We have recently published an anthology of climate fiction entitled Our Entangled Future that is available as a hard copy, ebook or a free downloadable pdf. This project contains this introductory chapter that we have written as co-editors. The anthology also includes ten pieces of original visual art, and we have selected “Nest 4” by Annerose Georgeson to accompany this excerpt.

painting of a nest on a blue background
Nest 4 by Annerose Georgeson

Anyone who reads the news these days will recognize that climate change is anything but fiction. Real stories of risk, danger, and loss are conveyed to us daily, whether in relation to wildfires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, glacial melting, rising waters, coral bleaching, species losses, or any other type of ecological distress. The protagonists in these stories are many – they include firefighters, farmers, coastal communities, elected officials, scientists, activists, governments, and those of us who have a stake in maintaining a planet that is hospitable to life. The protagonists in climate change are not merely observers; they are also taking action, for a good story always includes action. Our protagonists are marching in the streets, running for public office, standing up in the boardroom, directing theater pieces, organizing meetings and festivals, and introducing alternatives to our energy-intensive, consumer-oriented lifestyles.

The antagonists in today’s climate stories are numerous as well, including the oil industry, capitalism, agribusinesses, mining interests, mass tourism, and “people like us” who have adapted to paradigms of perpetual progress, endless consumption, unlimited growth, or the idea that “technology will save us.” The story of climate change is often told as a heroic battle of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and us versus them. As this plot unfolds, many people are starting to look more closely at the narratives underlying the story of climate change. What kind of stories are we actually telling ourselves and each other about our future in a changing climate? More importantly, what messages are we conveying about our potential to influence the future, right here and now?

Stories play a powerful role in transmitting personal and collective experiences. They allow us to “feel” climate change in ways that can move us emotionally and open our imagination to new possibilities. They raise our awareness not only to what is happening in the world, but to how it may be experienced by others, both now and in the future. In doing this, stories can change our world. Indeed, the climate crisis requires us to imagine other ways of living – a task to which, of all cultural forms, fiction is the most suited. As Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, “let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”

Our Entangled Future is an anthology of climate fiction. Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” is a literary genre that is rapidly expanding in response to the climate crisis, with new books and anthologies coming out every day. Cli-fi is located within a broader genre of speculative or science fiction. Speculative fiction is particularly well suited to addressing the climate crisis, as it can activate both reflection and engagement and thus serve as an effective vehicle for expressing experiential impacts, social criticism and alternative scenarios. Speculative fiction can also be used to develop strategic thought experiments related to both practical and philosophical ideas. As an art-science form, it has a unique capacity to envision possible, probable, and preferred collective futures based on projections of available scientific data. It can also draw attention to the importance of consciousness, subjectivity, agency and lived experiences of the climate crisis. It demonstrates humanity’s complex co-implication with the natural world in a more subjective and emotional way. Speculative fiction has the potential to help us to recognize our own potential in co-creating the future. This potential has not yet been fully activated.

Much of contemporary climate fiction depicts a dystopic world that has been radically transformed by the impacts of climate change. For example, in the introduction to Change Everything: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Manjana Milkoreit and her coeditors write that “most of our stories imagine gloomy, dystopian future worlds in which much of what we cherish – and take for granted – about our present realities will be lost.” In the Foreword to Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, editor John Joseph Adams describes the stories as a warning flare “to illustrate the kinds of things we can expect if climate change goes unchecked.” However, he also suggests that they may reveal some possible solutions that “inspire the hope that we can maybe still do something about it before it’s too late…” This is critical at a time when many are giving up hope on the future.

Stories have to offer us more than hope. They have to help us to imagine and actualize alternative “not-yet-here” realities that enable people and our planet to thrive. They can encourage us to question dominant modes of thinking, relating, acting, and governing, and they can inspire new understandings of the patterns and relationships that are shaping our future. Speculative fiction offers the opportunity to activate thought patterns that empower us with agency and leave us knowing that we can collectively create a better future. They can help us perceive, feel, and activate the possibilities for social change. New narrative arcs, images and metaphors allow us to imagine a possible trajectory for the story of our time and our individual roles in weaving this future.

As Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1970s classic, Ecotopia, said in an interview: “It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now. But without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center. And we’d better get ready. We need to know where we’d like to go.” Callenbach’s Ecotopia was a forerunner to an eco-future movement of practical utopianism known as solarpunk. In contrast to the darkness of popular apocalyptic science fiction, solarpunk offers more viable, optimistic stories about the near-futures and coping with the climate crisis, with the goal of encouraging and inspiring people to change the present.

Recognizing that political, social and cultural shifts will be necessary for more sustainable futures, solarpunk deploys radical optimism to bring greener futures into being. It is at once a countercultural movement, an adaptation art form, and “a form of futurism that focuses on what we should hope for rather than on what to avoid.” Their themes are thrivability and generativity. At its best, propositional speculative fiction and solarpunk can function as a realism of the possible, helping us think through the world as it is and as it may be.

Can we strategically evoke fictional narratives of quantum social change in the service of transformations to a sustainable and thriving world? As mentioned above, to date most cli-fi has communicated depleting and diminishing apocalyptic imaginaries. Cautionary narratives have their place, but we need aspirational tales of successful social change and systems change, for they too can be a reality. The role of narratives and imaginaries can be seen as akin to fractals or self-similar patterns that replicate at all scales, opening up new possibilities and potentials for change. The fractal space of narratives holds boundless potential. As fractals, we build the future one idea and action at a time.

Please download a free PDF copy of Our Entangled Future here: cchange.no/ourentangledfuture/

O’Brien, K., El Khoury, A., Schafenacker, N. and Rosenfeld, J. (eds). 2019. Our Entangled Future: Stories to Empower Quantum Social Change. AdaptationCONNECTS Research Project, University of Oslo, Norway.