We don’t have to live in a dystopia.
To some, it’s easy to say, “Well, we already do,” and I don’t disagree necessarily, but I do think that there are things we can do to prevent the downfall of our society and a spiral into a Hunger Games-eque future. Thinking about humanity’s future demise is quite depressing — will it be a natural disaster? Nuclear war? A meteor?
I don’t mean to be a debbie downer because I do think there are ways out of this mess to avoid the eventual dystopian, post-apocalyptic future that hovers just below the horizon. We’re all used to dystopia by now; we know how that story goes. Since Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games came out in 2008, dystopian literature, film, and television has been front and center. We all share a collective memory and have felt the cultural shift that dystopia has given us, especially as we head to our own disaster.
Recently, it may appear that dystopian stories have faded out of popularity. Even with the success of shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Station Eleven, 2022 isn’t a dystopian heyday. In YA Literature (where dystopia really exploded), the shelves have been taken over by fantasy and contemporary romance. Buzzed about blockbuster movie franchises have moved away from adapting the wildly popular books in favor of comic books.
The genre isn’t gone, though. It’s just been rebranded.
We have speculative fiction, climate fiction, and solarpunk. While the latter isn’t necessarily “dystopia” — solarpunk is more optimistic about humanity’s ability to weather catastrophe and adapt to new environments — the genre still has its origins in dystopian fiction.
Many dystopian stories of old are about controlling governments, divided factions, using fear to control people after an unknown disastrous event (What did cause the Hunger Games? We never found out). Now, these books have turned to exploring what humanity will do in the face of the climate crisis’s life altering effects*.
The question of what we should actually do about climate change looms over all of us as we inch closer and closer to our global carbon allotment and 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming. IPCC reports don’t provide much reprieve — we need action now! This situation is dire! If we continue with business as usual, the world as we know it will be over!
While those exclamations are true, there's also space in climate activism for taking the time to understand what's happening, what might happen, how it's affecting all of us, and what to do about all of that.
Many climate fiction novels detail what might happen in the event of ecological disaster. The novel Goldilocks by Laura Lam explores the complexities and ethics of colonizing other planets when ours is no longer livable. Jeff VanderMeer’s Borne follows the life of a climate refugee and her newfound companion Borne in a world post-climate disaster. These aren’t easy stories to swallow, but this fiction is important and the fact that its popularity is only growing means that we are beginning to think about our future on Earth.
Understanding the climate crisis is a problem and a major block to climate action. Some people think that acting on climate change just isn’t as urgent as all of the activists make it out to be. Other people think that personal sustainability — and only personal sustainability — is the solution to our environmental woes. But this is just a natural process of the Earth, some say. We’re worried about nothing!
We’re all persuaded by our own narratives whether it’s the creation myth you learned growing up or the “why” behind your favorite basketball team losing. The U.S. has many narratives and most of the dominant ones are…not good, but we are seeing that change (despite efforts to squash this progress) as more and more people share nonwhite, non-colonial, non-patriarchal histories. These “new” histories are reshaping the narrative of the U.S. — changing it to be more inclusive and accurate.
Climate fiction can do this, too. We need these new narratives of what it means to live after disaster, especially ones that see humanity come together to solve this complex mess. Since climate change is such a big problem — a hyperobject — it can be difficult to see just how pervasive it is in our world.
So why would we want to explore our eventual end in our beloved fiction?
Storytelling is a complicated beast and it’s integral to human communities. We all share stories everyday, whether we think we do or not. Stories are how we connect to one another, how we understand places and people not like ourselves.
We crave stories to process what might happen — and how. Climate fiction helps us process what’s already been done and shows what we could possibly do. Stories are the greatest tool (in my opinion) in the climate action “toolbox.” Everyone has their own narratives. We just need to convince everyone else that this climate change is an emergency and how we act now matters.
In a different way, stories also help us process the grief we already have for a dying planet. Reading solarpunk to see human resiliency is sometimes just what I need.
*The climate crisis has already affected many people and communities globally. It’s not coming — it’s already here. The effects of the crisis we’re already experiencing are irreversible and permanent. If we continue on business as usual, the impact will only worsen.