Cli-fi, Petroculture, and the Environmental Humanities: An Interview with Stephanie LeMenager
Stephanie LeMenager is the Barbara and Carlisle Moore Dis tinguished Professor of English and American Literature at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century, co-founder and advisory board member of the journal Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities, and a passionate advocate for cross-disciplinary engagement with environmental culture. In addition to her academic work, which includes numerous publications in the fields of American Studies and environmental criticism, LeMenager has been profiled in the New York Times, Time Magazine, and ClimateWire, and has also appeared as a guest on National Public Radio’s Science Friday.
The following interview was conducted via email in May 2017. In response to questions by River Ramuglia, LeMenager shares her perspective on the genesis and current popularity of the cli-fi genre, discusses the relevance of her work in the current political climate (even recommending a novel to Rex Tillerson), and contemplates the future of the environmental humanities in an era of rapid technological, political, and environmental change.
In your essay “The Humanities after the Anthropocene,” you attribute the rise of cli-fi as a popular genre to the sociological phenomenon of “genre trouble,” whereby a genre emerges because “the affective expectations we hold for how things unfold, in art and life, do not make sense anymore” (476). It seems that, in your view, cli-fi is a useful way of getting environmental topics into the news, but might also risk simplification or evasion of the climate crisis. How are writers navigating—or perhaps breaking out of—the boundaries of this genre? [End Page 154]
Cli-fi is more interesting to me than simply as a way of getting climate change into the news—and under the “safe house” of fiction, although it does that, and I see that as a social good. Primarily I find cli-fi fascinating as a sociological phenomenon because the excitement about it, the fact that it has spawned such a fervent fan community and media interest, suggests to me that, on some level, the mainstream media and perhaps a broader public than the arts faculty believe that fiction is a survival strategy. As in: cli-fi might pattern for us a new way of being human and living in a world without the benefits of Holocene climate. As a person who has taught literature for over twenty years, I was shocked to see the press pick up cli-fi to the extent that the New York Times would appear in my class at the University of Oregon on the pretext (more or less) that a new kind of novel might save the world. In part, cli-fi draws upon the charismatic subcultural lifestyles spawned by science fiction, one of its parent genres. If we consider that science fiction acts more as a way of life than as a genre per se, that sci-fi communities have grown up around book clubs, workshops, fan fiction, festivals, multiplayer games, and environmental causes like Peak Oil—as my colleague Matthew Schneider Mayerson has written about—then the relationship of cli-fi to social action is easier to see. However, not all cli-fi novels are clearly related to science fiction, not all are futuristic, not all are dystopian or utopian. Novels like Ben Lerner’s 10:04, Margaret Drabble’s The Dark Flood Rises, Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science in the Capital series, Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Saci Lloyd’s YA Carbon Diaries series, or even Jennifer Haigh’s Heat and Light—which is about fracking—give us complex realism for the Anthropocene, making clear that critics have exaggerated how problems of scale make it impossible to write a realist novel about either climate change or petroculture. Moreover, realist cli-fi with dystopian or futurist elements—such as Octavia Butler’s Parable series, Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle, George Turner’s The Sea and Summer, and Karl Taro Greenfeld’s satiric novel The Subprimes—makes crucial contributions to our understanding of the interrelationships of colonialism, racism, neoliberalism, and climate collapse. These novels are writing the cultural meanings of climate change for specific world regions, and for historically specific populations.
Is it fair to say that, as a genre, cli-fi carries the burden of articulating environmental ideas to a popular market? If so, how do we negotiate the tension between the market-driven necessity of cli-fi’s entertainment value and the harrowing environmental realities to which such fictions might expose us?
I would say that this is NOT fair to say. The burden of articulating environmental ideas to a larger public (e.g., “a popular market”) is widely distributed. In some respects it is a burden that belongs to every one of us. It is a burden that any responsible government takes up. What cli-fi can do is [End Page 155] provide a means of familiarizing climate change as an aspect of the human condition and of our planetary ecology for those who either are not yet directly experiencing climate change or are not aware that they are experiencing it. Clifi makes climate change in some respects a background condition or setting for human endeavor, environing the reader in this changing climate. It is high time that climate change not be regarded as either “a future” happening elsewhere or as a controversial political argument, which is how it remarkably is seen, still, by some in the United States. Highly marketable culture that falls into the category of entertainment may simplify and mislead, but it can also inject certain topics and possibilities into daily conversation so that they are not seen as the province of elites and other supposedly marginal groups. The film The Day after Tomorrow, though idiotic in its misrepresentation of climate science, apparently sent a group of people to the Goleta Library in southern California one sunny evening, when I was participating on a panel there about Elizabeth Kolbert’s climate change nonfiction. So a public conversation that was sparked by the scare tactics of a relatively bad film developed into a much richer public conversation—just one example of entertainment as a potential catalyst to self-expansion and the making of climate publics. As a gay person growing up in the US in the 1980s who saw goofy television programs make it possible for my parents to say words like “lesbian” without flinching, I’m aware of the capacities of entertainment for social building as well as the shortcomings of market-driven stories. A novel such as Michael Crichton’s conspiratorial State of Fear offers a troubling example of how entertainment can work as propaganda, to build the social movement of climate change denial. As propagandistic, alt-right media is mainstreamed by the Trump administration, it is important to distinguish between entertainment and collective delusion. In the US, we have become ravenous for what we call reality, but “reality” no longer means for everyone what it ought to mean, in my view, which is a contested ground, worked out amongst persons with different stakes in the game, distinct points of view, and across generations. Reality used to suggest difficulty, what you don’t want to hear. For some, reality now is Reality TV, the high fructose corn syrup of sociality, market-driven stories pre-packaged for consumption, and which depict human collectivities as impossible, necessarily riven by stark conflicts. Fake news—by which I mean alt-right propaganda—goes hand in hand with Reality TV. Fiction, on the other hand, should be, and to my mind largely is, about the difficult achievement of realism, of making a credible world (be it familiar or fantastic). If we are willing to become immersed in a novel, taken in by its world, it should not be because that world simply reinforces our biases and preconceptions.
What recent developments have you noticed in critical responses to literary climate change fiction? [End Page 156]
Everyone and their brother in the academy wants to write about climate change fiction, cli-fi, or Anthropocene fiction, a broader category. An archive that was once the specialized realm of ecocriticism—ecofiction, environmental memoir, environmental justice activism, the literatures of popular science—has moved into the academic mainstream largely because of climate change, which is an undeniably global phenomenon, a provocation to social justice, and an ontological crisis. In other words, climate change has a lot in it for cultural critics. My hope is that this enthusiasm does not simply function as a scholarly trend or a means of boosting careers, but that it articulates to cultural movements beyond the academy. We desperately need to transition away from fossil fuels, to hold our governments to account, and to recognize how climate change exposes the deep injuries of colonial histories that must be addressed now, as many indigenous communities lose territory to rising seas and desertification.
Numerous international events with significant ramifications for our planet’s environmental future have occurred since the 2014 publication of your study on petroculture, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century. Undoubtedly, the Trump administration’s doctrine of climate change denial, the opening of the Arctic for oil extraction and climate tourism, the ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement, and the spectacular protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation have posed new challenges for the environmental humanities. What ideas from Living Oil help us to understand these (and other) recent petrocultural developments, and is there anything you would change about or add to Living Oil today in light of them?
Like memory, books are as much about what isn’t in them as what is. We can hope that our books begin conversations that others pick up, add to, correct. Even an academic book summons community through both its gifts and its deficits, and, again, I hope that what we in the environmental humanities are doing is making a community, articulating ourselves both to an ever-more effective scholarly practice and to larger social movements.
Let me start with the fact that for me Living Oil eerily predicts the Trump era, in its fascination with how the emotional dimensions of extractivist culture, the dependence of that culture upon narratives of lucky strikes, upon hyper-masculinity, upon mediation and speed, continue to hijack the present moment, which in fact is the moment of climate change and an urgent need for energy transition. In the book I describe the unresolvable attachment to fossil fuel systems that I call “petromelancholia”—Trump capitalizes upon this complex of nostalgia and grief for the culture that oil makes all the time (e.g., his giant gold jet, the incessant travel to Mar-a-Lago), but he uses it most poignantly when he promises to bring back jobs in the coal industry—jobs that largely don’t exist anymore because of automation and market conditions, [End Page 157] not environmentalism. His “make America great again” is about turning back time to the middle of the twentieth century, yet without the more robust state and progressive taxes that made that time more hopeful, at least economically, for many Americans. Like Ronald Reagan, who in addition to the symbolic gesture of taking down the solar panels that the Carters had put up on the White House crafted policy that prevented the United States from beginning an energy transition, Trump governs by flamboyant denial—although his brand has been less upbeat than Reagan’s and the policy he has managed to put through so far, in the form of executive orders, promises nothing more than a polluted world, toxic rivers and wrecked public lands, very short-term gains for Wall Street while China soars ahead on renewables. Petromelancholia and the destructive, extractive masculinity that Stacy Alaimo calls “carbon masculinity” in her book Exposed have combined to generate a petro-populism which is, I hope, the last gasp of petroleum-based modernity, soon to implode by virtue of its own faulty premises and the hard-won wisdom of millennials and people of color, demographics who clearly did not vote for this. The future, insofar as one can be glimpsed, is precisely in those alliances forged at Standing Rock, in the blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline, in municipalities committed to going 100% renewable, and, too, in Paris, and in Pope Francis’s attempts to rally Catholics to climate stewardship.
When I was finishing Living Oil, I recognized that in addition to the anti-racist social activism of black Katrina survivors and the protests of feminists and counter-culturalists who are noted in the book, indigenous communities have been at the forefront of the struggle against petromodernity both because of their exposure to the energy industry’s worst practices and because their cultures originate in a very different cosmology than that of North American settler-colonialists. A little bit of an indigenous perspective creeps into Living Oil via Nigerian literatures and the Métis voices I noted while doing ethnographic energy tourism in Alberta, and I make note of the importance of indigenous activists in the introduction. But Living Oil is, primarily, about the crumbling infrastructures and persistent desires of mainstream Americans, settlers or those whites whom Ta-Nehisi Coates, after James Baldwin, calls the Dreamers. In a way I like that specificity in the book, which is meant to confront the hypocrisies of white progressivism and the persistence of white futurities that we can now recognize as destructive. I also think it important to emphasize that indigenous traditional knowledges and practices ought not be conceived as an escape hatch by white scholars—as if indigenous people are somehow located off-site, in an alternate time and place that we can once again colonize, as in, “we’ve ruined planet W, let’s move to Planet I.” Yet on the other hand white American “Dreamers” rely upon indigenous disappearing, and I’m not interested in participating in that. I honestly don’t know that author-activists and philosophers like Winona LaDuke, whose writing on #nodapl is so powerful, and Kyle Powis Whyte, who has taught me a great deal about [End Page 158] what cli-fi misses, should be “added” to Living Oil, but I certainly think they are required reading alongside it.
Do you see any overlap between academic pursuits in the digital humanities and the environmental humanities? If so, how would you describe the role of climate-themed literary fiction in that dynamic?
The digital humanities laid the groundwork for the kind of project-based work that I still consider an especially exciting prospect for the environmental humanities. I’ve loved how some DH theorists and practitioners have emphasized the importance of experimentation and failure, of beta-testing, of moving into new fields of practice as exuberant amateurs in order to get the work done. The emphasis on repair culture that Bethany Nowviskie beautifully lays out in her essay “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” feels especially important in this moment of Anthropocene demagoguery in the USA, as a call upon scholar-practitioners toward humility and cultural caretaking. It was DH more than any interdisciplinary practice that I know of that took on the humanities tradition of the virtuoso performance, by which I mean the perfectly honed and in some cases hermetically sealed specialist monograph, essay, or lecture. I have great respect for disciplinary specialization and rigor, but, as my colleague Professor Stephanie Foote wrote in our first co-authored “Editors’ Column” for Resilience, I believe that we need to speak from our disciplines—not just to them. EH efforts at multi-disciplinary project building have been underway for some time now: There are the well-funded efforts of the Mellon Humanities for Environment (HfE) observatories, whose North American projects include my own co-created digital pedagogy tool “Life Overlooked,” and the international “IEM: Inscribing Environmental Memory in the Icelandic Sagas” project, which reminds us of the importance of early literatures in our efforts to understand climate change and adaptation over time, and then smaller-scale, remarkable projects like the Dawnland Voices archive of the writings of indigenous New England, created by Professor Siobhan Senier. I’ve also been impressed by how DH in academic departments articulates to the work of librarians and archivists. The recent Data Refuge project to create archival sanctuaries for federal climate data, a project led in the US by Professor Bethany Wiggin and her colleagues at Penn, is a terrific example of a DH/EH project—the environmental and digital humanities coming together and, in the process, forging new networks of university archivists, librarians, students, activists, and faculty.
As for the intersections of cli-fi and DH, I tend to think first of new media projects which might or might not qualify as DH, depending on who you talk to. Transmedia storytelling and epistolary projects such as Ken Eklund’s FutureCoast and Marina Zurkow and Uma Chaudhuri’s Dear Climate are web-based, and both projects invite the public to participate—in FutureCoast we are storytellers and curators of others’ stories, while in the case of Dear [End Page 159] Climate we are letter writers. I’ve used both of these sites in my teaching, with Eklund’s FutureCoast proving especially effective in part because Eklund is a near neighbor—he lives in Corvallis, Oregon—and he directly participated in teaching the project, uploading the best cli-fi created by my students to the site, so that the students could experience publication and in the process become part of an international community of climate storytellers. My former graduate advisee and colleague Stephen Siperstein and I both write of our efforts to use transmedia storytelling in the process of teaching climate change in our volume Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, which we co-edited with another graduate student and teacher, Shane Hall. If genre relies upon an implicit contract with a given public, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson’s definition of genre, then these transmedia projects essentially take genre to a new level—they call a public into being as co-writers of a genre, cli-fi, whose rules and expectations aren’t yet settled, making for an especially lively genre, a term I coined in Living Oil to mean a genre whose rules and whose public are actively, creatively in flux. You might also know Ken Eklund as the designer of the massive multiplayer game World without Oil, which has been widely praised as an incitement to energy transition through, again, a large-scale project of collective storytelling—the more than 1,000 players of WwO had to vividly imagine the material details of their world without oil, and in doing so such a world came to seem not only possible, but pleasurable and exciting. Certainly this kind of sustained, material imagining can be compared to other long narrative forms, like the novel.
Finally, as I’ve said elsewhere—in my introduction to the “Ecological Digital Humanities” special section of PMLA that I co-edited with Jeffrey Jerome Cohen—my own interests in the possible intersections of DH and EH began with the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI), whose Land Use Database helped me to consider infrastructure as both a material and aesthetic (sensory-affective) foundation to fossil fuel dependency.
If you had to recommend a cli-fi novel for an oil executive or tech billionaire to read on vacation (by the pool at Mar-a-Lago, perhaps), what would it be and why? To borrow a term from Living Oil, is it possible for one or even several novels to bring about a psychologically “ultradeep” paradigm shift in an individual’s perspective on our planet’s climate crisis (3)?
I recently got a phone call from Bloomberg Businessweek asking me to comment on Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, and that gave me a hint at how smart Robinson was to set his latest cli-fi novel not only in Manhattan but essentially in the world of Wall Street. People who aren’t interested in that hard-won achievement of realism that I mention in response to another of your questions—the realism that forces you to hear what you didn’t want to know, and perhaps from someone you didn’t want to know—might still enjoy a [End Page 160] realistic speculative fiction that flatters their own intelligence and professional acumen while also highlighting its potentially fatal consequences. Robinson ingeniously gives us a New York City that is half underwater, shifting and crumbling, home to a massive underclass of homeless water “rats,” and yet booming both financially and culturally, with a vibrant market in half-sunken real estate. I think there are at least a few people sunning at Mar-a-Lago who might read it—Rex Tillerson, perhaps. As to deep conversion experiences coming about through cli-fi: Stephen Siperstein has found what he calls “climate change conversion narratives” (45) on the internet, many of them spoken by people whose minds were changed by a film—Chasing Ice seems to have been an especially effective one, one that convinced viewers, for the first time, that a major shift in planetary climate is underway. A scientist whom I talked with recently told me that he was converted to climate consciousness by Steve Cutts’s short animated film “Man.” For those at Mar-a-Lago who don’t enjoy books, perhaps Cutts’s short film could be a start.
My suspicion is that a cli-fi film or novel can function as a gateway to seeking out more films, more novels, nonfiction, climate news, and ultimately other kinds of social action. The conversion that these cli-fi narratives (filmic or print) perform may be a slow re-mediating of the cultural scene so that it becomes impossible not to see climate change as its background condition, impossible not to recognize every shift in seasonal temperatures, or in the time when a favorite bird arrives at your feeder or when the tomatoes need to be planted, as related to climate change. For those who are living climate change at the frontlines, of course, the proof of it is dramatic and painful, if not deadly—consider rapid territorial loss in indigenous Arctic communities or drought in the Sahel. It is interesting to me that Yale University’s regional map of climate change belief in the US population shows coastal areas and areas experiencing drought as typically comprised of climate change believers, even when those areas are located in so-called red states where Republican ideology has branded climate change a hoax or, at best, an exaggeration. Those at the frontlines don’t need stories to convert them, but stories may be able to help create a mainstream climate change culture which forces political accountability. My point isn’t to hope for rescue from fiction but to make storytelling across media one means of persistent action, of sticking with the huge problem of lifting a hyperconsuming, fossil-fuel driven culture into a new era. That is heavy lifting, and we need to throw everything at it, including fiction, film, even style, in a broader sense. We need alternative hedonisms, as Kate Soper has written, an aesthetics of sustainability to complement widespread transition.
How do you envision the future of the environmental humanities?
Talking about the future is usually a way of talking about what is current—and of course even the contemporary is shifting ground. That said, I see the [End Page 161] future in many contemporary practices we’ve already discussed, such as 1) the cross-pollination of the digital and environmental humanities, 2) the move toward project-based work—for instance, we at the University of Oregon are conducting a two-year interdisciplinary field school on the value of public lands—and 3) efforts to repurpose our scholarship so that we might best serve as allies to activists for climate justice, for energy transition, for refugee sanctuary. I haven’t mentioned climate refugees as a major topic within the environmental humanities, but I suspect they will become one. The legal scholar Maxine Burkett has long worked ingeniously on questions of climate migration. Several European cli-fi novels (for instance, Julie Bertagna’s Exodus) highlight the problem of climate-induced migrations and the social stigma and limited protections attached to refugee status. On another note, I’ve recently completed a four-volume history of environmental literary and cultural studies, the collection Literature and Environment: Criticism and Primary Sources, co-edited with Professor Teresa Shewry, for Bloomsbury. Of the many things I learned in the process of gathering about a hundred representative published articles and chapters for that volume, the most significant is that it remains difficult to reconcile the work of the environmental humanities with indigenous studies. If we consider that both the concept of “the environment” and humanism are Western, settler concepts, and that social movements arising from these concepts have been largely inimical to the interests of indigenous peoples, then the problem of allyship becomes both crucial and painfully difficult if the environmental humanities is to have a future that does not erase indigeneity. Ecocriticism in its early days could at times indulge in romantic appropriation of indigenous ideas, often through readings of Native American authors, and clearly that is not a path of the future. Scholars with interests in environmental and social justice like Rob Nixon, Deborah Bird Rose, and Joni Adamson have taken the project of ally-building across environmental and indigenous interests much farther. We all need to be in dialogue with scholars like Zoe Todd, Kim Tallbear, Kyle Whyte, and Margot Tamez and to recognize that some aspects of the post-human thought which has been so revelatory for those of us coming from a settler perspective only begins to approach the never-humanist thought systems of indigenous philosophers. Moreover, what registers as the Anthropocene or (yet another) end of history for settlers may be much more provincial, if what is “ending” is modernity. If settler scholars don’t mistakenly imagine that empathy alone will lay the ground for our allyship, or that Native thought represents our “way out” of petromodernity, I think that the environmental humanities could become a site within the academy where an incredibly worthwhile, but hard-won and long in the making reconciliation can begin between environmental and indigenous studies. If we want to be ecocosmopolitans—a word I associate with the work of Ursula Heise and like because of its interest in moving between local and planetary scales—we must converse with indigenous studies. [End Page 162]
In an essay describing the genesis of Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood suggests that writers simply write about what worries them (“Writing Oryx and Crake” 286). I wonder whether that is also true for writers in an academic environment. Are you confronting any specific worries at present, and, if so, how are you responding to them in your work?
It’s funny that I cannot imagine Margaret Atwood worrying, for while she’s created some of the most realistic and terrifying dystopian novels of our time, with The Handmaid’s Tale being at the top of my list, even before Oryx and Crake, she’s incredibly powerful because she invents these absolutely immersive dystopias—dystopias that teach us North Americans, particularly the white American “Dreamers,” quite a lot about who we are and who we do not wish to become. Fiction writing might be an antidote to worry, as I suppose any building activity can be. For myself, writing a book of literary and cultural history and criticism—Living Oil, for example—is rather like writing a social novel insofar as I want my work to be very dense, detail-rich, full of vivid moments from the culture, so that an idea—like petromodernity or petromelancholia—almost accrues and begins to stick to readers who have the patience to read the book front to back. I’m not under the delusion that my critical writing is as interesting or readable as a good social novel, don’t get me wrong, but I think that they are allied practices in that they assemble cultural bits, stack and curate them, and in the process open up little spaces—sometimes spaces already opened by theorists—in which we can breathe a different air and try something else. Petromelancholia, petromodernity, it feels like this…but what else? That question of what it means to live beyond fossil fuel attachment is the one that is haunting me now, and that I am writing about. But I can’t say that the question is a worry, really. Worry to me implies not doing. And for me academic writing, though of course difficult and largely unrewarded, is also a form of vitality—it is not the only form of social action that I participate in but it is the one for which I am best trained, and, against the anti-intellectualism in the USA and even the academy itself, I would like to reiterate that it is social action.
River Ramuglia, originally from Anchorage, Alaska, is a PhD candidate at Ghent University. He holds a BA from the University of Oregon and an MA from King’s College London. He currently works with Professor Stef Craps on the project “Imagining Climate Change: Fiction, Memory, and the Anthropocene” and studies the metaphor, symbol, and theme of “shelter” in contemporary climate change fiction and ecocriticism.