Can Cli-Fi Fiction Help Us Imagine A Sustainable Future?

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Can Cli-Fi Fiction Help Us Imagine A Sustainable Future?


CLi-Fi, or Climate Fiction, has become a beacon of hope for many people with eco-anxiety. Sophia Cheng explains.

Sophia Cheng

Fri 5 Nov 2021

Having a hard time keeping hopeful? You aren’t the only one.

Despite optimistic and constructive storytelling from publications like pebble it can be hard to stay up beat awash the negative, doom-inducing headlines, says Sophia Cheng.

I felt this especially as the global pandemic was announced in March 2020 and dystopia seemed to be slipping into real life.

In the depths of lockdown we responded by starting a MeetUp group, we called it ‘Cli-Fi for Beginners’ and we’ve been going from strength to strength ever since.

Laptop and notebook on a desk

What is Cli-Fi?

Cli-Fi or Climate Fiction is a spin-off genre of science fiction, bringing in elements of speculative fiction telling stories of a world impacted by climate change.

Creating narratives around complexity is what makes cli-fi so appealing, just like historical fiction can help us understand the past cli-fi can help navigate the myriad of interconnected issues we need to solve in 2021.

The narrative guides us and the characters pull us in.

Fiction can help us feel and hope.

Solar punk is Cli-Fi’s chirpy cousin, which “broadly envisions how the future might look if we lived in harmony with nature in a sustainable and egalitarian world,” wrote BBC reporter Nicola Smith this summer.

Stack of books on palm of hand
“Fiction can help us feel and hope”

The popularity of these two genres is growing, in fact Grist provocate “that any stories that don’t consider the fate of the climate will soon start to look pretty otherworldly.”

Well known Cli-Fi authors include Octavia Spencer, Margeret Atwood and Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson’s latest book is titled The Ministry of the Future and he’s paired up with TED to launch the Climate Imagination Fellows.

Here in the UK, as part of the Big Green Week the British Library hosted a session with the Fellows and Amitav Ghosh, they explored the notion of utopia and dystopia and how fiction can inspire collective imagination.

“The climate crisis confounds us, literature and speculative fiction helps us reframe, making the familiar strange and the strange familiar," says Vandana Singh, the Indian science fiction writer.

"As we face vast crises that demand imaginative and urgent responses and a reimagining of everything, we are simply not up to it"

Why We Need Our Imagination To Fight The Climate Crisis

It was exploring imagination that drew me to this topic.

Reading Rob Hopkin’s ‘From What Is To What If’ knocked me sideways.

Psychological research has shown that stress inhibits our ability to imagine.

In our brains, high levels of cortisol and particularly trauma affect and can damage the hippocampus, where our memories and ability to construct possible futures are stored.

Daniel Schacter, professor of psychology at Harvard University writes, “Anxiety has an important relationship to imagination, because it can lead us into a position where we’re focusing on imagining negative future outcomes that may further cause us to become even more anxious.”

A recent study from the Climate Psychology Alliance reveals six in ten 16-25s are very or extremely worried about the climate crisis.

person in rowing boat on sea

And it’s creating the perfect storm, Hopkins writes, “As we face vast crises that demand imaginative and urgent responses and a reimagining of everything, we are simply not up to it.”

He concludes, “While many of the technologies, economic models and know-how for creating a future in which we can all thrive already exist, what is missing is the longing. Imagination is so important because it helps us create longing, and if we can get that right, other things then follow.”

Read our interview with Rob Hopkins - Why Our Imagination Is Key To Solving The Climate Crisis

Sunrise over fields
“Imagination is so important because it helps us create longing, and if we can get that right, other things then follow”

Cli-Fi For Beginners

The idea of ‘Cli-Fi for Beginners’ was seeded when I closed Hopkin’s book.

I realised I had no clear vision of the future I was protesting for, that I struggled going further than a few years into the future and I felt silly doing it.

My imagination muscle was flabby, neglected and very much out of practice.

But how many of us can face going to the gym on our own?

I know I need accountability and community so, a well-timed nudge and meeting science fiction writer Clare Diston meant we started with just three of us.

We were clear we wanted to invite a broad church, inviting existing writers to dabble in this genre, for non-writers to have a go and learn the craft of storytelling and for activists to stretch their imagination forward towards a positive future.

turtle in the ocean by a coral reef

We were propelled by Christiana Figueres, writing in The Future We Choose; “A compelling vision is like a hook in the future. It connects you to the pockets of possibility that are emerging and helps you pull them into the present. Hold on to that. Stay firmly fixed to a vision of a world you know is possible.”

We have been going for more than a year now and now I can stretch more than 100 years into the future!

The future for most of my life has been two dimensional, very vague and easily influenced by those around me.

Taking the time in my future these last 18 months has helped give it shade and depth, there's something more vivid to hook into now.

Not only have I had a go at writing fictional characters, it’s spilled over into other aspects of my life including long-term financial planning and goal setting.

"We are being bold, imagining a future we want, that thrives within planetary boundaries"

How To Join The Cli-Fi Movement

Cli-Fi for Beginners is joined by budding writers around the world meeting twice a month.

Each session has a playful element as we give permission for everyone to fact-based dream.

It’s led to the launch of the Cli-Fi Imaginarium hosting 14 pieces of flash fiction so far, with creative responses to even the dullest of climate solutions. We’ve performed at the Reading Climate Festival and Dr Who even dropped by one time!

We are #OverDystopia.

We are being bold, imagining a future we want, that thrives within planetary boundaries.

Each month we take a climate solution from Project Drawdown; we explore, discuss and inspect it and then we write hopeful stories, projecting ourselves into the future as though that solution were already so.

As though tidal power were mainstream, as though all girls had access to education, as though all our buildings were made from sustainable materials.

We are not scriptwriters, published authors or professional creators (mostly) – we are global citizens reclaiming the oldest form of learning there is: the story.

We are not waiting for someone else to write the next chapter. We are writing it ourselves.

You are very welcome to join us.

Not ready to put words to a page yet? Dip your toe in by adding some cli-fi to your reading list.

Sophia Cheng, runs With Many Roots, which offers workshops, speaking and consultancy aimed at tackling climate science and climate silence.

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