Make the Planet Great Again: How Science Fiction Can Help

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By Dr. Marieke Norton

I am a sci-fi nut.  Very keen on the stuff. I got put onto it by my older brother, who suggested the books of the late Iain M. Banks to me.  It was a revelation to find a kind of writing that was educating as well as being so escapist. 

Literary styles aside, for me good science fiction is, firstly, when I can learn more about the nature and structure of the universe; about the real conditions and requirements of what we deduce the nature of interstellar travel to be; about the intricate and integrated systems that would require humanity to survive and eventually thrive in such conditions.  Banks wrote such sci-fi, as have many others, my recently read include the likes of Neal Stephenson, Stephen Baxter, Cuixin Liu. Another overarching and instructive theme in this genre is what will happen to human society once we leave our planetary boundaries and forge social groupings unlike anything we have seen. In this strand of thought, one of the best writers is the author (and daughter of an anthropologist) Ursula K. Le Guin, who uses her hereditary insights into social processes to test conventional notions of what it means to be human and belong to humanity. 

My second standard by which to test whether science fiction is good, is the extent to which it is escapist – there is nothing like becoming engrossed in a novel like Excession[1] to make you feel like you have just watched the original Matrix, for the first time, in 1999!

However, as I have aged into the Anthropocene, the prevailing themes of my preferred authors have, over time, taken on the reality of climate change and depict futures in which the worst has happened, and been dealt with or endured through dramatic technological interventions on Earth.

My favourite reading was becoming less and less escapist, and scarily more realistically futuristic.

And then last November America got a new president who last night pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord[2].  Climate Action Tracker explains his Executive Order of March 28th as formalising “his pre-election commitments to unwind science based climate action in the United States”[3].  The March 28th Executive Order effectively also rescinds several domestic measures under Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which would have worked together under the PCA in order to reduce their gross emissions.

By pulling out, America joins the only two other countries to not have signed: Syria and Nicaragua.  The former is a failed state that has been in near-constant civil war for years, spawning an international humanitarian crisis.  The latter felt that the PCA did not go far enough in setting ambitious targets for mitigation.

Thankfully, the lure and lucre of a booming renewables sector means that a reverse on that investment and spending is unlikely. Indeed, the reaction in the hours following the announcement has been very encouraging, with many nations and indeed some parts of America itself (the state of California, the cities of Pittsburgh and New York), stepping up to reaffirm their commitment.  I particularly enjoyed the strong statement released by French President Emmanuel Macron, in which he called for us to “make the planet great again”[4] (in this statement he also repeated his previous invitation to disillusioned and de-funded American scientists and innovators to come work in France[5]).  This is the silver-lining – the galvanising of the wave of international consensus that saw the Paris Climate Accord (PCA) come into being. While America pulls out, the other nations seem to be leaning in.

Silver-linings aside, the precedent is dangerous and the USA’s withdrawal will mean they will no longer contribute to the Green Climate Fund.  This will have impacts beyond the USA, as it will influence other under-resourced and vulnerable nations who are dependent on the fund for the bulk of their adaptation and mitigation funding.

Under the current president’s proposed plans, the USA will not meet its 2025 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) of reducing emissions by 13% below 2014 levels.  Climate Action Tracker have rated his proposed actions as if it were a NDC (which of course it won’t be if he pulls out), and concludes that it would drop the USA’s NDC rating from ‘Medium’ (according to the targets set by the previous administration) to ’Inadequate’.

It is harrowing that the president of the second highest emitter after China (15% of global emissions in 2015), not only considers carefully crafted and hard-fought agreements worthless, but that he thinks the whole idea of climate change sounds like something his press secretary would have come up with. 

Which brings me back to sci-fi. I recently read a book by Stephen Baxter, Proxima, in which the Earth has a history of global, anthropogenic climate “Jolts” that caused much suffering and many deaths.  In this history, in which the climate warms beyond planetary limits, the generations that survive the Jolts look back towards our time, and gather evidence on those who could have stopped or slowed it; those who denied it while in positions of power and fed off the processes that were causing the destruction. These individuals were then put on trial, answerable to the planet’s surviving population. You see where I am going with this?

In the futures of science fiction, we are confronted by narratives that explore the implications of such denialist actions.  Perhaps certain individuals should be reading more sci-fi, if the science itself is proving too abstract.

While an individual response to the problems we face is necessary (reduce-reuse-recycle, etc.), nothing short of global collective action will be enough. We know that.  One would have expected some common sense, or at evidence of a sense of self-preservation, at this stage in the game. 



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Disclaimer: The views expressed here are solely those of the author in her private capacity