Exploring Cli-Fi: Can Fiction Change Your Mind? by Tianna Jordening

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” — The Lorax

A couple years ago, I was speaking with a writer friend about fiction’s ability to change peoples’ minds. We were both taking an environmental fiction class, and she voiced her frustrations with this premise. She said it was impossible to change someone else’s mind through fiction, or other means. This troubled me. I was deeply impacted by the class and the discussions about climate change, and I’ll admit I wanted to be “that” writer (or one of the writers) that contributes to changing the way people think about climate change. Before taking the class, I felt like I was knowledgeable about climate change. I knew it was an issue, but then I read several climate fiction short stories and poured over research to write my own cli-fi stories. I quickly realized I had no idea as to the sheer magnitude of the problem.

Now, I want to be clear. Climate fiction is not peer reviewed scientific literature discussing the current climate crisis. Cli-Fi, also going by the name of climate fiction and environmental fiction, is an emerging genre in the literary world as a reaction to the research on climate change. As a genre, cli-fi usually places an emphasis on setting and more specifically, a diminishing or disappearing environment. Novels like Naomi Oreskes’ The Collapse of Western Civilization or Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 depict startling portrayals of what the future might hold if we do not act to prevent disaster.

A long history exists of writers processing daily struggles, be it war, economic recessions, or climate change. Climate change may be one of the most, if not the most, pressing global issue of this generation. This is reflected in several works of art. Depictions of looming environmental catastrophes are seen in music such as “Doom Days” by Bastille in the lines, “We fucked this house up like the planet, we were running riot, crazy that some people still deny it.” Within photography, a series of pictures outlining the melting arctic hang on the fences in a park located in Paris. They present a stark contrast of glowing ice against the depths of the dark ocean waters along with various views of the ice and the penguins that inhabit the diminishing habitat. Lastly, infamous television series seem to hint at climate change. Some people claim Game of Thrones is a metaphor for the current climate crisis, referring to the widespread denial that, “Winter is coming,” and the vicious power struggle that ensues, drawing attention away from the issue that threatens them all.

Literature is no exception to this trend. Consciously or not, many writers incorporate current events into their novels. Whether their aim is to raise awareness for the issues they are passionate about, to process the world around them, or perhaps, even change a few minds, their works are often important to the issues they explore. Such writers include George Orwell, who discusses censorship and totalitarianism; Toni Morrison, who explores topics of race; and Virginia Woolf, who discusses women’s rights. Now, writers like Oreskes and Robinson are beginning to join the debate on climate change. But, is it really possible to change someone’s mind via fiction or are writers just spinning their proverbial wheels?

While climate change seems like a distant issue, empathy is critical to inciting real, sustainable change in society. Climate change affects people all over the world in major ways, but fiction can bring those struggles closer to home. Fiction has long been understood as a vital source of vitamin E (empathy). While the Amazon rainforest continues to burn and the capital of Indonesia is forced to relocate by rising tides, the effects of climate change are creeping closer to home and a healthy dose of empathy is exactly what the doctor prescribed. Stephen Hawking pinpoints the root of the issue saying, “We are in danger of destroying ourselves by our greed and stupidity. We cannot remain looking inwards at ourselves on a small and increasingly polluted and overpopulated planet.” If a little empathy would cure some of that greed, then fiction may be part of a viable treatment plan on our way to stopping climate change.

However, one might ask, can fiction actually change someone’s opinion on climate change when our nation is so polarized on the issue? Or, will it simply reinforce preexisting notions about the environment? Going back to Oreskes’ The Collapse of Western Civilization, she discusses the unfolding of social and political events surrounding climate change from an archaeologist’s perspective who is stationed 200 years in the future, trying to understand what happened to Western civilization. We can already see how some of Oreskes’ premonitions have come to pass since the book’s publication in 2014. The election of political leaders closely resembles our current president and years with prolonged summers have begun to occur much earlier than Oreskes’ predicted year of 2023. Given the rest of her predictions, it does not leave readers with a positive outlook on the current state of affairs. Although it is quite jarring to read, I highly doubt someone who outright rejects climate change will suddenly be willing to give up their car in favor of a bike or change to a plant-based diet in the name of the climate after reading her story. In fact, it is quite likely they would put the book down before ever reaching the end.

After reading Oreskes’ novel among others, I might say that I was changed by climate fiction. However, that isn’t quite right. I had already been exposed to the idea. As a child I attended Earth fairs and heard about climate change on the news. I was concerned but didn’t know what direction to go. Fiction propelled me forward. It put a magnifying glass to my false assumptions and amplified my motivation to do something to correct them. Suppose cli-fi’s purpose doesn’t need to change one’s opinion at all? Isn’t support and validation to those who are trying their best to do right by Mother Earth enough? Or, what if someone, like me, had an inkling that climate scientists might be right in predicting the downfall of the environment? Then, by reading fiction about this issue, readers could seek further resources and gain more certainty.

So, what if instead of orienting the goals of fiction towards moving someone from complete climate change denial to active retaliation against the systematic destruction of our environment, authors strive to incorporate climate change into the background of a story? Then, like a vaccine, it would allow the readers to process the issue in a smaller dose eventually nudging them in the right direction. Slowly but surely, fiction could chip away at one’s logical fallacies until eventually, the reader comes to a place of acceptance – perhaps not total agreement – but someplace in between.

Tianna Jordening is currently working on her bachelors at Northern Arizona University studying Psychology and English with a minor in Philosophy and certificate in Creative Writing. She is an online English tutor who is passionate about fiction, poetry, travel, and learning.