Can These Books Save The Planet? The Rise of Climate Fiction feat. Lindsay Ellis & Amy Brady


Hey everybody, thanks for coming to the first ever Hot Mess book club. Today we are talking about climate fiction We all were supposed to read Parable of the Sower Does anyone want to start? No Okay, how about a really easy question, how would you define climate fiction? Do you even know what climate fiction is? Did you read it? Hold on guys, I’ve been reading climate fiction for a long time. So I think I can help. So what is climate fiction? It’s actually not a straightforward question because authors, writers and critics alike are still trying to figure that out. We’ve seen a lot more writers writing about climate change in the last several years and we’ve started to use the phrase climate fiction or clifi to differentiate it from other types of writing. I’ve seen the genre really grow over the last few years and I think that’s for a couple of reasons. One, climate change has just become a much more urgent problem. I also think that this is maybe the more crass reason but there has become a publishing market for it. Readers are more eager to read about climate change in novels and short stories and in some bookstores you’ll even start to see shelves that say cli-fi up against their sci-fi or fantasy bookshelves. Writers are creating climate fiction for all kinds of reasons. Some of them have scientific backgrounds and this is a way to draw on their backgrounds and put it into narrative form. But not all of them. I think most climate writers, climate fiction writers, are creating their novels because they have anxiety about what’s happening in the world right now. Beyond just using their stories as a way to process climate anxieties, it also seems like writers and creators of climate fiction are hoping for some kind of change. Like maybe by reading a climate fiction novel a new activist, or climate conscious voter will appear but does climate fiction actually have that kind of impact Is it changing how people think about and respond to climate change? I honestly have no idea. So I asked Lindsey Ellis the host of PBS’s It’s Lit. Filmmakers and authors, you know living on a planet and having anxieties and wanting to capitalize on a hot topic, I can’t be held responsible for that pun… may want to use their medium as a message, but a tricky thing about incorporating climate change into a narrative is that it can feel a little propagandistic to audiences since the topic is so politicized so you might end up with a piece of fiction like the day after tomorrow or Captain Planet and the Planeteers which tend to be Remembered not as fondly as something like Wall-E, where climate change wasn’t such a central part of the narrative. So this is probably why lately we’ve seen cli-fi as more of a backdrop, unless your Little Dicky, who released a song this year called “Earth” You’ll never guess what it’s about It’s like Captain Planet and the Planeteers and We Are The World had a baby and it had fart jokes and (bleep) jokes and that’s Little Dicky’s Earth. I don’t know I don’t know what this says about Gen Z who didn’t like live through Captain Planet and the Planeteers that they see this and they’re like well Ariana Grande’s in it. Fine, and of course do we have the question did Little Dicky change anything? Probably not because that also begs the question does media actually have an effect on people’s perceptions? Will cli-fi change your mind If you watch a movie or read a story where climate change is is bad and we have to do something about it Will it move you if you did not already care about it to begin with? For comparison, let’s look at a much more well studied topic. Violence and videogames. Question: do violent video games make people who play them more violent themselves? And the answer to that, according to the studies, is no. Asterisk. Long term exposure to violent media isn’t more likely to make you go do violence, it isn’t more likely to make you a violent person, but it desensitizes you to the idea of violence Huh? Maybe we should take a step back and try to understand where climate fiction came from before we can figure out its actual impact on our brains and society. To my mind, climate fiction really begins with JG Ballard’s 1962 Drowned World. It’s a novel about global wide climate change that was caused by human activity. But we can actually go back even farther than that to Jules Verne’s work. Jules Verne is often considered to be where sci-fi began. And if we go back even farther than that we can land on Shelley’s Frankenstein. Where, in the background of that novel, we see all kinds of climactic changes. Another novel that is often left out of these conversations is Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which came out in 1939 and was about the Dust Bowl which was another large-scale environmental catastrophe caused by human activity. Every decade of the 20th century, but particularly in the second half, has had some version, some different take, on cli-fi, or anthropogenic climate change. or the environment in general. B-movies surrounding nuclear anxieties and radiation were particularly popular in the 1950s and the early 1960s. “We may be witnessing the beginning of an era that will mean the complete annihilation of man” In 1966 Harry Harrison wrote Make Room Make Room, which was adapted into Soylent Green in 1973 which dealt with the topic of overpopulation. And throughout the 1970s and 1980s we saw a lot of works that were concerned with the effects of nuclear war both on the environment, and on the population. And of course there is the Mad Max trilogy which helped codify this sort of nondescript post nuclear dystopia, which was even more overt in its follow-up: 2015’s Mad Max Fury Road One of the best movies that has ever happened. I don’t make the rules. But once we start getting into the 90s, the trend starts turning more towards stories that center around the societal damage that comes about as a result of climate change in conjunction with usually other things. But mostly climate change. So we have Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and it’s follow-up Parable of the Talents, which centers around a sort of much more subtle and realistic climate disaster and government inaction in the face of climate change ultimately leading to societal collapse. Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam Trilogy Which started with Oryx and Crake also centers around a sort of confluence of things ultimately leading to overconsumption, overpopulation, and, of course, climate change. On the more on the nose side of things, we saw movies like Waterworld Where the world is covered in water a thing that can’t happen. But here’s Kevin Costner peeing in a cup. But there are also lots of films where climate change isn’t the central conflict, but also a huge part of the narrative. In the original 1950s film The Day the Earth Stood Still, Klaatu shows up and tells humanity you need to stop doing nuclear war or we’ll kill you. But in the 2008 remake Keanu Reeves shows up and tells everybody you need to stop doing the climate change, or we’ll kill you. And lately the trend has been films that are not centrally about climate change but incorporated into their narrative. In the last few years climate fiction isn’t just science fiction anymore. We’re now seeing writers write about climate in the realm of fantasy, in the realm of romance, and actually in the realm of realist fiction. Those would be books that are set in the present tense, here in the real world and talking about climate change as its unfolding as we see it. Okay So I’ve got a super long to read and to watch list now. Clearly climate has been an undercurrent of a lot of media for a really long time. But I guess I’m still curious is all this climate fiction actually changing people’s minds? Mm. Probably not. At least not in the person who reads this thing or watches this thing will be cured of their climate change denialism, kind of way. In 2004 researcher, Anthony Leiserowitz did a study on climate change perception from both before and after watching classic film, The Day After Tomorrow. So right off the bat you have a little bit of a selection bias because people who watch a film like The Day After Tomorrow are more likely to already be concerned with climate change than people who opt not to watch The Day After Tomorrow. People who opted to watch the film The Day After Tomorrow were also more likely to report a desire to do climate friendly things, like, for instance, own a fuel-efficient car, than non watchers. Which sounds great until you learn that people who watch the film are also more concerned about the possibility of a new ice age? Similar to the one that is depicted in the films than non watchers? So we can see that while the film might have made people who are already concerned about global warming, maybe a little more concerned about global warming. It also might have arguably contributed to the spread of misinformation. It did not cause a measurable shift in public perception of climate change in its aftermath. For one thing, Less than 10% of the adult population of the US even saw it at the time of its release and of that 10% Most people were probably already on board anyway. So while cli-fi might make you more anxious about all the ways we’re going to die, and make you more sad when you see all the studies drop on Twitter about how things are actually more hopeless than we thought they were, it doesn’t make you more likely to, for instance, go join a general climate strike. Is it going to change a denialist mind about whether climate change is real? No, probably not. There is a recent study that suggests that among people who read climate fiction, almost one-half of them are much more likely to talk about the book, and by extension climate change, with their friends and family. Even those with whom it’s been really difficult to talk about climate change in the past. And the more conversations we have, the better. Oh I know about this the idea that most people will never hear or talk about climate change is a real thing and it’s part of why getting traction on this topic is so hard. This phenomenon is often referred to as climate silence. And so it seems like, for at least some readers, climate fiction helps change that. When most people think of climate fiction they tend to think of dystopian or post-apocalyptic narratives. But I’ve started to see examples of more collective action. We see that in Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 or Megan Hunter’s The End We Start From – in these books people are working together to get through a crisis, and I think that’s a beautiful model that if readers could adapt in the real world could actually start to change things. Reading and watching climate fiction obviously isn’t the only way people come in contact with climate stories. There’s definitely a lot of climate focused nonfiction work out there too, which I guess would include this whole thing. One of the things that nonfiction does really well is that it presents facts and figures and scientific evidence. And for readers who respond really well to that kind of evidence, they’re gonna be much more persuaded by nonfiction. One thing though that I do think that fiction does really well is that it presents the irrationality of human behavior, by which I mean, our intense reliance on fossil fuels even as that reliance is destroying our planet. and Until we really face the irrationality of our behavior. We’re not going to change. Okay I think we all learned something today, right the impact of fiction, climate or otherwise, is never as simple as cause equals effect exactly. So it’s probably impossible to know for sure what the real impact of climate fiction is. But whether or not it solves problems on its own, climate fiction is yet another way to drive people toward the reality of climate change. And that’s why it’s worth talking about. Here in the comments with your friends or family or at your next book club.

57 thoughts on “Can These Books Save The Planet? The Rise of Climate Fiction feat. Lindsay Ellis & Amy Brady

  1. The answer is no. Nothing will happen unless the pain of inaction exceeds the pain of action. The universal law that governs human behavior.

  2. There have been TV shows and even games that have shown how climate change will destroy humanity….! And I bought a simulation called "Fate of the World" that puts you in charge of a worldwide organisation with a budget trying to keep the temperature under 2C. It was so hard due to budgets and politics and 3rd world versus 1st world! I never managed to keep it below 2C and it made me realise how little our chance is to solve the climate crisis.

  3. My personal favorite piece of climate fiction is actually an ABC News-written special from 2009 called “Earth 2100”. It’s the life story of a woman born on the date of broadcast, and it’s a really potent reminder of the fate of humanity due to climate change. I think it’s on Dailymotion somewhere, but do check it out.

  4. There is no time for fiction. Would be good if at least the summary of IPPC report was widely read. Unfortunately most people don't even know how much the Earth has warmed and don't care enough to learn it. Preaching to the choir is not going to bring change.

  5. Climate change denialism (like most other conspiracy theories, lies, and hoaxes) relies on deception, mistrust, and inconsistencies.

    In the other hand, science strives for consensus, consistency, and honesty.

    The hypocrisy, contradictions, and inconsistent of climate change deniers should easily discredit them to any right thinking person.

  6. I don't know if the author was directing intending this two-part series to directly talk about climate change, but some books I read in my teens by kat falls called 'Dark life' and 'riptide' seemed to kinda be set in a world where climate change kinda got out of control.
    They are good sci-fi young adult novels in my opinion, I'd love to know if anyone else had noticed that or read the books.

  7. I really wanted to see more fiction about a near future with climate change. Like, most fiction written about it either goes all the way to the post apocalyptic era or is about natural disasters and such. I wish we could see an author imagining the world in 2050ish, the consequences of the rise of temperature in the day to day life of people without them having to escape tornados or fighting muscle dudes in a motorcycle for a cup of water (not that I'm against it, but, you know, I'd like some other flavors).

  8. This was a very interesting discussion. I'm glad I discovered your channel.
    One request: balance the audio levels a bit better. Amy is twice as loud as Miriam.

  9. today Oct 4th: 95°F

    Climate denier: cLiMatE cHAnGe iSn'T rEAl!!

    U wanna step outside? Bc it's Autumn but feels like summer.

  10. I've also seen a lot of climate fiction pop up in more science/speculative fiction texts as metaphors or villanus personifications such as the living plastic autons from Doctor Who or going back to it's history in the 70’s with the very on the nose The Green Death. (Allbeit both more focused on pollution in general rather than climate change in specific).

  11. Sorry kids, the profoundly deep and disturbing changes ahead are completely understated,. expect to see most of our cultures wiped out, most of our supportive environment and nearly all of our species…seems like just about anything goes for this plot. Oh., and science has ready-made climate models and scenarios – just pick one and add some characters. The most ferociously interesting times are ahead. If it weren't for all the suffering, these times would be enjoyably interesting.

  12. I think reading climate fiction "changed my mind" in so far as it helped me imagine the ways the world might be different, (and bad, likely with further exasperated inequalities), but survivable. This was not necessarily a hopeful/optimistic shift in perspective (like, it certainly didn't move me to think climate change was a /less/ important issue), but it opened up a new space I hadn't been thinking about. I feel like the current culturally salient framing of "we have x years to save the planet" encourages people to imagine the end of the world as a hard stop (like, we fail to cut emissions in X years, we fail to stop climate change, the earth burns that second, fade to black). Climate fiction helps me think about vastly altered worlds where we've already lost the battle, but where we haven't gotten out of the consequence of people still having to live in them.

  13. I will join a general climate strike if other people do but so far it seems like it'd be just me. The general strike is, I believe, the best tool we have to force action from our leaders on this.

  14. Surprised and happy to see the Lil Dicky reference. His lyrics really are brilliant and I've watched most of his videos several times (and always find a new joke that I didn't catch before, each time.)

    But "Earth" I only watched once — I don't really know why, it wasn't "bad". Maybe because I know what will be in the comments section, and if I fall into it, I won't be able to stop clicking the "reply" button until it's 8 hours later, my blood pressure 20 points higher and I'm legally blind.

  15. It was touched on in the video but I think another element is that the increasing trend of positive climate fiction can assuage a tiny bit of anxiety and help motivate people to keep going (especially climate activists who are burnt out but also try to watch media and are just reminded of how bad things are and will get). Like yeah, society is gonna collapse and it's gonna suck, but we're going to be friends during it! Unrealistic, maybe, but hey, sometimes you need some escapism. Anyway, good video and I am a big fan of Lindsay's dress.

  16. The idea works in book form, as a movie maybe not? It is hard to make a disaster movie, without some "magical" way of making every disaster happen in quick succession. How do

  17. The Day after tomorrow is horrible, by depicting a nonsense scenario! I do understand the need for getting the script going, but it is just too ridiculous, so maybe doing more harm that good by depicting the danger as implausible.

  18. I feel that even if I was able to convince a climate change denier to read a cli-fi book, they would still come away with the thought that the book was still a piece of fiction and not representative of real events that are happening today. To me, at least, I think that non-fiction books about climate change have a better chance of starting a conversation that could gentle nudge someone towards a change of mind that climate change is real.

  19. Video games, too, have some interesting contributions to the genre:
    Frostpunk is probably one of the best for capturing the pressure to change based on impeding disaster.
    Anno 2077 examines the reestablishment of a green society in the wake of environmental disaster.

  20. dear america,
    your republican party is the only major party in the world with an explicit policy position that rejects the reality of climate change.
    your fox news is likewise the only major news channel in the world that rejects climate science.

    sincerely, the rest of the world collectively suffering the effects of climate change, of which you guys account for roughly 20%.

  21. Love this video, but I'm a little salty they gave Jules Vern credit for inventing sci-fi and not Mary Shelly, even though she gor mentioned, too. It might be a dumb hill to die on, but at least I'm dead

  22. Overpopulation is only a problem when you have too many non-contributing, space-fairy-tale-believing, vaccine-damaged, self-sabotaging, family-structure deprecating perspectives propagating through society. For example, in the increasingly corporate-fascist USA. Why aren't automobile-scale gas-turbine engines a consumer-grade thing?

  23. Dry is a good one, the capitalist making money off the situation is shown to be extremely bad and hated but other characters and there's a commune run by a woman that saves many lives.

  24. As a foreigner, I must say I have witnessed the power of fiction in raising public awareness about a topic. Cli-fiction (and sci-fi) are nearly non-existent in Vietnam, and the result is that people here are extremely ignorant about it. You never hear about it in a dinner conversations, nobody writes books or make movies about it, no Youtuber discuss about it, not even professional journalists who tell everyone to vague "protect nature" ever explain in the newspaper about stuff like melting iceberg or ocean acidification. We don't have climate change deniers, because we almost don't even know what it is! In the public conscious, we know that we shouldn't destroy the forest, don't hunt endangered animals, don't dump trash and chemicals into the ocean, because we were told that it's bad. But how bad? Nobody knows, which lead to no activism.

    In contrast, I used to go study abroad in Europe, and the climate awareness over there is over 9000. People there feel strongly about it, they make Youtube video explain about it in plain terms for the public, they write books and make movies and documentaries and sign petitions. It's wonderful.

    I don't think fiction is meant to be a substitution for formal education or news media. Its power lies in the fact that it can reach a huge mass and start giving them awareness, igniting a strong emotion about something. Yeah, Earth can never be fully covered by water, but exploring such a scenario is FUN, which makes a lot of people willing to read/watch about it and start thinking about how to prevent or deal with such a situation.

  25. Books and boring treadmill videos cant save the world … Especially those living in abject denial robbing the future of their children and those yet to be born …

  26. The swarm by Frank Schätzing was the first climate fiction book (there is science fiction in it as well) ive read like 10 years ago. It was, and still is, a masterpiece and one of my favourite books! Definitely go check it out!

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