Literature is constantly finding ways to end humanity.
The catalyst could be aliens, robots, asteroids or societal upheaval. The “end of times” has fascinated humans since before humans first took pen to page, and literature continues to reflect that interest. Our stories of destruction often contain a message of warning to future generations; and, the impetus of this warning is often reflective of the challenges and fears of the day.
Climate change’s impact has become an impossible-to-ignore fear that is worthy of one of these stories. For millions around the world, climate change has become more than the subject matter for a speculative—or even scientific—paper. Lives have been changed in dramatic ways. “Our world is burning,” has become the mantra of those who believe that now is the only chance we have to save our planet.
Our reality is fueling our art. Climate fiction, or what’s becoming known as cli-fi, has become an emerging sub-genre: imagining the future in a world where climate change is left unchecked. Books, films and media have seized on the theme of a changing Earth. They have sculpted a story of an unrecognizable future for our world, based on the changes we already see today.
For example, 2040 A.D. is a collection of short stories published by McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern in partnership with the Natural Resource Defense Council. The collection features short stories imagining how the world will look in 20 years if climate change goes unchecked. The author of each story was paired with a climate scientist to provide research and insight.
In addition, some existing novels are being repurposed and are finding new meaning as their issues become more relevant and focused. In Pasadena, CA, musician and activist Toshi Reagon has adapted Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower into a folk song. The book was a fundamental cli-fi book written before the “cli-fi” genre had been clearly defined, depicting a world that is ravaged by water shortages and the woes that those shortages create.
The recent activism for climate action has awakened the spirit of the world’s youth: those who will be most affected by the environmental changes. Spearheading this wave of protest is the young Greta Thunberg, outspoken environmental activist and Nobel Prize-winner from Sweden. Her activism has spawned a children’s climate fiction book called Greta and the Giants: a picture storybook which depicts Thunberg’s strike from school and global movement.
It may be that the label of science fiction is beginning to become a verisimilitude for cli-fi. The changes the world is facing are certainly real—that is not the argument here. What is important about this literary movement is how it tackles an incomprehensibly large issue. You can hear that the ocean is rising or that global temperatures are increasing, on average, by a fraction of a degree a year—but that isn’t terribly relatable.
Cli-fi puts a face to the name. It gives a narrative to the changing globe and gives life to characters who are impacted terribly by their environment. The story, not statistics, gives people something to focus on.
And that, as the story goes, is when real change will occur.