Does science fiction have a moral imperative to address climate change?

Does science fiction have a moral imperative to address climate change?

This post was originally published in September 2019 for the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog.

Today, in cities across the globe, millions of people are taking part in the Global Climate Strike, an international movement to bring awareness to the immanent dangers posed by Earth’s changing climate—and to demand that governments around the world take action to address the ways they contribute to the problem.

Concern about the devastating impacts of a radically changing climate isn’t a new phenomenon—certainly it’s a topic that science fiction has addressed in books and stories stretching back decades. But now, with the wide-ranging effects of climate change evident in the daily news, the genre—its authors, and its fans—are increasingly  contributing to the conversation, utilizing science fiction as a tool for imagining—often with bracing immediacy—the future that lies before us.

Science fiction as a genre is an inseparable part of the industrial revolution, a massive transformation that stretched from the late 1700s to the early 1800s. The movement introduced new machines, chemicals, and power systems into society, fundamentally changing the labor market and the world economy. It led to new productivity gains for factories, as well as a boom in the global population. It helped produce the romantic movement that led artists to idolize the natural world, or look back with reverence to a pre-industrial age.

Writers reacted the to the changing world around them. Mary Shelley, often credited with the first modern work of Western science fiction, produced Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus in an attempt to grapple with the ramifications of a rapidly-changing scientific world. In the decades that followed, science fiction emerged in a more recognizable form, and refined itself as a product of the industrial revolution, telling stories about the technologies and advances made possible by the movement and its successors.

Over its long history, the genre has used its tropes and conventions to examine the existential threats facing humanity. Author Cleve Cartmill (with prompting from editor John W. Campbell Jr.) published “Deadline” in Astounding Science Fiction in 1944, a story about the development of a nuclear bomb in a war between two countries, and the world-altering troubles that it could bring. Later, Robert A. Heinlein parlayed his concerns about the threat of nuclear war into a military science fiction story of his own, Starship Troopers. Other stories raised the issue of rampant pollution: the SF Encyclopedia points out that “notion that environmental pollution might be a serious threat in the future is not evident in early SF, where it tends to be assumed that progress will sweep the dirt away,” and that “virtually all utopian Cities are remarkable for their cleanliness.”

The 1960s ushered in a change in awareness towards the importance of the protecting the environment and humanity’s role in its destruction. Works like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring helped galvanize awareness of the health of the environment, and particularly, the destructive nature of new chemicals and industrial processes that progress had brought with it.

But it was a particular science fictional moment that helped bring the most awareness: a snapshot of the Earth taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts, given the evocative name “Earthrise.”

The portrait has become a symbol of the environmental movement, showing off the fragile and tiny nature of our home planet.

Topics such as pollution, overcrowding, and a warming Earth began to appear more frequently within the genre. Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! (later adapted—and firmly embedded in pop culture consciousness—as Soylent Green) examined the plight of an overcrowded Earth, though today the main drivers of climate change are far less attributable to rising populations in less developed areas of the world and far more to do with mass consumerism in the developed world.

J.G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World specifically imagines a post-apocalyptic 2145 in which global warming (caused by solar wind heating the atmosphere, rather than specifically fossil fuel emissions) lead to sea-level rise, ruining London. Even nearly 60 years ago—long before “climate change” had become a source of widespread anxiety, it was a stark vision; reviewer Peter Brigg noted, “Ballard created in this novel the most pervasive demonstration of the frailty of ‘technological’ man.”

Two years later, Ballard published The Burning World (republished as The Drought), which goes in the opposite direction: rather than sea level rise, a world-wide drought devastates the world, caused by industrial pollution.

A trickle of other works would follow over the years, such as Dakota James’ 1984 novel Greenhouse: It Will Happen in 1997 and 1987’s Milwaukee the Beautiful, George Turner’s 1987 novel The Sea and the Summer, and Susan Gaines’ 2000 novel Carbon Dreams, each of which address the root cause of climate change: people.

But in recent decades—and with an unmistakeable sense of urgency—the state of the Earth’s climate has become an increasingly ripe subject for science fiction authors looking not to the far future of the human race, but looking at the world around them and wondering if we’ll even get there in our current state.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capitol trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005) and Sixty Days and Counting (2007), since republished in streamlined form in the omnibus Green Earth (the title a winking reference to the author’s trilogy about the terraforming of Mars for human habitation)—specifically examines the unwillingness of government to move with speed to address the problem of global warming, even as its effects become too drastic to ignore.

Robinson has also used his fiction as a vehicle for expressing his believe that those who look to the stars as a source of our salvation from a ruined planet are misguided. His 2015 novel Aurora follows the events onboard an ailing generation ship on its way to Tau Ceti, on a mission to colonize a potentially Earth-like moon. Its citizens come to realize the incredible fragility of human life and the biome that supports it: there’s literally only one place in the universe where we are best-suited to live, and we’re already doing our damnedest to make that impossible.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2009 novel The Wingup Girl is an example of the current wave of fiction exploring humanity’s post-climate change future (a subgenre that garnered the rather too-cutesy nickname “cli-fi”). Certainly its critical and commercial success seemed to open the floodgates for more stories focused on the horrifying fallout humanity will suffer as the inhabitants of a drastically warmed planet.

Set in the 23rd century, Bacigalupi’s novel takes place in a world whose oil resources have been depleted and whose oceans have risen, displacing billions and upending the global economy. Protected to a degree by its natural geography, Thailand has been able to fend off some of the worst changes, locking down its borders and preventing genetically modified crops from taking over its food supply. The narrative has a lot more on its mind than just climate devastation, though it is the impetus for the action of the plot and every bit of its worldbuilding.

(It's worth noting that Bacigalupi's book has earned some significant criticism for its depiction of women and Thailand)

Tackling the issue head-on, Bacigalupi’s followup novels depict similar scenes of climate-induced upheaval: his YA works Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities, and Tool of War follow young characters facing terrible living conditions in the environmental ruins, and his nearer-future novel The Water Knife is set in a chaotic southwest United States in which squabbles over increasingly scant resources threaten to explode into civil war. In these novels, Bacigalupi focuses not only on the changing climate itself, but on the ways a capitalistic mindset and social structure are one of its root causes, arguing that no meaningful change is possible without a drastic societal reorientation.

Other authors have come to similar conclusions: Robinson’s 2017 novel New York 2140 follows the citizens of a drowned New York City in the titular year, and examines the persistent impact of capitalism run rampant on the world’s climate, even after many of the world’s coastlines have drowned. Like Bacigalupi, Robinson here points out that a mindset that favors short-term gains have a steep cost, and that long-term change can’t occur without a shift in attitude.

Similarly, Christopher Brown’s recent novels Tropic of Kansas and Rule of Capture examine the attitudes that underpin our modern society as a driver for devastating change—and stand as a warning of the effects a maintaining of the status quo could have on the structural integrity of the world’s economy and stability: the drastic societal upheaval, ranging from global to civil war, widespread oppression, and famine, that will result from inaction. (Brown, who lives in Texas, often writes with passion on his blog about the importance of redefining our relationship with nature as a way to safeguard it.)

Considering the erratic state of the world’s climate in 2019, it feels at times as though the events we’re living through have been orchestrated an unseen science fiction author. Massive storms have wrecked cities and islands. Wildfires devastate the American West, Australia, Bolivia, Brazil, and Indonesia. Parts of the ocean have drastically warmed, or experienced deoxygenation. And yet, our industrialized society marches on, pumping pollutants into the atmosphere and spewing plastics into the oceans, with little indication from policymakers that meaningful changes are being seriously contemplated.

This is where science fiction can, and must, play a role: by helping to shape the conception of what a changing climate will bring, in all of its facets. The genre was born out of the industrial revolution, and helped to promote the potential that technological progress would bring to the world, and warning about its excesses. Because of that heritage, science fiction has a responsibility on its shoulders: a way to address, interpret, and interrogate the ramifications of a changing world, and its impact on its inhabitants.

After all, science fiction isn’t really about the future: it’s about the concerns of the present. And the last decade has brought a number of books that address the breadth of the changes that a shifting climate will bring. There are, in fact, almost too many to list (a search for the word “climate” on this five-year-old science fiction blog produces 184 unique results); today, many speculative novels set in Earth’s future seem to take disruptive climate change as a matter of course, even when it doesn’t feature heavily into the plot.

Here is a brief reading list to get you started: Will McIntosh’s Soft Apocalypse, set in the malaise of a world that has fallen to pieces by degrees; Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, which delve into humanity’s contributions to its own deminse; Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus; Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, in which the environment becomes an unknowable enemy; N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season, The Oblisk Gate, and The Stone Sky, a trilogy of novels about a world where the apocalypse is a way of life; Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Skies, which move the end days up by a century or so; Larissa Lai’s The Tiger Flu, and many others. Undoubtedly, the ranks of these books will continue to grow, as speculative writers continue to sound the alarm, and inspire current—and future—generations to imagine and build a better tomorrow for the planet, which is still the only one we’ve got.