Does Climate Fiction Make a Difference?

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson on Art As Mirror, Art As Hammer

During a period of global conflict and rising fascism, Bertolt Brecht (allegedly) asserted that “art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” In the case of contemporary climate fiction it is surely both. But a hammer is not a magic wand. While authors, critics, and scholars have frequently acclaimed the boundless potential of climate fiction—crediting it with everything from “saving the world” to “delivering climate justice”—it’s worth asking if these assertions are backed up by the available evidence. If climate fiction can accomplish so much, can it also backfire? How can authors, filmmakers, and other cultural workers craft narratives that are more likely to lead to climate justice, instead of delay, despair, or ecofascism?

As the author of three empirical studies on the influence of climate fiction on real-world readers, I feel compelled to weigh in on this subject. I do so from a position of critical advocacy. I’m a scholar of literature and culture who agrees that the root causes of the climate crisis and the nature crisis are not individual policies or desires, but worldviews, cultures, values, and systems. Most of my work, including my recent books An Ecotopian Lexicon and Eating Chilli Crab in the Anthropocene, is premised on the assumption that literature and other forms of art, media, and culture have important roles to play in telling a new (and very old) story about the humanity’s appropriate connection to and place within the broader web of life.

Desperate as we are for new stories, for cultural change in a moment of existential crisis, we must do our best to ensure that these new narratives are generative and oriented towards justice. Authors, filmmakers, and other cultural workers ought to play an essential role in the defining work of our time—the transnational, transgenerational struggle to slow and adapt to the climate and nature crises with justice and equity. In that pursuit, evidence is useful.

There is a great deal that is magical, mysterious and unknowable about what happens when people are exposed to a story, but there are, in fact, ways that we can evaluate the effects of a narrative encounter. This is an area of research that receives relatively little attention in publishing and popular criticism, but the proposal that narratives have tangible and enduring effects that might be evaluated via experiments, interviews, focus groups, and surveys is hardly news. The advertising industry, worth hundreds of billions of dollars a year, is based on it.

So, how does climate fiction tend to influence readers’ beliefs? The first study I conducted on this question, a qualitative survey with 161 readers of 19 different American or British climate fiction novels, confirmed many of the common claims of authors and critics that I have read. I found that climate fiction reminds concerned readers of the gravity of the climate crisis while impelling them to consider its impacts on human and nonhuman life.

Novels helped (or even forced) readers to imagine different possible futures and focused their attention on aspects of the climate and nature crises that had previously been unknown. For many readers, this was accomplished through the setting of many works of climate fiction in the distant future. As a sales representative in California summarized in her comments on Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, an apocalyptic novella set in a collapsing Helsinki, “It made me think in the future.” By placing their stories in the future, storytellers are able to illuminate the long-term consequences of our actions (and lack thereof).

Since any single work of climate fiction is unlikely to have an enormous or permanent impact on most individuals, we need a constant stream of climate narratives.

However, I found that climate fiction is unlikely to reach most climate deniers or skeptics because they’ll never pick up these books. According to my research, the readers of climate fiction tend to be younger, more liberal, and more concerned about climate change than nonreaders. This is what we might expect, because most novels that center environmental issues announce their subject—and their assumptions about the existence, causation, and significance of climate change—in their synopses, which are visible on their back covers and retailers’ websites.

As such, it seems unlikely that these works would function as Trojan horses for message-smuggling, as some of us might hope. It’s more likely that fiction that doesn’t advertise itself as related to “nature,” “the environment,” or “climate change” will reach an audience that isn’t already interested in these topics. To have a maximum impact on readers who would otherwise not be thinking about climate change, climate narratives should not market themselves as such.

Nonetheless, climate fiction does have an influence on readers. But how significant, and how long does it last? An experiment I conducted with researchers at the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication tested the impact of two climate fiction short stories on the attitudes and beliefs of readers that are “concerned” and “cautious” about climate change. The two stories represented different flavors of climate fiction. Helen Simpson’s “In-Flight Entertainment” is a realist story concerning the psychological and moral dimensions of the denial, avoidance, and acceptance of the gravity of climate change, set in the present. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter” is a quintessential cautionary tale, placing the reader in a dystopic, drought-ridden, climate-changed future.

Somewhat surprisingly, the two stories had similar effects on their readers, who were assigned to the two groups at random. As compared to the control group (which read a short story by David Foster Wallace), readers of the climate stories became more concerned about climate change harming them personally and harming future generations, rated it as a higher priority, and expressed beliefs that climate change would lead to more droughts, more poverty, and more refugees than they had before reading. While the effects were small to medium in size, the conclusion was clear: the stories worked.

Unfortunately, their influence was short-lived. A month later, we tested the same people again and found that the effects we observed had diminished to statistical non-significance. While disappointing, this result shouldn’t be taken as evidence that the impact of all climate fiction is transient. Other research indicates that repeated exposure to a narrative, and reinforcement from other media and social influences, can lead to compounding effects—that the influence of a solitary message tends to dissipate, but repeated messages cause the effects to stick. And the influence that we observed, from a single exposure to a short story, probably represents a lower limit of the actual effects of climate fiction on readers. In the real world, most people are likely to read novels instead of short stories, and to be exposed to repeated climate narratives across journalism, television, fiction, film, and music—both of which are likely to result in larger and longer-lasting impacts.

Since any single work of climate fiction (or article, film, or song) is unlikely to have an enormous or permanent impact on most individuals, we need a constant stream of climate narratives. We need all authors, filmmakers, and cultural workers to include climate messages in their narratives.

In the United States, the discourse around climate change has been so stunted by denialists that “raising awareness” about the problem has often been the primary goal of concerned authors. But awareness only goes so far, especially in the absence of clear instructions about the kinds of actions that it should lead to. Some readers of climate fiction attest to having their lives changed by a novel, only for an epiphany to manifest in meaningless actions.

For example, a teacher in Texas reported that Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver’s celebrated 2012 novel, “made me reflect on my own values… It made me consider my priorities and if there were any changes I wanted to make in my life … We started using recyclable shopping bags right after I read this book.” While Flight Behavior succeeded in amplifying her climate concern, recycling shopping bags has little to no impact on climate mitigation. Without greater public awareness of the most effective ways to act, individually and collectively, some readers will respond with what one environmental psychologist refers to as an “asymmetry of intentions and impacts.” Instead of merely raising awareness about the reality and magnitude of the climate crisis—beliefs that are now common in the United States—more authors, filmmakers, and cultural workers ought to model for readers the necessary transition from apathetic awareness to meaningful action, including political engagement.

The most surprising result of my research has been that some well-intentioned climate fiction might reinforce ecofascist sentiments.

Listening to the scientists is only the first step; after that, things gets more complicated. There is an intimidating range of potential political and economic responses, including continued delay, green growth, degrowth, ecosocialism, and authoritarianism. We could use the kind of transformative action that the climate crisis demands as a rare opportunity to create a better, more democratic, more equitable, and more just world—as a new generation of climate activists are fighting for. Or it could lead people to embrace authoritarian leaders, vilify immigrants, and build walls. The most surprising result of my research has been that some well-intentioned climate fiction might reinforce ecofascist sentiments. My second survey, focused on the reception of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife, revealed this possibility.

Bacigalupi is one of the most popular American authors of environmental literature in recent decades. Like his Hugo and Nebula-award winning novel The Windup Girl, The Water Knife concerns some critical themes—climate migration,climate injustice, and socio-ecological collapse—and serves as a cautionary tale for what might happen if we don’t decarbonize immediately. The novel is set a few decades in the future in the Southwest US, where climate change has led to permanent drought, and individual states, battling for access to water, have closed their borders to nonresidents.

The eponymous character is Angel Velasquez, a ruthless “water knife” who ensures the flow of water to his bosses in Las Vegas. Most of the novel is set in Phoenix, which is in the midst of collapsing amidst water scarcity, an influx of migrants from Texas, corruption, and gang warfare, as Angel and other regional players attempt to track down ancient water rights that could shift the balance of water access (and power) in the Southwest. But readers of The Water Knife may remember its style as much as its plot or characters. The novel effectively places a pulpy, hard-boiled, and often violent thriller in a climate-changed future. It keeps the pages turning through a central whodunit, shifting allegiances, and a cliffhanger at the end of every chapter.

As a result, The Water Knife has the potential to reach a broad audience, and I found that it did seem to attract more conservative and moderate Americans than other climate fiction. And, importantly, that it seems to lead them to become more aware of environmental injustice and to empathize with Latinx characters who are climate migrants, much as the author intended. But the conspiratorial, “trust no one vibe” of the book—as a retail worker from Fort Worth described it—seemed to backfire.

Some readers viewed the future suffering of poor people and climate refugees and the comparative safety, health, and comfort of elites living in beautiful, safe, ecologically self-sufficient buildings as an illustration of the fact that climate change will exacerbate existing inequities—which they found troubling, given their desire for equality and justice. However, just as many readers responded to this depiction with a sense of gratitude for the comfortable lives they currently enjoy.

For example, a cashier from Erie, Pennsylvania wrote, “The lesson I took from reading this book was to appreciate the things you have now, even the small things that do not seem to mean much. It is those type of things you will miss when you are no longer able to have them. Every day I use and waste water like it is nothing without thinking about the people on the planet who do not have access to clean water.” So far so good. But he continued: “I think about what they would do to me to have access to the water I have access to for just an hour. That thought frightens me.”

The fact that this reader described himself as “very liberal” demonstrates that Bacigalupi’s visceral portrayal of desperate climate migrants engaged in a graphically violent struggle for survival can have unintended consequences, since even liberal readers might not empathize with climate migrants but fear them. This is why authors, filmmakers, and climate communicators need to be careful about how they portray cautionary climate futures—around migration in particular.

Not all climate fiction will have a progressive impact on readers. Books like The Water Knife might unintentionally motivate support for what Naomi Klein has referred to as “climate barbarism”—allowing the citizens of less wealthy, postcolonial, and equatorial nations to suffer—or even ecofascism. This threat is highlighted by the rise of ethnonationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism around the world, as well as recent acts of mass violence—such as the mass murder of 22 Latinos in El Paso, Texas in 2019—that perpetrators have justified on environmental grounds.

Environmental and climate concern has been associated with liberals and leftists in recent decades, especially in the US, but historically there have been no shortage of conservatives and fascists who have claimed to act on behalf of nature (or “the land”), including the Nazis, Italian fascists, and the contemporary American alt-right. While it’s clear from my surveys and experiments that climate fiction can play an important role in warning us of the dangers of inaction, helping to shift perception, attitudes, and beliefs, and modeling effective actions, it’s logical that if literature can do all these things then it can also have a negative impact on readers.

Much more empirical research is needed to learn more about the influence that climate and environmental literature, media, and art are having in the real world—to learn, for example, which kinds of narratives might be more effective, and which ones might be more dangerous. In the meantime, authors, filmmakers, and other cultural workers who are interested in tackling climate change should consider their narrative choices carefully.

Matthew Schneider-Mayerson
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson
Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College. His research combines literary criticism, cultural studies, and sociology to examine the cultural dimensions of climate change, with a focus on climate justice.

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