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Fiction as a Catalyst for Climate Change Action

Words by 3p Contributor
Energy & Environment
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By Alex Holler

Images of a planet destroyed by climate change abound in our entertainment. Movies like "The Day After Tomorrow" and the Disney flick "Wall-E" demonstrate the dire consequences of human action (and inaction). As a society, we are strangely entranced by these depictions of our future and its chaotic potential in movies, media and literature.

Depictions like this are more than frivolous entertainment. The impact of the arts on sustainability can be significant, especially when they spur an audience into action.

An emerging sub-genre of science fiction, climate fiction, or cli-fi for short (as coined by Dan Bloom), is gaining traction in popular readership, as well as academic study. Novels like Karen Traviss’ ecological sci-fi series, "The Wess’Har Wars," and Margaret Atwood’s "MaddAdam" trilogy open an audience’s eyes to the potential consequences of unsustainable human activity. Each series focuses on a depiction of the Anthropocene, the proposed term for our current geological age, in which no setting is untouched by the activity of humans.

These books depict the tension of a humanity that longs for a return to pastoral settings, untouched by urban activity. These images filled 19th century Romantic literature, but live on a planet where “nature,” at least a site untouched by industrialism, already ceases to exist.

This tension is defined by the term “dark pastoral,” coined by Trinity University professor, Heather Sullivan. Sullivan, a professor of German and environmental literature, has written extensively on ecocriticism, a literary approach that studies how literature engages and portrays the physical world and environment.

The concept of the dark pastoral emphasizes that the traditional pastoral is no longer attainable in a natural setting. The pastoral in Traviss’ and Atwood’s fiction is dark in that it recognizes that there is no nature left untouched, and yet still explores possible methods of creating alternative, even post-apocalyptic, pastoral settings in which human beings attain a new kind of harmony with their surroundings. The only attainable form of the pastoral, in these fictions and in our reality, is one created with the dark knowledge of the Anthropocene.

In the literature of Traviss and Atwood, a new kind of nature is only achieved through destructive and violent means: both books end in a restored, pastoral planet only accomplished by mass genocide. In Traviss’ series, Earth is forcibly restored by the removal of almost all humans, and a less industrialized environment is reinstated by a totalitarian alien race. In Atwood’s, the pastoral is achieved when a mad scientist engineers a virus that wipes out most of humanity, intending to replace them with his more docile, genetically engineered substitute.

Certainly, Traviss’ and Atwood’s literature is not advocating for genocide as a solution. Instead, the extreme destruction of their novels demonstrates just how saturated the natural world is in human activity. Only the most extreme action can reverse it, or so it seems.

These fictions demonstrate just how complex sustainability can be. In both books, the loss of harmful human technology also results in the losses of medicine, history and the arts. The cultures from which humanity derives its identity are sacrificed in the name of sustainability, and the survivors are left trying to rebuild that identity without recreating the destruction that previously followed the pursuit of progress.

Neither book series offers clear answers to the problem of climate change. Instead, they function, in Atwood’s own words, as “speculative fiction,” giving readers a vision of what could happen here on our planet.

Beyond demonstrating the environmental consequences of climate change, Atwood and Traviss create an entire world where the ramifications can be felt on a human, non-human and alien perspective through the eyes of the characters affected. Climate change becomes an immediate, palpable issue, rather than an abstract concept.

Fiction lets a reader think and talk about climate change when they might be more comfortable ignoring it in reality. It’s the perfect medium to suggest the consequences of environmental destruction, to make a reader ask “what if?” Through cli-fi novels like those of Atwood and Traviss, a reader can begin to recognize these issues and seek the solutions that are necessary to find to avoid this type of potential catastrophe.

Image credit: Alex Holler

Alex Holler is a junior environmental studies major at Trinity University, a liberal arts and sciences college in San Antonio, Texas. Holler is conducting research on cli-fi as part of an undergraduate research opportunity, and will present a paper at a summer research conference based on this comparison of Atwood and Traviss, which will serve as the basis for a collaborative essay that will be submitted at the end of the summer to either an ecocritical journal or science fiction journal. This work will also serve as the basis for a chapter in Dr. Sullivan’s book project.

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