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Science Fiction Can Save Environmentalism

With public interest in the gutter, the green movement needs a shot of futurism

Tate Williams
Oct 22, 2013 · 5 min read

Bill McKibben was firing up a rally of climate activists in Cambridge, Mass., this past summer in preparation for a protest and mass arrest at one of the state’s coal-fired power plants:

“The message we need to keep sending all the time is, there is nothing radical about what we’re asking,” he said. “All we’re asking for is a world that works the way the one we were born into worked. That’s not radical. That’s actually kind of conservative.”

This is a shrewd point, and just one part of a pretty powerful overall talk, but as an environmentalist, I found the sentiment troubling. If the green movement’s rallying cry is to keep the world the way it was when we were born, isn’t it fairly doomed? Sounds like a stodgy, if not pointless cause. I would argue that, for environmentalism to stay vital in decades to come, it’s going to have to stop being so resistant to change, and dive into a far more imaginative conversation of what our future might hold.

In public opinion polling, global warming ranked at the absolute bottom of a list of issues Americans consider a high priority. Dead last. Number 21, just below “improving infrastructure.”

As things stand, McKibben is right—much of the current movement, its popular image at least, is pretty conservative, in the sense that it’s defined by keeping things the same or moving them backwards. It asks people to slow down, don’t do this or that, restrain themselves, get things back to the way they were. With that kind of underlying message, it’s no wonder that in public opinion polling, global warming ranked at the absolute bottom of a list of issues Americans consider a high priority. Dead last. Number 21, just below “improving infrastructure.”

In contrast, consider a recent interview with Annalee Newitz, journalist and editor-in-chief of science fiction blog io9. Newitz recently published the nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, which blends sci-fi ideas and hard science to explore various pending global catastrophes.

In a June interview on podcast Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy, host David Barr Kirtley asked Newitz, if people hear this and want to know what they can do, what organizations or causes can they support to help prevent an environmental catastrophe? Her response was telling about how people think of environmentalism:

There’s some really basic stuff. It’s almost kind of like saying, ‘Eat a healthy breakfast.’ You do need to think about reducing waste, reducing reliance on fossil fuels. All of those things that you’ve been hearing from environmentalists, those are true.

Instead of a rousing call to arms, this is the best plug the green movement gets. Because these are the kinds of messages environmentalists have typically had for the public, and this is the common image the public has of them—schoolmarms lecturing on bad habits.

She then, however, pivoted away from all that boring stuff to describe a world of cities with buildings made of self-healing concrete, and living materials that interact with the surrounding ecosystems. Bioluminescent algae illuminating our homes at night, and filtering our air and water, cities that produce their own food with urban farms.

This kind of world is far from the one we were born into. But maybe it’s the kind of world environmentalists should start talking about.

Science fiction writers like Paolo Bacigalupi, Tobias Buckell, Kim Stanley Robinson and Octavia Butler have been playing in these worlds of wild environmental speculation for some time, imagining just how radically different things are going to get, and just what humanity will have to do to adapt and sustain.

This kind of world is far from the one we were born into. But maybe it’s the kind of world environmentalists should start talking about. There does seem to be an emerging fork in the green movement that is decidedly embracing this kind of futurism, promoting wild-eyed ideas formerly resigned to such fiction.

  • In September, a group of scientists posed the idea in an opinion piece in Nature that genetic tweaking should be considered to curb mass extinction of animals that would otherwise be doomed.
  • Projects like Revive & Restore are promoting de-extinction efforts to resurrect extinct species, as promoted by green icon Stewart Brand.
  • A paper published last year in Ethics, Policy & Environment made intentionally shocking headlines by suggesting biological modifications to humans to better equip us to deal with climate change.
  • Environmental philanthropy has been building adaptation to climate change into its portfolios, in addition to curbing the worst outcomes.
  • And the stem cell burger had its culinary debut in August, prompting some to salivate (if not over the taste) over the idea of a less-resource-devouring beef industry.

All pretty exciting ideas. And yet, I suspect the average green would very likely recoil at many of them for straying from the natural way of things. Environment writer Jason Mark challenged the de-extinction movement in an opinion piece last month in Earth Island Journal and Salon:

The species revivalists overestimate de-extinction’s contribution to conservationism because they misunderstand what conservation is really about…Taking some parts of the nonhuman world and protecting them from our unruly desires is, above all, an exercise in restraint — not creation. Conservation is about forbearance. It’s a demonstration of the discipline to leave well enough alone.

It would be great if the two ideas—building a different, better world, and conserving its nonhuman aspects—weren’t mutually exclusive. Maybe the optimistic, science fictional ideas Annalee Newitz describes can marry McKibben’s coal plant protests.

I hope so, otherwise I fear the environmental cause will suffer the common fate of backward-looking movements—a slow, sad death of irrelevance.

This post is part of 5 Viridian Years, a month-long re-examination of science-fiction author and design critic Bruce Sterling’s attempt to engineer an avant-garde bright green design movement in the dying days of the 20th century. Five years after the project ended, we are revisiting its goals, methods, impacts, and offshoots. Want to take part? Contact

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