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Why the world needs more climate fiction

Credit: Premier of Alberta
Fort McMurray Wildfire Credit: Premier of Alberta, Flickr

Visitor numbers at Bletchley Park, the home of UK wartime code-breaking, have soared in recent years. From fewer than 50,000 in 2005, ticket sales grew to 196,000 by 2014. The next year they suddenly jumped per cent, with an extra 84,000 people visiting the park.

Why the sharp rise in visitors? Word about Bletchley had been building for years but there was a specific reason visitors suddenly flocked to the museum after 2014. What had changed was the release of the Oscar-winning film, The Imitation Game, which dramatized Alan Turing’s wartime experience at Bletchley. Visitors rushed to the park not because they had seen a documentary or read a book about it, but because they had been told a story.

The story the film tells is, of course, about how Turing and others cracked the Enigma code – but it’s not just about that. It’s also about how women and gay men struggled in the strictures of mid-Twentieth Century Britain and how the country mistreated a hero. Without those sides of the story, the film wouldn’t have had such wide appeal and the park probably wouldn’t have had so many visitors.

Stories about individuals are easy to dismiss as trivial but are essential for conveying bigger stories. Anne Frank’s diaries help us grasp the horror of the Holocaust; photographs of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, dead on a Turkish beach, drew global attention to the European refugee crisis in a way that 3,000 deaths in the Mediterranean the previous year had not.

The roots of climate apathy

When it comes to climate change you might think the world has no need for human-interest stories. The record-breaking heat of this summer came after a year in which the US suffered its costliest hurricane season on record, much of South Asia was under water and Cape Town got within weeks of switching off the taps.

But there is little sign that these changes in the world’s weather are causing a surge in public worries. Long-term studies suggest concern about climate change has drifted up and down over the last 20 years. As I show in my book, climate apathy is widespread and resilient: most people understand climate change is real but don’t spend much time thinking about the subject.

A lack of science communication isn’t the problem. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2001 report, scientific confidence that humans are the cause of recent warming has gone from 66% to more than 95%. The latest report – at nearly 5,000 pages, the definitive statement of knowledge about the subject – had plenty of media coverage yet little measurable impact on public opinion.

Psychologists wouldn’t be surprised by this. To the human mind, climate change is distant, complex and slow-moving – a bad combination according to Harvard social psychologist Daniel Gilbert, who described the brain as a “get out of the way machine”. It has evolved to deal with problems that are proximate, clear and rapidly changing and it prioritizes these over distant threats like climate change. However quickly the planet is changing in geological terms, it’s still slow in human terms.

Perhaps this reflects the limits, in terms of persuasion, of the factual description of climate science. To persuade more people that the world needs to urgently cut emissions means making climate science personal and that requires storytelling. This is why a new genre, climate fiction – cli-fi for short – has so much potential.

Climate fiction

Most people’s experience of cli-fi is limited to one or two blockbusters. The 2004 disaster film The Day After Tomorrow is the best known: it may be the only work of cli-fi that editors assume audiences know. Other prominent ones include the post-apocalyptic book and film The Road – which doesn’t actually mention climate change though is often categorised as cli-fi.

But the famous works of cli-fi are perhaps the least important. They’re dramatic because they show a world that has been utterly transformed. But the world they show is so unrelatably different from everyday life that viewers might as well worry about a zombie apocalypse as about climate change. They’re unlikely to persuade many people that climate change is a threat they need to act to prevent.

Instead of this extreme transformation, cli-fi is most persuasive when it doesn’t try to do so much. Paradoxically, it’s the works that tell the smallest stories that may be the most important: those that focus on one change and explore what it means for the people living through it.

Among the most interesting, The End We Start From, by Megan Hunter, is narrow and simple. A woman gives birth, her home floods and she has to flee with her partner and baby. We hear no more about the rest of the country – let alone the rest of the world – than the woman does and the short book is dominated by the day-to-day of life with a growing baby as she seeks refuge. In its simplicity it conveys, more powerfully than any scientific report, what it would feel like to live through a climate change-induced flood.

Others don’t narrow their scope so much but still convey the emotion of global warming. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora isn’t obviously cli-fi – it’s mostly set on a generation starship – but gives a compelling description of a particular loss that could come from climate change when a character sets herself to remaking beaches that have been swallowed by rising oceans. The reader could easily have been alienated with descriptions of a future Earth but beaches are familiar. As a translation of the dull term “sea-level rise”, a woman’s experience of restoring sandy beaches conveys their loss in a way that makes it painfully imaginable.

If any descriptions of climate change could trigger Gilbert’s get out of the way machine, it’s ones like these. The power of the most persuasive cli-fi is its relatability. Homes flooding and beaches drowning, experienced through the eyes of a character we’re behind, are easier to imagine and care about than any scientific report or desperate struggles after a world-shattering apocalypse.

Cli-fi is still little known – it’s still largely limited to books (no big-budget Netflix show yet) and most of those are published with little attention. For now the climate change story is mostly told through dry reports, whose facts may be terrifying but whose story is barely heard.

But there is one sign that things might be changing. A production company, SunnyMarch, last year acquired the rights to turn The End We Start From into a film. The name behind that production company is someone who knows about telling personal stories: Benedict Cumberbatch, star of The Imitation Game.

Leo Barasi is author of The Climate Majority: Apathy and Action in an Age of Nationalism (New Internationalist)

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From rebel to truth-teller

The rebelliousness and street smarts I developed early on in my life became a fundamental part of me. I honed my distrust and questioning of all authority into critical thinking skills later on while at Sarah Lawrence College, my alma mater. My travels across the United States throughout the heartland, rust belt, deep south, midwest and coast to coast had deepened my understanding of the vast diversity coexisting in my country, as well as the ingrained racism, misogyny, social decay, despair and egocentrism.

The summer after I was 18, I volunteered at MADRE, a Latino legal clinic in Washington DC that was aiding Central Americans to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and political asylum in the US. TPS had been extended to citizens from El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua due to the role the US government had played in the wars in those nations during the 1970s and 1980s. Tens of thousands of people had been killed and hundreds of thousands displaced, in addition to all those tortured, raped and persecuted by their US-supported regimes. TPS was a way for Washington to redeem itself by mitigating the collateral damage of its foreign policy. After arming and supporting murderous rightwing mercenary armies that violently suppressed and destroyed any leftist, socialist or communist influence south of the US border, Washington decided it could wash its hands by providing refuge to the thousands of terrified and traumatized families forced to flee their homelands.

While filling out their asylum and TPS applications, I learned the horror of their stories, the indiscriminate torment suffered by women, children and men who were beaten, tortured and robbed of their safety and stability. It was humbling to witness the fear that had driven them to leave everything they knew behind and head northward on a treacherous and dangerous journey, risking their lives to escape warfare, landing in a nation not their own, immersed in a different language and unfamiliar cultural norms. One after the other, the stories of hardship, terror and suffering filled the pages of immigration paperwork. I did my best to write down their experiences as vividly as if they had been my own.

Comprehending that my own country had caused their turmoil and pain was disconcerting, but it only further affirmed my inherent distrust of authority and my suspicions about the real intentions behind the CIA and its covert activity. I had seen injustice up close, both inside and outside of the United States, and the burning anger and passion within me began to transform into a determination to fight the system.

All the same, I little imagined that, around 20 years later, I would become a close confidante of one of the world’s most controversial presidents, who professed to be leading a real revolution. Spending almost a decade in the inner circle of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela gave me a privileged, insider view of the real world of power and politics, for good and for bad. I saw the struggles of an unconventional, nonconformist president who genuinely desired to change the system. I witnessed how he came up against the impenetrable obstacles of bureaucracy and corruption, and ultimately was overcome.

The rise and fall of his movement, which has deteriorated dramatically since his untimely death in March 2013 from an aggressive cancer, holds undeniable and essential lessons for any and all movements that seek to change the establishment and transform a traditional, power-locked political system. The trend of unexpected electoral results breaking with established elite structures has appeared to reach even the United States, with the election of Donald Trump.

Eva Golinger is author of Confidante of Tyrants (New Internationalist)

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Where is African literature at today?

2013-06-25 ngugi.jpg

Ngugi wa Thiongo’s work spans nearly 50 years

When Chinua Achebe, often referred to as ‘the father of African literature’, died earlier this year it seemed a good, if sad, opportunity to reflect on where the continent’s literature is today. Whilst it is difficult, or perhaps even meaningless, to compare authors from radically different eras, in terms of output if nothing else, writers of African origin are more prominent than ever before.

The Royal African Society’s annual festival of African writing, Africa Writes, will be held at the British Library from 5 to 7 July 2013. The event recognizes and celebrates the great variety of African writing and is being run in partnership with organizations including the Caine Prize, Kwani Literary Trust, Yardstick Festival and the Centre of African Studies.

If there is anyone who could be said to have taken over the mantle of continental man of letters from Achebe then it is probably Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiongo. A novelist and long-time political dissident, Ngugi’s work spans nearly 50 years including plays, novels, his prison diaries and influential critical essays. Whilst Ngugi fills the role of literary alpha male at Africa Writes, it is perhaps the younger generation that most clearly characterize where African literature is today.

Whilst Ngugi and Achebe’s literary preoccupations could broadly be described as being the varied corruptions of the postcolonial state, writers such as the British-Kenyan-Somali trio of Diriye Osman, Warsan Shire and Nadifa Mohamend, all appearing at Africa Writes, seem more concerned with their own sense of identity, and those of their literary and poetic creations as 21st century Africans.

Osman’s recently published collection of short stories, Fairytales for Lost Children, explores the lives of young gay and lesbian Somalis living in Kenya, Somalia and South London. His work exhibits a startlingly original voice that will surely challenge many within the Somali community, not noted for its openness about sexual identity, whilst surprising readers most familiar with the East African country for reports on Islamic militants and piracy.

Warsan Shire, the inaugural winner of Britain’s African Poetry Prize, writes poems characterized by themes of displacement and references to a ‘home’ that she has never lived in and the bodies and minds of people damaged in a war she has never experienced. This is not to suggest inauthenticity in Shire’s work, but rather to underline the fundamental role complex issues of identity plays in her art.

Completing the trio is Oxford-educated Nadifa Mohamed, who made her name with her first book Black Mamba Boy – the extraordinary story of her father’s life from Somaliland to street boy in colonial Aden and to London. Nadifa left Somaliland in 1986, but her ties to the country, as with Shire, remain intimate and her task, as she sees it, is to ‘memorialize the lives of people like my father.’

Africa Writes 2013 may be a demonstration that ‘African writing’ has become bigger and more obviously at ease with itself, moving out of the shadow of its Big Men. During the festival, writers, critics, publishers and commentators will interrogate many of the big questions surrounding African writing.

The showcased authors do not seem overly concerned with writing the next ‘great African novel’, a tag that seems to remain thankfully unused with reference to the continent’s literature. They do, however, do something more subtly novelistic – presenting small lives from which the reader may make inferences about the societies from which they originate. First and foremost these are stories and poems are about people, they just happen to be from the African continent.

You may wonder why we do not abandon the term ‘African writing’ at all, given the vast geographical space and countries incorporated within the description. A valid question, to be sure, but as with all genres and origins, African writing has developed its own history, echoing the increasing political integration of the continent.

Find out more information about the festival, including the full programme at the Africa Writes website.

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Slow Fashion Book Launch


From left: Lucy Siegle, Dan Raymond-Barker (New Internationalist), Mike Gidney, Lord Peter Melchett, John Hilary, Orsola De Castro, Caryn Franklin, Romy Fraser, Safia Minney (centre) and Jean Lambert ©

Wednesday, 23 March, London – 80 guests gathered at The Duke of Cambridge pub in Islington to launch ‘Slow Fashion – Aesthetics Meets Ethics’ by Safia Minney MBE, pioneer and founder of ethical fashion brand People Tree. Released by New Internationalist on the same day, Slow Fashion is an ‘illuminating and highly visual new book’, ‘an ethical fashion bible’ giving an in-depth insight into the designers, labels and eco-concept stores around the world that are taking the lead in sustainable fashion.

The evening launch gathered journalists, fashion bloggers, contributors and ethical fashion and Fairtrade campaigners who heard from Safia Minney; Caryn Franklin; Lucy Siegle, journalist and social justice advocate; Mike Gidney, CEO of Fairtrade Foundation; John Hilary, Director of War on Want; Jean Lambert, MEP for the Green Party; and Orsola De Castro, Co-Founder of Fashion Revolution, and others.

Slow Fashion reflects Safia’s expertise, intimate and intuitive knowledge of Fair Trade supply chains and her 25-year history of campaigning for ethical business. Slow Fashion brings you the future of the fashion industry,’ opened Lucy Siegle (who MC’d the event). ‘Safia, you always have an answer. You are an unstoppable force. I hope we can all pay [you] back by getting this book out there.’

Mike Gidney, who was next to speak, professed that ‘Safia brings a radical compassion and a humanitarian approach to everything she does. She has a remarkably clear eye and focus on turning a mission into ethical business with such dedication. Slow Fashion, her new book, is partly manifesto and partly “how to” – it’s a must-read for all!’

‘Safia knows the people at the beginning of the [supply] chain. We don’t usually know where these products come from – we don’t know the stories. But Safia unravels what’s behind each of those products we buy on a whim.’ – Romy Fraser, Founder of Neal’s Yard Remedies and Trill Farm

New Internationalist’s new eco-fashion book (which follows on from Naked Fashion, 2011) explores the rebirth of the slow fashion movement following the 2013 Rana Plaza factory tragedy in Bangladesh and the 2015 documentary The True Cost, and highlights further issues regarding slavery and fashion. Minney also celebrates the 25th anniversary of People Tree, which she first founded in Japan.

‘We’ve spent the past four years developing the European market for People Tree and I’ve been blown away with the fashion and media people involved in promoting fair treatment, whether it’s organic, vintage, upcycled, ethical produce, bicycle-repair shops or organic cafés,’ said Safia at the end of the launch. ‘I really hope to create livelihoods and support people to help themselves… and for [Slow Fashion] to inspire people to start new stores and to continue to campaign for fairer fashion.’

Slow Fashion contains a wealth of contributions from fashion insiders around the world. Mother and daughter Jo and Leah Wood swap styling tips and confidence tricks; Caryn Franklin looks at why women make the choices they do when buying clothes; and Summer Rayne Oakes reveals her passion for sustainable design. The book’s visual concept, with interactive QR codes, transports the reader from Bangladesh (where Zandra Rhodes meets local hand weavers) to ethical boutiques in Amsterdam and Japan. It is a woven compilation of engaging essays by experts such as Caryn Franklin; model, activist and social entrepreneur Lily Cole; Livia Firth; and designers Bora Aksu and Peter Jensen, as well as the evening’s speakers.

After War on Want’s John Hilary – who ‘really recommends reading Slow Fashion’ – heralded Safia as ‘holding a mirror to unfair trade’ and being ‘fearless in shining the spotlight on what is unacceptable business practice in the fashion industry’, Peter Melchett of the Soil Association highlighted that ‘it takes horrendous tragedies to get people to pay attention to what happens to the people supplying our clothes.’ Caryn Franklin then joined Safia on stage for a Q&A about Safia’s career, the fashion industry and Slow Fashion.

Watch a video of the book launch here:

You can read Caryn and Safia’s Q&A here.

Slow Fashion is available in paperback or hardback from New Internationalist.

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New Internationalist launches Counterpower in London

Watch a video of the London Counterpower launch here:

Last Sunday evening some of the UK’s most influential political activists came together at the down town Metal Works club in Islington to celebrate the launch of Tim Gee’s new book Counterpower.

‘We need to move on from protest,’ Tim Gee told the gathering. ‘It’s a good start, but we need to transform it into resistance...that’s what makes change happen.’

As the night drew on, a mix of activists shared memorable anecdotes of resistance, some funny, some inspiring. Lawyer Polly Higgins told the moving story of Sophie Scholl, the German student whose brave – and fatal – opposition to Nazism highlights the importance and bravery of those who speak out against wrongdoing.

Later, the audience was captivated by Peter Tatchell as he recalled posing as a News of the World journalist before attempting a citizen’s arrest of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. A witty tale of tanks, police and arms dealers shared by the Space Hijackers, amused the audience, and showed how resistance can be both creative and challenging.

Counterpower is about a single idea, which can explain why social movements succeed or fail. The book looks back at how counterpower has historically won campaigns, secured human rights, stopped wars and even brought down governments. This book could not be more timely with the ‘Occupy’ movements rapidly spreading across the world, showing that resistance is very much part of the present.

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Standing up against un-ethical fashion



I’m Alana, I’m 21-years-old, and I’m a part of The Fashion Revolution.

Living in a Western country, it's easy to forget about the disasters, the violence, and the abuse continually happening all over the planet. And what’s even more uncomfortable, is the realization that we are all, consciously or not, supporting the system which continually contributes to the violation of human rights.

This is exactly what has been happening in the fashion industry, and it's been happening for a long time now. But how do we know what to do about it? Finally, with campaigns like The Fashion Revolution, as a young generation we now have the power to change this industry for the better.

It all started with the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh on the 24 April 2013. On that day 1,134 workers were killed and 2,500 injured – an absolutely devastating toll – quickly forgotten by many. But on that day, the fashion revolution was born and it came forward to change the industry, protect workers' rights and livelihoods, and to make fashion a force for good.

Fashion affects all of our lives and modern technology means that it’s far easier to buy than ever before. With the click of a button we can have clothing arrive at our doorstep within 24 hours and although this makes life more convenient for the majority, it is symbolic of the large separation that now exists between those who produce fashion and those who purchase it. It has well and truly become a global industry which entails the employment of workers in many different countries side-by-side with human rights abuses, all for just a single garment that we 'have' to wear to 'that' party.

Yet despite all of the dark things happening in the industry, the part we are exposed to is the more glamorous side. The fashion shows and the magazines tell us exactly what we need to buy every single season, a never-ending amount of clothes to purchase to keep up with the latest trends – constantly being shoved down our throats. It's hard to avoid this pressure when it surrounds us constantly – constant marketing tempting us to make the latest purchase. But as a young generation, we have to get real and see that the truth is: all of this is being paid for, not only by us as individuals, but also with our planet’s natural resources and human lives.

cover for the slave to fashion book by safia miney
Slave to Fashion by Safia Minney. Buy the book. New Internationalist

And just so we're aware: it's not only adults dying for the clothes we wear but children are gravely affected, too. There is a sad realization that we have a staggering double standard here in the UK in that we find child labour to be absolutely unacceptable in this country and yet we buy fashion produced by children from other countries. Our generation, this generation, has the responsibility to protect the next generation of youth in the world and through taking part in the fashion revolution, we can do this. Before, big corporations had no incentive to make changes to dire working practices, but we must demand that they do and this is where our power and responsibility lies as fashion revolutionists.

We must make our voices heard – loud and clear – regarding what we think and know is acceptable business practice and what is not. Our generation has the power to demand this and this power lies not only with our voices but with our purchasing decisions, too. In times when it can be frustrating not knowing what to do about the fashion wrongs, it becomes more evident that as the fashion revolution grows bigger, the answers get clearer. The voices get louder and the actions happen faster.

By only buying ethical fashion or second-hand clothing, we turn our back on fashion that has blood on its hands. When and if un-ethical clothing chains and corporations realize how big of a deal this is to us, the younger generation, they will one day have no choice but to make the changes that we want, because we are the ones who hold the purchasing power. We, as the younger generation, are the targets of their marketing ploys, and if we are buying sensibly or refusing to buy into the unethical fashion at all, then they can't possibly win this battle.'



Editor's note: Many of the topics Alana addresses regarding the fashion industry are covered extensively in Safia Minney's books, Slave to Fashion and Slow Fashion: Aesthetics Meets Ethics, published by New Internationalist. As the discussion around The Fashion Revolution continues, we will be posting more blogs from young voices like Alana about what the future holds for the garment industry.

Alana Watson is a 21-year-old studying Politics at the University of Edinburgh. Originally from the US, she's now living in the UK and has 'a very British accent'. She loves art, creativity, fashion, politics (of course), and new ideas.


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Haifa Fragments explores complex Palestinian-Israeli life

Haifa Fragments is a novel published by New Internationalist. In this video co-editor Chris Brazier explains how the book navigates difficult and intriguing terrain.

Haifa Fragments is a new novel by Khulud Khamis, published by New Internationalist, that explores the life of a Palestinian citizen of Israel who refuses to be crushed by the feeling that she is an unwelcome guest in the land of her ancestors. Buy Haifa Fragments.

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