Sometimes it seems that looking for hope in an era of climate change can seem like a fool’s errand.
Climate change is already upon us. This is not news to anyone who’s been paying attention. Remember those horrifying outcomes the climate scientists warned us about in the 1990s? They’re here. Happening now. The mega-storms, the super-wildfires, the changing weather patterns. Rising sea levels? Mass extinctions? Melting polar ice caps? Yup. All happening now.
Congratulations, climate-deniers! You, um “won”? The oil companies’ disinformation campaigns, combined with ghastly leadership deficits and rich nations’ widespread unwillingness to inconvenience themselves, have wrought the predicted result. So, now what? Is it “Game Over” for us now?
What Have We Done?
Well, we’re not dead yet (not if you can read this post), so we can keep looking for hope. If the goal was to avoid catastrophes, though, we can kiss that one goodbye, We screwed that up bad. Catastrophes are everywhere.
The United States offers a global microcosm. The deep south is the New Tornado Alley. Kansas wishes you all the best of luck, and advises you to build storm shelters. California is a near-year-round Burn Zone. Miami Beach and the Florida Keys are barely treading water (at least until the next King Tide), and the Pacific Northwest is still recovering from Death-Valley-like heat last summer. Oh, and . . . how many bomb cyclones have you Northeasterners weathered, in recent years?
If the goal is to avoid making it even worse, well, that, we still can do. But we need the will, the urgency, and the vision. Looking for hope in an era of climate change is hard, but it’s not impossible.
What Can We Do?
First of all, we can stop kidding ourselves. Politicians and pundits who consider climate to be “one of many issues,” and mostly important to a small group of “green nuts,” are deluded. Anyone who doesn’t care about climate change at this point hasn’t been hit hard enough yet. Give it enough time and apathy, and it’ll be their turn soon enough.
Thanks all the same, I’d rather take a different path. And I know I’m not alone. I’m still looking for hope in an era of climate change. I fully realize that I could never in three lifetimes of stringent measures offset the deleterious effects of one poorly-managed feedlot or gas pipeline. But what a defeatist attitude, to decide that if I can’t solve it all, I won’t even bother. Get real!
No, I’ll do what I can – and one thing I can do is educate myself and then speak up. I can demand that polluters and outsized greenhouse gas-emitters be forced to change their ways. That wasteful habits be shunned and more eco-appropriate methods be rewarded.
And I can collaborate on a more hopeful vision. Looking for hope in an era of climate change only seems stupid and pointless to people who can’t see any way forward. How do I know this? Because I’ve already seen something like it before.
Looking for Hope – Again
I think it’s important to consider what negative views of the future do to people – especially to young people. I remember growing up during the Cold War, and the heavy certainty that nuclear Armageddon wasn’t a matter of if, but when. That makes looking for hope harder. It skews a person’s view of the future and what’s possible, believe me. It was only after I’d been an adult for while that I truly started believing we might not blow ourselves up after all.
Instead, it seemed we would choke ourselves to death on pollution. Do you remember the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire? How about the “dead” lakes of Europe, the Adirondacks, and Ontario, killed by acid rain in the 1960s through the 1980s? The fish kills, the lakes too dirty to swim in or eat fish from? The years when we thought bald eagles, ospreys, falcons, and other bird species were doomed to extinction? Do you remember Love Canal and Times Beach? I do (especially Times Beach, MO, which was near my in-laws’ home).
I remember living in a Kansas City where after a few years of residence doctors routinely expected our lung X-rays to show clouding. Where we could park our car outside overnight and the next day it would be covered in a fine layer of tacky, oily pollution. Where, when the wind came in from a certain direction the whole area would stink. All this, even though I lived in a “good” neighborhood, by the redliners’ standards. How bad must it have been in poorer neighborhoods of color?
People started to notice, be outraged, and speak up. The Environmental Protection Agency and other, more global initiatives came into being because people saw a need, not because the government had something against Big Business. We also should recall that the EPA was created during the Nixon Administration. By Republicans. And although Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, a bipartisan vote overrode it. Yes, it was a very different world.
The EPA has always been vilified by some groups. But, backed by strong legislation such as the clean water and clean air acts and the endangered species act, it staved off many disasters. It created some unintended consequences, granted. But Love Canal-style cleanup sites come around far less often now. My neighborhood doesn’t ever stink, my lungs are clear, and the primary everyday hazards to my car come from birds and tree sap, not oily, nasty pollution.
Anyone who tries to claim that pollution standards aren’t necessary, or that we’ve learned better now so we can ease up on restrictions ignores reality. They’re either lying, or don’t choose to remember history. Self-interested humans and profit-driven companies will cut corners and costs, unless some greater power forces them to clean up their act and keep it clean.
Looking for Hope in an Era of Climate Change
Remember that point I made above, “consider what negative views of the future do to people – especially to young people”? It’s equally true in reverse. What if enough of us around the world could come together and throw our whole-hearted efforts into combatting climate change? We could still mitigate some aspects, and perhaps reach a new balance. But crucial to any such effort is a powerful vision of the positive outcomes we still can create.
Powerful, big-money-driven lobbying groups, twisted ideologies of denial, and short-term political concerns remain. They’ll keep short-circuiting the ever-more-more pervasive ongoing threats from continued climate change, if we don’t push back. And we can, we must push back.
But we won’t, if we don’t believe that positive change can still happen. That’s why we desperately need stories and popular media that offer visions of positive outcomes after appropriate effort.
Can Science Fiction Save the Planet?
No literary genre can create the changes that are needed. But the job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be.
And it is historical fact that science fiction has shaped, and continues to shape, the world we live in today. I’ve already written about environmentally-focused science fiction on the “Artdog Adventures” blog, as well as sf writers’ perhaps-lamentable tendency to envision ways we might destroy the Earth.
Dystopian stories envision how things can go terribly wrong, before their protagonists win their way to freedom and security (or tragically fail to do so). And Lord knows, we’re currently living in an environmental dystopia. But how about more hopeful future-environment stories? They’re available, too! Forbes recently published an excellent list, but it’s not exhaustive. And there’s definitely room for more.
A Vision of Hope for the Future We Want
We can envision the future we want, if we have the will and the imagination. We can take a proactive approach to finding better visions, as well. If we readers seek out more science fiction that ends well for the environment, we’ll get it. We need to ask for such books at bookstores of all kinds. Run online searches for them, ask for them in author forums. If we seek them persistently, publishers large and small will answer a perceived market need.
As a society, many of us are looking for hope in an era of climate change. We need fresh and positive visions to guide us. And we who write science fiction can offer a historically-proven place to start looking.
The first montage was composed from many sources. Sincerest thanks to NY1 and the uncredited AP photographer for the New Jersey tornado damage photo, to ABC News for the photo of Hurricane Irma, and to ABC 7, for the uncredited wildfire photo. Thanks also to the San Diego Union Tribune and photographer Jay Labra, AP, for the photo of destruction left in Talisay, Cebu, Philippines after Typhoon Rai, and to The Guardian for the photo of snow in Tomintoul, Moray, Scotland, by photographer Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images. The stormy background is “Storm at Sea,” by plus69 via 123rf. Jan S. Gephardt assembled and designed the montage.
Deepest appreciation to Greta Thunberg for her iconic and straight-to the-heart words, to Wikipedia for making them available, and to the AP via the Los Angeles Times for the photo of Greta at the UN. Jan S. Gephardt assembled the quote-image for her blog post “It’s Okay to Feel What We Feel.”
Environmental Destruction of Yore
Many thanks to the sources of the photos used in the montage of climate destruction from the mid-20th Century. They include Wikimedia and an unidentified German photographer, for the background photo of acid-ran-killed trees in Bavaria, and to Ohio History Central for the photo of a 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga River, from the Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State Library. The photo of the DDT-damaged mallard duck eggs in the upper left of the montage is courtesy of the “Rachel Carson” blog from the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, while the photos of similarly-damaged osprey eggs at bottom center and far right came from the “Osprey Tales” blog.
The photo of the gross-looking acid-rain-killed lake at the top is the header for Interesting Engineering’s article, “What Acid Rain is, and Ways to Restore the Damage it Causes.” (photographer unattributed). IDR Environmental Services provided the photo of Love Canal in the early days, when it was openly used as a hazardous waste dump by Hooker Chemical Company. It illustrates Part Two of a series on “America’s Hazardous Waste History,” by Dawn DeVroom.
The color photo of the Times Beach “Dioxin” road was taken by legendary St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer and Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Famer Robert LaRouche. The black-and-white photo is a 1982 photo by James A. Finley/AP, provided by Legends of America in their article “Ill-Fated Times Beach, Missouri.” Jan S. Gephardt assembled and designed the montage.
Environmental Agencies of the Globe
This montage shows logos and headers from a small fraction of the many governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations from around the world that have developed since the 1970s to combat climate change. They include the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (courtesy of EurOcean), United Nations Climate Change Global Climate Action, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Others whose logos are represented are the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (courtesy of PAHO, the Pan American Health Organization), The African Climate Foundation, and the Climate Action Network of Southeast Asia (CANSEA). Many thanks to all, and good luck with your varied missions! Montage by Jan S. Gephardt.
A Collection of Quote-Images
Deepest thanks to the World Economic Forum, which provided the Ban Ki-moon quote-image as part of an excellent collection. This image also was featured in an earlier Artdog Adventures post as an Artdog Quote of the Week (contrasted with one from the disgraced, twice-impeached 45th US President, in 2017), but I thought it fit so well I’d use it again.
The background artwork for my pull-quote on the job of speculative and science fiction is Nebula 2, © 2021 by Chaz Kemp.
I’m sorry to say that QuotesHunter (my original source for the “Something We Create” quote-image) doesn’t seem to be around anymore, but you can still find this image on my Artdog Adventures posts “Creating Well” and “The Future we Want, and How to Get There.” It’s something of an emblem for this “The Future We Want” series.