Cli-Fi provides a window into our future (and ourselves)

Credit: © 2009 Katie Tegtmeyer (Attribution 2.0 license)

Guest post by Rachel Mickelson, NRDC Program Assistant

The drive home after watching Mad Max: Fury Road was terrifying. Accelerating onto the highway with a kind of reckless abandon that only a two-hour, post-apocalyptic car-chase could inspire, my friend buzzed out in front of an advancing semi-truck, and then cackled at its lumbering speed in the rearview mirror. Momentarily, we became desert survivors in hot escape from an imagined enemy. But, shortly after merging, we were caught in a cloudburst so unrelenting we had to pull over. My friend turned off the radio, which was by then sputtering heavy metal power chords. Rolling our windows back up, with little to be seen beyond the windshield of my friend's '08 Honda Civic, we returned to ourselves: three deflated English majors in our mid-twenties, relegated to the shoulder of a Wisconsin highway. Our sighs, however, soon turned to gratitude following a lengthy dialogue about the film's relevance to the California drought.

A good story will do that—will make another world so tangible one can see oneself vividly inside it, eliciting empathy for who we might become and how we might respond when provided a similar landscape. When confronted with increasingly extreme weather, rising sea levels, and record-breaking droughts, a compelling narrative might be one of our keys to unlocking a safer future. Enter Climate Fiction, or "Cli-Fi," a burgeoning literary genre that grapples with the impacts of climate change and envisions a world that could become all too real.

Cli-Fi novels such as Claire Vaye Watkins' Gold Fame Citrus, Paolo Bacigalupi's The Water Knife, and Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy have earned wide critical acclaim over the past few years. Secondary schools and universities across the country have also begun to incorporate Climate Fiction courses into their syllabi, providing an accessible platform for students to discuss current climate change impacts. While these irresistible page-turners transport us from reality, they might also motivate us to prevent a similar one.

Research has shown that the human mind finds it difficult to address risks it perceives as far off in the future. A recent study conducted by UCLA and Stanford University sheds light on the connection we perceive between our current and future selves. Using brain-imaging technology, researchers monitored neural patterns while subjects thought about their current selves, themselves 10 years down the road, and while thinking about another person. Similar parts of the brain lit up when subjects thought about their future selves and when they thought of someone else. In other words, we see our future selves as complete strangers. In the context of climate change, we perceive climate impacts as happening to someone else, and therefore don't find them quite as important.

Though science can tell us alarming facts (for example, sea levels are projected to rise 1.7 0.7-6.6 feet, inundating five million U.S. homes at just four feet of sea level rise) the information presented might not do much other than scare us for a few seconds. Our brains, after all, now carry the attention span of goldfish (are you still reading this?). It turns out that a dramatic narrative arc, the hallmark of fiction, does much more to sustain our attention than data and logic alone. We are 22 times more likely to remember information presented in narrative form than when presented with facts alone.

Credit: "Sam Reading in Badlands" (top) © 2005 Julie Falk (Attribution-NonCommerical 2.0 license) "Reading" (bottom) © 2009 Kamil Porembinski (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license)

While data interwoven with narrative can help us better retain knowledge about climate change impacts, it may also increase our capacity to empathize with characters struggling with those impacts. According to one cognitive study, readers of literary fiction were found to have improved capacity for empathy when compared to non-fiction readers. In addition to engaging both lobes of the brain, reading fiction improves Theory of Mind and activates the motor cortex, enabling us to neurobiologically walk in another person's shoes. Reading about a character collapsing of heat exhaustion in the desert or raising a glass to take a drink of water, for example, activates our own muscle memory. What happens to the character neurobiologically occurs within us.

It could be that our gravest obstacle in the face of climate change and its impacts is our lack of imagination to envision a world in which we failed to act. If Climate Fiction can improve our empathetic response to other characters, perhaps it can help us to empathize with the characters of our future selves, seemingly alone out there, toiling through a dismal, yet preventable conflict.

NRDC will be hosting a free Climate Fiction event* entitled "The (Possible) Future of Water" on February 24th at Garfield Park Conservatory in Chicago, Illinois. The event will feature a panel discussion with critically acclaimed author of Gold Fame Citrus, Claire Vaye Watkins, Chicago-based author Abby Geni of The Lightkeepers, Shannon Heffernan of WBEZ, and Robert Moore, Senior Policy Analyst in NRDC's Water Program. The event will explore society's changing relationship to water and how we convey climate change impacts through literature.

*An Eventbrite ticket is required for entry. More details can be found on the Eventbrite page here.

More to read from NRDC:

APOCALYPSE SOON: In the budding cli-fi genre, dystopian settings can be real-life motivators

Bacigalupi's The Water Knife Cuts to the Core on Climate Change