Imagination in Life and Literature

We need imagination to understand the past and predict the future. What better medium is there than fiction, and more especially, Cli-Fi, to demonstrate this important truth? As the American climate writer Bill McKibben tells us in An Idea Can Go Extinct (2003), the concept of ‘normal’ keeps changing as temperatures rise, species go extinct and coastlines are eroded. In just one century, we have overpowered the natural self-regulating processes that have gradually evolved over millions of years. So, what is normal? How far can we, or are we prepared to look back? And if we can’t see what we’ve lost, how can we predict what we will face in the future?

We need plenty of imagination if we are to look into the future, and especially if we are to answer the question, ‘What else will we lose if we continue to exploit the Earth?’

Are we part of nature or are we separate? The sky, the clouds, the rugged mountains, beautiful lakes, the animals that inhabit the Earth: are they separate from us or part of us?

As Bill McKibben argues, the greenhouse effect ‘is a more apt name than those who coined it imagined. The carbon dioxide and trace green gases act like the panes of glass on a greenhouse . . . We have built a greenhouse, a human creation, where once there bloomed a sweet and wild garden’ (p. 70. Author’s emphasis). The front cover of the first novel in my trilogy shows my protagonist, Katja, looking over a lush green valley. The background, however, clearly demonstrates that something’s very wrong. Will the fire consume the valley? Katja is distanced from the events but she is nonetheless part of them. Will she stand by and watch her world being consumed, or will she try to change it?

Can she imagine what will happen to the trees and valleys she loves so much if the fire wins? Does she understand why there is a fire in the first place? How did the valley look one hundred years ago, five hundred years ago, millions of years ago? Perhaps Katja, as she faces the situation, is imagining what will happen if she doesn’t do anything, if she doesn’t care. She does not feel separate but she knows that she understands only a small part of what is going on. She also knows that it is her task to find out why this is happening, what the world looked like many centuries ago, what can be restored, what will be lost forever – and most important of all, what can be saved for future generations.

Throughout my trilogy, Katja and her friends undergo a learning process as they study both the environment and literary representations of it. Under the careful tutelage of her mentor, Professor Blackler, and along with her five student friends, Katja gradually learns what has already been lost, what is being lost, and what can be done to reverse the process that began over one hundred years ago. For Katja, ‘climate change’ becomes ‘global warming’. What’s the difference? Climate change suggests a natural process over a long period of time; ‘global warming’, on the other hand, is more recent and is triggered – indeed fuelled by human activity. ‘Katja’s World Game’ joins the material and perceptual worlds. Imagination allows us to see, think and dream about knowledge. As we follow Katja’s internal struggles, we imagine ourselves in the same situation. Would we be braver than she is? Or less brave?

Global warming is all about the future. To save it, we must first imagine it, by looking backwards and then by looking forwards. Katja on the front cover of the first novel is looking forwards, facing the truth. The more she does so, the stronger she is, and thus the more able she is to face the future. At the same time, she also wants to create the future – a future firmly based on an understanding of how nature works. She and her friends explore this issue as they create a video game in book two (‘Katja’s World Game: The Understory’), and initiate the building of sustainable villages that represent a new, Earth-friendly form of living. The villages, created in book three, ‘Katja’s World Game: The Overstory’, take advantage of the latest developments in Artificial Intelligence and regenerative agriculture.

If imagination is our ability to see what is not actually present or does not exist, it must be a necessary condition for fictional experience. Katja understands this so well: she tells her story with passion and belief, knowing, at the same time, that she cannot see the whole story yet. This is because she must create it, just as readers, by interacting with the text, must also create the story – their story. As citizens of the Earth, we must make the future so that we do not need to live in a greenhouse for the rest of our lives.

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