Claire Davidson

Can Climate Fiction Novels Inspire Social Change? A Literary and Empirical Ecocritical Analysis

April 2, 2021   /  

Student Name: Claire Davidson
Majors: Sociology, English
Advisors: David McConnell, Susanna Sacks

Dr. Melissa M. Schultz Sustainability and the Environment Award

Collective action to combat climate change first requires individuals to recognize their responsibility in the fight for a better future. With the urgent need for more to develop a climate awareness, novels may be a powerful tool to motivate that cultural mindset shift. My Independent Study raises the central research question: can novels depicting the disproportionate societal impacts of climate change generate sympathy for environmental situations beyond the reader’s immediate community? If so, how? I draw from Ulrich Beck’s encouragement of social scientific research that is cosmopolitan and multi-perspectival to propose the form of storytelling that may drive one to act against climate change. Then, I conduct a literary analysis of Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver and Oil on Water by Helon Habila—where negative environmental conditions underscore the societal dangers of climate change in the present day. I further propose a mixed-methods sociological study to empirically determine whether climate fiction novels can galvanize readers to rethink their personal contributions to climate change. The longitudinal study asks affluent white Americans to participate in discussion groups and formal interviews to examine whether reading climate fiction influences personal action against climate change. Inspired by the emerging research field of empirical ecocriticism, my Independent Study highlights how future interdisciplinary approaches are necessary towards understanding the potential of novels to provoke systemic environmental changes that support vulnerable communities and planetary wellbeing.


Claire will be online to field comments on April 16: Noon-2 pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

76 thoughts on “Can Climate Fiction Novels Inspire Social Change? A Literary and Empirical Ecocritical Analysis”

        1. Wow, thank you very much for watching and commenting!! And thank you for your initial popularization and further work towards promoting the genre of cli-fi.

  1. Hi Claire, this is Anna’s mom. Your project is so relevant and interesting and you did a great job with your presentation. Congratulations on completing your I.S.!

  2. Thank you for this informative and WELL DONE symposium on our climate.  One takes for granted our Environment, but we all need to do our part.  You are inspiring me to do better.  I look forward to seeing other comments on books that inspire readers.  In the research you have done to prepare for your Independent Study, do you have suggestions that the 10% of us can do to help with Climate Change?

    1. Thank you, Mom <3

      I'd suggest thinking more critically about simple everyday actions some of us may take for granted–such as the food we eat, the way we consume electricity, the way we travel, etc. Even small actions can be accessible to many (and are often cheaper in the long-term), such as using fewer reusable plastics, or eating less meat overall. Asking questions about the impact of our behavior on others and the planet, and doing research on best practices, can make a world of difference towards inspiring others to do the same!

      1. You have me motivated to help do my part and encourage others. Thank you for your awesome response.  Looking forward to working with you to implement your suggestions:)  I am so proud of you!  
        Congratulations on receiving the Sustainability and the Environment Award.  I could not be prouder!

  3. Claire!! I’m literally so proud of you and I hope you’re proud of yourself, too. Your IS is so incredible, thorough, and multi-layered! And I love the design of the presentation video. I feel like I learned so much. 🙂

  4. Congratulations on a terrific presentation and recognition of your work with the Schultz Sustainability and the Environment Award! I’m excited to read the paper. There’s no greater cause than preserving the planet for future generations and your research is important and timely.

    As always we are so proud of you!!

  5. This is awesome Claire – a well-deserved Schultz Award! Connecting two of the things I think about most – books and climate. 🙂 Congrats!

    1. Thank you so much Maya! I feel the same way–I’m so grateful I could pursue a topic that would combine two things I am passionate about. I hope you’re doing well!

  6. Claire, you’re presentation was clear and compelling. I’ve added a couple of books to my reading list. Congratulations!

  7. Wow, Claire, this is amazing! What an amazing project and so fantastically interesting. Excellent job.

  8. Looks like you have your PhD thesis project ready to go. What an interesting independent study!! You ask about novels that inspire climate change and I get that this isn’t a novel, but I remember when I was a kid, my mother talked all the time about Silent Spring and how it had revolutionized the way she and her college friends thought about the environment. Again, not a novel, but evidence that reading something can have a dramatic impact. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Professor Nurse!

      I also read Silent Spring in high school, and it definitely changed the way I think about the environment, too. I agree that it’s such an important early text that I think has shifted the ways many think about the environment.

      I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation!!

  9. What an amazing video! You did such a great job presenting your research, I’m so proud of you <3

  10. Congratulations Claire!!! You’ve done such a great job combining your passions and majors into a compelling and important project, and I’m so grateful I got to watch it come together!

  11. Hi Claire,
    Congratulations! Thank you for making such an enlightening presentation. Your I.S. is clear, interesting, and an amazing contribution to the climate change conversation. You should be so proud of yourself!

    It is not difficult to see the passion and hard work you put into your research. I could not be prouder. Congrats again!

    1. Thank you, Rachel!! I’m so grateful for your unwavering support and encouragement!

  12. Awesome job. It would be cool to see if a trend similar to what you’re hypothesizing with novels exists with dystopian, “cli-fi” movies as well. Congrats

    1. Thanks Adam! I agree, that would be an interesting lens to look at. There’s definitely some potential pros/cons to each medium; I’m thinking of how films contain a more “visual” component than a novel, but could also be said to be more dramatized.

  13. Hi Claire,

    I greatly enjoyed listening to your presentation! Congratulations and well done. I am a Sociology major and English minor, and I wonder what skills in each field helped you tackle this important topic? How did you apply these skills to the topic? Thank you so much and congrats again!

    1. Thank you for watching, Samuel!

      That’s a question I’ve thought about a lot, both throughout the IS process, and when considering a double major. In my opinion, the greatest overlap is the way in which both disinclines encourage critical thinking of dominant societal power structures. Whether examining social factors in real world societies or in a specific text, these majors have encouraged me to reconsider the way the world is constructed, and imagine more sustainable, equitable futures for all. More concretely, the skills I’ve gained through ethnographic interviews (and, for one summer, as a journalist) have helped me to actively and empathetically listen and truthfully portray the stories of others.

      I’m glad you enjoyed and I’d be happy to help further if you have any other questions about combining these two disciplines!

  14. Thank you for sharing your research, Claire — and congratulations on the sustainability award!

    You made me wonder about other kinds of narratives — have you thought about how movies or documentaries might shape people’s thinking? Maybe they’d make more dramatic impressions in the short term but have less sustained effect in the long term?

    1. Thank you so much for watching my presentation, Mrs. Vosmeier! To answer your question, I haven’t looked extensively at other kinds of narratives, but I did come across a couple of scholars who examine the role of films. In particular, Gregers Andersen’s categorizations of climate fiction incorporated other forms of media, as well–and he opens a conference presentation about climate fiction with the 2017 film What Happened to Monday, which in his words epitomizes what cli-fi is. There are a lot of different impressions a variety of narratives could make; but, in my opinion, increased exposure and popularization of any story that highlights the impacts of human behavior on the environment is crucial.

  15. Thank you for a most informative presentation. Perhaps an incoming freshman will take up the challenge of your proposed long term study and turn it into her/his senior IS. You have encouraged me to read some “Cli-Fi”, though living with the reality of climate change already may be enough to cause me to seek opportunities to take action. I live in western Colorado where we talk about extreme to exceptional drought. Those are the wrong words. We are deep into aridification and had better start getting very serious about conserving our most precious resource – water. Thanks again and go do good in the world!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment, and I’m glad you enjoyed my presentation! I hope that you do read more “cli-fi;” aside from the texts I mention in my presentation, I’d also recommend The Overstory by Richard Powers.

  16. Congratulations on everything, Claire! I’m not well-versed in Climate Change Studies, but I get the sense that you are capitalizing on an understudied research method for raising Climate Change awareness.

    You mentioned a couple of times in your presentation that your fields are relatively new, such as ecopoverty and ecocriticism (right?). What directions/impacts do you see these new fields will have on academic research and popular culture? How do you hope your work influences those directions and impacts?

    1. Thank you, Erin <3, and thank you for your continued support and motivation throughout the project.

      Yes! Empirical ecocriticism is an emerging field outlined in 2020 by researchers Schneider-Mayerson, Weik von Mossner, and Małecki in the journal ISLE. It challenges the assumption held by environmental communications scholars and ecocriticism – that environmentally centered texts have impacts on the real world – by actually examining and gathering data on the provides data to support the social, cultural, and political value of these texts. I'm hopeful that this approach will lead to research that will more accurately and concretely prove the value of narrative towards generating a climate movement.

  17. Hi Claire,

    What an interesting and informative project! It was very clear, well organized, and fascinating to listen to. Such a really strong study, congratulations!!

    1. Thank you so much, Maud!! I’m glad you enjoyed watching and learning more about my project!

  18. Claire,

    We enjoyed your presentation. Very thought provoking, especially for items and actions that we take for granted on a daily basis. Proud to have a niece that takes social responsibility seriously, such that you are thinking of ways to emphasize and amplify your message to the rest of us and on our behalf.

    Proud of you!

    Aunt Marla and Uncle Rick

  19. Phenomenal work Claire and congratulations on the well-deserved award! I think novels and other fictional media are an integral part of our discussion about environmental concerns as they are such large topics that are usually quite challenging to fathom without some point for discussion and that’s what makes your work very important. You touched on this briefly in regards to the conventional conception of Cli-Fi, but have you thought about measuring in the study how some novels may lead people astray from being environmentally conscious? As you mentioned, quite a few novels in the Cli-Fi genre take an apocalyptic tone that abstracts from the reality of current day climate change and potentially have the undesired effect to push people away from activism, by making them feel hopeless instead of motivated. I also see some cases of environmentalist Anthropocene talk that, for example, belittles the experience of indigenous groups. As I see it this is why it’s crucial to push for a different development of Cli-Fi, like the kind of novels you present here, to avoid developing potentially harmful narratives of climate change.

    One recommendation I would offer to everyone is Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which offers an indigenous perspective that challenges some conventional scientific understandings of nature.

    1. Thank you so much for watching, Max, and for your support and our frequent conversations on this topic!

      You raise a fascinating point that I hadn’t thought about before! I think that would be a really interesting angle for an empirical study, and could provide evidence in support/against my initial inclination that these kinds of dystopian texts *would* distance a reader from the real, pressing threats of current unsustainable behaviors on climate change.

      I’ll make sure to add Braiding Sweetgrass higher up on my TBR list! I read the introduction a few months ago and have felt compelled to read the rest of the book ever since.

  20. Great video presentation, Claire! And congratulations on receiving the Melissa Schultz Prize in Sustainability and the Environment! Your work is truly inspiring in the much same way that hers was.

    1. Thank you very much, Dr. McConnell! I sincerely appreciate your kind words – and for your advice and advising throughout the the research process.

  21. Congratulations on the Melissa Schultz Sustainability Prize, Claire! Very well desrved and I am so proud of you turning in IS. Your project and presentation were both very compelling and well thought out. I enjoyed learning about “Cli-Fi” and its potential to change the perspectives of people who are not personally affected by climate change. I hope one day the study you described is carried out to see if this genre does have the potential to change minds. Which book from your IS would you suggest as reading material for beginners in this field that would like to know more?

    1. Thank you, Anna!! I’m so grateful for your friendship and support – and for your (initially forceful) encouragements that I attend Greenhouse meetings our freshmen year, which have fueled my passion for this topic.

      In terms of a non-fiction, I’d highly recommend both This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, and The Great Derrangement, by Amitav Ghosh. Fiction-wise, I think Oil on Water is a really powerful novel that visualizes the nuanced impacts of unsustainable resource extraction on vulnerable, politically-powerless communities.

  22. Claire! This is such a fascinating project and I am so inspired by how you combined your majors and passion into this exploration of motivating factors for climate action. What are your recommendations for someone wanting to get into “cli-fi” and looking for books that may cultivate hope?

    Congrats congrats congrats

    1. Thank you, Lia! I’m glad you enjoyed learning more about my IS!

      I’d absolutely recommend Flight Behavior as the more hopeful of the two novels I analyzed: the main character follows a compelling arc that demonstrates the value of increased education and conversation on the topic of climate change. The Overstory by Richard Powers, too (while in my opinion would benefit from more exploration of intersectional identities and stronger representation of Women and BIPOC communities), took a revolutionary non-anthropocentric narrative approach, and opened my eyes to the wonder and value of trees to our ecosystems.

  23. This is so cool Claire! Congrats on the Schultz Sustainability prize (well deserved!). I have enjoyed all of our time in Greenhouse together!

    1. Thank you so much, Oria!! Congrats to you on your symposium award, as well!

  24. Hi Claire!! Wonderful work! That was very informative, and I have never heard of the Cli-Fi genre before. Looks like I have some new books to read 🙂

  25. First off, congratulations on the well deserved reward! This was so cool to listen to, especially considering the discussions we had in Junior IS regarding climate and the novel. It is really interesting to see the trajectory of this project and where you ended up. If this project were to keep evolving, where do you think you would take it next?

    1. Thank you so much, Sarah! I’m so glad we were in the same Junior IS and that we could take part in those conversations together; my IS is certainly inspired by and evolved from the lingering questions of that course. I would definitely like to enact the proposed study, and gather concrete evidence and support for my hypotheses!

  26. What a great way to tie your double majors together. I was so impressed by your presentation. I feel like this last year has put a significant emphasis on the importance of education to fostering empathy and facilitating change, but often education through non-fiction sources. Novels are an incredibly accessible way to absorb some of the same key themes without the intimidation of academia or non-fiction. With that in mind, were there any novels you wish you could’ve discussed? If so, what were they? Also, do you see dystopian novels that discuss climate disasters as helpful in this same project? Or could they potentially cause damage and fear that may not foster sympathy in a helpful way?

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, Marloes!! Honestly, what I actually would’ve loved is the opportunity to read more novels on this topic in advance of the Independent Study process! With the limited time frame of the project, I couldn’t read nearly as many cli-fi novels as I would’ve liked to. After doing more research on this genre, I’m now interested to read many more novels, especially Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice, The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, and Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad. To answer your second set of questions, I do think that dystopian novels hold a helpful place in reconsidering and reimagining future outcomes if things change minimally now. But I also think they could be less effective at generating sympathy for already-existing societies and sparking concrete actions by potentially disillusioning readers and distancing them from the contemporary problems caused by climate change.

  27. Claire, you know how vital I think this project is–so looking forward to diving in to it. Your presentation is wonderfully clear. So many congrats on the prize & more to come when I have a chance to read more of your work here!

  28. What a creative way to tie sociology, literature, and environmental studies all together! Amazing work!

  29. Hi Claire–what a wonderful presentation and execution of a creative and urgent interdisciplinary project! Since I research early period literature, I’m often thinking about how climate change (or imaginative proxies for it) appears in the strange premodern world. In fact, I just gave a conference paper yesterday on Edmund Spenser (of The Faerie Queene and other Elizabethan poetry) and climate change, thinking about the trope we (well, Ruskin) call “the pathetic fallacy” and what it might teach us about being in ethical community with the world. Do you encounter the pathetic trope or mode (words I prefer to “fallacy”) at all in contemporary fiction? Scholars have different opinions on whether it is a helpful or harmful trope and I’m always looking for additional perspectives. And congratulations on your award!!

    1. Hi Prof. Eager, thank you for your question and kind words!

      I haven’t interacted with scholars who comment on the “pathetic trope” directly, but I have encountered conversations on the role of anthropocentrism when ascribing voices to the natural world – where narrative devices may in fact be projections of human emotions. I’m particularly thinking of Ghosh, who comments on how 19th century literature begins to depict nature as a “filler” and setting in the novel, rather than as active agents of change. To tackle this primarily human-centered turn that the novel has taken, I looked at texts that elevate the agency and importance of taking care of the land. While, yes, these texts do still describe the environment through metaphors and other descriptions, they do so in a way that points to the unhappiness and resource scarcity of the land implicating ecosystem wellbeing.

      Aside from fiction, I did also look at two multispecies ethnographies – Among the Bone Eaters by Matthew Baynes-Rock, and How Forests Think by Eduardo Kohn: texts which try to counter the narrow human-centeredness of the social sciences by observing the interconnectedness between certain cultures with animals/the environment.

      I hope that answers your question! I’d love to her more on your thoughts about this topic in regards to early period literature!

  30. Clare, your IS topic and your approach to address it are absolutely fascinating. I particularly enjoyed your reference to storytelling, and how this can trigger up emotion that leads to concerted action. It has lessons foe many of us who touch data and facts, but require the elements of storytelling, narrative, and a shared purpose to progress towards action. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for your comment! Yes, that is exactly the impact I believe this approach can have!

  31. Thank you all for your kind words of support and encouragement of this project that I have worked so hard on over the last year!

    If you have any further comments or questions, feel free to reach out to me via email: I meant to include this in my video, but it’s cut off on the end slide.

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