On Teaching Cli-fi (and a Call for Utopian Cli-fi)

Ted Howell
6 min readJul 28, 2015
“Abandoned Raillroad” photo by Rennett Stowe on Flickr. Altered by the author.

Many essays and think-pieces about “cli-fi” — as in, climate fiction — speculate about literature’s potential to change hearts and minds, ignite change, and inspire or energize young people to tackle the “wicked problem” of global climate change. Margaret Atwood, for instance, asks in her featured piece “It’s Not Climate Change, It’s Everything Change”:

Could cli-fi be a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them, and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions?

Activist Dan Bloom, who coined the term cli-fi and penned the piece linked to above in Atwood’s essay, certainly believes cli-fi has this potential, and he cites the plethora of recent college classes that take up the term as their focus. The college classroom makes the perfect proving ground, the ideal test case, for answering these questions and considering the impact of cli-fi on young people. Atwood, Bloom, and others are right to wonder: do readers who encounter cli-fi find themselves newly educated about climate change? Better able to imagine a radically-altered future? Inspired to actually do something about it?

I’m in a position to answer these questions, for I taught a cli-fi class to a group of 25 students at Temple University this spring. In fact, it’s one of the classes mentioned by Bloom, “Cli-fi: Climate Change, Science Fiction, and Apocalypse.” You can learn a bit about the class (and the press coverage we received) on our website, or you can check out the list of books we read (including, notably, Atwood’s The Year of the Flood) and explore all of the reviews of cli-fi books students wrote each week. As a teacher I’m particularly proud of the reviews students wrote, which represent a consistently wide and thoughtful range of responses to our mini-canon of cli-fi texts — and a willingness to grapple with the key questions about cli-fi’s potential.

My students as a group make an excellent cross-section of what we might call the “reading public.” Only half of them were English majors. All of them like to read books and talk (argue even!) about them with others. None of them knew they were signing up for a class about climate change, only for a section of “Popular Fiction.” In short, they were 25 people, nearly all of them young, who were readers of contemporary fiction. But what did they all learn from all of this cli-fi? Did it change hearts and minds or inspire them to become climate change activists? Did it at least enable them to think carefully and creatively about their future?

You’ll be happy to know I did notice some significant shifts in how the students thought about climate change. Three of them, in fact.

First, at the beginning of the semester, the class was split between students who had learned a lot about climate change and its specifics (carbon, sea level rise, etc), and students who had heard that climate change was an important issue but tended to associate it with basic environmental notions (recycling, polar bears, etc) or with political “debates” lined up with US political groups (Republicans vs. Democrats, etc). By the end of the semester everyone was well-versed not only with the specifics but about how climate change would affect human life on the planet. This is a big deal: too often the public conversation about climate change in America is limited to the same set of recognizable issues or roped into partisan politics. Reading cli-fi and learning more about climate change reoriented their perspective.

Second, as the semester progressed, I noticed an increasing distaste for traditional means of communicating the severity of climate change and its impacts, whether in the form of charts and graphs, statistics and forecasts, or doomsday scenarios. Students got tired of seeing the same facts over and over again; and once they grasped the basic outlines of the issue, they didn’t want to keep reading about IPCC forecasts of 2% or 4% increases in global temperature — they wanted to know what they could do about it. (For example, most students were exasperated by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s book The Collapse of Western Civilization, which I think is wonderful but they thought was too scientific for a general audience of readers). With a desire to do something came moments of despair. At least once every class period we came face-to-face with a realization that the most severe impacts of climate change are becoming increasingly unavoidable because of our political system and its unwillingness to tackle climate change in any significant way. Faced with the knowledge that a truly adequate response to climate change will necessarily involve significant changes to our lifestyle, and sacrifices by those with money, power, and influence, we often grew despondent. But, on the bright side, by the end of the semester we became wholeheartedly convinced that the true “enemy” of the climate justice movement is a handful of corporations — powerful ones, yes — but ones that could actually be identified and then (possibly, hopefully, necessarily) reformed. This is very much the conclusion that Naomi Klein comes to in This Changes Everything, which we didn’t read but did watch a handful of video interviews about. More importantly, the increased sense of helplessness turned, at its best, into a sense that the world of the future is going to look radically different than the world of today, and that it’s exciting (not just terrifying) to imagine what exactly will happen. With uncertainty about the future comes the potential to change it for the better.

Third, most significantly, students became much more interested about what the future would look like on a warming planet with more extreme weather: they worry about the future, of course, but more than that they wanted to think more about what the future would look like. Thus, when we got to the end of the course and read books like Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl, The Year of the Flood, and Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever, students were curious about the author’s depictions of the future, and eager to debate the likelihood of things turning out that way. In the end, I find its ability to foster realistic, generative, and even hopeful visions of the future to be the most promising feature of cli-fi. Ed Finn, in his Medium essay, explains this aspect of cli-fi perfectly:

The power of speculative fiction is not to terrify us about the future, but to show us what it might look like to literally inhabit our ideas. We read stories where human characters grapple with our shared, eternal problems — survival, love, identity, purpose, access to authentic Mexican cuisine — but they do so in the constraints of structures that are just outlines for us. Speculative fiction is not a crystal ball; it’s a mirror, showing us the world we live in projected into a fresh, imaginary space.

Kim Stanley Robinson, my favorite contemporary author and all-around brilliant thinker, continually makes a similar point about speculative fiction (including cli-fi, a term he’s a fan of) and insists that we should now more than ever write and read fiction “about what could happen if we did things right.”

What we need most, I propose, is more and better utopian cli-fi to accompany the many thought-provoking dystopian portraits of our climate future. Dystopian literature serves a crucial role, and science fiction authors have been writing environmental dystopias for generations before “cli-fi” was coined. But where are the utopian visions of the future? Books like Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia and Robinson’s Mars Trilogy — speculative fictions that aim not to scare us into action and sketch out a scary future, but show us what steps we could take to make the future better, brighter, greener, more sustainable, more just, more livable?

I’m a literary scholar, not an author, so I put this call out to those of you who can write these utopian cli-fi stories. I promise that when you do I’ll be here ready to read, teach, and write about them. Godspeed!

Ted Howell

Lecturer at Rowan University; PhD in English from Temple (modernism, ecology, Anthropocene); cli-fi; Environmental Humanities http://tedhowell.net