Monday, October 26, 2015

Claire Gardner on "The Apocalypse is Easy: Limitations of our Cli-Fi Imaginings"

The Apocalypse is Easy:
Limitations of our 'Cli-Fi' Imaginings



NOTE: Claire Gardner is so fascinated by the ''climate apocalypse'' that she started a thesis on it at the Australia National U niversity [ANU] and works with local environmental groups in the hope that it will not come to pass.

9578586164_6b949ba176_oIsaac Cordal, ‘Follow the Leaders’ sculpture series

In a 2005 article for The Guardian, Robert Macfarlane lamented the lack of a cultural response to climate change, asking: ‘where are the novels, the plays, the poems, the songs, the libretti, of this massive contemporary anxiety?’ Since then, a rapidly expanding body of climate fiction,[1] and indeed, the rise of the term ‘cli-fi’, indicate that, despite the initial blockage, climate change is now very much here in our collective consciousness and cultural output.[
The question that remains, however, is what the consequences of this literature are and can be. For Macfarlane, such an ‘imaginative repertoire’ provides a means ‘by which the causes and consequences of climate change can be debated, sensed and communicated.’ That is, ''climate change fiction'' [cli-fi] will allow us to imagine how climate change might affect our world.[3]

Underlying this expectation is a hope from many, including cli-fi activist Dan Bloom,[4] that cli-fi novels and movies will prove the inspiration for the political action and social change widely agreed to be lacking.

Despite this, the social complexities of climate change, and the variety of meanings that it holds for different people,[5] must give pause to those who hope that the canon of contemporary cli-fi will convey a particular political understanding.

Easily recognisable is the conceptualisation of anthropogenic climate change as ‘the mother of all problems’ –”the [greatest/defining/most serious]* long-term [problem/challenge/threat]* facing humanity’ *delete as desired’[6] that cries out to be solved. Yet, how is this conceptualisation translated into literature? Does the rallying cry of “climate action now!” risk becoming an empty cliché as it trails a continual commentary of inaction; is climate change simultaneously cementing itself within the social imagination as something unsolvable? How climate change is constructed in fiction reveals much about which elements capture our attention, and – more importantly – what the limitations of our collective imagination are.

''Climate-change fiction'' [cli-fi] encompasses stories from an imagined present, to near-future and far-future worlds.[7] [Also stories set in the past as well, as many authors have demonstrated, including Bruce Sterling's MASTER OF THE AVIARY set 1000 years ago.] Science fiction is prevalent,[8] but cli-fi is not a subgenre of sci-fi as it crosses into other genres and ‘literary’ novels.

Climate change frequently appears as the setting for social change, but is also woven into plot and character through conspiracy scenarios and environmental disasters.[9]

Perhaps most distinctive, however, is how pervasive depictions of dystopian and post-apocalyptic futures are.[10] Indeed, one recent, non-academic description is that ‘cli-fi takes climate predictions to their logical conclusions and explores how people might survive in a completely messed up world.[11]

Sargisson argues that many of these fictional worlds claiming anthropogenic warming function as warnings; a critical role frequently attributed to science fiction.

We may acknowledge an unresolved debate about the role of literature to be politically motivating, and still give careful consideration to what potential appears present, as much, though not all, of the academic literature on climate fiction takes a similarly contemporary-critical stance.

Another position is arguably more passive; that the reality of climate change and the practical and ethical challenge it presents demands fiction to explore and come to terms with a climate-changed world, and what living in such a world entails for our species.[12]

While science can give predictions about possible futures, fiction enables the expression of human action and emotion through which to assess the meanings of climate-changed lives.[13]

Stories are well suited to communicating information about global change because of their ability to make tangible and relevant such abstract and large-scale phenomenon.[14]

They are also able to explore how the institutions and values necessary to social survival facilitate our interactions with climate change (both cause and effect), potentially enabling responsive strategies.[15]

However, the recognised prevalence of apocalyptic scenarios in much climate fiction[16] raises important questions about how well such outcomes may be achieved.

Etymologically connected to ‘unveiling’, and the biblical Book of Revelation, the apocalypse entails ideas of inevitable final catastrophe and the uncovering of some deeper meaning, or even a new world.[17]

Macfarlane argues that for literature to personalise climate change causes and impacts, it must explicitly not be apocalyptic, as climate change is not yet apocalyptic itself. Unfortunately, the apocalypse, and spectacular catastrophe, appears to lend itself to drama in a way that the incremental creep of slow change that is climate change unfolding does not.[18]

The language of endings and final judgement easily risks inflating the reality of climate change, and drawing in religious connotations that may wish to be avoided.[19] There is a common agreement that apocalyptic rhetoric stifles political will[20] presenting climate change as something to be avoided, yet unavoidable.[21]

Effective’ apocalyptic narratives (assuming one wishes to motivate action on climate change) must then convey the gravity of the situation without encouraging disengagement and the closure of imagination; overcome the normalisation of apocalypse in contemporary society;[22] and ensure that climate change is not represented as a problem requiring only techno-regulatory solutions, but rather an opportunity for social transformation from below.[23]

Climate change fiction faces a colossal challenge if it is to explore the impacts of climate change on our society and emerge inspirational; one may wonder whether this is an impossible task.

The Sea and Summer

George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, published in 1987, is commonly regarded as one of the earliest cli-fi novels. The core narrative, set in mid-twenty first century Melbourne, is a novel within a novel, ‘written’ by a historian living one thousand years later in the time of the Autumn People, to reconstruct the lives of those in the ‘Greenhouse Culture’ as it descended into ruin. As a result of climate change, economic and financial collapse and overpopulation, society has become divided into Sweet and Swill, the 10% with jobs, and the 90% unemployed. The Sweet live much like contemporary middle-class Australians, the Swill in squalor: tower enclaves of millions of people, an average of eight people per three-room flat (146) feeding themselves on State rations and Sweet refuse. Following a Sweet family’s descent into the Fringe, and first Swill contact, the two sons desperately attempt to climb back up before being embroiled in a deliberate plot of mass sterilisation.
The novel’s strength is its depiction of the everyday creep of climate change and its effect on social disintegration. As winter disappears and the ocean steadily rises ‘the ageing woman has what the child desired – the sea and eternal summer’ (20). This perversion of such familiar contemporary longings makes it all the more powerful. The science of climate change is barely explained; the characters know they are living it – they do not need to understand how. Turner conveys a complexity of impacts, showing how large-scale changes bear out in everyday life. The Swill are the abhorred masses, ‘so much gross humanity’ (146) that reeked with the smell ‘of our own [Sweet] bathed and cleansed but for ever dirty hands.’ (193) To the Sweet and the State ‘Swill are nothing because they do nothing because there’s nothing for them to do’ (40). The Sweet are desperate to justify their superiority, and the Swill loathe them in return, determined to see an artificial and empty existence. The State deliberately perpetuates these beliefs on both sides as a necessary way of maintaining some semblance of social order. The redistribution of all Sweet wealth ‘wouldn’t make a dent in the poverty’ (65), leaving no reason for liberation.[24]
Despite the callous actions and beliefs of the elite, Turner is determined to not portray them as intentionally evil[25] nor the Swill as worthless, but all as people caught in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Of the State,
Idealism was for the last century, when there was still time. . . we’re down to more primitive needs. The sea will rise, the cities will grind to a halt and the people will desert them. . . the State has no time to concern itself with moral quibbles. (304).
Family bonds and individual morality also disintegrate, as the Greenhouse Culture runs out of space for ‘a word that covered too much territory’ (98): love.
The Autumn People serve as a way to understand the Greenhouse Culture, and a utopian foil for the seemingly inevitably descent of civilisation.[26] Their far future is a comparatively utopian ‘post-apocalyptic’ society, which finds itself preparing for the approaching ‘Long Winter’ with considerably more foresight than our time. Trying to comprehend how we could know what was coming, but not act, the answer is:
They could do nothing about it… they were bound into a web of interlocking systems… which plunged them from crisis to crisis as each solved problem spawned a nest of new ones… In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the entire planet stood with its fingers plugging dykes of its own creation until the sea washed over their muddled status quo. (13)
Turner is eerily prescient in his empirical predictions of how things will unfold,[27] and he understands the nature of complex problems, including climate change, as not truly solvable.[28] Whilst explicit about the centrality of global capitalism to climate change inaction and social degradation, the social powers preventing action are not clearly articulated.[29]
By envisioning how undesirable the future extrapolated from present circumstances could be, The Sea and Summer is an unabashed call for action. Turner writes, in a postscript, of the novel’s intention to highlight a number of possible futures that are avoidable, should we find the courage to act.
We talk of leaving a better world to our children but in fact do little more than rub along with day-to-day problems and hope that the longer-range catastrophes will never happen. Sooner or later some of them will. The Sea and Summer is about the possible cost of complacency. (318).
Even if one disagrees with such explicit political intent, if Turner’s future is seen as plausible a refusal to acknowledge or accept the critique of contemporary social arrangements has severe ethical implications for the people whose lives will be impacted by climate and economic crises. A powerful imagining of the impacts of climate change on the physical, social and ethical foundations of humanity, the collapse is not deserved, but very, very difficult to avoid.

Flight Behaviour

Barbara Kingsolver’s (2012) Flight Behaviour is a work of literary climate fiction, exploring the ‘real life’ complexities of climate change in conservative America, and the challenge of accepting it exists. Set in present-day rural Tennessee, reluctant wife and mother, Dellarobia Turnbow, discovers a valley full of Monarch butterflies which her town believes it a beautiful miracle from God, and the scientists an omen of disaster, as the species is threatened with extinction from climate change. Through Dellarobia’s interactions with the scientists Kingsolver charts her slow acceptance of climate change and the fragility of ecosystems, and the scientists’ fears and frustrations. As a local battle entangling the church and the media unfolds over logging the butterflies’ valley, or ‘saving’ them, Dellarobia struggles with trying to communicate her new understanding of environmental disaster to a community and family she is increasingly distant from. Flight Behaviour is an incredibly sympathetic depiction of climate change denial that also conveys a very personal experience of climate science.
Science and scientists are pivotal to the novel, reflecting the common understanding of climate change as a scientific problem that requires ‘rational’ and expert understanding. The scientists explain climate change science and several impacts beyond the Monarch’s extinction, such as the loss of species elsewhere, and the challenges facing agriculture. Science is presented as impartial and objective: ‘it only tells us what is’ (320), not what to do. In a terrible irony, one claims, ‘I’m not here to save monarchs’ (320) yet is incredibly frustrated at political inaction: ‘For God’s sake, man… the damn globe is catching fire, and the islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.’ (231) During a TV interview, the media is accused of deliberately misleading the public and stalling climate action, as is actually the case,[30] with the ethical dimension clearly stated: ‘How will you feel… when a serious lot of farms in the world don’t have a damn rainy season anymore? And you were party to that?’ (368) Through this outburst, Kingsolver captures the media’s complicity, but also the limitations that scientific objectivity places on effective communication, as the message requires emotion.[31]
Recurrent imagery of Heaven, Hell and apocalypse combine to add another level of inevitability to the tragedy unfolding in real-time.[32] The townspeople believe weather to be the domain of God, thus out of their control, and climate change is likened to the End of Days. Dellarobia’s perception of the monarch’s inevitable demise, despite the efforts of scientists and activists, is that of ‘Man against Nature. Of all the possible conflicts, that was the one that was hopeless. Even a slim education had taught her this much: Man loses.’ (245) The tragedy of unstoppable climate change impacts is overlaid with the awful irony that it is all the result of human action – Man won the first battle he never even realised he was fighting.
There is only limited discussion of the causes of climate change and possible solutions. Dellarobia’s explanation of the greenhouse effect is painfully simplistic: ‘you pollute the sky long enough and it turns bad on you’ (337). Fossil fuels and increasing emissions are mentioned, but the inequalities in emissions production and the major uses and users of fossil fuels are left unexplained. Dellarobia is asked to sign a sustainability pledge to lower her carbon footprint that is embarrassingly inappropriate in its ignorance of her impoverished lifestyle, suggesting she switch her computer off standby and ‘fly less’ (329). She has never owned a computer or been on a plane. The actions of other activists present also appear rather ineffective and somewhat hopeless. Kingsolver gives almost no description of climate action that is working in any obvious way, and national and international politics are completely absent.
The novel portrays climate change denial in a humanising way,[33] noting the power of fear and selective processing of information,[34] but focusing on the influence of identity.
Climate change denial functioned like folk art for some people… a way of defining survival in their own terms… it’s no longer up for discussion… once you’re talking identity, you can’t just lecture that out of people. The condescension of outsiders won’t diminish it. That just galvanises it (395).
Unfortunately, the novel does not detail the deliberate perpetuation of climate denial by vested interests,[35] though perhaps this is the sensitive and sensible choice given a possible audience of genuine climate deniers and the political context it is engaging with.
Flight Behaviour is simultaneously a plea to accept the reality of climate change, and one explanation of why hearing and believing is so hard. It asks what ability we have to believe and act in the face of such disaster,[36] and is perhaps a rare example of climate fiction that presents its characters engaging with the ethical, psychological and social dimensions of knowing (or not) climate change predictions, rather than simply being on the receiving end of physical climate changes.

Odds Against Tomorrow

Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich (2013), is about a storm that destroys New York City, and, in an eerie example of life imitating art, was written just before Hurricane Sandy hit.[37] Mitchell Zukor is a man obsessed with the details of worst-case scenarios and fear, working for FutureWorld, a consulting firm that offers companies advice about preparing for disasters. When the storm finally hits after a brutal drought, Mitchell and his colleague are flung into a real-life catastrophe, and have to come to terms with living out its aftermath. Despite extreme weather providing the major plot development, anthropogenic climate change is never explicitly mentioned as the cause of the actual devastation. The imagery is a metaphor for apocalypse, and thus any genuine discussion of the cause, impacts and solutions to anthropogenic climate change are absent. Ultimately, the novel is about how to live with risk: giving in to disaster and the liberation it brings.[38]
Rich reveals that he had never heard of ‘cli-fi’ until doing interviews for Odds Against Tomorrow, and is not particularly convinced of the potential of such novels to contribute to political change.
I don’t feel that it’s the role of the novelist to serve as an activist. There is a term for fiction that is written with the purpose of changing attitudes: propaganda. Most environmental novels suffer from this impulse, which is why, paradoxically, they have no real influence.[39]
Rich’s determination to not be ‘political’ is disappointingly apparent as his portrayal of climate change lacks any of the real depth and complexity of the issue. Despite passing mentions to ‘sea level rise’ (65) and a ‘warming world’ (97), and a drought and flood-infused plot and setting, anthropogenic cause is not even implied, and thus the potential to avert disaster goes unmentioned, as do the majority of climate change impacts. Powerlessness pervades the novel, calling for resignation in the face of the inevitable. As a review in Rolling Stone observes, Odds Against Tomorrow is simply reflecting the fact that ‘the future… is already upon us’, and it’s plenty bad enough.[40]
Fear is further explored through Mitchell’s exchanges with a former classmate, Elsa Bruner, who has Brugada syndrome – a rare heart disease that can strike her dead at any time, despite being otherwise healthy. To Mitchell, ‘She’s a walking worst-case scenario. How does she get out of bed?’ (10) When she drops out of college to live on an isolated cooperative farm in Maine, Mitchell is almost desperate to understand how Elsa has ‘defeated, or ignored, the fear of a death that would likely come for her soon’ (65). In the end, Elsa’s utopian agricultural project, easily recognisable as a ‘sustainable lifestyle’, is callously destroyed by flood refugees, compounding its image of naivety and weakness against the ravages of the real world and inescapable disaster.
When the storm does hit it is simultaneously far worse than anything even Mitchell imagined, and eerily beautiful – a cleansing apocalypse. ‘All the filth of the world… had been wiped away, just like the bacterial sludge on his living room window. His skycity had been rinsed by the flood. And what a glorious place it was.’ (192) Although this initial impression is lost as the messy aftermath of refugee life unfolds, Mitchell finds freedom in disaster; he gives up his previous life and obsession with prediction to live a subsistence lifestyle in the decimated flatlands at the end of New York City. Despite witnessing the destruction of Elsa’s farm, he sees something valuable in her attempt to create a new world. Genuinely working for his own survival, Mitchell is ‘away from the world, yet in it more intimately than he had ever known. Doing: finally.’ (287) Out of conflict and disaster arise many possible futures, and the realisation of a limited human agency that can be put to survival in some imperfect form.[41] Mitchell grasps the implications of the storm, and climate change, far better than the other characters:
The long term was now upon them… The floods would keep coming, more and more frequently. Soon the coastal cities would lose the will to rebuild the old seawalls and levees. No one would have to pay to hear about worst-case scenarios – they’d be living them, night and day. The future would vanish as a preoccupation; the present would consume man’s full energies (196)
The future world will demand a constant struggle for survival against catastrophes beyond our control. ‘The idea that man could order the world to his own design was the most pitiful fairy tale ever told.’ (236) Odds Against Tomorrow relishes in disaster; climate change is inevitable, and even if it weren’t, something else would be.

Limitations of our cultural imaginings

It is immediately apparent that each of these three novels has vastly different constructions of climate change. Turner uses science fiction to imagine a dystopian future from the culmination of climate change, overpopulation and economic collapse, illustrating the ‘slow’ degradation of society within the span of one generation and the struggle of everyday life within a climate-changed future. Published several years before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted in 1992,[42] The Sea and Summer is a haunting call for action just as climate change was establishing itself on the global political agenda. Flight Behaviour is a result of the success, so much greater than anticipated, of the deliberate ‘denial machine’ (well-funded conservative think-tanks and interest groups) in entrenching public certainty of a non-existent scientific debate.[43] It is a nuanced look at the complexities of climate change belief in present-day conservative America; an issue that still prevents significant public support for action.[44] Odds Against Tomorrow portrays climate change catastrophe as inevitable, reflecting, despite not acknowledging, recent fears of four degrees of warming as emissions trajectories and current impacts exceed scientists worst expectations.[45] Climate change is increasingly being discussed in such apocalyptic terms, serving to depoliticise it through oversimplification and exaggeration,[46] and Rich’s failure to acknowledge the potential for mitigation could all too plausibly become an appealing resignation for those disenchanted by political inaction.[47] Perhaps he is simply picking up on a social perception that it is already too late to tackle climate change.
These differences show only a glimpse of the astonishing extent of perspectives on climate change, and despite the range of issues they cover, still ignore significant dimensions of the climate change problematique. Most notably, discussion of the causes of climate change and the structural and social drivers of greenhouse gas emissions are absent. Possible avenues for emissions mitigation and the responsibility of developed nations[48] are subsequently left out, as is one of the most significant reasons for political inaction: the challenge it poses to current industrialised ways of life.[49] As a consequence, the full ethical implications of unmitigated climate change cannot be conveyed; conscious destruction on a catastrophic scale by those who will suffer least.[50] To suggest that literature is unable to convey historical contexts, social systems or moral complexity is surely to sell it short. Whilst these texts are not intended to be representative of climate fiction as a whole, it appears that the scientific and social complexity of climate change is such that it would be impossible to comprehensively convey. Whilst this is an obvious point, the struggle to express positive and proactive responses to climate change is worrying. Trexler argues that the existing collection of climate change novels, taken as a whole, is testament to some ‘fundamental difficulties we have in articulating a just and sustainable future.’ In the leap to an apocalyptic conclusion, there is a tendency to overlook the existing political dilemmas facing climate action, increasing the challenge of providing any positive resolution.[51] This limitation of imagination is a reflection of the real complexities of the issue, and the ineffectiveness of existing attempts to motivate collective action.
Despite clear illustration of the undesirable impacts of climate change, and the implied necessity for climate action, by Turner and Kingsolver, it is unlikely that any of these three novels will prove particularly inspiring of climate change action. The lack of causal responsibility and possible mitigation options gives little guidance for positively responding to climate change. This is not to argue that novels should have such didactic purposes, but that the absence of such illustration should be noted by those pinning hopes on the potential of art to engage and inspire people with respect to the issue. Similarly, the lack of contemporary climate politics means that, in absence of other knowledge, one is left naively thinking ignorance and apathy the primary drivers of inaction.[52] The dearth of possible responses does not in itself prevent behavioural and social change, but when coupled with fear and recurrent apocalyptic themes, it should be seen as disturbingly problematic. Despite its widespread use, fear is often not a good motivator of behavioural change when unaccompanied by clear, actionable solutions.[53] The apocalyptic imagery in climate change communication generally[54] can result in maladaptive responses such as desensitisation, fatalism, helplessness, denial, apathy, and the externalisation of responsibility, particularly when self-efficacy and the ability to act are absent.[55] Whilst apocalyptic imagery may increase short-term concern, it fails to provide possible mitigation options.[56] A pathway for responding to fear is absolutely crucial to avoid disengagement, and this requires both knowing possible solutions, and feeling able to carry them out. Apocalyptic narratives do not provide either of these easily.
Portrayals of the complexities of climate change can render it overwhelming, and may make catastrophe seem inevitable. The difficulties in thus also conveying agency and possible steps for climate action, either mitigation or adaptation, render these three novels, and presumably many more, rather unempowering. The environmental movement has long tried to catalyse social change through nightmare scenarios, failing to provoke the desired response.[57] Whether the tendency to understand climate change this way is a result of grasping its inherent complexities or simply realising its dramatic appeal no doubt varies from author to author. The inability of our cultural imagination to readily engage with the causes of inaction, let alone construct possible solutions, risks the creation of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Humanity requires hope to overcome dystopian realities;[58] in the case of climate change ‘utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity.’[59] However, the fact that we seem unable to imagine ourselves actually collectively responding to the threat of climate change in a proactive and positive manner surely reveals a problem far deeper and more worrying than simply the possibility of catastrophic destruction.

Claire was so fascinated by the climate apocalypse that she started a thesis on it at the ANU and works with local environmental groups in the hope that it will not come to pass.
[1] Clark, 2013.
[2] There is a debate within the academic literature about the correct classification of ‘cli-fi’ and when it emerged – some argue, rightly, that climate has long been a theme in literature, but this ignores the specifically anthropogenic dimension of contemporary climate change (e.g. Adamson, Miller, Lines & Milkoreit, 2015). Even if the novels themselves do not acknowledge that point, they are written within a cultural context that is deeply concerned with the human cause, and the practical and ethical implications that accepting this has.
[3] Andersen, n.d.
[4] Holmes, 2014.
[5] Hulme, 2009.
[6] Hulme, 2009, p. 333.
[7] Sargisson, 2012.
[8] Johns-Putra, 2010.
[9] Trexler & Johns-Putra, 2011.
[10] Sargission, 2012.
[11] Tonn, 2015.
[12] Andersen, n.d.
[13] Ibid.
[14] Kearney, 1994.
[15] Middleton, 2010, p. 221.
[16] Skrimshire, 2010.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Macfarlane, 2005.
[19] Middleton, 2010.
[20] Fiskio, 2012.
[21] Skrimshire, 2010.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Fiskio, 2012; Skrimshire, 2010.
[24] Ford, 2010.
[25] Milner, 2014.
[26] Milner, 2013.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Hulme, 2009.
[29] Milner 2013, 2014.
[30] Dunlap 2013.
[31] Jensen, 2012.
[32] Atcheson, 2013.
[33] Atcheson, 2013.
[34] Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2002.
[35] Dunlap, 2013.
[36] Browning, 2012.
[37] Clark, 2013.
[38] Tuhus-Dubrow, 2013.
[39] Clark, 2013.
[40] Holmes, 2013.
[41] Newitz, n.d.
[42] UNFCCC, 1994.
[43] Dunlap, 2013.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Doan, 2013.
[46] Symons, 2014.
[47] Bernauer, 2013.
[48] Hansen, 2006.
[49] Vogt, 2012.
[50] Gardiner, 2011.
[51] Trexler, 2011.
[52] For such information, see Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole & Whitmarsh, 2007; Vogt, 2012.
[53] Kollmus & Agyeman, 2002.
[54] Hulme, 2008.
[55] Lorenzoni et al., 2007; O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009.
[56] Lowe, Brown, Dessai, de Franca Doria, Haynes & Vincent, 2006.
[57] Macfarlane, 2005.
[58] Sargent, 2006.
[59] Robinson, 2011.

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