Teaching Climate-Themed Literary Fiction
a recap of the kickoff webinar for The 2022 Ultimate Cli-Fi Book Club course hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education
I’ve been percolating a backlog of topics for the Ultimate Cli Fi Book Club. I’m thinking about the novel, Severance, by Ling Ma (zombies, coming of age, apocalypse, and Asian American experience) and Nature’s End, an obscure paperback from 1988 by Whitley Strieber, who I think is a great writer despite his delegitimisation on account of alien abduction. Also, I was excited to interview Deena Metzger for Citizens’ Climate Radio about the Literature of Restoration, and her new novel, La Vieja: a Journal of Fire. Then Canadian short-story writer Sharon English blew my mind with her first full-length novel Night in the World, which is a superb example of what Metzger calls the Literature of Restoration, which we could perhaps think of as parallel genre to climate fiction; one that emphasizes healing, land, and the non-human world.
I’ve been thinking about the Handmaid’s Tale, of course. Never thought of it as a climate fiction novel? Maybe Margaret Atwood didn’t either, when she wrote it in 1985, but of course, it is. It’s all related. Is it still legal to teach The Handmaid’s Tale? The National Council for Teachers of English has created an excellent rationales database called This Story Matters, to support academic freedom and help us English teachers maintain our sanity. Bookmark it, in case you need it next semester.
But then….it was suddenly summer and time for launch of the 2022 Ultimate Cli Fi Book Club. This is an actual book club that I host as a professional development course for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Last week we had a kickoff webinar attended by around 60 sustainability in higher ed colleagues. This is what makes it the “ultimate” book club — talking about climate change with faculty from different disciplines, as well as college librarians, counselors, and sustainability coordinators. It’s about how literary fiction can help us hold difficult conversations about climate change, and change the way we think and how we teach to the existential crisis of our time.
My experience as a reader and teacher continues to evolve as the climate crisis manifests in our now-lives. I feel strongly that the climate crisis changes our work as faculty, and that we have an ethical responsibility to understand and translate what is happening, to tell students the truth (as best we understand it) and hold space for difficult emotions and challenging conversations because, isn’t that what college classrooms are for?
I have learned so much from my incredible colleagues in Geography, Biology, Economics, Conservation, Indigenous Languages, Political Science, Psychology. The Humanities are so important now, and I believe that a love of reading and talking about books is a lifelong learning skill that can hold us, personally and in community, through challenging and transformative times.
How can we receive these climate novels as offerings from the writers, and what can we do with them? The book club is not so much about literary analysis of cli-fi, although there is a lot of great work in that department as well. (In particular, I am a fan of Adeline Johns-Putra, from whom I gained the key insight of viewing climate as character, setting, or plot). And there are so many branches to this genre now as well, like Afro-futurism, hope punk, and all the realms of science fiction. I bow to all of them, and I cast a wide and inclusive net around my reading in these genres.
Our kickoff webinar was titled after a 200-level literature course that I developed called Cli Fi, Sci Fi, and the Culture of Sustainability. It was a long path and more than a decade of reading to create that course. I started teaching sustainability with a service-learning campus recycling project in 2003. (I’m embarrassed at my former naïveté about recycling, but it was an entry point.) In 2009 I did focus groups with students about sustainability curriculum, for my doctoral dissertation, and it was around that time that I got interested in the Mayan Calendar and apocalyptic zeitgeist of 2012. For a long time, Harry Potter was the favorite book of first-year students, but then suddenly it was all about the Hunger Games. Middle-schoolers were consuming a relentless lineup of bleak and terrifying futures in YA novels, and they brought that imprint with them to college. Was this a contributing factor to what has become a generational climate anxiety? Novels influence imaginations, and imagination is what creates the future. What happens when we imagine the end of the world?
I distinctly remember telling my students, back then, that of course the world would not really be ending in 2012, but that writers like to consider and imagine it because…? That’s the question we talked about. These students are now in their early thirties, a generation wrestling with the question, “should-we-bring-children-into-the-world”? In 2010 I published an essay titled, “Pedagogy of the Apocalypse”, in which I wrote about teaching The Road, by Cormac McCarthy. In that essay, I asked, “What can teachers and students gain from examining postapocalyptic futures?
In short, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now, and I think that literature and the act of reading are important aspects of climate change education. These are some of the central ideas of the book club:
1. Reading can penetrate the mind’s defenses against climate change.
2. Reading slows us down, by using a unique and specific type of attentional control to hold an imagined reality.
3. Reading engages the sensory world, helping us imagine new details.
4. Reading transcends time and space, allowing us to be in the future or the past, or an alternative present.
5. Reading engages the affective domain, allowing us to feel empathy and complex emotions.
It may be worth mentioning that I studied reading theory with Helen Gillotte in my Master’s degree at San Francisco State. Back then, I worked at Project Read in the San Francisco public library and met many adults who slipped through the cracks and never learned to read, masking their embarrassment with spectacular compensatory strategies. Many writing problems are actually reading problems. At the community college where I teach, we used to have a reading class, but it got phased it out with other “remedial” courses in the push toward co-requisite “acceleration”. In my opinion, this was an economic decision having more to do with Pell grants than pedagogy. Many college students can’t read at college level, but…oh well.
The main thing that I want for students is that they have the chance to develop a lifelong love of reading, and the skills to talk about books with others. And also, every opportunity I get, I advocate that everybody on campus needs to carry some piece of climate education, so that students can put together their own understanding as we reinforce and view the complexity of climate change from different academic disciplines. I also advocate that faculty need support, time, and strategies to know how to hold space for a spectrum of different emotions. So the book club is for all different types of faculty and staff to learn how they might integrate fiction or short stories into sustainability across the curriculum.
The book club is designed to give science teachers, for example, some strategies and confidence to teach a novel or add a short story to their courses. Many different ideas have come out of the book club, including assignments, interdisciplinary collaborations, library collections and activities, and, of course, starting your own campus book club. Even reading just one book with just one colleague is a way to have a new conversation.
So, here’s a quick overview of the 2022 syllabus! Registration through AASHE is open through August 4, or you can follow along here on the blog.
Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson
This book is a stunning example of solutions thinking and futures thinking. If you haven’t read it, I recommend my blog post, “Reflections for Teaching Ministry for the Future” and if you have, you might find helpful this “Missing TOC” which tracks the interdisciplinary threads in the 563-page novel. We also read this book last year, when it came out, and had geographer and IPCC author Diana Liverman as a guest — she’s read the book three times!
The opening chapter is a description of a wet bulb heatwave event in India, and you can read it on the publisher’s website, here. (Great Slate essay about the first chapter also, here.) The protagonist survives the event but has PTSD, which provides an opening to talk about climate anxiety. Recently, Kim Stanley Robinson gave a talk at Stanford and made some remarks about cryptocurrency, which features prominently in the novel. The comments popped up on Twitter and I emailed him to clarify what he said. He replied:
“I said that Bitcoin was a carbon burn and a speculative bubble, and that it was ruining the reputation or the possible invention of good uses of cryptocurrency. I added that blockchain might be superseded by better forms of encoding, and that the carbon coin in Ministry for the Future was explicitly a fiat currency in that it was backed by lots of central banks working together.”
So, if there are any economists in the book club, maybe we can talk about that — I’m curious about how universities are teaching things like cryptocurrency and blockchain, and donut economics and indigenous economics, and other alternatives to capitalism.
Anthem, by Noah Hawley
In September, which is Suicide Awareness Month, we will convene an important conversation about youth suicide. The weird and difficult novel, Anthem, by Noah Hawley, is about a truly terrifying youth suicide pandemic. If you didn’t know this was a climate fiction novel, just read this page:
Suicide has affected my life personally and this topic is tender and close to my heart. However, I know when I’m out of my depth, and so I was fortunate to meet Dr. Jacob Lee, who will be our guest speaker at the September discussion. Jacob is Chief Fellow in Child/Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine, and a member of the APA Climate Change and Mental Health Committee. He joined the kickoff webinar as well.
I knew already that, since 2018, suicide has been the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10–24. I knew that Covid had made this worse, that many children lost parents and primary caregivers in the pandemic, and that the impacts on young people disproportionally affected BIPOC communities. However, I did NOT know that, in October 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology, and the Childrens’ Hospital Association declared a national state of emergency regarding young people’s mental health and the rise in suicides in young people. Jacob said:
“I see a lot of young people who have had suicidal thoughts, who have survived suicide attempts, and occasionally have young people who don’t survive suicide attempts. This problem is not going away; it’s growing… depression, trauma, loneliness, suicidality — these are not going away and these are problems that need to be addressed. There are not enough psychiatrists or mental health professionals, and this is a whole community effort to support these young people and their families that we serve in so many different ways.”
I am inviting all the book club participants to reach out to their campus counselors or mental health professionals and bring them to this meeting. Because that’s what the book club is about — difficult conversations that must be had, and impossible problems that must be met.
Fire & Water: Stories from the Anthopocene, Edited by Mary Fifield & Kristin Thiel
October’s discussion will be about short stories in this terrific climate fiction anthology. In a review for H-Net, I wrote that:
“Fire & Water articulates the fractal nature of a crisis that is both invisible and ubiquitous, prompting the reader to take action by paying attention. This anthology raises the bar for climate-themed literary fiction and would be an excellent book club selection as well as a thoughtful complement to any academic inquiry into our planetary predicament.”
There are some highly teachable short stories in this collection, and I enjoyed every one of them (my favorite is “Smokeland” by Stefan Kiesbye, which I still haven’t figured out). All fiction titles are 50% through the end of July at publisher Black Lawrence Press, so you might want to go get one now, or contact your library and ask them to get the book!
The World in Winter (1968) by John Christopher
As the kickoff webinar was coming to a close, I shared my obsession with library book sales and locally-owned used bookstores and in particular, old mass market paperbacks that are cli-fi from before cli fi was a thing. I’m sure I could research these novels online, but I prefer the musty thrill of discovery.
I shared some of my favorite finds, like The Trees of Zharka and The Ice is Coming — and Natures End, which I mentioned at the beginning of this post. I have a whole shelf of these prescient pulp classics. This is how I discovered The World in Winter, by John Christopher, which was published in 1968, and will be the final novel for the 2022 book club. It addresses issues of equity in an unselfconscious way, with a cool twist at the end. When one-eighth of the planet is uninhabitable, there will be winners and losers in the new geography, and this novel really made me think hard about that.
So, my book nerd friends, that’s what’s coming up on the Ultimate Cli Fi Book Club!
In the AASHE course, we also keep a running document of climate fiction novels, and we talk about assignment design, discussion questions, and different ways to facilitate a book clubs, such as Literature Circles.
As teachers, we develop an instinct for what makes a “teachable” book — it has to be the right length, accessible and inexpensive, meet certain learning outcomes, not be overly triggering, and have this quality of “literary merit” which to me, comes down to sentence craft and the subjective question of “what is literature?” and what is the role of literature in a climate crisis?
I’ll end here with my personal criteria for a teachable climate-fiction book (even though I might make exceptions to my own rules, especially for zombies):
1. No aliens, no zombies.
2. No silver bullet technology.
3. An identifyable time and place.
4. Direct description of some aspect of climate change: Sea Level Rise, warming, drought, flood, migration, pandemic.
5. Fine Sentences and “literary merit”.
6. Climate change can be analyzed as part of setting, plot, or character.
If you are new here, this post was revisits my opening post from last year’s book club and blog where I covered Station 11, A Rain of Night Birds, Blaze Island, Solar, and The Grapes of Wrath. If you are a podcaster, some of these appeared as audio essays in the Art House feature of Citizens’ Climate Radio. You can also follow my Bookstagram @bookstagrammerhawaii on Insta.
Reading is my superpower and I hope these thoughts can be of service to readers, thinkers, writers, and teachers. Future posts will follow the book club’s discussion of teaching climate fiction in higher education and my other reading discoveries and thoughts on the genre. I welcome recommendations, thoughts, and insights in the comments. Thanks for reading!