Narrating ‘stories’ is an ancient, lasting, and universal way humans have developed, to make sense of themselves and the world, and this includes linking together a series of facts (or events) from which to derive meaning. There is a huge, gathering factual story facing all of us – with no definitive end in our lifetime – a bleaker, and more extreme climate future lies lurking ahead. But how can we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the sheer immense scale of this unfolding planetary tragedy, apart from resorting to the defense of denialism or conspiracy theories?
Two poets hold succinct keys, I think. As TS Eliot wrote in Four Quartets, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’ Yet Emily Dickinson maintained: ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant…the truth must dazzle gradually, or every man be blind.’
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What else is fiction, but slanted and bearable truth?
And what is fiction that facing forwards, watching for our emergent futures? Speculative Fiction (SF, sometimes called ‘Science Fiction’) models the potential scenarios ahead, proposing alternative models of the future – i.e., different ways of living, organising and being within the world. Because such templates may function as a threat to the status quo, it was no accident that several SF novels were banned for periods by the apartheid regime in South Africa. This trend of banning books and ideas continues to this day, not least in a current right-wing book banning binge, within the United States.
One of the quintessential SF stories centering climate changes was the Parable series; set to be a trilogy, but sadly incomplete, due to the premature death of the author, Octavia Butler, in early 2006. The Parable books (Sower, 1993 and Talents, 1998) highlight a burning California in the mid 2020’s, where a white demagogue US President is pursuing a ‘Make America Great Again’ agenda. The books highlight the need for adaptability and building sustainable communities of mutual aid which (in this case) are unified by a new, enlightened, and inclusive ‘religion’, called ‘Earthseed’.
Closer to home, Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon establishes a post-oil, post- capitalist society in Nigeria, where a better world is built after ‘aliens’ have made contact – and awoken the old gods and spirits of the earth. A new world emerges where indigenous belief systems are married with technology, a process coined by Ian McDonald as ‘jujutech’. The reclamation of indigenous (African) epistemologies constitutes a narrative ‘push back’ – a decolonizing turn – against the colonizing role of materialistic science and much early white western science fiction.
As the SF author William Gibson was reputed to have said, towards the end of the last century: “The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet.” So, too, the climate story, where the emissions of the Global North (and the richest) have exerted devastating impacts, particularly on the Global South, where resources to both survive and manage this are considerably less, due in no small part to long histories of colonial exploitation. Neo-colonial style extractions persist within international corporations and financial systems, such that the United Nations News reported (in 2019): ‘World Faces Climate Apartheid Risk.’
Given this burning inequality, climate change and climate justice are clearly both intertwined concepts. But where are the voices and stories from those most impacted, the ‘climate precariat,’ in the Global South? There is a form of narrative inequality at work, in terms of whose voices and stories are heard – and under what conditions, by those with the power to either amplify or censor. Conservation and climate activism within Africa, for example, has been operating long before Greta Thunberg, with Wangari Maathai and her Green Belt Movement being the most significant forerunner in twentieth century Kenya (and beyond).
International corporations, allied by degrees of state capture, act with increasing neo-colonial impunity too. Eco-activists and indigenous ‘protectors’ have a history of being murdered, particularly in the global South, which is now reaching levels akin to war zones. As the world burns, from Canada, California, Siberia, and the Arctic, to the Amazon and the east coast of Australia, it is quite clear that the days of reckoning for our planet are right here, right now.
One critical resource constantly being depleted in many areas – through drought and misuse – is global fresh water. Yet, in 2019, the ‘financialization’/commodification of water has begun – water is seen as the ‘new oil’ – it has been put onto stock markets and is presented as a tradable commodity, not a human right. Given Cape Town’s (South Africa) threatened Day Zero in 2018 (i.e., the city reportedly running out of water), my initial premise for my own book Water Must Fall (2020) was, what if water was completely controlled by private companies? This had in fact happened partially previously, seen in the Cochabamba Water War in Bolivia – where the International Monetary Fund (IMF) had insisted on the country selling their water to a private multi-national, who ramped up prices to unaffordable levels for the majority of the country’s populace.
Water Must Fall is set in 2048, in drought-stricken Kwa-Zulu Natal and California in ‘The Federated States of America.’ The central question facing the four main characters in this book is: In a desiccating world, who gets to drink? I adopted a rotating three-character chapter sequence throughout, with two of the characters focusing on Southern Africa, one on the ‘Federated States’ – a deliberately chosen name to highlight that nation states, however powerful, are subject to change, fracture and even, dissolution. What would a world without borders look like – given nature has no borders?
Within the SF sub-genres, I would characterize Water Must Fall as African Solarpunk, where ‘social justice is survival technology’. This genre focuses on resistance against a global system that has proven to be toxic to the planet – i.e., neo- liberal racialised capitalism – and replacing it with a greener and more just way of living, including the reclamation of indigenous rights and knowledges.
The ending of Water Must Fall involves a community – the Imbali Collective ‘Save our Water’ (SOW) – being faced with forcible relocation, to make way for ‘gentrification’ of their land. Dispossession of a vulnerable, disadvantaged community has multiple painful resonances, which can only echo down the corridors of a long apartheid history. The Imbali SOW survival response involved a considered land occupation, as well as legally pushing for the recognition of historically original land rights and the granting of personhood status to the natural world, a la the Ganges in India. If a company can be a person, why not a river? (In Water Must Fall, it’s the Msunduzi.)
Opponents of land reclamation always point out the dangers of land occupation, especially to the Zimbabwean Land Occupation Movement at the turn of the century – but a way must be found to address the massive (and iniquitous) resource inequalities between the ‘privileged’ and the ‘precarious’ – not least because those who have contributed the least are facing the worst brunt, of the unfolding climate crisis. Under a climate justice rubric there is a need for reparations, rematriation, allowed mobility/migration and land and water access, in a future which embraces all – and where no one is expendable.
A reclaiming of the public commons, such as land and water, over private wealth and a system that continues to carry hegemonic and exclusionary structural violence against the majority of the world’s inhabitants. Nothing less than a new and more just world order is required if we are not just to survive, but to survive compassionately and sustainably, despite the climate depredations that still lie ahead.
For what sort of world do we want our children/relatives/loved ones to live in? There can be no just and good future, without a just system – which means oppressive institutional systems and mechanisms that foster exploitation and damage – yet are often hidden and vociferously defended, such as white, toxic, capitalist patriarchies – need to be dismantled or reconstructed, for a fairer way of operating, that respects both life, and what little is left of our natural planet.
Speculative fiction does have a history of involvement with issues of justice, more recently in the anthology Octavia’s Brood. As the co- editor Adrienne Maree Brown stated:
“This is why I write science fiction (after spending so long in social justice work). To cultivate radical imagination…All organizing is science fiction, all efforts to bend the arc of the future towards justice, is science fictional behaviour. How we do that work really matters. We are all interconnected. Denying that, we die. Surrendering to that, we live. Let us all live.”
Speculative fiction (SF) can help us live and relearn our relationship to life in all its manifestations. Yet stories are not enough in themselves. We need to act to build a better future, given the dirty forces that continue to carry investments in the deadly status quo…we need to act now.
The future is already here.
Let us all live.
Find out more about Water Must Fall.
For more African stories of climate resistance and struggle, please see:
(Nick Wood):The Five Best African Climate SF Books
Aramide Moronfoye: African SF and Climate Change: How to Talk About an Apocalypse
Hannah Onoguwe et al., Three Short Works of Literature That Can Inspire You to Fight Climate Change. The Slate.
Dilman Dila. One Cut CO2.
Tlotlo Tsamaase. Wild Authors. Artists and Climate Change.
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. Wild Authors. Artists and Climate Change.
Chinelo Onwualu. Centre for Science and the Imagination.
In this issue’s extract from a book featuring a climate solution, Gill Lewis shares an extract from Willow Wildthing and the Dragon’s Egg, a fantasy story illustrated by Rebecca Bagley for 5 – 9 year olds. Willow and her brother Freddie have found a newt in the overgrown garden of their new house. Freddie thinks it’s a baby dragon. They realise they have to make sure they convince the adults to give it a home and protect its habitat. The story shows urban rewilding being used to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity:
The last owner of the house hadn’t done anything with the garden for years and the grass was so long that it came up to Willow’s waist. The bushes were overgrown and tangled with brambles and ivy. Nettles grew in thick green clumps and bindweed curled around the washing line.
‘I like it wild like this,’ she said. ‘Can’t we keep it like this for me and Freddie?’
Dad smiled. ‘Not everyone likes a jungle. It is a bit of a mess, and we need to clear these weeds.’
Willow just stared at some of the empty spaces where the bushes had been pulled up. She turned to Dad. ‘We can’t pull up all the bushes. Freddie’s dragon lives beneath them.’
‘I’m sure there are plenty of other places for it to live,’ said Dad. ‘I think newts like damp places near ponds.
Willow looked around. The neighbours’ gardens had patios and tiny squares of cut grass. Not a flower was out of place and it looked like weeds were forbidden. They didn’t have ponds either. ‘Where will it go, if we dig up its home?’ she said. ‘It has to have somewhere to live.’
The Wildlife Trusts help protect urban wildlife.