Building Visions of Humanity’s Climate Future – in 'Cli-Fi' Stories and on Campus
The deadline for a related climate-fiction short story contest is Sunday at 1:59 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. Details are below and here.
Earlier this week I spoke at Arizona State University [ASU] on ways to pursue a least-regrets approach to human development. My talk (building on one you can watch here) launched an interdisciplinary workshop on developing the capacity to manage the climate system in the face of relentlessly rising emissions of greenhouse gases.
The university already has initiatives on everything from “urban resilience to extremes” to “negative emissions” — developing ways to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in amounts large enough to matter at climate scale. (Think billions of tons a year, a scale that the Paris climate agreement presumes, without much evidence, will be possible later this century.)
But leaders of the university’s sustainability initiatives want to inspire more cross-cutting collaborations, particularly including the humanities and social sciences. There’s plenty to draw on there. How many schools have an “Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative“?
That kind of linkage is essential given the mix of values and science that will implicitly shape human pursuits in the decades and centuries ahead. It was invigorating to join an array of scholars and students stepping out of their disciplinary silos to grapple with overarching questions like these:
– What are the dominant time horizons that orient your research or professional activities (deep past -> far future)?– How predictable are the phenomena you study or care about? To what extent do you think the future is knowable?– What do you think are the strongest drivers of change? Where are the levers of change?
This workshop was just the start of what organizers hope will be a longstanding effort. Much of the day was focused on assembling personal visions of pathways to the best possible outcomes a century or more from now.
While there, I noticed a looming deadline is nigh (early Sunday morning, 1:59 a.m. Eastern Standard Time) for entries in a ''Cli-Fi'' Short Story Contest being held by the university’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative.
[SEE Dan Bloom's ''THE CLI FI REPORT'' at cli-fi.net]
Here’s the goal and some guidance from the website:
Imagination is essential to our ability to create, design and bring about the futures we want….Speculative fiction stories have the power to take abstract policy debates and obscure jargon and turn them into gripping, visceral tales. The emerging subgenre of climate fiction, epitomized by novels like Margaret Atwood’s “Maddaddam Trilogy,” helps us imagine possible futures shaped by climate change.
The contest judge is Kim Stanley Robinson, widely regarded as one of the best living science fiction novelists (and a past Dot Earth contributor).
One suggestion from me would be to avoid stories that are too familiarly dystopian. In a 2010 interview with Ramona Koval, an Australian writer and broadcaster, Robinson discussed his views on fictional story lines of the dominant dark variety:
Ramona Koval: Why do you say that dystopian fiction isn’t necessary at the moment?Kim Stanley Robinson: I think it’s just too obvious, it’s easy to imagine, it’s dramatic, it makes for good plots, but on the other hand we don’t learn any lessons from it, it’s been done before, done to death really. It’s a little bit not just complacent but dodging the issue of how do we create a better society rather than contemplate the damage that we are daily inflicting on the planet and on each other.
Later in the conversation, Robinson says his vision of utopia is more about the characteristics of a journey than some blissful end point:
Kim Stanley Robinson: H.G. Wells is a leader in shifting the view of utopia from a static end state that is indeed rule-bound and a-historical, to simply a name for a positive direction in history. That is what I have been following in my utopian work, is to redefine utopia. It’s not an end state, because we will never have an end state, history will always continue and so what you want is history with things getting better and better. There is a concept out of the philosophy of science called scaffolding that you and the work of your generation, you build a scaffold on the shoulders of those who came before, so things are a little bit higher, a little bit better. You can’t get to heaven in a single generation, but you make things a little bit better and then you are the scaffold for your children to build the next scaffold. And as if we were a coral reef, we just build towards goodness. This is what utopia has always been about, and some people tried to immediately strike to the goodness…there were Fourieristic colonies in the United States immediately because it sounded good, but they would always fall apart in the context of the overall world. This has been a problem for leftists to struggle with.
If you don’t have a story ready, or for shorter pieces, there’s always Flash Fiction Online, a monthly magazine publishing stories between 500 and 1,000 words long.
But don’t go dystopian for these folks, either. One of the “hard sells” an editor lists on the website is “evil human race”:
I’m afraid this is fast becoming the most trite and overdone of all fiction trends — evil humans are responsible for a) all the world’s ills, and/or b) the destruction of the world. Or, related to it, vastly superior aliens justify their complete destruction of the evil, wasteful human race. Sorry for being an optimist, but I have more faith in the human race than that. And more faith in aliens, for that matter.
Further reading | If you missed it in November (like I did), I encourage you to read “Writers in the Storm,” Kathryn Schulz’s engaging New Yorker exploration of “cli-fi” — fiction in which climate change plays a central role. (The term “cli-fi” appears pretty firmly credited to Danny Bloom, an American journalist in Taiwan [Tufts 1971 lit major] who was an early guest contributor to Dot Earth with his musings on [his far-fetched idea of] “Polar Cities.“)
Here’s an excerpt from Kathryn Schulz’s piece:
Unlike in Mark Twain’s time, there is nothing remotely banal about the weather. If anything, we are in mourning for that banality. What used to be idle chitchat about the unusually warm day or last weekend’s storm has become both premonitory and polarizing. Nor is there any innate melodrama left in meteorology. Weather is, instead, at the heart of the great drama of our time. Accordingly, the comedy has leached from Twain’s line. “No weather will be found in this book” now reads either as denialist—a refusal to face climatic reality—or, very simply, as sad.But we do not need that line anymore. After a long wait, quite a lot of weather can suddenly be found in our books again. We owe that revival to the same thing that first led to the decline of weather in literature: developments in the field of meteorology. It is not just that the facts about climate change have become clear; it is that, in establishing those facts, the scientific model of weather, which eclipsed the symbolic one in the nineteenth century, is now colliding with it. These days, the atmosphere really does reflect human activity, and, as in our most ancient stories, our own behavior really is bringing disastrous weather down on our heads. Meteorological activity, so long yoked to morality, finally has genuine ethical stakes.