Contemporary climate debates invoke collapse, pessimism and dystopia. They make the future feel impossible. Climate scientists project intensifying weather extremes, system collapse, runaway warming; policymakers anticipate spiralling socio-economic crisis and conflict; environmental philosophers imagine a world after us; young people protest for their futures in the face of the threat of climate extinction. Crisis penetrates into the present and refigures the past: the slow violence of environmental injustice is already happening; indigenous voices and post-colonial theorists show us how modern history has always already been apocalyptic. Climate fictions are frequently apocalyptic or despairing. Grief and fear drip into ordinary experience. Denial encompasses both the scientific bad faith of fossil fuel lobbies and the compartmentalising and refusal that helps everyday life go on apparently as usual.
It seems impossible or irresponsible to propose green utopianism at this moment. But it is increasingly visible – in solarpunk and climate justice movements; in Green New Deals and Anthropocene alter-imaginaries. It is also increasingly necessary. The extractive capitalism and instrumental rationalities that created the Anthropocene challenge cannot get us out of it. Speculative and radical imaginations matter.
Utopia demands the impossible. Speculative fiction operates with readers both cognitively and affectively to make new kinds of sense of the future, and perhaps to educate desire for something better. Sociologists like me interested in understanding the Anthropocene could learn much from speculative fiction and from the sensibilities of SF readers. In this session I explore how green utopianism can operate in an unpromising historical context, and why fiction might matter in social scientific projects to understand and intervene in Anthropocene futures.
Lisa Garforth is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Newcastle University where she teaches on social theory and on utopia and society. Her work on post-war environmentalism, future imaginaries and green utopias culminated in the monograph Green Utopias: Environmental Hope Before and After Nature (Polity 2017). From 2016 to 2018 she was Co-Investigator on the AHRC project Unsettling Scientific Stories exploring how contemporary SF readers navigate science futures through the pleasures of engaging with speculative fiction.
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