Ed. note: This piece is an excerpt from the book Our Entangled Future: Stories to Empower Quantam Social Change, edited by Karen O’Brien, Ann El Khoury, Nicole Schafenacker, and Jordan Rosenfeld. You can find out more about the book and download a free copy here. (Direct quotes and references for this excerpt are referenced in the original text.)
Anyone who reads the news these days will recognize that climate change is anything but fiction. Real stories of risk, danger, and loss are conveyed to us daily, whether in relation to wildfires, floods, droughts, heatwaves, glacial melting, rising waters, coral bleaching, species losses, or any other type of ecological distress. The protagonists in these stories are many – they include firefighters, farmers, coastal communities, elected officials, scientists, activists, governments, and those of us who have a stake in maintaining a planet that is hospitable to life. The protagonists in climate change are not merely observers; they are also taking action, for a good story always includes action. Our protagonists are marching in the streets, running for public office, standing up in the boardroom, directing theater pieces, organizing meetings and festivals, and introducing alternatives to our energy-intensive, consumer-oriented lifestyles.
The antagonists in today’s climate stories are numerous as well, including the oil industry, capitalism, agribusinesses, mining interests, mass tourism, and “people like us” who have adapted to paradigms of perpetual progress, endless consumption, unlimited growth, or the idea that “technology will save us.” The story of climate change is often told as a heroic battle of good versus evil, right versus wrong, and us versus them. As this plot unfolds, many people are starting to look more closely at the narratives underlying the story of climate change. What kind of stories are we actually telling ourselves and each other about our future in a changing climate? More importantly, what messages are we conveying about our potential to influence the future, right here and now?
Stories play a powerful role in transmitting personal and collective experiences. They allow us to “feel” climate change in ways that can move us emotionally and open our imagination to new possibilities. They raise our awareness not only to what is happening in the world, but to how it may be experienced by others, both now and in the future. In doing this, stories can change our world. Indeed, the climate crisis requires us to imagine other ways of living—a task to which, of all cultural forms, fiction is the most suited. As Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement, “let us make no mistake: the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination.”
Climate fiction, or “cli-fi,” is a literary genre that is rapidly expanding in response to the climate crisis, with new books and anthologies coming out every day. Cli-fi is located within a broader genre of speculative or science fiction. Speculative fiction is particularly well suited to addressing the climate crisis, as it can activate both reflection and engagement and thus serve as an effective vehicle for expressing experiential impacts, social criticism and alternative scenarios. Speculative fiction can also be used to develop strategic thought experiments related to both practical and philosophical ideas. As an art-science form, it has a unique capacity to envision possible, probable, and preferred collective futures based on projections of available scientific data. It can also draw attention to the importance of consciousness, subjectivity, agency and lived experiences of the climate crisis. It demonstrates humanity’s complex co-implication with the natural world in a more subjective and emotional way. Speculative fiction has the potential to help us to recognize our own potential in co-creating the future. This potential has not yet been fully activated.
Much of contemporary climate fiction depicts a dystopic world that has been radically transformed by the impacts of climate change. For example, in the introduction to Change Everything: An Anthology of Climate Fiction, Manjana Milkoreit and her coeditors write that “most of our stories imagine gloomy, dystopian future worlds in which much of what we cherish – and take for granted – about our present realities will be lost.”
In the Foreword to Loosed Upon the World: The Saga Anthology of Climate Fiction, editor John Joseph Adams describes the stories as a warning flare “to illustrate the kinds of things we can expect if climate change goes unchecked.” However, he also suggests that they may reveal some possible solutions that “inspire the hope that we can maybe still do something about it before it’s too late…” This is critical at a time when many are giving up hope on the future.
Stories have to offer us more than hope. They have to help us to imagine and actualize alternative “not-yet-here” realities that enable people and our planet to thrive. They can encourage us to question dominant modes of thinking, relating, acting, and governing, and they can inspire new understandings of the patterns and relationships that are shaping our future. Speculative fiction offers the opportunity to activate though patterns that empower us with agency and leave us knowing that we can collectively create a better future. They can help us perceive, feel, and activate the possibilities for social change.
As Ernest Callenbach, author of the 1970s classic, Ecotopia, said in an interview: “It is so hard to imagine anything fundamentally different from what we have now. But without these alternate visions, we get stuck on dead center. And we’d better get ready. We need to know where we’d like to go.” Callenbach’s Ecotopia was a forerunner to an eco-future movement of practical utopianism known as solarpunk. In contrast to the darkness of popular apocalyptic science fiction, solarpunk offers more viable, optimistic stories about the near-futures and coping with the climate crisis, with the goal of encouraging and inspiring people to change the present.
Recognizing that political, social and cultural shifts will be necessary for more sustainable futures, it deploys radical optimism to bring greener futures into being. It is at once a countercultural movement, an adaptation art form, and “a form of futurism that focuses on what we should hope for rather than on what to avoid.” Its themes are thrivability and generativity. At its best, propositional speculative fiction and solarpunk can function as a realism of the possible, helping us think through the world as it is and as it may be.
The full realm of possibilities for social change is not likely to be realized through a mechanistic Newtonian paradigm. This scientific paradigm emerged during the 18th century Age of Enlightenment, also known as the “Age of Reason.” Among other things, it distinguishes subjects from objects; views space and time as absolute; sees individuals as separate and discrete; includes a limited role for free will and consciousness; and considers causality to be deterministic. This is indeed a problem, for if humans are responsible for climate change and environmental degradation, our lack of conscious agency and real connection make it unlikely that we will transform systems at the rate and scale that is called for at this time. Quantum social change suggests that there may be other ways to understand and generate transformations to sustainability.
2. Quantum Social Change
What do we mean by “quantum social change”? Quantum social change describes a nonlinear, non-local approach to sustainability transformations. This approach recognizes that our deepest values and intentions are the source of individual change, collective change, and systems change.
Drawing on metaphors from quantum physics, and referencing the ambiguous interpretations of its fundamental meaning, quantum social change recognizes the potential for transformations through concepts borrowed from quantum physics, such as entanglement, the wave-particle duality, complementarity, superposition and not the least, by generating a metaphorical “quantum leap.” This leap, which can be considered a transition that is sudden or discrete (i.e., without intermediate stages), calls for us to activate a new paradigm, right here and now.
There are many popular science books describing the history and significance of quantum physics, including its strange implications for our understanding of reality. For example, Philip Ball’s Beyond Weird: Why Everything You Thought You Knew About Quantum Physics is Different emphasizes that the most fundamental message of quantum theory is not a mathematical one, it is about words. Language, he argues, “is the only vehicle we have for constructing and conveying meaning: for talking about our universe.” This is precisely why new stories are so important. Without a scientific consensus on the fundamental nature of reality, it is up to us to develop a language for describing what is possible. Indeed, some interpretations of quantum physics suggest that we are, in fact, responsible for writing the script. Yet we also live in a world of classical physics, where the molecules of carbon dioxide released through the burning of fossil fuels heat the atmosphere; where ice melts at certain temperatures; and where physical changes have profound implications for the totality of the social and natural world. The understanding that humans play an important role in the Earth system draws attention to the need for social change. The recognition that the human-environment duality is just a cultural story suggests that it may be time to explore the story of quantum social change.
Why quantum social change? We need stories that confront the limitations of a dualistic, deterministic, and inanimate worldview and instead offer insights into a reality that is connected, entangled, uncertain, and ripe with possibility – a world of complementarity, non-locality, and potentiality. In Reality is Not What it Seems, physicist Carlo Rovelli reminds us that “[t]he world is more extraordinary and profound than any of the fables told by our forefathers.” Or as physicist and feminist scholar Karen Barad writes, “[t]he world and its possibilities for becoming are remade with each moment.” The idea of “quantum social change” may, at the very least, serve as a powerful metaphor to activate individual and collective agency for generating social change.
3. Stories to Empower Quantum Social Change
Can we strategically evoke fictional narratives of quantum social change in the service of transformations to a sustainable and thriving world? As mentioned above, to date most cli-fi has communicated depleting and diminishing apocalyptic imaginaries. Cautionary narratives have their place, but we need aspirational tales of successful social change and systems change, for they too can be a reality. The role of narratives and imaginaries can be seen as akin to fractals or self-similar patterns that replicate at all scales, opening up new possibilities and potentials for change. The fractal space of narratives holds boundless potential. As fractals, we build the future one idea and action at a time.
New narrative arcs, images and metaphors allow us to imagine a possible trajectory for the story of our time and our individual roles in weaving this future. Through story, interconnections are revealed allowing us to foster new partnerships between each other and the world we inhabit, and to participate in the world that is becoming. Activist and writer Joanna Macy inquires into this process using systems theory. She adopts Ervin Laszlo’s term “exploratory self-organization” to describe the courageous act of engaging the middle-space where one releases old patterning but does not yet know how the new pattern looks, or how the story ends, so to speak. Fictional narratives are waves of potential in world-making. Readers and writers are entangled in acts of meaning-making; stories are at once individual and collective cultural acts.
Philosophically, a quantum-influenced realism points out that what is “not yet,” or “in potentia” is actually part of reality. Speculative fiction invites us to embrace the wave-particle duality as the space of potential between the writer and the reader, and the imagined and the actual. Metaphorically, it highlights how people are at once both the problem and the solution in the climate crisis. As one of our jurors, Adeline Johns-Putra writes in response to the anthology, “Climate change and other components of the Anthropocene disclose a disturbing paradox: human agency bears at once blame and responsibility. It must therefore be simultaneously de-centred (to acknowledge that we are not exceptional from other species) and recentred (to acknowledge our ethical obligations to these species).”
Teaser photo credit: I wanted to stay in that place, whatever it was. © Elin Glærum Haugland, primusprimus.com