Imagination, Climate Futures, and the Politics of ‘Positivity’

I have the honor of being one of four international writers as part of the Climate Imagination Project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, in collaboration with the upcoming UN Climate summit COP 26 in November of this year.  My colleagues are:  Libia Brenda, a writer, editor, and translator based in Mexico City; Xia Jia (pen name of Wang Yao), a speculative fiction author and associate professor of Chinese Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University; Hannah Onoguwe, a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in Yenagoa, in the Bayelsa State in southern Nigeria, a region famous for its oil industry. Read more about them here!

Since we are charged with creating, through fiction, ‘positive’ climate futures, and because ‘positive’ is used in so many senses, I want to interrogate the term ‘positive’ here, in the light of the new and unsurprisingly dire UN Climate report, IPCC AR6

Above: Global Warming from 1880 to 2020. Animation by NASA

What does it mean to even talk of positivity at a time like this, when people less privileged than global urbanites are already experiencing various degrees of apocalypse?  As Barbara Ehrenreich so eloquently articulates in this animated video, the term is loaded.  “Be Positive” has been used by authoritarian governments to suppress dissent and distract from their failure to deal with real problems.  When the second wave of the pandemic hit India, government leaders pushed positive thinking even as the crisis revealed the lack of proper planning and preparation.  A hollow ‘Positive thinking’ is a luxury afforded to the privileged, who are insulated through wealth and power from the worst effects of pandemics and climate change.  At best, such positivity is delusional in a world of vaccine discrimination, melting ice sheets, deadly heat waves and disappearing species.  At worst it is cruel in its dismissal of the real suffering of real people and nonhuman species, and harmful because it distracts from meaningful action.  This kind of empty positivism may well be how politicians and billionaires anaesthetize their consciences in order to sleep at night, as a source of comfort, an alternative to taking a good, hard look at themselves in the mirror.  I want no part of that.  I’d rather be a thorn in the side of such people. 

The kind of ‘positivism’ I want to talk about in the context of climate fiction is much more in line with the ‘optimism of the will’ attributed to Antonio Gramsci. The kind of positive future I want to imagine does not shy away from real problems of the world, nor does it look beyond or around them. Instead, it engages with real problems in an imaginative way.  Our present is already dystopic for billions of people and millions of other species.  We can’t usefully imagine ‘positive’ futures without first acknowledging this, without attempting to walk through – not around – the valley of despair and suffering with all who are forced to do so by the powers that be.  What dystopian stories do is to walk into this valley and stay there.  While dystopias are often necessary as warnings and wake-up calls, an overabundance of them can stifle and constrain our thinking by evoking fear and despair.  Fear is useful and necessary, but when we are stuck in it, it can paralyze us into inaction; worse, it is hackable, as one might ascertain from the rise of populist authoritarian leaders around the globe.  A certain kind of fear response seems make us more likely to give up our power to others, to seek ‘strongmen’ to lead the nation, or to surrender agency to technobillionaires. 

So what I would consider ‘optimism of the will’ in the context of climate change, biodiversity loss and our various other social-environmental crises would be to use the power of speculative fiction to do the hard work of imagining ways to engage usefully with our current crises.  To avoid becoming pointless escapism or heartless dismissal of stark reality, such an approach must be grounded in place.   After all, climate change is a global phenomenon, but it manifests locally as changes in temperature, precipitation, and the like.  Abstractions like a target of 1.5 ⁰C global average surface temperature are important and necessary in certain contexts, but used carelessly they can obscure the fact that some places will be quite a bit hotter than others even with such an average being maintained globally. Similarly, the term ‘net-zero has been co-opted to allow business as usual – if you are an industry emitting carbon dioxide, no problem, you just have to offset your emissions by planting trees (no matter that a plantation isn’t a forest and trees take time to grow) or capturing carbon through still-unproven technologies.  Or, you can go for the brilliant illogic of the US and the EU that promotes burning forests as a net-zero technology. You can always hide carbon excesses through global accounting tricks.  Then, net-zero becomes a smokescreen that allows the very same socio-economic structures to continue to exist that caused the problem in the first place.  You can pollute here, and claim to offset emissions over there. 

Hence the importance of place, localness and community control over resources.  It’s not that local and global are in opposition here – both are important, and we must connect one to the other. Because we are in a planetary crisis, I believe we need stories from multiple places, with multiple voices so that we can make connections across scales.  Imagination inspired and aided by reality can be a powerful instrument.  Consider for example what communities around the world are already doing, in their distinct geographies and cultures, to deal with their problems.  There is a lot that speculative fiction writers can learn from real people. Consider Parvati Devi, a woman from an impoverished village in Jharkhand, India, who, along with several other women, regenerated their degraded forest over twenty years of protection and care, thus regaining some measure of water security in a land desertified by forest destruction for development projects. The women who saved their forest have no formal education, and live hard lives.  There is no doubt that they have multiple reasons to weep, to mourn, to suffer, and they do.  Yet when I got the chance to speak to Parvati Devi (she had to travel 5 kilometers to speak to us via a borrowed phone) she was passionate, articulate, ebullient, determined.  This is, to me, what climate action should look like – communities deeply engaged with crisis, drawing upon collective intelligence, mourning, grieving, celebrating and working through problems together, informed by a generous, empathetic, courageous way of being in the world.  

Above: Parvati Devi with other village women in Jharkhand. Photo Credit: S. Mukherji

A misalliance between the complex, nonlinear nature of climate reality and our simple, mechanistic frameworks of thinking is likely to encourage false solutions and false optimism. Mainstream paradigms can be challenged by the ideas and actions of people marginalized by modern industrial civilization, which may give rise to new and better ways of working through the apocalypse.  This is one reason why Indigenous epistemologies are so crucial. Some of them point to an entirely different, even revolutionary way of being in the world, see, for example Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay on an economy based on abundance rather than scarcity, or Kyle Whyte’s notion of Time as Kinship. In my new to-read book pile are such works as ‘Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World,” by Tyson Yunkaporta, Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability (edited by Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling), Whale Snow: Inupiat, Climate Change and Multispecies Resistance in Arctic Alaska by Chie Sakakibara. In all these readings are currents of possibility, and a kind of ebullient, restorative, joyful positivity that can only be wrought by those who have walked through, and are still walking through the hell of colonialism, precarity, and climate impacts, and surviving.

One of the great comforts we have is that there is no lack of people with good ideas who are active in the world. Parvati Devi isn’t an exception – there are hundreds of such initiatives led by so-called ordinary people all over India and the world. The denial of their intelligence, creativity and agency is one of the biggest mistakes that the privileged of the world can make.  Top-down approaches are likely to fail without the crucial information and action that comes from the ground up – the former must be informed and animated by the latter.

This is why I am glad to note that the description of the Climate Imagination project specifies stories about “collective action, aided by scientific insights, culturally responsive technologies, and revolutions in governance and labor.”


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One Response to “Imagination, Climate Futures, and the Politics of ‘Positivity’”

  1. Solarpunk, warum gerade jetzt? – FragmentAnsichten Says:

    […] angefangen habe (dem wohl ersten Beitrag, den ich am Handy tippe btw), habe ich einen interessanten Artikel von Vandana Singh gelesen, in dem sie darauf eingeht, wie sich CliFi um positive Zukunftsvisionen bemüht, ohne dabei […]

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