(jazzy percussion music) - 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 wanna start?
Okay, how about a really easy question, how would you define climate fiction?
- Do the... - Do you even know what climate fiction is?
- I have a book though.
- Did you read it?
(pensive music) Hm.
- 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 started to use the phrase climate fiction, or cli-fi, 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 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 of 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 Lindsay Ellis, the host of PBS' "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 you're Lil 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 (beep) jokes and that's Lil Dicky's "Earth"!
I don't know, I don't know what this says about Gen Z, who didn't live through "Captain Planet and the Planeteers" that they see this and they're like, "Well, Ariana Grande's in it.
And, of course, do we have the question, did Lil Dicky change anything?
Probably not, 'cause 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 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 a comparison, let's look at a much more well-studied topic: violence in video games.
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.
Longterm 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.
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 J. G. 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 climatic 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'll mean the complete annihilation of man.
- The beginning of the end.
- [Lindsay] " In 1966, Harry Harrison wrote "Make Room!
", which was adapted into "Soylent Green" in 1973, which dealt with the topic of overpopulation.
- Soylent Green is people!
- 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 followup, 2015's "Mad Max: Fury Road", (explosion booming) 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 its followup, "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 incorporate it 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 it's 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 watched the film were also more concerned about the possibility of a new ice age, similar to the one that is depicted in the film, than non-watchers.
So we can see that, while the film might have made people who were 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 onboard 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's mind about whether climate change is real?
No, probably not, but 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.
- Ooh, I know about this!
The idea that most people 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 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 and family, or at your next book club.
(bright chiming music)