I have been reading cli-fi or climate fiction and science fiction and thinking about how to guide students gently into dystopian worlds and to lead them out safely. Dystopian literature may feel too close for comfort. Every day, we are inundated with climate crises in the news media. So much so, that “you would be forgiven if you mistook the world for a dystopian science fiction film.” This experience of a dystopian reality contributes to climate anxiety, or stress related to climate change and the fate of our planet. In a recent study of over 10,000 youth in 10 countries, the majority claimed they experienced some form of climate anxiety and nearly half (45%) said their feelings impacted their daily lives and 59% agreed with the viewpoint that “humanity is doomed.” So, should we teach climate change issues through dystopian cli-fi?
Dystopian cli-fi is a powerful tool for teaching climate change. As Allen Webb recently reminded me, we need our students to feel a sense of urgency. In the book he co-authored with Richard Beach and Jeff Share, Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents, we must acknowledge that, “whatever happens, climate change will be the defining feature of the world our students inhabit. Addressing climate change is everyone’s responsibility, and that includes English teachers.” Dystopian cli-fi creates the opportunity to explore ‘what-ifs' related to complex questions stemming from the wicked problems we face today. So, cli-fi is an expression of radical hope.
Dystopian cli-fi an expression of radical hope? Literary scholar Pamela Bedore claims that dystopian literature is more utopian than utopian literature because utopia is unattainable and dystopian futures are still avoidable. In other words, there’s still hope for us. And that fits with Lear’s definition of a radical hope, which “is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.” What we do now matters.
Focus on YA Novels
Youth protagonists in novels like Parable of the Sower, The Marrow Thieves, and The Last Cuentista all exercise agency in worlds that appear to leave little space for individuals to act. In Parable of the Sower, 15-year-old Lauren is a climate refugee who flees her home after her family is murdered and her neighborhood destroyed. Migration is a desperate yet hopeful act. She sets out North toward hope and a new beginning. Lauren is also the vessel for a new religion, one that compels people to adapt and survive. One of the verses she writes in her journal exemplifies not only adaptation and survival, but the importance of purposeful action:
ALL THAT YOU TOUCH
ALL THAT YOU CHANGE
THE ONLY LASTING TRUTH
The other stories also include forced migration. In The Marrow Thieves, almost all people have lost the ability to dream– all except for Native people, whose dreams are literally in their marrow. Native Canadians are being rounded up and their marrow harvested to create an antidote for dreamlessness. Frenchie flees further into the wilderness of Canada and finds family, friendship, and hope in his journey.
The Last Cuentista is a middle grade novel about a migration off-planet. Earth is no longer habitable and Petra Peña, along with her family and a few hundred others, are sent into space to save the human race. As they travel, they learn. When Petra lands on a new planet, she is the only one who remembers the stories from Earth. Stories, then, are the connection to our humanity.
Creating from Dystopian Literature
The concept of ‘imaginary activism’ is YA scholar Megan Musgrave’s way of describing how reading compels us to take action. The following activities encourage students to interact with texts, work through difficult topics, and lean into radical hope.
- Hot Spots are what sticks with you- what bothers you, disturbs you, or what you will remember long after you’ve read the book. High school English teacher Erick Gordon utilized the “Hot Spots” activity, a Literacy Unbound technique, while reading the graphic novel version of Parable of the Sower with his 11th grade students. He invited them to photocopy or recreate panels from the story and post them to a wall. Students used graffiti or other artistic marks to express their emotions around these moments in the book. It created a way for students to identify parts of the text that they wanted to work through together (see image below).
- Culture jamming is the subversion of messages in popular or dominant culture to alter the original intent. Students can subvert advertisements, social media posts, news stories, and other everyday texts through playful or creative jams to convey alternative perspectives on climate-related topics like big oil or deforestation.
- ‘Artifact from the future’ inspired by gaming researcher Jane McGonigal. I also like the examples of a similar idea from IDEO’s HyperHuman machines of the future. Students can create artifacts from the future that show technology can be used for good. Students use maker space pedagogies like the design thinking process such as empathize, design, and prototype an artifact from the future based on an issue that resonates with them.
- Time capsule— Create a digital time capsule or curate current events and imagine how people from the future might look back on how we successfully addressed these challenges. Troy Hicks recommends tools from Knightlab.
The focus of this Monday Motivator is to share some activities that engage students in wrestling with difficult topics such as climate change while helping to express hope. Through the use of various YA cli-fi novels, teachers can hopefully move towards a more optimistic and hopeful future.
Dr. Fawn Canady is an Assistant Professor of Adolescent and Digital Literacies. In the Curriculum Studies and Secondary Education department, she serves as the graduate advisor for the MA in Curriculum, Teaching and Learning. Dr. Canady teaches a range of courses including the educational technology area of emphasis, secondary English Education, and literacy K-12. Her interdisciplinary research interests include adolescent literacies and digital multimodal writing, Young Adult Literature, media literacy, and Teacher Education.