March 24, 2021
Turns out early science fiction predicted man-made climate change
by Alyea Canada
Climate change is real and the stakes are pretty dire. While some of the modern proposed solutions to climate change have started to creep towards something out of science fiction, geoengineering comes to mind, it turns out humans causing climate change was the actual stuff of science fiction in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Sierra Garcia over at JSTOR Daily, spotlights a paper by literary scholar Steve Asselin that examines early climate fiction and reveals some pretty concerning trends in how we think about climate now.
These early cli-fi stories mainly took one of two tracks: man-made climate change as hubris or man-made climate change and its unintended consequences. The first track includes stories such as Jules Verne’s Sans Dessus Dessous about capitalists heating the Arctic to extract coal. Garcia points out that many authors working in this vein were anti-capitalists who saw selling climate as the inevitable end of market-driven sensibilities. But calling climate change hubris is also a common tactic of deniers who insist that humans cannot have an impact as something as awesome as the climate.
Other stories, such as George Griffith’s A Corner in Lightening, involve either a maniacal or hapless protagonist who successfully manipulates the Earth’s climate only to have to reckon with the catastrophic results. As Garcia points out,
These warnings gain new meaning today with proposals for geoengineering, or intentionally manipulating the climate to slow or reverse global warming, as a serious prospect for future climate policy. The prospect of passing climate “tipping points,” or thresholds that make major changes accelerate or very difficult to reverse, is a scientific concern as well as a popular plotline for modern cli-fi stories, such as the 2004 movie The Day after Tomorrow.
Asselin argues that regardless of the political leanings of their authors, one thing these stories have in common is a commentary on the geopolitical ramifications of climate change. In many of these stories global corporations are uninterested in the consequences of their actions as long as it primarily affects indigenous and non-western people, in others entire nations and populations are washed away. In other words, very real issues we are facing today. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of happy endings in many of these stories, but maybe if we listen to modern climate scientists and lean on our politicians, we don’t have to face a dystopian future.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.