Why climate change fiction is important

Illustration by Sebastian Rubiano

‘Mildly despondent utopian’ Sarah Lewis is the award-winning writer and co-founder of Writers’ HQ, a community for badass writers who want to change the world. Never underestimate the power of a good yarn

Climate change! Wow we’re a long way past counting sheets of loo roll and changing light bulbs. Brace yourself: we are now counting bodies on the regular. 

What is your average human to do to engage in a system so perfectly set up for non-engagement? Well. Here’s the thing. We generally assume that because the problem was caused by technology, the problem can be solved by technology. It’s true! Fix your broken leg by hurling yourself down the stairs! That’s not to say technology can’t or won’t play a part, of course, but what if technology is a symptom, not the cause? What if climate change is a problem of humanity? A problem of how we fit in the world, what we do on the world, with the world. 

Let’s rewind a tiny bit. Here’s an indisputable fact: without stories, humans are nothing. 

It’s the thing that everyone says, from Marx to Harari. That the thing that separates us from other animals is that we can imagine a fiction. We can see the future, or at least consider what possible futures there might be. We can build scenarios in our minds, and share those scenarios with other minds to build a vast network of ideas and possibilities and futures from which we can choose. We can imagine that the law is an actual thing and live our lives according to it. We can do the same with money. With God. With the Marvel cinematic universe.

In that respect then, there is perhaps nothing more important than how we tell the story of climate change. 

And yet all our stories tell us is how really very bad everything is and will remain, that there are infinite dystopian futures full of teenagers trying to save us from totalitarian states, that there is a lot of rain, a lot of drought, and very little hope. 

There is a trend from those whose careers rest upon gatekeeping stories to say that positive stories, ‘uplit’, or stories that show a joyous redemption, are somehow bad and damaging and shy away from the truth. That makes me want to ask: is this really who we are now? After everything, is this all we’ve managed to become? People for whom success is a lie.

To be told that things are bad over and over, to see endless bleak futures leads to panic, paralysis, grief and fear (and fear leads to hate, which leads to the dark side etc and so on).

And panic, fear, grief, left unattended, lead only to hopelessness, listlessness, inaction. The irony, of course, is that the root of panic is the idea of losing something we love. The root of fear is the idea of losing something we love. The root of grief is the loss of something we love. Imagine, then, if our stories began to show us not just what we are losing but what we could gain. 

The saying goes that those who ignore the past are doomed to relive it. We aren’t doomed by failing to learn from the past. The past, up until now, has proven to be a useless teacher. We are doomed by failing to imagine a liveable future.

Any act of radical change, radical technology, radical compassion, radical love, radical healing, radical anything, has to start with telling a good yarn, and I suggest that climate change is not a scientific failure. It’s not a social failure. It’s not a technological failure. It’s a failure of the imagination. 

With imagination, with motivation and ideas and stories, society can move fast. 

Thirty years ago, Tim Berners-Lee set up the first web servers and changed the world with a speed and depth no one could have imagined. 

In 20 years, HIV/Aids has gone from being a guaranteed death sentence and epidemic to being entirely manageable and nearly cured.

The iPhone only launched in 2007, and the first iPad was released in 2012 and boy are we motivated to use those. 

The worst Ebola outbreak in history was announced in March 2014. The trial vaccine was announced in November the same year.

And the COVID-19 vaccine, of course, a task that ordinarily would have taken a decade was researched, produced and rolled out within a year. 

This is the stuff of science fiction, this is people on a spaceship developing a cure for a new disease within the hour of the episode, but it’s real, it is here, it can be done. But only with the right motivation and the right vision and the right stories. 

It is the job of arts and culture, of storytellers, to be the torchbearer of what humanity is, and what it could be.

Climate change isn’t about tinkering around the edges. It requires a radical vision. And to have a radical vision we need to truly understand where we are right now and what it means to be human at this point in history.

Spoiler: that’s what stories are for. 

5 radically utopian stories

1. The Dispossessed, Ursula K Le Guin – Ambiguous utopia, sort of anarchist manifesto and also one of the great sci fi novels of all time. All hail UKLG.

2. All Star Trek 1960s – 1990s – What if Imperialism, but good?

3. The Culture novels, Ian M. Banks – How does a utopia interact with the dystopias around it?

4. News from Nowhere, William Morris – Classic socialist novel asking, “what if things were nice?”

5. The Ministry For The Future, Kim Stanley Robinson – What if we actually did something for future generations?

What’s so good about this?

Humans and stories are a symbiotic dyad. We think therefore we story. Yet most of our stories of the future are bleak AF. The Handmaid’s Tale, Parable of the Sower and 1984 were all warnings, and yet here we are bowling headlong towards them. We need stories for the climate movement because if we can’t imagine it, we can’t do it. We need good stories to counter the obsession with giving people media to propagate division.

In short: the mainstream climate change movement needs to get more creative. 

Meet the writer

Sarah Lewis is a mildly despondent utopian. She is also a writer and a semi-professional neurotic. She has won awards and scholarships and cool things for Doing Good Words. She’s been writing about climate change for nearly 20 years and is truly exhausted by it all so would really appreciate it if we could just get to the good bit now because she’d really like a rest. She runs Writers’ HQ, a subversive cult for dismantling the patriarchal capitalist hegemony and replacing it with an egalitarian anarcho syndicalist utopia dressed up as a writing community. It includes an entire course about grappling with the grief and truth of climate change and getting great stories from it. Follow @Writers_HQ.

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