How can literature tackle climate change?

by Fisola Kelly-Akinnuoye – Runner-up in the University of Birmingham Student Climate Change Writing Competition 2021

‘Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.’

~Ursula K. Le Guin, 2014 

‘Climate change’ feels like an amorphous term but it encompasses the manifestations of anthropogenic destruction. This includes global emissions increasing thus heating up the atmosphere; land being lost to rising sea levels; biodiversity and habitats being destroyed and freakish, improbable weather occurring more in parts of the world - destroying livelihoods and lands which feed communities. We are struggling with ecological disasters due to widespread apathy and unsustainable practices. Companies responsible for over 71% of pollution are not motivated enough to change their environmentally damaging methods of production. There aren’t policies demanding accountability and our consumer culture encourages rapid production rates. We have relied on science alone for too long to aid us in this dire climate crisis. 

We need the mobilisation of people at all levels of society from big corporations and policymakers to individuals. The summation of our efforts is what can help tackle climate change. It is hard to visualise the attack on nature because some of us are living in a ‘post-nature’ world due to urbanisation and the legacy of industrialisation. Science alone has failed to generate a societal transformation. We need a way to imagine a culture focused on sustainability, conscious consumerism, and exploration of new ideas that can tackle this issue. How do we bring Climate change closer to us? 

In Deep Iyer’s social change ecosystem chart she recognises the importance of the storyteller as an effector of change. Writers are crucial in helping us imagine a voice for what is too easily reduced to just ‘climate’ or ‘environment’ or ‘the planet’. Not only do we need people who can translate the gravity of our situation but we need writers to do what they do best- to give voice to the voiceless- as Richard Powers does in his story The Overstory; to translate the language of the earth, to create empathy for our world and help construct a culture where we are connected meaningfully to this thing we call ‘nature’. Siobhan Adcock, author of The Completionist, recognises literature’s ability ‘to generate radical empathy, to enlarge our understanding of ourselves and our world, through people and stories that dramatise what a climate report or news story can’t’. Literature works on our senses to make us feel - our brains are engaged as we read vivid imagery. As Helen Phillips, author of Some Possible Solutions, says ‘fiction can make the threats of climate change visceral, not merely statistical. Fiction forces us to imagine it, to live it, at least for a time.’ Literature will help imagine new solutions, make people care, and help us reimage our relationship with the natural world. 

Literature can help scientists, policymakers and readers. What has been missing from the climate discourse is a humanistic approach to policy by helping leaders understand human cultures and our ecosystems. Those who dominate the climate change discourse aren’t in close proximity to those who have struggled in the face of ecological disaster. Writers become vessels to tell the story of those who have suffered including nature. By reading their story brings the problem closer to those in conference rooms who are making policies. In N.K. Jesmin’s science fiction trilogy The Broken Earth series the injustices that govern our world play a part in the fictional continent of the ‘Stillness’. The novels show how institutions can perpetuate injustices, particularly towards marginalised communities. This is chillingly close to our world. The death of 8-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah in 2013 due to acute respiratory failure, severe asthma, and air pollution shows how dire the climate crisis is. It is devastating that the loss of a young child is the moment of crisis when we should be working vehemently to prevent this from happening in the first place. We need to look at climate change from a humanitarian perspective- remembering that there are lives at stake, we need the tool of empathy as much as we need the quantitative and analytical tools of science. The government is advised by scientists, statisticians but what about writers who lend their voices to the world - who speak for the ‘subaltern’, who have imagined worlds beyond our own? The novel is an experiment, testing and trialing ideas much like that of a scientist. The writer's findings can be valuable contributions to decisions on environmental policy. Individual bodies must be aware that climate change is a method of extermination for the biosphere including its inhabitants - us. We are seeing the rise of climate migrants. The Climate and Migration Coalition has estimated that roughly 24 million people have been displaced due to weather-related issues in a single year. It shows us that we cannot compartmentalise climate change- it is an intricate network of injustice against people, the environment and animals. 

Fiction can be used to affect policymakers but also readers. In an NPR article professor, Judith Curry describes it as ‘an untapped way ... of smuggling some serious topics into the consciousness of readers.’ The word ‘smuggle’ may carry connotations of illicit behaviour but it describes one of the virtues of the novel. It manages to show us not tell us important things. A didactic message often falls on death ears- no reader wants to be preached to so learning through a story is an organic way to impart information. Ecocritic Antonia Mehnert says climate fiction ‘gives insight into the ethical and social ramifications of this unparalleled environmental crisis, reflects on current political conditions that impede action on climate change, explores how risk materializes and affects society, and finally plays an active part in shaping our conception of climate change.’ Literature can help us picture potential futures and focus us on subjects we had never thought about. The Better Worlds project by The Verge is an example of literature and arts instilling hope and optimism in the face of the current crisis. In ‘Monsters Come Howling in Their Season’ by Cadwell Turnbull, the usage of AI is explored to help in climate disasters. ‘Common’ is a democratic AI database that does things like keeping an inventory of resources, provide ‘regular clean-up efforts and forwards help requests’ and ‘notify first responders in time of emergency. Turnbull says he modeled this futuristic technology on popular voice assistant speakers like the Alexa or Google home device. Not only is the writer engaging with technological solutions but he also looks at ways societies can be remodeled in his interview. He is emphatic on a ‘cooperative effort to save us’ and how community ownership can protect towns and villages from disaster capitalism if they have aftermath plans and are in control of the rebuilding of their homes. Turnbull’s story also considers the ethical issues of such technologies. The story is incredibly perceptive in its approach to climate disaster. It reminds us that we need to learn how to cultivate a relationship with the natural world. This job is for everyone - the public, the government, company stakeholders, etc. We must distribute and delegate according to scale. We must understand that this job is not ‘to save the planet’ it is to save ourselves. 

All proposed solutions come with their limitations. We must interrogate who reads? Who reads climate fiction? Who needs to read it and how can we get them reading it? Journalist Dan Bloom speaks optimistically of cli-fi as ‘a fiction genre that might help wake people up and serve as an alarm bell’ - this can even mobilise people to care but we need infrastructure in place to spread these ideas organically. We need to get people thinking about how to reckon with the vastness of climate change. Broadening the readership demographic can get ideas into the hands of future humanitarians, scientists, policymakers, educators, etc 

Literature as a solution may be critiqued as too optimistic or intangible for a situation that is so dire but we have tried science alone and it has not stopped us from continuing on the fast track to meeting and potentially exceeding the 1.5°C global warming increase target. Literature has a multiplier effect, ideas spread quickly and more fluidly than pdf reports, charts and figures. The fuel for change is hope and literature can provide this. It has taken years for the climate to get like this thus we can expect the reversal to be long and arduous, we need to sustain our efforts to reverse climate change. We must be quick to imagine new solutions when current ones fail. Writers who are producing this content need to be nurtured and need their stories to be read- and to have their story worlds materialise outside of the page. We must encourage the dissemination of climate fiction and ecocriticism in schools and higher education institutions- to cultivate thinkers and future problem solvers- we must make it our vocation to save ourselves by saving the environment. When people are informed they can demand legislation that is effective and targets those responsible. In her article, climate activist - Samia Dumbuya summarises the importance of a global effort ‘to create collective impact and change, with something that is beyond our individualistic nature.’ Stories are meant to be shared, they encourage everyone to immerse themself in the narrative, they make us think and feel. We need to be fully involved- with our brains and our hearts- to tackle climate change.