INSSPIRE can inspire “Cli-Fi”

In 2021, Kenya’s banked population was found to be above the global average of 76 percent of adults with an account at a bank or regulated institution such as a credit union, microfinance institution, or a mobile money service provider. This means that the country is one of the most banked communities in the world. Added, one can do all transactions from the comfort of own bedroom, including paying for the coveted honeymoon trip to planet mars. Entrepreneurs exploit the space with utmost potency to merchandise their wares. One wishes there was a similar enthusiasm to dialogue on food and climate change. This would be a game changer in feeding the ever growing number of mouths in need of food. A trajectory of having climate fiction (‘cli-fi’) love would etch knowledge and skills to sustain the food system in a climate smart way. Having cli-fi for the entire gender spectrum would ensure all in the society are on board in keeping the climate change and food agenda talk alive and loud.

The other day an INSSPIRE colleague and I were exchanging pleasantries that dived into the uninspiring weather vagaries ravaging people’s lives and livelihoods in Kitui. The earth is yearning for anything that can cool it. The marauding insects that characters the local environment in cool weathers have gone deep under for solace. I told the INSSPIRE comrade that despite the refusal of the clouds to smile, the people habour some hope, encouraged by the trees that are now starting to bear flowers, which the people believe are signs of onset of good downpours. Her quick rejoinder was on the value of the local and indigenous knowledge. As I agreed, it reflected on me how the knowledge is keeping hope alive. The conventional meteorologists have heartbreaking news for the people – that the mid-March-June rains will be very low and of short duration. But the local people believe the lunar, plants and animals’ behavior tell of a differing story. As such, they will continue to prepare their land to receive seeds, wait to revive dormant plants and, have the rains permit removal of sheep and goats reproductive control aprons. The current common words on the peoples’ lips tell it all: ‘god never forgets his people. Droughts have to come and, will go’. How I wish they can talk in plain words of climate change, droughts and, consequences at the dinner table!

Droughts on this part of the universe have in the last decades increased in frequency and severity. Climate change is put forth as an important contributor to the crisis. But every time I talk to the rural folks, I increasingly get this feeling that the issues of climate change genesis and short and long term consequences is not well grasped. There are always the blanket and unquantified responses pointing in the direction of felt lessened rains and hotter periods. Some quarters blame the glorified world of sins to be responsible for the changed atmospheric behavior. I can’t blame them. Climate change is complex, and involves timescales longer than human lifespans. Reading about it can make people feel helpless and this can lead to switch-off. Experts have debated why it is taking humanity so long to accept climate change. It is however agreed that the documented evidences are not easy to read. An example can be taken of the latest IPPC climate report, which projects five scenarios based on varying levels of emissions. The document, described by the UN as ‘code red for humanity’ runs to 3,949 pages is written nearly entirely in bullet points. This makes the works of novelists have an edge. Novelists explore climate change by zooming in on individual protagonists, narrowing the topic to the scale of a human life, thus aiding sense-making and emotional processing. This qualifies fiction as a best way to pass messages to society. If climate science is the pilot’s manual, climate fiction is the flight simulator: it transports people into future scenarios and invites them to rehearse how the people would cope with them. Stories have always had the power to activate empathy, increase insight and promote action. Stories function to help humanity achieve the change necessary to its survival as a species. Thinkers since Aristotle have observed a universal pattern underlying good stories. One is reminded of the 1983 film ‘The Day After’ which convinced America to alter its position on nuclear weapons or, the movie Contagion which influenced the former health secretary Matt Hancock to his vaccine policy.

All these invites one to the need to make discussions on the climate as part of the people. As part of the INSSPIRE project activities, there could be a deliberate endeavour to promote dialogues through households, schools and, community meetings, policy makers and implementers, ‘till the sun grows cold’, as Maggie McCune would aptly put it. One best way to achieve this in the Africa setting is though climate fiction that could start with where the people are.

African “cli-fi”

The climate fiction has potential for people to better understand growing climate threats, and then act on them. It can be weaponised to highlight the urgency of dealing with climate change. Cognizance is in Africa, writers and novelists have started to produce climate fiction that aims to portray the risks and opportunities of climate change while challenging Western narratives and inspiring African readers. The broader genre, and its largely dystopian tales, have been around a while in other parts of the world. In his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, the Indian writer Amitav Ghosh complained that the literary journals did not take climate change novels seriously. He opined that when future generations fail to find literary representations of climate change from this era they will “conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight”. Ghosh’s challenge produced a surge of climate novels that gained momentum when The Overstory (2018) by Richard Powers – which interweaves stories of trees with stories of people won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize, definitively ending the idea that climate fiction was a non-literary niche. Since then, novelists, including Ghosh himself, have explored climate change from myriad perspectives. In The Wall (2019), John Lanchester imagines a future in which young adults stand watch on a huge coastal wall around Britain bitterly resentful of older generations. In Migrations (2020), Charlotte McConaghy portrays a woman tracing the world’s last migrating birds while, in Bewilderment (2021), Richard Powers explores how climate change can frighten and anger children. Rumaan Alam in Leave the World Behind (2020), describes a flock of flamingos landing in a suburban swimming pool in Long Island, New York – an unsettling sign of a world out of kilter. Alexandra Kleeman did in 2021 put his thoughts in Something New Under the Sun which was made into a movie in a mysterious near-future dystopia. In 1993, Octavia Butler wrote the prescient novel Parable of the Sower that foresaw wildfires, water scarcity and waves of migration. Set in 2024, the novel tells the story of a teenage girl who flees her disintegrating community in a United States riven by climate change and social injustice. African writers are now joining in as climate change impacts from droughts to storms. The recent tale by Vuyokazi Ngemntu’s narrates of a girl in a drought-hit state that was once South Africa, learning to heed ancestral knowledge to restore rain. Ngemntu intones that she wanted to ‘craft a story that was ours’ for all Africans. Hearteningly for Africa, groups are now coming up with awards for cli-fi undertakings to encourage more interventions. INSSPIRE can join the fray in keeping the spirits of Dan Bloom, the freelance news reporter and climate activist alive.

Cli-fi has power to reach the hearts of people and make them do the needful for posterity. Normally, at the start of a story, the hero/heroine is confronted with a challenge. Wary of change (as we all tend to be), the hero/heroine procrastinates but then commits to the quest overcoming many obstacles before emerging transformed. In this way, stories explore the conflict between our need for change and our fear of change – the human condition – helping us move from fear and procrastination to acceptance and problem-solving. It is correct to appreciate that humanity is already shifting from procrastination to problem-solving on climate change. Perhaps a new wave of cli-fi writing will spur us on the journey to net zero. INSSPIRE has a definite role in being part of the process as a means to sustainable food systems. Tales of rainmaking run wild in East Africa but are not fictionalized to offer a line of hope. Done, they would possibly invite a comparison with the Dutch rainmaker, the dew and fog collectors, the Warka system, the African Tower or, even the Maasai olopololi. Stories of use of animals’ entrails for weather forecasting and fortune telling among the pastoralists of Kenya are real. The pastoralists also use their food system to vaccinate themselves against the anthrax virus. This is high science. The diviners are able to use plants characteristics to tell of groundwater depths and quality. They are also able to use animals’ behavior, rock and soil characteristics and, the power of the human brain to aid in exploitation of groundwater. Can someone cli-fi them as a lifeline to people and their lifelines? This can be promoted, and even encouraged in curriculums development and implementation.

“Cli-fi” Absorption

In his 2018 work, ‘The Influence of Climate Fiction: An Empirical Survey of Readers’ published in Environmental Humanities No 10, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson concludes that majority readers of climate fiction are younger, more liberal, and more concerned about climate change than nonreaders, and that climate fiction reminds concerned readers of the severity of climate change while impelling them to imagine environmental futures and consider the impact of climate change on human and nonhuman life. He however adds that the actions that result from readers’ heightened consciousness reveal that awareness is only as valuable as the cultural messages about possible actions to take that are in circulation. He further adds that the responses of some readers suggest that works of climate fiction might lead some people to associate climate change with intensely negative emotions, which could prove counterproductive to efforts at environmental engagement or persuasion. In the near-future thriller The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi, empirical evidence reiterates that cautionary climate fiction set in a dystopic future can be effective at educating readers about climate injustice and leading readers to empathize with the victims of climate change, including environmental migrants. As such, a rise of ‘cli-fi’ stories can save the world and, actions needs to be taken to promote it.

INSSPIRE can inspire a whole heap on Cli-fi. My hunch.

Dr. Moses Mwangi, South Eastern Kenya University

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