Speculating on our climate future
ASU alum uses fiction to urge action and understanding about climate change
Andrew Dana Hudson believes in the power of fiction to serve as inspiration: a lens from which to view humanity and a way to better understand ourselves. He also believes that the effects of climate change and global warming are no longer a scenario regulated to the distant future.
“We’ve experienced unprecedented climate disasters that, when I first started writing, had still felt a decade or two off," Hudson said. "Blood skies over California, deadly heat waves in Portland, the flooding of major American cities — that sort of thing. Everything has sped up, and in some ways, thinking about climate change mostly in terms of the 2050s or 2100 now feels a bit preposterous.”
Hudson, an Arizona State University alumnus with a master's degree in sustainability from the School of Sustainability in the College of Global Futures, is seeing his first novel, “Our Shared Storm: A Novel of Five Climate Futures,” published by Fordham University Press this month. The novel is based on his master’s thesis after researching climate change, solar energy transitions and artificial intelligence. An avid writer, he tried journalism and communications for nonprofits before returning to graduate school. In 2016, he co-authored the winning submission for ASU’s first climate fiction contest, "Everything Change," as part of the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. The initiative is a partnership between the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing and the Center for Science and the Imagination.
We asked him about the novel and the impact climate and speculative fiction can have on our future.
Question: What is the difference between speculative fiction and science or climate fiction?
Answer: This is somewhat a matter of opinion, and people can be sensitive about definitions. As a result, I spend a little time digging into these distinctions in the afterword of my book. Myself, I use “speculative fiction” as a kind of mega-genre that includes science fiction, climate fiction, fantasy and any other fiction that makes speculation (about the world, rather than simply made-up characters and events) a core part of its appeal.
Often, we think of science fiction as any fiction set in the future, but I argue that it's more interesting and useful to think about science fiction as centering a particular theory of social change. Sci-fi is about science — about new discoveries and new technologies that result from the scientific process — and it imagines how the future will be made different by the impact of that knowledge and tech. In cli-ficlimate fiction, the core driver of social change isn’t science — it’s climate change.
More than the gadgets we invent, where and how people live in the future will be determined by extreme weather, sea level rise, changes in rainfall patterns, ecosystem collapse and a host of accompanying issues: asthma rates, crop failures, mandatory evacuation orders, the price of water, whether it’s too hot to go outside. And, at least for me, climate fiction can explore what the world looks like as we try to mitigate and adapt to climate change: the infrastructure we might build, the lifestyle changes we might embrace, how we talk about and debate all the choices we’ll be making along the way.
I call myself a speculative fiction writer because I like to play with the different theories of social change, and because I want to leave myself open to write more than just hard, near-future sci-fi — the novel I’m finishing right now is more of an "X Files"-esque supernatural pandemic story. But it’s all just different ways of trying to make sense of the present by imagining other ways the world could be.
We must build an economy and a politics that doesn’t favor the profits of the few over the health of the planet and the dignity of everyone else.
– ASU alum and author Andrew Dana Hudson
Q: How can storytelling and fiction help the public understand more about climate change and needed action?
A: I like to think of fiction as a set of “seeing instruments.” They can let us examine things more closely, examine things from far away, or at strange angles — all to grow our sense of the possible and the plausible, both good and bad. Stories can teach us to envision a place for ourselves in different kinds of societies and economies and environments. We might know that the current status quo is terrible and unsustainable, but nonetheless, many of us do feel that this world has a place for us, that we can get up and live from day to day.
If the supposedly “better” future is vague and unclear, and we can’t envision what our life in that future would be, we might not actually be willing to risk change. So stories can help us figure out what it would feel and smell and sound like if we got rid of fossil fuels, what we’d eat and how we’d work under a Green New Deal, where we’d find meaning in our days were we to move beyond a life based on either bare proletarian survival or bourgeois accumulation. And conversely, climate stories can bring a similar fidelity to our understanding of the dangers of global warming and environmental collapse.
It’s all about “educating our desire,” as I heard it put recently, so that we learn to aspire toward lives that are both more meaningful and more sustainable.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from “Our Shared Storm”?
A: Really, I think the book is most useful more as a way of making sense of what’s going on in climate politics. The UNFCCC (United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change) negotiations are extremely arcane to most people but have a culture all their own that will have huge impacts for everyone on the planet. And there are powerful forces interested in turning disasters into business opportunities or using the crisis to consolidate their wealth and power. We need more stories not just about the danger of climate change, but about the process we are using to address that danger — who the players are and how we set the terms of debate. I hope my book is informative on that score, and also makes readers more curious and more determined to participate.
Q: How do you integrate climate modeling into your story development?
A: The stories are very directly based on a set of scenarios called the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), which climate modelers created for the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Sixth Assessment Report that’s been coming out in chunks over the last several months. I took some liberties to develop the vibes of the scenarios, but I also spent a lot of time poking at the SSP database, trying to dig into the metrics tied to each pathway. In the end, I decided not to try to squeeze in some kind of stats page that tells you what the population and GDP and CO2 concentrations were in each scenario. But that work played a big role in shaping a lot of the subtle details in the stories.
Q: How do you see your book affecting societal will to act on climate change?
A: Well, I try not to exaggerate my own importance. I think stories, narratives and imaginaries are probably necessary to tackling the crisis, but I certainly don’t think they’re sufficient. Successfully acting on climate change will require good science, strong labor unions, courageous leaders, direct action, bold investments, a civilization-wide mobilization — plus a lot of luck. Ideally, my book will be just one bucket in a tidal wave of culture-making that helps drive climate action.
Q: Which future do you hope comes true?
A: That’s easy: SSP1, the sustainability scenario, is really the only future worth trying for. The rest are presented more to help us understand the character of the possible fail states, so we can recognize when we start drifting one way or another off the path through the bottleneck. The more we learn about climate change, the more it seems like it’s utopia or extinction. Or, to borrow a similar classic phrase, it’s socialism or barbarism. We must build an economy and a politics that doesn’t favor the profits of the few over the health of the planet and the dignity of everyone else.
Hudson will have a book-signing event on April 29 at Changing Hands Bookstore in Phoenix.