Imagining Climate

How science fiction holds up a mirror to our future

By Ed Finn

(Lucas Schifres/Getty Images)

The trouble with climate change is that it’s too slow: a creeping disaster causing incremental changes to our lives one year at a time. It moves so slowly, in fact, that by the time the forecast for destruction proves correct (years or decades after it was made), we’ve already turned off the news. As a topic, a debate, and a modern theological schism, climate change seems to be washed up in popular imagination even as the ice melts, the forest fires rage, and the drought deepens. Occasionally we’re confronted with stark reminders of its power, like images documenting the retreat of glaciers or starving polar bears, but because the political trench war over climate change has been going on for so long, we can barely move beyond hopelessness to muster some pity.

It is, as Al Gore put it, an inconvenient truth, but the title backfired on him — the truth proved so difficult to contend with that we work harder and harder to ignore it. We are so immersed in the slow boil of climate change that we’ve lost sight of it completely, and we need to escape lived reality before we can even learn to see it. A jetpack, a flying car, a TARDIS… We need better stories about the future to talk sensibly about the present. It turns out we need the unreality of fiction to understand reality. Speculative fiction, science fiction, climate fiction — call it what you will, it all runs on the same biofuel of imagination.

So what can speculative fiction teach us about climate change? It can take numbing debates over pollution parts-per-million and acre-feet of water and put them into gripping, visceral context. Consider how different today’s policy disputes over California’s drought are from Paolo Bacigalupi’s description of life in near-future Phoenix in The Water Knife:

Here, close to the relief pump, here was life: bonfires burning two-by-fours hacked from the husked-out corpses of five-bedroom houses. The tents of the Red Cross, swaybacked with the recent storm’s accumulated dust. Doctors and volunteers wearing filter masks against the dusk and valley fever fungus, tending to refugees lying on cots, and crouching over infants with cracked sandy lips as they took saline drips into their hollowed bodies.

OK, so it’s not exactly a blueprint for a better tomorrow. But it beats endless discussion about lawn-watering, rate hikes, lawsuits, and the existential threat (or not) posed by the California almond industry. Bacigalupi puts you there, in one possible world spinning forward from our own like fragments of a bomb that is, we can now see, just going off in the present. It is a window into a place that might be, that can be logically extrapolated from our own. As you read, the initial shock of strangeness gives way to the creeping recognition that this hellscape is not so distant from our own lives. Not distant at all: separated from the life my family lives in Phoenix only by the turn of a tap that brings us water in the desert, whenever we want. Speculative and science fiction drop us into worlds that are both familiar and fantastic, an experience that scholars call cognitive estrangement.

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.

This is especially important in the context of climate change and climate fiction, or cli-fi, where environmental changes that are inevitable and social adaptations that seem impossible are headed for spectacular collision. Climate fiction allows us to kill our darlings, as the writers say, and road-test our assumptions. Using the imagination laboratory between our ears, we can hypothesize about ditching political sacred cows and cultural mores that otherwise seem as inescapable as gravity. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy gleefully pokes capitalism and religion in the eye along the way to her true target: the facile lullabies we sing to ourselves as we ignore our lives crumbling around us.

The power of speculative fiction to turn abstractions into hard-edged objects and place them in the paths of real, complicated, contradictory humans is more than just good entertainment or a writer’s parlor trick. It is a practice of imagination, asking readers to do the heavy lifting of bringing these futures to life in our own minds. Because we take on that labor, we practice imagination as much as the writers do — so speculative fiction is a contagious form of imaginative thinking.

That kind of thinking is exactly what we need to solve the wicked problems of climate change. The standard models of progress have failed us, and we desperately need more creative and inclusive ideas. As long as climate change is the exclusive domain of technical expertise, policy discussions, and political grandstanding, it will fail to mobilize the kind of broad, deep engagement you need to change the world. As my colleague Manjana Milkoreit at the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University has shown, the diplomats and political leaders debating responses to climate change are suffering from a serious imagination deficit.

Imagination is what speculative and science fiction have to offer in the conversation about climate change. It’s not that climate change is a figment of a possible future, but that its deep infiltration of the present is so vast and slow that we need to see it through fiction. Bruce Sterling called it “a melancholy and tiresome reality,” and when Atwood inaugurated the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative in November of 2014 she called it “the Everything Change.” Perhaps the single best tool we have to combat wicked problems and complex systems is narrative — the ambiguity, complexity, and specificity of stories that can capture an entire era through the eye, and the heart, of a single character.

And, yes, I’ll say it: we also need more optimism. Climate fiction should not only be about the things that can’t and shouldn’t happen. We have to imagine better tomorrows in order to change our reality today. We need stories that make sense of climate change and chart a path to action, helping us to see the challenges clearly but also begin envisioning our answers to those challenges. We need infectious, thrilling, scientifically grounded stories about what might be — stories that invite all of us to see the world as it is and make it a better place than we found it.

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