When we imagine our climate future, it’s easy to drift toward catastrophe, especially in view of this summer’s shocking examples of climate chaos—from floods and sinkholes to heat domes and unchecked wildfires. But while stories about impending doom are motivating for some people, they leave others feeling dispirited. We need positive visions of the future that we can work toward: stories about human thriving in more just, sustainable communities and societies.
The Climate Imagination Fellowship, a project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, in partnership with the U.N. High-Level Climate Champions, TED Countdown, and the ClimateWorks Foundation, brings together science fiction writers from around the world to imagine those positive futures, but also to ground them in local complexities, and real scientific and technological insights.
Below, three of the climate imagination fellows recommend works of literature around climate change that inspire them. And on Tuesday, Aug. 31, at noon Eastern, they will join sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson and others to discuss stories about human thriving in more just, sustainable communities and societies. For more information and to RSVP, visit the New America website.
Libia Brenda: “Seed,” by Iliana Vargas
“Those towns and cities no longer exist. They’re part of the ocean now, which went about swallowing that earth in increasingly violent laps and gulps.”
In a setting that reflects chaos and uncertainty, a strange- and peaceful-looking woman stands out among the landscape. The protagonist, once both fearful of and drawn to this figure, moves toward the woman, without knowing that this (apparently) chance encounter could change her life. In this short story (written in Spanish and translated into English by Michelle Mirabella), Iliana Vargas presents a world long transformed by the climate crisis, to the extent that its effects are mixed with legends. In a few strokes, the text reflects the lives of ordinary people, contrasting them with a glimpse of another life, thanks to the creature that so fascinates the narrator. Here, the story imagines the existence of a species, the hibridarius metaterrae (a compound Latin name), which is very similar to the human species—but not the same. They are creatures who laid dormant in the ice until freed by the melting of the poles. Creatures whom we cannot fully understand, who represent an otherness that simultaneously attracts and repels us.
The Mexican speculative literature combines features of many sources and almost always lays out imaginaries that have little to do with what is most popular in the international market, itself dominated by narratives written in English. This story, for example, underlines the difference between what is human, what the human species considers “appropriate,” and what comes from nature, which we rarely even stop to understand. But it does not do this via an edifying or admonitory lecture; rather, it simply reflects, through the protagonist’s actions, that this understanding can start with the acceptance (itself sometimes a revelation) that our species also belongs to nature.
What type of conversation can we establish with the other beings that inhabit this planet? And, above all, where can this communication start? The answer, which we sometimes sidestep because it seems too obvious, is that the most important thing is to observe and listen, to accept and act accordingly. The end of the story is very impactful and revealing, because it leaves us with a question that, at this moment in history, is more pertinent than ever.
Hannah Onoguwe: “The Beginning,” by Radha Zutshi Opubor
“The Beginning”is flash fiction about rising tides set in Lagos, Nigeria. Written by a teenager it tells the story of a girl who only has memories about what her life used to be. It’s a quick read, both fast-paced and in-your-face. As you get to know the narrator, you think, “I’d love to meet her someday,” but as the story progresses, you become afraid that you might not have the chance. She describes a future Lagos that could come true if we are careless about the environment and climate change. She says in the story, “I imagine a world where the waters had not risen. … I imagine my life if … my father had listened.”
These words kind of cut at the reader, because we’re in a position where all is not lost, where our choices today can avert much of the impending disaster. I think deep down we truly don’t want to look back and wish we had made the right decisions when we had the chance. The story is even more haunting because the narrator is a minor, and besides seeing things differently, she is at the mercy of her parents, their choices. It speaks to where the world is today, the need to do this for continuity’s sake, for our children. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I’ll be dead by then,” and that is just irresponsible. A 2015 documentary, Nowhere to Run: Nigeria’s Climate and Environmental Crisis, offers a similar reminder: We received all this beauty, this world, in trust, as it were. It is only right that we look after it and hand it down to generations after us.
I was as impressed by the writing as I was the author because at 16 I think I was more concerned about crushes. Radha lays it bare. Reading it, you don’t at once think she’s an alarmist, but your heart gives (or should give) a little thrum of dread at some of the things that mankind will have to deal with if we don’t deal with our apathy now.
Vandana Singh: “Poem to My Daughter,” by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner
The climate crisis is, among other things, a crisis of the imagination. This is where poetry and fiction can help, spurring people to ask questions, speculate, and take action. One example of this is Marshelle poet and activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s “Poem to My Daughter,” which opened the 2014 U.N. Climate Summit. In the poem, Jetnil-Kijinger’s daughter, her island country, and the Earth itself morph into one another, as she speaks of what threats they face. The poem offers us a visceral sense of the effects of climate change on the human body and the Earth, in the image of the peaceful lagoon that will “crunch your island’s shattered bones.” This is the clear-eyed realism of those who have experienced the worst aspects of modern industrial civilization: colonialism and climate change. And yet, although projections declare that some of their land will be inundated before midcentury, many Marshall Islanders want to stay and fight, to adapt to the rising waters. It may be surprising to us outsiders that people who are going through so much can have any sense of a positive future. But theirs is not the Pollyanna-ish positivity of the privileged elite; it’s not a turning away, a passing-of-the-buck, a denial of the horrific reality of the crisis. The poem’s hard-won hope stems from a people who know very well the costs of both exile and staying put. In that hope there’s defiance, a spirit of resistance, and a vision of a very different future. Consider these lines:
hands reaching out
fists raising up
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
the radiance of solar villages
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
While elites secure massive funding for speculative carbon capture technologies, marginalized communities around the world are resisting destructive “development” projects, from fossil fuel initiatives to environmentally destructive “low-carbon” projects such as big dams. Activists literally lay their lives on the line to stop these efforts, succeeding more than 25 percent of the time, according to one study. But communities are not only resisting. As “Poem to My Daughter” exemplifies, they are also dreaming and acting. There are thousands of real-world grassroots experiments into alternatives that point to a quite different possible future: just, diverse and truly sustainable. This poem is a reminder to us to pay attention to what is already there, and what can be, if we fight for it.