- Climate Change Fiction and the Future of MemorySpeculating on Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against Tomorrow
The new geological epoch of the Anthropocene can be broadly defined by the primacy of human agency as a geophysical force (see Crutzen and Stoermer 2000; Crutzen 2002). Although there are varying interpretations around the Anthropocene’s inception date, the consensus points to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and its inauguration of the large-scale burning of fossil fuels and consequent atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide, the cumulative effects of which make climate change the most pronounced Anthropocenic characteristic (see, for example, Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016, 1–19). This new geological epoch is legible in the geological record that is being left by humanity’s collective geophysical agency and to a lesser extent in the less-sedimented, emergent materializations of transformation in the atmosphere, lithosphere, biosphere, and hydrosphere. Put another way, that unfolding geological record of humanity’s inscriptions can be thought of as an archive by which the past and future history of the Anthropocene might be remembered.
Remembrance is a pertinent concept in this context, as it captures the dynamic of the past’s return. As Christophe Bonneuil and Jan-Baptiste Fressoz argue, it is delusional to regard the conceptualization of the Anthropocene as a period of awakening to the radical changes in Earth systems, the precarity of species (human and nonhuman) and their environments, levels of waste, toxicity and pollution, and social disintegration brought about by resource and energy depletion and re-distribution [End Page 127] (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016, xi–xiv). For the inception of the Industrial Revolution also marked the inception of knowledge of its environmental consequences, planetary thinking about such matters, and prognoses as to what industrially driven environmental futures might look like—knowledge that would be subsumed by the ascendency and prevalence of ideas of security, prosperity, liberty, and the instrumentalization of nature and freedom from its determinants. These freedoms were of course predicated on a fossil-fueled modernity (Chakrabarty 2009, 208; Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016, 41–44). The Anthropocene, then, describes the return and remembrance of knowledge historically dissociated, but what returns is not just cultural matter but also biological, physical, and chemical matter, as socioeconomic modification of Earth systems (and indeed bio-physico-chemical modifications of the socioeconomic) manifest themselves cumulatively and latently. With the systemic generation of feedback loops and the thresholds of systemic tipping points crossed, geohistory is anything but linear and progressive. Put otherwise, the collective actions of humanity (e.g., emissions of so-called greenhouse gases) have afterlives—among which are rising sea levels and planetary temperatures and consequent meteorological instability. The courses of these afterlives are difficult to predict with precision; but nonetheless, they belatedly disrupt modernity’s progress. This essay explores how the Anthropocene and its environmental futures might be remembered in the face of modernity’s and postmodernity’s forgetful, capitalist progress; how the work of cultural memory might apprehend the belatedness of the Anthropocene’s present and future force as the materialization of a forgotten past; and how the Anthropocene’s geological inscriptions might be curated and archived by the work of cultural memory as the material of memories to come.
Arguably, this work of cultural memory is exemplified by one quite common variant of the emergent and growing genre of climate change fiction. Climate change fiction is often characterized by the future anterior—the dramatization of that which will have been—in the literary imagination of near-future scenarios of catastrophe and post-catastrophe. Whether the future emplotted is (post)apocalyptic and characterized by socioeconomic and ecological collapse and species extinction, or is one of resilience, adaptability, and sustainability, or whether that future is somewhere in between, such fictions stage cultural [End Page 128] memories of what has been designated the Anthropocene and so an etiology of the conditions that are imagined in the future but that are unfolding in the present of this literature’s production and consumption. This literary anticipation of future remembrance also gives narrative presence to that which is subject to cognitive dissonance if not disavowal in the present. Focusing on Nathaniel Rich’s 2013 novel of near...