Review: Rob Nixonon speculative non-fiction

All Tomorrow’s Warnings

Lamenting the shortsightedness of environmental policy – in 1971 – U Thant, Secretary-General of the UN, deployed a by-now familiar move from the playbook of ecological advocacy. He looked to the future:

When we watch the sun go down, evening after evening, through the smog across the poisoned waters of our native earth, we must ask ourselves seriously whether we really wish some future universal historian on another planet to say about us: ‘With all their genius and with all their skill, they ran out of foresight and air and food and water and ideas,’ or ‘They went on playing politics until their world collapsed around them.’

Despite its familiarity, U Thant’s statement here is rhetorically complicated. And it continues to inform efforts to tackle climate change to this day. Rather than castigating the present from some abstract future perspective, contemporary environmental defenders often follow U Thant’s lead, grounding their judgments in a singular figure – ’some future universal historian,’ geologist, or brother from another planet – who sifts through our future remains with fascination and disbelief. The question, then as now, is simple: Will we collectively close our eyes to the future dangers barreling toward us?

But such a question leads inevitably to a second, perhaps even more pressing question: How can we create a scientifically informed history of the future? This question has galvanized a slew of contemporary writers, filmmakers, and activists, who, echoing U Thant’s warning, are turning to speculative nonfiction, a genre that strives to document the years ahead. The vogue for histories of tomorrow is driven primarily by climate breakdown and the Anthropocene. Such anticipatory histories seek to counter a disastrous temporal parochialism unequal to the demands of the warmer, more insecure world. Nonfictional forays into the future, on the one hand, tend to warn us of coming disasters, and on the other, urge us to take action today.

In a spirit of anticipatory memory, writers, artists, and activists encourage us to own the future by inhabiting it in sample form. They encourage us to feel our way forward into the emergent worlds that our current actions are precipitating. They encourage us to break out of our temporal silos and – from our diverse Anthropocene positions – face the challenges that shadow the path ahead.

In the Anthropocene, Clive Hamilton observes, ‘the present is drenched with the future.’ Despite that, powerful economic, technological, and neurological forces intensify our present bias, severing current actions from future fallout. The neoliberal fantasy of infinite short-term growth, the digital splintering of attention spans, and the rewiring of our brains for restless interruption: all favor dissociation. The average American, after all, checks their phone 150 times a day. A succession of staccato inputs now threatens to crowd out futures of remote concern – futures that seem immaterial, in both senses of the term.

Speculative nonfiction has no innate politics. After all, Big Oil has invested heavily in creating documentaries set in the future that present the companies’ energy trajectories in a glowing light. That said, it is progressives who, recognizing that the trend lines all point toward a warmer, less stable climate, have been most insistently adventurous in experimenting with this futuristic documentary form. Again and again, progressives have conscripted speculative nonfiction as an ally against short-term extractive economics, digital dispersion, political prevarication, and ethical inertia.

The hope? That 2050 hindsight can inspire more 2020 foresight. We see as much in Cristiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac’s The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, a compelling addition to the lengthening lineage of books that animate credible futures in an effort to catalyze the change we need.

Nonfiction-as-speculation feels oxymoronic. The two words tug against each other, ‘nonfiction’ leaning toward documentation, ‘speculation’ toward imagining. A strange hybrid genre results that strives to offset the bloodless abstraction of scientific projections and the future’s unreality. Take Jeff Goodell’s The Water Will Come, which teleports us into a future drenched with the present. Here’s how Goodell begins his anticipatory tour of Miami:

After the hurricane hit Miami in 2037, a foot of sand covered the famous bow-tie floor in the lobby of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. A dead manatee floated in the pool where Elvis had once swum. Most of the damage came not from the hurricane’s 175-mile-an-hour winds, but from the twenty-foot storm that overwhelmed the low-lying city. In South Beach, historic Art Deco buildings were swept off their foundations.

Over the ensuing pages, Goodell bestows on Miami circa 2037 a granular immediacy. He insists, nonetheless, that he is writing journalism, not sci-fi. He simply aspires ‘to tell a true story about the future we are creating for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.’

Goodell’s ‘true’ reporting of the future operates under different imaginative constraints from, say, Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, another book about a drowning metropolis. Robinson’s speculative fiction asks ‘what if’ in a gesture of untethered fantasy, while Goodell’s speculative nonfiction hews close to scientific projections as he tries to sketch not just a possible future but a plausible one. The imaginative channels Goodell operates in are necessarily narrower, as he fuses vivid futuristic writing with credible projections constrained by science. But they make his warning of a future Miami all the more believable.

And yet, the wider speculations of Robinson’s fiction inspired Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway to swivel their historians’ gaze from the past to the world ahead. Their long essay, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, charts the path from the present to what they call the ‘Great Collapse of 2093.’ In that year – according to Oreskes and Conway – the West Antarctica Ice Sheet disintegrates, unleashing extreme flooding, mass migration, and other forms of mayhem. This science of climate breakdown is given a felt immediacy as Oreskes and Conway construct their future world from current, recognizable trends: politicians and scientists capitulating to ‘the carbon combustion complex’; the conservative bankrolling of anti-science; a defunding of the arts that hobbles imaginative responses to the climate crisis; rampant deregulation; corporate megamergers; and the spread of a neoliberal globalization favoring the immediate interests of the one percent over sustained well-being. Worryingly, The Collapse of Western Civilization reveals a world of cascading consequences – our world – in which ‘no planning was done, no precautions were taken, and the only management that finally ensued was disaster management.’

Despite its usefulness, however, Oreskes and Conway’s work is something of an outlier: it casts its gaze to the end of the 21st century. For many who simulate plausible climate futures, the favorite rendezvous is smack in the middle: the year 2050. For example, 2050 is the year in which climate scientist and co-creator of the radio show Forecast Earth, Heidi Cullen, chose to set her nonfiction book The Weather of the Future. In it, she maps the anticipated fallout of climatic destabilization. 2050 is also the year in which Mohamed Nasheed, former president of the low-lying Maldive islands, set his surreal, viral video of a seafloor cabinet meeting after his nation’s projected drowning. And 2050 is the galvanizing year for Jill Kubit and Trisha Shrum’s storytelling project Dear Tomorrow, ‘where people write climate messages to loved ones living in the future.’ Dear Tomorrow’s founders believe that by exhorting people to correspond with their children and grandchildren circa 2050, their epistolary project may help spur parents into becoming more environmentally conscious ancestors.

A similar impulse animates Zadie Smith’s essay, ‘Elegy for a Country’s Seasons.’ If we haven’t drastically reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, she observes, scientists are anticipating some dire scenarios. That year coincides with the seventh birthday of Smith’s imaginary granddaughter, whose judgment she fears and from whom she hopes to elicit some historical understanding, even if forgiveness is beyond her.

In The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis, the year is 2050. Again. Our guides, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac, are battle-hardened inhabitants of 2050. They’ve spent much of their lives drilling down into the projected specifics of that date, as together they helped promote the UN climate-change policy process that culminated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. Their new book maps two futures, both feasible but radically divergent. One scenario paints life on Earth circa 2050 in the colors of calamity, following our collective failure to meet the Paris climate targets. The other, less dystopian scenario reveals a carbon-neutral world that by 2050 has achieved a regenerative momentum. Thus, through one portal, we enter a world where the Great Barrier Reef has become an ‘aquatic text,’ and permafrost is ‘belching greenhouse gases.’ The opposite portal admits us to a future where urban forests flourish and fossil fuels are receding memories.

The 2015 Paris Agreement that Figueres and Rivett-Carnac labored hard to advance was based on a scientific synthesis of feasible future worlds. Six thousand research publications went into the making of that synthesis. Yet the Paris Agreement traffics not in certitudes, but in degrees of plausibility. Qualifying parentheses suffuse the final document:

If all anthropogenic emissions were reduced to zero immediately, any further warming beyond the 1°C already experienced would likely be less than over the next two to three decades (high confidence), and likely less than 0.5°C on a century time scale (medium confidence).

The Future We Choose emerges as a literary counterpart to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report. The book exchanges the bloodless diction and inert syntax of scientific summation for futures alive with a pulsing, sensory immediacy. Figueres and Rivett-Carnac’s public writing thus turns plausible pathways into immersive story lines, converting models, variables, flow charts, trend lines, drivers, thresholds, and tipping points into an impassioned unfolding drama. The authors’ explicit hope? That by staging two clashing future scenarios they may help fend off acute disaster.

‘Scenario’ is the operative word here. It bridges the scientific story lines of The Future We Choose with a corporate narrative tradition that Big Oil has crafted over the past half century. In the 1970s Shell began employing in-house futurists to dramatize multiple possible pathways forward for the energy sector. Other oil companies soon followed, hiring narratologists tasked with giving imaginative definition to plausible petrofutures. Big Oil thereby sought to connect present circumstances with evolving trends in ways that would enable the industry to respond more nimbly to the vagaries of global geopolitics. The corporations called their future-set narratives ‘speculative scenarios,’ a reminder that the word ‘speculation’ straddles the realms of imagination and finance.

The corporate tradition of mapping alternate pathways to 2050 remains alive and well, as Malcolm Harris, an expert on millennial psychology, learned when BP invited him to a brainstorming conference. BP expressed concern that most millennials perceive the oil industry negatively. Could Big Oil massage its image into something more acceptable? The corporate think tank pitched the gathering as committed to devising ‘a technically possible but challenging pathway for society to achieve the goals of the Paris Agreement.’

Harris left the BP event convinced that ‘fossil-fuel companies claim they’ve got one eye on 2050, but they’ve clearly got the other on next week.’ BP was trying to placate shareholders with cheerful quarterly reports while simultaneously trying to future-proof their brand against the skepticism of younger consumers. In Harris’s pithy assessment:

It’s not necessarily such a bad time to be an oil and gas company, in other words, but it is a bad time to look like one. These companies aren’t planning for a future without oil and gas, at least not anytime soon, but they want the public to think of them as part of a climate solution. In reality, they’re a problem trying to avoid being solved.

If an unstable climate has become the primary driver of speculative nonfiction, the Anthropocene has emerged as a supplementary force. We see this, for example, in The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us, Diane Ackerman’s 2014 journey into the Anthropocene, as she explores the epoch-shifting geological residues that may result from contemporary actions. To afford distant futures a physical reality, Ackerman invents within her nonfictional book a recurrent fictional character, Olivine. A future geologist, Olivine is a semiotically gifted visitor from another planet. She will land on Earth several million years from now. Her expertise? Deciphering human traces in Earth’s strata – the biogeochemical fallout from our long-buried civilization. Vast ‘hindcasts’ are Olivine’s specialty.

Across colossal distances in time, the distinction between speculative nonfiction and speculative fiction dissolves almost entirely. Some glaciologists, for example, argue that anthropogenic interference with Earth’s biogeochemistry means that the next ice age – due 50,000 years from now – has been postponed. Now, they estimate, that ice age won’t freeze our butts off for another 130,000 years. But between now and then Earth will undergo so many nonlinear effects that models of that future world are almost pure guesswork. Moreover, how can we begin to care emotionally about such a looooooongue duree?

However, most speculative nonfiction operates on far smaller timescales. And most involves future observers posted well within the twenty-first century. On occasion a writer may teleport a historical figure into the anticipated world, as in Richard Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods. Primack invites a resuscitated Thoreau to revisit Walden Pond in 2064. Drawing on scientific projections of seasonal destabilization, Primack summons to life the radically altered Walden that Thoreau could encounter:

The trees are leafing out in March rather than in early May, and many seem sickly because of attack by newly arrived invasive insects. And there are not as many migratory birds as he remembered. Walden Pond has become too warm for trout. The swamps and bogs where the naturalist used to enjoy spring choruses of peepers and other frogs have now dried up and are silent.

But speculative nonfiction’s most cherished characters are not the resurrected dead, but the veritable armies of children and grandchildren beamed into the future, where they are left to weather the worlds we are bequeathing them. Two generations hence provide a thread of intimate concern connecting us to what may be the outer limit of our temporal horizons. Some of these grandchildren, like Zadie Smith’s, remain unborn, imaginary. Others are flesh and blood – like two-year-old Jake, who inspires climatologist James Hansen to bear witness in Storms of My Grandchildren to the science of future turbulence.

American boomers love to wheel out ‘on behalf of our offspring’ arguments in order to leverage climate action. But those offspring remain silently symbolic.

All that, however, is now changing. Younger generations of environmental activists are adopting from other social movements an insistent ‘nothing about us without us.’ Youth-driven climate advocacy is ballooning, as the Sunrise Movement, Zero Hour, Amazon Watch, Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Conceivable Future, Birthstrike,, and #FridaysForFuture mobilize around intergenerational climate injustice. By bearing witness to that injustice from the perspective of their own projected experience, the young become the custodians of an anticipatory, deep-time wisdom.

If younger activists are testifying to the futures bearing down on them, that impulse has also entered mainstream politics, as in this irruption of speculative nonfiction from Pete Buttigieg:

It’s in the spirit of future imagination that I stand before you.

I often contemplate the year 2054, the year in which I hope to retire (at the age our current president is now) …. The balance of my lifetime will play out in an era of climate-driven international instability. We will not have to wait until 2054 to feel the judgment of history on this season.

Buttigieg was uniquely placed to make not an intergenerational but a generational appeal. None of his political rivals could project their biographies forward so confidently to that resonant mid-twenty-first-century mark.

Greta Thunberg, two decades younger than Mayor Pete, projects her life even further out. A half century after U Thant’s address to the UN, Thunberg excoriated the General Assembly in these terms: ‘The year 2078, I will celebrate my 75th birthday. If I have children, maybe they will spend that day with me. Maybe they will ask me about you. Maybe they will ask why you didn’t do anything while there still was time to act.’

Thunberg here deploys speculative nonfiction, with its distinctive mix of conditional anticipation, of ‘will’ and ‘maybe.’ She uses this semi-imaginative mode to shift the politics of climate judgment. Her children do not ask her what she did during the great crisis: she is already doing what she can. Instead her kids accost the erstwhile adults at the UN – adults long deceased by 2078 – to call them out on their inexplicable failure to instigate concerted climate action.

All this leads us into the thorny thickets of procreative politics. Hundreds of millions of adult humans are childless or have chosen to live child free. It’s dangerous – and demeaning – to assume that genetics offers the only viable route to caring about Earth circa 2050.

That said, dilemmas loom large for climate-minded would-be procreators. The young Australian climate scientist Sophie Lewis poses the question forcefully:

Can I reconcile my care and concern for the future with such an active and deliberate pursuit of a child? Put simply, I can’t. Nowadays, the pitter-patter of tiny feet is inevitably the pitter-patter of giant carbon footprints.

To embrace speculative nonfiction is to wager that making room for the long view might help shift public policy and private behavior. It is to wager that, as we degrade the equable conditions that have sustained humanity and Earth’s life systems, we can marshal scientifically responsible, emotionally arresting stories to help bend the curve of probability. And that maybe, just maybe, we may thereby help avert the most ravaging outcomes, in this one and only world, this world that will have been.

The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. This essay ‘All Tomorrow’s Warnings’ was first published by Public Books on 13 August, 2020.