There is a problematic relation between climate fiction and postcolonial criticism and writing. As a cli-fi author and critic from a post-colonial society, which is also exposed to face severe threats from climate change, it is important to visit the points of departure and concurrence between ecocriticism and what we have come to regard as post-colonial readings and literature.

Because of different geographies and socio-economic conditions, many post-colonial nations experience climate change differently from most advanced industrialised countries. The post-colonial lens of “power, economics, politics, religion, and culture and how these elements work in relation to colonial hegemony” tends to resolve an issue like climate change differently from an ecocritical approach. Moreover, low levels of awareness about the seriousness of climate change, coupled with the aggressive selling of the growth dream, and the high aspiration levels and high-consumption lifestyles of a significant section of the population seem to have militated against the creation and consumption of cli-fi in a country like India.

Anne Maxwell points out that postcolonial criticism has found it difficult to critique the “aggressive phase of capitalism known as ‘globalisation’” and that “engaging with ecocritical discourses is one way to overcome this crisis”. She goes on to write, “An area of study that is especially promising for postcolonial critics is analysing apocalyptic dystopias that speculate on the dire social and physical consequences of global warming.” Elsewhere, Johns-Putra in her study of two dystopian cli-fi novels, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book (2013) and Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (2014) shows how “they are postmodern in their sensibilities inasmuch as they question the dominance of master-narratives. They are also postcolonial in their identification of this dominance as both a cultural and a speciesist imperialism.”

Postcolonial writing and criticism attempts to expose colonial and neocolonial systems and networks of power embedded in the existing order and social systems. They share a deep connection with science fiction in their engagement with the concept of the “other”, which in sci-fi becomes the “alien”. Barber, quoting Jessica Langer (2011) mentions, “‘the figure of the alien – extraterrestrial, technological, human-hybrid or otherwise – and the figure of the far-away planet ripe for the taking’ as ‘deep and abiding twin signifiers in science fiction… perhaps the central myths of the genre”. These two signifiers are also the same twin myths of colonialism.”

Sophia David, quoting Rob Nixon, has summarised the major differences between postcolonial writing and ecocritics: While the post-colonial lens focuses on “hybridity and cross-culturation”, ecocritics have engaged more with purity and the discourses surrounding it: “virgin wilderness and the preservation of ‘uncorrupted’ last green places”. Also, postcolonial texts often talk about displacement while the ecological approach has been to give primacy to “place”.

Postcolonial studies have shown a marked interest in the cosmopolitan and the transnational, while much of environmental literature has had a national (read: American) setting. Finally, while postcolonial writing and studies have tended to dig out and re-imagine forgotten and marginalised pasts, ecocritical work and fiction have valorised timeless moments, which seem to stand outside history.

But all this is in a flux now as with the worsening climate situation, ecofiction and criticism develop a “sense of planet” alongside “a sense of place” and postcolonial texts engage with globalisation, which, via carbon dioxide emissions and the export of dirty industries, casts its ominous shadow on the planet. Barber points out that “as ecocritical theorists become more transnational and postcolonial theorists confront environmental impacts and imperatives among other political issues, they can both meet around the concept of ‘justice’.”

The necessity and reality of this coming together of the two approaches is already being perceived as in Johns-Putra’s critical work mentioned above, in Amitav Ghosh’s fiction and non-fiction on climate change, in Prayag Akbar’s Leila where caste hierarchies and injustice are highlighted within an eco-dystopian setting, as well as in some of the Six Proposals for the Reform of Literature in the Age of Climate Change.

The ideal message

We have already noted why dystopian fiction can be counterproductive. If we are to accept that logic, we can examine what kind of alternative “positive” scenarios or messages of sustainability can be conveyed through fiction. When we are talking of climate fiction, obviously these messages should be broadly about sustainability, and specifically about effecting marked changes in production and consumption, leading to emission reductions and so on.

There are internationally agreed definitions and goals of sustainability (including climate change) enshrined in the 17 global sustainable development goals or SDGs, the Paris agreement climate goals, and other documents. Goal 13 asks countries to “take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts by regulating emissions and promoting developments in renewable energy.” Many other SDGs, like number 12 – responsible consumption and production – number 11 – sustainable cities and communities – and number 7 – affordable and clean energy – among others have linkages with climate goals.

Barber has used both a Production-Consumption Flows approach and Ken Wilber’s Integral theory along with the SDGs in an interesting study to analyse how sci-fi movie trailers convey sustainability concepts. In the Production-Consumption flows approach, he examines how a particular cli-fi movie trailer (eg, Day After Tomorrow) frames climate impact by defining the problem, identifying its roots – which lie in unsustainable production and consumption – and presenting possible solutions, strategies and policies. Here we can analyse scientific accuracy versus artistic licence, among other things.

This approach can be equally applied to books and full length movies. If we look at The Road through this lens we can see that impacts have been identified in the book, but the roots are hardly mentioned and only hinted at. In fact The Road is silent about the origins of the disaster and we can only guess at them. Nor is there anything specific in the plot about solutions, and the only quest here is to survive.

In contrast, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge clearly identifies solutions, strategies, policies (wage ceilings, green housing), obstacles (developers, New Federalists) and the roots of the problem, but climate change is not directly identified. This is however done in his Science in the Capital Trilogy and other books.

Barber also employs Integral theory which, using Esbjörn-Hargens and Zimmerman’s integral ecology approach, studies film trailers on the basis of the SDGs they address, and how the story portrays individuals as well as collectives both internally (psychology and culture) and externally, that is, with respect to practices and social systems. This four-windowed or matrix view can also be applied to studying the story-world of a full length book or film to analyse how authentically they address the realities of a problem like climate change. It is interesting to note in this context that integral ecology is mentioned time and again in the Pope Francis’s encyclical about climate change.

Empirical ecocriticism

Another way to gauge the influence of cli-fi on environmental belief and behaviour is in the empirical ecocritical method of reader surveys, which generates qualitative and quantitative data. Schneider-Mayerson has used a reader-response theory approach with data about 19 cli-fi works from 161 American respondent-readers to investigate “who its readers are and what they make of their reading experiences”. This study found that readers of climate fiction are younger, more liberal and more concerned about climate change – with a large percentage of millennials – than those who don’t read this genre.

True, these books did not help to shape the views of all readers.”Nevertheless, climate fiction did not just help some readers picture potential futures but focused their gaze on subjects that had previously been unknown. For many this was accomplished through these works’ very setting in the distant future.” The study revealed that some readers were influenced to think of likely consequences of climate change for the first time. Also, “a newfound awareness of our reliance on and embeddedness in fragile ecosystems led many readers to consider the likely impact of climate change on human societies and the fragility of global civilisation itself.’

These books evoked dramatic emotional responses in many readers, and it was found that liberals are more likely to be nudged by cli-fi from “cautious” to “concerned” positions, or from “concerned” to “alarmed”, vis-a-vis climate change. In fact many readers could connect their reading with actions they took later on. Besides influencing dialogue, this study also demonstrated that character identification and vivid settings tend to have a greater effect and can lead to empathetic responses.

Cli-fi in the future

We have noted throughout this discussion a tension between the aesthetic and the political in cli-fi writing, and the different ways these books can appeal to different readers. All this leaves the field wide open for experimentation and development.

The growing awareness within ecological texts and postcolonial writing about the other’s tools and concepts leads to the possibility of more interesting work being produced by both, as well as of an increased convergence in the critical areas addressed by each. This will not only support the overall growth of cli-fi, but will also catalyse new and innovative engagements in the realm of cli-fi. Sophia David mentions the view of Stephanie Bernhard, who “believes that climate change will induce a literary shift reminiscent of the Modernist Movement”.

The cli-fi author Liz Jensen recently asked me in an email whether I believe that eventually all fiction will be climate fiction. This is not hard to imagine with the relentless inroads being made by climate disaster. As the science develops and more understanding about the “wicked” problem of climate change is accumulated, it is expected that writers will use new and innovative plots to address the issue.

Schneider-Mayerson, writing in American Literature in Transition (2000-2010) mentions Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl as an example of a novel which addresses two of the emerging trends of cli-fi, which he labels the “imagination to the transition to life after oil” and “climate injustice”. We have recently seen how migration and justice issues can play a role in bringing postcolonial and ecocritical writing closer, as found in Amitav Ghosh’s fiction. These trends are expected to be buttressed in the climate writing coming from post-colonial nations.

As the climate situation worsens further and the floods and the cyclones return ever so frequently, as the bad news about climate disaster keeps piling up, and the realisation slowly dawns upon us that we are completely out of time, a politically engaged cli-fi might need to devise new modes and forms of expression to communicate better. Perhaps vehicles like web series, short films, blogs, plays, poetry, Twitter stories, the twinning of words and pictures, or even that old and almost forgotten form of the serialised novel could make a comeback.

The urgency of the situation will also require a more flexible approach to getting published where authors and researchers focus more on putting out their material rather than waiting months and years for mainstream book publishers or highbrow journals to commission their work. Perhaps small and independent presses will be the champions of the great wave of cli-fi that will soon wash across our countries.

In all of this, good writing which moves readers and also influences behaviour will still matter. And in reading, writing, acting upon and engaging with those texts, we will not only remember those taken away from us by a climate disaster, or those displaced, diseased and suffering, but we also join hands within the great community of the living, who dream and work for a better and more sustainable world.


Part one in this series: Why contemporary fiction can no longer evade an ethical obligation to engage with the climate crisis

Part two in this series:

Dystopia or utopia? Politics or aesthetics? What are the challenges of writing climate fiction?

Rajat Chaudhuri is a Charles Wallace, Korean Arts Council-InKo and Hawthornden Castle fellow. He has advocated on climate change issues at the United Nations and has recently published The Butterfly Effect, his fourth work of fiction. This article is an edited version of his keynote address on the “Literatures of Climate Change” delivered at a national conference in St Andrews College, Mumbai.