The Universe is made of stories, not atoms—Muriel Rukeyser
Canadian writer Mary Woodbury tells us that: “Fiction exploring humanity’s impacts on nature is becoming more popular [and] has the distinct ability to creatively engage and appeal to readers’ emotions. In fact, it can stir environmental action.” A survey she took in 2020 showed that “88% of its participants were inspired to act after reading ecological fiction.”
Eco-Fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role, either as premise or as character. “Principled by real science and exalting our planet’s beauty, these stories are works of art. They live within classic modes of fiction exploring the human condition, but also integrate the wild,” writes Woodbury. At the heart of eco-fiction are strong relationships forged between the major character on a journey and an aspect of their environment and place.Environment and place can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey.
All great literature distills its art form through the exploration of relationship: our relationship with technology, with science, Nature, God, our children, each other, our history. Science fiction illuminates our history and our very humanity by examining our interaction with “the other,” the unfamiliar. This is the hero’s journey. And it is through this journey relating to the “other” (whether it’s Earth or an alien planet, its water, environment and issues, and its varied peoples and cultures) that our hero discovers herself and her gift to the world.
We currently live in a world in which climate change and associated water crisis pose a very real existential threat to most life currently on the planet. The new normal is change. And it is within this changing climate that eco-fiction is realizing itself as a literary pursuit worth engaging in. The emergence of the term eco-fiction as a brand of literature suggests that we are all awakening—novelists and readers of novels—to our changing environment. We are finally ready to see and portray environment as an interesting character with agency and to read this important and impactful literature.
Many readers are currently seeking fiction that describes environmental issues but also explores a successful paradigm shift: fiction that accurately addresses our current issues with intelligence and hope. This is reflected in the growing popularity of several emerging sub-genres of fiction such as solar punk, optimistic climate fiction, clifi, eco-lit, hope punk, and others. The power of envisioning a certain future is that the vision enables one to see it as possible. Eco-fiction—and all good science fiction—uses metaphor to study the world and the consequences of humanity’s actions through microcosmic dramatization. What makes this literature particularly exciting is: 1) its relevance to our current existential situation; and 2) that it often provides a way forward.
The Way Forward with Solarpunk
In his 2014 article “Solarpunk: Notes toward a manifesto” in Hieroglyph Adam Flynn writes of under-30 futurists: “Many of us feel it’s unethical to bring children into a world like ours. We have grown up under a shadow, and if we sometimes resemble fungus it should be taken as a credit to our adaptability.”
Solarpunk, says Flynn, “is about finding ways to make life more wonderful for us now, and more importantly for the generations that follow us—i.e., extending human life at the species level, rather than individually.” Our future, asserts Flynn, “must involve repurposing and creating new things from what we already have (instead of 20thcentury “destroy it all and build something completely different” modernism).” Solarpunk futurism “is not nihilistic like cyberpunk and it avoids steampunk’s potentially quasi-reactionary tendencies: it is about ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community.”
The ‘punk’ suffix comes from the oppositional quality of solarpunk; opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance. Flynn tells us that solarpunk draws on the ideal of Jefferson’s yeoman farmer, Ghandi’s ideal of swadeshi, and countless other traditions of innovative dissent.
In response to Flynn’s article, Bob Vanderbob writes, “going solar is a deep mental shift: it will be the central metaphor of our future civilization.”
Musician photographer Jay Springett calls solarpunk, “a movement in speculative fiction, art, fashion, and activism that seeks to answer and embody the question ‘what does a sustainable civilization look like, and how can we get there?’… At once a vision of the future, a thoughtful provocation, and an achievable lifestyle.” Jennifer Hamilton observes in The Conversation that “as a category of fiction, solarpunk remains a fringe dweller…Nevertheless, the aesthetic sensibilities of the subculture are starting to emerge.” Hamilton asserts that “the focus on the cultural change that will necessarily accompany the full transition to renewable energy is the defining feature of solarpunk.” She adds, “we usually ask ‘can renewables replace fossil fuels?’ … solarpunks ask ‘what kind of world will emerge when we finally transition to renewables?’ and their [works] are generating an intriguing answer.”
How Eco-Fiction Inspires and Galvanizes
Readers responded to Mary Woodbury’s survey question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society and if so, how?” with these observations:
- Environmental fiction encourages empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
- Environmental fiction triggers a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
- Environmental fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
- Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.
Why Our Stories Are Important
We are all storytellers. We share our curiosity with great expression; our capacity and need to tell stories is as old as our ancient beginnings. From the Palaeolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet, humanity has left a grand legacy of “story” sharing. Evolutionary biologist and futurist Elisabet Sahtouris tells us that, “whether we create our stories from the revelations of religions or the researches of science, or the inspirations of great artists and writers or the experiences of our own lives, we live by the stories we believe and tell to ourselves and others.”
Compelling stories resonate with the universal truths of metaphor that reside within the consciousness of humanity. According to Joseph Campbell, this involves an open mind and a certain amount of humility; and giving oneself to the story … not unlike the hero who gives her life to something larger than herself. Fiction becomes memorable by providing a depth of meaning. Stories move with direction, compel with intrigue and fulfil with awareness and, sometimes, with understanding. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, where the personal meets the universal, through symbols or archetypes and metaphor.
Ultimately, we live by the narratives we share. “What you think, you become,” said Buddha.
In my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I write: “When a writer is mindful of place in story and not only accurately portrays environment but treats it as a character, then her story will resonate with multilayers of meaning.”
Changing the Narrative…
I was recently interviewed by Forrest Brown on Stories for Earth Podcast in which we discussed the need to change our narrative (particularly our colonial neoliberal capitalist narrative) and various ways to do this, taking into account the challenges posed by belief and language.
“We need to have a whole cultural shift, where it becomes our culture to take care of the Earth, and in order to make this shift, we need storytelling about how the Earth takes care of us and how we can take care of her.” ― Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis
“This world, in which we are born and taken our being, is alive. It is not our supply house and sewer; it is our larger body. The intelligence that evolved us from stardust and interconnects us with all beings is sufficient for the healing of our Earth community, if we but align with that purpose. Our true nature is far more ancient and encompassing than the separate self defined by habit and society. We are as intrinsic to our living world as the rivers and trees, woven of the same intricate flows of matter/energy and mind. Having evolved us into self-reflexive consciousness, the world can now know itself through us, behold its own majesty, tell its own stories–and also respond to its own suffering.”
–JOANNA MACY and CHRIS JOHNSTONE, “Active Hope”
Campbell, Joseph, Bill Moyers. 1991. “The Power of Myth.” Anchor. 293pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is… The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Delta, B.C. 584pp.
Munteanu, Nina. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Delta, B.C. 200pp.
Sahtouris, Elisabet. 2014. “Ecosophy: Nature’s Guide to a Better World.” Kosmos, Spring/Summer 2014: 4-9pp.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.