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Queer Solarpunk: Imagining the Future of Climate Change from Beirut to Appalachia to Oceanside, California

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Since my book Imagining the Future of Climate Change: Worldmaking through Science Fiction and Activism was published earlier this year, I’ve read a lot of exciting speculative fictions of climate change. Especially thought-provoking are a trio of recent science fiction stories set in marginalized places and spaces that put queer affiliations, everyday life, and scientific and technological know-how at the center of the better worlds they envision. Two--“You and Me and the Deep Dark Sea” and “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing”--were written by Jess Barber, who grew up in northeastern Tennessee and now lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The third, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” was collaboratively authored by Barber and Sara Saab, who was born in Beirut and now lives in London. Set in post sea level rise Oceanside, California, contemporary southern Appalachia, and near future Beirut, all three stories refuse the reproduction of dominant configurations of power and dystopian clichés in a world forever and fundamentally altered by climate change in order to imagine otherwise through queer world-making. 

I situate all three stories in relation to Solarpunk, a heterogeneous sub-genre that emerged in the 2010s in many different places, including around 2012 in Brazil, and which became more prominent in 2014, when a solarpunk Tumblr community emerged. Now there are several solarpunk anthologies available. One of the most important definers of the term is World Weaver Press Editor-in-Chief Sarena Ulibarri, who started a successful Kickstarter campaign to publish an English translation of the influential Brazilian anthology Solarpunk – Histórias Ecológicas e Fantásticas em um Mundo Sustentável/Solarpunk: Ecological and Fantastic Stories in a Sustainable World. In the Introduction to her own recent anthology Glass and Gardens: Cyberpunk Summers, Ulibarri calls solarpunk a “developing sub-genre of optimistic, environmentally conscious science fiction” that looks for “decentralized, localized” solutions that depend on “adaptation and compromise” rather than “destruction and conquest.” Ulibarri emphasizes that there are a “number of different possibilities for what the label ‘solarpunk’ could mean.” For her, it is important that such writing touches on “environmental issues” or “climate change” without succumbing to despair. 

Barber’s “You and Me and the Deep Dark Sea,” which explores queer quotidian possibilities in the wake of eco-catastrophe, appears in another recent solarpunk anthology, Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation, edited by Phoebe Wagner and Bronte Wieland. Its setting is the military town of Oceanside, California, mostly abandoned in the wake of an earthquake and rising, toxic seas; the Ralph’s grocery store “eerie with its two thirds empty shelves and busted out fluorescent lights.” Eco-disasters of multiple kinds have occurred in this world and former political mappings are no longer reliable. This is the home the main character, Liam, returns to after three years away, after he “pulled himself ashore in what used to be New Orleans,” injured and alone, his lover Tara dead. It is obliquely suggested that the two were caught disabling ocean drills and Liam barely escaped with his life. Meanwhile, the Oceanside earthquake and the toxic, tar-polluted waves are connected to the lexicon of disaster in our present, to a “bankruptcy filing” that forestalled a “cleanup effort,” which is what pushed Tara into eco-direct action. 

When Liam returns to Tara’s old apartment, he unexpectedly encounters Ale, a childhood friend who was once a heterosexual romantic rival also in love with Tara but who in the new re-ordering of things becomes Liam’s lover. Along with this change, Ale brings Liam into a new community that has emerged in the wake of ecological disaster. There are only about 300 people left and they have lots of “community wide get togethers.” Ale tells him “It’s a small world these days” and “everyone’s gotta look out for everyone else, at least a little.” Although stereotypes of the “Amish” come to mind for Liam, this new community is not organized around the patriarchal family and is one in which queer lovers can kiss “right there in full view of everyone,” as Ale and Liam do at one point. At the end, there is no big heroic action or major change to the world, just survival and intimacy in the queer quotidian. Barber ends with the two “down by the ocean, slumped against each other, daring the water to come for them.” 

Ecological activism from below and queer affiliations are also central to another story Barber published in Reckoning 2: An Annual Journal of Creative Writing on Environmental Justice. I read Barber’s contribution, “Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing,” as a queer coming of age eco-justice story in which the Southern Appalachian setting is crucial. As Siobhan Somerville explains, “queer” since the 1980s functions both “as an umbrella term that refers to a range of sexual identities that are ‘not straight,’” and as an analytic that “calls into question the stability of any such categories of identity based on sexual orientation,” thereby exposing the latter as constructions that “establish and police the line between the ‘normal’ and the ‘abnormal.’ In Barber’s story, class and region also shape and blur that line. 

First-person narrator Lanny and her best friend Junebug have been next-door neighbors in a trailer park since forever, their “double wides shoulder to shoulder, front lawns spilling weeds into one another.” Lanny believes she is tethered to her birthplace because she turns into a weird being with gills and scales compelled to head towards water every time she gets too far away from home, which she is desperate to do. It turns out, however, that Lanny is tethered to Junebug. When Junebug gets too far away, it provokes Lanny’s fantastic transformation. Lanny has often dreamed of escaping, sometimes with Junebug, but Junebug is happily involved with her boyfriend Jack and doesn't want to leave. Still, when a creepy older dude at the diner where Lanny works asks her if she is about to go off to college someplace like California, advising her not to because of all the “dykes” and “weirdos” out there and further suggesting she would be wise to “stay home and take care of her daddy,” she reflects that he must have known she “never had any hope or intention of going to college.” College isn’t on these girls’ horizons and there is pressure to remain faithful to the patriarchal family, even if actually existing family forms complicate that ideal. But when during a high school party Lanny is kissed by another girl, who tells her everyone knows she is in love with Junebug, the story ties a queer coming of age story to one about ecological justice in a place where both queerness and ecological activism are often imagined not to exist. 

Lanny believed she was tethered to the place and not to Junebug partly because of her own family history: her mother’s father worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority “when they first put the dam in” that created a giant lake “by flooding half the town.” Lanny wonders whether turning “into a giant lake monster” might be nature’s revenge for her grandfather’s damage to the land and to the place, which are further threatened by a mining company’s plans to drill on nearby Calloway Mountain. The company’s plans become a source of tension that divides the town, with some residents hoping it will revitalize the ruined economy and others worrying over the ecological damage it will do.  Barber thereby deftly suggests alternatives to representations of Appalachia as a pro-Trump, pro-coal extraction monolith. 

Notably, Junebug and her boyfriend Jack are actively involved in protests at the mining site, “staring down” a bulldozer poised to move on the mountain with “twin expressions of resolution and fury.” When the crowd starts chanting, “Which side are you on?” Lanny flees, unwilling to choose any side. Three days later, however, when Junebug finds Lanny in a ditch by the river, Lanny knows what she must do. She asks Junebug to drive her home, back to the reservoir, and “deliberately” slides from one state to the other. With full knowledge of what she is and what she can do, Lanny digs her claws “into the concrete foundation of the dam” and twists “until it begins to crack.” The story ends with this act of eco-revenge, made possible by Lanny’s acceptance of her body’s capacity for a kind of queer transformation, even as the question of “which side” she is on when it comes to sexuality is deferred or refused as inadequate. 

The third queer climate change story, “Pan-Humanism: Hope and Pragmatics,” which appeared in a 2017 issue of Clarkesworld and was selected for The Year’s Best Science Fiction of 2017 by Gardner Dozois, is set in near future Beirut and is the result of transnational collaboration between Barber and Sara Saab. Saab talks about their process of writing the novelettein an on-line piece called “A fictional utopia in seven easy steps,” where she situates it within a tradition of “visionary — or utopian, or better world — fiction.” Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown theorize the term “visionary fiction” in their important co-edited anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. They use it to “distinguish science fiction that has relevance towards building newer, freer worlds from the mainstream strain of science fiction, which most often reinforces dominant narratives of power.” As Saab invokes the term, she adds that both authors had “stories we return to when things are hard” and that they wanted to “try to write something that might serve that purpose for someone else.” Saab also emphasizes how she and Barber tried to “explore the complicated ways people and relationships evolve over time, and which challenge the notion of a 'traditional” story arc' that resolves in a happy ending”—what I would call, following Elizabeth Freeman, Jose Munoz, Jack Halberstam, Sara Ahmad and others, a queering of time, temporality, and normative forms of family, kinship, and happiness. As Saab puts it, challenging “the notion of what a happy ending even means, over the course of an entire life” was central to their purpose. 

Sara wrote the beginning, a gorgeous, evocative scene that focuses on Mani and Amir meeting as teenagers taking a mist-shower in a water-starved near future Beirut. She was unable to take it further, however, despite pleas from her writing group, of which Jess was a part. When Jess urged her to finish the story, Sara invited Jess to write the next scene, which she did. They created a GoogleDoc and traded “writing batons” every “several hundred words,” going over and responding to what the other had written and adding new scenes. Living “on different continents, in Boston and London, with a five hour time difference,” was “part of the reason this worked so well,” Saab explains, since ”each of us often woke up to fresh words to read” and would then feel inspired to keep writing the story. 

How might climate change affect ideas about public and private and the everyday? How might it change city spaces? Saab and Barber raise these questions when childhood friends Amir and Mani meet in “The Most Hallowed of our Spaces.” Water is so scarce that now people shower by entering public misting rooms organized by different city zones, where the amount and temperature of moisture is strictly regulated. “Nudity isn’t weird” anymore in “water-scarce Beirut” and new social values have been created in the wake of climate change.  Most important is Pan-humanist theory, which queerly defines love as “respect and collaboration held together with radical acceptance, freely gained and freely lost.” There are lots of different versions and debates within it, with a recent book called Pan-Humanism in the Middle East challenging in exciting ways “core arguments” of “Stella Kadri’s Hope and Pragmatics, a book of heroic stature for how it butterfly effected the sociopolitics of the modern world.” For Amir, Pan-Humanism means, among other things, no more “identities constructed in opposition.” In general, power is decentralized “in the direction of local communities” and protecting animals and plants is an ideal. Cities are still important, nations not so much. 

What pleasures and possibilities might emerge in such a world? What responses to climate change might the future hold other than dystopian ones? Barber and Saab keep an eye on these questions, knitting them together in a novella that spans decades of Amir’s and Mani’s lifetimes as they work together and separately on collective projects aimed at making life better for people. I love how the two imagine small pleasures even in a water-starved future, such as how “the sparse rivulets of soapy water” are “an easy bliss to meditate on,” how “they catch and collect on little hairs” in the misting rooms, and how the post-animal food menu includes “synth protein shawarmas” and “bean protein filet in minted yogurt sauce.”  But the novella also asks deeper questions about what the world needs in order to realize a better future, making not only pan-humanist philosophy but also schooling and education, material support for scientific projects aimed at the collective good rather than individual profit and resource extraction, and queer affiliations central to the realization of a future better world that swerves away from dystopian apocalypse. 

One of the structures that supports queer world-making in Barber’s and Saab’s world is a system in which young people are able to get schooling that nourishes their particular talents when they come of age. Although they don’t explain how it works and there are no parents in sight, we see this system in place when Amir and Mani receive their university assignments from an unnamed source. There is no question of whether or not they will go to university, only a question of where. University assignments are sent out to each young person, with personal growth and civic engagement activity helping to determine which of the student’s choices is accepted. Education is apparently free, since there is no discussion of having to pay for it. Amir is placed within “Beirut and Environs Futurist College, Utopian Philosophy Stream” and later switches into Urban Design, while Mani is assigned to the prestigious and exclusive “Intl University for Humanism, Mogadishu, Global Progress.” Since Mogadishu is not on a “clean air travel vector with Beirut yet,” the friends part knowing they are unlikely to meet again soon and taking solace in their plans to change the world. 

But Amir soon encounters other young people involved in world-making, such as Rafa, “who is working on a poetry micro-city,” and Ester, “a third generation Beiruti whose grandmother led the rights movement for domestic workers at the turn of the century. They “all fall for each other almost simultaneously” and Amir is fortunate to have partners who know what it means to him and whose “faces soften” when he gets good news about Crowdgrow, his project to use eco-boosted flowers to synthesize air pollutants. Later, after Ester breaks up with the two men, Amir introduces Rafa to Mani as his boyfriend when they all unexpectedly converge at the Futures Good conference in Hanoi on water reclamation technologies. Mani is now “a cute, ambiguously gendered human with multi-colored hair and a dapper three-piece suit,” who works on making water wings to create “clean water from the air” through “vapor transfer into the condensation bays at the base.” Recalling Kim Stanley Robinson’s Green Earth trilogy in which academic conferences are exciting and even sexy, the three connect emotionally, intellectually, and erotically before parting again to pursue their various projects. 

Their world-making projects and queer affiliations are plot drivers in the novelette, which doesn’t resolve in a happy ending like a traditional story arc. Although the ending freezes on a moment of time when it is raining and Amir and Mani are together, most of the time they are physically separated, absorbed in meaningful work, and always erotically and intellectually connected to others. One of Amir’s most significant relationships is with Joud, who “loves expansively, navigating a multitude of relationships” with “grace” and “wholeheartedness.”  Joud eventually leaves to move into a mountain house with three partners and five children, a family that he invites Amir to join. We learn less about Mani’s relationships because we never see things from her point of view, but during “eighteen glorious months both in Beirut,” she and Amir follow a “routine of dinners at Mani’s girlfriend’s loft apartment, and star-gazing every third weekend during Beirut’s Dark Skies nights.” 

Although it is unclear where the money is coming from, another requirement for creating better worlds, along with readily available education and more capacious definitions of sexuality and family, is the presence of funding entities that do not prioritize private accumulation but rather civic good. Both Amir and Mani succeed in getting funding for their projects. Amir does so through the Nantes Center for Naturalist Studies, which has received “an extremely generous grant from France Centrale”—one of a few times the language of nation is used, though the name suggests a new political entity rather than the traditional nation-state, and elsewhere funding is said to come from cities. As a result of Amir’s project, “Nantes becomes a garden city” and the skies are full of birds again. Mani is part of a university team that gets funding through a proposal in a “Wet City” competition. The project works beautifully and Mani takes a newly created position as Beirut’s Minister of Enrichment, overseeing almost everything that impacts quality of life, including “the national poetry curriculum.” 

The novelette is not a techno-utopia, however, and geo-engineering is not offered as a panacea for the damage done by an extractive economy devoted to enriching private individuals and patriarchal families. Instead, “sociopolitical” transformations and new material and ethical investments in schooling, science, and civic life, combined with queer world-making, crucially enable possibilities that diverge from eco-apocalypse narratives. That is, the story of the success of Amir’s and Mani’s world-making projects is inseparable not only from political and economic shifts but also from a queer revolution in social life, a foundation for the better worlds imagined in queer solarpunk. 

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

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.

Photo credit: Melinda Lee

The Industrial Workers of the World's Sabby-Tabby: Icon of Direct Action