Criticism of Cli-Fi: A Global Warning Gone Too Far?

November 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

Meteorologists and climatologists around the world are sounding the alarm about the role human actions have played in bringing about “global warming.” And apparently, filmmakers are, too. The rise in ocean temperatures is being met with a rise in the demand for movies that explore the potential doom of humanity as a result of the deteriorating environment–movies like Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow, the Interstellar, and even 2012. So what makes viewers so responsive to “climate fiction” and ecological disaster?

It’s no secret that climate change is real. Data from computer analysis and report after meteorological report demonstrate the rapid melting of glaciers and increased concentration of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, in the upper levels of the atmosphere. These phenomena are observable consequences of what scientists believe is our own tinkering with natural processes and resources. With effects so tangible, it’s difficult to deny that there is something happening, even if we don’t know what it is yet. The mysterious nature of global warming only makes it scarier for the average citizen and cli-fi viewer. To make matters worse, the data seem to show that this is all the fault of the human race, all our fault. And because we have contributed so much to the destruction of our home, we feel a responsibility to fix this and return Earth to its original, untainted glory.

So that’s why cli-fi hits so close to home. The scenarios may not be real, but they are realistic enough to allow the audience to recognize and visualize the potential repercussions of growing industry and economy. Climate change is a global event, affecting everyone and everything from the poles to the equator. There is no escape; the only safety may come from jetting off into outer space, as films like Interstellar and Wall-E suggest, or restoration of our planet.

But Noah Gittell, a film critic who writes for The Atlantic, believes the choice is not so black-and-white, and such films do more to instill paranoia regarding improbable situations than to actually bring about change. Though climate fiction may lead us to believe that ecological disaster is no longer just a calamity of the future, Gittell feels that the sub-genre dramatizes the effects to an unconceivable extreme. And this is not at all helpful is promoting awareness of the actually manageable, and maybe even reversible, issues possibly caused by human actions.

Even if this new genre of media may misrepresent the scientific aspects of climate change, it certainly holds incredible merit. Literature and film are critical in providing momentum for any movement representing worldwide issues. Novels and films have played pivotal roles in beginning global conversations about the sustainability of Earth and initiatives to decrease gas emissions; this has made activism more accessible to the general public, especially since cli-fi films target a younger audience more receptive to the presentation of global problems in this format.

So what do you think? Is cli-fi only valuable as entertainment? Or can it serve a higher purpose and force us to address environmental issues more seriously?

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-Bushra Rahman


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§ One Response to Criticism of Cli-Fi: A Global Warning Gone Too Far?

  • Thanks for the thoughtful post, Bushra. I think you (and the writer of The Atlantic article) are correct to identify the somewhat doomsday-istic sentiment that underlies much of cli-fi. While I am perhaps a bit more willing to allow such sentiments (largely because they mirror my own deep-seated beliefs that we won’t manage to change direction on climate change), I can understand how the format of cli-fi might not be useful to the more optimistic persons out there.
    However, I’m not quite sure how futuristic cli-fi could go about shifting to a more optimistic perspective. Sure, futures could be imagined in which people successfully reacted to the threats of climate change and developed conservation methods that combatted and softened the effects of climate change. But I wonder if we should expect fiction to do that; fiction requires dissonance, some central conflict that motivates its action. Dystopias provide conflict in bounties, but more comfortable futures, even if they aren’t utopic, just don’t provide that easy source of conflict.
    I think this is why we’ve recently seen an up-tick in cli-fi that is occupied most prominently with the present moment. While this cli-fi exists more comfortably within the lineage of “literary” fiction rather than sci-fi, it does provide a means by which to talk about climate change in a way that isn’t grounded by doom. A particular work that does a good job of this is 10:04 by recent MacArthur Genius Grant recipient Ben Lerner. In this novel, set in present day NYC, the specter of climate change hangs over the city and haunts the characters. The possibility of enacting any significant material change to halt climate change seems impossible, as well, but the characters do recognize that they can commit communal acts together which enable a new social structure that might provide some way out of the problems they find themselves. The hope provided by these stories to enact change within the moment without emphasizing scientific methods of coping provide them a uniquely valuable humanitarian approach. –Lucas Hilliard


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