Fiction as a Vehicle for Climate Change Education
By Charlene D’Avanzo
Emerita Professor at Hampshire College, Amherst, MA
Environmental educators, climate activists, and scientists help people understand our climate crisis through a variety of approaches including newspapers, television, environmental reports, presentations, and more. However, in my experience as an ecologist and teacher, many climate change educators disregard an extremely popular and potentially effective venue—fiction. In this essay I explain why fiction can be a powerful vehicle that makes real the climate catastrophe facing present day and future Earthlings.
From ecologist to cli-fi author
My own transformation from college professor and marine ecologist to cli-fi (climate fiction) author was sudden and completely unexpected. One afternoon I was listening to a well-known climatologist, Raymond Bradley, describe how powerful climate change deniers were personally attacking his reputation with challenges to his research, including unreasonable demands for data, computer records and the like. Bradley has written over two hundred scientific papers on climate change, is a University Distinguished Professor and Director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and is the author and editor of thirteen books. He was visibly shaken by these attacks, and I was appalled that a scientist whose research will help us prepare for the impending climate crisis could be treated so poorly.
I stood outside the UMass auditorium feeling angry, but also rattled that I’d known nothing about Bradley’s ordeal. His was a story that needed to be told! The idea that I could write that narrative suddenly came to me, but I immediately dismissed it as daft. Sure, my name was on many research papers and grant proposals, but telling Bradley’s story would be entirely different.
“What most people read, I knew, was fiction.”
Over the following weeks and months, I read numerous articles and essays about climate change scientists who were the targets of such harassment. Although compelling, these non-fiction accounts appeared in scientific magazines that the public never saw. What most people read, I knew, was fiction. As time went on, I simply couldn’t shake the idea that I could write climate-change fiction. After all, I understood the mechanics of writing and the discipline required from my career in academia. With time and a good deal of help, surely I could learn how to become a fiction author.
Finally compelled to “do something” about the looming climate crisis, at semester’s end I left my position at Hampshire College and began the long process of transforming myself from a writer of research papers and grant proposals to a cli-fi author. Now, three books in my Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi mystery series have been published and the fourth is scheduled to come out early this summer. I was drawn to mysteries in particular because the process of following clues and relying on data, as detectives do, is akin to scientific investigation. Each book features a different climate change understory based on actual events. For example, in Cold Blood, Hot Sea scientists on a research cruise suspect climate change deniers are behind a series of suspicious incidents at sea. The Gulf of Maine’s rapid warming pits threatened lobstermen against each other in Secrets Haunt the Lobsters’ Sea.
In the era of fake news, fiction as an environmental education vehicle may seem an odd choice. Here I explain why non-scientists, including climate change skeptics, may be more receptive to information about warming and its consequences in fictional narratives in contrast to more traditional non-fiction approaches.
“There is a long history in the use of fiction to confront social injustice and disinformation.”
Fiction and Social Change
There is a long history in the use of fiction to confront social injustice and disinformation. For instance, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second best-selling book of the nineteenth century after the Bible, fueled the abolitionist cause at that time. Similarly, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed horrendous working conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking industry as well as the environmental impacts. More recent environmental fiction examples include Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.
Why is fiction a potent agent of social change? In her New York Times op-ed piece, award-winning author Ann Patchett says: “Reading fiction … is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings.” Similarly, novelist Barbara Kingsolver said that: “Fiction cultivates empathy for a theoretical stranger by putting you inside his head, allowing you to experience life from his point of view.” If fiction can help readers feel empathy for characters with different world views and experiences, then reading about fictional characters whose lives are impacted by global warming could provoke a desire for social change to address the climate crisis.
As a scientist, I was interested to read published research about impacts of fiction on empathy. For example, D.C. Kidd and E. Castano’s Science paper compared ability to detect and understand others’ emotions in two groups of students given a standardized test designed for this purpose. One group read short literary texts, the other similar length non-fiction. The social scientists found that students who read literary fiction scored higher on the empathy test, at least in the short term. The study’s authors suggest that this may be the result of literary fiction’s ability to inspire creative thought and engage the reader intellectually.
Writing Ecological Fiction: Suggestions and Recommendations
As a marine ecologist and college professor, my writing was largely limited to research papers and grant proposals. When I made the switch to cli-fi, I had much to learn about writing fiction with an ecological message. Below are several suggestions and caveats I have found especially important to creating an engaging, scientifically sound, and emotionally resonating work of fiction.
The craft of first-rate fiction writing comes first. It goes without saying that the social message will be lost if people don’t read an author’s book. Two elements- character development and essential scenes- are especially critical in good fiction. Successful fiction writers create unforgettable characters (e.g., Huck Finn, Mary Poppins) that readers care about. If the protagonist and other key players embody a social issue, this is all the more reason to craft remarkable individuals. The second component, memorable scenes, can be defined as ones so good they can’t be cut. These often include a turning point for central characters- an incident that changes everything.
The first chapter of Barbara Kingsolver’s cli-fi novel Flight Behavior beautifully illustrates both elements. The story begins when Dellarobia, a young woman who dreams of education and life away from her sweet but slow husband Cub Turnbow, comes upon a magical sight in the woods. Tree boughs that glow with an “orange glaze,” which she interprets as a “vision of glory,” are actually millions of monarch butterflies roosting on the Turnbow property in rural Tennessee. The effects of climate change have driven the butterflies off course from their normal wintering site in Mexico.
Dellarobia is a smart, appealing character whose worldview explodes as she works alongside Ovid Byron, a monarch expert studying the unexpected arrival of the butterflies in Tennessee. In the scene below, Dellarobia feeds Ovid’s body while he feeds her mind:
“It’s a greenhouse gas, carbon,” Ovid added. “It traps the heat of the sun. That number has been going up. Right before our eyes, as they say.”
“You’re telling me somebody counts the atoms?” she asked.
“It’s not that difficult. With the right equipment…”
He had practically swallowed his sandwich whole. She set hers aside and dug in her purse for something presentable in the way of an emergency food supply. “So the carbon goes up, when we burn oil and stuff?” She was working to hold her thoughts in place.
He nodded. “Up, up, up.”
She found what she was looking for, a single-serving cup of dried peaches, and she handed it to him. “So what goes out of whack, when it hits three-fifty?”
“The thermal stability of the planet…”
“What are we up to so far?”
He swallowed a few times before speaking. “About three-ninety.”
“What? We went past? Why hasn’t everything blown up?”
He studied the empty cup in his hand. “Some would say it has. Hurricanes reaching a hundred miles inland, wind speeds we’ve never seen. Deserts on fire. In New Mexico we are seeing the inferno. Texas is worse. Australia is unimaginably worse – a lot of the continent is in permanent drought. Farms abandoned forever.”
In this short passage, readers learn a good deal about greenhouse gases and their impacts through inquisitive Dellarobia and Ovid, a patient teacher who paints a vivid image of warming’s impacts.
Writers of socially or politically conscious fiction face numerous challenges. Below are several caveats I’ve found especially important:
Don’t preach to your readers. A draft of my first book included a scene in which a scientist lectures a fisherman about ocean warming. I cut it because the scientist came across as tedious and condescending. Nobody wants to be told what to think.
Avoid stereotypes. Real people are complicated and contradictory. Characters that personify a social issue should be multidimensional ones that surprise, engage, and even captivate. A Dellarobia drawn only as naive southern hick would irritate some readers and alienate others.
Don’t oversimplify. In my mysteries it would be too easy to represent climate-change deniers as stubborn dummies. Instead, I try hard to fairly represent various points of view and underlying rationales. For instance, in my 2018 book, Secrets Haunt the Lobsters’ Sea, lobstermen who publicly deny ocean warming actually recognize that water temperature is increasing but are afraid of the consequences that regulations could have on their livelihoods.
Know what you’re talking about. If your story is based on an actual event or phenomenon, as each of mine are, get the facts absolutely right. Otherwise, readers with little knowledge about the subject may learn incorrect information. Also, you’ll lose credibility with more informed ones who recognize the errors or omissions.
My decision to leave academia and become a cli-fi mystery author was abrupt, but I’ve never regretted it for a minute. Through organizations such as Sisters In Crime, I have benefited from the generous help of talented writers, people who have become my valuable colleagues. When I describe my transformation to mystery author in libraries and other settings, people tell me how they very much appreciate a pro-active take on an otherwise dismal climate situation. Incorporating information about greenhouse gases and other scientific minutiae in a crime novel has been tricky, but sharing information in this way presents it to readers in the form of exciting stories, with the potential to reach a broad audience.
And, as many authors have said, while I like writing, I really like having written.
D.C. Kidd and E. Castano. 2013. Reading literary fiction improves theory of mind. Science 342:377-380
Barbara Kingsolver. 2013. Flight Behavior. Harper Collins.
Ann Patchett. 2012. And the winner isn’t… New York Times.
Maine Oceanographer Mara Tusconi Series
D’Avanzo, Charlene. 2016. Cold Blood, Hot Sea. Torrey House Press.
D’Avanzo, Charlene. 2017. Demon Spirit, Devil Sea. Maine Authors Publishing.
D’Avanzo, Charlene. 2018. Secrets Haunt the Lobsters’ Sea. Maine Authors Publishing.
D’Avanzo, Charlene, 2020*. Glass Eels, Shattered Sea. Maine Authors Publishing
* Release date: June 1.