Imagining the (climate) future

On climate change and science fiction

Imagining the future of the climate: Old Mole Variety Hour July 19, 2010: Today's show is about climate change and science fiction, and science fiction about climate change, but it is not about the illusion that climate change is itself science fiction. Let's put that notion to rest right away.  You can check out several sites offering explanations of the science behind climate change, and debunkings of the charges that the climate is either not changing or not changing much or not changing because of things humans are doing. The National Science Foundation, the intergovernmental panel on climate change, and between 97 and 98% of publishing climate scientists agree. It's real, it's serious, and much of it is our fault.

Science fiction writer Anthony Williams offers some very basic definitions on his blog—the differences among global warming, climate change and weather.

Global warming describes the gradual increase in average planetary temperatures over the past century or so. It's important to stress the "average" bit: on a year-by-year temperature graph, the line zig-zags up and down, making it difficult to see what is happening. So statisticians calculate a rolling average over several years; this smoothes out the annual variations and shows the underlying trend. And what this trend shows is that the planet is indubitably warming up: . . . . Various explanations have been put forward for this and (as is usually the case) the truth is likely to be a complex blend of interacting reasons: but the informed opinion of the overwhelming majority of climate scientists is that the substantial increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from human industrial activities (which is also well evidenced) bears a very large share of the blame.

Climate change affects us much more directly than global warming: it concerns what happens to regional temperature, wind and rainfall patterns as a result of the overall warming trend. This has been the subject of many of the more alarming predictions about the consequences for humanity. However, it is a very complex and difficult area to predict, so any statements about the consequences need to be expressed as probabilities rather than certainties - and even the probabilities need to be regarded with caution as they will certainly change as we learn more over time. Having said that, there are already considerable differences from one part of the world to another. For instance, the Arctic is warming up faster than anywhere else, probably because the much reduced summer ice cover is allowing the ocean to absorb more of the suns rays and thereby warm up, instead of the rays being reflected back to space by the ice cover. At the other extreme, the Antarctic is hardly warming at all. Perhaps even more significant than temperature changes are the consequences for wind and ocean current patterns and how they will affect rainfall. All we can say at the moment is that there will be a wide range of climate changes in different parts of the world, and that while some may be beneficial to specific areas, the overall consequences are likely to be negative. Why is this? Simply because our current patterns of population distribution and agriculture are based on and adapted to the existing regional climates, so if these change for the worse (e.g. less rainfall in an agricultural area) the effects are likely to be serious. These comments only apply to moderate levels of climate change. If the global average temperature increases by several degrees, then the resulting climate changes are likely to be catastrophic almost everywhere.

Finally, Weather. This of course describes the temperatures, winds and rainfalls which we experience hour by hour, day by day, month by month. The graphs for these zig-zag around wildly, giving us considerable short-term variations (hence the wet summer and cold winter). These can be very inconvenient but are not of any long-term significance. It is only if the weather changes consistently and over a long period of time that this becomes important - and then it becomes climate change.

Those definitions of global warming, climate change, and weather, are from Anthony Williams. You can find more about all of these topics, and responses to the critiques of skeptics, on a number of sites including RealClimate and Climate Progress, both of which also link to other informative sites.

Recent surveys suggest that Americans are even less convinced about the existence of human caused climate change than we were a couple of years ago—indicating that the propaganda of the fossil fuel industry and other climate change deniers has been somewhat successful. For more on those propaganda efforts, you can see the report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, titled "Smoke, Mirrors, and Hot Air", or the book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

But informed Americans, people worldwide, and scientists here and abroad are increasingly convinced, and perhaps ready to take action. Even the New York Times has come around. Earlier this month they acknowledged that the recent exonerations of climate scientists, and the National Academy of Sciences report on climate change released in May, should receive as much media attention as "the manufactured controversy known as Climategate" even though the Times was responsible for helping to popularize that manufactured controversy. At last, however, they admit that several recent reports and the NAS assessment "not only confirmed the relationship between climate change and human activities but warned of growing risks — sea level rise, drought, disease — that must swiftly be addressed by firm action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases."

Moreover, even those further to the right than the Times have begun to reconsider their previous challenges to ideas about climate change. Last week, the conservative Canadian National Post ran a piece arguing that "Global-Warming deniers are a liability to the conservative cause"

… too many of us treat science as subjective — something we customize to reduce cognitive dissonance between what we think and how we live. In the case of global warming, this dissonance is especially traumatic for many conservatives, because they have based their whole worldview on the idea that unfettered capitalism — and the asphalt-paved, gas-guzzling consumer culture it has spawned — is synonymous with both personal fulfillment and human advancement. The global-warming hypothesis challenges that fundamental dogma, perhaps fatally.

So climate change is real, it's dangerous, and its our fault. Now what are we going to do about it?

One way to explore the questions of our world imaginatively is through science fiction. The Financial Times, of all places, recently reviewed a crop of fictional books about climate change. These included Solar, by Ian McEwan; Ultimatum, by Matthew Glass; Sunshine State, by James Miller; Far North, by Marcel Theroux; and In-Flight Entertainment, by Helen Simpson.

Reviewer Ed Crooks quotes Mike Hulme, a professor at the University of East Anglia, who has described the idea of climate change as a “resource of the imagination” that can “inspire new artistic creations.” Hulme argues that it is a mistake to see climate change as [only] a problem to be solved; he thinks we have to get used to it and “use the idea of climate change” positively to rethink science, technology, politics and the arts.

The blog Scholars and Rogues responded to the Financial Times review by noting that there's even more fiction about climate change if you look at the works filed under science fiction. That blogger lists The Drowned World by JG Ballard, Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling; Mother of Storms by Jonathan Barnes; Nothing Human by Nancy Kress; and Mindstar Rising by Peter Hamilton.

As both reviewers note, there's a good deal of science fiction in which climate change is part of the backdrop of apocalypse. One might include Philip Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for the film Blade Runner, in which real animals have gone extinct, and been replaced by high tech androids. Or Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, in which drought has made life unendurable in southern California, and those migrating north are forced to purchase water at high prices. Or Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, in which the Flood of the latter title is a bioengineered virus that wipes out much of the human population, but climate change is part of the world survivors are already dealing with, and flooding has forced the relocation of New York to New New York on higher ground. But probably the most relevant science fiction works on this topic are Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital series: Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below Zero, and Sixty Days and Counting.

Scientist and science fiction writer Vandana Singh considers this is all too gloomy, though she thinks Robinson is on the right track. In a guest post on Jeff Vandermeer's blog, titled "Science Fiction and the End of the World," she writes,

Science fiction writers have often imagined the various ways the world could end. . . . In many of these scenarios the danger looms clearly, and the villains are recognizable. But what if disaster crept upon us, slowly and surely, while we lived out our lives? What if we were warned about it but because the scale of it was longer than our lives, or because it seemed impossible to believe, or because we didn’t know what to do, or because it wasn’t clear who to point fingers at, we continued with our lives as though nothing was going to happen? I can imagine [she writes] the last two lines of the story.

And we did nothing.

And the world ended with a whimper.

This slow and painful dying is not as dramatic as the one where the world succumbs to a nuclear holocaust, but is it less likely? Would we, the readers, end up saying: “this story isn’t plausible; if humanity were faced with such a threat, something would be done to avert it?” Perhaps not.

There are many books out there, including a … large number for young readers, that are post-apocalyptic in nature. … critic Farah Mendlesohn suggests that what these books seem to be saying is this: apocalypse (of whatever nature) is inevitable, the earth is going to be destroyed no matter what, and the best that can be done is to pick up the pieces and rebuild after Armageddon is over, assuming we survive it. Perhaps they are intended as warnings, but if we have nothing in fiction apart from doom and helplessness, they condemn us — and our young people — to despair.

So [Singh looks] at the possible roots of this alleged gloom and doom, and [does so] in the light of an honest-to-goodness, real, looming disaster that is coming up ahead: global warming.

The interesting thing about the imaginary scenario I talked about [Singh writes] … is that it is not imaginary. Here’s a perfectly plausible disaster creeping up us while we’re going about our daily lives. And it is actually possible that we will do nothing but twiddle our thumbs until it is too late.

Singh suggests that part of the difficulty for imagining the future of climate change is that global climate is an example of a complex system. A complex system is one with a large number of interacting components; it exhibits non-linear behavior, is extremely sensitive to initial conditions and it is hard to predict how it evolves. Other complex systems include the human body and human social systems.

She suggests that "we don’t know how to deal with complex systems. We want things that are simple and easily predictable. We want certainties in an uncertain world. So when we are confronted with complex problems we tend to ignore them or over-simplify them. " She proposes that part of the problem is reductionism, "the notion that you can understand something if you break it down into its parts and analyze each separately. " This is useful in science, "But because reductionism tends to encourage looking at the world in fragments, perhaps it prevents us from seeing connections between things. "

For instance, in literature, there's the notion of the lone hero. This is such a common notion in Western Science Fiction and fantasy — the One True Hero fighting off the monsters to save the world. Problem and solution are clearly defined, and all depends on a single person, usually a man, who, through his prowess, will accomplish the impossible. He’s usually allowed to have friends and side-kicks, but it is obvious that the mission depends almost entirely on him.

Imagine the impossibility of such a hero solving a problem like global warming.

Instead, Singh suggests we look to the ways that so-called “ordinary” people have taken their fate into their own hands in an attempt to positively change the world.

This has included some of the world’s poorest and most disadvantaged people, many of whom are illiterate. When governments and corporations not only fail us but contribute to the problem, we need to confront them, to get appropriate legislation passed and so on. But we also need to harness the power of millions of people. … Perhaps in giving the world our intelligent imaginings, in breaking free from tired old ways of thinking, in having the intellectual audacity to change or discard the various isms (from American capitalism to Soviet communism) that have taken the natural resources of our world for granted, and in doing these through action as well as the written word — perhaps in doing all this we can enable our species and all the other living things of the earth to have a future. It's a story that might end instead

And we did something.

And we saved the world.

It wasn’t just a dream after all.

A few years ago sf writer and socialist China Mieville edited an issue of the journal Historical Materialism on Marxism and Fantasy. Defending the fantastic genres—including science fiction and fantasy—in his introduction to that journal issue, he suggests that the fantastic might be of particular interest to Marxists for reasons to do with the peculiar nature of modern social reality and subjectivity.

The lived reality of capitalism is commodity fetishism. Magnitude of value coagulated in the commodity form—things[made to be sold]—'far from being under their [human producers' and exchangers'] control, in fact control them': the definite social relation between [humans] themselves …assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things…[where] the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. Our commodities control us, and our social relations are dictated by their relations and interactions.

'As soon as [a table, for example] emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. It…stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas.'

Under capitalism, the social relations of the everyday—that 'fantastic form'—are the dreams, the 'grotesque ideas,' of the commodities that rule. 'Real' life under capitalism is a fantasy: 'realism', narrowly defined, is therefore a 'realistic' depiction of 'an absurdity which is true', but no less absurd for that. Narrow 'realism' is as partial and ideological as 'reality' itself. ….the notion that a putatively 'realistic' novel about the bickerings of middle-class families that seem hermetically sealed off from wider social conflicts is less escapist than a [a fantasy novel involving discussions of racism, industrial conflict, and so on] is unconvincing. 'Realistic' books may pretend to be about 'the real world' but that does not mean they reverberate within it with more integrity and insight. …

The usual charge that fantasy is escapist, incoherent or nostalgic (if not downright reactionary), though perhaps true for great swathes of the literature, is contingent on content. Fantasy is a mode that, in constructing an internally coherent but actually impossible totality—constructed on the basis that the impossible is, for this work, true—mimics the absurdity of capitalist modernity. ….

This is not, of course, to attribute an inherently 'subversive' tendency to fantasy: nor is 'critical' art a function solely of the conscious concerns of the writer. Nevertheless, both the apparent epistemological radicalism of the fantastic mode's basic predicate—that the impossible is true—and its intriguing quasi-isomorphism with the 'grotesque' paradoxical form of capitalist modernity might be starting points to explore why there appear to be a statistically anomalous number of leftist writers in fantastic/science-fictional modes.

Mieville stresses that he is not making "The ridiculous suggestion that fantastic fiction gives a clear view of political possibilities or acts as a guide to political action. " He is claiming, rather, "That the fantastic, particularly because 'reality' is a grotesque 'fantastic form' is good to think with." Imagining other worlds and possibilities is a way to keep our minds supple. And that's an ability that will serve us well whatever the future brings.

Topic tags: