A wave of climate consciousness has broken over the world in 2019, and the arts have an important part to play in shaping what comes next. Novelists, filmmakers, writers, musicians, artists are playing a role.
”Through their stories, they hold up mirrors to the way we live, highlighting our embeddedness within natural systems, envisioning more regenerative societies,” according to cultural observer Ned Pennant-Rea. ”Given that stories form as well as reflect our attitudes, the creative industries are gearing up to do more on climate.”
In fact, the idea of prioritizing nature and climate in everyday actions is gaining traction, Pennant-Rea said, and in the US, the rapper Lil Dicky tried to mainstream it earlier this year “Earth”, a planetary love song featuring Ariana Grande, Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio which has been viewed over 200 million times on YouTube.
Taking up the cli-fi challenge issued by Brooklyn novelist Amitav Ghosh, author himself of the cli-fi novel “Gun Island,” novelists have been engaging with climate change now worldwide for over 20 years.
Climate fiction, or “cli-fi”, such as Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (published in 2012), can help people contemplate the unfolding crisis in a way climate models and statistics cannot.
This year, British writer John Lanchester added to their number with his cli-fi novel “The Wall,” which chillingly imagines a beachless UK entirely surrounded by a 10,000-kilometer vertical fortification to keep climate migrants out. The clif-fi genre has been gathering steam even in communist China too, through pioneers like Xiaolu Guo.
In “Bird Jobs of the Future and Other Avian-Inspired Stories From the Year 2100,” Audubon magazine’s first foray into climate fiction, or cli-fi, the editors asked writers of compelling — and sometimes strange — fiction to imagine what climate chaos will bring for birds and people. From there, the the writers, among them Ashley Shelby and Olivia Clare, created powerful short stories of the somewhat familiar future.
Fast forward now to a recent literary panel discussion in New York sponsored by the New Yorker Magazine Festival, an annual literary event featuring novelists and poets from many countries.
A well-attended panel discussion on October 11, titled “Dark Days Ahead,” featured novelists Lauren Groff, N. K. Jemisin, Nathaniel Rich and Claire Vaye Watkins, with the event moderated by New Yorker magazine editor Deborah Treisman.
“Climate change and its parade of horribles is our biggest threat,” Treisman said.
Matt Szafranski, a lawyer with a strong interest in climate issues, was one of those who attended the New Yorker Fest in Manhattan, and he took the time to tweet about the panel discussion he sat in on, quoting Nat Rich as saying: “The great climate novel may not mention weather or climate, but captures the mood of it.”
He also quoted Lauren Groff as saying on stage: “Why aren’t we all writing cli-fi? (Climate fiction).”
Treisman asked the panelists and the audience: “Can the stories matter?”
Claire Vaye Watkins, the author of the cli-fi novel “Gold Fame Citrus asked: ”Is there hope?”
N.K. Jemisin said: “The abuse/exploitation of resources is not new to humanity. It’s just mainstream now.”
Groff: ”I don’t know if humans will survive.”
Claire Vaye Watkins: ”Well, maybe there’s something escapist in the end of the world.”
Lauren Groff replied: “Well that’s doesn’t remove our culpability in our extinction.”
Nat Rich said: “There’s a range outcomes in climate change. Worst case scenario is nuclear war as tensions rise. Joy!”
“But, but, but, there are range and we can talk about them as adults and accept it’s not a choice between hope and despair,” said another panelist quoted by Szafranski. who hails from my hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts.
Groff said: “What if entertainment is the way to get this virus of change in our system?”
Rich: ”Climate debate has shifted from appeals to reason (to denialists) to more personal, urgent climate activists.”
Jemisin: ”Literature can ask personal questions related to climate change (e.g. should I have kids, as
Nat Rich notes) that can have impact.”
Watkins: “We’re learning from our pants!”
Groff added: ”Without arts that is engaging with our world, it’s not worth it. Entertainment is pushing us away from the world. Art should engage it.”
Jemisin said: “Is calling something ‘disaster porn’ bad? Porn can be ‘disturbingly effective.’ Entertainment can make a difference.”
Based in Florida, Lauren Groff is a frequent contributor of short stories to the magazine; her story collection “Florida,” published in 2018, won the Story Prize and was also a finalist for a National Book Award.
N. K. Jemisin, a writer of cli-fi and speculative fiction, is the author of ”The Broken Earth” trilogy. “The City We Became,” the first novel in her new series, will be released next year.
Nat Rich is a novelist and a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine. His most recent book was “Losing Earth: A Recent History,” a nonfiction account of the earliest efforts to prevent catastrophic climate change. One of his other books include the cli-fi novel “Odds Against Tomorrow.”
Deborah Treisman has been the fiction editor of The New Yorker magazine since 2003 and has worked at the magazine since 1997. She is also the host of The New Yorker’s monthly Fiction Podcast and its weekly podcast The Writer’s Voice.
By the way, The annual New Yorker Festival has become the biggest consumer-facing event for its parent company Conde Nast, not to mention one of the buzziest cultural events of the year, period. With speakers, performers and panelists, this year’s program reads like a who’s-who of the literary arts. But The New Yorker Festival isn’t just about must-see programming. It’s also a major draw for advertisers looking to reach the magazine’s well-read audience.