“Where are the novels? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?” American climate activist Bill McKibben asked in a powerful essay first published long ago in 2005. He was serious.
Fast forward to 2018 where the Harvard-educated visionary has seen his vision taking root in the arts world, with cli-fi novels and movies leading the way. He even has tried his hand at writing a cli-fi novel himself.
Global warming is a major theme of McKibben’s recent ”cli-fi lite” comic novel “Radio Free Vermont” where, among other things, the characters he has created find themselves trying to cope with an unseasonably warm winter in usually cold Vermont — a major skiing mecca in New England.
From as far back as 2005 when he wrote that essay in Grist magazine, McKibben has been calling for writers and artists and movie directors to use the power of cli-fi to tackle climate change in novels, movies, poems — even operas!
“I wrote an essay in Grist in 2005 and revisited the same essay theme an update in 2009 in which I pointed out that there had been very limited artistic response to climate change from American novelists or poets and Hollywood producers, which I felt was odd given the scale and magnitude of the global warming world we lived in then. And now, in 2018, I’m very glad to see that changing on the part of novelists and film directors nationwide. So I’m glad to see the so-called ‘cli-fi movement’ making tremendous advances in the media and among publishers, writers and Hollywood.”
According to Wired magazine, one group of artists who has tackled climate change is cli-fi writers, with authors like Kim Stanley Robinson, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Tobias Buckell comprising the so-called “cli-fi” movement. McKibben says he loved reading Stan Robinson’s cli-fi novel ”New York 2140,” which depicted a future in which rising seas transform Manhattan in 2140 A.D. into a surreal city of canals.
“For my money the best ‘climate fiction’ — and in many ways the best cli-fi novel fiction — of the last year was ‘New York 2140,’” he told a podcast editor for Wired. “It’s a wonderful and oddly cheerful book, I must say. I really, really enjoyed it.”
In his 2005 essay, headlined ”What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art,” McKibben introduced his oped like this:
”Here’s the paradox: If the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Compare it to, say, the horror of AIDS in the last two decades, which has produced a staggering outpouring of art that, in turn, has had real political effect. I mean, when people someday in the distant future look back on our moment now in 2005, the single most significant item will doubtless be the sudden spiking temperatures worldwide — global warming. But they’ll have a hell of a time figuring out why we didn’t publish more novels and produce more Hollywood movies about it.”
During the recent Wired podcast, McKibben was asked by the host if he had heard of the new literary genre dubbed “cli-fi” and without missing a beat, the die-hard climate activist said: “Oh yes, there are a lot of cli-fi novels being published today, and they’re very important.”
So where are the novels? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas? Bill McKibben’s vision from 2005 and 2009 has been answered in 2018: cli-fi is here to say, with a long future ahead of it. For a hundred years, it will resonate worldwide and hopefully, make a world of difference as well.