By Dylan McGarry

Science fiction has always been an outlet for our greatest anxieties, and in many ways prepares us subconsciously for the unknown. Recently I came across the brilliant podcast by ON THE MEDIA , entitled “Apocalypse, Now” (Listen to it here). In this podcast award winning journalist Brooke Gladstone explores how the genre of science fiction (or ‘cli fi’, as some call it) is exploring the reality of climate change, and interviews four authors who used their narrative gifts as a powerful medium of protest and counter-hegemonic transgression.


Discovering this podcast only days after speaking with Lena Weber about the power of science fiction in our work felt like an uncanny coincidence, more so in her recent reflection of participating in our t-learning Swedish summer school. In her reflection she uses science fiction to situate her experiences of t-learning and ACKNOWL-EJ, and the common methodological approaches we employ that open the space for creative imaginaries to help us theorize and prepare for new transformative possibilities.


Science Fiction is not just on our radar, but seeping into the peripheral vision of other ‘rock-star’ transgressive academic researchers, particularly Donna Haraway (2016) who tries her hand at fictional science in the last chapter of her new book “Staying with the Trouble”. She proposes the conceptual instrument or signifier of “SF” to carry the meaning of Science Fiction, Speculative Fabulation, Science Fact, Speculative Feminism, Soin de Ficelle, String Figures and So Far…). She is not alone, recently the Uneven Earth[1] project announced a call for submissions for a special edition for science fiction and utopian imaginaries in the era of climate change. With loose guidelines they are inviting contributions from researchers and writers of fiction alike to explore areas of climate, social and environmental justice; feminist and queer theory; critical race studies de-colonialism, anti-capitalist politics (socialist, anarchist, etc.) and post-capitalist ecologies.


Employing SF in our transgressive, transformative and transdiscplinary learning (t-learning) practice and research and across the Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) Knowledge Action Networks (TKN)[2] is something our researchers are exploring in the scenario building methodology that different researchers across the networks are using in different ways. As I move and work between these networks there has been consensus for a new language for our times.


In June this year (2017) the gathering of Environmental and Social Justice activists at the ACKNOWL-EJ[3] meeting in Beirut,where I met Lena who helps coordinate ACKNOWL-EJ, there was an general expression of the urgent need to open up the language to speak to the nuances, ambiguities and cracks in the social-ecological-political-economic connective tissues they are massaging (and sometimes surgically operating on) in the Arab region. A similar need was expressed a few weeks later in Barcelona with an informal gathering of Colombian and South African scholar activists from the t-learning and Indian, Spanish, Canadian and Turkish collaborators from the ACKNOWL-EJ network. In addition to this Heila Lotz-Sisitka (the team leader and coordinator of the t-learning network) introduced the concept of indicative descriptions and the use of story-telling in describing more than just indicators of transgressive, transformative and trans-disciplinary learning. She quoted Nigerian author Ben Okri, who describes storytelling as a doubled headed axe, that which points forward and slices through the world, also points back and challenges the story teller. It is this reflexive alchemical transformation of the world that we tell stories and learn about, and the way these transform us. This is at the heart of the T2S networks.


Employing a narrative descriptive approach has in the past transformed very conservative and positivist fields of study, none more so poignantly than in neuroscience. In the 1970s Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book “Awakenings” shifted the medical field of neuroscience profoundly, through thickly described, complexly rendered descriptions of the symptoms of different neurological conditions. The New York Times refers to Dr. Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine.” Before Dr. Sacks’s ‘indicative descriptions’, neurological illnesses were diagnosed with mostly hard science, dominated by quantitative measurements, which hardly captured the real world realities and experiences of Parkinson’s patients for example. His phenomenological approach, that expanded language and used immersive story telling opened up the field of neuroscience and transformed and transgressed the normative research standards inherent in the orthodoxies of medicine.


SF as resistance, Apathy or radical hope? You choose…


David Orr[4] asks us to transform our understanding of Hope, to not be a passive waiting for some desired future, but rather to see “hope as a verb, with it’s shirt sleeves rolled up”, and while SF can be employed to inspire hope in times of great despair there is a definite conflict inherent in the Science Fiction genre in the 21st Century. Brooke lifts this tension by quoting New Yorkers Jill Lapore[5] who recently wrote about the “radical pessimism” of contemporary dystopian fiction:


“Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and info-wars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own”


This is the challenge we need to take on as transformative and transgressive storytellers, that is to not fall into the “Pornography of despair” trope, described by Sci-Fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. He raises this concern in the podcast and asks us to avoid the complacent ‘giving up’ quality that is inherent in most contemporary dystopias:


“…with Utopian futures you realize there is never going to be a perfect future, all we really mean is a positive course for history, and writing those down gives us ideas and plans, history is going so fast, technology is moving so fast, that we are living in science fiction story that we are all writing together.”


Yet some authors feel that to not speak of the reality of the pain and loss, would be insincere. In an interview with Claire Vaye Watkins author of the novel “Gold Fame Citrus”, a dark dystopian story of a rapid desertification of the world, where deserts move with the fluidity and rapidity of oceans. She imagines tidal shifts of sand that can swallow cities in an afternoon and the slow desiccation of human culture and resolve. Vaye sees contemporary environmental themed dystopian Sci-Fi as making “…something abstract (like climate change) deeply felt, and immediate?”


Even so, there does seem to be a consensus among most of the SF storytellers that radical hope is desperately needed, including Vaye, who admits to respecting and admiring hopeful utopian writers like Stanley Robinson. Author Allerga Hyde confesses to Brooke in the podcast:


“Facing the future means facing darkness, but it also means dreaming, giving weight and respect to the imagination, it means writing our way towards hope.”


I think this could be the mantra for the T2S networks. Personally I have not yet met a contributor to the networks who has not expressed something similar to the radical hope of Hyde, as environmental SF author Jeff VanderMeer explains: “we are living in a science fiction story we are all writing together.”


Transgressive glossary for a changing planet


In this spirit of writing this SF together, and inspired by Robert MacFarlene’s[6] upcoming book exploring a lexicon for the future of climate change and environmental destruction; Brooke invites her listeners to create new words to describe the indescribable realities of climate change and the wicked problems woven into the phenomena associated with it.


Here are some examples from this exciting generative exercise:


Ecolegiac: Deriving from the word Ecology and elegiac, the adjective for elegy, a lement for the dead. As a naturalist I wax ecolegiac when I watch the beauty of migrating birds and feel I may be seeing these birds for the last time.

Daniel Large (San Antonio Texas)


Wintersmell: In the future we will have a word for all the smells of winter that we are losing.



Beachnesia: the phenomenon of not being able to remember what the beach was like at your childhood vacation spot, because it has been eroded all the way back to interstate.

Rus Gonzales (Indiana)


SPF’d: This is when there are so many UV rays that it is impossible to put on enough SPF to keep from burning in the Sun.

Rus Gonzales (Indiana)


Submergia: This used to be suburbia but now due to rising tides is underwater, so one might say: “I live on a houseboat out on submergia”



Hibernapping: I imagine a world in which winters are not long enough for polar bears to hibernate properly, instead they have to hibernap.

Humanica Beyu


Cliddite: For climate climate change luddite…#

Probin Pudat (Wisconsin)


Inspired by the flourishing of language and boundary crossing emergent in the SF employed by her listeners and the authors Brooke interviews, I have begun to compile my own contributions. The podcast reveals the generative expansion of our language that is needed to help describe this era of change we find ourselves in – this echoes strongly the consensus of transgressive researchers in the T2S networks. So consider this an open invitation to our T2S network to try out the same exercise and develop a new glossary of transformations to sustainability (please add your new words into the feedback section to this article).


In Brooke’s interview with Macfarlene (incidentally Marcfarlene’s work is being used by our t-learning collaborator Taryn Pereira in her work around Water Security and Climate Change in South Africa); Brooke explains, as the future becomes more unfamiliar, we may need new words to write about it, and understand it. Together they discuss the extraordinary glossary of old words that have become extinct in our contemporary lexicon, and that Macfarlene has catalogued in his book:

“ …on the one hand it is the opening of the eyes to things that are around us that we might not have seen with a name in our mouths or in our hearts… an example of that might be this gorgeous word from Sussex called Smuse, it probably has not been used much since the 19th Century, but it is being used more now; this means the whole in the base of a hedge left by the repeated passage of a small animal… as soon as you know this word, you start to see them everywhere… I have had so many people write and say: ‘D’you know once I knew that word, I started seeing them everywhere’… They were seeing evidence of a kind of creaturely cohabitation in the landscape that previously had gone un-regarded… these words capture a landscape and biodiversity that has gone, that is extinct”


Here we see the real power of language, and transforming the language we use to describe the changing world we are implicated in transforming. Opening up language in turns opens up our psyches and our imaginations, and can be seen as an ‘optimal disruptor’ or a ‘disruptive pedagogy’, terms we are using to describe transgressive moments of absenting absent forces for t-learning through disrupting the norm. It is what I called creating “suitably strange” spaces in my doctoral research[7]. Generative expansion in language can also be seen as an expression of Bhaskar’s[8] ‘dialectical pulse of freedom’ and a connective aesthetic[9] ‘instrument of consciousness[10]’ we can employ to ‘reframe the narrative’ a process the t-learning scholar/practitioners are using to practice de-colonial counter-hegemonic t-learning.


This short transcription of the conversation between Brooke and Robert Macfarlene explains it all:


Brooke: “Naming something makes it more present in your life, and naming something is a way to remember something that may have passed?”


Robert: “Yes both of those things are true, but I think we shouldn’t always regard naming as a good thing. Nature doesn’t name itself, granite doesn’t have any grammar… sometimes when I stand on the top of a mountain I might say “Wow” or nothing at all.


Brooke: “But this is your endeavor Rob? It is naming things?




Robert: “No, No, No, we need room for silence too, because sometimes nature is too much for us, but I would say for the good kinds of naming, the kinds that throw into vision our forms involvement with the world that astonishes us, that pleases us, fills us, infiltrates our memories and fills our days and thoughts. A language that can do that, seems to me one we should relish.


Considering this last statement of Macfarlene, you can understand why he is calling for a new glossary, one for the Anthropocene, a perhaps darker endeavor to preserve the names of that which has gone, or leaving us forever, what he calls “Ghost species of our language”.


As Brooke continues, while we are remembering words we have lost, we are also bringing new words into being. Macfarlene gives the example of the new word “Plastiglomerate” –


“which is the name given by Patricia Corcoran a geologist and her colleagues for a new form of stone, that she discovered being made on the beaches of Hawaii, the plastic melts, and as it melts it gathers up sand, wood, and other organic bits of debris, then hardens again as it cools down… Corcoran found these ‘lava flows’ as a kind of substance that is part organic, part anthropogenic…”


A new word that I think we all feel, and one that might be useful for the scholar activists in ACKNOWL-EJ is the word: Solastalgia: Coined by Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, it is a variant of nostalgia: a form of psychic or existential stress caused by environmental change. What is specific about it is that the people who are experiencing this pain are not leaving these landscapes and looking back on somewhere they have moved away from, that of course would be nostalgia, but rather the landscape is leaving them. It is changing around them because of mining or because of temperature shifts. The landscape has become unrecognizable to them, it is as if they have moved, and so Albrecht proposed we need a new term for this feeling, and so he proposed Solastalgia.


The Bureau of Linguistic Reality, is a fascinating ally network to T2S in the transgressive and generative process of sculpting new language in the Anthropocene. They have put together a fascinating (or what MacFarlene calls) a “pretty ugly group of words” for climate change.  An example is word to describe a phenomenon that emerges as localized environmental change looms in our psyches and hearts:


Apex Guilt:  Living at the peak of humanity, where we are about to decline, so it is like survivors guilt. Living within climate change we are all criminals as well as victims, and that wasn’t the case with nuclear war which was arguably the apocalypse of our previous generations, an apocalypse you could outsource to the villains, the ones with the big red buttons under the flip cases. Climate change however doesn’t work like that, on some level we are all aware that we are responsible in part for this change, and there is a collective guilt we all carry.


Brooke asks Macfarlene a beautiful question: “Do you have an example of what words do you feel we still need for the Anthropocene?” Macfarlene shares a tragically poetic example. You hear in the podcast a beautiful recording of a Maori man mimicking the calls of an extinct New Zealand bird; a bird that has left no sonic trace (as it became extinct before recording devices were invented). What we do have is a digital recording of an analogue human mimicry of an oral tradition of mimicking bird calls. Here we have SF capturing something we have lost and we need a word for this.


Brooke ends the podcast by reminding Macfarlene of a speech he gave at a conference in Oslo about how our need to change how we interact with the environment in the Anthropocene seems to greatly exceed our capacity to change, and he uses the phrase “thick speech” to describe some of our limitations.


He explains that ‘thick speech’ is the stuttering our language and our tongues make when we try to talk about the Anthropocene:

“The way that we are generating not just this ugly vocabulary of climate change that sticks in the throat, but also all these terms we are generating for the Anthropocene itself… the Anthropocene is a hugely debated term… we are disputing even the basic name of our consequence for the earth and its future history. “


This sounds to me like a call to arms for the T2S network, a call to re-imagine our futures employing radical hope, and to lift out and surface a new transgressive language and way of telling stories for the era of climate change and wicked hot messes we have found ourselves in.




Figure 1: Artwork by Dylan McGarry entitled “Extractive dichotomies” he painted during his story-telling and theatre work with residents on the border of the Umfolozi Park in South Africa, responding to the anti coal mine struggles in the region


[1] Uneven Earth is a online network that collects, digests, and distributes crucial information on environmental and social justice conflicts around the world. It takes an explicitly political stance on today’s crises.

[2] The Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme is funded by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) which supports research to help advance transformations to more sustainable and equitable societies around the globe. By generating knowledge that produces a broader and deeper understanding of the conditions, processes, outcomes and impacts of transformative social change in the context of global environmental change, the programme is intended to: 1) Help craft more effective, durable and equitable solutions to the problems of environmental change and sustainability, in a context of social and cultural diversity; and 2) Promote the habitual use of the best knowledge about social transformations by researchers, educators, policy makers, practitioners, the private sector and citizens.

[3] ACKNOWL-EJ (Academic-Activist Co-Produced Knowledge for Environmental Justice) is a network of scholars and activists engaged in action and collaborative research, that aims to analyze the transformative potential of community responses to extractivism and alternatives born from resistance. We aim to co-produce knowledge that can empower communities to push for change and geared towards the needs of social groups, advocates, citizens and social movements.


[4] Orr, D. (2004). Earth Mind: On education, environment and the human prospect. First Island Press. USA (first published 1994).

[5] Lepore, J. (2017) A Age for Dystopian Fiction ] What to make of our new literature of radical pessimism. New Yorker magazine. June 5 & 12, 2017 Issue.


[6] Macfarlene is a transgressive eco-anthro-linguistics scholar, who is helping us remember what we have forgotten, and opening up our language to what we are experiencing today and will experience in the future. Check out his incredible book “Landmarks”. a book that explores what he calls the “literacy of the land: language both evocative and precise, to portray the earth even as it changes.”


[7] McGarry, D. (2013). Empathy in the time of ecological apartheid a social sculpture practice-led inquiry into developing pedagogies for ecological citizenship. Doctoral thesis for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy Department of Education, Rhodes University supervised by Prof. Heila Lotz-sisitka.

[8] Bhaskar, R. (2008). Dialectic: The pulse of freedom. Routledge.

[9] Gablik, S. (1992). Connective Aesthetics. American Art. 6(2), 2-7.

[10] This concept is attributable to Sacks (2007) in her work “University of the Trees” in which she developed it to explain the difference between aesthetics in social sculpture and conventional perceptions of art. Sacks, S. (2007c). Instruments of consciousness. University of the Trees. Retrieved October 25, 2012 from consciousness.html