Fiction Prepares Us For A Changing World
April 24, 2014

How Fiction Helps Us Visualize A World Changed By Warming

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

There is a new genre of science fiction called cli-fi, or climate fiction. It falls under the heading of "normal" science fiction, as well as dystopian fiction. According to Conservation Magazine, the term "cli-fi" was coined by Dan Bloom in 2007, and has since reached "marketable status," with both novels and movies paying homage to the genre.

A new study from the University of Copenhagen reveals how climate fiction can serve as a mental laboratory, allowing us to simulate the consequences of climate change in our minds and imagine living under other, harsher, conditions.

According to Dr. Gregers Andersen, “Global warming is much more than scientific data on changes in the atmosphere; it is also a cultural phenomenon in which meaning is being shaped by the books we read and the films we see. And there are so many of them now that we can speak of a completely new genre, cli-fi." Andersen has just defended his thesis, "Climate-Changed Existence and its Worlds; Global Warming in Fiction and Philosophy," at the University of Copenhagen.

“We use these films and novels to imagine what life and society might be like in a future when global warming has dramatically changed our world because, as opposed to numbers and statistics, fiction can make us feel and understand the changes,” Andersen said in a recent statement.

The study examined 40 examples of cli-fi, ranging from novels and short-stories to films. The samples were produced between 1977 and 2014, and all, in one way or another, have global warming as an underlying theme or plot device.

Andersen identified five overarching themes within the works of fiction, each of which represents global warming in a different way: Social Breakdown, Judgment, Conspiracy, Loss of Wilderness, and the Sphere.

• Social Breakdown is characterized by climate change leading to conflicts over natural resources and the eventual collapse of society. (For example, think about the film Mad Max.)

• Judgment is characterized by nature punishing man for exploiting its resources. (1977's The Day of the Animals comes to mind.)

• Conspiracy is characterized by a grand political and scientific conspiracy theory using climate change to mislead the public. (An example might be Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear.)

• Loss of Wilderness is characterized by the last places of wilderness being destroyed by global warming. In these works, the wilderness is treated not only as a physical locale, but also as a place of extraordinary aesthetic value. (The ill-fated movie Water World springs to mind, where there is only a dream of land, although this one might also fit the Judgment category as well.)

• Sphere is characterized by the artificial atmospheres man creates to cope with climate change. (Kim Stanley Robinson's novel 2312 where man has largely left the Earth to live in artificially constructed atmospheres / cities on other planets and celestial bodies.)

* All of the above categories are Dr. Andersen's, the suggestions for examples are from my own reading and movie watching.

Dr. Andersen cites the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow as a prime example of the Judgment theme. In the movie, a distraught climatologist, played by Dennis Quaid, must battle his way through a world-wide superstorm heralding the latest Ice Age to rescue his son from New York City.

“In The Day After Tomorrow and a number of similar fictions, nature passes moral judgment on mankind’s exploitation of Earth’s resources and becomes an avenger who, quite literally, clears the air and thus restores the proper balance between man and nature,” Andersen said.

All five traits, though they have different themes and takes on global warming, seem to have one central trait in common.

“If we do not take care of our environment, of or our home, it will change, and it will feel and seem very different – “unhomely” if you will. This is exactly the feeling the fictions want to leave us with. And even though UN’s panel on climate change (IPPC) has previously issued a report stating that global warming may lead to abrupt and irreversible changes , most of these fictions do tend to exaggerate the consequences of global warming, and the climate changes often happen extremely quickly,” Andersen pointed out.

“They do this to depict characters who can remember how the world was before the climate changes set in – the characters are, in other words, able to spot that 'our home' has changed. However, it is still a recognizable world the characters inhabit in these fictions. And it needs to be recognizable because we are supposed to feel uncomfortable with the fact that our home planet has become a strange and alien place.”