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Stranger than fiction: Climate storytelling

Stanford Earth's James Holland Jones discusses what makes stories a powerful way to communicate complex information and how the emerging genre of climate fiction (Cli-Fi) may motivate behavior change.

BY Rob Jordan
ClockMarch 26, 2019

Rising seas, unprecedented storms and dystopian landscapes are fodder for powerful stories. Beyond entertainment or distraction, could the emerging genre of climate fiction (Cli-Fi) actually help us avoid the worst impacts of climate change? Stanford biological anthropologist and environmental scientist James Holland Jones thinks so. The Long Now Foundation, a future-focused think tank, recently invited Jones to give a public talk on the subject, in which he discussed the physiology and neuroscience of storytelling and narrative and why this makes stories a particularly powerful way to communicate complex information.

In related ongoing research, Jones explores how Cli-Fi allows readers to explore altered worlds, gain insight into what it would be like to live in a changed world and imagine better futures. He argues that such fiction can humanize scientists and civil servants who study climate change and craft related policy, and–perhaps most importantly– can motivate behavior change.

Jones and novelist Adam Johnson recently discussed how fiction is uniquely suited to help us imagine what’s coming, and motivate us to mitigate the effects before it’s too late.

How might storytelling help us understand the scope of large-scale environmental impacts such as climate change and the need for related action?

Johnson: We’re long past imagining sea-level change as Kevin Costner’s sci-fi Waterworld. The human stories are all around us, and the question of which modes of discourse are best suited to address climate change is one most artists and thinkers are asking. Less and less imagination is needed to conceptualize climate change, which is a contemporary reality in certain places and with certain events like extreme tides and weather. Climate change will play out in terms of resource scarcity, migration, conflict, displacements, and so on, so novels like Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, which depicts a young couple embarking on a desperate migration, or Laila Lalami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, which concerns a fraught crossing of the Mediterranean by several Muslim immigrants, are already on the literary front lines of climate change portrayal. I’m writing a novel that I believe is about climate change, but no science fiction is necessary because I’m depicting a historical scenario from many centuries ago that led to scarcity, conflict and displacement. So, the portraits readers might respond to are not always over the horizon.

James Holland Jones
Earth System Science Professor James Holland Jones (Photo credit: Steve Castillo)

Jones: The human brain evolved to learn from stories. Stories encode the fundamental information that people need to know about the worlds — physical, biological, social — in which they live. We retain and retrieve information better when it is given in narrative form. I think that written fiction provides powerful tools for modeling complex systems, not that different from what we use in studying them in science. When you tweak some element in a complex system, there will be both cascading and ramifying consequences.

Fiction allows the author to explore complex systems in detail. In fact, the narrative arc means that authors have to think hard about filling in the details of their constructed worlds, whether it involves climate change or anything else. Paradoxically, in a world where politicians and others frequently peddle fictions, the fiction author can tell truths that people otherwise wouldn't hear.

Another vital role for fiction is to help us imagine better worlds. This isn't about sugar-coating the future. Taking the perspective of a character who is struggling to adapt in a strange, changed world can be empowering in itself. Witnessing the plain heroism of adaptation, for example, in Octavia Butler’s character of Lauren in The Parable of the Sower, shows us that it's possible to get through challenging situations. Since the news about the environment seems so relentlessly bad, I think this matters a great deal for imagining possible human relationships with the environment.

What advantages or disadvantages does fiction have over nonfiction and literature have over other forms of expression in this regard?

Johnson: Fiction by definition requires the reader to enter a new time, geography and perspective. As an art form dedicated to exploring the interior lives of others, a novel requires a person to trade their own experience for another’s, which is the great humanizing power of literary narrative. To engage a novel means leaving your comfort zone, and aren’t we all clinging to our comfort zones in the face of a changing planet? Isn’t that the biggest problem, that most of us are still, for the time being, relatively comfortable? Isn’t that where we’re at, filled with dread but still too comfortable to act?

Jones: Fiction gives us the ability to experience the textures of a world. The narrative that underlies a work of fiction allows the reader to take the perspectives of the characters in the story and it provides a framework for passing on information. Perhaps more importantly, the narrative can then act as a place-holder for future information. It's a mistake to think that facts speak for themselves. Facts are always incorporated into narratives.

From neuroimaging studies, we know that stories produce manifold – and surprisingly persistent – effects on the brain. One of the most interesting effects is the activation of regions of the brain associated with theory of mind, the cognitive machinery of attributing thoughts, motivations and intentions to others, and the fundamental building block of human pro-sociality.

When a story engages the reader, she feels empathy for the characters. Research shows this physiological state can lead people to overcome apparently innate cognitive biases against learning from bad news. This suggests to me that stories are the key to getting people living in denial of the realities of climate change to change their minds.

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Making science more widely accessible – and giving people an understanding for the ways that scientists actually work is key to humanizing them.

Is there a precedent for fiction driving political change?

Jones: This is hardly my area of expertise, but I think there are clearly precedents. Uncle Tom's Cabin contributed a great deal to shaping anti-slavery opinions in the North in the 1850s. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle led to people demanding greater food safety, though I don't think it had as big an impact on political or social attitudes about worker safety. We might take this as a bit of a cautionary tale: the lessons that the public learns from a work of art may be less under the control of the artist than we care to admit. Rachel Carson's hugely influential Silent Spring, while not fiction, starts off with the devastating “Fable for Tomorrow.” In that, she wrote the chilling words, "No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it themselves."

What is literary fiction getting wrong or missing about climate change?

Johnson: Climate change has been playing out in fiction, in my opinion, through the apocalypse narrative, which I believe is a product of artists grappling with and absorbing the first feature of climate change: an existential threat. As artists work through the practicalities and realities of how these changes will play out, I’d expect more nuanced portraits than zombies, plagues, asteroids, and scenarios in which it all suddenly ends.

I don’t want to read a novel about a 19th-century family whose wealth is built upon unquestioned slavery any more than the future is going to want to read a 21st-century novel in which characters drive their SUVs to Costco and chat about a family reunions or weddings without ever acknowledging that their privileges are coming at the expense of the planet and therefore at the expense of future readers.

Jones: What concerns me is that there is sufficient diversity of stories from as wide a sample of voices as possible. It seems like a reasonable hypothesis that people are more likely to engage with stories where they can identify with the protagonists. This is a planetary problem, so let's make the tent as big as possible.

Can persistent popular images, such as the mad scientist or the petty bureaucrat, affect the way the public reacts to climate-related issues, such as technological development and policy change?

Jones: We need to move away from the trope of the mad scientist but we also need to get beyond the lone genius and chosen-one tropes as well. Complex problems are solved by teams. Many of the best climate fiction novels (broadly construed) have plots revolving around teams of scientists, public servants, and working people solving problems. Making science more widely accessible – and giving people an understanding for the ways that scientists actually work is key to humanizing them.

Another persistent image we could need less of is the post-apocalyptic environmental cacotopia. It can sap people's hope about the future, make the effects of environmental change seem fantastical and make people feel like they lack control over the future

So, note to Hollywood: more good scientists, more teamwork, less apocalypse.

How can climate-related fiction reach an audience beyond book readers?

Johnson: Serious novels, because of their capacity to explicate life’s complexities, influence other artists and are often the source material for adaptions to the stage and screen. There’s a reason novels are adapted into movies and not the other way around.

Jones: The chance that a science fiction or fantasy novel will get picked up by HBO or Netflix or whatever seems marginally higher than for other genres. Some of those can become blockbusters. Imagine a “Game of Thrones” that was explicitly about climate change.

I think that video games also offer real possibilities. The sort of work that Jeremy Bailenson’s lab does in virtual reality clearly fits into this.

Jones is an associate professor of Earth system science at the Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences; and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. Johnson is the Phil and Penny Knight Professor of Creative Writing.

Media Contacts

Rob Jordan

Woods Institute for the Environment, 650-721-1881

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