former dean at Duke and now retired and enjoying life in the slow lane:
There’s a new genre called literature and cinema dubbed cli-fi. Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow writing in the magazine Dissent: A Quarterly Journal of Politics and Culture proclaimed “Cli-Fi: Birth of a Genre.” Both NPR and The Christian Science Monitor did major stories about ‘cli-fi’ as a new literary term. NPR started the entire media wake-up call off on April 20, 2013, truth to tell.
The “cli-fi” has reached into the blogosphere, social media, newspapers, opeds and most importantly, and tellingly, academia. Plugging the search term into Amazon, I got an impressive number of hits. Quite a number were novels that feature climate change as a major theme and driver of the plot.
Even Margaret Atwood, one of the great writers of our time, has given cli-fi her stamp of approval:
“There’s a new term, cli-fi (for climate fiction, a play on sci-fi), that’s being used to describe books in which an altered climate is part of the plot. Dystopic novels used to concentrate only on hideous political regimes, as in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Now, however, they’re more likely to take place in a challenging landscape that no longer resembles the hospitable planet we’ve taken for granted.”
How Cli-Fi Novels and Movies Inform Global Climate Change Discussions
I think it’s great that climate change has gotten the attention of cli-fi writers like Paolo Bacigalupi and film producers like Marshall Herskovitz and that their work is garnering attention in the media and the marketplace.
A Cli-Fi Novel That Stands Apart: Flight Behavior Makes Climate Change Tangible.
For a novel that I find takes those issues head on and makes them personal and tangible, check out Barbara Kingsolver’s 2012 novel Flight Behavior. In an NPR interview Kingsolver described why she chose to write Flight Behavior:
“Why do we believe or disbelieve the evidence we see for climate change? …
I really wanted to look into how we make those choices and how it’s possible to begin a conversation across some of these divides … between scientists and nonscientists, between rural and urban, between progressive and conservative.”
Kingsolver places her novel in rural Tennessee among farmers and other blue-collar types who would find the usual tips many of us bandy about for “going green” — flying less or buying a Prius — laughable. Not because they don’t care about the environment but because such actions are irrelevant to their lives — they’ve never and probably will never take an airplane because they can’t afford to and the only vehicle they drive is the old pick-up that’s been around for decades.
The author takes these people and makes them confront an ominous and, for many, seemingly miraculous event — the arrival of millions of monarch butterflies to the mountains of Appalachia. It’s an event almost certainly caused by climate change and one that brings good things and bad things to the community, it divides them and profoundly challenges their beliefs, assumptions, and lifestyles. The way the characters choose to respond to these challenges in their varied and individual ways provides in a microcosm the challenges our society faces in developing a consensus on a suitable response to a very real and disturbing threat. And importantly, does so without transporting us to an imaginary, post-apocalyptic world but by making us, like the people in Kingsolver’s rural Tennessee town, confront our changing world and the people that populate it.
It’s a great read. If you haven’t yet settled on your dedicated cli-fi reading list yet, you might want to put this one on it.
Bill Chameides is a former dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He is now retired and enjoying his sunset years with his wife, their children and their grandchildren.