Culture can’t save ice caps but can make us more aware

As the world struggles with climate change, and the battle heats up between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’ the arts – writing, theatre, film, music, visual mediums, digital platforms and more – have an important role to play.

QUT Creative Industries lecturer and award-winning novelist Dr Rohan Wilson, has witnessed an increasing trend in the writing of students to include climate change references in their work and it’s not just the students.

“Once upon a time, writing about rising sea levels and other dystopian themes was considered science fiction. Now it is mainstream and recognised in its own genre – Cli Fi,” said Dr Wilson who is up for two major awards in the 2019 Queensland Literary Awards next month for his novel Daughter of Bad Times (Allen & Unwin).

“In 2014 when I began my book, which is about climate refugees in 2075, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel into Climate Change released a report predicting sea levels would rise by 80cm by the end of the century. Their latest report makes for much scarier reading and has revised that prediction to one metre by the end of the century.

“Global warming and rising sea levels have informed a lot of literary classics in the past – think of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes (1953) or The Drowned World (1962) J. G. Ballard. The difference is that now the tone has changed because there is so much data it feels like we are writing about a real future rather than science fiction or fantasy.

“You can see the changes every day – bushfires at the end of winter, for example, and devastating droughts impacting on the coastal fringe and rainforests, or rainforests drying up.

“Students know that parts of Queensland might become uninhabitable in 20 years and this is reflected in their story-telling.

“It’s a hot topic at writers’ festivals too. What I am hearing again and again is that all fiction will be climate fiction because climate change will affect us all.

“As a writer, it’s increasingly impossible to disentangle the economic situation we are in with the plight of climate change. It’s all interconnected and young students who are told they are ‘lucky’ to get an unpaid internship and will perhaps never be able to own a home know it.”

Dr Wilson’s book is part of a larger research project exploring apocalyptic and dystopian fiction and how it has been increasing in popularity over the last couple of years among the student cohort, driven by concerns over climate change and the neoliberal economics of greed.

“I am currently overseeing a couple of QUT postgraduate students looking at our broken connections to place and landscape, as well as our confrontations with big business and corporate power,” he said.

Dr Rohan Wilson. Photo: Patria Jannides

“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the lack of connection to our environment allows people to ignore the reality. The price they pay is a future for the planet but also increased levels of loneliness and depression.

“I was once just worried about climate change but now I am really active. The words of Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, have ignited a debate that will just keep growing. Fiction can play a similar role in encouraging critical thinking.

“Climate change is a global problem. As a white man living a comfortable life in Brisbane it doesn’t affect me too much except that it gets a bit hot sometimes. However, that will change and the world will have a massive number of climate refugees displaced in the not too distant future.

“My book is set in The Maldives and researching it forced me to bear witness to the reality of the life of the people there. The government is making plans to move the entire country – that’s 400,000 people – later this century because The Maldives is going to be underwater.

“Elsewhere, a number of Pacific nations are at risk from rising sea levels while sub-Sahara Africa will be uninhabitable because of the temperatures.

“These are not stories of fiction – these are real-life stories. It’s just that they tend to be happening more to poor brown and black nations so some white Australians and Americans find they can ignore the situation.

“However, fiction can play a role is helping to generate empathy and give people an understanding of other cultures and lives.”

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