Literary Hub

17 Writers on the Role of Fiction in Addressing Climate Change

In 2019, climate change continues to wreak devastating havoc on the planet. Cyclone Idai—a storm of exceptional power that was intensified by climate change—has to-date left more than 700 people dead in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. And across the Midwestern United States, heavy rain and snow has caused some of the area’s worst floods in recent memory.

This is life in the Anthropocene, an age characterized by humanity’s unprecedented influence on Earth’s atmosphere and weather systems. And in response, artists of all kinds—including novelists and poets—are producing work that speaks to the intense feelings of fear and loss that so many people are wrestling with.

Some recent examples of this kind of writing can be found in Guernica magazine’s March special issue on climate fiction, featuring original stories by Lydia Millet, Pitchaya Sudbanthad, Helen Phillips, and Omar El Akkad. To celebrate the issue—and to discuss the urgent need for climate advocacy—the magazine is hosting a reading and reception at the Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts at the New York University Gallatin School of Individualized Study on Earth Day, April 22nd (the event is co-sponsored by NYU’s Gallatin School, Climate Working Group and Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU, and Asian American Writer’s Workshop.) 

That event will surely generate a necessary and robust conversation, but to broaden the discussion further, I reached out to several novelists, poets, and editors to ask them what role fiction about climate change plays in society today—with the understanding that smart policy is needed as much as great art. Their responses were provocative and deeply felt. What follows is a summary of what they told me.

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“Fiddling while Rome burns, whistling from the coal mine, serenading the doomed while the ship sinks—I’d like to think that storytellers and poets have a more urgent role right now than this. As many other writers and critics have said, if you’re writing realistic fiction that’s set in the modern world right now, you’re already writing about climate change in some way. There’s nothing the least bit speculative about cli-fi anymore. We already know, because we can see it happening today. The economic and practical effects of climate change will be felt first and worst by the very populations that are the most at-risk and vulnerable. We have to tell those stories. Not just because it’s a moral imperative but because pretty soon, those stories are going to be representative of more of the audience for fiction. Writing fiction and poetry in the era of climate change is an opportunity and a privilege. The purpose of art is to generate radical empathy, to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and our world, through people and stories that dramatize what a climate report or news story can’t. And our world has never needed that generative power more than now. Who if not us?”

–Siobhan Adcock, author of The Completionist

“I think the term ‘climate change fiction,’ as a descriptor of genre, will eventually fall out of use–much the same way we don’t tend to use the phrases ‘love fiction’ or ‘loss fiction’ to describe stories about foundational components of the human experience. The role of fiction in society is to wrestle with what it means to be human, and climate change is a deeply human thing. As such, I don’t think it imposes any new obligations on those who write about it, but rather indicts as delinquent those who don’t.”

–Omar El Akkad, author of American War 

“Our deepening climate crisis is going to require much more creativity and willpower from all of us, and we’re not going to get through this without the power of imagination. Which means that fiction and creative writing have a unique and super vital role to play in helping us to visualize what’s coming and how we’re going to cope with it. Seldom have fiction writers had such a rich opportunity.”

–Charlie Jane Anders, author of The City in the Middle of the Night

Who if not us?

“Humans are no good at the large-scale or the future tense. We tend to recoil from enormity in awe and stupefaction—a reaction that is terribly dangerous now, in the Anthropocene, when it is not nature but humanity that is the uncontrollable danger, the ungraspable vastness. Fiction is uniquely equipped to counter that paralysis by bringing readers a direct and human-sized experience of climate change: one family’s battle against rising water, one man’s flight from a forest fire. I have to believe that if we learn to see, up close, what we have done, we might begin to change.”

–C. Morgan Babst, author of The Floating World

“Coinciding with our urgent need to address climate change, this is an important moment for poetry. Poetry celebrates, mourns, and motivates as nothing else can. By addressing our hearts and our minds, poetry helps us fall in love again with the Earth and experience our planet with fresh senses—breaking through indifference, galvanizing us to address the environmental crisis with enthusiasm, without the paralyzing fear that leads to inaction. As Jane Hirshfield writes, ‘The world asks of us / only the strength we have and we give it. / Then it asks for more, and we give it.’”

–Elizabeth Coleman, editor of HERE: Poems for the Planet

“Roger Ebert called the movies ‘a machine that generates empathy.’ The same is true of climate-change fiction. Climate change is both monolithic and multifarious. Its effects show up differently in different places, but it’s also one big thing that we have to live through together. Stories give us the power to see climate chaos anew, through the eyes of people whose lives and experiences are utterly unfamiliar to us. They’re indispensable for building the shared global consciousness that we’ll need to respond collectively, and in time to preserve as much as we can.”

–Joey Eschrich, editor of Everything Change and Everything Change, Volume II

“One hard lesson I’ve learned from my fifteen years as a community organizer is that changing the minds of our enemies is less important than giving hope and power to our friends. I’m not writing for the people who are against us. I don’t mean to say that it’s impossible to convince people with great art—other writers might legitimately feel like the role of fiction in the climate change fight is to convince the skeptical—but that’s not my priority. I want my fiction—and my activism—to galvanize and energize people who already know that something is wrong, but might not feel like they have the power to do anything about it. I want people to see their own power, and the power they can build with others, and to see that fighting back—and winning—isn’t just possible; it’s already happening, every day, all around us.”

–Sam J. Miller, author of Blackfish City

The fact that we can’t put out the fires and lower the seas with words or pictures or music doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for trying.

“Climate change is a social and spiritual emergency as well as a political, scientific one. Clearly all the arts need to address themselves to it, and never fear, soon enough they’ll have to. All too fast that confrontation will be unavoidable. The fact that we can’t put out the fires and lower the seas with words or pictures or music doesn’t mean we’re off the hook for trying.”

–Lydia Millet, author of Fight No More

“For a long time, much of literary fiction has been committed to the idea that meaning is primarily subjective and synthetic, mediated by commodity and defined by the morally ambiguous private self.  Until our stories return to the stance that meaning is out there, that it resides in the enormously difficult task of reconciling human society to the influences and affordances of the planet, we will fail at the task of living here, inside the cycles that the living world requires.  Climate change is one symptom of that failure.  The challenge lies not so much in taking climate change as our subject; it lies in taking the Earth as our object and our setting and our enduring source of meaning.”

–Richard Powers, author of The Overstory

“There is no way to really imagine that half of life on Earth has already been wiped out by human intervention. It’s an inconceivable number and the numbers we are hearing now for the future are inconceivable, too. Through simulation of the world, fiction allows for the measuring of the world, helping us grasp the scale of our losses and the imprint of our actions. It lets us conceive of the scale of apocalypse, which is never an end, only ‘an uncovering.’”

–Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué, author of Losing Miami

“I doubt that many people in power are poring over speculative literary fiction for inspiration to enact climate change policy. But they should be. Fiction can make the threats of climate change visceral, not merely statistical. Fiction forces us to imagine it, to live it, at least for a time. And imagination is the first step toward change, as Ursula K. Le Guin recognized: ‘To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.’ I experience a flicker of hope when I pair Le Guin’s words with a recent article by David Wallace-Wells in New York Magazine, ‘The Cautious Case for Climate Optimism:’ ‘As climate activists often say, we have, today, all the tools we need to avoid catastrophic change…We just need to choose to implement them—all of them—and quite fast.’”

–Helen Phillips, author of Some Possible Solutions and the forthcoming The Need

The future isn’t cast into one inevitable course.

“Great fiction allows us to see ourselves more clearly—to understand how the most urgent crises of our time touch our inner lives. ‘The private life,’ as James Baldwin wrote, ‘is the writer’s subject.’ I don’t think a novel can cause the United States and China to agree on stricter emissions limits or make West Virginians hate coal. But fiction can help us to understand how our climate crisis is changing us.”

–Nathaniel Rich, author of Odds Against Tomorrow and the forthcoming Losing Earth

“One type of science fiction imagines futures in ways that are supported by the science of the time.   Often that science gets corrected later, and the stories written before the correction turn out to be wrong somehow. Then the next generation of stories shifts to imagine the new possibilities, and on the process goes, a perpetual feedback loop between science and literature. Now the scientific community has discovered climate change, caused by humanity’s burning of carbon to fuel civilization. The ramifications of this discovery are huge; coping with the problem will dominate history in the coming century. Even so, the future isn’t cast into one inevitable course.

On the contrary; we could cause the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, or we could create a prosperous civilization, sustainable over the long haul. Either is possible starting from now, and this stupendous range of possibilities is part of what makes our moment feel so disorienting. In this situation, science fiction can be a big help to imagining our way forward.  Of course there will still be types of science fiction set thousands or even millions of years from now; those are great story spaces. But the big story now is this emergency century we’re facing, so the science fiction that is about the emergency will take center stage for a while. The more we tell such stories, the better we’ll deal with the problems we’ll face.”

–Kim Stanley Robinson, author of Red Moon

“In the realm of science fiction at least, the genre is doing for climate change what it does for most things that humans are concerned about, from nuclear war to overpopulation to biological catastrophe: Allowing us to model what a world affected by those things would be like, and to give us a glimpse of whether these are worlds we would want to live in, and if not (and usually the answer is, ‘we’d rather not’), how to work to avoid that future. With climate change in particular, Paolo Bacigalupi has been modeling what the world looks like after the fact; anyone who thinks climate change is not a big deal should be assigned his novels.”

–John Scalzi, author of The Consuming Fire

“As climate change impacts become more widespread, our world grows less legible. I believe this transition, which is already upon us, will create a hunger for literature that helps make sense of it. And if fiction is, at its core, an exercise in empathy—the act standing in the shoes of another and inhabiting her life for a few hundred pages—then literature that documents life in this changing world might help un-impacted individuals understand what’s at stake. In a world in which climate change impacts will not be equitable, I see this as a crucial step toward collective action.”

–Ashley Shelby, author of South Pole Station

“Climate change denial requires insidious imagination against a vast body of clear scientific evidence. Its fantastical purpose is to ensure the continuation of environmental and societal destruction that also acts as the worshipful sacrifice of our singular physical world to the insatiable appetite of capital, an immaterial idol devised to enrich the very irresponsible few. Against reckless dishonesty, fiction can serve as a corrective assertion of reality.”

–Pitchaya Sudbanthad, author of Bangkok Wakes to Rain

“Fictional storytelling of many kinds can convey psychological truths about living in this era and also serve as a kind of think tank or laboratory for ideas and ways of thought not possible in the real world. At the same time, public policy should be based on science, not fiction, and I personally am wary of making outsized claims for the role of fiction in this context. We need smart, complex public policy more than anything.”

–Jeff VanderMeer, author of Borne

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