This cli-fi explainer was syndicated on HuffPo Green.
When I first popularized cli-fi in 2009, it was initially inspired by Franny Armstrong’s docu-film The Age of Stupid, a work of science and fiction. Starring the late, great Pete Postelthwaite as a melted Arctic-bound archivist of a humanity that dumbly extincted itself (verb intended), Armstrong’s patient multimedia proved the boundary between what is environmental science and what is cultural narrative has always been what William Gibson described in his foundational Neuromancer as a “consensual hallucination.” He was speaking of the cyberspace in which we all now create ourselves, a floating fiction wherein we inhabit avatars and collectively build a multiverse with an actual future.
But as both climate science and science-fiction have lately warned, Earth does not have a future. And neither do we.
This existential bleed is of course the reason that Christopher Nolan’s cli-fi epic Interstellar reportedly feels like a documentary struggling with a blockbuster, as it wrestles with a titanic human species trying to survive its hyperconsumption and narcissism, on a fucking lucky rock spinning through space. It’s also why continuing reports from the too-conservative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are treated like fiction by sellouts, and always exponentially worse. The latest (finally) explains that global warming is abrupt and irreversible, and that our children will inherit an Anthropocene riven by swallowing seas, searing permadroughts and mass extinction for species of all shapes and sizes.
But both are real, and both are cli-fi.
Cli-fi is not a listicle of films or shows or books or whatever, which take so-called climate change — a political euphemism created to denature global warming’s knockout punch — as their thematic center. Speaking of sellouts, cli-fi is also the near-universal assent of scientists and their studies, which reactionaries laugh off as a hard sell while they pocket payoffs from fossil fools trying to sustain the unsustainable hallucinations of the 20th century. Like the American Dream, the New Deal, the Great Society, globalization, sci-fi itself, all on fading life support as Earth perhaps transforms into Venus. That’s the nightmare haunting Stephen Hawking, who cli-fi analysts should note is a scientific visionary who can only communicate through a computer.
That we have been sleepwalking through such massive destabilization for decades proves that we are much better at consensually hallucinating than we are at separating our sciences and fictions. Indeed, we rule at creating facts first as fictions, so we can resume our consuming ways, avoiding apocalyptic spoiler alerts.
And so we fashion for ourselves mirrors and panopticons specifically to monitor and experience ourselves — in the third person, where Reality reportedly cannot touch us — as we live and die. Cli-fi, like sci-fi and fantasy and spy-fi and psy-fi and so many more, is simply the cultural prism through which we monitor and experience ourselves as we bleed our planet dry while trying to become machines capable of continuing once our galactic luck runs out. Pointing out what is and what is not cli-fi is like pointing out what is and is not cli-sci: It misses both the forest and its deforested trees.
We have always clung to our paradise in space, so we have always been cli-fi, as much as we have tried to ignore it in our programming and profiteering.
Of course Nolan’s studio blockbuster Interstellar is cli-fi, but so is artistry you rarely see making media headlines or cultural histories. Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko’s brilliant animated series The Legend of Korra is a postmodern treatise on our technocultural struggle to achieve an elemental balance between the natural world we’re manipulating and its apocalyptic consequences. It’s a sobering all-ages epic anchored by the most powerful female character on television — which is why it didn’t survive television and is now solely distributed online, where it competes on our laps, pads and phones with cli-fi like The Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy, Cosmos 1.0 and 2.0, Tolkien’s transmedia Lord of the Rings, Silent Running and The Road and The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones and even Star Wars itself.
Laugh at the ad nauseam, if you must, but try for example arguing whether Star Wars is fantasy or sci-fi with fandom and you’ll quickly realize that these distinctions mean little when applied to the Real World. It is, after all, Harrison Ford, Han Solo himself, who menacingly reminds us that “Every living thing on this planet needs me” while voicing The Ocean in Conservation International’s recent star-studded Nature is Speaking awareness campaign. But it is also Ford who comes off as a “smug, contemptuous and cantankerous” First Worlder in the also star-studded global warming miniseries Years of Living Dangerously, as he lectures post-Suharto Indonesians about “inequity, illegality and corruption” as First Worlders deforest Indonesia to crisis. And it is also the quite wealthy Ford who has paid into a dirty political campaign — assisted by the controversial Arno Political Consultants, whose previous clients include the NRA and oil companies — to continue allowing a money-pit airport in Santa Monica to pollute and crash into its neighbors, who would much rather have a park, thanks. At this point, we can’t even discuss whether Disney, which now owns Han Solo outright, has truly changed its devastating deforestation ways.
These dizzying contradictions bleed in too from the other side of cli-fi’s cultural prism, in so-called Reality, where everything is going to literal hell, science be damned. A perceptible documentary like Margaret Brown’s award-winning The Great Invisible, which sifts through the land and lives wrecked by Halliburton and British Petroleum’s oily Deepwater Horizon fuckup, probably sounds like a fairy tale to BP’s great communicator Geoff Morrell, the Department of Defense ex-press secretary who recently, infamously argued that, “No, BP Didn’t Ruin the Gulf.” Morrell might be happier with the perhaps more conventionally heroic retcon of Deepwater Horizon, starring Mark Wahlberg, whose last vehicle Lone Survivor was called a “jingoistic snuff film” by LA Weekly‘s Amy Nicholson. Deepwater Horizon is a fiction that might have more facts than The Great Invisible, for someone in Morrell’s compromised state.
You might as well include with these extractivist rewrites director Erik Skjoldbjærg’s Pioneer, which is marketed as a conspiracy thriller about the Norwegian oil boom of the ’80s. The boom’s real-world disaster capitalism, according to the also compromised Tony Blair, was “utterly essential” to the “electoral success” of Margaret Thatcher, who is herself a vehicle for rapacious conservatism most impressively dissected in Adam Curtis‘ docuseries The Living Dead, which screens like a surreal fantasy. All of these exercises, in turn, roughly collide with the aptly named Extreme Realities: Severe Weather, Climate Change and Our National Security, the new Matt Damon-narrated episode of Journey to Planet Earth, a PBS series premised on the (correct) assumption that viewers really need to take a trip to the planet they already live on — through Afghanistan’s Taliban and Kenya’s drought to doomed Bangladesh and burning Russia — to understand what is real and what is not.
From The Living Dead to The Walking Dead, and back and beyond, all of these fantasies of terror and terraformation, in a world gone mad with environmental destruction and voracious consumption, are cli-fi’s chameleon skins.
This is why politicians, scientists, spokespeople and other paid actors sound satisfied when voicing no-shit-Sherlock absurdities like “Climate change is real” and “The science isn’t settled” — as if we truly wanted real change or settled science, when they so painfully interfere with our desires and addictions. The most apocalyptic cli-fi in recent memory is indeed the IPCC’s AR5, which is less of a road map out of the planetary hell of our own making than a rerun of how we got here for anyone paying attention to our downward spiral. To get reductive about it, scientists often look backwards, clouded by funding and excuses, while artists often look forward, captivated by cash and fame.
This is why the mainstream talks as if Nolan’s Interstellar and the IPCC’s AR5 are somehow separate, as if they existed on different planets, on either side of a self-aware divide, when they are nothing of the sort after all the votes for hope and change are finally counted.
Because the fact is that we live in an exponentially warming world where the IPCC routinely underestimates its catastrophic predictions, even though political and economic elites dependent upon dirty fuels pay to propagandize its apocalyptic mirror as way too fractured. Meanwhile, self-professed “geeks” opine endlessly about whether programming and production about the end of the world as we know it, from Interstellar to The Hunger Games to The Hobbit and back again, can be squashed into labels and genres and marketing specifically created to slice and dice cultural experience into more capitalizable sections. For years, I have called this study of exponential misreading exponology: When it comes to global warming, exponology argues, we are always too slow, too wrong, too often.
Cli-fi fits into this puzzle by annihilating barriers we selfishly erect between science and fiction, between Self and the Other, between our overheating Earth and cold, deep space. Interstellar, like all cli-fi, oscillates between scientific analysis and postmodern pastiche, bowing to 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz and other big-picture epics about species survival and self-fulfilling evil. Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s transmedia 2001 legendarily charted the evolution of Earth’s higher beings just at the beginning of their interstellar journey; Interstellar finds them nearly destroyed by greatly depressing Dust Bowls past and present. This bleed will further intensify when the apartheid, tsunamis and mass extinctions of Clarke’s Childhood’s End arrives next year as a Syfy soap.
So whether they begin as blockbusters, documentaries or scientific studies, cli-fi facts and fictions are continually in flux, as humanity goes about its death-dealing business as usual. Apocalyptic programming is always where we have unsuccessfully stashed our neuroses and psychoses, because we just can’t handle the devolutionary truth. Which is that we have created a climate of terror and terraformation that is spinning out of control, and we don’t want it to stop.
Because stopping would mean unplugging the machines we have become, right now, before it is too late. And I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid we can’t do that.