Cli-Fi: Reframing Eco-Anxiety In 2020

Eco-Anxiety and Solastalgia are common responses to the distress caused by the effects of climate change – responses likely to be significantly intensified by the Australian summer of 2020. Young People and First Nations People are most severely affected.

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 a “Schools Strike for Climate” rally a year 10 student talks about her fears for the future, her traumas framed by past experiences, and then, in blending pleas with 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 young people’s concerns are dismissed and they are told to study hard so they can fix the climate when they graduate. Understandably, they are increasingly 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 an appropriate and reasonable response to the existential threat of climate change. With symptoms similar to other anxiety disorders, Eco-anxiety differs in that the threat posed by climate change is real so the fear is rational. Some refer to it a Pre-traumatic stress disorder – a fear of the future.

Anxiety is a common emotion, a protective mechanism. 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 contains an element of hope. In the face of the existential threat that is climate change, eco-anxiety is an appropriate response.

Understanding the “fight, flight or freeze” responses to anxiety helps to explain the varied and often polarised responses to Climate Change. For many, eco-anxiety is akin to the despair felt by Cassandra, whose gift of prophesy was frustrated by the curse of not being believed; they watch as the science is ignored in favour of populist alternatives that exacerbate the accelerating ecological destruction and make the scientific predictions even more likely. Some consider the subject too distressing or too difficult to understand, or refuse to acknowledge either that climate change exists or that it is anthropogenic. Some are overwhelmed.

However, only the fight response is considered to be the adaptive and healthy response to climate change, or, as the 350.org email informs me “Action is the antidote to despair”.

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 complex, experimental and elite; knowledge is not transferring to power in tackling climate change. The lay person can feel shut out and inferior.

Stories can give a boarder audience a better sense of what is happening, framing responses and to making the science real and personal. Stories engage the emotions and reduce stress, opening the pathways to learning. 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. Stories can serve a didactic function, educating us through the voices of knowledgeable authors.

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?

Cli-Fi (Climate Fiction) novels are usually set in the present or the very near future with effects of climate change as a backdrop and a plot in which catastrophic events unfold amidst social and environmental upheaval. Young Adult (YA) Cli-Fi features teenage protagonists with absent or unhelpful adults and settings that are remain on a local level. The authors of YA Cli-Fi present readers with unsettling worlds, explore ways that families and relationships will be affected, the nature of heroes and villains, and how we might co-exist with the environment that we have callously disrupted.

Many Cli-Fi novels present readers with 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, we are challenged to reflect on what is important to us, 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”.

In their didactic role, authors of YA Cli-Fi explain scientific terms and concepts, explore individual and government responses and address other unknowns for their readers, providing their readers with knowledge and empowerment and a positive perspective. By harnessing the emotions authors compel 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 and anger, exist in Cli-Fi, and always with a message of hope.

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 so 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 discussion, and encourage research and investigation. Educators must ensure that climate change education cultivates hope and one way to do that is by empowering young people to be agents for change.

Cli-Fi can encourage us to 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. Within our new communities we can explore solutions, share problems and ideas, engage our imaginations, and learn ways to adjust to the future that is presenting itself; 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, and part of a global movement, huge and historical, that has come together to make the world a better place.

Paul Hawken describes this “Blessed Unrest” as “the greatest social movement in history … 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 … from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts … a global, classless, diverse and embedded movement spreading worldwide.” (from Eckersley 2007)

Eckersley identified three responses to fear 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 an awareness of 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.

As sensations of hope inspires climate change action, and in turn, climate action generated by one’s peers can generates hope, people transform their anxiety into action as part of a united social mass of individuals who want to see a brighter future.

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; extreme weather, 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, collaboration, empathy, laughter, relationships, values, alternative pathways and perspectives, validation, insight, catharsis, new information, new skills, universality, self-knowledge, self-acceptance, growth, healing, resolution, trust, alternative endings, escape, immersion, and a reframing. Good Cli-Fi can offer all of these.

Cli-Fi can help us adapt to a rapidly changing world by teaching us skills to build emotional resilience. 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 and presents us with opportunities to reframe and possibly rewrite our futures. Cli-fi challenges us to accept that climate change is a fundamental part of being alive and allows us space to process the complicated feelings we have surrounding climate change. Writing original Cli-Fi can further help to process climate grief and build emotional resilience.

By inhabiting a warming planet within the pages of a Cli-Fi novel we will be better prepared to confront and respond appropriately to the unsettling and distressing realities of climate change; we will be better able to adjust to the realisation that our environment is changing rapidly and unpredictably; we will be more flexible and adaptable and able to identify the values and relationships most important to us; we will develop the emotional resilience to face the sadness and injustice accompanying climate change with courage and determination; we will identify our personal strengths and unique qualities; and we will learn that adaptation is not just coping, not just resilience, not just transformation but also the capacity to form meaningful connections with 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, is this knowledge too great a burden for the young people in our care?

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 further 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 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.

The high school student thinks about climate change every day, she reads about how ecosystems are on the brink of collapse and listens in despair as 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 (at the School Strike for Climate) who care, 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 disturbing.

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”.

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.

Young people translate inaction by the older generations as telling them we don’t care about their future. By failing to address Climate Change in a meaningful way we are failing our young people and they know it.

Teachers have a responsibility to inform themselves about climate change so they can help young people work towards solutions and move away from rigid thinking, calm their fears about the future, and give them a sense of hope and optimism. Teachers must be prepared to empower their students by means of age appropriate knowledge, to nurture their sense of agency in their own lives, to help them recognize that the worst of climate change is not a fait accompli, to show them that solutions exist and that some progress can be made, and to 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, but they should be encouraged to participate in some type of action, primarily because action is the best antidote for eco-anxiety but also to show them that they have agency in their future, and that their future is still being written.

Teachers, and parents, walk a tightrope between being honest and being comforting, between empowering young people with hope and weighing them down with the responsibility of saving the world.

Parents, also, must prepare their children to be ready to make good choices and be part of the society they will inhabit as adults. As one parent says, “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 will never be necessary.”

Activism or Despair?

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 anxiety in the aftermath.

Some young people must be asking “Am I sick or is the world sick?“ They might wonder “Am I the only one paralysed by eco-anxiety?” Some young people may be so overwhelmed that they retreat into avoidance and denial.

Some adults might say that it is the rhetoric surrounding climate change that is creating anxiety in young people. But children and adolescents will register our concerns via overheard conversations, news items, popular films that generate questions among their peers, or by experiencing the effects of wild weather and natural disasters unfolding around them.

They want a curriculum that prepares them for the uncertainties of a warming planet, with reliable information about the facts and the magnitude of the threat of climate change in honest, open and frank discussions with trusted and informed adults, whether in the classroom or around the dinner table, in ways they can understand.

Young people want their emotions and concerns acknowledged; they want to be able to make informed choices, and they want to feel empowered to make their own choices; to access and be able to influence policy makers; and they want to join with peers who think along the same lines.

Young people’s anxiety is fuelled by the inaction of adults even as it drives their activism. Scientist Owen Gaffney says that Eco-anxiety is the right response to the scale of the Climate Change. 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.” Young people need to receive this message.

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.”

All literature influences and models the world for readers, defining, describing and explaining the world, and challenging and shaping our values through the actions and voices of heroes and villians.

Scott Westerfeld argues that his work is 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’s protagonist says “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.”

And so, in the style of G. K. 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 must be confronted.

Further reading and references

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