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  • Jim Marren

“Cli-Fi”: More Stories Without Endings Needed



Fearing for our planet isn’t just for Earth Day (April 22) any more. Consider that, in a recent poll, nearly 70% of Americans said they were worried about global warming, up eight points since March 2018; the proportion of Americans “very worried” has more than tripled since its lowest point in 2011.


Environmental calamity has been found in speculative fiction at least since Jules Verne. But with human-caused environmental abuse increasingly seen as a genuinely global existential threat, we now even have a label -- “Cli-fi” – for creative content, including film, telling climate change stories.


Not all such stories may be constructive. A debate has emerged on whether “cli-fi” advances or impedes climate advocacy – and what might be the best way to deploy fictional film, especially, to help save the Earth. Indeed, content creators can be doing more to enable audiences to help force change.


CNN has traced cinematic cli-fi back to 1973’s “Soylent Green,” offering pollution-induced food shortages (and a shady nutritional supplement). In some recent films, environmental degradation by humans has been only subtly suggested (“Promised Land,” “First Reformed,” “Downsizing”). However, more memorably, some visual effects-driven blockbusters have delivered full-on climatological collapse (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “Geostorm,” “Interstellar”). That’s where the debate has centered.


Some climate researchers and social scientists believe audiences only despair, not become engaged, in the face of climate stories marked by “fire and brimstone” with little prospect of corrective human response, the New York Times notes. And The Yale Center for Environmental Climate holds that climate change is “distorted when it’s forced into old genres” – disaster films, end of the world films, dystopias – and suggests filmmakers need to portray climate change as a bigger, deeper, longer story.


If attention and action are the goals, what’s the way forward? Writing for the Union of Concerned Scientists, climate scientist Roberto Mera notes that in a film such as “Interstellar,” climate change “has already happened for a civilization that was ill prepared to have its role in the cosmos erased by its own actions. We in the present still have time and can still steer our course in a better direction.”


What will most help the planet? Perhaps not so much visions of our future lost, but rather stories of our world as it is, where disaster threatens, but hope still abides, and we can all drive solutions. We need stories with endings not yet written – and citizens equipped and eager to help write them. Content creators can help – by enhancing their marketing with guidance on how we can mitigate today the challenges tomorrow could bring.

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