Copyright and written by Gregers Andersen
French philosopher Paul Ricoeur once wrote: “The first way human beings attempt to understand and to master the ‘manifold’ of the practical field is to give themselves a fictive representation of it.”  If Ricoeur is right in this observation, one cannot diminish the importance of climate fiction, or cli-fi, in our contemporary world. There is basically a need for fiction about what tomorrow may hold – not just in order for us to come to terms with what a climate changed world may look like, but also in order for us as a species to be able to come to terms with what it will mean to live in a seriously altered climate.
Of course, one could argue that the real insight is provided by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, nowhere in the reports that IPCC has been publishing for the last 25 years does one find characters forced to live in the future living conditions sketched. After all there is – and should be – a difference between science and fiction, and one of them is obviously that, where IPCC is content to sketch out the contours of a likely future world through an incredible amount of data, fiction typically depicts human beings in action, i.e. in worlds where feelings and understandings must be lived in order for their meaning to be assessed.
Still, there are good reasons for not jumping to the conclusion that every fiction depicting human beings in an extreme climate can tell us something crucial about future human existence. Before ripping the fruits cli-fi promises to hold, it is important to define the term thoroughly. My point here is that we should make a distinction between fiction depicting climate changed worlds in a broad sense and fiction explicitly employing the scientific paradigm of anthropogenic global warming – that is, fiction which depicts or in some other way employs the motif of climate change generated by humanity’s emissions of greenhouse gasses in their plot.
For example, this would mean that J.G. Ballard’s novels should not be regarded as early cli-fi, since humanity was not confronted then (at least not to my knowledge) with the major problem now affronting us as a species. This is, of course, not the same as saying that we presently cannot learn anything from reading disaster fiction like Ballard’s. It simply means – returning to Ricoeur’s statement above – that the best foundation for an attempt to understand and to master the ‘manifold’ of our contemporary, and very likely also future practical field, is found in fiction that mimetically takes the scientific paradigm of anthropogenic global warming as its departure point.
Applying this definition, the history of cli-fi seems to begin in 1977 with the novel Heat, by the American author Arthur Herzog, and has since been expanded by a wide range of short stories, novels and movies. Even though this expansion in the last decade has accelerated tremendously due to the general concern for anthropogenic climate change, certain patterns appear, when – as I have done in the last three years – one schematically examines the variety of climate fiction so far published and produced. Basically, what this fiction reveals is that the imagination of anthropogenic global warming is, in general, tied to a small number of reoccurring cognitive schemes or narrative templates. In a sense, one can speak of a common repertoire at work in cli-fi, a repertoire that is more specifically constituted around five basic imaginaries or themes.
The first of these imaginaries is the Social Breakdown. In this imaginary, anthropogenic climate change leads to human conflict either on a macro-level, in the shape of war, or on a micro-level, in the shape of individuals battling for limited resources in post-apocalyptic worlds where the social contract has ruptured. The imaginary has a cultural history that goes back to the biblical story of Babel. However, in climate fiction applying the imaginary of the social breakdown, it is not a punishing God that set humanity’s progress into reverse gear by dividing it up into antagonistic clans: it is the technological arrogance of humanity itself, which anthropogenic global warming sets into motion a world where nations or climate refugees incapable of communicating with each other are engaged in a battle onto death. Just to give some examples, this imaginary can be found in Matthew Glass’s Ultimatum (2009), Marcel Theroux’s Far North (2009), Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming (2009), and Martine McDonagh’s I Have Waited, And You Have Come (2012).
The second imaginary can be termed the Judgment. In this imaginary, Nature revolts against humanity’s interpretation of its entities as strictly a resource. Thus, in the fiction applying the imaginary of the judgment, these entities gain a monstrous agency that is used to judge and punish humans for their reckless behavior. This imaginary has a cultural history that goes back to some of the earliest myths of Western civilization – from the Epos of Gilgamesh to other deluge myths such as the myths of Atlantis or of Noah. However, like in the fiction applying the imaginary of the Social Breakdown, it is in the Judgment theme that there is no longer God who is the judge and punisher of a morally lost humanity. It is rather an animated Nature that through its violent (and uncanny) behavior it becomes obvious that humanity has gone too far in its misuse of Nature. The imaginary can be found in Kevin Ready’s Gaia Weeps (1998), Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm (2004), and the Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow (2004).
The third imaginary can be termed the Conspiracy. In this imaginary, which is not as future-orientated as the other imaginaries mentioned, anthropogenic climate change is part of a cover-up arranged to promote private rather that public interests. Basically, what we find in fiction applying this imaginary are worlds wherein anthropogenic climate change appears as a very powerful tool of manipulation. This also means that the distinction between science and politics is depicted as blurred. Science transgresses the borders of politics and politics the borders of science, which means that science can no longer be perceived as an apolitical and truthful source to matters of fact. The imaginary has a cultural history that goes back to ancient Greece and the idea that the Gods of the Olympus secretly orchestrated and interfered in the lives of ordinary human beings. Later on, the imaginary takes an even stronger appearance in the narrative that every human misfortune is indeed the work of the Devil, an evil puppet master capable of pulling every string. This imaginary can be found in Herzog’s Heat (1977), Rock Brynner’s The Doomsday Report (1998), Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004), and Sven Bötcher’s Prophezeiung (2011, only in German).
The forth imaginary can be termed the Loss of Wilderness. In the fiction applying this imaginary, anthropogenic climate change is experienced as the end of nature. Typically taking place in a wilderness slowly withering or melting due to anthropogenic climate change humanity’s total and destructive presence everywhere on the planet, this imaginary is experienced as a radical loss of beauty and tranquility. This also means that there is a historical link between the imaginary and the biblical myth of the eviction from paradise – not only because the loss of wilderness in the fiction applying the imaginary is experienced as a paradise about to be lost, but also because this loss marks a definitive and thus fatal loss of harmony in the relationship between humanity and nature. This imaginary can be found in T.C: Boyle’s A Friend of the Earth (2000), but is even more apparent in Jean McNeil’s The Ice Lovers (2009) and in Ilija Trojanow’s Eis Tau (2011, only in German).
The fifth and final imaginary is the imaginary of the Sphere. In the fiction applying this imaginary, anthropogenic climate change leads to a long-term destruction of the biosphere, which again leads to the construction of life-saving artificial atmospheres with humanly controlled climates. These artificial atmospheres typically have two shapes. On one hand, cli-fi contains a range of local, air-conditioned bubbles. On the other hand, we find world-sized, terraformed globes in which exclusion (as in the bubbles) is not a necessary means for survival. The cultural history of the imaginary goes back to the biblical myth of Noah, where we find a small group seeking protection from the weather of a harsh outer world in a constructed inner climate. The imaginary can be found in Allegra Goodman’s youth novel The Other Side of The Island (2008), in the sci-fi-novel The Quiet War (2009) by Paul McAuley, and in Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy Science in the Capital (2004, 2005, and 2007). And, by the way – though I haven’t finished it yet – it is my impression that it is also at work in Robinson’s latest novel 2312 (2012).
I want to use the mapping of these five master imaginaries of cli-fi to make two points. First, it becomes clear through the fiction I have listed under each imaginary that cli-fi is NOT, in the strict sense, a sub-genre of science fiction. In fact, one could even say it is the other way around, since cli-fi is an umbrella term containing a number of fictions from various genres integrating the same scientific paradigm in their plot. Secondly, and I want to use a bit more space to elaborate on this point, the mapping of the aforementioned imaginaries call for some answers to at least one major question, namely: What kind of climate-modified human existence or being-in-the-world do these imaginaries each disclose in the fiction that applies them in their plot? Thus, I will end this short essay by offering some answers to this question intended as an entry point to the worlds of cli-fi and not as a rigid typology.
Let me suggest, then, that the fiction that respectively applies the imaginary of the Social Breakdown and the imaginary of the Judgment, among other modes of existence, discloses a climate-modified human existence or being-in-the-world, which can basically be described as unheimlich. This German word is in English translated to uncanny, but what it actually refers to is the uncanny feeling derived from the experience of something homely, or the familiar becoming “unhomely” or strange. My point here, though, is that the fiction that applies the imaginaries of the Social Breakdown and the Judgment discloses two different kinds of being-in-the-world, which feels uncanny and unhomely.
Thus, in the fiction applying the imaginary of the Social Breakdown (especially post-apocalyptic fiction) the uncanny and unhomely feeling of the human subject seems to spring from an affective atmosphere generated by both extreme changes in weather patterns and from the deterred social climate that these changes have brought. Basically, the uncanny feeling of not being at home in these fictions arises from an insecurity – the origin of which at the outset is not a particular object, but rather the physical and psychological conditions for existence as such. In other words, the fiction that depicts the social breakdown does not only depict a humanity that is basically caught between a being-towards-death and a being-towards-killing: It also depicts an atmosphere that has not only become unhomely because of climatic change, but uncanny and unhomely because of the insecurity that this polarized ontology creates.
In the fiction applying the imaginary of the Judgment, the uncanny and unhomely feeling oppositely springs from the meeting with a particular object – though object is not really the accurate word. Instead, the uncanny and unhomely feeling here arises from the meeting with something monstrous that was once regarded as an object, which in a Cartesian sense could be put to use by human will, but which can now, under no circumstances, be controlled. In other words, the repressed returns here, but not the repressed in the sense described by Freud – not understood as some wrenched childhood fantasy – but rather in the shape of some monstrous natural entity animated with a wish for revenge.
The typical being-in-the-world disclosed by the fiction applying the imaginary of the Conspiracy is more obvious. Since the boundary between science and politics in these types of fiction collapses due to conspiracy, in these worlds we typically encounter characters whose affective system is centered around a feeling of suspicion.
In the fiction that uses the Loss of Wilderness as a narrative template, one can speak of the appearance or disclosure of two equally dominating kinds of being-in-the-world. On the one hand, this fiction discloses a being-in-the-world devoted to contemplative dwelling, a reflective openness towards the beauty of the wilderness and the suffering afflicted upon its biodiversity by humanity. On the other hand, this fiction also depicts a being-in-the-world devoted to calculative thinking, i.e. a self-destructive interpretation of nature as strictly an economic resource.
Finally, I like to suggest that the fiction that applies the imaginary of the Sphere discloses a being-in-the-world devoted to what the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has called anthropotechnique – that is, the persistent attempt to rearrange life-practices so that they fit the demands of a human context of air-conditioned design. However, the dichotomy between bubbles and globes here means that anthropotechnique is not evenly stressed in the depiction of bubbles and globes. While climate engineering in some bubbles excludes the need for anthropotechnique, the need for this technique is almost always stressed in the fiction that depicts the globe.
Ricoeur, Paul: “Imagination in Discourse and in Action” in From Text to Action, Northwestern University Press, 1991, p.176.
About the Author
Gregers Andersen has just obtained his PhD at the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies at the University of Copenhagen. He has published articles in several Scandinavian journals and has recently also published an article in the American journal Symplokē. He is currently working on turning his PhD dissertation “Climate Changed Existence and its Worlds. Global Warming in Fiction and Philosophy” into a book on cli-fi.
Fiction prepares us for a world changed by global warming, Gregers Andersen, Faculty of Humanities, University of Copenhagen