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Introduction: Imagining Positive Climate Futures

Published onOct 24, 2023
Introduction: Imagining Positive Climate Futures

The world is on fire, we have been told again and again. The seas are rising, the storm clouds are gathering. But who can fix a planet? We look outside and for most of us, most of the time, the weather is fine—maybe a little hotter, a little drier than the year before, but there is no catastrophe visible out the window. Because the climate crisis happens at planetary scale, on a timeline of seasons and years and eons, it is hard to see.

At the same time, many people are exhausted by the climate debates, which have been stretching on now for decades. Scientists are exhausted in their unceasing efforts to sound the alarm and provide further data on the likely consequences of human carbon emissions. Activists are exhausted by the trench warfare of policy reform and incremental political progress, where every yard of gain is seemingly offset by a reactionary rollback somewhere else. Climate anxiety can feel ubiquitous, but after years of blaring alarm bells, the dire warnings threaten to become background noise—a dispiriting drone for anyone paying attention, but too quotidian to catalyze change.

As anyone following the global climate discussion knows, we don’t have time for this. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has declared that the years leading up to 2030 will be critical in determining what the rest of the century looks like. And yet our structures for addressing and even talking about coordinated climate action are struggling to contend with the scale of the challenge. National legislation gets bogged down in partisan politics, while international agreements lack enforcement and specificity—and the details of both are so tortuous they could easily fill another book.

In short, we are suffering from a crisis of climate imagination. To begin with, it is hard to imagine causal chains stretching across the globe, and even into the upper atmosphere. Climate change is vast, abstract, and complex, all features that make it difficult to visualize and comprehend. Even the most dedicated policy experts and long-term thinkers who have participated in many iterations of the UN climate negotiations since the 1990s tend to have a limited scope: let’s get this number to go down, or this other figure to go up.

Even when people do imagine it, they spend most of their time contemplating disaster. When we talk about the future of climate change, we’re mostly talking about how bad things will get. Humans are gifted at catastrophizing, because anticipating calamity is an important survival skill. But now that we’re creating problems at a planetary scale, we need to do better than individual survival. Navigating the twenty-first century, preserving our ecosystems, and keeping the Earth habitable for future generations will require more commitment and moral courage than packing a go-bag or plotting escape routes. It will require us to imagine positive futures together.

Why is this important? Because large-scale, transformative change is most effective when we’re working towards something. We have few compelling narratives of the climate future we want, and are inundated by stories of impending disaster. Yet history has taught us time and again that hope is what changes the world. If we want to weather the stormy seas ahead, we have to come to a shared understanding of what a successful human response to climate change looks like at every level, from individual families and neighborhoods to cities, regions, and the planet as a whole.

The other reason we have a climate imagination crisis is that the status quo continues to reassert itself, reiterating the same narrowly conceived, self-perpetuating story about ceaseless economic growth and path dependencies. Business as usual carries on even in the face of increasingly dire floods, fires, and droughts, because it is so difficult to conceive of transformational change. Policymakers in the trenches of international climate negotiations often have no story, no grand vision, of what “victory” might look like. Local politicians and community leaders know what their communities are afraid of, but lack narratives about what a flourishing, resilient future might entail. Even activists on the front lines of change might be so caught up in a particular political or policy battle that they struggle to step back and consider the larger question of what we’re striving to build.

This book is for all of you: everyone ready to imagine a hopeful, ambitious, inclusive climate future. We have called it a climate action almanac because, like a farmer’s almanac, it is a user’s guide to the real world, rather than a magic eight ball revealing all of the answers. Like an agricultural almanac, you might consult this volume to help sort out how, when, and where to cultivate ideas. You might read it to be inspired by tales of other communities and individuals taking positive steps to tackle their own climate challenges. You might refer to it as a kind of imaginary policy playbook, filled with stories speculating about what the world might be like if we embraced fresh perspectives on community stewardship of natural resources, nonhuman agency, and many other things that might seem impossible to change in the present.

Imagination is the ignition system for everything we will need to navigate the decades ahead: foresight, empathy, and resilience. To contend with the risks and challenges of our climate future, we first have to practice scanning the horizon, anticipating what might come next, and building up a capacity for future planning—starting at the level of individuals and local communities, then growing to regional coordination and national and global governance. To grapple with the destruction and upheaval that will inevitably attend our changing world, we will need to hone our empathy: towards one another, towards those other species so essential to planetary ecosystems, and towards those future generations whose lives will be shaped by the choices we make.

Our climate action almanac shares these manifold possible futures through the medium of speculative fiction. A good story about the future can invite many different people with varying experiences and expertise to a shared space of imagination. That story can also set the stage for more creative and playful thinking about changes and new possibilities, a kind of speculative make-believe. Hardened policy veterans will entertain ideas in fiction that they would never countenance in “real life,” allowing for open-ended conversation that illuminates the present as much as it does a possible future. Harmless as they may seem, stories can change the world. A good narrative is a microcosm of a possible world that encapsulates complexity, competing forces, and sophisticated causal models. Spending time in multiple possible climate futures, as readers of this book will do, is a way to explore a broad spectrum of possibility: a whole collection of futures that reaches beyond what and who to the deeper questions of why things work the way they do, and how we might change course.

This book is the culmination of a two-year, global project to kindle our collective ability to imagine positive climate futures. It includes fiction and nonfiction exploring climate chaos and constructive climate action in a variety of human and physical geographies around the world, from India and China to Argentina, Norway, Senegal, Germany, the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the United States, Nigeria, Canada, and beyond. These missives imagine the future of sprawling, torrid equatorial cities and remote isles, with settings ranging from quiet backyard gardens and agricultural regions to futuristic floating metropolises and desert villages. We invited our contributors to share narratives that are grounded in actual scientific and technological understandings, responsive to cultural and social particularities, and insistent upon equality and justice. They responded with visions of the future that embrace the dizzying complexities of the present and the full sweep of history, encompassing both its triumphs and its outrages. They describe processes of change that are as diverse as the ecosystems and communities that inhabit our planet—climate action that builds up and out from lived experiences on the ground, rather than dictated, one-size-fits-all, from on high.

If we hope to act quickly and effectively enough to prevent the worst possible outcomes of the climate crisis, we need stories that celebrate diversity and nuance, taking advantage of situated knowledge from across the globe, rather than stories that simplify and flatten. We need stories about diverse communities addressing climate change on their own terms, finding resilience and even joy in the possible futures they envision for themselves and the world.

The Climate Action Almanac is a mélange of different styles and lengths of writing—dispatches from the near future from many points around the world, with forays into the past and immersion in our present state of climatic flux. Our four Climate Imagination Fellows—Libia Brenda, Hannah Onoguwe, Gu Shi, and Vandana Singh—each contributed a novelette of approximately 10,000-15,000 words, plus a shorter piece, somewhere between flash fiction and a traditional short story, somewhere around 3,000 words (Libia wrote her novelette with a group of coauthors from Cúmulo de Tesla, an art-science collective of which she is a founding member). We aimed to give each fellow the opportunity, with the novelette, to delve deeply into climate action in a particular complex social, cultural, and environmental context, and with the flash piece, to explore another place and experiment with a different cast of characters and a separate set of touch points and ideas.

As such, the novelettes cover a lot of ground, traveling literally and thematically. Vandana Singh’s “Three-World Cantata” takes us from the jungles of South Asia and the rolling valleys of Western Europe to the ocean floor, and into virtual-reality spaces that blend the physical and digital, exploring the entangled complex systems that both power the climate crisis and characterize effective global responses to it. Singh also reflects on the nature of story as a transformative experience and a tool for making sense of the multifarious but connected manifestations of the climate crisis in places and communities across the globe. Gu Shi’s “City of Choice” (translated by Ken Liu) imagines an artificial-intelligence system for managing ever-worsening urban flooding in China, and probes the ways that humans and the technologies we craft assign value to particular people and spaces. In the process, Gu Shi unveils a plethora of architectural and infrastructure innovations and city designs that respond to climate chaos with inspiring ingenuity. In “Cosmic Fire” (translated by Emma Törzs), Libia Brenda and her coauthors pair worsening future climate stress with the catastrophic eruption of the currently dormant volcano Iztaccíhuatl in central Mexico, which decimates the surrounding region (and perhaps beyond) and fragments and scatters its communities. The story follows a group of women scientists and explorers linked by kinship ties across many decades, living in the diaspora and slowly moving back toward the site of the eruption, inventing new modes of sustainable, ecologically centered living and knitting back together communities and social ties as they go. Hannah Onoguwe’s “Death is Not an Ornament” takes a thrilling noir-tinged voyage through the future of oil-rich southern Nigeria, as a youth-led environmental movement, cynical entrenched power brokers, an emergent intellectual elite, and religious militants maneuver and clash, vying for control over the country’s future and whether it will truly embrace a post-fossil-fuel economy.

The four flash pieces, complementing these longer meditations and adventures, provide glimpses of alternative futures in different spaces. Vandana Singh narrates a grassroots sustainability revolution sprouting from an affluent suburb of New Delhi; Gu Shi imagines a modular, reconfigurable floating city on the sea, built and maintained by an army of self-organizing, 3D-printing drones; Libia Brenda spins a cybernetic tale of machine intelligences merging with biological organisms; and Hannah Onoguwe explores the future of climate-accelerated disease, human enhancement, and grassroots resistance movements in Senegal.

Peppered in among these fictional visions of the future are short essays by a broad range of international contributors: scholars of science fiction, ecology educators and development professionals, fiction authors and data scientists, ethnographers and climate policy researchers, architects and journalists. We asked them the same questions we asked our fellows: What does a positive climate future look like to you? Can you imagine communities meeting the challenges before us and perhaps even flourishing, or rediscovering the best of our humanity in the face of existential threats?

Some of their responses meditate on personal experiences of climate change, and locally rooted climate action in response—urban gardens, living with mudslide risk in the Himalayan foothills, plagues of invasive insects on Argentina’s monte. Others reach into the past to inspire change in the future, from centuries of Chinese climatological monitoring to mid-twentieth-century British naturalism and Malaysian village life. Still others focus on changing policy and infrastructure—community-driven architectural planning in North American Indigenous country, the usefulness of storytelling for climate policy, alternative approaches to wind-energy ownership and governance in the wild Scottish isles.

Throughout the volume, you’ll find pieces of digital art by the Brazilian digital artist João Queiroz, visualizing a wide array of landscapes in his solarpunk/Amazofuturismo aesthetic: ocean scenes, technologically inflected rural villages, waterfalls and swamps, suburbs, snowy mountain ranges, dense jungles and wide-open plains. Taken together, these illustrations give us a vivid visual vocabulary for the collision of environmental change and human reaction—sustainable designs for human habitation on this planet that embrace technology without fetishizing it, depicting environmental remediation and low-impact human living that leaves a small footprint, making ample space for nonhuman life forms and ecosystems to thrive.

The volume ends with three pieces: First, an essay by Fabio Fernandes, a fiction author, editor, translator, and scholar based in São Paulo, about the concept of neostalgia—a sense of yearning for a desired future—and how we might use treasured imagery and ideals from the past in a tactical way to design a better future. Second, a dialogue between Nigel Topping, a sustainable business leader and the High-Level Climate Champion for the United Kingdom for the United Nations Climate Change Conferences in 2019 (COP25, held in Madrid, Spain under the presidency of the government of Chile) and 2021 (COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland), and Farhana Yamin, an environmental lawyer and development policy expert who runs the Climate Justice and Just Transition Donor Collaborative. Farhana and Nigel discuss the dynamic in climate action between, on one hand, redressing and repairing past violences and injustices, using the lessons and messy inheritances of the past to shape future action, and on the other, reaching forward, building new systems that focus more on collective action today and tomorrow. They consider how we can ensure that coordinated climate action around the world is also marshaled as an opportunity to create a more just and vibrant global society. Third, an afterword by Jason Anderson, senior program director at the ClimateWorks Foundation and a longstanding participant in transnational climate politics, who underscores the necessity, and difficulty, of creating more positive, aspirational narratives for climate action that will inspire policy insiders, as well as activists and members of the public, to think in new ways.

Finally, what you will encounter first, just after this introduction, is a diptych: an essay and a dialogue to kick off the volume. In the essay, fiction author, editor, and critic Chinelo Onwualu, cofounder and former editor in chief of Omenana, a magazine of African speculative fiction, argues for an exuberantly hopeful approach to climate futures, based on her experiences as a parent and on strains of stubborn optimism in Nigerian culture. In the dialogue, climate fiction novelist Kim Stanley Robinson and Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the former ambassador from Jordan to the United States and United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2014 to 2018, discuss the power of story in framing and motivating climate action, uniting people with diverse perspectives around a shared point of reference and humanizing highly technical and bureaucratic processes. They also consider what existing systems for international coordination and meaning-making might be useful foundations for urgent global climate action, especially the architecture of institutions, treaties, stories, and values built up over decades around the notion of human rights.

All of our work at the Center for Science and the Imagination is an invitation: these stories are not meant to be predictive but inspirational. And so we invite you, dear reader, to answer the same questions we posed to our contributors. What does a positive climate future look like to you? What does it feel like, and who will be there to live in that world, and tell its stories?

Carolina Maciel:

We can mix this with the quilombola’s philosophy like Nego Bispo

Carolina Maciel:

The future will be ancestral.