We Need Stories of Dystopia Without Apocalypse

Climate change and the human imagination

Let’s start with a thought experiment.

Think about the numbers 2 and 3. Now think about 72 and 73.

Did the difference between 2 and 3 feel more significant than 72 and 73? To most of us it does, even though we were taught in first grade that every unit of the number line is the same.

This sense that the distance between values decreases as they get larger is rooted in our biology. Cognitive neuroscientists have identified two systems in the brain for understanding quantity. The first allows us to instantly recognize small quantities: 1, 2, 3, sometimes 4 or 5. The other system detects relative proportions and is about as good at seeing the relative amounts of 10 and 15 or 50 and 75.

This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense if we think in terms of evolution. It’s important for survival to be able to measure small quantities — how many young are you looking after? how many predators just ran past? — and to be able to tell whether one source of food is significantly more plentiful than another. But when we’re asked to choose between a bush with 72 berries or a bush with 73, our brains fail us. To tell the difference, we have to count, and slowly. Quickly processing exact quantities at large scale has never been necessary for our survival as a species.

Quickly processing exact quantities at large scale has never been necessary for our survival as a species.

That was the case before climate change. Now our inability to imagine large quantities — or distant futures — in concrete terms may doom us all.

In 2006, a group of political science researchers from the Universities of Tennessee and Michigan conducted a survey in twenty-four countries exploring the human ability to imagine the distant future. Survey questions included, “‘When you hear someone use the word future, approximately how many years into the future does this mean to you?’’ Researchers found that respondents interpreted “future” to mean only about fifteen years from now — and that the imagination “goes dark” fifteen to twenty years into the future. Most relevant for climate change, “individuals’ ability to imagine the future decreases as the time frame increases.” Human difficulty in imagining the future may help explain our inattention to the long-term consequences of climate change. Individual storms and “natural disasters” receive our immediate attention given their spectacular — and newsworthy — nature. But threats that ocean levels will rise in thirty or fifty or a hundred years or that temperatures will be dramatically higher by the next century just aren’t within our temporal grasp.

Human difficulty in imagining the future may help explain our inattention to the long-term consequences of climate change.

A whole body of psychology research affirms that humans have different relationships to the present and to the future. Would you rather have five dollars today or eight dollars a month from now? Experiments asking these kinds of questions, with variations in amounts of money and lengths of time, have contributed to the theory of temporal discounting. Essentially, effort, money, and time are perceived as having more value to us today than they have in the future. Five dollars is worth more to us now than in a month — and maybe worth more than six dollars in a month. Similarly, saving millions of dollars by not building a sea wall feels more valuable today than having to spend even more in the future to rebuild towns damaged by rising water.

If the future becomes less valuable as it grows more distant, the demands of future tasks are perceived as less banal than today’s efforts. The vague chore of rebuilding a town seems easier than the rigamarole of paperwork and contractors and details of building that sea wall. Studies of temporal construal show that near-future events are imagined in “low level” concrete details, while distant-future events are conceived of in “high level” abstract features. Goals that seem abstractly valuable in the long-term like dramatically reducing carbon outputs are perceived radically differently than the immediate and challenging realities of living without air travel, cattle ranching, and other sources of emissions. Even those who believe in the urgency of climate change are likely to put off the hardest lifestyle changes for later.

Even those who believe in the urgency of climate change are likely to put off the hardest lifestyle changes for later.

Elke Weber, Co-Director of Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions and the Center for Decision Sciences, explores human responses to climate change. In a 2006 paper, she describes two systems for human risk processing that rely on different neural mechanisms: an associative system that responds intuitively and emotionally and an analytical system that responds consciously and explicitly. These two systems can act in isolation or in unison, but the strongest reactions are triggered by recent, personal, or unfamiliar threats. Weber makes the case that because scientific presentations of climate change tend to be impersonal and distant, environmental threats are likely processed by only the analytical system. How many people reacted with fear to the recent graphs showing the decrease in sea ice over time? How much urgency do predictions about fractions of a degree generate on a daily basis? Humans are biased toward information that is simple and emotionally relevant, terms that rarely describe climate change. Weber writes, “without intervention, the risks of global warming will fail to evoke visceral reactions, thus predicting that we will fail to allocate attention and material resources.”

Some journalists and activists attempt to play directly to our emotional responses; in his recent article provocatively titled The Uninhabitable Earth, David Wallace-Wells begins by promising his readers that with regard to climate change, “it is worse than you think.” Reactions to his comprehensive forecast of the nightmarish potential of climate change have certainly been emotional. The question remains whether, as alarm passes, readers slip back into paralysis because the challenges ahead seem either implausible or insurmountable.

It may be that raw information can’t overcome our struggle to conceive of 2035 or 2075 in concrete realities of climate change that are expensive and challenging and emotional enough to inspire us to take action now, today. Should we just give up?

Research says: maybe not.

Researchers in the United Kingdom and Germany have explored whether it’s possible to reduce our temporal discounting so that we’re more motivated to act now to mitigate climate change. In one study, Sabine Pahl and Judith Bauer created future scenarios with stories and images about a young woman living in 2105 and experiencing the negative effects of environmental change. Participants in the study were asked either to imagine themselves in the woman’s place or to analyze her experiences. Afterward, those who imagined the woman’s perspective and the concrete details of her life spent more time looking at educational materials about climate change and took more materials with them than those who remained analytical. If this effort to imagine other people’s perspectives inspires emotional rather than analytical processing, perhaps we have hope to overcome the difficult abstraction of considering distant futures. The authors conclude that this approach might be even more effective if participants could choose stories of climate change about people similar to themselves from a range of narratives.

Another group of researchers, including Elke Weber, tested whether they could diminish psychological distance by inspiring a desire to leave a positive legacy for future generations. In an online experiment, some of the three hundred twelve participants were asked to write a short essay “describing what they want to be remembered by for future generations” and were then asked a series of questions about their beliefs and willingness to take action on climate change; participants could also donate some or all of their compensation from the study to environmental causes. Those who had been asked to think about their legacy identified stronger beliefs, were more willing to act, and donated at higher rates toward climate causes. The authors suggest that this provocation to think about legacy may be a key strategy to motivating climate action.

Taken together, these strategies for considering future perspectives and our own legacy could spark greater climate consciousness and action. But after any study of an intervention finds an effect on behavior or health, we’re left with a similar set of questions: How long did the effect last — a week? a month? How much did the effect depend on where and when the intervention was carried out or on the people running the experiment? How specific is the effect to the gender or age or education level of the participants? What minimum dose of the intervention is necessary to have an effect? And most critically: if the intervention works and has long-term effects for many people, could we ever afford to bring it to scale and reach everyone?

Fortunately our species has spent thousands of years developing the intervention we need: literature.

Emanuele Castano and David Kidd at The New School conducted a remarkable study in 2013 on reading and Theory of Mind. In the study, participants were asked to read excerpts of literary fiction, genre fiction, nonfiction, or nothing. Then they were assessed for their ability to imagine another person’s emotional and psychological reality. The participants who read literary fiction showed a markedly greater Theory of Mind — what’s more commonly thought of as empathy. While there’s surely grounds for debate in the literary community about the exact reading assignments given in the experiment and for further research about whether some genre fiction or nonfiction can also cultivate empathy, this research confirms that literary fiction could be the tool we need.

Empathy is at the heart of imagining the daily suffering of some future human and how our own legacy might affect them.

Empathy is at the heart of imagining the daily suffering of some future human and how our own legacy might affect them. It even holds the power to affect our choices and behavior. The Theory of Mind study leaves us with the same kinds of questions about how long the participants showed increased empathy and how much reading is necessary for lasting effects, but intensity and dosage and time are the great experiment of literature.

Reading could save us from climate change — if we read (and write) the right things.

The Self at the Bottom of the Toilet Bowl

The term “Climate Fiction” is only about a decade old, but it has already been used for a wide range of novels. Among them are Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow, Lydia Millet’s Mermaids in Paradise, Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus, and many others that are set in a near-future or slightly parallel version of our own world. Such novels are often described as being “dystopian” or “post-apocalyptic” — two terms that are necessary to untangle as we think about what kinds of stories might actually change human attitudes and behaviors toward our environment.

In simple terms, an apocalypse is an end of days event — in climate fiction often a storm or a meteor or a similar ‘act of God.’ In those kinds of climate narratives, the dystopia is what follows. Depictions of apocalypse and the dark days afterward abound in modern culture, filling up every corner of our media from movies like Armageddon to the Dr. Seuss classic The Lorax. At their best these narratives are compelling and emotional, creating a moment of empathy for the characters and their trials. But for the purpose of inspiring action against environmental degradation and climate change, research suggests they may undermine their own intentions.

For the purpose of inspiring action against environmental degradation and climate change, research suggests these narratives may undermine their own intentions.

Mike Hulme, a Professor of Climate and Culture at King’s College London, offers a definition of climate as “an idea which mediates between the human experience of ephemeral weather and the cultural ways of living which are animated by this experience,” and explains that we find stability in our conception of the overarching climate and how our culture deals with it. In New England, we have snow boots for December and rain boots for April, and if we pull them out of the closet a few days early or late, we shrug off any disruption in our expectations. Hulme argues that gradual changes in weather occur in patterns too large to be easily grasped; when they are understood, those changes can be destabilizing.

Further complicating this idea, Nico Stehr, a sociologist and the Founding Director of the European Center for Sustainability Research, argues that our conceptions of climate not only set our expectations but weather events that deviate from these conceptions actually affirm our trust in climate. For one thing, “images that express fear, risk, vulnerability and danger can lead to ‘denial and paralysis.’” Even worse, when violent crises seem to have “natural” origins we stop thinking about the human contributions to climate change and the politics and policies that have contributed to the disaster — which undermines our ability to prevent such disasters for the future.

If extreme weather events only affirm our trust in our expectations of climate, what does that mean for the role of the apocalypse in climate fiction? Some authors may guide our attention to the cultural and political implications of fictional natural disasters, but even these might restore our faith in our real-world concepts of climate. Critically, while there will be natural disasters, the threat of climate change won’t arrive as a singularity, a sudden cataclysm that destroys our way of life. Instead things will change slowly — flooding here, intense storms there, drought and wildfires becoming the norm — too slowly for some of us to process, or even believe in.

Some authors may guide our attention to the cultural and political implications of fictional natural disasters, but even these might restore our faith in our real-world concepts of climate.

There’s a narrow path between the pitfalls suggested by the psychological and sociological research about climate change. As humans, we need stories to help us make sense of our world and empathize with the future. At this moment, we need stories that make the realities of climate change concrete and pervasive and of human origin, as well as viscerally emotional when it comes to the struggles of our descendants. We need stories of dystopia, but not apocalypse.

Some novels that employ these strategies to help us reckon with climate change are already being written under the climate fiction banner, but literary fiction is also beginning to take on the challenge. In Golden Age, the final volume of her Last Hundred Years trilogy, Jane Smiley writes of her character Jesse Langdon:

“[Jesse’s] attitudes toward global warming had been shaped by a movie he’d seen with [his children] Perky and Felicity early in the summer, The Day After Tomorrow. They had been eating popcorn and gaping, just like everyone else in the audience, and thinking what if what if, and then, apparently, New York City froze solid in the space of about five minutes, and Jesse wasn’t the only person in the audience who laughed out loud.”

When Jesse’s daughter tells him about the 2011 tsunami in Japan, Jesse finds “he wasn’t devastated. He had gotten so small-minded, he thought, that he was mostly grateful that this one disaster, at least, was far away.”

Smiley’s explorations of Jesse and his reactions to natural disasters wink at Stehr’s research. Her trilogy as a whole chronicles the history of an Iowa farm family, the Langdons, as they sprawl across the American landscape and entangle themselves with history over the years from 1920 to 2019. The structure of her work alone does something important: every chapter is another year of the century, plodding along, taking us back to first grade and reminding us that every unit on the number line is equally long and equally real to those living it. The books are about the dramas any family contains, but in the background the gradual reality of climate change is revealed from many points of view. We witness the transformation of the agricultural industry from small family farms to giant agribusinesses. We empathize with Felicity’s final trip to the family farm, when she finds that the soil is nearly gone and that the company that owns the land now has covered the ground with plastic sheeting so the earth doesn’t blow away. We consider patriarch Walter Langdon’s legacy — and our own.

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins takes a similar and even more explicit approach. Barkskins tells the story of two men who leave France in 1693 to travel to what will eventually be Canada, to work as indentured laborers until they’ve paid off their bonds. They’re set to chopping down trees, clearing land for farming in the middle of what seems an endless forest. Both men’s family trees mingle First Nations and European roots as the novel follows six generations of their descendants as they take up logging, ax-grinding, corporate leadership, and environmental conservation at different turns. Much like Smiley, Proulx is conscious to give readers a wide range of perspectives to empathize with and a sense that the opportunities and constraints of a life felt as real to inhabitants of the seventeenth or nineteenth centuries as they do to us today. And in the background we see the self-serving and brutal decisions made by people like us to further human domination of the North American landscape. In the last pages, one character becomes Proulx’s final mouthpiece: “It will take thousands of years for great ancient forests to return. None of us here will see the mature results of our work, but we must try.”

Both Smiley and Proulx are known for their writing of place and environment, but these novels are a quintessential model for the new climate fiction we need. As we set them down our attention is directed from the many generations behind us to those ahead, to the legacies we’re forced to imagine because the effects of human activity and climate change are already concrete and clear, as real as the personal drama that occurs alongside them that usually fills our range of vision on its own.

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that as of 2016, 70% of American adults believe global warming is happening and will harm future generations — but only 33% discuss global warming “at least occasionally.” A mere 18% of American adults are classified by researchers as “alarmed,” meaning they’ve moved from worrying about to actively responding to climate change.

Perhaps our best first step is to acknowledge the realities of our brains: we are capable of clear-cutting rainforests for a sliver of profit, we can inspire empathy with symbols on paper, but we can’t fully imagine the future. Worrying about 2060 or 2061 or 2062 feels like a distant blur compared to worrying about 2018 or 2019 or 2020. Yet we’ll get there, or our children will. What we need in the meantime are stories that remind us viscerally, emotionally, of the truth: our legacies will be real whether we can imagine them or not. What we need from fiction is empathy, not apocalypse.

More Like This

In Times of Environmental Collapse, Storytelling is a Form of Repair

In Alissa Hattman's dystopian novel "Sift," two women journey across a wasteland of destruction in search for fertile land

Sep 5 - Jacqueline Alnes

Being a Woman Is a Horror Story

Stephanie Feldman's "Saturnalia" is a near-future novel that breaks gender norms and harnesses fear as a therapeutic device

Oct 17 - Jody Keisner

A Time-Traveling Novel About an Orphan Battling Climate Change

In Lidia Yuknavitch's novel "Thrust," a girl with special powers tries to save a ruined earth

Jul 26 - Jacqueline Alnes
Thank You!