Before I start, all my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee‘. Thank you!
COP26 ended this week, and it was more blah-blah-blah from those in power. It is fitting, therefore, in the spirit of the inspiring youth, marginalised populations and their allies who made their presence felt in Glasgow, that this blog is about hopes, dreams and fantasy regarding climate change.
I took part in a wonderful, geeky, but also poignant chat about climate change in Sci-Fi, and decided it was such a great discussion that I wanted to type up bits about it for the blog. The Great Derelict is a podcast hosted and produced by Andy Poulastides, and is a must-listen if you love all things Sci-Fi. So before you read on, go find it on your favourite podcasting app and subscribe. I’ve been lucky to be a guest a few times, covering topics such as colonialism in Sci-Fi through a ‘geography lens’ (along with my wonderful friend and geography teacher Alistair Hamill), and Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds. For this discussion about climate change in Sci-Fi, Andy and I were joined by Dave Wynn, who also dabbles a bit in climate science through environmental advocacy.
Here you can listen to the podcast all the way though, and to your heart’s content… read a summary of my favourite bits below. Perhaps fellow geography educators might find some stimuli or a curriculum artefact or two to use with their students?
Examples of CL-Fi in Sci-Fi
Drastic and extreme climatic changes have long been a plot device or trope in sci-fi disaster fiction. Even as long ago late 19th century, famous writer Jules Verne published a couple of novels (‘The Purchase of the North Pole‘ and ‘Paris in the Twentieth Century‘) which explores potential climatic changes.
Most works of climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, don’t actually follow the global climate change narrative as we are all experiencing right now. More common in fact is how authors and script-writers take the notion of climate change, or the impacts of it, and utilise it as a plot device. For example, in the podcast discussion, Dave cites The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham, where catastrophic sea level rise is not caused by greenhouse gas emissions heating the Earth, but by alien invasion. And how this devastates populations that live on the coast is a cautionary tale, through fiction, of what could potentially occur in reality.
“For a minute or two we switched over to the B.B.C. to find out how their crew on Westminster Bridge was faring. We got onto them just in time to hear Bob Humbleby describing the flooded Victoria Embankment with the water now rising against New Scotland Yard’s own second line of defenses…”
When works of fiction do take the man-made climate change narrative, usually it is into the future that the reader or audience is taken – discovering how human society has changed. These are often stories of dystopia. In film, two of my favourites are Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), where water has become such a precious commidity that tribalism and conflict rules supreme to obtain or kettle it, and the other is WALL-E (2008). I love that movie myself but it’s a fantastic story of how abuse of our environment through over-consumption has literally caused humans to leave. And the way humans escape was in a very capitialistic manner. There are so many nuances to explore in that film. Check out this incredible blog by ‘Typeset In the Future’.
One of my favourite books set in a climate-changed world is The Windup Girl by Pablo Bacigalupi. Wikipedia summaries the plot as follows:
The Windup Girl is set in 23rd-century Thailand. Global warming has raised the levels of world’s oceans, carbon fuel sources have become depleted, and manually wound springs are used as energy storage devices. Biotechnology is dominant and megacorporations (called calorie companies) like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar control food production through ‘genehacked’ seeds, and use bioterrorism, private armies and economic hitmen to create markets for their products. Frequent catastrophes, such as deadly and widespread plagues and illness, caused by genetically modified crops and mutant pests, ravage entire populations...
The capital city of Bangkok is below sea level and is protected from flooding by levees and pumps. [The government is broken into] protectionist/independent/isolationist and internationalist/accommodationalist factions.Wikipedia
Life imitating art? Or is truth stranger than fiction?
Until very recently, now that reality is hitting home, climate change has been seen as a problem of far-flung places. Those of us in the Global North who have the means and privilege have continued on with an ‘I’m alright Jack’ level of ignorance. But authors of fiction use their medium to often push back on those prevailing narratives, or lack of exposure and voice of the marginalised in mainstream media. For example, the 1993 novel Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler is described by Dave as a ‘work of protest’ that provides commentary on climate change and social inequality. The central character is a African-American teenager, whose story starts in the remnants of a gated Californian community where she and her neighbors struggle but are separate from the abject poverty of the world outside.
Such stories bring issues such as climate change and social justice into recognisable reality, rather than somehwere perhaps out-of-context far-flung setting. There have been big blockbuster movies that have attempted to do the same, to some extent. However, the problem with fantastical disaster films that play on climate change such as The Day After Tomorrow (2004) is that – putting other tropes aside like the shunned whistleblowing scientist – they either lend themselves to disbelief and messages of climate changes becoming fiction themselves for the sake of entertainment. And although the ridiculousness of how ‘the’ climate change takes place in film is on theorhetical scientific plausibility, for me personally it damages the cause of raising awareness. Y’know, well, climate change in real life is not happening over a matter of days and weeks, completely sending the world into instant chaos… so it’s all good, right!? (The ‘boiling frog’ syndrome). Personally, I think the 2007 film Flood starring Robert Carlyle is a much better film where both the scenario and the impacts of the disaster (the flooding of London) is somewhat more realistic and tangible, although the usual tropes remain! That piece of fiction was arguably more effective in highlighting the climate change issue to London than The Day After Tomorrow would have done for New York City. And perhaps those of an older generation living along the coast of the East of England might have shivered a little, triggering a recall of the storm surge of 1953.
In the podcast discussion, Andy, Dave and I concurred that perhaps the mechanism of the climate change itself isn’t important. The real stories are told in the aftermath. We’re heading towards the new year, which will be 2022. Now for real sci-fi geeks, the year 2022 will ring a bell… Anyone for some Soylent Green? This 1970’s classic stars Charlton Heston as Detective Thorn from New York City which bakes in year-long heat. Earth is overpopulated and totally polluted to the point where natural resources have been exhausted and food shortages have people feeding off processed plankton… or so it seems.
Food shortage and crop failure is also a key plot driver of Interstellar (2014), a film in which actor Michael Caine said had his views challenged on climate change, even though climate change is not explicitly mentioned in the epic. Interstellar is set in a near-future Earth on the verge of total ecological collapse, with drastic changes in weather patterns and devastating food shortages driving human beings to the brink of extinction. The struggles faced by the family and community of the protagonist can be aligned with warnings that can be read from the last IPCC report which focussed on climate change impacts (AR5 Working Group II). This included research on the potential distruption to food systems and agriculture (the outcomes of Working Group II about climate change impacts from the latest IPCC Report (AR6) will be out next year).
The “Elon Musk Plan”
Interstellar sees a plucky band of scientists, engineers and explorers embark on an ambitious plan to seek out new inhabitable planets to ensure the survival of (well, some of) the human race. Other Sci-Fi films that include this narrative tend to use it as a way to illustrate and speak-out about social injustice and inequality. The classic Blade Runner (1982) based on the novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick, contains a scene where a blimp blasts out an advert to start a new life off-world. Emigration is being encouraged as Earth is suffering from devastating climate change and pollution. But thoughts of such escapism was futile for the ‘ne’er-do-wells’ on the streets below. Harrison Ford’s Detective Deckard can only look up from his newspaper, with the expression on his face that such an opportunity will never be for the likes of him.
Mentioned already is WALL-E (2008), in which I believe is a brilliant effort by the creators to give some sort of similar feeling and message to a younger audience. We never see a ‘sub-set’ of humanity left lingering on Planet Earth… but on board The Axiom notice who is missing, rather than the humans who are there. That’s telling. Whether that was deliberate or not by the writers, I don’t know. And then, mentioned by Andy in the podcast, we have Elysium (2013), in which the very wealthy live on a man-made space station while the rest of the population resides on a ruined Earth.
This extrapolation of historical and present societial inequalities into a space-faring future is exceptionally common in works of fiction. Is not exactly a glowing reflection on the human race if that is the prevailing social structure penned by writers. Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers Series of novels, the cyberpunk novel and TV series Altered Carbon (2018-2020) and the acclaimed The Expanse (2015-2022), also based on novels, all describe how the most vulnerable and poorest of society are those with the least power and fewest options, being left to adapt and survive in poor environments and a lack of resources.
This “Elon Musk plan”, as podcast host Andy calls it, is therefore simply not the answer for a future in which human society is in complete equity. Even the most talented and creative writers seem to struggle to imagine how that might be possible if a Musk or a Bezos led the way. The money being spent on space colonisation by the ultra-rich dwarfs how much it could cost to fix environmental and social issues here on Earth. And there is another fundamental flaw in the ’emigrate fom Earth’ plan – we’ll need Earth’s resources to make it happen. At what economic cost?… but at what social cost?
climate change adaptation & Anxiety in sci-fi
So what windows into climate change adaptation and mitigation can Sci-Fi offer us? We can look through these lenses in both dystopian and more utopian depictions. A series of Youth Adult novels I would recommend for those who work with older students is the Ashfall series by Mike Mullin. The Yellowstone supervolcano erupts causing societal and ecological collapse. Without giving too many spoilers away, folks who once had secure homes and jobs are mix with those who already were disadvantaged to form a bunch of tribal communities. The community of the protagonist discovers that the hardy vegetable kale becomes a vital commodity, use batteries from abandoned electric and hybrid vehicles which are jerry-rigged to wind-turbines no longer serving any kind of national grid. The community forms a kind of citizens assembly to reinstall some kind of democracy.
Although tempting, I would avoid the blockbuster 2012 (2009) when it comes to the climatic and societal impacts of the eruption of a supervolcano such as Yellowstone. But I would recommend Supervolcano (2005), which is dramatisation based on scientific research and possibility. The part-documentary style of it means that it’s pretty good for educational purposes, going though the mechanics of the eruption to the impacts.
In the afforementioned novel The Windup Girl, the collapse of the fossil fuel industry has led to the use of renewable technologies. Wind turbines and the like do make an appearence, but energy is stored and released in the form of manually-wound coiled kink springs (see here for a fabulous artist’s impression of a ‘kink sprng factory’ from the book). Often ideas from fiction provide inspiration to turn them into reality. There is an emerging technology to store and release energy using carbon nanotube springs. Do authors like Bacigalupi pick up the scent of an idea or invention and then build on it in their works? Most likely! It’s how art informs ingenouity and vice-versa.
What about coping mechnisms for mental health? The disconnect from nature brought on by environmental degredation and over-consumption of natural resources is also fuelling climate anxiety, an issue I have covered a lot. In Do Andriods Dream of Electric Sheep?, the ‘source material’ for Blade Runner. Rick Deckard scrapes together enough money to purchase a robo-goat. In his world, live animals are largely extinct and artifical pets are both a status symbol and an attempt for some cognative reconnection to nature long lost. In the brilliant BBC podcast series Forest 404 starring Pearl Mackie, the disconnect from nature is total, and has led to a remarkable and unexpected outcome in the evolution of the human race. I can’t say anymore without revealing any plot-twists, in which there are many. The drama is very much worth a listen and is accompanied by discussions on the state of our planet today.
Solarpunk: Cause for optimism?
Although we seem to be addicted and entertained by stories of woe and dystopia, There are works out there which paint a more hopeful tone, perhaps offering a blueprint for the way forward.
On the podcast, Dave brought up Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry For The Future.
Told entirely through fictional eye-witness accounts, The Ministry For The Future is a masterpiece of the imagination, the story of how climate change will affect us all over the decades to come.
Its setting is not a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, but a future that is almost upon us – and in which we might just overcome the extraordinary challenges we face.
It is a novel both immediate and impactful, desperate and hopeful in equal measure, and it is one of the most powerful and original books on climate change ever written.– Goodreads
There is an argument to be made, at least from podcast host Andy, that the country of Wakanda in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a gleaming example of sustainability. In fact, only published last month in the academic journal Towards Implementation of Sustainability Concepts in Developing Countries, an article detailed how the fictional African nation can be used as a blueprint for ‘a Livable and Lovable City’.
Works of fiction that look towards a more hopeful future based on sustainability and equity is often dubbed ‘solarpunk’. Solarpunk is an art movement which broadly envisions how the future might look if we lived in harmony with nature and each other, and there is a growing collection of works. It could even be argued that Star Trek is a kind of solarpunk (and perhaps why there have been a small number of vocal fans of the more ‘classic’ series of Trek upset at the darker tone of Star Trek: Discovery).
A tool for communication and a platform for the voiceless
Change comes first by having conversations. As one of my favourite climate science and politcal communicators, Dr Katherine Hayhoe puts it, having conversations matter. And just as our podcast chat demonstrates, works of fiction such as the Sci-Fi genre provide for great stimulus.
So, pick up a cli-fi book or indulge in a bit of screenplay, let your imagination fly and get talking.
Thank you! All my education work via the Geogramblings’ “Life Geographic” blog is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee‘.
Citing this post
APA: Rackley, K. (2021, November 13). Climate Change in Sci-Fi [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://geogramblings.com/2021/11/13/climate-change-in-sci-fi-featuring-the-great-derelict-podcast
MLA: Rackley, Kit. “Climate Change in Sci-Fi”. Geogramblings. 13 November. 2021, https://geogramblings.com/2021/11/13/climate-change-in-sci-fi-featuring-the-great-derelict-podcast
Harvard: Rackley, K. (2021). Climate Change in Sci-Fi [Online]. Geogramblings. Available at: https://geogramblings.com/2021/11/13/climate-change-in-sci-fi-featuring-the-great-derelict-podcast (Accessed: day month year)