Here is an open-ended question, a genuine question to which I do not have an answer: can novels about–or set against the backdrop of–ecological catastrophe do anything? And by “do anything” I mean, can they be a part of what makes it possible for public policy to address our greenhouse gas emissions problem? Can they shift the cultural imaginary away from complacency and nihilism (often two sides of the same coin) and move us in the direction of action?
We know this is a complex question. And it might be a misplaced one, given the fact that Earth Overshoot Day arrives earlier and earlier each year. “Action” is not easy to define, we know. But there is evidence to suggest that when it comes to policies that world leaders must put in place, if we’re to have any hope of pushing against the catastrophe, it is not that complex. Sustainable consumerism will not get us there. We need redistribution of resources, we need a Green New Deal, and then some; we can march in the streets all we like, but until leaders put policy in place to democratize our energy resources and to require governments and corporations to limit emissions, it will all be disaster theatre. Which does not make it meaningless, we ought to be careful to claim. It may be ineffectual when it comes to creating change, but that is still to be seen.
What is “climate fiction”? It has a catchy moniker now (“cli-fi,” coined in 2007 by journalist Dan Bloom), under which some contemporary novels are increasingly categorized. Generally, the label “cli-fi” is applied to works of fiction that highlight the dystopic elements of our contemporary ecoscape and that deal, in some way, with climate change. It is increasingly accepted as a genre in its own right, marked by ethical urgency and socio-historico-techno-political concern or engagement, granting the literary world a new set of marketing techniques for “serious” novels. (Amazon has even created an audiobook collection of short stories that feature climate change for its Original Stories series.) But what do we take to be happening in the creative phenomenon of “climate fiction”?
The goal here is not to identify and assess crucial characteristics of a particular literary genre; the goal is to argue against the necessity of a genre called “cli-fi” or “climate fiction” in favor of an understanding of climate fiction as a mode of expression that seeks to reveal the conditions of creation and expression, making them legible and visible to the reader. This is a crucial re-orientation, away from understanding artwork according to genre, which is now a marketing and classification tool, toward understanding it in accordance with the conditions of its creation—a complex set of phenomena that is more comprehensive than classification or even “artist’s intent” ever could be.
Bogna M. Konior, writer and Research Fellow in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam, argues along similar lines: “[I] disagree with defining cli-fi as a genre and instead understand the whole of cultural production, from novels to climate data models, as a climate-fiction. This, for me, changes the meaning of ‘fiction’ in general – what does it mean for a culture when empirical phenomena like climate change cannot be experienced empirically, and therefore need to be somehow modulated, via data models or narrative?” Calling on Julie Leyda’s notion of “the climate unconscious,” which Leyda “posits as the extension of Fredric Jameson’s idea of the ‘political unconscious,’ making climate change the underlying condition of all socio-cultural production and interpretation,” Bonior claims that “thinking with Leyda, all culture is climate culture, all cultural production is climate-fiction.”
The thing being marketed as “climate fiction,” however, does reveal something particular about cultural production, at this particular historical moment, that is worth examining. What does it reveal? To start, a growing understanding that the human animal is not, and has never been, separate from environment/nature/ecosystem; an increasing anxiety related to this fact (If we were never separate to begin with, what are we?); a near-certainty that our capitalist systems of production and consumption are untenable, unsustainable; a nagging fear that we can’t turn back or undo or erase the past—that we’ve trapped ourselves in a hell of our own making. What “climate fiction” also reveals, then, are the deeply problematic structures of the literary-industrial complex: who gets to produce content, how it is marketed and sold, where and how it is distributed, what the socio-political-environmental costs of it all may be, and just how precarious all of it is. Reducing such concerns to genre may shrink ecological catastrophe to digestible size, but we ought to resist such reduction, even and especially if we produce work that may inhabit this genre.
In this sense, it is crucial that we recognize that, ultimately, there is no “cli-fi” and “not cli-fi.” All fiction has to grapple with place or setting in some way, and fiction often gives voice to concerns about place, setting, environment, etc. in ways that stretch our understanding, our imaginative capacity, and even the language we have at our disposal to describe unfolding phenomena. Dickens famously popularized a then-recently coined term (“smog”) to describe the unique blend of coal smoke and fog that lay thick in London’s air at the onset of the industrial revolution. We must recognize that the ecological catastrophe increasingly featured in popular fiction is not new and that many bodies have borne the burden or paid the price of rgis catastrophe. Their stories have not often been told; indeed, they have not often been considered worth telling.
Kathryn Yusoff makes a similar claim regarding the popularization of the term “Anthropocene”: “The Anthropocene might seem to offer a dystopic future that laments the end of the world, but imperialism and ongoing (settler) colonialisms have been ending worlds for as long as they have been in existence. The Anthropocene as a politically infused geology and scientific/popular discourse is just now noticing the extinction it has chosen to continually overlook in the making of its modernity and freedom.” We must keep this in mind when we consider the thing called “cli-fi,” whether we decide to understand it as a genre or a mode of production or something else altogether.
The question of what fiction(s) can do, however, remains. Ursula LeGuin tells us this: “In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find–if it’s a good novel–that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard to say just what we learned, how we were changed.” When I read her words, I see a claim: reading is itself an act of creation. Watch a child learn how to read, and this claim will be nearly undeniable. When we learn how to read we are not just learning how sounds corresponding to letters add up to meaning; we are restructuring our relationship to reality, our understanding of the world and the meaning it offers.
What does this ability of ours show us? The capacity for world-building, yes, but more importantly, the capacity and the possibility for thinking a politics that does not yet exist. We need thinkers and activists and politicians agitating for changes in material conditions, without a doubt. And we must keep in mind this capacity of ours to think into existence what does not yet (fully) exist. As broadly understood as possible, this capacity is what we call imagination—something that artists and thinkers with “political” interests and concerns have understood well. Imagination can never take the place of policy, but we must ask ourselves whether and how imagination can inform policy.
It is clear that we don’t have the luxury of not caring, of not using every faculty, including imagination. The majority of us now feel the squeeze that far too many have felt already, with devastating effects, for years. That is, the ecological crisis playing out in everyday politics. Food is more expensive. Housing is more expensive. Transportation is more expensive. The list could go on and on; the list will go on and on… Can we imagine something else?
 In email with Konior.
 Julie Leyda, “The Cultural Affordances of Cli-Fi” in The Dystopian Impulse of Contemporary Cli-Fi, 2016.
 Notes from Konior’s lecture “The Climate Unconscious: Climate-Fiction Across New Media and Literature Studies,” delivered at the University of Utrecht in 2018.
 A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None p. xiii, University of Minnesota Press.
 Left Hand of Darkness p. xv-xvi.