This article is not about how to teach clifi, but about what we are teaching when we teach clifi. I have found in my recent research that this kind of literature has the potential to bring about huge changes in the way I think – and not necessarily in the ways I expected when I started out.
People who teach climate-change literature (“clifi”, to use Dan Bloom’s word) probably do so because they themselves are aware of the threats posed to humanity and the natural world by climate change, and they want to pass on an awareness of these issues, in the hope of bringing about change. But while reading clifi is often informative, whether being informed leads to corrective action is a big and open question. Are those who read clifi more likely to eschew car ownership, assiduously recycle or avoid using plastic bags? Answering these questions would probably require a pscyho-sociological approach involving questionnaires and mass observation of behaviour over a period of years, and clearly this kind of enquiry clearly falls outside the realm of literary criticism.
What I would like to do in this short piece is to discuss not how we can stop or slow down climate change, but how we can think about climate-change literature, not only within the context of literary criticism, but also in terms of how we see and imagine the world.
What is clifi?
There are various arguments about how clifi can be defined. It is difficult to categorise, or to contain, because novels which begin from a position of climate change may be “about” something else, or a range of other things, and novels which seem do not seem to be overtly concerned with climate change may nonetheless refer to it.
Adeline Johns-Putra, writing in 2011, describes climate change emerging as a dominant theme in literature “in the last five years”, so in 2019 we are in the eighth year of this development. While she admits that clifi is heteroclite and can be difficult to define, this critic argues that “climate change ﬁction names an important new category of contemporary literature and a remarkable recent literary and publishing phenomenon” (267).
The novels in which I am currently interested are all “about” climate change in that they take it as a given, affecting plot structure, background, and the lives and outlook of the characters. In some cases, the characters discuss climate change, and in a few cases, they are scientists trying to come up with solutions (this is the case in Jensen’s The Rapture). However, in most of the novels I have chosen to study, the characters are simply people living in the new world of the Anthropocene and attempting to come to terms with its new realities. Frederick Buell usefully comments on the novels of the Anthropocene, and the difficulty of separating out climate change from everything else that is going on in a character’s life: for him, “environmental crisis” is “part of writers’ construction of their characters’ psyches, thoughts and actions” (Frederick Buell, 2003, 261), whether or not ecological themes are foregrounded.
To sum up the most important point here, in order to be categorised as clifi, a novel does not necessarily have to express ecologically-correct views or engage with overtly ecological themes.
Why is clifi important?
Most often, climate change is approached through the hard sciences, which is clearly very necessary, as only scientists have the knowledge to analyse the hard data of what is going on and suggest solutions. However, many literary critics point out that the findings of hard science are not easily accessible to the general public – whereas fiction is. This is not about “dumbing down” or excusing scientific illiteracy: the advantage is rather that novels provide a forum in which possible futures for the human race can be modelled and discussed, and which also allows for an emotional reaction from the reader in a way that purely scientific discourses do not.
According to Astrid Bracke, novels “provide—simulate—emotional experiences that enable the reader to emphatically respond to textual, fictional worlds” (Bracke 2019, 3). For this critic, “The novels and stories that shape our understanding of climate crisis are a vital part of the larger discourse surrounding it” (Bracke2018, 7).
In other words, fiction is a vital part of the current debate on climate change – an it is also the part which is the most accessible to the greatest number of people.
The relationship between literature and the natural world
Writing about the environment is nothing new. In their introduction to their book Literature and the Environment, George Hart and Scott Slovic observe, “[W]riters in North America and throughout the world have always been interested interactions between humans and the landscape, flora, and fauna” (1). These two authors trace such writings back to the 16th century, with the arrival of the earliest European explorers in North America (2), and no doubt it could be argued that there are much earlier examples. The pastoral, Romanticism, pantheism – all these are movements in which landscape and the human spirit have been intimately linked.
Just as literature which discusses or takes account of “the environment” has been around for a long time, so too has ecocriticism, which analyses such literature. Ecoriticism tends to be thought of as a fairly recent phenomenon, springing up in the last three decades of 20th century in response to concerns about nuclear proliferation and pollution, but Hart and Slovic refer to David Mazel’s work on 19th-century “proto-ecocriticism”, which focuses on works published between 1864 and 1964 that “address the representation and consideration of nature in literature” (Hart and Slovic, 1).
It can be difficult to give a working definition of ecocriticism as there are so many different branches, for example, masculinist, feminist, animal studies… all of which are in some way engaged with overcoming dualisms between human and non-human. Some ecocriticism seeks to trigger action on the environment, that is to further an ecological agenda, while some is purely theoretical. The field is very diverse, but Cheryll Glotfelty’s statement, “ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between nature and the physical environment” (Bracke 2014, 426), is probably sufficiently broad to cover at least most of it.
However, while ecocriticism has a long and varied history, clifi criticism is generally regarded now as a new and distinct movement. Johns-Putra argues that this is “more than just a matter of perception and of naming”, and that there has been there has been “an actual increase in literary engagements with climate change, and literary scholars have been busy exploring both these texts and the concept of climate change as a cultural phenomenon” (266).
Clifi and clifi crit can thus be seen as the “next big thing” in literary studies – but what is special about this movement?
How is clifi literature changing the way we see the world?
The study of clifi has had very profound impacts on literary criticism. To put it simply,acknowledging and envisioning climate change requires recourse to what is known as “deep time”, or the “longue durée”. This term implies a very long-term view of history, starting before humankind’s appearance on Earth and perhaps ending after the extinction of the human race, or its transformation into various varieties of post-human. Such a view of time is opposed to history “event-based” history, which concerns only fairly recent times. To give a concrete example, Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy, which envisages the disappearance of human beings and advent of a post- or trans-human race, thinks in terms of deep time stretching into a far-off, almost unimaginable future.
Even more radically, some critics have already declared the end of the world – a bold statement, which, when examined, proves to have a very particular meaning, that is, that what we customarily refer to as “the world” or “the environment” can no longer be imagined or represented as a “container”, or background, for human experience. This is the contention of Timothy Morton’s theory of hyperobjects, which seems to be very fashionable at the moment, and very present in articles of literary criticism. According to Morton, the job of philosophy at the present time is to help human thought catch up with what is happening to the world, and, in particular, with the ways in which the Anthropocene is changing our modes of thought (Morton 2013, 37). I would say that this is also “the job” of literature, or at least part of it.
The following clipart can be interpreted as representing the world “before Morton”, or, before hyperobjects:
This little diagram shows a primitive representation of what we tend to think of as “the world”. The Earth shown here forms a complete whole and is separate from the ark which sails on it, separate from the human subjects which, presumably, inhabit the ark, and clearly divided from the weather system which acts upon it. Above all, it has a distinctive shape and is pretty much universally understandable as a representation of our planet.
All these familiar certainties are dislodged by the theory of hyperobjects, which entirely disallows such a simple and familiar representation of the planet and replaces it with something altogether less homely and more uncanny. Timothy Morton describes hyperobjects as “entities that are massively distributed in time and space”, giving the examples of global warming, nuclear radiation, tectonic plates, biosphere and evolution. He explains his theory as follows:
The ecological crisis is best thought as the time of hyperobjects. Why? Because this is the moment at which massive nonhuman, nonsentient entities make decisive contact with humans, ending various human concepts such as “world,” “horizon,” Nature and even “environment.” (Morton, 39)
By definition, hyperobjects are too big to get one’s head round, so it is perfectly normal to experience some initial difficulty in understanding this theory. But to put it another way, the notion of hyperobjects disrupts the dualisms of human/world, nature/culture, and so on, through which we tend to think and to apprehend the world. Seen in this light, the theory of hyperobjects is not, strictly speaking, innovative, in that it can be seen as a continuation of an argument put forward by the French thinker Bruno Latour thirty-five years ago, according to which nature and culture have neve been separate at all, and human beings were quite wrong to think this was the case. According to Frederick Buell, such a separation was not only a myth, but a dangerous myth. He points out that we are only just beginning to see that “the attempt to separate the two realms was in fact an essential ideological basis for today’s crises”. Indeed, he goes so far as to attribute today’s climate-change induced problems to the belief that nature and culture were separate (Frederick Buell 2014, 270).
I would like to conclude with a question intended to open out these issues, and to take us from a particular subset of novels to a much broader question about how we, as human beings, experience the natural world: to put it simply, how are hyperobjects manifested in literature? Surely something so radical should change literary form? Or is it only content which changes? A provisional answer to these questions is that what seems to me to change is humankind’s sense of itself in the world: we are no longer, as it were, “at home”, we have lost the cosiness of a containing, sheltering Earth. But if this is so, then it can be understood as just one more reprise of Adam and Eve being expelled from Paradise, as at the end of Milton’s Paradise Lost.
Now we have not simply eaten forbidden fruit, but have radically changed “creation”, through bringing about the global warming that ushered in the Anthropocene, but the punishment is a repetition of the old scenario: we lose our old and perfect home, except that now we lose a comfortable concept – the sense of the Earth as a familiar home – rather than a physical place. When at the end of Liz Jensen’s The Rapture Gabrille, the narrator, sees around her “a world not ours” (341) she makes us think of this strange, new, uncanny world-vision which has replaced the older and much more comfortable one.
To recapitulate, clifi critics currently argue that the Anthropocene has completely altered the relationship between people – let us say also, characters – and what used to be known as their background, or context, or being-in-the-world. To this extent, it could be said that climate change fiction is “important”, that it marks a point at which our conception of the relations between human and non-human, between ourselves and our context, is changing. This is one of the reasons why I think clifi is worth studying – and why the issues it raises go beyond a simple call for action.
For a longer discussion of some of these ideas, see https://65.academia.edu/HelenMundler (“What is climate change literature, and why is it important?”)
Atwood, Margaret, Oryx and Crake, London, Bloomsbury, 2003.
– Maddaddam (2013), London, Virago, 2014.
– The Year of the Flood, London, Bloomsbury, 2009.
Bracke, Astrid, “Flooded Futures: The Representation of the Anthropocene in Twenty-First-Century British Flood Fictions”, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 1-11. Published online, 6th February 2019.
Bracke, Astrid, “The Contemporary English Novel and its Challenges to Ecocriticism,” Astrid, in The Oxford Handbook of Ecocrticism, ed. Greg Garrard, Oxford University Press, 2014, 423-439.
Bracke, Astrid, Climate Crisis and the 21st-Century British Novel, Bloomsbury Academic, 2018.
Buell, Frederick, From Apocalypse to Way of Life: Environmental Crisis in the American Century. Routledge 2003.
Buell, Frederick, “Global Warming as Literary Narrative”, Philological Quarterly, 2014 Summer; 93 (3): 261-294.
Glotfelty, Cheryll, “Introduction : Literary Studies in an Age of Environmental Crisis”. In Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm (ed.), The Ecocriticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology (1986). Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Hart, George, and Scott Slovic, Literature and the Environment, ed. George Hart and Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.
Jensen, Liz, The Rapture. London, Bloomsbury, 2009.
Johns-Putra, Adeline, “Climate change in literature and literary studies: From cli-fi, climate change theatre and ecopoetry to ecocriticism and climate change criticism.2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Volume 7, March/April 2016, 262-282.
Latour, Bruno, We Have Never Been Modern, transl. Catherine Porter, Harvard University Press, 1993.
Milton, John, Paradise Lost, http://www.paradiselost.org/8-Search-All.html
Morton, Timothy, “Poisoned Ground: Art and Philosophy in the Time of Hyperobjets.” Symploke, vol 21, no s 1-2 (2013), 37-50.