This story is part of Fix’s What’s Next Issue, which looks ahead to the ideas and innovations that will shape the climate conversation in 2022, and asks what it means to have hope now. Check out the full issue here.
Australian novelist Charlotte McConaghy opens her book Migrations on a bleak note: “The animals are dying,” she writes. “Soon we will be alone here.” The bestseller tells the story of scientist Franny Stone, who has left her life and husband behind to follow what’s believed to be the last flock of Arctic terns. McConaghy’s publisher didn’t market the novel as science fiction or a pre-apocalyptic thriller in which Franny sets out to solve climate change or save endangered birds. Instead, McConaghy uses the state of the environment as the background of a deeply personal tale about a woman revisiting past trauma. The critically acclaimed work, published in 2020, is an example of a trope once found exclusively in science fiction influencing the wider world.
Examining the impact of Earth’s changing climate has long been a staple of science fiction. The genre is well suited to address catastrophic problems, and the increasingly dire warnings from scientists look more and more like something that could have leapt from an author’s imagination. In that way, literature provides a means of conveying lessons and context, or presenting the world in a new light. As we work toward addressing the monumental challenge of climate change, fiction — and indeed, popular culture as a whole — will be a powerful tool for fostering change. Fiction and narrative can steer and change opinions, make intangible concepts relatable, and help to suggest solutions to the problems that lie before us.
Scientists have known for well over a century that rising atmospheric carbon dioxide would lead to rising temperatures, a thread woven into science fiction since the early 1960s. But as the crisis has grown more pressing and its impacts more intrusive, it is wending its way into everything from the novels of writers like McConaghy and N. K. Jemisin to television programs like The Expanse, films like Don’t Look Up, and video games like the forthcoming We Are the Caretakers. Netflix has even gone so far as to create a committee that will explore ways of incorporating environmental issues into its programming. All of this acknowledges the fact that climate change is an inescapable part of life and that popular culture must reflect that.
“The climate disaster is going to become less and less ignorable in the very near future,” says Premee Mohamed, a speculative fiction author and biologist who focuses on reclamation and remediation policy in Alberta, Canada. Her recent novella The Annual Migration of Clouds is set in a post-post-apocalyptic world that’s been heavily impacted by rising global temperatures. “If people choose not to include it in their contemporary realism novels, as time goes on they’re going to be more and more unrealistic.”
Fiction becomes reality
Although Mohamed speaks specifically to novels, her point applies to fiction in all its forms, be it literature, cinema, television, or any creative endeavor. That said, as with any artistic trend, it’s impossible to pinpoint exactly when climate change moved beyond science fiction into other realms.
Jules Verne was among the first to ponder how humanity might alter the world in stories like The Purchase of the North Pole, his 1889 novel about men who want to tilt the planet’s axis to melt the polar ice caps and extract the coal they believe lies hidden beneath. Louis Pope Gratacap’s 1908 novel Evacuation of England: The Twist in the Gulf Stream sees its characters accidentally reverse the Atlantic gulf stream, causing disaster.
Later novels reflected a firmer understanding of how people could impact the natural world. As the modern environmental movement gained steam, John Christopher examined societal collapse after the arrival of a new ice age in his 1962 novel The World in Winter. In the same year, J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World examined a London flooded by rising sea levels. And of course, Frank Herbert’s landmark 1965 novel Dune placed environmental considerations front and center, brought on in no small part by his concerns about ecological collapse and our treatment of Earth.
By the mid-1990s, fiction about climate and the environment began growing in prominence: Authors like Kim Stanley Robinson depicted a future for humanity that was dealing with overpopulation and rising temperatures in his Mars trilogy, while Octavia E. Butler’s seminal Parable of the Sower envisioned a chillingly accurate world of the 2020s ravaged by devastating fires and rising seas.
In the years since, writers like Jemisin, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Rebecca Roanhorse have written works that feature characters contending with the challenges of a changing climate. But unlike earlier authors who made those changes the primary focus, many of these authors, working within the popular genre of climate fiction, have made them an accepted part of the worlds they’ve created.
“Speculative fiction plays off the changes of what is going on in the real world, and in the real world we are having unmissable events unavoidably fueled by climate change,” says John Scalzi, the author of the Interdependency trilogy, in which an interstellar civilization faces an existential crisis caused by the collapse of the hyperspace lanes that held humanity together.
To ignore these changes would be to create stories that are detached from reality and verge on fantasy.
The mainstreaming of climate change themes
That is due in no small part to how a growing recognition of the problem, and the shrinking time in which we have to address it, has led to the mainstreaming of climate change themes, says Gerry Canavan, an associate professor of English who teaches contemporary American literature and popular culture at Marquette University.
“We’re seeing it as part of the background radiation of what the future looks like now, in a way that you absolutely did not see 20 to 30 years ago,” Canavan says. He points to the enormous success of books like Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, or the ecological message of overpopulation in Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War as examples of the topic moving beyond niche markets into mainstream popular culture.
A new generation of authors has no qualms about blending the genre tropes with the stylings of “literary fiction.” Books like Edan Lepucki’s California, McConaghy’s Migrations, and Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness place their stories in a world in which the climate is definitely changing, and while their characters aren’t consumed with solving that particular problem, it’s an influence on the narrative. As climate change becomes inescapable in all walks of life, we’re beginning to see the topic appear more widely as creators beyond the literary realm seek to examine our relationship with the state and health of the planet.
Books and literature are at the vanguard of climate change depictions, but the topic is ever more common in other mediums. Films like The Day After Tomorrow, The Colony, Interstellar, Mad Max: Fury Road, Reminiscence, and the two Snowpiercer movies depict, with varying degrees of success, worlds utterly transformed by shifting temperatures. Television shows such as Game of Thrones and The Expanse tease a changing climate in the background of fantastical stories, while the Norwegian series Occupied placed environmental collapse in the foreground of a political drama set in the present day.
As we push our way forward into an uncertain future, the arts will follow, seeking to depict our struggle to understand and interpret our relationship with the natural world. We’ve seen this with other seismic societal changes. Stories like Willa Cather’s 1922 novel One of Ours and both the book Gone With the Wind and its film adaptation helped people make sense of the world following the Civil War, for example. Movies like Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, and Platoon provided interpretations of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, as did the television programs like China Beach and M*A*S*H (like the novel and film it was based upon, the show used Korea as a metaphor for Vietnam). The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, all but created a new genre with TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, 24, Generation Kill, and Person of Interest, and films like The Hurt Locker.
A number of years ago, I attended a workshop designed to teach writers the basics of physics and astronomy; the idea was that film and television were utilizing science incorrectly, and as a result, skewing viewers’ perceptions of science. It’s not hard to see examples of this in the exaggerated reliance on forensics in the CSI franchise and other crime shows. Popular culture’s depictions of the world must keep pace with the changes occurring in the world around us. The Law & Order franchise provides a good barometer for this: Characters in the latest season of Special Victims Unit, filmed during the COVID-19 pandemic, wear masks and lament the impact of lockdowns and other restrictions. They also address of-the-moment issues such as Black Lives Matter protests and racial inequality. Other contemporary shows like The Rookie and S.W.A.T. have covered similar territory.
As the effects of climate change become more frequent, authors, showrunners, and filmmakers almost certainly will weave them into their work. We’ll see skies clouded by wildfire smoke, for example, or hear characters discussing climate denialism, even if it’s in metaphorical terms. We’ve already seen these very topics addressed in television shows like The Morning Show and films like Don’t Look Up.
With that in mind, it’s easy to assume that entertainment will shape how readers, viewers, and, in the case of video games, players will view our climate-changed future, transforming what remains for many people a theoretical topic into a tangible one. The killer heatwave that opens Robinson’s Ministry for the Future, the all-encompassing dust storms that sweep through the Midwest in Interstellar, and the desperate race to save endangered species in the forthcoming game We Are The Caretakers depict bleak futures we may well see within our lifetimes. Seeing such possibilities play out in books and on screens large and small might help people to reconsider their behavior and habits so that we might have some chance of avoiding the future Charlotte McConaghy and so many others have been warning us about.
Explore more from Fix’s What’s Next Issue:
- The future of farming? Think artificial intelligence, robots, and drones.
- We may not save the world, but we can save what’s important to us
- How the Indigenous landback movement is poised to change conservation