Friday, February 06, 2015

Can Imagination Change the World for the Better?

Ever since 1962 when both Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and JG Ballard's The Drowned World (number one in his 'disaster quartet') were published, tens of thousands of non-fiction but perhaps only scores of fiction titles have addressed environmental and, specifically, climate change-related issues.

Ballard's quartet has been cited as an early example of 'climate fiction' or 'clifi', identified as a new label by the journalist Dan Bloom.  Climate fiction specifically contains references to climate change. I interview Dan about it here.

I would say that there are perhaps more clifi books for children/teens than adults.

Ian McEwan's Solar or Margaret Atwood's Madaddam trilogy are examples of clifi for adults.
Love in the Time of Global Warming by Francesca Lia Block, Saci Lloyd's The Carbon Diaries 2015The Ward  by Jordana Frankel, After the Snow by S. D. Crockett and Georgia Clark’s Parched are examples of clifi books for older children. More are here.

But can fiction ever change minds? Or does it merely confirm existing attitudes in the mind of the reader who chooses to read a book of that nature?

And are more clifi titles aimed at children because their enquiring minds are supposed to be more open?

These questions are thrown into relief by research showing that logic and reason count for little in debates about the reality of climate change among adults.

Much clifi has concentrated on the destructive aspects of climate change, being variants of dystopian or disaster novels. New writer Paulo Bacigalupi, author of The Water Knife, has even coined a new term: "accidental future" novels, i.e. novels that describe an unintended consequence of present human activity.

There is a greater challenge, however, that fewer writers are engaging in with fiction – although plenty have in non-fiction – and that is to create stories in which people successfully tackle climate change, devising solutions that rise to the challenges.

There are a few, beginning with Ernest Callenbach's Ecotopia (1975) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time.   But can you think of any for children?

I believe it is essential that children are given hope that the future will not be necessarily full of catastrophe.

We should be empowering them. After all, so many children's books are supposed to do this, aren't they? "You can fulfil your dream. You can beat the bully. You can defeat the enemy."

But climate change is not something tangible or immediate, it is a vast and vague. It's scary and discouraging.
If we are to stimulate the imagination of the world's children so they do not feel hopeless and disempowered by the overwhelming scale and prospects of climate change, fiction must play a vital role in helping them envisage how they can successfully live in the future.

The winner of the Guardian Children's Book Prize 2014, Piers Torday's The Last Wild is a good example of an environmental fable that gives hope, but it is not about climate change.

Such fiction might show children what a successful future could be like and even paint a picture of a good place to be in that is realistic and possible. A future where not only are children given a full part to play in society, but society itself is structured in a way that works with, not against, nature.

There are plenty of non-fiction books that do this but non-fiction is for specialists (planners, politicians, engineers, architects), and fiction, especially if translated into film, can be for the masses.

Fiction reaches places that non-fiction can never reach.

So, writers, how about it? David Thorpe is the author of clifi YA fantasy Stormteller and the SF dystopia Hybrids.

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