li-fi novels and movies will play a big role in preparing humanity for what is coming down the road.
The birth of ‘cli-fi’
The term ‘cli-fi’ was coined in 2008 by journalist and climate activist Dan Bloom to characterise novels, films, plays and poems that revolve around the issue of climate change. There is a close affinity with eco fiction, which can be traced back to The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, published in 1939. Bloom expresses the hope on his website, www.cli-fi.net, that “cli-fi novels and movies will play a big role in preparing humanity for what is coming down the road”.
Fiction and engagement with climate change
Fiction offers a way of engaging with situations we would otherwise find too difficult or distressing to contemplate. Via a process of identification, we experience the harrowing circumstances in which characters find themselves, and share in their triumphs and setbacks. As a consequence, action in the external world becomes a more likely possibility. Neville Shute’s novel, On the Beach, dramatically increased public engagement with the threat posed by nuclear weapons, while Steinbeck’s novel raised awareness of environmental degradation and its human consequences. As Steinbeck himself commented: “One of the great gifts of this kind of fiction could be its ability to make the unthinkable more proximate.”
The scope of cli-fi
Novels that fall within the cli-fi genre range from post-apocalyptic writing, portraying a future where society has been devastated by war, disease or environmental disaster – for example, The Road (Cormac McCarthy), The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) and Waterworld (Max Collins) – to work that depicts a time of transition, an altered but imaginable near future – for example, The Heatstroke Line (Edward Rubin), Flight Behaviour (Barbara Kingsolver) and I’m with the Bears (Bill McKibben).
A problem with some cli-fi novels, frequently flagged up in book reviews, is an overload of technical and practical details. Bill McKibben notes in the introduction to I’m with the Bears: “The problem with writing about global warming may be that the truth is larger than usually makes for good fiction.”1 Too much information, whether in the form of political context or technological explanation, can come at the expense of a narrative that takes the reader on a thought-provoking and emotionally engaging journey.
Cli-fi and ‘implicative denial’2
Guardian journalist, Anna Karpf, has described herself as a “climate change ignorer”3 – a person who fully accepts the reality of climate change and at the same time lives ‘as if’ things were not as they are. She attributes her implicative denial to the overwhelming sense of helplessness evoked by thinking about climate change. In this situation, cli-fi offers a way of thinking and knowing about the existential threat posed by climate change, without becoming overwhelmed. As readers, we are able emotionally and cognitively to inhabit a climate-changed world, while remaining in a physically safe space. We have the opportunity to explore our emotional responses to the events that occur and vicariously to exercise our problem-solving skills.
The future of cli-fi
There are signs that the idea of entering a fictional world in order to engage with the difficulties and uncertainties associated with climate change is gaining ground. Amazon includes cli-fi as a separate category and cli-fi modules have found a place on the literature curriculum at many US colleges, various German universities and universities of Cambridge and UCL in the UK. Cli-fi dedicated reading groups have been formed in various places and a guide to writing cli-fi4 has found its way into print.
- McKibben, B. (2011). Introduction to Martin, M. (2011) (Ed). I’m with the bears: short stories from a damaged planet. Verso: London and New York.
- Cohen, S. (2000). States of denial: knowing about atrocities and suffering. Polity Press: Cambridge, UK.
- Karpf, A. (2012). Climate change: you can’t ignore it [Online]. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2012/nov/30/climate-change-you-cant-ignore-it
- Szabo, E. B. (2015). Saving the world one word at a time: writing cli-fi. CreateSpace independent publishing platform: Scotts Valley, California.