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.


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.