We Need A New Word For Climate Change
Aka the Climate Fiction We Need Doesn’t Exist Yet: Part 2
Since publishing Part 1 of The Climate Fiction We Need Doesn’t Exist Yet I’ve had a lot of messages about how clifi is definitely a thing. Yes, I very much agree it’s a whole big thing. I even put out my own list of super great climate-inspired short stories last week.
I realised I made a rookie error. I did not define my terms. I didn’t explain what the climate fiction we need actually is, so in this essay I will etc and so on.
Let’s rewind, layout what I actually mean when I say the climate fiction we need doesn’t exist, and when I’ve finished this series I’ll quietly do a small rejig and this will come first and NO ONE WILL EVER KNOW that I got overexcited and launched into my climate monologue unhindered. Ok cool. We cool? Cool. Let’s crack on…
But First! We Need A New Word For Climate Change
The problem with any kind of environmental DiScOuRsE is that it’s very easy to get lost in nebulous terms like nature and connection and economy and progress and resources. But when you really examine what those things are, the closer we look the fewer answers we actually have.
Nature is trees and birds and flowers, right? Is a brand new baby otter natural? Is a brand new baby human natural? What about one conceived by IVF or birthed by caesarean? Is an adult human who has had multiple medical interventions natural? If humans are natural then is our technology also natural? Is the man-made vegetable broccoli natural? And, of course, if we start defining certain things — certain types of human — as unnatural we begin to find ourselves walking down a very dark path, one in which we some humans become more human than others.
Same same for all those other terms: what economy are we talking about? ‘The economy’ isn’t a specific enough term to discuss anything of value. How is this economy managed and controlled? What passes through it and at what (non-financial) cost? Connection is a feeling, right? And we can’t measure feelings so what even is it? What do you mean by progress? My idea of progress is based on health and access to housing and food and community, and has very little to do with technology or GDP but that’s rarely what’s discussed. Can we say a product or service doesn’t rely on an environmental resource? Even if upstream it looks like it doesn’t, go downstream far enough and everything, absolutely everything, relies on the same fundamental foundations: the atmosphere, the water, the food. Can we really categorise the sum total of this planet as simply ‘a resource’?
Of course, we can actually define all these terms and put boundaries and limits on them, but that belies the porous edges of, well, everything. ‘The economy’ doesn’t simply exist in and of itself. Any economy only functions because of the humans that act within it, who may or may not be ‘nature’, but who in turn are contingent on a healthy ecosystem, which requires us not to fuck it up with, like, mass ecocide, for example.
And sure it’s a cop out to wave our hands and say everything is everything, and yes we need definitions of words in order to communicate. But in our desperation to discern the individual elements and silo them for ease and convenience, we collapse the vital interconnectedness of things and lose so much necessary knowledge.
So too must we zoom in on the term climate change. Yes, climate change technically means the alterations to the global climate as caused by the greenhouse effect - that whole thing with the dead dinosaurs and carbon dioxide. But when we talk about climate change, that’s not actually all we mean.
As Philosophy Tube’s Abigail Thorn explains in her brilliant Climate Grief video, drawing on the work of David Tickler et all in Nature Communications1:
“Fish are dying because of global warming, right? So commercial fishing industries are losing money. And if you run a fish business, one of the easiest ways to save money is to pay the fishermen less and make them work in dangerous conditions. Since all the fishing happens at sea it's hard for anyone to check. But if the crew tells anybody you're gonna have a lawsuit on your hands, so what do you do? You gotta hire undocumented migrants to go on the boats who can't complain and can't unionise or they'll be arrested and deported. Some of the conditions in the commercial fishing industry basically meet the definition of modern slavery! So when it comes to fish, climate change, border controls, and labour rights aren’t three separate issues! It's one big problem!”
This situation is, unsurprisingly, not unique to fish. This One Big Problem applies across the board. Cattle farming, charcoal production, and palm oil farming, for example, are all industries which destroy local infrastructure and land, and in turn exploit workers fleeing environmental catastrophe or economic hardship caused by other, or the same, extractive industries 2.
Poverty, immigration, toxic waste dumps, exploitation, child labour, slave labour, access to food, to housing, access to healthcare, access to justice, access to education, colonialism, trauma, abuse, loneliness, depression, atomisation. All these things are part of the One Big Problem.
To say climate change is simply the greenhouse effect might be technically accurate but it also has the vibe of that whole passive voice headline thing so much of the media do. You know the one: Two Killed When Gun Discharged During Altercation. Man Dies On Subway After Being Held In Chokehold. A New Model Of Tourism Emerges As Europe Swelters Under Record Heat.
Why is there climate change? Who does it impact? Who is driving it? What is it we’re hiding when we’re so carefully talking in the abstraction? Who is being protected when we zoom so far out?
Climate change is not just climate change. It’s about oppression and resistance and the entire history of struggle and the future of revolution. It’s about how we structure our societies for the good of everyone — human and non-human — and about asking the question I keep coming back to in so much of my writing: what the fuck are we actually trying to do here, in this arbitrary existence on this isolated planet in the far corner of the galaxy? What are we trying to achieve?
This is what we’re actually talking about when we talk about climate change. A new word for it would be great but until we magically come up with one3, just know that for the rest of this series, and in fact any time I say climate change, that’s what I mean.
What Is The Climate Change Fiction We Need?
Tl;dr we need books and stories that explore exactly that.
Yes, there are already a lot of novels, films and other stories about climate change. In Part 1 we talked about climate coding and the human need to glimpse at the problem from behind our hands. And there’s a lot of dystopia. Oh my god so much dystopia. (Honestly? I’m not reading any more dystopian fiction. I refuse. What’s it going to tell me that I don’t already know? It has nothing to offer me any more). Plus there’s solarpunk and lots of other genres, which are all great and I’m not going to list them here.
But everyone is still skirting around the One Big Problem. What does that even look like in fiction? I have no idea, but it’s something to do with the very essence of being human, about the relationships between each other, about the trauma that has been wrought over centuries of war and abuse and violence perpetuated by those for whom power is more important than humanity. About the struggles to communicate even our basic individual needs and also act according to our collective needs.
It’s another thing that doesn’t have a name. It’s the very human part of the One Big Problem. It’s perhaps the most important part, and there is so much to discuss yet everyone is just… ignoring it.
Climate fiction shouldn’t just be about floods and fires and pestilence and plagues. I don’t want to see an apocalypse because I’m already watching one unfold in real time. I don’t want to see a dystopia because I already live in one. I don’t want to see an idyllic utopian future that doesn’t recognise the struggle to get there. I care about now. I’m interested in how we live now, in how we start to move away from this and towards something better, how we start to heal the fractures between us, build real community, real care. About how we launch the billionaire class into space (shout out to Eman Abdelhadi and ME O’Brien for doing just that. Interview coming very soon!).
Climate change isn’t about the cinematic end of the world or the literary equivalent of those films where you can’t hear what anyone is saying because they’re all mumbling. Climate change is the world we live in. It’s about how we live now. It’s about the relationships we have to each other and all the things we pretend not to see just so we can make it through the day.
My fundamental thesis is this: that we are all so broken and traumatised from simply trying to exist in this dystopia of our own making that we are not even capable of having the conversations we need to have about what it is we are doing, how we structure society, about how we move forwards into the future, about how we heal, about the permanent, ever evolving, endlessly imaginative and radical work of caring for everything and everyone on the planet. That is the start of the climate fiction we need, and in my view there has never been a more literary topic.
So. Buck up, writers. Get to it.
Well done for making it to the end. You win a picture of Willow having an existential crisis because I was paying more attention to my laptop than her.
Fictional Sarah is a newsletter about the way we write, tell stories and do culture about climate change. Subscribe! It’s great! We’ll have fun!
Ways to share this newsletter
1. Click forward and send it to your ENTIRE INBOX. Or, ya know, a select few who will be into it
2. Get on you socials and share something like “Fictional Sarah is talking about how we write, tell stories and do culture about climate change over at fictionalsarah.substack.com and it’s GREAT. Super recommend”
3. Find me on socials (I’m everywhere as @fictionalsarah) and wave and give me some of that sweet, sweet engagement.
David Tickler et al. “Modern Slavery and the Race to Fish,” in Nature Communications https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-018-07118-9
The Costs of the Climate Crisis, by Anti-Slavery International and Walk Free for the Global Slavery Index https://www.antislavery.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/06/GSI-2023-Climate-Spotlight.pdf
Shhh capitalism. The word is capitalism.