Vector editors are bringing their Communicating Climate Risk: A Toolkit to COP26 in Glasgow. You can register here to watch Jo Lindsay Walton at the launch, live-streamed from the Science Pavilion. We talk about science fiction in a chapter on communicating around the tipping points.
The science of tipping points can lend itself to apocalyptic storytelling. What are some of the pros and cons?
“Are you getting this on camera, that this tornado just came and erased the Hollywood sign? The Hollywood sign is gone, it’s just shredded.”
— Character in The Day After Tomorrow (2004)
From the perspective of climate risk communication, tipping points can be associated with apocalyptic and cataclysmic narratives. The tipping points session at the COP26 Universities Network Climate Risk Summit, late 2021, provides an illustration (Mackie 2021). The session opened with a slide alluding to the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow.Of course, this movie stretches science in ways that are regrettably familiar. “Scenarios that take place over a few days or weeks in the movie would actually require centuries to occur” (National Snow & Ice Data Center 2004). Nonetheless, The Day After Tomorrow does represent a real tipping element: the potential shutdown of AMOC, a large system of ocean currents that conveys warm water from the tropics northwards, which is responsible for the relative warmth of the North Hemisphere.
Movies like The Day After Tomorrow vividly communicate the fragility of human lives — as tornadoes tear apart the Los Angeles skyline and toss cars through the air, as New Yorkers scramble down narrow streets from oncoming tsunami-like waves — in ways that are not always captured by terminology such as “extreme weather events.” In the broader context of climate action, is it useful to tug on the heartstrings in this way? Much of the literature on catastrophic narratives and climate storytelling focuses on a distinction between fear and hope. An overreliance on fear has been quite widely criticised.
[…] some studies suggest that there are better chances to engage an audience by including positive messages in film narratives about environmental risks, especially climate change, rather than adopting the strategy of fear, which would instead distance and disengage them, making them feel overwhelmed and helpless […]
However, one thing we should remember is that apocalypses are about many more emotions than fear and hope. A movie like The Day After Tomorrow showcases a range of emotions including exhilaration, confusion, companionship, desire, curiosity, anger, encounters with the sublime, and even moments of humour, both grim and sweet. As many scriptwriters will tell you, an immersive narrative needs emotional variety, or the audience will introduce variety of their own — they will daydream, feel bored, pick holes in the plot, or find their own things to laugh about. Apocalyptic hearts are full hearts: there is probably no human emotion that cannot find some niche in narratives of disaster and collapse. Indeed, the end of the world can feel alluring. The more dissatisfied people are with their existing lives, the more alluring it may feel. As the recent ASU Apocalyptic Narratives and Climate Change project describes (focusing on the US context):
From infectious disease to war, a broad swath of the public has long interpreted social and environmental crisis through the prism of apocalypse, casting potential catastrophes and their causes in religious and moral terms. These apocalyptic visions are often narrated from the point of view of the survivors (the “elect”), thus reinforcing a sense that the end times need to be survived by remaining among the elect, rather than prevented through pragmatic action.
Alternatively, an apocalyptic or eschatalogical idiom can sometimes make climate change feel like nothing special. When has the world not been ending? “For at least 3,000 years, a fluctuating proportion of the world’s population has believed that the end of the world is imminent” (Garrard 2004). Insofar as apocalyptic framings feel extreme yet in a familiar way, they can be counterproductive, especially with audiences who are already wary. This includes those who are ready to view anthropogenic climate change as a left wing conspiracy (perpetrated by charlatan scientists to secure themselves power and funding, in cahoots with governments that aim to justify increasingly authoritarian, totalitarian, and unjust policies) or as a neocolonialist agenda (perpetrated by the rich countries of the world to impose new forms of domination, indebtedness, and exploitation on the Global South).
De Meyer et al. (2021) offer an intriguing spin on the respective merits of fear, hope, and other emotions: they suggest that current debates on climate communication have exaggerated the role of emotions altogether. Instead they advocate for a focus on practice, by storytelling (and doing other things) to create spaces where new audiences can experience agency in relation to the climate, at many different scales and in many different circumstances. People should be able to see what they can do.
Here, we propose that both place-based, localized action storytelling, and practice-based action storytelling have a role to play in expanding climate agency. As examples of the latter, for creative writers and journalists the required agency would be about knowing how to make action on climate change part of their stories; for architects, how to bring climate change into building design; for teachers, how to teach about climate action within the constraints of the curriculum; for fund managers, how to bring climate risk into their investment decisions; for health professionals, to support the creation of place-based community systems that respond to the health impacts of climate change. These examples of communities of practice provide different opportunities and challenges to expand the notions of climate action beyond the current notions of consumer choice and activism.
De Meyer et al. (2021)
Let’s summarise, then, some approaches to effective climate risk communication. One approach is to focus on information. How can information be clearly expressed and tailored for users to easily incorporate it into their decision-making? A second approach (partly in response to perceived shortcomings of the first) places more emphasis on emotion. What mixture of emotions should be appealed to in order to motivate action? This focus on emotion is also implicitly a focus on moral normativity, an appeal to the heart rather than the head (there is of course a great body of literature deriding this split between reason and emotion, which in reality are always mutually entangled). More recently we are seeing the emergence of a third approach, not strictly supplanting but rather complementing the other two, which focuses on practice.
The distinction between a “practice” focus vs. a focus on “informative and tailored stories” or “stories of hope not fear” is a bit subtle. Of course the three may often overlap. It may be helpful to think about what the “practice” focus means in the longer term. In the longer term, each new representational domain of climate agency will not emerge solely through hopeful portrayals of an agent (e.g. journalist, architect, teacher, fund manager) exemplifying an orthodox version of their role-specific climate action, however cognitively and affectively well-judged. Telling these stories may certainly be the priority in the short term. But what they should hope to kickstart are diverse stories filled with diverse agents, affects, and values: stories which superficially contradict each other in many ways, but whose deeper presuppositions mesh to create fields of imaginable action that can accommodate the particularity and the creativity of real people. “Environmental activist” is a social role that is available for real people to fill precisely because it can be filled in many ways (not just one way) and because it means many contradictory things (not just one thing). The same is true of the figure of the ethical consumer.
Audiences are more likely to engage with stories about the world they live in, than about who they must be in that world. Successful rapid mitigation and adaptation entails shifting to more participatory and equitable societies. Many audiences with centrist or conservative leanings may struggle to see themselves accepted within such societies. They may reject realistic climate narratives as hoaxes, or even welcome the end times: revel in fantasies of courage, ingenuity, largesse and revenge, set amid the ruins of civilisation. More can be done to create narratives that accommodate a range of self-reported aspirational virtues across the political spectrum, in ways that are cohesive with an overall just transition. Storytelling that focuses on multiplying domains of agency also entails interventions beyond representational techniques altogether, transforming the material contexts in which people seek to exercise agency.
By Jo Lindsay Walton. This is an excerpt from a chapter published in The Science Fiction of Iain M. Banks, eds Nick Hubble, Esther MacCallum-Stewart and Joseph Norman (Gylphi, 2018).
Introduction: What’s in a Game?
On an estate belonging to the Ancraime family, at the edges of Stonemouth, a Scottish coastal town, a group of boys gather to play paintball. They come from a range of economic backgrounds: Stonemouth is not large enough for the boys to be segregated according to class. The poorest member of the group is Wee Malky. As dusk draws in, the boys begin the last game of the day, a hunting scenario in which, in consequence of a “complicated arrangement of scoring across the various [earlier] skirmishes” (Banks 2012: 146), Wee Malky finds himself the quarry, and the rest of the group, hunters.
Eventually, “near the furthest western extent of the house gardens […] [on the edge of] the rest of the estate and the grouse moors and plantation forests beyond,” (ibid. 149), the scattered group begins to converge. Wee Malky is making a perilous crossing along the round-topped, weed-slicked stone of the top lip of a reservoir, which feeds various water features in the gardens. He has the undertow-prone, peaty reservoir water to one side, and the steep, slimy slope of the overflow, dotted with concrete pillars, on the other.
George Ancraime, “the older brother, nearly twenty at this point but with a mental age stuck at about five” (ibid. 142), suddenly appears near the bottom of the slope. He has been back to his parents’ mansion and retrieved a large antique sword, which he brandishes smilingly at Wee Malky. If Wee Malky can make it across, he wins the game. But if he loses his balance, he loses his life.
The scene, a suitably cruel allegory of class violence, is in many ways typical of how games often appear in Banks’s fiction. It raises the question of what makes a game a game, and at what point it stops being a game. Game studies theorists Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, after a survey of existing definitions, define a game as “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen and Zimmerman 2003: 96). Another good starting point is the philosopher Bernard Suits’s succinct formulation: playing a game is “a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” (Suits 2005 : 55). […] Banks’s games resist both definitions. There is a sustained interest in Banks’s work in involuntary games, necessary games, games-within-games, games that burst their boundaries, games that overcome their players, games with hidden purposes, fragmentary games, games that arise spontaneously, games whose rules change, and games whose outcomes are nebulous and defy calculation. More generally, there is a fascination in Banks’s writing with ludic affordance: the capacity of any situation to absorb and be transformed by play.
We’re lucky to be talking today to Jonathan Reus and Sissel Marie Tonn, whose collaborative work appears under the name Sensory Cartographies. Their work includes, among other things, the creation of wearable technologies that explore the nature of sensation and attention. […] So like many great collaborations, there’s quite an interdisciplinary aspect to Sensory Cartographies, is that right?
Sissel: Yes, we both have our different backgrounds. Jon really comes from a music and performance background, as well as instrument building and media archaeology. And my background is more in visual arts and arts research.
So tell us how Sensory Cartographies came to be.
Sissel: It started in 2016, when we got an opportunity to do a residency together in Madeira. Sensory Cartographies really grew out of that residency. I’d been to Madeira before in 2013, and started this drawing project, to do with Madeira’s position in the Age of Exploration, which you could really call the Age of Colonization.
In late December 2017, a group of writers and scholars of SF, scientists and technologists, and defence analysts and policymakers, gathered at Dstl (UK government’s defence science and technology laboratory) in Salisbury to explore science fiction’s contribution to defence policy. Vector caught up with Dr Ping Zheng from Canterbury Christ Church University Business School, to ask her about her impressions of the day, and a few other things …
During the first breakout session, you were in the Human Behaviour in Smart Environments group. How did that go?
We had some inspiring discussions about how humans may react in smart environments. I think the group dynamics probably extended the scope of planned discussions, and allowed us to engage in more diversified discourse, ranging from individual perspectives, to emergent impacts at a societal level, and also to policy perspectives. For example, two prominent issues were debated: national and cultural differences, and ethical concerns such as privacy.
Perhaps the value of events like these is that you might discover that your original questions can be re-framed, or that your stakeholders are not precisely who you imagined them to be. Your other breakout session was ‘Defence (In)efficiency: What Does the Future Hold?’?
By Polina Levontin, Jo Lindsay Walton, John Mumford, and Nasir Warfa.
In this academic article, the authors explore a range of science fictional texts dealing with so-called ‘lone wolf’ bioterrorism, and ask what we might learn from them about dealing with the real bioterror threats of the future.The possibility of an engineered pandemic is one of the more terrifying new risks of the 21st Century. As technology lowers thresholds for developing bioweapons, even individuals with relatively ordinary knowledge and budgets could become responsible for extraordinary threats. Although several real-life bioterror incidents are known, no large-scale pandemic has yet occurred as a direct result of terrorism. Fiction, however, offers detailed scenarios of such events. Writers of these narratives find themselves at the intersection of modern science and deep literary tradition of pandemic narratives, originating with biblical accounts of plagues. This academic working paper examines portraits of ‘lone wolf’ bioterrorists in several contemporary fictional sources, focusing on how writers draw on counterterrorism discourse, particularly in their attempts to psychologically model the perpertrators. It flags up the dangers of a truncated speculative space, and concludes with a discussion of impacts these imaginaries might have, through influencing how emergent bioterror threats are perceived by scientists, policymakers, and the public.