‘Highlighting the Mistakes we are Making’: On the Uses of Climate Change Fiction

Novelist Alice Robinson reflects on how fiction might influence our response to climate change, drawing on her experience writing Anchor Point (Affirm Press, March) and on her reading about climate change.

Image by US Geological Survey, Flickr.

I sat down to write my debut novel, Anchor Point, compelled by the reading I had done on climate change, which had more than confirmed my worst fears. As the writing and editing processes dragged on in a way that will be familiar to anyone who has ever published a book (but were shocking to me) I believed in the ability of literature to make change – personal, and even cultural. According to the American postmodernist J Hillis Miller, we ‘see the world through the literature we read … We then act in the real world on the basis of that seeing’. I know this to be true, at a personal level, because my path was seeded in two fiercely individual and intelligent fictional writers: Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gablesand Jo March from Little Women, to whom I was devoted as a girl and remain indebted now. As soon as I was old enough to be read those novels by my mother, their feisty heroines were demonstrating for me just how to be an imaginative woman in the world: a woman who writes. Jo and Anne made such a career seem desirable and, more importantly, possible – a triumph in a world that, as the need for the Stella Prize has so sharply illuminated, will not necessarily extend itself to encourage women’s intellectual pursuits, or privilege women’s writing.

I had recently returned from a stint overseas, it was summer, and I was trying to make sense of what I had experienced on my travels. All over the globe, locals had lamented the changes they saw in their environment – they didn’t necessarily use the term ‘climate change’, but it was present as they described the impact of too little or too much rain; unseasonably hot or cold weather; of very little snow, or else of blizzards; of failing crops. Back in Australia, I couldn’t shake the uneasiness all this had furnished me with. I did my research. I received the message broadcast by even the more conservative scientific bodies, like the IPCC, and it frightened me. Climate change was occurring as a result of human action on the planet – namely, our lifestyles. What this might mean for humanity seemed like something belonging to the realm of science fiction.

I felt honour-bound to at least try to promote change of some kind, to circumvent a future that appeared perilously imminent, especially for Australia. But I was only a writer.

I felt honour-bound to at least try to promote change of some kind, to circumvent a future that appeared perilously imminent, especially for Australia. But I was only a writer. I toyed with ideas of retraining in something more ‘useful’, like sustainable architecture, or devoting myself to activism. I went briefly to CERES as a volunteer gardener, where I wasn’t much use. Eventually, remembering Anne, remembering Jo, I wondered whether I could somehow work with the skills I already had, feeling my way into a relationship between narrative and environment, as many makers and creators currently are. So many, in fact, that there exists a burgeoning field of study for the practice: ecocriticism, and now a literary genre: cli-fi (climate-fiction).

I wanted to write a book that would contribute to what Dan Bloom – credited with coining the term ‘cli-fi’ – imagines when he says, ‘I am entirely focused on creating a platform for others to use cli-fi to change the world.’ Cli-fi is an evolving and potentially expansive genre, but one of its fundamental functions, as I see it, is to process the cultural distress that is inevitable under the circumstances. Cli-fi narratives, predominantly apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic but not necessarily so, reflect, portray and perhaps even safely contain our collective fears and anxieties, particularly regarding our chances for long-term survival. Too-little lauded Australian writer George Turner’s The Sea and Summer is a favourite cli-fi novel of both Bloom’s and mine, but other titles such as Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, Ian McEwan’s Solar, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behaviour, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy and, in my humble opinion, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, among others, powerfully explore, in ways more touching and profound than any scientific document, just how society might look and feel and function in a climatically altered world. In this sense, cli-fi novels offer a way of highlighting the mistakes we are making, preparing us for what will come next.

But can these narratives work actively to prevent climate change, as I so fervently hoped when I first began writing my own novel? If our culture acts in the world on the basis of what we glean from texts, as Hillis Miller proposes, then can certain narratives lead us toward a different, better, safer way of living? Can a genre prevent us from destroying our home?

Heartbreakingly, to my mind, the answer is no.

When I began writing, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was newly released and Kevin Rudd had just come in to power promising to address climate change, the ‘greatest moral challenge of our time’. But as the years rolled by, the abandonment of such promises kept pace with increasingly extreme weather events, both internationally and in Australia: record-setting heatwaves across the continent; flooding in Queensland and New South Wales; and brutal bushfires in South Australia and Victoria, including the deadly Black Saturday fires. Bitterly disappointing, the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen demonstrated the scope of the collaboration required to tackle climate change – and our capacity for falling short of our potential, for failing ourselves.

I grip on to the idea that, ultimately, the nature of the danger we face is still mercifully uncertain.

Worse still, after a successful campaign of destabilisation, Tony Abbott seized control of the nation, catastrophically winding back even the minute advances already scrounged: repealing the carbon tax, attempting to delist World Heritage sites, abolishing the Climate Commission, the list could go on. We have since lived through the hottest year on record. The scientific dialogue has shifted, in just a matter of years, from talking mitigation to talking adaptation, though opportunities to adapt will not be available for everyone: those whose homelands are destroyed by rising sea levels, for example, as well as those who do not have the economic capacity to meet the challenges imposed by climate change, will struggle to adapt and may fail to do so. This is to say nothing of the many plant and animal species that will be wiped out; that will survive only in the dusty footnotes of academic texts, as photographs, recorded in the pages of novels.

I don’t think cli-fi can save us, because it seems that not much can.

Yet, since weathering these turns of events and beginning Anchor Point, I have also given birth to two beautiful little children – perhaps my most ecologically damaging act, but also my most hopeful. How parenthood squares with my despair over our prospective future is complicated; suffice to say, my reluctant pessimism and necessary optimism provide the particular position from which I now write. My novel comes to an end in the last gasp prior to any definitive apocalypse, allowing for modest hopefulness, my small concession to the idea that the future may be other than what I fear it will be; that my precious children, and their children, may yet remain safe.

I grip on to the idea that, ultimately, the nature of the danger we face is still mercifully uncertain. There is comfort in the knowledge that while scientists might attempt to model the scale of disaster, at present only fiction can imagine what our futures might look like, how humanity might respond. In Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton argues that we oscillate between disabling states, denial and despair, when confronted by the reality of imminent climate change. Perhaps cli-fi’s ability to imagine possible futures – to portray humanity during and after the crash – might help us to rid ourselves of our persistent culture of denialism and to portray the possibility of our survival; to legitimise our pessimism while encouraging our hope. Hamilton quotes Pablo Casals to the effect that, ‘the situation is hopeless; we must now take the next step’. Though it alone cannot save us, perhaps cli-fi can urge us toward those next crucial steps: spurring us to initiate the positive cultural changes that remain within our control, supporting our attempts to come to terms with our situation, and preparing us to weather the significant changes already looming.

I want this to be true.

Portrait of Alice Robinson

Alice Robinson is a lecturer in creative writing at Melbourne’s NMIT. She has a PhD in creative writing from Victoria University and her work has been published widely. Anchor Point is Alice’s first novel.