Cli-Fi: Reframing Eco-Anxiety In 2020

Thanks to Dani at Readings Kids for this selection
Eco-Anxiety and Solastalgia are different ways that people respond to the distress caused by the effects of climate change. These responses are likely to be significantly intensified by the Australian summer of 2020, especially for Young People and First Nations People.

On National TV, a young woman tearfully shares her conviction that motherhood in the near future is unsafe, unethical and a bad choice for the planet, while a young teenage protester asks for a curriculum that includes Climate Science, Media Literacy and Political Engagement.

At the “Schools Strike for Climate” rallies, a year 10 student talks about her fears for the future, her traumas framed by past experiences, and then, in a blend of pleas and demands, she calls on those in power to take action on Climate Change, care for the environment, listen to the Science and Tell the Truth.

But the concerns of young people are dismissed and they are told to be quiet, go back to school and study hard so they can fix the problems when they graduate. Understandably, young people are becoming either extremely concerned about climate change or in denial.

“What if the problems we are causing in the natural environment are linked to the problems going on inside our heads?” asks Matt Haig (2019).

Eco-anxiety – an Appropriate Response

Eco-anxiety, the chronic fear of environmental doom, is a completely reasonable response to the existential threat of climate change. With symptoms similar to other anxiety disorders, Eco-anxiety has the significant distinction that the threat is real and the fear is rational. Some refer to it a Pre-traumatic stress disorder – a fear of the future.

Eco-anxiety, for many, is akin to the despair felt by Cassandra, whose gift of prophesy was frustrated by the curse of not being believed. They understand the science but watch as it is disregarded in favor of populist alternatives that exacerbate the accelerating environmental destruction and make the scientific predictions even more likely.

Understanding the “fight, flight or freeze” responses to anxiety helps to explain the often polarised responses to Climate Change – some people are extremely concerned, some refuse to acknowledge either that climate change exists or that it is anthropogenic, and some are paralysed by fear. Only the fight response is an adaptive or appropriate response to climate change.

But “all anxiety contains a kernel of good news” said Rollo May observing that we would have no anxiety if we could not envision a future. Anxiety is a common emotion, a protective mechanism. And when faced by climate change, anxiety is an appropriate response.

The Need for Stories

Advances in scientific knowledge have shown little or no correlation with changes in environmental attitudes or behaviour in relation to climate change. Science is bracketed out as a rarefied, empirical and superior knowledge practice dissociated from cultural, social and political contamination. Knowledge is not transferring to power in tackling climate change. The lay person is feeling shut out.

Stories are needed to give a boarder audience a better sense of what is happening, to frame responses and to make science real and personal. By engaging the emotions, stories reduce stress and make us laugh, opening the pathways to memory and knowledge. Stories use metaphor and analogy to enable us to see ourselves and others from diverse perspectives, and to help us identify our values and build empathy.

And stories have the power to motivate and inspire us by nurturing self-efficacy, optimism and resilience, which generate the hope and creative energy to act.

What is Cli-Fi?

The goals of YA (Young Adult) Cli-Fi (climate fiction) authors are to provide their readers with knowledge and empowerment. As the global climate threatens human safety, Cli-Fi authors explore ways that families and relationships will be affected, the nature of heroes and villains, what politics might look like, what we might expect from the institutions that regulate our world, what could be the basis of our economy, what might be the defining elements of the new societies, and how we will co-exist with the environment that we have callously disrupted.

Cli-Fi novels are usually set in the present or the very near future with effects of climate change informing the setting, and a plot in which catastrophic events ruthlessly unfold amidst social and environmental upheaval. YA Cli-Fi focuses on teenage protagonists with absent or unhelpful adults and settings that are focused on a local level, while traditional values provide stability and a moral compass for the impending end of the world as we know it.

Many Cli-Fi novels use heterotopias to present unsettling worlds where interpersonal trust has disappeared, where institutions that have previously been able to help have collapsed, where animals and plants have acquired new, monstrous properties and where even nature and the weather cannot be trusted. In these worlds where we do not know how to distinguish good and bad, pleasure and displeasure, we are challenged to reflect on what is important, what our values are, what we need to preserve, and what we are prepared to sacrifice. 

In a version of Cli-Fi called ‘Solar punk’ writers opt to imagine a better, fairer world through their work. One Solar Punk writer, Sarena Ulibarri, acknowledges that “any near-future science fiction that does not engage with climate change is fantasy”.

But Cli-Fi also fulfils a didactic function that harnesses the emotions and compels readers to recognise and act to foster change. In Cli-Fi we find heroes dealing with the impacts of climate change, adapting to the aftermath of natural disasters, and pressuring governments and corporations to act. We see alternative scenarios developed; what does martial law look like, what would you do to protect your family, or a bottle of water? Various and volatile combinations of fear, anxiety, confusion, anger and hope exist in Cli-Fi.

“Every effect of climate change that is portrayed in Cli-Fi is happening right now” says Piers Torday (2015). “Cli-Fi is a serious way to address the myriad complex, universal issues surrounding climate change” says Dan Bloom (2014), the person responsible for coining the term “Cli-Fi” in 2013.

And Danish Cli-Fi researcher Gregers Andersen says (2020) “Cli-Fi plays a very significant role in helping people manage eco-anxiety. Climate fiction helps us to think about the future, gives us the opportunity to reflect on what it’s like to live in a climate collapsed world and make us realize the importance of changing to a more climate friendly way of life.”

Driven to Act

In the classroom, Cli-Fi has the potential to raise awareness in a non-threatening and non-personal way, motivating debate and inspiring action, and potentially alleviating anxiety. Cli-Fi adheres to scientific accuracy, introducing concepts and language such as feed-back loops, tipping points, permafrost, gyres and gulf-streams that beget curiosity and encourage research and investigation. Climate change education needs to cultivate hope so that young people feel empowered to make change.

Cli-Fi demands that we focus our energies outwards. As we seek and connect with like minded people, we feel less isolated, and we recognise our eco-anxiety as justified and valid. With our new communities we explore solutions, share problems and ideas, engage our imaginations, and learn ways to adjust to the future that is presenting itself, and in the process we become less concerned with our own personal anxieties, begin to see the potential in action as an antidote for our anxiety and the possibilities in harnessing our energies for the greater good.

We find something worth fighting for; we are validated and empowered, unified and supported, as part of a global movement, huge and historical, that comes together to make the world a better place.

Paul Hawken describes what he calls a Blessed Unrest as “the greatest social movement in history” and “humanity’s immune response to political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation,” a response “made up of environmental, social justice, and indigenous organisations, research institutes, community development agencies, village and citizen based organizations, corporations, networks, faith based groups, trusts, and foundations.” It has risen “spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts, resulting in a global, classless, diverse and embedded movement spreading worldwide … it is the largest coming together of citizens in history.” (from Eckersley 2007)

“Action is the antidote to despair” reads the subject line on my email from 350.org.

Eckersley identified three responses to fears of the apocalypse; Nihilism, Fundamentalism or Activism identifying “Activism: Where Hope Rules”, as the only adaptive response to the threats posed by Climate Change.

Hope, formally defined as the capacity of patients to identify strategies or pathways to achieve goals and the motivation to effectively pursue those pathways, has been identified as a strong predictor of recovery from anxiety disorders.

And research suggests that sensations of hope can inspire climate change action, and in turn, climate action generated by one’s peers can generate hope. Then, as people realize they are part of a greater collective, social change becomes possible.

This global unification for action on climate change might be the one factor that pulls our divided world together, to form a united social mass of individuals who want to see a brighter future and to see people and our environment valued higher than profit.

Storytelling can help us fight back against our anxiety. “From the moment we are able to name [our fears], we are able to talk about our emotions and share our concerns. By sharing a common framework we can grasp that someone else gets it”, Dr Rob Gordon (2020)

Driven to Adapt

But Cli-Fi has another purpose, and that is to show us our possible futures. When we read dystopian and science fiction novels, we explore other worlds with scant regard to how those worlds evolved. Cli-Fi fills in those gaps, forcing us to confront our grief and perhaps motivating us to fight harder to save those things we care about, to drive change, join rebellion and embrace activism. Cli-Fi introduces us to messages of survival; preppers, martial law, medical realities, and societal and ecological systems collapse can all be explored in Cli-Fi.

Supportive fiction, by definition, nurtures Hope, Resilience, Self-efficacy and Optimism. But along the way we also explore and experience community, alternative pathways, laughter, different perspectives, empathy, collaboration, validation, catharsis, new information, new skills, self-identification, values, self-representation, insight, universality, sharing, positive outcomes, self-knowledge, growth, healing, resolution, self-acceptance, trust, alternative endings, escape, immersion, and a reframing. Good Cli-Fi can offer all of these.

Cli-Fi shows us that life goes on, allows us to live through our fears, disrupts our stuck thoughts and stimulates our imagination. Cli-Fi empowers us through information and understanding, knowledge and diversity.

Cli-Fi can help us adapt to a rapidly changing world by teaching us skills to build emotional resilience by reframing the climate crisis – perhaps as an opportunity to create a better future, perhaps by accepting that climate change is a fundamental part of being alive, and perhaps by allowing us to process the complicated feelings we have surrounding climate change. Writing original Cli-Fi can further help us to process climate grief –writing about the hardships we’ve faced is a recognised way to build emotional resilience – simply by imagining the future we want. (Forest Brown, 2019)

Blanche Verlie wrote (2019) that Learning to live with climate change means:

  • Increasing our capacity to engage with and endure the unsettling and distressing realities of climate change.
  • Recognising that living is always Living-with.
  • Recognizing that the future ways of living with climate change will be radically different to those we have come to know and/or love.
  • Composing new lifestyles and new concepts of what life is, what it means to love well, and to live well.
  • Recognizing the myriad, overlapping, compounding and continuously morphing situations that climate change poses which are unfair, painful and unresolvable, but which still demand our best efforts.
  • Recognising that nothing we can do will be sufficient to achieve that we want or help society feel okay about it all.
  • Reconciling our smallness with the magnitude of the problem by connecting with others
  • Getting by in terrifying times
  • Making worlds and forming relationships at the end of the world
  • Being open to emotional challenges
  • Being able to endure

Affective adaptation is not just coping, not just resilience, not just transformation but also the capacity to navigate and work with the emotional and affective responses of others.

Teaching Climate Change Without Creating Despair or Entrenching Denial

Is climate change education appropriate for children? Are we doom mongering? Even though the likelihood is that climate change will reach crisis point in their lifetimes, are we burdening them with a problem they are not equipped to shoulder?

How do we raise a generation to look forward to the future with hope when all around them swirls a message of apparent hopelessness? How do we prepare today’s children for a world defined by trauma without inflicting trauma ourselves? Where do we draw the line between responsible education and undue alarmism?

“Kids are terrified, anxious and depressed about climate change. Whose fault is that?” asks Jason Plautz (2020)

The high school student thinks about climate change every day, she reads about how we’re on the brink and hears her teachers and parents tell her that it’s up to her generation to fix things. She wonders if she will have children.  

The second grader is scared about the planet but says it feels good to be surrounded by some many people who care (at the School Strike for Climate) since he sometimes feels as if nobody else is worried. His parents are proud that their child is aware, but concerned that he could become overwhelmed by predictions that seem to be growing ever more dire.

Psychiatrist Lise Susteren, expert for the plaintiffs in the Juliana vs United States Youth Climate Lawsuit (2018) is left with a sense of shame after interviewing children about their fears for nature and their worries about their future families.

And a sixth grade teacher wonders if he is violating his mandated responsibility to speak up about signs of abuse and neglect if he does not speak up forcefully about climate change and the institutions that prop up the “fictional story that you can care for kids in our country while neglecting or ignoring the climate”.

The link between Climate Change and the mental health of young adults is very real. A 2019 poll of USA teens found that Climate Change made 57% of them afraid and 52% of them angry, while just 29% said they felt optimistic.

And at the same time our inaction seems to be telling them we don’t care. By failing to address Climate Change in a meaningful way we are failing our young people and they know it.

Teacher have a responsibility to inform themselves about climate change so they can help young people work towards solutions and move away from rigid thinking, to calm their fears about the future and to give them a sense of hope and optimism. Teachers can empower their students by means of age appropriate knowledge, nurture their sense of agency in their own lives, help them recognize that the worst of climate change is not a fait accompli, show them that solutions exist and that some progress can be made, and encourage them to take action, be that at a personal level or as part of a larger group, as a way to process and alleviate climate change concerns.

Activism is a burden that they should be encouraged to participate in, primarily because action is the best antidote for eco-anxiety but also to show them that they have agency in their future, and it is still being written.

Teachers, and parents, walk a tightrope between being honest and being comforting, between empowering young people and weighing them down with the responsibility of saving the world, and above all, ensuring they feel positive that they can face the future.

Some parents might think they should shield their children from the realities. But parents must prepare their children to be ready to make good choices and be part of the society they will inhabit as adults.

“It’s a disservice to our children if we don’t reach them about life’s dangers and how to protect themselves, even as we pray it is never necessary.”

Activism or Anxiety?

Young people are both more susceptible to environmental-related trauma and less emotionally equipped to cope with the potential impacts. In the face of a disaster they are more likely to be affected by eroded social networks as communications fail, and more likely to be overwhelmed by grief, frustration, guilt, helplessness and fear in the aftermath.

Some young people must be asking “Am I sick or is the world sick?“ They might wonder “How come there’s anyone who isn’t paralysed by eco-anxiety?” Others may be so overwhelmed they retreat into avoidance and denial.

Some adults might say that the rhetoric surrounding climate change is creating anxiety. But children and adolescents can’t help but pick up our concerns whether it be via overheard conversations, issues in the news, films that generate questions among their peers, or experiencing the effects of wild weather and natural disasters unfolding around them.

Young people realise that the adults are not solving the climate crisis and this inaction is fuelling their anxiety, even as it drives their activism. They want their emotions and concerns acknowledged, they want trusted adults who can provide them with reliable information so they can make informed choices, and they want to feel empowered to make their own choices, to access and be able to influence policy makers, and to join peers who think along the same lines.

How can we expect our children to trust us or believe us when our words are in such conflict with our deeds, and government promises to act evaporate in the face of corporate greed?

Young people must be able to address misinformation and confusion about the facts and the magnitude of the threat of climate change in honest, open and frank discussions with informed adults, whether in the classroom or around the dinner table, in ways they can understand.

Scientist Owen Gaffney says that Eco-anxiety is the right response to the scale of the challenge. Yet according to marine biologist Tim Gordon “there’s a huge amount we can still do to protect what’s left and make a meaningful difference.”

The Role of Cli-Fi

“All great literature is subversive if not downright revolutionary” says John Marsden. “It’s important for novelists to challenge false thinking, to question, to blaze trails.”

Young Adult literature influences and models the world for young people who are still defining and understanding the world around them. But YA literature is also important as a means of shaping young adults into citizens that will actually create and populate a future world through a responsible and caring author, preoccupied with the future, albeit speaking through the voice of the challenging child. (Rachel Fentin 2012)

Scott Westerfeld argued that his work was not designed to manipulate the political preferences of adolescents, but rather to provide them with a forum to discuss issues and strategies for political activism and social change.

In the novel “I am David” Anne Holm has her character say: “can’t you understand that children have a right to know everything that’s true? If there’s danger you have to recognize it or else you can’t take care of yourself.”

“Fear has a purpose. We no longer have a safe context for fear, nor a sense of its relativity. People and places we instinctively trust are being shown to be untrustworthy. We need new stories to help us make meaning of a world where fears seem limitless. [Besides] telling lies to the young is wrong and to conceal the truth is to tell a lie.” John Marsden

And so, in the style of G. J. Chesterton we might say …

Cli-Fi does not exist to tell children that Climate Change is real. Children already know Climate Change is real. Cli-Fi exists to tell children that Climate Change is not the end of the world.

Further reading and references

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