MECO360: Speculating about Climate Fiction

Michael R. Griffiths | July 2017

For Theodor Adorno, the autonomy of the art work is the condition of possibility (and not the condition of refusal) of their political efficacy. As Adorno puts it:

Art keeps itself alive through its social force of resistance; unless it reifies itself, it becomes a commodity. Its contribution to society is not communication with it but rather something extremely mediated: It is resistance in which by virtue of inner-aesthetic development, social development is reproduced without being imitated.[1]

Where the setting of a text in the future would appear to distance speculative fiction from present political and ecological exigencies, I argue that this process of speculation proximates critiques of hegemony projecting its consequences. As Adorno suggests, then, mediation per se is a mode of rendering proximate. Similarly, Adorno once wrote that “[a]rtworks detach themselves from the empirical world, and bring forth another world, one opposed to the empirical world as if this other world too were an autonomous entity.”[2] This piece is drawn from a longer essay, which was assembled for Responses to Climate Change—a Symposium led by Tony Birch. As well as being an acclaimed writer of fiction, Birch is a Senior Research Fellow at the Moondani Balluk Indigenous Unit at Victoria University (Melbourne).

Birch’s work is concerned with methodologies for research around climate change that are grounded in Indigenous-led practice. His keynote presentation from Responses to Climate Change laid out several key points that form part of his own research itinerary around ideas of place and ecology in the humanities. Crucially, Birch sees in the humanities’ open and speculative approach a promise to inform climate science. First of all, Birch advised conference participants to, when doing research on climate change, keep in mind how we talk about this issue and who we are talking to about it. He gave the example of working with children in Irish and inner city London schools as well as on Country around Victoria. Birch’s approach was not to lecture to his students on climate change but to bring home to them the significance of place. He had the children record their most “special” places through writing and photography, before asking them what it would mean to them if these places were lost. This connects to another key point raised by Birch in his keynote, which was to empower people outside academia and politics. Too often climate change researchers in the sciences and humanities operate in an echo chamber, which sees them communicating with one another but not with the wider world. It is incumbent upon researchers and practitioners to not only communicate beyond the academy (or the world of representative politics) but to think about the specific positionality of those with whom we are communicating. Birch also suggested that scholars rethink models of collaboration between environmentalists and Aboriginal people. This must depend on seeing Country as having Aboriginal knowledge embedded within it and not by seeing “nature” as “pristine.” Finally, Birch underscored the role of the humanities in this process. For him one of the challenges and the advantages of the humanities is the speculative ethos of engagement in a learning process. While anthropogenic climate change is a certainty, its physical and social effects are unpredictable and a similarly open-minded, speculative approach is needed to engage it.

I want to follow Birch’s ideas about speculation here to foreground the role of climate fiction by Indigenous writers. I do so in order to emphasise my conviction that imaginative work (such as fiction) can open up crucial modes of questioning vis a vis climate change. The crucial problem, I argue, arises in the tension between engagement and autonomy. Works of art and writing (like climate fictions) are autonomous, whereas understanding and taking action about climate change is (one would assume) a fundamentally engaged process. In their future projections of dispossession, Indigenous climate fictions—with their simultaneous narration of the promises and pitfalls of resistance—dialectically intertwine to proffer a critique of settler interventions that are often named as progressive acts. By figuring an imagined future, these texts reveal the hypocrisies of dispossession present in the liberal policies of settler colonial governance extant today.

Consider, for instance, Alexis Wright’s 2013 novel of—amidst much else—climate change and Indigenous futurity, The Swan Book. In Wright’s novel, dust settles on a lake and even as “the old story that lived inside the ancestral people of the lake” survives the dust. With the arrival of climate refugees, the swans themselves invade, “polluting” this sacred site, transformed as it is, into a swamp (Wright 8, 10). Wright’s narrator asks:

Could an ancient hand be responsible for this? The parched paper country looking as though the continent’s weather systems had been rolled like an ancient scroll from its top and bottom ends, and ping, sprung shut over the Tropic of Capricorn. The weather then flipped sides, swapping southern weather with that of the north, and this unique event of unrolling the climate upside down, left the entire continent covered in dust.[3]

—Alexis Wright, The Swan Book.

To speculate on the autonomy of art work is to speculate on an Australia where in North and South are “flipped.” Surely Waanyi country in the North of the Gulf of Carpentaria can find an affinal thread destined for the south.


[1] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P., 1997, 226.

[2] Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory. 1.

[3] Alexis Wright, The Swan Book. Sydney: Giramondo, 2013, 17–8. Hereafter cited parenthetically in text.