Climate Change and the Imagination

Devastating hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.  Out of control wildfires in Oregon, Washington, Canada, and California.  This is climate change America, 2017.  The media hesitates to draw connections, and, despite Puerto Rico before our eyes, our leaders fail to imagine what is coming if we don’t quickly and drastically change our carbon polluting ways.

Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

English teachers can respond to what is happening by creating curriculum that connects the dots, energizes the imagination, and inspires students and communities to knowledge and action.

Imaginative literature can foster understanding of the impacts of climate change on real people and the social order.  Martin Luther King, Jr. talked about “the fierce urgency of now.”  Right now is time for English teachers and students to use the imagination to understand the consequences for us and our fellow creatures around the world of continuing business as usual, of failing to transform our energy systems and ways of life, and causing life-endangering climate change.

California Wild Fires

The 21st Century has emerged as a time of dystopian, apocalyptic, and postapocalyptic imagination, rife with fictions of zombies and vampires, alien invasion, warfare, technological failure, massive immigration and rising nationalism, damaged democracies, and rising fascist states and powers. The line between fictions and reality is blurred, as disturbing right wing nationalisms in various countries attract adherents and power.

Amitav Gosh in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable points out that, “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.” (9) He argues that traditions of realism and daily life that structure the modern novel make it difficult for writers of “serious fiction” to integrate cataclysmic, dramatic, or improbable events.  Such events are more likely to be found in “more humble” forms such as the gothic, romance, melodrama, horror, fantasy, or science fiction. This inability to write about and imagine climate change he considers a dangerous “derangement.”

Gosh finds the emerging field of climate fiction an exception that,

communicate with marvelous vividness, the uncanniness and improbability, the magnitude and interconnectedness of the transformations that are now underway. (73)

Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” like “sci-fi,” is apocalyptic literature that addresses the impacts of global warming in the near or distant future. Cli-fi has been called the “hottest new literary genre.”  Our book, Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents: Reading, Writing, and Making a Difference (2017), addresses teaching cli-fi short stories, novels, films, and music videos as a starting point for imagining and researching the social, political and personal impacts of global warming.

As English teachers and students we immerse ourselves in imaginative worlds on a daily basis. Through language, the imagination transports us to different social settings, to different cultures, to the past, and to different futures. Imaginative worlds help us better understand, empathize with, and even act upon other people’s experiences, often people quite different from ourselves. Being able to imagine the experience of other people, to imagine the future and how to act now to shape it – these are fundamental characteristics, perhaps “gifts,” of what it means to be a human being.

In other posts I have started the conversation about using cli-fi short stories. In Teaching Climate Change I refer to Margaret Atwood’s 565 word flash fiction “Time Capsule Found on the Dead Planet.” A cylinder of brass on a dry lake shore found by travelers from a distant world, the time capsule tells of a civilization that worshiped money and created feasts and famine, towers of glass, and “ate whole forests, croplands, and the lives of children.” My student Clara Peeters described the story as “poetic and powerful.” Blair called it “a war memorial tombstone of the Earth.”  The story presents a disturbing vision of where our planet might be if climate change is not addressed. It considers the natural environment in the long view, and invites young people to think about behavior and values from a climate change perspective.  The story inspires discussion, invites additional learning about climate change, as well as serving as possible inspiration for students writing their own climate change flash fiction!

The Grapes of Wrath — class sets are in many high school book rooms — is a book about climate change, forced migration, climate impacts on social systems, and the fate of climate refugees. If teachers want to update thinking about climate change creating a dust bowl in the American West, a fast-paced contemporary novel that could be pared with Grapes of Wrath or read on its own is The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi, recently recommended as a leading work of climate fiction by the New York Times. One of the three main characters is an orphaned Texas teenager forced from her home by drought. Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker, finalist for the National Book Award, is a young adult novel imagining the climate future. The Rapture by British novelist Liz Jensen is another serious climate change novel with a teenage main character that my students have found compelling.  Carbon Diaries 2015 by Staci Lloyd is a young adult climate change novel set in London.

As my students read or view cli-fi we address questions such as:

–Is the portrayal of climate change consistent with current scientific understanding?

–Who is portrayed as suffering from climate change? What would it be like to be a climate change victim or refugee?  What responsibility do we have to victims and refugees?

— What responsibilities do humans have to animals, plants, and the natural world?

–Who is responsible for climate change?

–What might a just and fair approach to addressing climate change today look like?  What values are important when addressing climate change?

–Will the market alone address climate change?  What is the role of local, national, and world government? How does climate change impact political choices and thinking?

— What is our responsibility? What can we do?

I have also used cli-fi to inspire persuasive, place-based & creative writing.

There are many texts that can inspire the imagination about climate change that are already in or can easily be added to the curriculum. Apocalyptic fiction has antecedents in Gilgamesh Epic, the biblical and Koranic flood narratives, and the Book of Revelation. (Gosh believes that epic is not bound by “the regularity of bourgeois life.”)

Early science fiction can also be a jumping off point for thinking about climate change. Mary Shelly’s The Last Man, Edgar Allen Poe (“Eiros and Charmion”), and HG Wells come to mind as starting points for thinking about our present time and teaching about climate change.

Works well known to secondary teachers, even if they don’t envision different climate futures can be used to address climate change in an English classroom.  Frankenstein is a study of how human’s use of science has gone out of control; Macbeth considers how human behavior can break the “great chain of being” thus impacting the natural world; The Tempest is about a human orchestrated natural event (the storm) that disorients, upends, and reconstructs the social order; and Voltaire’s satirical story Candide can foster thinking about how eternal optimism dangerously ignores what is happening with climate change. All of these classic literary works are available full text online for free at Project Gutenberg.

Climate change is not a topic English teachers and students have traditionally addressed, but climate change will increasingly dominate the news and shape our existence. Climate change is a theme that we can find in classical literature and that increasingly appears in new works.  English teachers are experts at helping students examine relevant, complex and connected stories, and look for meaning and truths in and behind the words. We foster our students comparing, contrasting, and evaluating and making large and small life choices based on what they learn.

The stakes are high. In the Atlantic magazine Robinson Meyer describes Donald Trump as “The First Climate Change Demagogue” and considers that his support emerges from “a sense of global calamity,” “mass migration of non-white people,” “a movement motivated by ethno-nationalism, economic stagnation, and hatred of immigrants and refugees.”  Meyer sees climate change increasing already extreme economic inequality and further hollowing out the middle class, “storm damage, higher power rates, real-estate depreciation, unreliable and expensive food.” He imagines Trump as a forerunner of more to come in a world buffeted by climate change.

Yes, students and communities need to recognize the long term impacts of current actions and decisions, such as President Trump pulling America out of the Paris Agreement, ending the Clean Power Plan, and reversing other climate change initiatives. But we also need to imagine different lines of action that can create a better future.

All of the scientific facts are not going to be sufficient if we can’t use our imaginations to understand the social consequences of climate change, the experience of others, and how we need to change our lives, politics, and global relations to establish sustainability and climate justice. The future involves imagining other ways to organize society and human / environmental relationships not built around carbon resources, individualism/consumerism, artificial national boundaries, and armed lifeboat ethics. A post-carbon humanities recognizes, as Imre Szeman puts it, that, “We don’t just need to find new sources of energy and cut down on our use of fossil fuels.  We need to invent new ways of being, belonging, and behaving – and to do so quickly.” (46).  This better future also requires the imagination, and calls for the involvement of English teachers and students.


2 thoughts on “Climate Change and the Imagination

  1. Thank you for so many ideas. I recently completed my unit on writing and arguing for clean air and water with my students, which culminated in a Moot Court. The results were inspiring and interesting as students debated the moral and legal aspects and considered the long term
    Effects of air pollution. I am looking forward to presenting on the panel at NCTE.


    1. Write up the story of this experience, perhaps including (with permission) some student voices and publish on our blog! aprox 1500-2000 words


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close