Teaching Counterfactuals and Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities

Posted by on Mar 29, 2017
Teaching Counterfactuals and Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities

**This reflection essay was written for the CENHS blog by Brandon Jones, PhD candidate in
English literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign**

It was more than a little fortunate that the volume Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (2016), edited by Stephen Siperstein, Shane Hall, and Stephanie LeMenager, appeared in print shortly before I was set to teach an ecologically-themed, undergraduate introductory science fiction course at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. I am now more than halfway through the teaching of that course, and in this post I would like to briefly share my own experience with applying some of the approaches found in Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities to my own pedagogy as a graduate student instructor. Part selective book review, part personal reflection, I hope my experience will be helpful and resonant to those embarking on similar endeavors to weave climate change and its pervasive cultural and environmental reach into literature and humanities courses.

Siperstein, Hall, and LeMenager begin the introduction to their collection by addressing two central questions that are at the center of the challenges facing the teaching of climate change in a humanities classroom: how do we show students what humanities methods and objects of inquiry have to offer the study of a problem like climate change that is most often presented in overwhelmingly scientific terms, and how do we do so while navigating the spectrum of political affects that the topic is bound to evoke in students? These two questions, in addition to the question of how to introduce the topic of climate change into a humanities course that is really about something else (in my case, science fiction at large), were the questions most on my mind when I was planning my course, and that have remained on my mind as the semester has progressed.

As a preliminary answer to the first question—what can humanities methods and objects offer—Siperstein, Hall, and LeMenager propose a seemingly simple point: “Humanities disciplines long dedicated to exploring counterfactuals—the if/then imagination of alternate possible worlds—can be powerful vehicles for navigating the ethical conundrums and cultural unease that come with shifting ecological parameters” (4). The power of counterfactual thinking. It can indeed be said that any work of fiction is nothing more than an experiment in counterfactual logic. If we change even just one, minor aspect of our world today, what difference would that difference make? Who would be affected, and how? Does the story seem to take a judgmental stance—whether affirmative or critical—toward that alteration?

By raising such questions, the counterfactual logic of fiction illuminates cultural tendencies within our societies that might otherwise go overlooked. Science fiction, a genre defined by its counterfactual extremism, that is self-conscious of and ramps up to ten the capacity of fiction to present an estranged yet still believable imaginary world, elaborates precise variants of the ways of extrapolating present tendencies. Octavia E. Butler once wrote of these variants saying, “Sometime ago I read some place that Robert A. Heinlein had these three categories of science-fiction stories: The what-if category; the if-only category; and the if-this-goes-on category.” I would venture to say that the first of these categories is shared among all genres of fiction, but the latter two represent the utopian (if-only) and dystopian (if-this-goes-on) extremes that lie on either end of the counterfactual spectrum, and which science fiction inhabits as its defining sibling rivalry.

What counterfactual thinking, and its science fictional extremes of utopia and dystopia, offer to discourses surrounding climate change, in particular, is a problem solving mindset that accounts for the global reach and cultural complexity of climate change and its catastrophic “shifting ecological parameters.” For instance, the if-only of Ernest Callenbach’s “Chocco” (1994) encourages us to consider the range of sustainable cultural beliefs and practices we might adopt to work our way out of the climate crisis, and the if-this-goes-on of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Newton’s Sleep” (1991) shocks us out of escapist fantasies of fleeing our ruined planet by reorienting us to the work we have to do now to mitigate environmental degradation and eliminate environmental injustice. Drawing on Siperstein, Hall, and LeMenager for this pragmatic focus on literary counterfactuals, I framed my science fiction course from the start as an investigation into how the genre’s counterfactual variants can make us reflect on otherwise unforeseen issues related to the climate crisis, and how thinking through these issues from the standpoint of an estranged future world can inspire action in the present.

I have found this framework to be effective at confronting two primary challenges that the authors in Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities repeatedly identify: the black hole of despair that discussions of climate change seem to perpetually fall into, and the “knowledge/action gap” between learning more about climate change and acting on that knowledge (121). The two are, of course, closely related. As Imre Szeman describes the “affective slide” of his classes in an environmental studies course on fossil fuel culture and economy, “As we learned about resource culture in each class, we slid from possibility to impossibility, from an opening to closure, and from the capacity to make changes to the way we exist in relation to oil to feelings of impotence in the face of the detailed maps about oil modernity that we drew together, which seemed to make such changes improbable” (49). It seems the more we learn about climate change and the entrenched ways of living that contribute to it, the more overwhelming the problem becomes, the more any coherent vision of a solution begins to fade, and, as a result, the more depressed our affective relation to the crisis becomes. Szeman turns to Fredric Jameson’s discussion of “cultural dominants” in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991) in order to attempt to flip this overwhelming feeling on its head: perhaps identifying the pervasive ways in which a culture of resource extraction is a dominant force across societies can gives us a clearer picture of the enemy we need to vanquish, something against which we can define an alternative.

But is this type of adversarial thinking the only way to sustain a problem-solving approach to the climate crisis through literary and cultural interpretation? Szeman and Jameson, in other words, assume that the only way to resist, protest, problem solve, or work toward something otherwise is through dualistic thinking whereby we propose an alternative that is the opposite of the current dominant system. The counterfactural logic of science fiction is, I like to think, much more nuanced than that. Through the stories I am teaching this semester, my students and I are looking at heterogeneous, speculative solutions to the climate crisis in order to discuss their multiplicity and the pros and cons of each—to create a toolbox of problem solving strategies adaptable to various situations. What I aim to do with my course’s focus on counterfactuals is to undo the limited sense of political thinking and action encoded in the assessment of “cultural dominants,” to cultivate a different approach whereby we scrutinize a multitude of options for acting in various what-if scenarios that have not yet happened, but which are nevertheless startlingly familiar.

With this objective in mind, I organized my course around three core cli-fi novels: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Talents (1998), and Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior (2012). We have finished the Robinson novel and are now about halfway through the Butler novel, and already the contrast between the very different problem-solving approaches of the two books is sparking lively discussion. The former has much more of an if-only approach to the climate crisis, exploring what we might be able to accomplish if politicians and scientists work together to develop technocratic solutions to abrupt climate change, and the latter falls into the if-this-goes-on camp, depicting a drought- and storm-ravaged United States run by an eerily Trump-like demagogue in which Alaska and the Pacific Northwest are nearly the only remaining habitable regions of the country.

While some students found Robinson’s novel refreshing in that it departs from the post-apocalyptic nature of most cli-fi narratives in order to foreground the problem-solving impulse, other students thought it could potentially promote complacency and immobility in the face of climate change because it gives readers the false sense of security that somebody else—academic experts and government officials—are already on the job. Butler’s novel brings to the foreground the power of political rhetoric to organize communities during a period of environmental and social turmoil, and students have been keen to analyze the ways that both the protagonist and the demagogue president use religious belief systems to persuade those most vulnerable to the infrastructural and financial risks of climate change to adopt either sustainable and inclusive or unsustainable and xenophobic lifestyle habits and ideologies. My hope is that Kingsolver’s novel will throw a curveball into this conversation; as a non-science fiction text that takes neither a dystopian nor utopian stance I think it could shed further light on the affordances of counterfactual variants, and it also shuffles together the scientific and religious problem-solving methods that are contrasted between the other two novels.

While students have mostly risen to the challenges of the course, with a few exceptions they have been rather reticent to engage issues of environmental racism and sexism in the stories we read. In between the reading of the three novels mentioned above, I introduced three units of more broadly ecologically-themed short stories—on “devastated worlds,” “human? nonhuman?,” and “environmental science versus activism”—to frame the novels with some typical environmentalist tropes and issues and to incorporate pedagogical strategies from the “Teaching and Learning Climate Change Sideways” section of the Siperstein, Hall, and LeMenager edited collection. This scaffolding technique has the effect, as Scott Slovic puts it, of “approaching climate change gradually and indirectly” so that “the topic becomes somewhat disentangled from the all-too-familiar entrenched positions of talking heads in the media. Climate change comes to be recognizable, as an extension of our daily lives” (168). Part of this process of desterilizing the climate crisis is that these supplemental stories raise issues of difference and identity that may not be so apparent in the novels.

Unfortunately, my students were not so eager for such discussions. Questions about representational patterns of reverence and natural harmony regarding women and indigenous knowledge in stories such as Callenbach’s “Chocco,” or about the relationship between racist primitivism and cosmic horror in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928), tended to garner crickets. In Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, Steven Hartman notes, “Our great challenge in the early twenty-first century is not merely to survive by adapting to increasing and ever more acute environmental constraints. Rather we must work to ensure that human societies can flourish in their totality, not merely the great and powerful at the expense of the fragile and marginalized” (73). Critically reading stories such as those by Callenbach and Lovecraft to frame narratives of climate change are a crucial part of understanding this challenge, and working with students to address issues of environmental racism and climate justice in this manner may be an even greater hurdle for teaching climate change in the humanities classroom than the affective slide of despair and the knowledge/action gap.

Right now my students are embarking on a group project, the idea of which I pulled directly from the pages of Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (8). The project involves the multimedia platform on the website for FutureCoast, a
2014 audio storytelling project created by game designer Ken Eklund and conducted through the PoLAR Climate Change Education Parternship at Columbia University. The project consists of a series of fictional voicemails that people from the future have left for friends, colleagues, family members, and loved ones. Students are asked to create what the website calls “Timesteams,” which allow them to compile a playlist of voicemails that they think together tell a certain story. I am hoping this project encourages students to see how they can engage in their own styles of counterfactual thinking, imagine their own climate futures, and think critically about how such imagining may or may not be encouraging them and others to promote effective and just problem-solving mindsets and practices.


Brandon Jones is a PhD candidate in English literature at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he is currently completing his dissertation on representations of ecology and utopia in late twentieth-century American fiction. He actively researches in the fields of ecocriticism, posthumanism, science studies, and new materialism, and has published articles on these topics in Journal of Consciousness Studies and O-Zone: A Journal of Object-Oriented Studies, as well as a short essay in The Posthuman Glossary edited collection (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).