Since Dan Bloom first coined the term cli-fi in 2007, there's been a minor explosion of novels examining the social, economic, psychological and ecological consequences of climate change. Some take place now, others are set in the near or distant future. But all raise a very big question: if we continue burning fossil fuels at the current breakneck pace, what exactly will that future look like? There's plenty of scientific papers describing various unpleasant scenarios, but let's be honest. How many people are reading those?
First, thank you, Dan, for taking the time to talk about cli-fi today! Nathaniel Rich (Odds Against Tomorrow) says that "we need a new type of novel to address a new type of reality". But isn't it just the plot - some element of climate change - that defines cli-fi? Is the genre really new or unique?
Dan Bloom: You are right, it's the plot and the theme—some element of climate change or global warming in the present or the near or distant future—that matters. The cli-fi genre is not really "new" or unique, as writers such as JG Ballard in Britain with The Drowned World in 1962 and George Turner in Australia with The Sea and Summer in 1987 have been writing ''cli-fi'' literature for a long time. What's new is the nickname of cli-fi, modelled of course after the sci-fi term, and standing for "climate fiction" instead of "science fiction." And the nickname is unique and I planned it that way, as a way to attract media attention through headlines and news articles. This is a media-driven project I have been working on.
So Reddit, The LA Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and Popular Science have all made the decision to ban so-called climate change skeptics from their pages, arguing that there simply aren't two equally valid sides to this story - and one is dangerously misleading. Have you run across any cli-fi that takes the skeptical position, and is that getting any traction at all?
DB: Michael Crichton's 2004 novel "State of Fear" is a modern cli-fi novel and he takes the skeptical position on climate change, and that's fine, too. All writers from all countries, writing in any language, are welcome to join the cli-fi community worldwide and there is no specific agenda. But for the most part, most cli-fi novels have been written by people who believe that climate change and global warming are real and are happening, and their books reflect that. Writers like Crichton are welcome at the table, too, but I am sure they will be in the minority as public opinion more and more reflects what our top scientists are telling us.
An April 8 Gallup poll found that only 34% of Americans worry "a great deal" about climate change, perhaps not so surprising since the network news shows tend to ignore it. Do you think fiction can help bridge this gap in public awareness, without being dismissed as preachy?
DB: Yes, I do, and that is why I am working 24/7 on all this. But you bring up a good point. Cli-fi novels, like any genre of novel, should not be preachy or they will threaten to turn off readers, even green activists. A novel is a novel is a novel. The "story" is everything. This is the same for cli-fi novels as well. Leave the preachiness out.
Let's talk YA. In a pretty stark contrast, one poll found that 55 percent of younger voters (18-34) say "climate change is a severe threat that we must start addressing now". Only three percent think it's not really happening. Clearly, young people are worried about what kind of world they'll be living in. What does cli-fi have to offer them?
DB: You bring up a good point, and a recent news article in a college newspaper in Pennsylvania by Elizabeth Furiga at the University of Pittsburgh says it well. Young people are concerned and the future is going to hit them the hardest. So cli-fi novels and movies will offer young people growing up in the world today a good way to learn about the world they and their children and grandchildren will be facing.
Tell us about a couple of your personal favorites.
DB: I am not a literary critic and even a book reviewer, so I really don't want to make a list of my favorite cli-fi novels for fear of leaving out other books that other readers consider important. But I can single out one very good YA cli-fi novel, "Not a Drop to Drink," by Mindy McGinnis, which was published by a major publisher in New York and with a sequel due out soon, too. Her book is very good. And the YA cli-fi community is growing now by leaps and bounds, from the U.S. to Australia to Britain. I'm glad to see this growth spurt.
Anything in particular you'd like to see the genre tackle? Less doom and gloom, more optimism? Technological innovation? Brainstorming about how to shift the global economy beyond fossil fuels?
DB: I like doom and gloom. Because as a famous character in a famous BBC television show "Dad's Army"—I think his name was Sgt. Frazier—used to say: "We're doomed, we're doomed." And if you read the IPCC reports and listen to our top scientists worldwide, we are doomed, doomed. This is going to be the fight of our lives, the biggest fight the human species has ever waged: to somehow stop climate change and global warming from creating major—and perhaps unspeakable—impact events in the future. This is not fun and games. And this is not escapism or entertainment.
So as I see it, cli-fi novels have a moral responsibility to dig deep and face up to where we are as a species, now, here on planet Earth. And also, to try to offer solutions, too. I am an optimist, believe it or not. I wouldn't be working so hard to promote cli-fi worldwide as a genre for novels and movies if I didn't have a sense of hope. So novels that explore ideas of geo-engineering fixes will be important, too. And novels that explore ways to shift the global economy beyond fossil fuels will be vital.
This genre can really make a difference, and I really hope it does, since there is a very important moral element involved in cli-fi. We humans are in the fight of our lives as a species. If we lose, all humans will die off. But sure, the Earth itself will go on, and some animals and insect and fish species will survive. But an Earth without humans, is that what we want? Are we going to give up without a fight? So the climate activist in me—and the literary activist—says no, we cannot give up without a fight. Cli-fi is one way to wage the fight as a wake up alarm. Literature matters. Words matter.
Dan Bloom is a freelance writer from Boston based in Taiwan. A 1971 graduate of Tufts University where he majored in French literature, he has been working as a climate activist and a literary activist since 2006. Dan blogs at Cli Fi Central and he can be found on Twitter @polarcityman