Stories to show us the way: Cli-fi on the rise

As readers of The Resilient Investor will know, we are always on the lookout for stories and movies that can help us envision the many different possible futures that we need to be readying ourselves for.  So it was with some excitement that I followed a series of links on “cli-fi” after completing the post about how Margaret Atwood’s Everything Change essay can inform resilient investors’ life choices.  The term was familiar to me (“climate fiction,” a growing topic within sci-fi), and the first couple of books I’d happened upon in the genre had piqued my interest.  Now, after spending a half-hour of clicking through from Atwood’s original link, I’ve got a reading list, reviews, and even a syllabus if I want to really dive in.  This post will share enough to get you started, too.

Let’s start with a few words from Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the better-known authors in this field:

What science fiction is good at is doing scenarios. Science fiction may never predict what is really going to happen in the future because that’s too hard. Strange things, contingent things happen that can’t be predicted, but we can see trajectories. And at this moment, we can see futures that are complete catastrophes where we cause a mass extinction event, we cook the planet, 90% of humanity dies because we run out of food or we think we’re going to run out of food and then we fight over it. On the other hand, there’s another scenario where we get hold of our technologies, our social systems and our sense of law and justice and we make a kind of utopia – a positive future where we’re sustainable over the long haul. We could live on Earth in a permaculture that’s beautiful. From this moment in history, both scenarios are completely conceivable.

…(re: The Hunger Games) It’s a very surrealistic and unsustainable future, but it’s a vision of the fears of young people. They’re pitting us against each other and we have to hang together because there’s a rich elite, an oligarchy, that’s simply eating our lives for their own entertainment. So there’s a profound psychological and emotional truth in The Hunger Games.

There’s a feeling of fear and political apprehension that late global capitalism is not fair. My Mars books – although they’re not as famous and haven’t been turned into movies – are quite popular because they’re saying we could make a decent and beautiful civilization. I’ve been noticing with great pleasure that my Mars trilogy is selling better now than it ever has.

Dan Bloom, who coined the cli-fi tag, notes in a post linked from Atwood’s that “It’s a worldwide trend now because global warming impacts us all, and literature and cinema always respond to the things that matter.”  In a good introduction to the purpose of cli-fi, Ed Finn elaborates:

The power of speculative fiction is not to terrify us about the future, but to show us what it might look like to literally inhabit our ideas. We read stories where human characters grapple with our shared, eternal problems — survival, love, identity, purpose, access to authentic Mexican cuisine — but they do so in the constraints of structures that are just outlines for us. Speculative fiction is not a crystal ball; it’s a mirror, showing us the world we live in projected into a fresh, imaginary space. . .(that is) not so distant from our own lives. Not distant at all: separated from the life my family lives in Phoenix only by the turn of a tap that brings us water in the desert, whenever we want. …

This is especially important in the context of climate change and climate fiction, or cli-fi, where environmental changes that are inevitable and social adaptations that seem impossible are headed for spectacular collision. Climate fiction allows us to kill our darlings, as the writers say, and road-test our assumptions. Using the imagination laboratory between our ears, we can hypothesize about ditching political sacred cows and cultural mores that otherwise seem as inescapable as gravity.

Ted Howell recently taught a cli-fi course at Temple University, and in this post he shares both some tales of how the course affected his students, and links to class materials, including the main webpage for the class, a list of links to other sites covering cli-fi (including a slightly broader one that I’ll definitely be digging into,, and a page gathering reviews of eleven key titles in the field. (Don’t let my sharing of these key resources prevent you from perusing his full piece!)

As Finn stresses in his piece, when the narrative about climate change is limited to “endless discussion about lawn-watering, rate hikes, lawsuits, and the existential threat (or not) posed by the California almond industry,” we can find ourselves drifting into abstraction and an emotional distancing from the reality of the futures that we’re flirting with.  Humans have always relied on stories to help us grapple with the consequences of our decisions—through both cautionary tales of those who chose poorly and stories of heroes who found the better way forward out of a time of confusion.  Resilient investors would do well to be familiar with both possibilities.

We’ll close with a final thought from Finn’s essay, Imagining Climate:

Imagination is what speculative and science fiction have to offer in the conversation about climate change. It’s not that climate change is a figment of a possible future, but that its deep infiltration of the present is so vast and slow that we need to see it through fiction. Bruce Sterling called it “a melancholy and tiresome reality,” and when Atwood inaugurated the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative in November of 2014, she called it “everything change.” Perhaps the single best tool we have to combat wicked problems and complex systems is narrative — the ambiguity, complexity, and specificity of stories that can capture an entire era through the eye, and the heart, of a single character.

And, yes, I’ll say it: we also need more optimism. Climate fiction should not only be about the things that can’t and shouldn’t happen. We have to imagine better tomorrows in order to change our reality today. We need stories that make sense of climate change and chart a path to action, helping us to see the challenges clearly but also begin envisioning our answers to those challenges. We need infectious, thrilling, scientifically grounded stories about what might be — stories that invite all of us to see the world as it is and make it a better place than we found it.

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