This year, I have been thinking a great deal about the role of the arts and humanities in the fight against climate change. While I have heard anecdotes about interdisciplinary projects that aim to tackle the ongoing environmental crisis from a range of different scholarly perspectives, it is troubling that the input of the humanities scholars is often reportedly neglected in favour of the data produced by the scientists and geographers. Undoubtedly, there is a sound rationale behind such a decision: we need data to assess the extent of the problem, and to develop practical recommendations for change. However, I strongly believe that the arts and humanities have serious untapped potential for helping to divert our course away from environmental catastrophe.
In his book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Amitav Ghosh writes that “the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination”. In other words, it is the way of life to which we have become accustomed – the energy sources we rely upon, the methods of transport we favour, the material goods we take for granted – that has led to this moment of environmental decline. In order to shift our trajectory away from environmental catastrophe, what we need is a complete overhaul in the way that we think. In my opinion, it is here that the arts and humanities have the power to enact real change.
The arts and humanities in all of their various forms and syntheses – literature, film, theatre, art, music – can be reconfigured as platforms to inform, to educate, to spark meaningful debates, and to raise important questions. One of the current genres that is doing this essential work is ‘cli-fi’, a new subdivision of science fiction that zeroes in on the issue of climate change. The term ‘cli-fi’ was coined by journalist and ‘green’ activist Dan Bloom in 2008, although it didn’t gain popularity under several years later. In an interview recorded when cli-fi had just started to gain recognition as a genre, Bloom suggests that it might “serve as a wake-up call for the future humankind faces now”. Indisputably, the bleak landscapes and images of social upheaval that permeate cli-fi novels are nothing if not startling. Could it be that this genre is a means of alerting a whole new audience to the importance of taking climate action – before it’s too late?
While this is a comforting thought, I doubt that the solution is really this simple. The first question that we must ask ourselves is this: what is stopping people from disregarding climate change as merely an interesting backdrop to a fictional novel, or as a plot point to be appreciated but not dwelt upon? With cli-fi stemming from the much older tradition of sci-fi, there is a possibility that it will not be taken seriously enough to spark real change. Nevertheless, one point to consider is that, increasingly, people will begin to see parallels between the apocalyptic worlds of cli-fi novels and their own lives. Margaret Atwood’s novel Oryx and Crake (2003), for example, considers what would happen if most of the world’s population was wiped out by pandemic disease. As a society that is still living with the pressing reality of Covid-19, it is not difficult to discern the similarities between our world and that of Atwood’s novel. Perhaps it is by catching glimpses of ourselves within cli-fi novels, albeit in a distorted way, that we will begin to acknowledge the frightening reality of our own ongoing environmental crisis.
It is clear to me that the arts and humanities are indispensable in changing people’s attitudes towards environmental issues, a shift that will finally put climate change on the front page of everyone’s agenda. While cli-fi is an excellent step towards achieving this aim, I believe that we will need further shifts within all creative disciplines in order to achieve the cultural overhaul that we so desperately need.
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