April 28, 2015
Can a story trigger social movement? What is the role of imagination in society’s’ response to climate change? On April 2, ASU‘s Manjana Milkoreit moderated a panel event sponsored by ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative (ICF) titled “Climate Fiction: Science, Stories, or Seeds of Transformation”. The panelists included LightWorks affiliates Joni Adamson, Sydney Lines, and Clark Miller, who examined the roots of the emerging “cli-fi” literary genre and its impact beyond simply telling stories.
With acclaimed works like Margret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, and harsh images of the environment depicted in popular television shows like Game of Thrones, it is not hard to see that climate fiction has become a hot trend that is promoting a discussion about how climate change affects our future societies. However, whether or not the genre’s impact shifts real-world behavior or the way people think about climate change is still an issue to discuss.
Milkoreit kicked off the discussion by examining the first question related to climate fiction, which was to examine the origins of environmental storytelling. If we were to go back in time, would we see any instances of written work that warned of society’s impact on the environment? Or is cli-fi a relatively new genre of literature? Sydney Lines, communications program coordinator at LightWorks, and Joni Adamson, ASU professor of environmental humanities, both argued that cli-fi is not a new genre, but it is in fact, a topic discussed in many landmark works of fiction and a subject brought up in oral traditions dating back centuries.
Lines offered insights from early literary responses to extreme weather events from the past and short-term climatic changes which dated back 200 years ago. One particular event was “The Year Without a Summer,” a time of climate abnormalities which caused a major food shortage in the Northern Hemisphere caused by the eruption of the Indonesian volcano Tambora in 1815. Lines connected this climatic event as inspiration to famous works of fiction such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Adamson drew from an even older example of environmental storytelling explaining that some of the world’s oldest known societies had produced commentaries on issues regarding to the climate seen in their oral traditions. Adamson used examples from Greek mythology and Native American history to explain how humans have always used poetry and stories to reflect or make sense of their relationship with nature and the planet. Climate-focused storytelling is as important now as it was then, especially in helping societies contemplate important questions about what it means to be human and where our responsibilities to the natural environment lie.
Milkoriet then changed focus to bring up the second question which was to discuss the role of climate fiction and in shaping society’s responses to climate change. Clark Miller, Associate Director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at ASU, believes that the recent interest in climate fiction does not necessarily mean that anybody reading the genre will change their mind about climate science or climate change, but that it does signal a welcoming trend that societies are beginning to embrace thinking about climate change as it relates to our culture. Miller explained that cli-fi ultimately gives our society an opportunity to explore social and political meanings related to climate change. It does not necessarily give us an answer, but it examines climate futures and its effect on people.
The panelists then explored other questions brought up by Milkoreit such as “What are the obligations in climate fiction to get the facts right?” and “What are the implications of the heavy dystopian trend of most modern climate fiction?” These questions along with others were also directed to the audience and a microphone was passed along to have an open discussion with the panelists. One of the audience members noted that perhaps the dystopian trend present in most works of climate fiction is fueled from a sense of melancholy we feel when we contemplate our climate reality and our seeming incapability to reverse the effects of this complex problem. However, the panelists were optimistic about the diversity of stories, and multiple options that can be discussed to respond to climate challenges in the genre of climate fiction. With this perspective, audience members were left with the idea that cli-fi is a growing genre that will bring forth a multitude of ideas and perspectives in ways to cope with our feelings toward a changing environment and opportunities to proactively adapt.
The last part of the event was devoted to a flash climate fiction exercise. The audience was invited to experiment with cli-fi storytelling on the spot, challenging them to put their imagination to work. The exercise was framed by climate conditions unique to Phoenix, Arizona and centered on a couple of short story preambles. Small groups of attendees got together to develop their own stories which will soon be featured on the Climate Futures Initiative’s website.
In addition to this event, Milkoreit and Miller were also recently featured in a PBS current affairs show, Arizona Horizon, to further discuss this cli-fi topic and its impact through literature. Watch the video here: http://www.azpbs.org/arizonahorizon/detailvid.php?id=15458.
Imagination is not only an important skill to have when writing a work of fiction, but it is also an important skill for the scientific community when considering the impact of climate change. Climate fiction might not solve all our problems concerning climate change, but it brings forth new ideas about the phenomenon and helps us confront our perceptions of climate change and propose solutions. To learn more about ASU’s Climate Futures Initiative please visit their website here: https://climateimagination.asu.edu/.
Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks
Photos retrieved from ASU Magazine