All the knowledge about why everything is wrong is already out there. Numerous articles, books, documentaries, forums, podcasts, etc., etc. detail and detail well the reasons, the background, the causes, the culprits, and the victims of the status quo. Despite increased public awareness and calls for action, the situation is not improving but continues to deteriorate.
An echo of the current situation is located in literature, in the relatively new genre known as climate fiction or cli-fi. It has existed since the 60s or 70s in various forms but has not gained prominence until more recently. A lot of contemporary cli-fi is apocalyptic, and doom-and-gloom scenarios prevail. When literary scholars and critics first took note of cli-fi, they wrote about what this new development could mean for the future of literature, as well as the budding environmental movements; many claimed that climate fiction had the potential to help. This claim seems reasonable; humans like stories better than graphs, and explaining difficult topics in the form of narrative fiction can help with the general understanding of what is happening to the things on Earth. This should, somehow, help stop climate change.
Many claimed that climate fiction had the potential to help. This claim seems reasonable; humans like stories better than graphs
However, the last few decades seem to indicate that these claims are not substantiated. If anything, the opposite might be true; cli-fi makes people anxious and less likely to act. Ecocritics laud dystopian and (post)apocalyptic novels because those can presumably help humanity understand the potential consequences of “our” actions. But telling horror stories about monsters is not the same as learning how to fight the monsters, and here is where cli-fi fails. And how could it succeed, when it poses little to no challenge to the dominant ideology?
The monster I speak of is neoliberalism. It works under the surface, like a thing unnamed, creeping not only into the economic but also political and cultural spheres. It is also, at the same time, overnamed, and overused as a concept. When everything is neoliberalism, nothing is. Not too long ago I attended a seminar where the topic of neoliberalism (and I am guilty of having brought it up in the first place) was discussed by some of the cleverest and most capable environmental humanities students. Both in serious and unserious contexts, we kept hitting a wall, partially because neoliberalism has become an academic buzzword, a cache-all, a trend, a bandwagon to chase so one can get published. “Stop being such a neoliberalism”, my peers teased around a fire after a few drinks, none of us fully comprehending that this too is propaganda. Because while neoliberalism isn’t everything, it does influence everything. It does so very subtly, at once hidden (the actual power) and out in the open (a thing so omnipresent in discourse that it has been reduced to absurdity).
Neoliberalism has become an academic buzzword, a cache-all, a trend, a bandwagon to chase so one can get published
Perversely, neoliberal ideology influences culture. We like to think of culture, and literature especially, as a fortress of integrity away from the prying tentacles of greed and market-think. But neoliberalism as an ideology is pervasive even in places that were once considered sacred; universities, cool underground cafés, rooms “of one’s own” where upper-class women can sit down in peace and write fiction. Behind the veil of prestige, literature is also influenced by neoliberal ideology. Some Marxists consider literature to be propaganda of those in power to stay in power. As David Harvey explains, neoliberalism is a political project created with the exact same purpose. It was introduced in the 70s by the elites, who explicitly intended to grab back and then retain power. Over the last half a century, neoliberalism has evolved from an economic model to a socio-political-economic system and gradually became the dominant ideology, under which market imperatives dictate everything, including personal responsibility and individual ethics. Literature is not an unlikely vessel for propagating that, although it took a while for the influence of neoliberal ideology to be seen in fiction. As a scholarly field, it remains under-analyzed.
Then in the 90s, global leaders, both in politics and business, finally started talking about anthropogenic climate change. The 1990 IPCC report, the first of its kind, detailed and brought public attention to what was going on in the atmosphere, soil, and water. Certain business leaders had already known for decades that their companies were causing environmental destruction, especially in terms of pollution, but it wasn’t until the 90s that the public was informed and politicians got involved.
This also meant a turn for cli-fi, which until now dealt with apocalyptic scenarios unrelated to climate change and environmentalist issues more closely linked to local problems such as deforestation or pollution. The second generation of cli-fi authors started imagining apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic futures where reckless humans have destroyed their own world and are now forced to live in a new, more hostile environment. The cli-fi of the time was all about seeing how bad it could get, not so much about how things might be improved. Eco-utopias were almost inexistent as if finding a solution was beyond imagining.
Business and government leaders quickly realized that fixing the climate and caring for the environment are not conducive to profits. On the contrary; mitigating the most disastrous effects of anthropogenic environmental destruction would require a revamp of the entire economic system, increased state involvement, and comprehensive policies. It would effectively necessitate that the profits of the top few be slashed for the benefit of the many. The really “inconvenient” truth is that mitigating environmental destruction could be good for society; creating green and healthy spaces benefits human and non-human animals alike, as well as plant life and fungi. Healthy ecosystems are comprehensively healthy for all who inhabit them; we know this.
However, this eco-utopian vision, where we all have free access to green public transport, holistic education, and robust public health systems, where the natural resources are efficiently managed and species are protected, and in which vast parts of the Earth are simply left to be, is not profitable. Capitalism depends on the exploitation and appropriation of labor and nature. Neoliberal policies rely on a faulty top-down approach where all the money and power first go to the lucky few, and then allegedly find their way to the rest (how, exactly?). The two visions of prosperity are not compatible, because they benefit two completely separate groups: on the one side, we have a very small number of people who have all the power. On the other side, we have everyone else and all the things on Earth.
The power imbalance exists because we let it, and because we have been taught to believe that the status quo is the “natural” state of things. This is because neoliberal ideology successfully instilled in us a strange, yet powerful motto: there is no alternative. Consequently, neoliberal influence on art and culture stifles utopic imagination.
Neoliberal ideology successfully instilled in us a strange, yet powerful motto: there is no alternative
Despite public knowledge of climate change and environmental destruction, emissions continue to soar and pollution is left to go rampant. Government actions following the 2008 economic crash did nothing for the environment; economic stimuli made no provisions for greenness, only for “growth”, as is the neoliberal creed. And so, the neoliberal monster grows bigger, mutating further. At the same time, members of the public are becoming more and more concerned about the environment, nature and climate. Neoliberalism offers a solution: buy even more, but now with a green sticker on it. But regardless of whether or not it’s organic, local, vegan, ethical, or whatever else, consumption ad nauseum cannot change anything. It’s just another band-aid on the crumbling face of capitalism. Eco-anxiety is becoming an ever-bigger issue, especially among the young.
In literature, this is reflected in the surge of novels that are moving from speculation to reality; no longer science-fiction, they are set in our time and our world. I call these novels neocli-fi, and a lot of them are about anxiety. Rather than being post-apocalyptic, they are pre-apocalyptic, anticipating disaster, which seems to be unavoidable. For the most part, these novels are also neoliberal; for them, economic power is synonymous with political power. Importantly, this situation is viewed uncriticaly; not only is this simply how things are, but often also how things should be.
Rather than being post-apocalyptic, neocli-fi novels are pre-apocalyptic, anticipating disaster, which seems to be unavoidable
The romantic vision of literature understands the act of writing as a thing done for love and passion, but books are also commodities. Many authors don’t write to make a point, they write to make money, and climate change is just another big thing from which to profit. But this is not what irks me the most about neoliberal climate fiction novels; their biggest problem is that they fail to be subversive. Even when satirical, like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, they play into the neoliberal cynicism. Walter Berglund, the “environmentalist protagonist” in Freedom is rightly mocked, but the manner in which he is written (elitist, embittered, delusional) is not just portraying him as pathetic; it is pathetic. In a particularly frantic speech at a factory opening, Walter screams that people are “A CANCER ON THE PLANET”, which should be a turning point in the narrative plot; but since the rant is one of many tirades in the novel, the reader is already tired. The after-effects of Walter’s speech are all but rewarding, and not only because such blanket statements are unproductive and blur responsibility.
Walter Berglund, the “environmentalist protagonist” in Freedom is rightly mocked, but the manner in which he is written (elitist, embittered, delusional) is not just portraying him as pathetic; it is pathetic.
Even when gentle and lyrical, like Jenny Offill’s Weather, neocli-fi novels fall into the trap of lacking imagination. The protagonist in that novel, riddled with anxiety, becomes a prepper; a person who learns survivalist skills to prepare for the impending apocalypse. But the people who will really, definitively be safe, are those with economic power; as one character says, if you really want to protect your family, “become rich, very, very rich”.
If there is hope for a heroine, it is in Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, where the protagonist decides to pursue education and actually changes her life as a result of her encounter with the consequences of climate change. But even here, it is apparent that education is powerless in the face of neoliberal ideology; if there are flickers of hope, they are few and far between. Flight Behavior ends with a flood, with destruction, and with a tone of uncertainty.
If most speculative cli-fi is doom and gloom, most neocli-fi is anxiety and dread, or it’s bitter laughter and cynicism. It’s a horror genre; not only because it talks about horrible things, but because it does so in a horrible fashion. It builds a labyrinth, places the protagonist inside, and offers no way out. In this, it reflects our socio-economic reality and the lack of imagination that the members of the general public encounter when trying to be environmentally conscious. This is because we all desperately lack political guidance. And the reason we lack political guidance is because neoliberal ideology is so pervasive it has muffled all resistance. Where is Ariadne when you need her?
Neocli-fi is a horror genre; not only because it talks about horrible things, but because it does so in a horrible fashion. It builds a labyrinth, places the protagonist inside, and offers no way out
I don’t know what kinds of novels will be written in the future. As the environmental disaster worsens, we can expect more of the same, meaning more neocli-fi. Obviously, literature cannot change that much; but it has the potential to become a part of a concerted bottom-up effort that challenges the status quo. Future novels shouldn’t be apolitical. Hopefully, they will be both analytical and utopic. An example of this is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, which starts with a disaster but ends with a resounding note of hope, and overall reads like a manifesto for an improved future. Instead of just stating monster-facts, novels written in the next decades should talk about fighting monsters — capitalists, neoliberals, fascists.
Much more harm than good is done each day, and we let it. My point is not to stop writing novels, nor articles, nor to stop joking around a fire. My point is not to stop barricading streets in London or protesting in Washington. My point is to do all of that, and much, much more. We don’t have to panic, even though we have every reason to. But we should finally act. Things don’t have to be this way. There is beauty in this world, being sacrificed for neoliberal values so that the rich can get richer. Let us stop protecting the rich and start protecting the beauty instead.
My moment of beauty is a memory: I am by the river Isar, easily accessible by bike from the center of Munich. I am sitting in a hammock with a friend, watching the trees, appreciating the green light and the dew that is falling from the branches above. That is my real environmentalist narrative, a moment worth protecting, onto which I can tether my defiance. What is yours?
 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).