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We Need More Radical Climate Fiction

Literature has seen an uptick in "cli-fi," fiction about possible climate dystopias and utopias. But too much of that climate-change-related fiction lacks any kind of radical political imagination.

Bolivian salt flats. (Psyberartist / Flickr)

It will take imagination and vision for humans to survive the climate crisis — a willingness to believe in things that seem impossible. Most climate-focused art emphasizes the urgency of the crisis, which is needed, but it’s more compelling to see artists imagining our survival, even how we might thrive. To that end, early this year, Grist magazine announced a climate fiction contest, Imagine 2200, and published the winning stories as an online collection last month. Most of the stories that were selected are compelling, intimate, and surprisingly hopeful, and they’re often brilliantly specific in imagining yet-unrealized technology and innovation, as well as human societies that are more harmonious with nature. They are, however, light on the political backstory of how these better worlds emerged and what kinds of economic and social arrangements sustain them.

In literary terms, the sensibility of Imagine 2200 can be traced to several artistic movements. “Futurism” originated as an early-twentieth-century Italian visual art movement preoccupied — and excited — by technology, and the term has referred ever since to creative efforts to imagine the future. One of the most dynamic of these has been Afrofuturism (which imagines, often playfully, a sci-fi-themed future infused by black culture and centering black people).

These imaginings haven’t always been leftist: though their aesthetic was cool, many of the Italian futurists later became fascists. (Some of the Russian futurists welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution as a step away from the aristocratic and peasant traditions they deplored, but for the most part, the Soviet Communist leadership did not welcome the movement, and Russian futurism fizzled out in the 1920s.)

When futurism has emerged from the Left, it has often been dystopian. (I was born in 1969, and I grew up consuming the environmental propaganda of Ranger Rick magazine, which at that time included apocalyptic treeless renderings of the distant year 2000.) With Imagine 2200, Grist wanted to highlight a different tendency — most fully realized in solarpunk, which celebrates rebellion against the fossil fuel industry — imagining green futures, generally along DIY lines, usually in the wake of a climate apocalypse.

The mission of the contest, then, was to get beyond the dystopian and imagine worlds in which humans have found — or are finding — solutions to the climate crisis.

One of the more powerful stories fails this test miserably. Mike McClelland’s “The Secrets of the Last Greenland Shark” is told from the point of view of Earth’s last human, although it has a surprisingly uplifting ending (which I won’t spoil). But most of the stories are more hopeful than that, showing a better world, often alluding to a traumatic time in which many people died and species were lost, after which human societies made major changes.

My favorites among these stories take pleasure in the futurist imaginary. In Renan Bernardo’s “When it’s Time to Harvest,” an elderly couple in Rio de Janeiro, saving their community from starvation after massive crop failure, run a farm that they’ve invented elaborate technology in order to operate: much of the labor is performed by bees. While the husband is ready to retire, convinced the technology they’ve devised will allow the farm to run by itself, the wife can’t let go — she fears that, without them, the farm will fail and the community will starve. But it’s also clear that she loves the work of inventing and can’t stop trying new things.

Within the genre, the woman — or even young girl — scientist who loves and dedicates herself to life-giving innovation is perhaps becoming a cliché, but it’s a delightful one nevertheless. One of the most deliciously imagined futures powered by such protagonists is Rich Larson’s “Tidings,” a series of vignettes offering glimpses of life around the world. A Nigerian girl in 2038 breeds a creature that will eat the plastic out of the ocean. A nine-year-old First Nations girl in the Arctic Circle figures out how to use technology to communicate with a moose; she and her parent are surprised and amused when the animal, annoyed and in the middle of rutting season, curses at them. A young woman in Thailand in 2132, accompanied by 308 friends through VR technology, blissfully swims with dolphins, recalling the era of gas-guzzling and plastic as a long-ago mythic time.

Most of these stories bring a vivid level of descriptive detail to the project of envisioning a world in which humans are far more aligned with nature, but they’re vague when it comes to what the new arrangements look like economically and socially, as well as on the political processes that brought these new worlds about. In Abigail Larkin’s “A Séance in the Anthropocene,” a Cherokee student seeks to interview the people who lived during the time of fossil fuels and finds a man who worked for a coal company. She wants to understand how he could have done that, as a moral question, knowing the damage it was doing to the planet, but both the student protagonist and the author seem less curious about how the fossil fuel titans themselves were ultimately deposed from power. It’s not clear whether it took violence, whether elites saw the error of their ways, or whether fossil fuel and other destructive interests were defeated through some peaceful democratic process. In Savitri Horrigan’s “The Case of the Turned Tide,” capitalism still exists, albeit in a far greener form, but most of the stories are less clear on that point.

Questions of class struggle are mostly elided in Imagine 2200, but there are several exceptions. In Lindsey Brodeck’s “Afterglow,” the rich are fleeing a ruined planet for a new one, and a woman must decide whether to join them (and her girlfriend) or to stay and join the hippies attempting to revive and rewild the Earth. The exodus of the ruling class offers hope, but those who remain seem like passive beneficiaries of their departure, at best a band of DIY weirdos engaged in a noble salvage effort. In Horrigan’s story, a Balinese mother-daughter pair of detectives face a dilemma when they find themselves with a complicated client: an environmentally friendly company whose plans haven’t adequately considered the island communities.

One of the few Imagine 2200 stories that spells out some kind of alternative economic organization is Tehnuka Ilanko’s “El, the Plastotrophs, and Me,” describing a world where, because of climate crisis, some humans have begun pioneering a system of cooperatives in which sustainability is carefully practiced. The co-ops face many practical problems. Only a certain number of babies can be born into each community at a time, for example, a rule that might have some environmental arguments in its favor, but that inevitably creates personal conflicts and tensions. Ilanko does a beautiful job of helping us to imagine how humans, full of doubts and questions, would navigate a world that required more collective action and collective planning even in such intimate aspects of our lives, showing that these new systems would still have problems, and that we would still be human within them, full of petty resentments and big desires.

For the most part, though, the stories eschew political economy, leaving us wondering how this more harmonious relationship with nature came about and how it is sustained. The contest was sponsored by the liberal Natural Resources Defense Council, which in turn gets money from the Ford Foundation and billionaires like Tom Steyer, so maybe that’s part of the problem. It would be interesting to see what kinds of stories a socialist climate fiction contest would produce.