technology has clearly demonstrated that we have all the tools and technologies we require. Powerful research is now emerging from across the globe at an accelerating rate, offering the hard data and confidence required to visualise what a climate safe future might actually be like. Rather than an unresolved technical challenge, it is increasingly accepted that what we actually face, is a mix of political and cultural barriers.
In the run-up to this year’s COP23 climate negotiations in Bonn, I was heartened to see Julie’s Bicycle working in collaboration with the UNFCCC to offer a weekly spotlight on arts and cultural responses to climate. It is now time to build way beyond the scale of arts engagement achieved at COP21 in Paris. As we prepare for COP24, our cultural community needs to engage deeper with this process. This does not necessarily mean being on-site during the negotiations; ongoing engagement connecting local and community actions with the global process is every bit as important.
Since the Paris Agreement, mainstream UK media has barely engaged with the COP process, so few are able to connect with what goes on. Surely progress in providing a safe niche for future generations is every bit as important as the latest X Factor or Bake Off? So, to help explore new approaches, in the run-up to COP24 I am seeking collaborations across the creative community to build on our Zero Carbon Britain work, and have pulled together a short film to offer a glimpse into my engagement with COP23 in Bonn in November this year.
Questioning the COPs? Space for creative thinking...Bali, Berlin, Bonn, Buenos Aires, Cancun, Copenhagen, Doha, Durban, Geneva, The Hague, Kyoto, Lima, Marrakech, Milan, Montreal, Nairobi, New Delhi, Paris, Poznan, Warsaw... We've had 23 'Conferences of the Parties', with next year's in Katowice, Poland. Where, when and how would you hold the COP where the world celebrates delivering on 'Paris 2015'? Why there? Sketch out a 'creative timeline', mapping out how you think we might get there...
Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Author David Thorpe considers approaches that engage readers with human stories within the climate change one, and writers’ responsibilities in climate fiction, given that “stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves.”
2,480 words: estimated reading time 10 minutes
You can read Part 1 of The Rise of Climate Fiction: Beyond Dystopia and Utopiahere.
I’ve interviewed a few cli-fi writers about their work. Tony White, author of Shackleton’s Man Goes South, was appointed writer in residence at the Science Museum in London. He found, in the bowels of the building, a lost Edwardian science fiction story. But this one was written in Antarctica in 1911 by George Clarke Simpson, Captain Scott’s meteorologist. He says:
“Simpson’s short story is not a great work of literature but it is a very revealing document, revealing about the time when it was written, while on its own terms it is a story from a fictional far future in which climate change has melted the Antarctic ice and destroyed all human life. What was also immediately intriguing was that nobody seemed to have noticed it. For a century this strange text had been more or less overlooked, absent from the commentary yet hiding in plain sight in the South Polar Times, a kind of scrap book newspaper founded by Sir Ernest Shackleton on an earlier expedition.
Finding a science fiction story about climate change – which uses those two words, in that order: ‘climate change’ – yet which had been written in 1911, was quite a bombshell. While researching Simpson’s life and reading his other publications, and the private journals that are held in the Met Office archive down in Exeter, I discovered that he had continued to research climate change for most of his career – though he had never written another short story about it! – and that he had even been the longest standing director of the Met Office in the UK.”
Tony’s novel incorporates this story plus a reversal of the Shackleton myth: ‘the world turned upside down’, with people fleeing to Antarctica instead of from it, in a hot world instead of a cold one.
Psychologically there are many aspects to people’s reluctance to engage with the profound implications of climate change and other aspects of sustainability in a way that’s appropriate and proportionate. George Marshall’s brilliant research, in Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, documents many of these. It’s not just the jargon, it’s peer pressure, near-sightedness, fear, ignorance, vested interests, to name a few.
Yet stories are fundamentally how humans understand and spread wisdom as well as entertain themselves. Because of this, I do think there is some responsibility not to paint self-fulfilling, disempowering dystopic futures or to preach about environmentalism to the converted, but instead to provide inspiring and realistic future visions as settings for potentially popular fictional narratives that demonstrate how humanity might successfully meet climate change’s challenges and make a better world, solving multiple challenges.
This was behind another project I became involved in: Weatherfronts, which produced new work by very different writers and poets. In his introduction to the first of two Weatherfronts collections Peter Gingold, Director of TippingPoint, quotes Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman: “I am very sorry, but I am deeply pessimistic. I really see no path to success on climate change.” The psychologist adds: “To mobilise people, this has to become an emotional issue. It has to have immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilising public opinion.”
Reaching the emotions
It has to be an emotional issue. TippingPoint organised two Weatherfronts events at the Free Word Centre in London to try and reach this emotional reaction to this abstract topic — Peter Gingold calls it “a creative challenge” — and found that there seems to be no limit to the number of forms, voices, and approaches that can be used to bring new and powerful perspectives to the subject. As an example of the variety of works possible, Chris Rapley — a professor of climate science at UCL and Director of the British Antarctic Survey from 1998 to 2007 — ‘starred’ in 2071, a show co-written with Duncan Macmillan and directed by Katie Mitchell at the Royal Court Theatre.
I attended the second Weatherfronts event, with 65 other writers and 20 climate experts — an intensive exploration of the scientific facts, the politics, the creative possibilities and more. Many submitted excellent proposals for new work, from which a panel chose five, including mine, for commissioning and publication. My story is set in 2092, comparing the UK’s and Barcelona’s responses to climate change in the tale of a young mother’s dilemma. Should she stay in flooded, chaotic Barcelona — a city over-run with climate refugees from Africa — with her husband and child? Or leave them to go back to England, which is run by algorithms that balance the amount of available food and energy with the population level, on the principles of ecological footprinting, to achieve a ‘one planet’ country? A dilemma as gut-wrenching as this — stay with your child and husband or leave them — is a good way of bringing home the realities of climate change already being faced by some people, say in Pacific islands being lost to rising sea levels.
There were two events, two sets of commissions, separated by two years. As Peter Gingold says in the introduction to the second Weatherfronts collection:
“One thing we have seen very clearly is that over the 12 years of TippingPoint’s life, writers’ and indeed all artists’ responses to the subject have grown far more sophisticated and, both miraculously but also unsurprisingly, increased in their range and scope. The work in this collection amply illustrates that … If there is a common theme to these five powerful pieces of writing it is that their scale is domestic. This most grandiose and abstract subject is experienced at a very personal level, making its demands on the way we live with partners — or with friends, neighbours and communities. This must be fruitful.”
The creative response
It’s no longer ‘we need to persuade people climate change exists’; it’s ‘what are the emotional ramifications of climate change?’ This is a good point to bring in my friend Emily. A poet, Emily Hinshelwood is also a climate activist. We’re going to run a course on writing cli-fi together next year. She wrote a poem based on conversations she had about climate change with ordinary people. This was her creative response to feeling swamped by data and statistics on the issue. She told me:
“I needed to talk to people who aren’t normally asked about climate change. I decided to walk through Wales, along the Heart of Wales route, and everyone I met I’d ask three questions. I fully expected to get told to fuck off. They were: What images come to mind when you think of climate change? How often does it come up in your conversation? Is there anything you think you can do about climate change?”
She interviewed 250 people, and wasn’t told to fuck off once. In fact, everyone answered the questions, even one who threatened to shoot her for walking on his footpath on his land. She said:
“In some cases people were relieved to talk because they’d never before had an outlet to say what they thought about it. I was heartened by that. The majority were concerned and didn’t know what to do other than recycling. The dominant image was the earth shrivelling up.”
I think this is really interesting. In Weatherfronts, there’s a true story about the widow of the one man to die in the climate-change related floods in Cumbria in the winter of 2015. There’s a poem cycle about families living on Doggerland in the North Sea 5,000 years ago, when it was above sea level, being forced to leave because of rising seas. There’s an affectionate family tale from the ’70s in which the dad is putting solar water heating panels on his roof and growing organic vegetables — to the concern of his neighbours.
These are the daily realities of lives — yes, domestic, but hardly undramatic.
A theme, not a genre
There is now a burgeoning number of cli-fi novels. There are always going to be genre-led ones, like Paolo Bacigulpa’s The Water Knife. This is a thriller about corruption in the control of water supplies in the southwestern United States. Thrillers sell well, and perhaps get people thinking about climate change. All kinds of people read genre novels, like sci-fi, horror, thrillers. So I don’t think cli-fi is a genre. It’s not, as some think, a sub-genre of sci-fi. I think it’s a theme. Genres have distinguishing tropes. Climate fiction relates to the subject matter, not the type of story.
University departments now run courses studying them. They attempt official definitions. Here’s one from an MA thesis:
“In contrast to earlier science fiction (and other genres) that depict earth as ‘climatically changed’ by ‘natural causes’ climate-change fictions specifically deal with narratives relating to ‘anthropogenic ecological change’. Professor Jenny Bavidge, of Cambridge University, states Cli-fi is used to describe novels ‘which all touch on, or are concerned with, the context of climate change’. Dr Gregers Andersen, University of Copenhagen, defines Cli-fi as: narratives that employ the ‘scientific paradigm of anthropogenic global warming’. Presently, various universities around the world, including the University of Cambridge UK and Temple University in Philadelphia US, offer literature courses in Cli-fi. Nonetheless, while some academics are openly employing the ‘Cli-fi’ terminology others prefer to use ‘Climate change fiction’ as well as ‘climate fiction’ and/or ‘eco-fiction’. Ultimately they are all directly exploring narratives of the ‘Anthropocene’.”
– The influence of the Anthropocene on creative literature Donna Thompson, University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), Australia [citations removed]
Lots of writers now think this is a bandwagon to jump on. As a result, reviewers are already starting to tire of the clichés that the theme generates. This is from a review of 2016’s The History of Bees, a Norwegian Bestseller by Maja Lunde. The review is by someone signed only as KN and published in Australia’s ‘Saturday Paper’:
“Cli-fi – climate change fiction – has become so popular it has achieved the status of a genre. That makes it more easily identifiable and more marketable, but it also comes with pitfalls. Conventions carry the risk of appearing formulaic and repetitive. They also emphasise a genre’s status as fiction. This is all a problem for cli-fi, given that its practitioners are concerned with raising awareness about very real and urgent issues.
I had these thoughts reading Maja Lunde’s cli-fi novel The History of Bees. Once again, I was confronted with a future involving global warming, famine and hardship, and a Third World War. I was in familiar territory and feeling — dare I say it — a little bored. I began speculating on the possibility that cli-fi actually performs a kind of inoculation of its readers against the potential horrors of our future.
Having said that, Lunde presents an original angle. The dystopian future she depicts hinges on the disappearance of bees from their hives. This is a real-world phenomenon, known as colony collapse disorder, diagnosed as a problem in 2006. Bees, as pollinators, are crucial to food production.
Most memorable, though, is the proposition that gradually emerges: “in order to live in nature, with nature, we must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves”. Notably, it is the character from China — the country of the one-child policy, a universally denounced attempt at detaching people from their natural instincts – through whom this message is first presented. Here the book offers a bold provocation in the way cli-fi must if it is to have a genuine impact.”
“We must detach ourselves from the nature in ourselves” is a bold message, if that’s the only way to save the planet. But it is an emotional one, not a scientific one. It says we must change human nature. So we’re back at the start, with Saci Lloyd. Actually, if you remember, it wasn’t the book she was talking about. The book was an excuse to get into schools. It was the conversations she had with kids as a result. Similarly, Emily Hinshelwood’s poems were based on conversations. Culture is about not just artefacts, but the conversations we have about them or the conversations they make us have.
Cli-fi must be emotionally provocative to succeed. People must recognise themselves in the perilous situations the stories describe. As writers, unless we believe writing can change people’s minds, and we get it in front of people who otherwise wouldn’t come across these ideas, we might as well — like Voltaire’s Candide — retire to ‘cultivate our garden’ instead of vainly seeking the Panglossian ‘best of all possible worlds’, or even a ‘just good enough’ one.
I think fiction which contains references to climate change has only just begun. I think there are many imaginative ways to approach the topic. I think great novels and films are yet to be made. And I think that, as climate change increasingly affects all of the world, then almost by definition all novels set in this world could be seen as climate novels.
Find out more
David’s novel Stormteller (2014) is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book.
Paolo Bacigulpa’s novel The Water Knife (2016) is published by Little Brown.
George Marshall’s book Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change (2014) is published by Bloomsbury.
Weatherfronts: Climate change and the stories we tell (2017) – the combined anthology of new writing commissioned at both 2014 and 2016 Weatherfronts events – is published as a free e-book by Cambria Books.
Tony White’s book, Shackleton’s Man Goes South (2013) is available as a free pdf from his site, Piece of Paper Press.
Note: An earlier version of this post said that Tony White ‘won a competition to be a writer in residence at the Science Museum’ rather than, as correctly stated here, that he was appointed to that role. Apologies for the error.
Questioning genre? Space for creative thinking...David suggests that 'cli-fi' is a theme, not a genre; many genres might address climate change. What genres do you think might do this in unexpected ways - and what cliches might it either avoid or exploit to novel effect?Share your thoughts - use the Contact Form, visit the ClimateCultures Facebook page or write a response on your own blog and send a link!
Writer David Thorpe overviews the development of fictional works addressing climate change, and how the term ‘Cli-fi’ (which he discovered when he published his novel, Stormteller) reveals the tension between our twin fascinations with utopian and dystopian visions.
I hadn’t heard of Cli-fi until my novel Stormteller came out in 2014. It’s a novel for young adults, set where I used to live in Borth, north Wales, a beautiful part of the country. Climate activist and writer George Marshall read it and told me I’d written a cli-fi novel. I said, what’s that? And he put me in touch with Dan Bloom, who’d coined the term in 2007. Bloom is not an academic but a self-styled journalist and campaigner, he likes being an outsider. An ex-pat American, he lives in Taiwan, blogging and tweeting as the self-appointed guardian of all things cli-fi.
Cli-fi is fiction about climate change. I’d written a novel which was about climate change, set ten years in the future, when a storm surge means Tomos’ house is destroyed and he has to live with his sworn enemy, Bryn. But Bryn’s smallholding is raided by people from Birmingham, desperate for food as the supermarkets are empty. This sets in motion a deeply upsetting series of events. So I marketed Stormteller as cli-fi.
On the back of that we got the Hay Festival to agree to hold its first panel session on cli-fi, which I invited George to sit on as a way of returning the favour, and I brought in a couple of other cli-fi writers, like Saci Lloyd. Saci is the author of The Carbon Diaries 2015 (written in 2007) and 2017 (written the following year). These are written for teenage girls in particular.
Saci discussed how she had been working on climate change with kids in schools and youth groups, using the book to stimulate conversations. “Compared to superheroes or music, climate change is a pretty dull subject but I’ve learned that the best way to get my message across is to be passionate, completely committed. Gradually they move from being apathetic to ‘What? Why didn’t we know any of this!'”
That, for me, is what cli-fi is for. That’s the measure of its success. To wake people up. The panel at Hay was asked by the public there why we feel the need to talk about climate change in books. Well, basically, because it’s hardly taught in schools. “If you do geography or science, then you might touch on it,” said Saci. “But it’s not a core subject, so it’s quite possible to go right through school and come out the other not knowing anything about climate change.” There you go. Amazing. The most pressing subject facing the planet and we pretend it isn’t happening.
So I heard myself defending this: “There’s nothing wrong with using fiction to talk about serious subjects. Children’s writers have been doing this since Charles Kingsley wrote The Water Babies about child chimney sweeps.” Yet there was a young Telegraph journalist sitting on the front row. She took what I said and turned into a headline in the following day’s printed version of the paper, which read: “Climate activists say: ‘We must infect children’s minds'”. Infect children’s minds. As if they’re not infected anyway by advertising and junk food and social media.
So, with the predictable inevitability of the internet, this was soon picked up by nutters and climate sceptics. And the next thing I knew I was being accused of corruption of minors, child molestation and even, in one tweet from a fundamentalist Jewish organisation, of being Hitler. Which just goes to show the truth of Godwin’s Law, that any internet argument will inevitably lead to somebody being accused of being a Nazi.
So what else is cli-fi? If you read the Wikipedia entry it cites Jules Verne’s 1889 novel The Purchase of the North Pole as an early harbinger, which imagines climate change due to tilting of Earth’s axis. His Paris in the Twentieth Century, written in 1883 and set during the 1960s, has Paris have a sudden drop in temperature which lasts for three years. Wikipedia lists J. G. Ballard’s climate extremism novels from the early ’60s; then, as knowledge of climate change increased, fiction about it really started coming out, one of the earliest being Susan M. Gaines’s Carbon Dreams.
Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) is a techno-thriller that portrays climate change as “a vast pseudo-scientific hoax”. And Margaret Atwood is always referenced in articles about cli-fi because of her dystopian trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009) and MaddAddam (2013). Oryx and Crake envisages a world where “social inequality, genetic technology and catastrophic climate change, has finally culminated in some apocalyptic event”. You’ve got corporate compounds, gated communities and “unsafe, populous and polluted” urban areas where the plebs live. Yep, standard dystopic stuff.
Which gets me thinking. Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in? Or are we just speaking to the converted?
Do the stories we tell influence the future we will live in?
I know from my own introspection that fear is a massive motivator for negative behaviour… In Michael Moore’s documentary Bowling for Columbine, fear of being a victim of crime is given as a prominent reason for the huge disparity between homicide rates in Canada and the USA, many other factors being equal. But what fuels the fear? The daily dosage of crime reportage meted out to the American public in the media, says Moore. This drives gun ownership and an obsession with security, a perception that crime rates are much worse than they really are and a consequent perceived need to arm oneself and shoot first.
In other words, he says, the moral, social and political fabric of American society is being skewed by the distorted picture of the world being drip fed into the American psyche. In this feedback loop, each random mass shooting and each deliberate homicide reinforces the feeling of threat and the conviction that possession of loaded firearms is the best form of personal security, a feeling that is precisely opposite to the reality. For — as Moore’s documentary portrays — in Canada, where levels of gun ownership are approximately equal to the USA and the population is also racially mixed, many people do not even bother to lock their doors and murder rates are extremely low. News media and politicians there do not fuel the inevitability of violence as a means of solving problems, instead focusing on the need for mediation, negotiation and compromise.
Similarly, how else can we explain the fact that it’s only really in America that climate scepticism reaches epic, violent proportions, where political polarity fuelled by fake news paid for — literally, as documented by Greenpeace and others — by fossil fuel companies convinces scientifically illiterate people that they know better than 97% of the world’s climate scientists?
The conclusion I draw from this is that the stories we are told about the world out there define the way we prepare ourselves to face it. And, as Dan Bloom has it, fiction has the power to reach parts of the human psyche inaccessible to politicians and scientists. We writers like to believe we can change minds.
Or are we just speaking to the converted?
Let’s look at it from the writer’s point of view. Some of us are thinking: what kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of future will our children inhabit? What is the best future we can imagine? But others aren’t. From Fritz Lang’s 1927 film Metropolis and Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, through George Orwell’s 1948 book Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Lucas’ 1971 film THX 1138, Mega-City One from Judge Dredd, conceived in 1977, to Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Blade Runner, they have all set the template for many other stories and films, such that in the popular imagination the sprawling mega-cities of the future will largely be over-populated, polluted, broken places, featuring dark towers, high levels of surveillance and crime, their citizens treated little better than battery-reared animals, and no room for nature.
If that’s the popular image, does this mean that this makes the dystopic metropolis a self-fulfilling prophecy, subconsciously if not consciously reinforcing the mindsets of planners and architects? Does it soften up the public, preparing them to acquiesce in the face of grim and unimaginative design, polluted air, poor policing and service levels, corrupt or inefficient governance, long commute times, constant noise, high levels of personal danger?
Where would you rather live: Utopia or dystopia?
William Gibson, in his 1979 cyberpunk thriller Neuromancer, describes Night City, a fictional city located between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the west coast of the United States as being “like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.” Dystopian par excellence, it has inspired a roleplay game, Cyberpunk 2020, and a detailed guide book — not bad for a fictional city. Night City is an arcology — a portmanteau of ‘architecture’ and ‘ecology’ — a design concept for very densely populated habitats, coined and popularized by architect Paolo Soleri. But it turns out that he and other architects have conceived highly sustainable and desirable arcologies. Soleri’s concept appears as early as 1969 in his Arcology: City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, 1969). Attempts have even been made to build them.
Soleri intended his Babel IIB arcology as “an anti-consumptive force and a city form that is the only choice compared to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction”. It was designed for a population of 520,000, at a height of 1,050 meters. Besides residential spaces it includes gardens and waste processing plants, everything you need: parks, food factories, etc.
Funny that Gibson took the idea and then reverted it to pathological sprawl and environmental destruction. Just goes to show that the devil gets the best tunes. Which, I submit, is part of our problem as we collectively, culturally, try to imagine the future.
Why are there more dystopias than utopias? Partly the answer is obvious – in dystopias there is more conflict and this means more drama. In a utopia, less so, so they are intrinsically boring. But, I submit, we need the examples of pleasant potential societies to aspire to. Or is that the province of religion?
Some cli-fi novels contain solutions. The Sea and Summer by George Turner (1987) ends with the protagonists being taken from a hellish part of the world ruled by misguided religious nutters to a sanely governed one. But we don’t get to see much of it.
Ben Parzybok, author of Sherwood Nation (2014) did it in Portland, Ohio, where he lives. He imagined it being wrecked by prolonged water shortages and part of the city forming an autonomous zone. In an interview I did with him he said:
“Since I live in the center of the temporary autonomous zone in Sherwood Nation, it was a joy to bike through it and imagine where a wall would go, or guard posts, or how the micro-nation might implement a trade route — or even how I might destroy a friend’s house. Also, the Occupy movement was setting up TAZs in many cities, and so I extrapolated that to a full-fledged alternative government.”
But he doesn’t think it’s a utopia, just a grass-roots way of organising society. And it gets destroyed, easily, by the authorities. He said:
“I would love to try to write a utopia, especially because these visions are subjective, though I’m guessing it would be more challenging. Story is dull without conflict or tension, and so the author would need to find a means of adding that into a utopia without sacrificing the utopic nature of it. A book with a character who wanders between a dystopia and utopia, I would read / write.”
In Part 2 of the Rise of Climate Fiction: The Emotional Key, which you can read here, David discusses the importance of fiction that explores the emotional ramifications of climate change in the daily realities of the lives of its characters — and of ourselves.
This two-part post was originally a talk David gave to a recent workshop on Popular Narratives of Environmental Risk – part of a series called Fate, Luck and Fortune.
Find out more
David’s novel Stormteller is published by Cambria Books in paperback and e-book.
You can find out more about the series of workshops Fate, Luck and Fortune, which were organised by Nottingham University’s Department of Classics as part of an AHRC-funded research project into how do we talk about the risks of our environment?