The Storytelling of Climate Change

By Ellen O’Donnell, Second Year Geography

The opening scene of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) depicts a world that is almost uninhabitable. Interspersed with shots of dry, desolate land, we hear interviewees recount tales of dust and a constant “steady blow of dirt”. The use of the past tense implies we are seeing a historical catastrophe, however Nolan is not encouraging the audience to feel sympathy with a past plight, but rather fear for a future environmental crisis, as it is revealed the film is set in 2067.  

Interstellar (2014) // Legendary Pictures // IMDb

Interstellar is one example of a work that falls into the climate fiction, or ‘cli-fi’, genre, which also extends into literature. Current events are often reflected on, and played with, in works of speculative fiction – just think of Stanley Kubrick’s satirized depiction of the Cold War in Dr. Strangelove (1964) – and yet our current climate emergency does not seem to capture the imagination of creators, or audiences, quite like the threat of mutually assured destruction. 

In a 2005 article for The Guardian, author Robert Macfarlane questioned, in relation to climate change, “Where are the novels, the plays, the poems, the songs, the libretti, of this massive contemporary anxiety?” (Macfarlane, 2005, np).  Writing in 2019, MP Caroline Lucas echoed a similar call to arms, asking “artists and writers and poets and musicians” to reflect on climate change to allow us to “emotionally connect with the reality of what we’re doing to this one beautiful and precious earth” (Lucas, 2019, p. 215). So, why has there been such little change in nearly 15 years? And more significantly, why are fictional representations of climate change so important? 

‘Man vs Nature’ is a trope as old as storytelling itself, with classics such as Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851) and Ernest Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (1952) pitting man against the natural world. More recently, for example, Andy Weir’s The Martian (2011) sets the well-known ‘Man vs Nature’ story on Mars, but it is nonetheless a similar depiction of man’s struggle to survive in adverse natural conditions. And it is, more often than not, man’s struggle; man is assumed to be synonymous with humanity. 

But now all we need to do is look to the news to find examples of ‘Human vs Nature’ stories, as anthropogenic climate change increasingly requires humankind to struggle against nature; even if these adverse natural conditions are of our own making. Why are these climate-change induced ‘Human vs Nature’ stories not seeping into fictional representations of our world as readily as the ‘Man vs Man’ stories of nuclear threat, for example? 

“As we cannot blame one person, or one group of corrupt politicians, or one global conglomerate, for causing anthropogenic climate change, cli-fi similarly struggles to cast its villain.”

Wallace-Wells, in The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), suggests it is an issue of heroes and villains. The ‘Human vs Nature’ trope relies on the reader, or viewer, to be rooting for humanity’s victory over nature, and the resulting understanding of nature as the villain. This makes fictionalising climate change significantly more complex, as nature is no longer the clear-cut antagonist. The morals suddenly become ambiguous. The fight appears to be against nature, but both the characters and the audience understand nature to no longer be truly ‘natural’. 

As we cannot blame one person, or one group of corrupt politicians, or one global conglomerate, for causing anthropogenic climate change, cli-fi similarly struggles to cast its villain. Wallace-Wells (2019, p.149) perhaps puts it best: “Complicity does not make for good drama”. It is very hard to root for a hero that is complicit in making the villain what it is. It is even harder for an audience to root for this hero, knowing they are just as complicit themselves. 

Traditional ‘Human vs Nature’, ‘Hero vs Villain’, storytelling also relies on an often individualistic narrative of survival. This further exacerbates the hero/villain issue, as audiences are quite literally only presented with one person, or viewpoint, or outcome, to root for.  

Interstellar (2014)// Legendary Pictures // IMDb

So, it seems the main reason cli-fi remains an under-developed genre is because our traditional modes of story-telling are not up to the job. Under current narrative structures, confronting climate change forces the audience to confront their understanding of the climate crisis, and their role in it. And moral questions regarding the ethics and impacts of their modern existence is generally something people want to avoid when stepping into the escapist world of fiction. 

To answer Macfarlane’s and Lucas’ calls for artists to tell tales of the climate, perhaps a change of method is required. Multispecies theorist Donna Haraway believes we need an approach to the Anthropocene that recognises ‘sympoiesis’ – or making-with – rather than the self-making, individualistic approach that is often favoured today (Haraway, 2016). Similarly, Anna Tsing and her co-editors, in their book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (2017, p.8), argue for an approach of symbiogenesis, which involves recognising the “co-making of living things.”

The climate crisis is increasingly showing the inextricable links between humans and the environment, therefore a sympoietic understanding of the Anthropocene allows an appreciation of our ability to develop and change with the environment. This is an idea Dr Kirk Sides, Lecturer in World Literatures in English at the University of Bristol (and member of the Cabot Institute for the Environment), applies to storytelling, by arguing for a sympoietic approach to narrative-making: “Shifting our imaginations from tales driven by the triumphs of the individual, to those that capture a spirit of making together is an important step in the direction of picturing differently our future as a species on this planet” (Sides, 2019, p.119). 

“What is clear, is that representation beyond male Western thought is required to tell meaningful narratives.”

Another important step required to picture our future differently is ensuring an inclusive and representational approach to storytelling. Whilst the literary genre of science fiction is increasingly becoming less dominated by white male authors, it is less clear if the same can be said of mainstream sci-fi on-screen, and it is still the ‘Man vs Nature’ trope that prevails in both. Therefore, what is clear, is that representation beyond male Western thought is required to tell meaningful narratives. 

Tsing et al. (2017, p.8) reflect that “unless we learn to listen broadly, we may miss the biggest story of life on earth: symbiogenesis, the co-making of living things.” Therefore, drawing on Tsing et al.’s symbiogenesis and Haraway’s sympoiesis, it is clear that humans need to ‘make-with’ their environment. But before we can do this, we must first ensure we are listening to each other. As Dr Kirk Sides reflected in conversation, “we notice differently when we notice multiply”.

In conversation with Dr Sides, he gave focus to one example of storytelling that requires attention: that of Indigenous communities, as “the precarity seen as characteristic of the Anthropocene is a continuation of the colonial violences meted out on peoples across the ‘Americas’ following European ‘discovery’.” Therefore, the growing Western interest in portraying ‘environmental apocalypse’ through speculative fiction is “actually a story that has been and continues to be told by Indigenous peoples…This has less to do with the scientific discoveries that link anthropogenic climate change to decisive moments in the long colonial encounter, and more to do with paying attention to how those peoples affected by these violences have made sense of and registered these cataclysmic moments.” Therefore, stories like these need to be sought out, listened to and understood, to allow us “to think about how to live and to live differently with a changing earth.”

And this ability to ‘think about how to live differently’ is why Macfarlane and Lucas are so determined for artists to get involved in the fight against climate change. This may seem a fruitless discussion; it is the scientists that are the experts, and the politicians that have the power to enforce change. But in Macfarlane’s words, “an imaginative repertoire is urgently needed by which the causes and consequences of climate change can be debated, sensed, and communicated” (Macfarlane, 2005, np). 

“Storytellers have an ability to communicate ideas in an emotionally resonant way that scientists and politicians cannot.”

As playwrite and poet Bertolt Brecht once said, “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”. And it is a tool that can be used in a multitude of ways. Caroline Lucas (2019, p.216) believes stories can be used as a tool for hope, to “paint positive pictures of how the world could be”. Robert Macfarlane (2005, np) argues “literature has a role to play in inducing this gut feeling” of fear to motivate change.

But it can be agreed that, in whichever way stories are used, storytellers have an ability to communicate ideas in an emotionally resonant way that scientists and politicians cannot. In his ‘brief history of humankind’ Sapiens (2014), Yuval Noah Harari argues it is our ability to share stories that made humankind what it is today. He points to the ‘imagined realities’ of states, churches and legal systems to exemplify the power of shared narratives. Effective storytelling “enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals” (Harari, 2011, p. 35). And whilst sci-fi films and cli-fi novels may not be of the same scope and scale as religion or capitalism, the same principle applies. Speculative fiction “has a unique capacity to help us connect present action with future consequence” (Macfarlane, 2005, np). It lifts damning news reports and scientific jargon from the realm of intellectual knowledge into that of emotion, harnessing the power of imagination to enable change. 

Dr Strangelove (1964) // Hawk Films // IMDb

Nolan’s Interstellar ends with the remnants of humanity leaving a dust-plagued Earth and resettling in space to ensure their survival. It is a film that encourages the audience to question what caused Earth to reach such a dire situation, aiming to capture imaginations and spark conversations. And it does, to an extent. But this is still a cli-fi film following the well-known ‘Man vs Nature’ trope. We follow an individual on a quest to overcome nature and save humanity, driven almost entirely by the want to save his children back on Earth. 

And the result? Man wins. Humanity: 1, Earth: 0. For cli-fi to really resonate perhaps we need more endings like that of Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove: mutually assured destruction. This is perhaps the kind of cli-fi Macfarlane calls for, because if we continue on a business-as-usual scenario, are we not also on a path of mutually assured destruction? 

But more productively, let’s lean on Lucas’ vision of hopeful narratives. Speculative fiction is a powerful tool that should not be disregarded by scientists, or policy-makers. As geographers, we understand the importance of interdisciplinary work, and therefore should not overlook the potential for storytelling to communicate scientific ideas in new and compelling ways.  

But for it to truly be effective, storytellers need to leave behind the simplistic ‘Human vs Nature’ narrative, where the human is almost always male and white. Instead, we need to focus on representative tales of sympoiesis, where humanity ‘makes-with’ the Earth, rather than leaving it for dead, as Nolan would have us do.

Many thanks to Dr Kirk Sides for giving up his time to share his reflections on this subject area with me. 

References

Harari, Y. N., 2014. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. London: Vintage.

Haraway, D. J., 2016. Staying with the Trouble. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press.

Lucas, C., 2019. A Failure of Imagination . In: A. Hope, J. McInnes, K. Michael & G. Pengelly, eds. Letters to the Earth. London: William Collins, pp. 214-216.

Macfarlane, R., 2005. The burning question. [Online]
Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2005/sep/24/featuresreviews.guardianreview29

Sides, K., 2019. Seed Bags and Storytelling: Modes of Living and Writing after the End in Wanuri Kahiu’s Pumzi. Critical Philosophy of Race, 7(1), pp. 107-123.

Tsing, A., Swanson, H., Gan, E. & Bubandt, N., 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press.

Wallace-Wells, D., 2019. The Uninhabitable Earth. 1st ed. New York: Crown Publishing Group.

Header Image: Legendary Pictures // IMDb

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