Non-Fiction Reviews

Changing the Climate
Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe

(2011) Andrew Milner, Simon Sellars and Verity Burgmann, Arena Publications,
17 / Aus$33 / US$27 , pbk, 273pp, ISBN 978-0-980-41582-7


This is the proceedings of a four-day symposium held at the Monash University in Melbourne just prior to the 2010 Australian Worldcon. It is also the third and final volume in Arena's 'Utopia and Dystopia' series, and took as its focus the issue of climate change. Specifically it looked at climate change utopias and dystopias primarily as portrayed in science fiction.

Before going any further I should perhaps say why I am possibly suited to review this title: I am both a longstanding reader of the genre and also have some knowledge of climate change biology and of communicating science both in print and to non-scientist policy makers, not to mention having an interest in the science fact and fiction interface.   In fairness, I should also perhaps say why I am possibly unsuited to give a review: as a scientist I value repeatable (verifiable) evidence born of testing (experiments and observation) hence hard, quantifiable data. Conversely, the arts in the main do not do any of this their approach is frequently one of unverifiable qualitative comment (personal opinion) and so for me the humanities approach is often not what I would consider anything at all academic.   I therefore had a decidedly schizophrenic approach to this work.

The volume starts off with off with a surprisingly (given my need for logical thought combined with verifiable data) thoughtful introduction by Andrew Milner that recognises the seriousness of anthropogenic (human generated) climate change and accepts the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) view; no climate change denial here. He briefly (and usefully) skates over the 1st year undergraduate environmental studies ground of the Marxist view that capitalism has a tendency to destroy the natural environment. Alas there was not space to point out that this was a cartoon extreme and that (notwithstanding that centrally planned economies can, and often do, incorrectly value environmental externalities) countries like Britain and Australia have a mixed economy, and no country is fully capitalist just as there is no nation that is fully socialist Marxist. However the introduction's thrust is that artists have a role to play in helping the public explore climate change concerns and raise awareness. All well and good.

The subsequent papers range from those that have a useful take-home message through to others that were really personal critiques of specific authors and/or works. There was, as unfortunately suspected, zero data.   Now, while I am sure that some with specific interest into some of the authors whose works were the focus of some of the papers presented Kim Stanley Robinson, H. P. Lovecraft, Octavia Butler, Kate Wilhelm, and Margaret Atwood as well as others whom we have a more casual encounter Brian Aldiss, and Ursula K. Le Guin will find parts of this book of interest if not value, I will confine myself to reviewing and commenting on just a couple of the papers I found to be personally more interesting.

The star of the proceedings, at least as far as I was concerned, goes to the one contributor who has clearly demonstrated that he can write fiction that is both commercially viable and intelligently relevant to today's concerns including (notably with his 'capital' trilogy) that of global climate change: Kim Stanley Robinson. Leaving aside his use of units he refers to 'energy' use in terms of watts (which is of course a unit of 'power' or 'rate of energy' expenditure, and not Joules the unit of energy) -- he explained the reasoning behind his deciding to incorporate environmental themes in his fiction. He also made the case for our needing to return to a low-resource use mode of living and, in part as a means to do this, to use high-technology appropriately to do this. He calls this returning to the 'Palaeolithic plus good dental care'. Finally he made a plea for 'the humanities need[ing] to educate the sciences rather than attack them' and that this education is not an option if you want to be aware of how the human world works.

This was a thoughtful presentation, though I felt his more easy-going talk given a few days after the symposium at the 2010 SF Worldcon was far better, and indeed the best Guest of Honour speech I have heard for the past couple of decades.

John Clute also has an interesting paper, once his overly packaged message can be discerned. He began by defining 'fantastika' (something not clear from abstract literature available on the day of the symposia), though why he did not use the Anglophone term 'speculative fiction' is unclear but nonetheless an example of the paper's unnecessary packaging obfuscation. His case rested on three principal planks. First, SF/F (or speculative fiction or 'fantastika'' if you really must) is a fuzzy set of texts that includes identifying 'wrongness' in the world. Second, environmental issues such as climate change are not easily 'storyable', by which he means embedding in a tale. Finally, SF tasks in the case of environmental fiction, is to wrestle down amnesia: we daily avoid remembering that it is our actions that are interrupting biosphere systems (this last phrase is mine not Clute's).

A fine analysis (which included examples) but it would have been quite nice if he had delved more into why environmental issues are not easily the subject of fiction. (Personally, I think it is a matter space-time scale, which is ironic as SF compared to mundane fiction is all about re-adjusting scale.)

Of course there were some other papers of interest and not just these two. For example, Tamara Prosic looked at Christianity's ecological message as such. She opined that theology is essentially Marxist but that Christianity's view of sin makes our attempts to achieve utopia more dystopian as our starting point is borne of our inherent sinful condition.   And then Rupert Read basically recounted the intergenerational equality case (our parents' and our generation is using the fossil energy capital and degrading the otherwise sustainable natural resource capital our children and subsequent generations coult otherwise access).

This symposium was a curate's egg but at least was a brave attempt to demonstrate that the arts can intellectually contribute to exploring issues of environmental concern. However this, of course, was an exercise doomed to failure. You see, such a goal is a bit like saying that chemistry is the discipline with which we can address environmental concerns: after all the environment is made up of chemical elements and compounds.   Actually, to understand environmental science concerns you need both a multidisciplinary (involving chemistry, physics and the biological sciences) as well as an interdisciplinary approach (working between and across these disciplines). So hoping that the arts by itself can provide a useful analysis of how to explore and promulgate environmental concerns to a general population (including, but not consisting solely of, scientists) is arguably a tad naive. However a humanities approach involving historians (who could explain how past societies overcame or not environmental threats), social scientists (who can reveal how society engages with environmental concerns), as well as the discipline that straddles the humanities and science psychologists (who can explain environmental perception) along with artists (and arts academics) together may well stand a chance of coming up with meaningful insights as to current global environmental concerns such as climate change. Of course, it might even have been an idea if the symposium had involved some scientists with environmental expertise and who also were consumers of SF/F arts but, given the exclusion of other humanities, that was obviously a stretch too far for the symposium's organisers.

Importantly, it should be recognised that the organisers were brilliantly insightful in organising an international symposium in a sustainable way: many of the participants were already coming from overseas for that year's, the Melbourne-venued, Worldcon, so there was little extra fossil burden imposed for this added value. This is something that other Worldcon organisers might well consider. (Here I note that London 2014 is also the home to over a score of learned societies with international standing, as well as five universities!)

So where does all this leave us? Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe symposium was certainly a worthy enterprise, and the organisers had their hearts in the right place. Yet it is easy to look at the limitations of such an approach and forget that the both the rate and degree of pace of change in the past one hundred years is unprecedented in human history. For example, demographics aside, 'ecology' as a term was not commonly known by our great grandparents, and the oldest ecological learned society in the world was not founded until after the 20th century's first decade; even then was very much a minority interest. Indeed, if you wanted to academically study environmental science at university then you could only do so after 1970, and climate change science itself has only been of major   concern even more recently still. In short, this is all rather new territory and the symposium's organisers and proceedings' editors should be congratulated in having had the vision that studying literature has a role to play. Perhaps they, or others (perhaps some of the symposium participants), may now begin to take the next step and tie in such an exploration with the other humanities (perhaps even including some science perceptions along the way). The climate change challenge is a big one, yet time is so very short.

Jonathan Cowie


Following the response to Jonathan Cowie's 2007 climate change biology text, a second, greatly expanded, edition is due out early in 2013 from Cambridge University Press. Among a number of Jonathan's current projects, one of his climate change one's involves exploring and assessing the science behind past abrupt, carbon-induced climate events (or carbon isotope excursion events as they are known).

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