Why Eco-Fiction Will Change the World—From CliFi to Solarpunk
by Nina Munteanu
The Universe is made of stories, not atoms.Muriel Rukeyser
I’m an ecologist. We look at why things happen and work and—perhaps most importantly—how they affect one another. Ecology is the science of relationships and consequence. I taught at the University of Victoria for several years then conducted environmental assessments as a limnologist (aquatic ecologist) for environmental consulting firms in British Columbia.
My short stories and novels are—no big surprise—mostly eco-fiction. It’s been that way since I started writing stories in high school in Quebec. That first year, when I fervently expressed exhortations for global environmental action, a well-meaning but myopic teacher chided me for my extravagant worldview. “Stick to little things and your community—like recycling,” he suggested patronizingly.
I remember the shock of realizing that not everyone felt the planet like I did. Perhaps it was a teenage-thing, or a girl-thing, or a nina-thing. I prayed it wasn’t just a nina-thing…
For the past few years, I’ve been teaching writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College in Ontario. I teach a workshop-style class that involves students bringing in and working on their current Work-In-Progress (WIP). And I’ve been noticing an interesting trend: something cool is happening in my classes. More and more students are bringing in WIPs on ecological and global environmental issues. Many of the stories involve a premise of environmental calamity, but not in the same vein as previous environmental disasters that depict “man” against Nature. Instead, these works give the Earth or Nature (or an aspect of Nature) an actual voice (as a character) and have a protagonist who learns to interact with the Earth/Nature character, often cooperatively. This represents a palpable and gestalt cultural awakening of what eco-feminists have called the “feminine archetype” by providing a voice for “the other” in story. This shift reflects what lies at the heart of eco-fiction.
Eco-fiction (short for ecological fiction) is a kind of fiction in which the environment—or one aspect of the environment—plays a major role in story, either as premise or as character. For instance, several of my eco-fiction stories give Water a voice as character. In my latest novel, A Diary in the Age of Water, each of the four women characters reflects on her relationship with water and, in turn, her view of and journey in a changing world.
We currently live in a world in which climate change and the associated water crises pose very real existential threats to most life currently on the planet. The new normal is change. And it is within this changing climate that eco-fiction is realizing itself as a literary pursuit worth engaging in. The emergence of the term eco-fiction as a brand of literature suggests that we are all awakening—novelists and readers of novels—to our changing environment. We are finally ready to see and portray environment as an interesting character with agency and to read this important and impactful literature.
In eco-fiction, strong relationships are forged between the major character on a journey and an aspect of their environment and place. Environment and place illuminate, through the subtext of metaphor, a core aspect of the main character and their journey. Such strong relationships can linger in the minds and hearts of readers, shaping deep and meaningful connections that will often move a reader into action.
Through its vision of our future, eco-fiction encourages conversations and an outward perspective. Eco-fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world; it may connect with our sense of loss or mourning—our solastalgia—for our changing home. Cautionary tales may nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. By encouraging empathy and imagination, eco-fiction reaches deep into our souls, where we care. It is only when we care that we act.
A survey conducted recently by Canadian writer Mary Woodbury revealed that, “Fiction exploring humanity’s impacts on nature is becoming more popular [and] has the distinct ability to creatively engage and appeal to readers’ emotions.” Woodbury’s 2020 survey showed that “88% of its participants were inspired to act after reading ecological fiction.”
I was encouraged by several readers’ incitement to action based on A Diary in the Age of Water. One reader informed me that my book moved them to plant several trees on their property to help combat climate change. My portrayal of water led another reader to stop drinking bottled water. Others have invited me to speak to their groups or have hosted community meetings that included environmental concerns and action items. No matter what the action, all represent palpable movement that ripples out like a pebble in a pond.
Eco-fiction explores the world and the consequences of humanity’s actions through microcosmic dramatization. The stories that stir our hearts come from deep inside, through symbols, archetypes and metaphor, where the personal meets the universal. In my short story “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua”), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:
They met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love.
In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of environmental intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break. Hilda navigates her dystopia by learning meaningful lessons—lessons that pertain directly to our reader in their current world. This is because the premise of a dystopia lies squarely in the present world. Good dystopias enlighten and suggest possibilities; they can warn and herald. At the very least, they incite the necessary conversation.
stories can never be a solution in themselves, but … they have the capacity to inspire action.
In a recent talk I gave on eco-fiction, the audience and I agreed that stories can never be a solution in themselves, but that they have the capacity to inspire action. I pointed out that even dystopias follow a character and story arc that must ultimately resolve. Eco-fiction dystopias often conclude with a strong element of hope, based on some positive aspect of humanity and the human spirit—which may include our own evolution. Stories that come to mind include The Day After Tomorrow, The Year of the Flood, The Windup Girl, The Postman, Darwin’s Paradox, The Marrow Thieves, and The Road.
I was recently interviewed by Forrest Brown on the Stories for Earth podcast, in which we discussed the need to change our (North American society’s) current narrative of separation, “othering”, and exploitation toward one of participation, inclusion, and a nurturing spirit. Forrest and I agreed that storytelling forms a key part of that overall narrative. That shift is happening in the emergence of a strong eco-voice by marginalized groups, those who would be most affected by things like habitat destruction and climate change. The poor and marginalized will most certainly make up the majority of climate change refugees, starved-out and water-shorted, suffering malnutrition, violence and disease. Lessons from our wise, Indigenous elders are also playing a key role in our shift toward stories that celebrate genuine partnership with the Earth. Cherie Dimaline, Grace Dillon, Rebecca Roanhorse, Louise Erdrich, and Gerald Vizenor are just a few examples of strong Indigenous voices we can learn from.
By providing context to knowledge, story moves us to care, to cherish, and, in turn, to act. What we cherish, we protect.
Centering the voice of the ecological other as a sympathetic character is a main feature of eco-fiction. An example of this is something Toronto editor/writer Merridy Cox brought up in my recent eco-fiction talk: something she likened to “product placement.” Cox mentioned the bobolink, a small, New World blackbird which originally made its home in the tallgrass prairie and other open meadows. As native prairies were cleared for farming, the bobolink was displaced and began living in hayfields and fallow fields. Changing farm practices (shorter crop rotations and earlier maturing seed mixtures) are now destroying the bobolink’s last refuge, pushing the species’ numbers into further decline. The bobolink’s plight lies embedded in the greater theme of colonialism and exploitation; naming the bobolink and its story gives Nature and the environment a personalized face to connect with. In my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I explore how authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Richard Powers, Annie Proulx, Frank Herbert, and many others do this impeccably. Giving Nature a face and voice to care about can be the simplest yet most important thing that eco-fiction offers the world of literature.
Our capacity—and need—to share stories is as old as our ancient beginnings.
From the Paleolithic cave paintings of Lascaux to our blogs on the Internet,
humanity has left a grand legacy of ‘story’ sharing. By providing context to
knowledge, story moves us to care, to cherish, and, in turn, to act. What we cherish,
we protect. It’s really that simple.
Eco-fiction—whether told as dystopia, post-apocalypse, cautionary tale or
hopeful solarpunk—can help us co-create a new narrative, one about how the Earth
gifts us with life and how we can give in return. It’s time to start giving. That starts
Nina Munteanu (she/her) is a Canadian limnologist / ecologist and novelist of eco-fiction, science fiction and fantasy. An award-winning short story writer, and essayist, Nina currently lives in Toronto where she teaches writing at the University of Toronto and George Brown College. Her book Water Is… (Pixl Press)—a scientific study and personal journey as limnologist, mother, and teacher— was Margaret Atwood’s pick in 2016 in the New York Times ‘The Year in Reading.’ Nina’s most recent novel, A Diary in the Age of Water released in 2020 by Inanna Publications, is about four generations of women and their relationship to water in a rapidly changing world.