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Stories that save the world: how fiction can drive climate change awareness

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By Vasanth Seshadri

· 4 min read

The 2021 movie “The Tomorrow War” directed by Chris McKay and starring Chris Pratt was an action blockbuster with aliens and battles and enough explosions to make Michael Bay sit up and take notice. But the more discerning viewers would have noticed a climate change message in this movie. Without spoilers, I’ll just say that a 1.5-degree temperature rise and the resultant thawing of ice in an uninhabited part of the world was a pivotal event in the story.

Winter is coming. These three words would remind even a casual viewer about Game of Thrones. There are fans who say that Game of Thrones had a climate change message. Just like in the real world, an existential threat was at the doorstep of the entire world, accompanied by a climatic (and possibly climactic) change. Just like in the real world, there were deniers until the very last moment, and by the time any action was taken, it was almost too late.

These are just two examples that show firstly that the climate emergency can inspire fiction, and secondly that this fiction can drive real awareness of the emergency.

Humans have always been a storytelling species. Imagine saying that persistent long-term effort is important for success. Yawn. But imagine telling the story of the hare and the tortoise. All of a sudden, a moral is forever ingrained in the mind of the listener. Likewise, consider the difference between merely saying “don’t be greedy” and telling the story of the farmer who killed the goose that laid golden eggs. Both of these are from Aesop’s Fables, one of the greatest treasure troves of stories ever told. Such stories with moral values exist in every culture, with the Bible and the Ramayana two other prominent examples that come to mind.

The nature of humans as a purveyor and connoisseurs of stories means we have a much better chance to inspire people to take action on the climate crisis if we tell stories. Not just any stories, but stories with sustainability and climate change messages at their very core.

The term climate fiction, or cli-fi, was coined by literary critic Dan Bloom as recently as 2011. A decade on, there are debates about whether cli-fi is a genre in itself or a subgenre of science fiction. But that has not prevented passionate cli-fi writers from conceiving provocative works of fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson is a pioneer of cli-fi with novels like New York 2140 and The Ministry for the Future. The Climate Fiction Writers League founded by cli-fi author Lauren James is a closely-knit community who share the belief that fiction is one of the best ways to inspire immediate climate action.

Typically, cli-fi novels are set in the future or near future and have dystopian overtones of the kind of world we might end up living in if we are not careful. There’s a distinct difference between such climate fiction which has the climate crisis front-and-centre, and the examples I cited at the start of this article which weave it seamlessly into a wider story. Both these kinds of fiction do a different but equally effective job of drawing attention to the climate emergency. Thus, both have their roles and one isn’t inherently better than the other.

Many writers believe that acceptance of cli-fi as its own standalone genre independent of sci-fi is crucial for its continued growth and its contribution to real-world climate change mitigation efforts.

It would also help if more climate change stories take the form of movies and TV shows. Documentaries like Cowspiracy, Seaspiracy and Kiss the Ground are abundant on TV, but where are the fictional stories with climate change at their core? I’m not the only one bemoaning this. Greta Thunberg, arguably the most famous climate activist in the world today, opined at the Edinburgh TV Festival in August 2021 that “there’s a big lack of storytelling when it comes to the climate crisis” and urged the film and TV industries to do more.

The reason storytelling can be a big differentiator is that people have ever-decreasing attention spans. There’s a little anecdote I often like to share. Typically, whenever we want to say that someone has a short attention span, we say they have the attention span of a goldfish. That was an apt metaphor in the year 2000 when human attention span was 12 seconds and goldfish attention span was 9 seconds. But in 2021, human attention spans are 8 seconds. Perhaps a particularly inattentive goldfish today can be described as humanlike!

Given this reality, there’s a danger that narratives about the climate emergency may end up as background noise to a large number of people, at precisely the time when we cannot afford for it to become background noise. Awareness is the very first step before action even becomes possible. The fight for awareness becomes tougher when a never-ending Times Square of information competes for eyeballs and mindspace. Well-told stories can cut through the clutter and, who knows, even save the world.

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem

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About the author

Vasanth Seshadri runs the Singapore-based creative agency The Sunny Side. He is the author of the sustainability-themed novel The People from Beyond the Mountains.

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