When climate activist Bill McKibben saw down in 2005 and again in 2009 to write two essays about how art and literature and cinema need to start reflecting on the major climate issues of our times, titling one essay "What the warming world needs now is art, sweet art" and the second one "Four years after my pleading essay, climate art is hot."
At the time, McKibben had not yet heard of the new genre term of "cli fi" since the major news stories in NPR, the New York Times and TIME magazine about cli fi had not yet been published, but he was basically saying that what we need is a new genre called "cli fi."
"Here’s the paradox," McKibben started off his essay in 2005 in GRIST magazine, "If the scientists are right, we’re living through the biggest thing that’s happened since human civilization emerged. One species, ours, has by itself in the course of a couple of generations managed to powerfully raise the temperature of an entire planet, to knock its most basic systems out of kilter. But oddly, though we know about it, we don’t know about it. It hasn’t registered in our gut; it isn’t part of our culture. Where are the books? The poems? The plays? The goddamn operas?"
Art, like religion, is one of the ways we digest what is happening to us, make the sense out of it that proceeds to action, McKibben went on in his 2005 oped, noting: "Otherwise, the only role left to us — noble, but also enraging in its impotence — is simply to pay witness. The world is never going to be, in human time, more intact than it is at this moment. Therefore it falls to those of us alive now to watch and record its flora, its fauna, its rains, its snow, its ice, its peoples. To document the buzzing, glorious, cruel, mysterious planet we were born onto, before in our carelessness we leave it far less sweet."
"Time rushes on, in ways that humans have never before contemplated. That famous picture of the earth from outer space that Apollo beamed back in the late 1960s –already that’s not the world we inhabit; its poles are melting, its oceans rising. We can register what is happening with satellites and scientific instruments, but can we register it in our imaginations, the most sensitive of all our devices?"
Well, of course, McKibben was saying yes we can register the climate troubles in our imaginations, in books and plays and movies and art pieces, but he didn't dub it as "cli fi" at the time since he was not aware of the term then.
Fast forward to 2009, and in his second GRIST essay on the same subject, and still not aware that there was a term called "cli fi" making its way through the blogosphere towards eventual discovery on NPR and in TIME magazine in 2013 and 2014, McKibben is still thinking about how the arts can help us see and feel the troubles we and our descendants 30 generations down the road are facing.
"That pleading little essay I wrote in 2005? It was probably the last moment I could have written it," McKibben said in 2009, four years later, referring to the first essay he wrote on the topic. "Clearly there were lots and lots of people already thinking the same way, because ever since it’s seemed to me as if deep and moving images and sounds and words have been flooding out into the world."
"That torrent of art has been, often, deeply disturbing — it should be deeply disturbing, given what we’re doing to the Earth. (And none of it has quite matched the performance work that nature itself is providing. Check out, for instance, James Balog’s time-lapse photography of glaciers crashing into the sea — if we could somehow crowd that thrashing sheet of ice into the Guggenheim for a week, people would truly get it)."
"But for me," McKibbe added, "it’s been more comforting than disturbing, because it means that the immune system of the planet is finally kicking in."
Artists, McKibben noted, are the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream. He wented on: "They sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it, to bring to bear the human power for love and beauty and meaning against the worst results of carelessness and greed and stupidity. So when art both of great worth, and in great quantities, begins to cluster around an issue, it means that civilization has identified it finally as a threat. Artists and scientists perform this function most reliably; politicians are a lagging indicator."
But still Bill did not mention the cli fi genre term, since even in 2009, he was not aware of the word or its meaning. But now it's 2014, and if Mr McKibben has the time to write a follow-up to his 2005 and 2009 pieces, he might write something like this (and I am hoping to read something like this one day under his own byline).
"My point ten years ago in my 2005 essay in GRIST was that we needed art to help build a general consciousness about climate change, the greatest problem we’ve ever faced. That has happened and is happening all around us now in 2014, I am happy to report. Now we need to focus some of that beauty and witness and anger sharply enough to help spur deep and lasting change. It’s always hard for any of us who are writers and musicians and visual artists to subordinate our own personal vision even a little — that’s what makes us artists. But the pleasure of working together in common cause more than makes up for the imposition."
"And what better way to work in common cause around the climate issues that vew us worldwide than to applaud the rise of a new literary genre that's been dubbed "cli fi" by one of my climate activist friends from Boston, who came up with the term in 2008 on a blog post talking about possible Hollywood "cli fi" movies and then saw the term get picked up first by climate scientist Judith Curry in Georgia on her CLIMATE ETC blog in a Dec. 23, 2012 post titled, simply, "CLI FI." Four months later, NPR made it official, saying that cli fi had arrived, and right on time, not a minute too late, and then the cli fi story zoomed into the global media with stories about it in the Guardian and FT in the UK, and in The Conversation in Australia and in the US media such as The New Yorker magazine, Dissent magazine, Motherboard, and then TIME magazine on May 19, 2014.''
''What I was pointing at in my 2005 and 2009 essays, and what British nature writer Robert Macfarlane was also pointing at in his similar essay in 2005 in the Guardian titled "The Burning Question" has come into being: Cli fi novels and movies and stage plays are making inraods into the popular culture. The New York Times has reported its rise, and that means only one thing: cli fi is here to stay.''
''And someone who knows the score very well, Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood, has written three opeds already about cli fi, and tweeted extensively about the genre's rise. In fact, the Winnipeg Free Press in Manitoba called Atwoood "the normalizer of cli fi" through her very public opeds and tweets.''
''So let me say that I am glad to see that my two essays from the last decade have borne fruit, and that the cli fi genre has taken root. I can envision cli fi novels, cli fi movies, cli fi sculptures, cli fi poetry collections, cli fi stage dramas, cli fi operas, cli fi musicals, cli fi street theater, cli fi performance art, cli fi musuem exhibitions, cli fi dance shows, cli fi vision quests, cli fi you name it. And I am glad to see the cli fi genre flourishing, since it gives us a cultural prism in which to better understand our world.''
''So let cli fi delve further and further into our climate problems, and just as Nevil Shute was able to shed light on the nuclear war and nuclear winter issues in 1957, maybe some future cli fi novelist or movie director will be able to shed light on what we are really facing in terms of climate change and global warming, and with moral convictions and a moral imperative. Long live cli fi, long may it flourish. Long may it connect us on an emotional and spiritual level to the most pressing existential problem the human species has ever faced in our long march from the caves of long ago to the skyscrapers of London, Singapore, Tokyo and New York of today."
Bill didn't write the above words yet. I hope he will. I hope he will revisit his 2005 and 2009 essays soon and give us his 2014 insights into all this now that cli fi has arrived on the scene with a genre term that packs a punch.
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