The Power of Speculative Fiction in Imagining the Future of Climate Change: Culture, Social Movements, and American Studies

By Shelley Streeby, author of Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism

This guest post is part of the ASA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Chicago, IL Nov. 9-12—and as part of blog series of contributions by authors in the new series American Studies Now.


In the wake of Hurricane Maria and the devastation of Puerto Rico, it is apparent that climate change is now upon us; an analysis of race and ongoing colonialism is required to confront it, and the state will not save the day. What possibilities will arise in the wake of the climate change disaster that is already happening? People of color and Indigenous creators of speculative fictions and social movements have been asking this question and taking action to imagine a post-climate change future for a long time.

From 1965 through the early 2000s, the late, great science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler crafted speculative fictions in the form of novels, stories, and the deep archive of material, including drafts, notebooks, diaries, letters, and research envelopes of newspaper clippings, filling more than 350 boxes, that she left to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. I have been lucky to participate, among poets, scholars, sound artists, cartoonists, dancers, novelists, and others inspired by Butler, in an efflorescence of recent events in Butler’s memory, including the “Octavia E. Butler Studies: Convergence of an Interdisciplinary Field” conference co-organized by Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bailey on what would have been Butler’s 70th birthday this past June. On this occasion and in this book, I situate Butler as a major climate change intellectual whose extrapolations from her present, theorizing of climate refugees, and speculative memory-work illuminate blind spots in 1970s to early 2000s climate change conversations and have much to teach us today.

Notably, Butler saved in her “Disaster” files many articles about how global warming would increase the intensity and frequency of catastrophic weather events such as Hurricane Maria. In 1989, for instance, she archived an article about how global climate change would create super storms like Hurricane Hugo, which that year caused fifty deaths, left one hundred thousand people homeless, and was the most expensive storm up to that point to hit the United States. Butler carefully underlined in green sentences that explained how a warmer ocean causes more evaporation and that warmer air can hold more water vapor, both of which increase the power of hurricanes. She also underlined the article’s warning that warming ocean and air temperatures will increase wind speeds 20 to 25 percent and their maximum intensity by as much as 60 percent. “We can’t avoid it and we aren’t preparing for it,” she worried, fearing the addition of climate change to all the “usual stuff,” including “racism” (which she crossed out), “earthquakes, social turmoil, etc.” She used this research in writing her famous novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, in which she also imagined symbiotic possibilities for shaping change in a world transformed by the greenhouse effect.

As Director of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Institute, I learned a lot about imagining the future of climate change from meeting adrienne maree brown, a brilliant writer of visionary speculative fiction and social movement organizer who uses Butler’s work to partner with communities and movements, using direct action to confront climate change and environmental racism and co-create what she calls “symbiotic relationships based on our needs and our dreams.” In this way, she builds on Butler’s imaginings of symbiotic entanglements among humans, critters, and the Earth that belie myths of isolated, competitive individuals as she labors to create linkages between groups such as the Arctic Indigenous Youth Alliance and the environmental and social justice organization the Ruckus Society.

Similarly, the authors of the statement “Let Our Indigenous Voices Be Heard,” which they issued on Earth Day 2017, envision a “productive symbiosis, based upon mutual respect, between Indigenous and Western knowledges that could serve shared goals of sustainability in the face of climate change.” Indigenous science, fiction, and futurisms shaped the #NoDAPL struggle led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, as well as other worldwide struggles over oil, water, and resource extraction, including in Māori contexts. Indigenous-helmed movements practice world-making through taking direct action, working in indigenous science and technologies, and imagining decolonized futures in the wake of climate change disaster in many different kinds of speculative fiction across multiple media platforms.

Direct action, which may take such forms as protests, sit-ins, blockades, boycotts, and hacktivism, is an important tactic for social movements wary of making the state the horizon of possibility. It has its roots in anticolonial, antislavery, and labor struggles that extend backwards in time for centuries. In the 1910s, the Industrial Workers of the World made it central to their radical world-making. It was a keyword for Martin Luther King, Jr., and for the Black freedom struggles of the 1960s as well as for antiwar and environmental movements ever since. It was also a key tactic for the American Indian Movement and the American Indian Youth Council. The Standing Rock Youth Council takes “non-Violent Direct Action” to advance their “voices in decisions made about the future of Indian Country.”

In Imagining the Future of Climate Change, I tell the story of imagining the future of climate change by focusing on movements, speculative fictions, and futurisms of Indigenous people and people of color. Although this is a selective lens, it is a richly illuminating one that yields important insights and possibilities that we miss when the focus is only on nation-states, transnational corporations, research scientists, and politicians as significant agents and explainers of change. In focusing on social movements and cultures of climate change, I build on “social movements and culture” methodologies used in American Studies. As modeled by scholars such as Michael Denning and George Lipsitz, such methodologies look for meaning in the connections people make between cultural texts and the important social movements of their times. Today a transnational movement from below, significantly led by Indigenous people and people of color, is one of the most powerful forces opposing the fossil fuel industry’s transnationalism from above. My goal is to introduce the history and most significant flashpoints in imagining the future of climate change over which these movements currently struggle.


Shelley Streeby is Professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and Director of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. She is the author of Radical Sensations and American Sensations and a coeditor of Empire and the Literature of Sensation.

Imagining the Future of Climate Change is available now as an e-book, and forthcoming in print.


Academic Freedom in the Era of Trump

By Sunaina Maira, author of Boycott! The Academy and Justice for Palestine

This guest post is part of the ASA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Chicago, IL Nov. 9-12—and as part of blog series of contributions by authors in the new series American Studies Now.


Something unthinkable happened in the United States in the last few years: hundreds of academics, senior scholars, graduate students, and untenured faculty came forth in support of an academic boycott of Israel. Beginning in 2013, the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions expanded rapidly with one major academic association after another endorsing the boycott and adopting resolutions in solidarity with the Palestinian call for an academic boycott.

But this movement emerged several years after Palestinian academics, intellectuals, and activists called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israel in 2004—and after years of military occupation, failed peace negotiations, ever-expanding and illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, ongoing home demolitions, the building of the Israeli Wall, repression, and military assaults. All of these events and the military occupation of Palestine itself have been endorsed, defended, and funded by Israel’s major global ally, the United States. The academic boycott and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement are thus embedded in a significant aspect of the U.S. political and historical relationship to the Middle East, and in a particular, cultural imaginary of Palestine, Palestinians, and Arabs in general, that has become an increasingly central concern of American studies.

I consider this progressive-left academic solidarity to be a potential expression of academic abolitionism. The notion of academic abolitionism is not focused on redeeming the U.S. academy—just as it is ultimately not focused on redemption for the U.S. imperial state—as much as it is ongoing beyond the liberal discourse of academic freedom to highlight other kinds of freedoms, and un-freedoms. The boycott of Israeli academic institutions that are complicit with occupation and apartheid is only one component of a larger politics of refusal grounded in academic abolitionism. An abolitionist view challenges the complicity of the U.S. academy with global militarism, carceral regimes, and settler colonial circuits of power, in which Israel is a key player.

Indeed, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and Trump’s victory spurred more vigorous and vocal progressive mobilization on campuses and in communities, with solidarity campaigns binding together movements against police violence and militarization, and for racial justice, immigrant rights and sanctuary, gender and sexual rights, indigenous sovereignty, environmental justice, and freedom in Palestine. The historic Women’s March in January 2017, which mobilized masses of people to come out in the streets against Trump after his inauguration, was called for by prominent feminist activists such as Angela Davis and Palestinian American Linda Sarsour, who have advocated for BDS as part of a feminist politics. The International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2017, explicitly included a call for “the decolonization of Palestine” in its platform, and for the dismantling of “all walls, from prison walls to border walls, from Mexico to Palestine.” These campaigns build on the solidarities that were created in previous years as the BDS movement made linkages with Black Lives Matter, the antiwar and prison abolition movement, labor unions, faith-based activists, and feminist and queer groups.

As “White supremacy” became a term permissible in discussions on major cable news networks about Trump and his alt-right followers, there were also growing conversations about Zionism, the ways it can become imbricated with anti-Semitism on the right, and the need to challenge racial supremacy and White privilege. Palestine has become central to all of these major contemporary debates and resistance movements. Omar Barghouti writes about the struggle for liberation, equality, and dignity waged through BDS:

The global BDS movement for Palestinian rights presents a progressive, antiracist, sophisticated, sustainable, moral, and effective form of nonviolent civil resistance. It has become one of the key political catalysts and moral anchors for a strengthened, reinvigorated international social movement capable of ending the law of the jungle and upholding in its stead the rule of law, reaffirming the rights of all humans to freedom, equality, and dignified living.

Our South Africa moment has finally arrived!

There really is no turning back.


Sunaina Maira is Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Boycott! is available now as an e-book, and forthcoming in print.


ASA, Interdisciplinary Associations, and American Studies Now

By Roderick A. Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests

UC Press is proud to be part of the Association of American University Press’s sixth annual University Press Week, whose overreaching theme this year is #LookItUp: Knowledge Matters. Today’s theme is “Producing the Books That Matter,” exemplified by the new series American Studies Now. We encourage you to also visit our fellow university presses blogging on this theme today: University Press of Kansas, Georgetown University Press, UBC Press, University of Michigan Press, Fordham University Press, Yale University Press, and MIT Press.

This guest post is part of the ASA blog series published in conjunction with the meeting of the American Studies Association in Chicago, IL Nov. 9-12—and as part of blog series of contributions by authors in the new series American Studies Now.


The question at this historical moment is can we really engage in difficult work. By “difficult,” I mean the ethically and intellectually hard task of unpacking and confronting social regulations and exclusions in their various locations—in nation-states, in academic fields, and in communities. Historically, interdisciplinary fields have demonstrated a greater capacity for this difficult labor as they have been the ones to engender and demand the creation of languages for race, sexuality, gender, class, disability and so on, developing those languages so that various publics might engage social, political, and economic challenges.

“We Demand” by ASA president-elect Roderick A. Ferguson is the first volume in the American Studies Now series.

For me, this is where interdisciplinary organizations like the American Studies Association and the American Studies Now book series join forces. In addition to producing the languages necessary to confront the social forces that have threatened the survival of various minoritized communities, it has been associations like the ASA that have mustered the courage to speak uncomfortable truths about the modes of violence arising from the state as well as from the regimes of race, gender, sexuality and class. Collectively, the interdisciplines—much more so than the disciplines—have assumed the crucial task of confronting domination. In a nation and a world that increasingly prohibits honest and critical encounters, interdisciplinary associations like the ASA are needed now more than ever, needed to produce intellectuals at all levels who will refuse to accept—as Edward Said put it—“the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do. Not just passively unwilling, but actively willing to say so in public.”

The stakes of this commitment to critical articulations were made clear by the old woman in Toni Morrison’s 1993 Nobel address, the one who offers a lesson about the vital importance of language, the one who warned that yielding to the confirmations of the powerful could only lead to what she called “tongue-suicide.” This murder of critical thinking, she said, is “common among the infantile heads of state and power merchants whose evacuated language leaves them with no access to what is left of their human instincts, for they speak only to those who obey, or in order to force obedience.” In this moment, we need a network of cultures whose primary purpose is to studiously reactivate the deep and public obligations of critical intellection.

American Studies Now is poised to be an access point within this network of cultures. If the series is designed—as the editors argue—to “refuse the distinction between politics and culture,” then one of the of the ways in which it embodies that is by creating books written for undergraduate audiences, books designed to give undergraduates the tools to raise the level of social discussion. As such, American Studies Now participates in a larger interdisciplinary culture whose job is the creation of intellectual networks that can actively develop critical and imaginative publics within and outside our scholarly associations.


Roderick A. Ferguson is Professor of American Studies, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and African American Studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago. He was Associate Editor of American Quarterly from 2007 to 2010 and is president-elect of the American Studies Association.


Debuting at ASA 2017: American Studies Now, a New Series

Taking the 2017 American Studies Association conference by storm the new series edited by past presidents of the ASA American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present offers short, timely books on the issues that matter today.

“We need new ways to publish and distribute the work of American Studies scholars. The monograph and the journal article have a crucial role in our field, but they aren’t serving us well in the undergraduate classroom. And they aren’t putting our work into circulation in the pressing, scary political present. This new series is one new way to address those needs — short, accessible books on Black Lives Matter, climate change, neoliberalism, BDS, the continuing urban crisis, indigenous politics, queer and trans issues, the crises in higher education and more. They are designed to provide timely, provocative analysis for teaching, for activism, and for engagement now.”—Lisa Duggan, past president of the American Studies Association & co-editor of American Studies Now

Much of the most exciting contemporary work in American Studies refuses the distinction between politics and culture—focusing on historical cultures of power and protest on the one hand, or the political importance of cultural practices on the other. With a short production schedule, the titles in American Studies Now are able to cover these political and cultural intersections while such teachable moments are at the center of public conversation.

“Given the constant rush and hum of information in our social media saturated worlds, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now in ways that make it difficult to take a critical perspective on where we are and how we got there. So American Studies Now reflects not only the urgency of the questions raised by each volume in the series but also suggests what we mean by critical histories of the present — scholarship that helps readers think about contemporary problems in terms of their larger historical, social, and cultural significance.”—Curtis Marez, past president of the American Studies Association & co-editor of American Studies Now

Learn more about this exciting, new series in this Q&A with series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and visit UC Press at booth 405 to browse the books. Heading to the conference? Be sure to check out the following session:

  • American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present
    Fri, November 10, 4:00 to 5:45pm
    With UC Press Executive Editor Niels Hooper, series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and series authors Scott Kurashige, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Ransby, Shelley Streeby, and Macarena Gomez-Barris
    View session details here

For more author sessions at ASA, and to see what else we’ll have on view, head here.


Heading to ASA? Save 40% on These American Studies Titles

From searing critiques of power and wealth, to in-depth investigations of race, gender, and class to cultural histories of activism and social justice, these new releases will inspire the way you think about America today. Visit UC Press at the American Studies Association conference (booth 405) to save 40% on these titles and more. To take early advantage of our conference discount—and see just a sample of what will be on view—visit our ASA landing page.

We’re especially excited to debut the new series American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present, edited by past presidents of the ASA Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez. Offering broad context provided by deeply knowledgeable American Studies scholars and activists, these short, timely books address the political and cultural issues that matter now. Learn more about American Studies Now from the series editors. 

Take Note of These ASA Sessions:

  • American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present
    With UC Press Executive Editor Niels Hooper, series editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez, and series authors Scott Kurashige, Sunaina Maira, Barbara Ransby, Shelley Streeby, and Macarena Gomez-Barris
    View session here
  • Rethinking History and Methods in the American Studies Classroom 
    Join Philip Deloria and Alexander Olson, authors of of American Studies: A User’s Guide, as they discuss how renewed attention to method might change the way American Studies is taught in the classroom and beyond
    View session here
  • Roderick Ferguson, author of We Demand: The University and Student Protests
    View all sessions here
  • Jack Halberstam, author of Trans*: A Quick and Quirky Account of Gender Variability 
    View all sessions here
  • Barbara Ransby, author of the forthcoming Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century
    View all sessions here
  • Josh Kun, editor of The Tide Was Always High: The Music of Latin America in Los Angeles
    View session here
  • Sharon Luk, author of The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity
    View session here
  • Simeon Man, author of the forthcoming Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific
    View session here

Browse more new & notable American Studies Titles.


Introducing American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present

Much of the most exciting contemporary work in American Studies refuses the distinction between politics and culture — focusing on historical cultures of power and protest on the one hand, or the political importance of cultural practices, on the other. We are excited to announce American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present, a series publishing titles that cover these political and cultural intersections, exploring the ways the events of our past continue to shape our present.

American Studies Now publishes short, timely books on significant political and cultural events while such teachable moments are at the center of public conversation.

We spoke with editors Lisa Duggan and Curtis Marez to discuss the goals of American Studies Now and how these books can be usedin the classroom and beyond.


What inspired you to develop the American Studies Now series?

Lisa Duggan: We need new ways to publish and distribute the work of American Studies scholars. The monograph and the journal article have a crucial role in our field, but they aren’t serving us well in the undergraduate classroom. And they aren’t putting our work into circulation in the pressing, scary political present. This new series is one new way to address those needs — short, accessible books on Black Lives Matter, climate change, neoliberalism, BDS, the continuing urban crisis, indigenous politics, queer and trans issues, the crises in higher education and more. They are designed to provide timely, provocative analysis for teaching, for activism, and for engagement now.

The series is described as “critical histories of the present” — could you elaborate on what this means?

Curtis Marez: Given the constant rush and hum of information in our social media saturated worlds, it’s easy to get stuck in the here and now in ways that make it difficult to take a critical perspective on where we are and how we got there. So American Studies Now reflects not only the urgency of the questions raised by each volume in the series but also suggests what we mean by critical histories of the present — scholarship that helps readers think about contemporary problems in terms of their larger historical, social, and cultural significance.

Why the need to publish on a short schedule?

LD: We want to counter the long, slow publication process and relatively narrow circulation of most academic publishing with an option designed for speed and impact, on the timeclock of the political present. Offering broad context provided by deeply knowledgeable American Studies scholars, these books can contribute to classroom and public discussions on issues that matter now.

How will these books contribute to the field of American Studies?

CM: Each book brings American Studies concepts and methods to the analysis of vital contemporary social movements. Authors build on and rethink the field’s historical social movement focus by foregrounding a host of contemporary grassroots movements such as Black Lives Matter, student movements, and movements for sexual justice. At the same time, American Studies Now presents critical accounts of dominant social movements such asthe movement to privatize higher education and to silence dissent; the law and order movement supporting the expansion of police power; climate justice; and the movement for free market fundamentalism that informs contemporary state policies.

Continue reading “Introducing American Studies Now: Critical Histories of the Present”


Join Us at ASA 2014

Join University of California Press this fall at the 2014 American Studies Association Annual Meeting. The meeting convenes November 6-9 in Los Angeles.

Please visit us at booth 401 at the Westin Bonaventure to purchase our latest American Studies publications for the following offers:

  • 30% conference discount and free worldwide shipping
  • Submit exam copy requests for course adoption for your upcoming classes
  • Win $100 worth of books! Join our eNews subscription

Our American Studies Association list is comprised of an interdisciplinary selection of titles perfect for research and course usage. While at our booth, explore topics ranging from American history, music, politics, race, and immigration. We’ll also offer subscription rates for our history journals.

Please see our conference program ad for our latest offerings. Acquisitions and marketing staff will be available for your publishing questions.

Follow hashtag #2014ASA for current meeting news!