The Cli-Fi Genre Gives Us a Peek at Planet Earth in 2040

In the latest issue of the literary quarterly McSweeney’s, 10 short-story writers imagine what the world might look like in 20 years without effective climate action.

Credit: Illustrations by Wesley Allsbrook

An unnamed environmental activist lives in a society where flying surveillance cameras fill the air, spying on anyone who would dare challenge the government’s official narratives. Home is a sordid squatter’s den along the shores of the Great Barrier Reef, to which she periodically ventures out in order to assess the state of this natural wonder, which the authorities have completely closed off to the public. The reef no longer functions as a habitat for marine life and a protective seawall; fish have all but disappeared, and waves have destroyed communities along the coast, “eating the few buildings that had not submerged under the rising sea, that had not sunk into softening sand and fallen.” What the activist discovers on one of her stealth missions threatens to expose a conspiracy between her government and the fossil-fuel industry—and places her in mortal peril. The year is 2040.

This is the world imagined by the Australian writer Claire G. Coleman in “Drones Above the Coral Sand,” one of 10 short stories published in the newest issue of McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, the acclaimed literary journal founded by the novelist and memoirist Dave Eggers back in 1998. Issue No. 58 is simply titled “2040 A.D.” In it, an international group of authors proffer their visions of what life on earth could be like if we don’t limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has determined we must if we’re to avoid the worst, most calamitous effects of global warming. The IPCC shared this conclusion in its 2018 special report reflecting the consensus view of 90 climate scientists from 40 countries, who describe what awaits us should we fail: a world where disasters no longer punctuate our everyday shared reality but instead define it.

By accelerating and intensifying a range of destructive natural phenomena—droughts, floods, wildfires, and tropical storms, to name just a few—climate change is also accelerating and intensifying the rate at which our physical world is being dramatically altered. In past eras our cities, towns, countrysides, forests, and coastlines didn’t change much over the span of two decades. This collection tells a different story: one in which 20 years is more than enough time for the world to undergo a profound transformation.

In a unique literary experiment, each author was paired with a climate expert from NRDC who provided a scientific background for the various details that make these stories so compelling. The goal, writes NRDC’s chief program officer, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, in her foreword to the issue, was to create “a collection where fiction’s already considerable power is fortified by science.” In the hands of these storytellers, the data-driven predictions of climate models regarding things like sea level rise, protracted drought, and mass human displacement are brought to vivid, harrowing life. Each story seems designed to address a single, all-important question: How will climate change change us?

In many of them, the geophysical stressors of climate change have by 2040 necessitated a radical restructuring of society that allows the well-off to purchase a sense of normalcy, while the less well-off are relegated to the dangerous and uncertain margins. The narrator of Singaporean writer Rachel Heng’s “The Rememberers” lives with her ailing mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease, on the 34th floor of a skyscraper-in-reverse—a building that burrows deep into the ground of a fragile, forever-altered version of the Southeast Asian city-state. On this island of 6 million people, 5.5 million inhabit windowless subterranean bunkers, where guards control and severely limit their ability to come up to the surface to experience wind, sunshine, and sky, “luxuries afforded only to the wealthy.”

Half a world away, on the fallow acreage of an Ohio farm, a much subtler form of class tension is playing out. “Save Yourself,” by the American writer Abbey Mei Otis, explores the uneasy reconnection between a nomadic human-rights worker, who has dedicated her life to helping climate refugees, and her old friend, a married woman who has managed to maintain the semblance of an upper-middle-class life amid encroaching dystopia by selling water—at a tidy profit—to the desperately thirsty.

For the Mexican-American author Luis Alberto Urrea, the manner in which global warming grotesquely distorts our natural systems is the stuff of nightmares. His contribution, “The Night Drinker,” begins as an almost reportorial account of how the admirably adaptation-minded Mexico City of 2040 is attempting to balance an array of climate-driven factors—frequent deluges, lack of safe drinking water, volcanic eruptions, and a mass influx of migrants from around the world. But it ends as a horror story, complete with monsters. In this case, the monsters have risen to the earth’s surface via social and economic fissures that unabated climate change will only widen as civilizations lose their faith in the idea of progress and reflexively revert to ritual and superstition. As the story’s historian narrator puts it, “The degradation of the planet is not simply a scientific or ecological conflagration, but also an eroding of the human mind. Reason itself catches fire and burns.”

Those searching for optimism in these thought-provoking stories will find it in relatively short supply (although it does emerge from time to time, poignantly and powerfully). But that shouldn’t deter readers from sitting down with McSweeney’s No. 58, bracing themselves, and engaging with the collection on its own terms. In a few weeks, we’ll officially be just 20 years away from 2040—the year in which all of these tales take place. Twenty years used to seem like a reasonable amount of time for setting big goals and seeing them through. Now things are different. Twenty years isn’t what it used to be.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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