On the False Promise of Climate Fiction 

Climate fiction is everywhere.The Guardian calls a roundup of climate fiction “stories to save the world.” The New Yorker asks if climate fiction can “wake us up to our climate reality?” A recent op-ed in the LA Times posits that climate fiction is a “surprising source of hope.” There is also a tenor to the conversation that positions climate fiction as foreshadowing; telling the future. Grist says this past summer,“reality caught up to climate fiction.” The New York Public Library tells readers to read these books before they “become nonfiction.” A college professor uses climate fiction to teach students about the potential impacts of climate change. 

“Countless critics and authors have proclaimed that climate stories will help solve climate change. But unlike many critical arguments about literature and the arts, this is an empirical claim,” Matthew Schneider-Mayerson told me. In 2020, Schneider-Mayerson, a professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, decided to investigate that question. In collaboration with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, Schneider-Mayerson used two short stories about climate change to test the impact on a small group of readers.  What he found was a small increase in concern immediately after reading the stories, which faded to a nonexistent concern within a month. 

This does not surprise me. As a climate journalist, I am familiar with the cognitive dissonance that imbues every conversation about the climate crisis. I frequently find myself in conversation with people who want to wax poetic about Kim Stanley Robinson’s visionary climate novel, Ministry of the Future, but shy away when I talk about the painful grappling my family is doing around the idea of giving up air travel. Buying books will always be easier than questioning one’s own consumption. Besides, people are busy. As Schneider-Mayerson explained, “There are so many economic, social, and cultural pressures, incentives, and norms that encourage us to go back to sleep—to focus on other things.” 

The reality is that we have no idea what climate fiction does or doesn’t do. “It’s only lately that environmental scientists are studying behavior,” Cameron Brick, a researcher from the University of Netherlands who studies climate engagement and communication impacts, “rather than the easier way of studying what they self-report as intending to do, or having done, which is partially accurate, but has error or bias in it.” 

Brick says that part of the misleading messaging around climate fiction is “the idea that what we need to do is transform the concern and collective consciousness and then action would necessarily follow.”  The reality is that concern over the climate crisis is at an all-time high, and growing rapidly. If the goal is to save our species from climate change, perhaps a more efficient route would be to skip writing the book – even reading it – and move straight to direct action. 

In fact, if the goal is direct action, Brick says climate fiction could actually be a deterrent. “If you arouse a lot of concern and grief and terror, if there’s no sense that we can do something to prevent it, and here is concretely what we are doing and here are the people who are helping, then I think you can do a lot of harm potentially,” Brick says. “You are just gonna cause people to feel a lot of anxiety and want to disconnect.” Obviously, Brick concedes, this only matters if you’re trying to use your novel to influence change. 

Omar El Akkad, the author of What Strange Paradise and  American War, says that the debate about climate fiction “working” or not is a disservice to what art is supposed to be. “A lot of this has to do with the notion, which I find particularly insidious, that art is a problem to be solved,” he said. “Trying to take a fundamentally rational approach to solving art, to writing the perfect climate novel that’s going to cause people to change their minds and fix the climate crisis, is nonsensical.”

The reality is that we have no idea what climate fiction does or doesn’t do.[/The reality is that we have no idea what climate fiction does or doesn’t do.]

The truth of what El Akkad is saying becomes immediately obvious when you start reading reviews of climate fiction. Karen Russell, the Pulitzer Prize finalist and MacArthur fellow whose work frequently tackles climate change, told me about a reaction to her short story, “The Ghost Birds.” The story, which was published in The New Yorker,  takes place in a future where all the birds are extinct and follows a birdwatcher trying to find ghost birds. “I read a review of the story, and one commenter said it didn’t make him want to save the birds or the planet…it was something to the effect of ‘This story makes me want to save as much money as I can before I die and leave it to my kids, so they can buy water and air.’” 

As appealing as the idea of saving the world through art sounds, if you take a step back, it is actually quite absurd. The creation of art, when done well, melds the subconscious and conscious, a process that does not tend to react well to overt guidance. Or as Karen Russell so succinctly put it: “The danger of using a story to broadcast my own politics or treating it like propaganda or argument is that it can wind up sounding like a very bad Op-Ed.” 

Perhaps the confusion about what climate fiction can – and should – do is really just a question of the thin line between art and propaganda. While both may look like a book and quack like a book, most of the writers I spoke with described their fiction as an exploration towards an unknown destination. Propaganda, whose goal is persuasion, must know the destination and take the most succinct, least nuanced path to get there. When the label of “climate fiction” is applied to a book, every plot choice and character, starts to be seen as a message about climate change. 

Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of All the Light We Cannot See, says that while his most recent book, Cloud Cuckoo Land, could be seen as climate fiction, he was more interested in addressing a disconnection between the natural world. “I was interested in showing how Anna and Omeir’s lives in the 15th century were full of everyday interactions with dozens of creatures. There are so many animals and birds in their lives, and there’s more meaning vested in other things they share the planet with than there is in Seymour and Zeno’s lives [in modern times]. And then, by the time you get to Konstance’s life [in the 22nd century]…all of her interactions with other species, besides an ant, are virtual.” In comparison, here is a World Wildlife Fund billboard with a similar message: Love it or lose it. Same point, different dimensions. 

I have to show my hand here. When I first started questioning the role of climate fiction, I was incredibly optimistic. Of course, nobody wants to read my examination of a 1977 memo on global warming that Jimmy Carter received. Even I don’t want to read that! But A Children’s Bible? American War? I was standing in my kitchen drinking a glass of water when I picked up Weather, by Jenny Offill, and found myself two hours later, still standing in my kitchen, weeping. How can these books not change…everything? 

But underneath all that optimism, I think I intuitively understood that it is the thing that makes us weep that keeps us from taking to the streets. So many readers, myself included, grew up with books as an escape. Not as a guide. Not as a way to think about the political complexities of an issue. But as a way to submerge into a totally different reality and then emerge, hours later, back into our own lives. Reflection, grappling, resonance: these are beautiful states, but they are a far cry from chaining yourself to a pipeline drill. If we’re being honest, I put down Weather, wiped my tears, and went to have a call with the guy who does my taxes. 

Interestingly enough, Offill’s novel, Weather, actually does have a call to action – a website called Obligatory Note of Hope where readers can get “tips for trying times” and learn more about climate activist organizations – but Offill says that despite the title of the website, her intention wasn’t to instill hope in readers: “Hope and despair has always felt like a false dichotomy. I suppose this website was a way of exploring that theory. The idea was if you got to the end of the novel and it was enough for you, you could stop there and think about what all of it meant. If you felt galvanized to action, I wanted to give a few gateways you could walk through.” 

El Akkad is also trying to provide gateways in his work but for other writers. He says that climate fiction plays such a central part of his novels in part to pave the way for future novelists. “In a sense, what I’m doing, either consciously or subconsciously, with all my work, is shouting, and part of the purpose of shouting is so that the next writer further down the line can speak a little more quietly.”

This idea, that the climate fiction we are currently writing and reading, is part of an iterative process that is still unfolding, is something that Russell brought up as well. “I think that an underexplored possibility of fiction is conjuring future worlds premised on different values, different social arrangements, different ontologies, different ways of living with each other and with other-than-human nature.”

Russell pointed out that even though she reads – and writes – dystopian fiction, the ease with which writers mentally conjure worst-case scenarios gives her pause. “I worry that we’ve spent so much time envisioning precisely the future we least want to inhabit that it’s come to feel  inevitable.”  It’s true; so many futuristic scenarios outlined in novels involve drought, excruciating heat, disastrous weather events, cities underwater, humans turned against each other; a terrifying tilt-a-whirl of Mad Max imagery that tends to blur from one book into another.  Russell says this is in part because we are so saturated in our modern extractive way of living. “It’s much easier for me to extrapolate from “business as usual” to a fortress world, domed cities that protect the wealthy and mass extinctions, tremendous suffering, than it is for me to conjure a world of abundance, where people live well.”

In her newest novel, Russell says she’s “trying to see if I can tune my imagination to a different horizon, and draw some of these possible future worlds premised on different values out of vagueness and into focus.” Her novel, which includes a time-traveling camera, will be published by Knopf in 2025. 

 In our conversation, Russell and I imagined a network of climate novels spread out over decades, in conversation with each other. A hundred, a thousand novelists stretching their minds as each book pushes further and further into imagining something truly different. 

In this way, by even asking the question of whether climate fiction helps to solve climate change, we create a false dichotomy. Either climate fiction can save the world, and therefore how can any of us write anything else? Or, it doesn’t save the world, in which case the climate crisis in fiction becomes like any other topic, a novelty. A plot.  

Perhaps it is not the role – or obligation – of fiction to save anything. Perhaps these books aren’t telling us about the future, they’re telling us about us: Writers – the most observant of us – are the record-keepers of a moment in time. For El Akkad, this reflectivity is the whole point. “The inherent uncertainty of art is, in many ways, the clearest reflective surface against which we see the human condition.” 

In this case, the rise of climate fiction isn’t happening in order to make us care about climate change; it’s happening because we already care. 

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