Cli-Fi Novels and Movies Will Show Us How to Adapt to the Coming Climapocalypse
Researchers are thinking about social collapse and how to prepare for it, cli-fi novelists, too
And what role can cli-fi novels and movies play in raising awareness worldwide?
Propelling the cli-fi movement are signs that the problem is worsening at an accelerating rate. In an article this summer in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 666 climate scientists from around the world argued that the planet may be much closer than previously realized to locking in what they call a “hothouse” trajectory—warming of 4C or 5C (7F or 9F), “with serious challenges for the viability of human societies.”
Jem Bendell, a professor at the University of Cumbria who popularized the term ''deep adaptation'' and thinks cli-fi novels can help raise awareness worldwide, calls it a mix of physical changes—pulling back from the coast, closing climate-exposed industrial facilities, planning for food rationing, letting landscapes return to their natural state—with cultural shifts such as more Hollywood cli-fi movies , and including “giving up expectations for certain types of consumption” and learning to rely more on the people around us.
It might be tempting to dismiss Bendell and other cli-fi advocates as outliers. But they’re not alone in writing about the possibility of massive political and social shocks from climate change and the need to start preparing for those shocks. Since posting his paper, Bendell says he’s been contacted by more academics investigating the same questions. A LinkedIn group titled “Deep Adaptation” includes professors, government scientists, novelists, and film producers.
William Clark, a Harvard professor and former MacArthur Fellow who edited the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper, is among those who worry about what might come next. “We are right on the bloody edge,” he says.
Clark argues that in addition to quickly and dramatically cutting emissions, society should pursue a new scale of adaptation work. Rather than simply asking people to water their lawns less often, for example, governments need to consider large-scale, decades-long infrastructure projects, such as transporting water to increasingly arid regions and moving cities away from the ocean.
“This is not your grandfather’s adaptation,” he says. And cli-fi is not your grandfather's sci-fi, either.
Cameron Harrington, a professor of international relations at Durham University in England and co-author of the 2017 book Security in the Anthropocene, says adapting to widespread disruption will require governments to avoid viewing climate change primarily as a security threat. Instead, Harrington says, countries must find new ways to manage problems that cross borders—for example, by sharing increasingly scarce freshwater resources. “We can’t raise border walls high enough to prevent the effects of climate change,” he says. Cli-fi novels and movies might help raise awareness of what lies ahead.
Many academics are considerably less dire in their predictions. Jesse Keenan, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and advises puboishers in New York and Longon on climate fiction novels and film scripts, says warnings about social collapse are overblown. “I think for much of the world, we will pick up the pieces,” Keenan says.
But he adds that the prospect of climate-induced human extinction has only recently become a widespread topic of academic discourse. Cli-fi novels and movies are here to stay.
Even mainstream researchers concede there’s room for cli-fi novels and movies. Dr Solomon Hsiang, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley who studies the interplay between the environment and society, says it’s too soon to predict the pace of global warming. But he warns that society could struggle to cope with rapid shifts in the climate. Cli-fi novels could raise awareness in the culture at large.
He acknowledges that his premise shares something with the survivalist movement, which is likewise built on the belief that some sort of social collapse is coming.
But he says ''deep adaptation'' is different: It looks for ways to mitigate the damage of that collapse.
“The discussion I’m inviting from cli-fi novelists and filk directors is about collective responses to reduce harm,” he says, “rather than how a few people could tough it out to survive longer than others.”