- 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...