Sunday, February 22, 2015

Can cli-fi save us from ourselves? Novelist Alice Robinson in Australia ponders the question

On  March, 10, 2015 ALICE ROBINSON wrote:

Can cli-fi save us from ourselves? An Australain novelist ponders...

SUBHEADLINE: With the grim prospects of climate change, a new genre of narratives can address our cultural anxiety, attitudes and provide comfort for future generations.

Climate-change fiction – known as ''Cli-Fi'' – is still emerging as a cohesive category of fiction writing. Even so, it seems to me that settler Australian storytelling has long been preoccupied with the vulnerability of urban areas to dystopian, climate-related societal and environmental collapse.

Novels such as Steven Amsterdam’s Things We Didn’t See Coming, Thea Astley’s Drylands, Gabrielle Lord’s Salt and John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When the War Began – as well as cult films On the Beach and the infamous Mad Max, to name a few of my favorites – all grapple with what it means for ‘normal’ society to break down under external pressures: political upheaval, weather, war. More recently, apocalyptic films such as the Mad Max sequel Road Warrior, and the apocalyptic film These Final Hours, continue to gesture at some pervasive fear regarding our nation’s potential for longevity, stability, safety and health.

But why are we so worried about things going wrong for us here in Australia?

I think there are two powerful reasons.

First, there is the issue of the damage done to our lands since European invasion.

Second: our grim prospects for weathering the impacts of climate change.

Together, these realities seem to portend ecological uncertainty at best and the destruction for our home places, the lands that keep us alive, at worst. That these concerns are amplified in our national storytelling gestures at an undercurrent of cultural anxiety. It tells me that these issues matter to us.

The Europeans who invaded Australia embodied particular cultural beliefs and understandings. Through these, they positioned and interacted with Australian lands.

The outcomes of these interactions – predominantly in the service of European agriculture – have been largely disastrous for Australia’s unique and fragile ecologies. Devastating and degrading, the extensive de-forestation undertaken in order to create grazing lands for stock, for example, has led to widespread salinity, soil erosion and loss of habitat and biodiversity all across the continent.

Simultaneously, it is unlikely that any part of the globe will remain unaffected by climate change. Disturbingly for us, ecological circumstances here in Australia have already been appropriated as the “canary in the mine” for projected climate change outcomes elsewhere. Troubling conditions including enduring drought and increasingly severe bushfire, illustrate ecological expectations for global futures. It is likely that Australia’s own future will grow exponentially more unstable, perhaps catastrophically so, as climate change continues to manifest.

Given this, what role do narratives, specifically novels, play? In a realm more commonly reserved for scientific enquiry, what can mere stories about climate change and ecological degradation do for us?
It is unlikely that cli-fi alone can temper the significant impacts of climate change on our already compromised lands.

But it does furnish me with some cautious comfort to consider that the novels and stories we write now, depicting imagined climatically altered futures, might help prepare us, at least emotionally if not literally, for what comes next. There is already a long tradition in Australia of writing about the land; the many narratives we have told about our experiences ‘battling’ and ‘taming’ the continent since European settlement highlight, and perhaps even encourage us to come to terms with, the ecological damage already wrought.

If nothing else, our ability to preserve cultural ideas and perceptions about our lands, futures and prospects for survival, through publication, lends us a certain power during what feels like a hopelessly powerless time.

Writing and publishing, as well as other cultural records, like film, afford us the opportunity to send a message through the years.

Even if cli-fi can’t save us from ourselves, there is a measure of comfort in the notion that future generations will read the texts we are producing now. My hope is that, in doing so, they will come to understand that the perilous realities they are grappling with were already troubling to us. A tragedy we could imagine, if not avoid, long before it came to pass.

About the author

Alice Robinson is a lecturer in creative writing at Melbourne’s NMIT. She has a PhD in creative writing from Victoria University. Anchor Point is Alice’s her debut cli fi novel.

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