Telling the Story of Climate Change — In Fiction

26:12 minutes

Numbers and projections are one way to tell the story of climate change. But lately, a handful of writers have tried another tactic—imagining our climate change future in fiction. Take sci-fi author Paolo Bacigalupi, whose latest thriller The Water Knife imagines the economic, social, and environmental collapse of a near-future American Southwest.

And it’s not just science fiction writers who are getting in on the act: Writers like Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, and Nathaniel Rich have all experimented with climate change stories. Bacigalupi and University of Oregon English professor Stephanie LeMenager join guest host John Dankosky to talk about writing—and reading—climate change stories, and what role storytelling might play in helping us confront our climate change future.

Segment Guests

Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi is a writer, and is author of The Water Knife, (Knopf, 2015) and The Windup Girl (Night Shade Books, 2009). He’s based in Paonia, Colorado.

Stephanie LeMenager

Stephanie LeMenager is Moore Professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: Tree rings and archaeological data can tell the story of how climate change shaped the southwest 1,000 years ago. But this week, I read a novel that was all about the future of that region. The Water Knife imagines the southwest 50, maybe 75 years from now. And the picture it paints of our climate change future is not pretty.

In the world of The Water Knife, Arizona, Nevada, and California are locked in all out war over water. Las Vegas is out to secure its water supply by any means necessary, using shady legal tactics and outright violence to suck its neighbors dry. Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the price of water has hit $6.95 a liter. In Texas, an entire population of climate refugees is on the move.

The man behind this dystopia is sci-fi writer Paolo Bacigalupi, and he’s not the only storyteller who’s been speculating about our climate change future. The last few years have seen a minor boom in novels about climate change. You can call it climate fiction or cli fi. It’s what we’ll be talking about for the rest of this hour, and we want to hear from you. Do you have a favorite piece of fiction or a novel or a film about climate change? Tell us about it. 844-724-8255. 8255 That’s 844-SCI-TALK. You can also tweet us some of your ideas at scifri.

Let me bring in our guests. Paolo Bacigalupi is the author of The Water Knife and other novels, including The Windup Girl. He joins us today from Paonia, Colorado. Welcome to Science Friday.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Thanks for having me.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Stephanie LeMenager is the Moore Professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, where she’s taught climate fiction in her classroom. She joins us today from Eugene. Welcome to the show.

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: Thank you so much.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Stephanie, I’ll start with you. How old is this idea of climate fiction? When did you start to see writers bringing climate change in their stories?

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: You know, I think climate change came very early into the world of fiction, going all the way back to the 1890s or so, with works by Jules Verne. But climate change, as we know it now, and responsive to climate science as we understand it in relation to global climate change, really doesn’t become a well known topic of fiction and in other kinds of speculative writing until the early 20th century. It may be that there’s one outlier novel called Heat by Arthur Herzog, which was published in 1977.

But I would place climate fiction’s genealogy and its sort of origin point more or less in the early 20th, 21st century, with the work of Margaret Atwood, her fabulous MaddAddam trilogy, starting in 2003. The work of Kim Stanley Robinson, 40 Signs of Rain, was 2004. Of course Paolo’s terrific books Wind Up Girl, 2009 I believe, and the Pump Six collection of 2008. The work of Ian McEwan, Solar, 2010. Flight Behavior, 2012, Barbara Kingsolver.

So I see this as sort of the first decade of the 21st century phenomenon that grows up in response to, in a way, the dissemination and popularization of climate science in the larger culture. People getting more familiar with that, whether they wish to believe it or deny it. Nonetheless it becomes a strong topic of conversation. And then stories seem to come about in response to that scientific knowledge.

IRA FLATOW: You mentioned the Barbara Kingsolver novel Flight Behavior. It’s one of the things that you teach in your class. Tell us a bit about it.

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: You know, I think it’s a terrific novel. It reminds me a lot of the reformist fiction of the 19th century. I think about fiction by people like Charles Dickens and even Harriet Beecher Stowe. And I mention those 19th century novels because they were novels that were meant to profoundly critique and change the economic structure of, in one case Britain, the other case the United States.

And what Kingsolver does is she looks really broadly at the different kinds of stakeholders that might be involved in a climate change future. Not just people who are already on the bandwagon. Not just environmentalists, but rural people in Appalachia, in West Virginia, people looking at mountaintop removal from a variety of different standpoints.

People of faith in faith based communities that may or may not connect to climate science and feel comfortable with it. And she tries to create a kind of coalitional public around climate change through the novel, with science at the very beating heart and the center of that. And I really appreciated that effort of not just looking at a community of experts. Not denigrating working class people, people of faith who might not be at the center of these conversations, but trying to invite them and give them access to what is, in my mind, the most profound socio-ecological problem that we’ve ever faced as a species.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I’m John Dankosky and this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. We’re talking about climate fiction on the program. Paolo Bacigalupi, you committed to actually writing The Water Knife after a trip you made to Texas. What did you see on the trip that made you think, I have to write this story?

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, I was down in Texas in 2011, and they were in the middle of a terrible drought at that time. They were experiencing record numbers of 100 degree days. They were having to put cattle down on the land because the land couldn’t support them. They were having crop failures.

They were also having electrical failures, brownouts, because their reservoirs were low, and so they didn’t have enough hydraulic head to turn their turbines. And so at the same time the people were needing more electricity than ever to run their air conditioners against the heat, they were experiencing electricity shortages. And all of that was really interesting, but the thing that was most interesting to me about all of that terrible stuff was that it broadly matches exactly what climate scientists say the future of Texas should look like as an average.

And so, in that moment, when you’re standing there in a drought, you realize that you’re actually not in a drought, anymore. You’re time traveling. You’ve had a chance to step into the future and see that moment, future Texas. What is it? And you look around and you say, so, what is this? And you say, it’s scary. It feels very scary.

But then on top of that, at the same time that all that was happening, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas and a presidential candidate at the time, was going around and urging people to pray for rain. And that, coupled with this terrible sort of oncoming disaster scenario, really got me going with this feeling like, oh, here’s the future coming at us. The data tells us it’s dangerous and it’s going to be bad, and our leadership is engaged in magical thinking. That was the moment that I sort of thought that, OK, I need to write The Water Knife.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, and your story is really about two cities, one that plans for climate change and one that doesn’t. Give us a little picture of these two cities, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Right. Well, the interesting thing to me about all of this is that I do believe that we as human beings have a great capacity to adapt, to succeed, but it all depends on us being reality-based creatures. We have to engage with reality in order to succeed. And Rick Perry kind of crystallized that for me.

So when I was setting up the story for The Water Knife, Las Vegas was intended very much to represent a city that looks around and says, we’re in a terrible position. We live in the middle of a desert. We have very scarce water resources. The water resources that we have are tenuous. And so what are we going to do to make sure that we come out as winners at the other end of this?

And so they make certain kinds of deals with the other states so that they can keep their water flowing. They create a cadre of people called water knives, which is the title for the book. And these are sort of the 007s of water. They do go out and blow up other people’s water treatment plants. They give other people offers on their water rights that they can’t refuse. Las Vegas has decided that they’re going to do everything that they can to survive. And while they’re doing all that, they’ve also built these massive arcologies, these sort of integrated cities that allow them to recycle all of their water and all of their waste, and keep all their resources within them so that they are never wasting anything.

JOHN DANKOSKY: And one little detail in there that brings this to life for me is the Clearsac. Can you just quickly describe your Clearsacs?

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Yeah. Sure. So for the wealthy, they get to live in arcologies. But the poor, there’s also an economic solution to being starved for water. And that’s the Clearsacs. And Clearsacs are essentially these plastic bags that people can pee into and then squeeze the bag and what filters out is clean water. And so for the poor, you can drink your own urine basically, is the solution. And–

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. And I must say, that that’s one of the many parts of your book that leads to a fairly bleak future. We’re going to take a break. When we come back, we’ve got more stories about climate change, from some cautiously optimistic to the apocalyptic. You can share some of your ideas about climate fiction at 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK.

This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky sitting in for Ira Flatow. We’re talking this hour about climate fiction. Cli fi. Do we need compelling stories if we’re going to reckon with climate change?

My guests are Paolo Bacigalupi, he’s a science fiction writer and the author of the novel The Water Knife, just out in paperback. He joins us today from Paonia, Colorado. Stephanie LeMenager is Moore Professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. We’d like to hear from you. If you’ve got a favorite novel, film, or work of fiction that touches on climate change, tell us about it. 844-724-8255. That’s 844-SCI-TALK. You can tweet us at scifri. We’re going to get to some of your ideas in just a moment.

Stephanie, you teach a book called Odds Against Tomorrow. Tell us about that one.

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: This is a really interesting book by Nathaniel Rich, which kind of came in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. And then Sandy was in some ways, I think, retroactively built into the novel. And I’d call it almost a hipster take on risk society, by which I mean in the modern world we live in, which kind of incorporates an assumption of potential catastrophic risk. So we start with that as a norm in a way. A way of living with risk.

And then we move into, after this catastrophic event, this flood of Manhattan, we move into an interesting kind of neo-frontiers narrative in which the protagonist begins to re-live a life in the wetlands on the edge of New York with all kinds of DIY small technologies, repurposing the infrastructure of the place he’s now inhabiting, and moving into what we might think of as hipster ecological adaptations, like backyard gardening. So there’s a way in which this is I think both a very contemporary take on what maybe individuals can do to adapt to or combat climate change, climate shift. But it’s also, and at least at the sort of early stages of the novel, a profound critique of a culture in which we simply accept catastrophic risk as part of what we assume to be the modern and the wealth of our own consumer culture.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Stephanie, what do you think is challenging about writing these stories? I mean, something like climate change unfolds over a long period of time. While certainly there are storms being caused by climate change, an awful lot of the story is just this slow developing thing that doesn’t necessarily have the normal type of dramatic arc of a novel. What are some of the challenges you see?

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: Well I think that climate change is a real challenge for novelists and for other kinds of writers, because it is unfolding over multiple time schemes, multiple scales, and in many different parts of the world. No question that’s a complex problem and a hyperobject, to use my colleague Timothy Morton’s phrase. But what’s really good about climate fiction, or fiction that at least deals with the climate in some fashion, is that it makes very material and local conditions that might otherwise seem abstract, distant, distant in time or place. I mean, fiction gives us a world in which to manipulate possible realities, potential outcomes, new social configurations, and ways of not just adapting, but fighting the kinds of climate politic deadlocks that we’ve seen, both in our country and in others.

So we have a very concrete and small world, often, in fiction, in which to really think through how we might develop a point of view and an agency, a kind of agency within a system, the climate system, that has gone askew. And that’s very, very difficult for most people to grasp in its entirety.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So Paolo, how do you deal with some of these challenges of telling a story about climate change in The Water Knife?

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, I think that the first thing that you have to do is, you have to look at climate change in a specific location. I think that it is a big topic, and so you have to sort of burrow down into a spot. And so for me, I took the Colorado River and the Western United States, because it already is a sort of a climate vulnerable region.

But then you can sort of start parsing the already existing politics and the already existing social situations, and start extrapolating outwards to say, if this goes on, what will the world look like? If the Colorado River keeps getting lower, what will the world look like? And that’s sort of the mechanism that science fiction always works inside of, is that extrapolative sort of taking a look at a trend and then sort of turning up the volume on it.

Ultimately, what you’re trying to do, I think, is the thing that all fiction that’s really interesting and good does, is it builds empathy for something. Fiction has this opportunity to help us have empathy for people who we’ve never known, live inside of the skin of different genders and different social experiences, all sorts of different things. With science fiction, the opportunity is that you can sort of extend that empathy not just around the world, but into the future, and to weight a future person’s experience.

And so, if I can tell a story of a climate refugee, a girl who’s fled out of Texas and has gotten as far as Phoenix, and now is trapped in Phoenix because state border control laws prevent her from going anywhere else, and living there as a second class citizen in a city that’s also falling apart, because it has its own water problems. If I can introduce her and create enough of an engaging story around her, suddenly we’re going to have a different idea about what climate change means, because we’ve lived inside of it. And I think that’s the key thing that fiction brings to the table.

And it’s the superpower that fiction has, is that suddenly the thing that was abstract, that was a bunch of data, that was scientists’ scientific reports, suddenly is a real, intense, visceral experience. And ideally that means that the next time a reader opens up The New York Times and sees a photograph of low Lake Mead with the water levels low and the blue sky and the white bathtub ring around the low Lake Mead, they suddenly see that as a horror object, as opposed to a passive photo of the landscape.

JOHN DANKOSKY: I want to get some ideas that our callers have. Let’s go first to Dave, who’s calling from Akron, Ohio. Hi there, Dave. You’re on Science Friday.

DAVE: Hey, John. Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to point out that Frank Herbert, this classic sci-fi series that was written in the ’60s, Dune, features a people who live in the desert. And they recycle all their bodily fluids inside their suits, because they have no water. And that’s how they keep going. So that’s kind of cool that your author in taking these ideas further with the climate science is pretty neat.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Dave, thanks. Thanks for bringing that up. Did you think about Dune at all, Paolo?

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, yeah. The Clearsacs are definitely the low rent version of Stillsuits.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah they– you see any other similarities to maybe things like that, Stephanie? Some of the ideas that Paolo is grappling with, you see in some other novels that you teach, or other things in popular culture right now?

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: Yeah, I do. I mean, I think we could expand the term cli fi or climate fiction and think about anthropocene fictions, more broadly. Let’s think about the whole era in which we really see human beings profoundly affecting geology and atmospheric science, climate systems, et cetera. You could go all the way back to some of the great novels of the atomic age. And I think about Phillip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

I mean, there’s a lot of really interesting novels about nuclear apocalypse that actually do end up with ruined worlds that are not that different from what we’re seeing in terms of predictions for catastrophic climate shift. And I think that some of the lessons to be learned from those fictions are still relevant today. And of course, that whole moment of great acceleration economically, socially in terms of population explosion, in the mid 20th century, which those earlier science fiction novels were responding to, are part of what caused the situation we’re in now with this very difficult ecological problem called global climate change.

So, yeah, you can definitely go back and see all different kinds of responses from fiction writers who’ve perceived a ruined world. But also, perceived, more importantly, how to live into and beyond that. And I think that’s one of the great things about Paolo’s work as well, that we’re not just stopping with apocalypse, per se.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Yeah. That’s actually something– I’m less interested in apocalypses. And I feel like there’s a lot of that that happens in science fiction. And going back to Dune, one of the things that’s interesting about watching the culture that functions on the planet of Dune is that it’s all about a culture that has adapted fundamentally to the idea of water scarcity.

It’s people living within the boundaries and limits of what their ecology provides. And that’s really interesting to me, and specifically then writing climate fiction is the idea that here’s this planet that we live on that has certain boundaries that we’ve sort of allowed ourselves to pretend don’t exist, because of our technological know-how. We’ve managed to press those boundaries to a certain extent. And I think climate change is sort of that reality check moment, where well, yes, you can push this system to a certain extent.

But it’s a lot like stretching a rubber band. Eventually it’s going to snap back at us. And I’m interested most in those stories that focus– when we talk about the anthropocene or climate change fiction, I’m most interested in those stories where it talks about how are we fundamentally going to adapt?

And how does that shift everything, not in the sense of like, oh, we all get wiped out and then we start over with the new frontier, but that we all will mostly be here, and there will be some winners and some losers. But, you know, it’s not going to be some very clean break. I mean, the thing that troubles me the most, I think, with apocalyptic fiction is that it’s so similar. That the nuclear apocalypse looks a lot like the bio-apocalypse, looks a lot like zombie apocalypse.

JOHN DANKOSKY: It all ends up looking like the zombie apocalypse at the end of the day, which is a story we can tell over and over again.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: And I don’t– and it’s not the one that’s the most interesting to me, because it’s so interesting to sort of like– when I was putting The Water Knife together, you know, there is the sense that, oh, different players will have different amounts of power. And certain people certainly will lose. And certain people certainly will end up being wiped out. But other people are going to consolidate their power. For every person who’s losing, there’s somebody else’s opportunity.

And so there’s a larger set of complex interactions. And you want to parse those. You want to look at, well, how does Las Vegas work? How does Phoenix work? How does California work? How does that work inside the context of the larger United States? Are we a functioning nation that can work together and solve problems, or are we actually a set of states all going in our separate directions?

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. Not to give too much away about your book, but we don’t seem to be a functioning United States in The Water Knife. We’re going to– a few people have ideas about climate fiction. Alan’s in Brooklyn. Hi, Alan. Go ahead.

ALAN: Hi. How are you? One movie that’s not directly about carbon caused climate change shows a world that is definitely affected by a similar problems, and it’s also the result of human folly and short-sightedness.

That’s a late 1950s British film called The Day the Earth Caught Fire, where mindless nuclear testing has caused the earth to shift its balance on its axis and to change its orbit. So it’s moving closer the sun. So the reactions people have to the changes they brought about are very similar to the kinds of feigned surprise at what happens when you weren’t paying attention to details that we get today when we are mindless about carbon emissions. So it’s a very useful object lesson, even though it’s not directly caused by the same kind of folly.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, Alan, thank you very much for the idea. I do appreciate it. I’m John Dankosky, and this is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. Stephanie, is there a sense that we need stories about climate change if we’re actually going to reckon with this problem? I mean, are the stories helpful in terms of a better future for us?

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: Absolutely, and I think one of the things that’s really exciting, and it’s even being performed on the show right now, is that climate fictions or anthropocene fictions, they kind of summon a climate change public. Expertise is distributed very broadly in a case like this, where you have readers who know a tremendous amount about the kinds of stories that have been told, the forms of adaptation, down to the actual particular technologies that have been imagined. And there are very active fan fiction communities where people are talking about these things.

So I think there’s a very strong emphasis toward materialized, detailed storytelling about how to get through the changes we are anticipating, and how to be, frankly, better sociologically speaking or culturally speaking about planning, about working together, the very problems that again come up so much in Paolo’s fiction. So it seems to me that one of the lessons I’ve learned from studying the sociological phenomenon of climate fiction is that people want stories as a way to become more ecologically effective and thriving beings. I mean, this seems to be a very big part of our hard wiring and soft wiring as humans, to create stories that complement the science but that also give us futures to live into, to inhabit in ways that are very hard for many young people to do, for instance. Of course, I’m a teacher, so I see a lot of that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, and I have to ask you, Paolo, because you’ve written climate fiction for teens, how do you approach those stories differently?

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Well, I think that there’s something really interesting for me, at least, when I’m writing for teens. Oftentimes I’m actually trying to drop in some element of hope that I might not hand off automatically to my adult readers.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Very kind of you.

PAOLO BACIGALUPI: Yeah, right. But it connects to a larger set of ideas about what fiction and science fiction can do or should do, which is that there are these different paths that you can occupy. And so one of those lines is the path of warning, to set out a signpost out in the future and say, this looks like a bloody future. Let’s not go there.

But just now we’re talking also about can you set out signposts, that’s active guideposts towards a positive future, that’s active templates for us to live into? Myths that we can believe in and aim towards. And I think that science fiction actually has a really interesting history of doing exactly that.

You have this history of NASA engineers being able to talk about how they read about rocket ships, and now they build rocket ships. People who’ve read things like Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon went out and built Second Life, a virtual reality game, because they read about an interesting object in the book and then wanted to create it. For me, when I was writing the story Ship Breaker for young adults, I wanted to create the idea that we could have a sustainable global future. One where we’re still connected to the world, but we function using sustainable energy.

And so I looked again at sail, and sail power. And we did have a functioning global economy. And until coal took over, based on sail. But you know, what would it be like in the future if we took all of our technological know-how and we applied it to sail again?

And said, what kind of clipper ships would we build today? Would we have high altitude parasails? Would we have hydrofoils? Would we have– what would we do with material science? What would knowing so much about the physics of water?

What do all those things allow us to do now with the same sort of quote “basic” unquote technologies that our forebears created a global economy with? What we do now? And then to make that look fast and sleek and exciting. And that’s something that’s very much present in Ship Breaker, is the idea that here’s something interesting about– here’s a sustainable technology. Here’s a way we could live that maybe is better than the one we have right now. Let’s go in that direction

JOHN DANKOSKY: Stephanie, we just have a few seconds left, but do you see more hope in some of these novels, the type that Paolo just outlined?

STEPHANIE LEMENAGER: You know, I think hope is always negotiation and relationship. I think it has to be worked out in very specific contexts. And I like Paolo’s suggestion that we always have to start locally. We have to embed ourselves in a particular situation and think about how we might work through, let’s say, the future of Arizona, you know. And I think if you can get a little bit local, if you could make your scale small, then you can work on very particular technological and social kinds of relationship that actually might be describable as hope.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Well, and hope is what we’re looking for right now. Stephanie LeMenager is the Moore Professor of English and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Paolo Bacigalupi is a sci-fi writer and the author of the novel The Water Knife, which is just out in paperback. Thank you both for joining me today on the show. You can read an excerpt from Paolo’s book, The Water Knife, at our website at sciencefriday.com/waterknife. Earlier this week, we asked you about your favorite climate change stories. We’ve got a good reading list up at sciencefriday.com/stories.

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