Move over sci-fi: 'Climate fiction' finds way into classrooms

by Kyle Plantz | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 10 April 2015 13:45 GMT

Stanford University students listen while classmates make a presentation on March 11, 2014. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

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Classes exploring “cli-fi” heat up at universities around the world

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Students at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts recently read “The Windup Girl,” the tale of a dystopian future Bangkok where climate change has pushed up temperatures and sea levels, and viruses acquired from genetically modified food are killing people.

The book is part of a new class at the campus on “climate fiction,” or “cli-fi,” a relatively new variant of science fiction.

Around the world, from the United States to India, cli-fi classes are creeping into timetables as academics try to bring a growing international concern into the classroom in a lively way that combines science and emotion.

“Cli-fi is capturing what is in the air now, the human impact on the environment, and I think literature is a great tool to raise awareness for this,” said Elizabeth Trobaugh, an English professor who teaches the class at Holyoke, and who earlier co-taught a class looking at real-life science in science fiction.

The class she and fellow professor Steven Winters teach - “Cli-Fi: Stories and Science of the Coming Climate Apocalypse,” includes a two-hour science lab each week.

“We take some scientific topic introduced in the literature that can work as a lab and explore some of the themes discussed using an experiment,” Winters said.

While reading “The Windup Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi, the class extracted DNA from strawberries to understand the genetic manipulation that occurs in the novel.

“They like learning science in the context of reading a story and it allows students to thrive in science and English,” Winters said. “There are some who feel stronger in English and they feel confident that they won’t be behind other classmates who might be more confident in science or vice versa.”



At Temple University in Philadelphia, doctoral candidate Ted Howell, chose cli-fi as a topic for his popular fiction class. “Cli-Fi: Science Fiction, Climate Change and Apocalypse”, now in its first semester, looks at novels including H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine”, a look at the future written in 1895, and Margaret Atwood’s “The Year of the Flood,” in which characters warn of a disaster that will dramatically reshape life on Earth.

Howell tries to “stagger the reading” between science fiction and climate fiction to see how both genres depict climate change.

“Our key questions will be these: How can something so gradual, so significant, and so mind-boggling as climate change be treated in literature? And can fiction help to alter our conceptions of the earth and our role in changing it?” he wrote in the class syllabus.

Howell’s students also are required to post their work to a public blog, to try to bring them and their views into wider climate change discussions.

“I thought having a blog would make it more outward facing,” he said. “Instead of sitting in class and talking about it, we could instead respond to a conversation.”



The classes aren’t only getting a foothold in the United States. The Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, may launch its first cli-fi class this summer.

T. Ravichandran, a professor of English, is seeking approval to teach a course analyzing cli-fi novels and films to “help identify and understand the driving forces causing ecosystem degradation”, according to his course proposal for “Cli-Fi and Cli-Flicks”.

The class would look at popular cli-fi books including Harry Harrison’s “Make Room! Make Room!” – which explores the consequences of unchecked population growth – and Jim Laughter’s “Polar City Red”, which looks at life in the year 2075 in a polar city in Alaska.

Students would also watch movies such as “Interstellar”, “Soylent Green”, and “The Day After Tomorrow”.

Ravichandran admits it isn’t always the case that “cli-flicks accurately portray climate change.”

“In fact, they get most of the facts wrong,” he said. “The sea level will not raise overnight as in ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. Yet, they serve a good purpose in presenting the facts in an exaggerated manner. Cli-flicks give a much-needed shock treatment to those who refuse to act on what is so blatant.”

Since his is a technical institution, many students are studying engineering and the sciences. Ravichandran hopes his course will help give them a broader look at what technology is producing in the world.

“Students get hands-on work related to technological solutions to human problems,” he said. “Yet, they are mostly oblivious to the irreversible damage such technological solutions cause to the planet.

“I hope the course will trigger their thinking towards sustainable use of scarce resources and cause a shift in their anthropocentric mind-set to an eco-centric one,” he said.

“There are already millions of scientific materials available on climate change,” he added. “Yet they have not effectively reached a huge populace.

(Reporting by Kyle Plantz; editing by Laurie Goering)


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