Young people imagine a dystopian future due to climate change
Rogue tidal waves. Killer heat waves. Prolonged drought. Unbreathable air. This is what young people imagine when writing climate sci-fi.
There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the future, especially for young people who should anticipate facing more climate-related challenges than their parents did.
But it’s important to pay attention to the stories members of the young generation tell about the future before we try to talk about possible ways of dealing with climate change in the present.
In the project 'Addressing Climate Anxiety Using Flash Fiction in the Classroom', we are exploring how ideas about the future affect us.
Projects have started in 2023, and to begin with, my colleagues and I have been exploring how young people imagine society will be affected by climate change.
150 stories from Danish high school students
Imagine a person living in the year 2063. Forty years in the future might not seem like a long time, but we can expect that the climate crisis will extend from now until then.
When you think about this person in the future, how much of their life will be affected by climate change? And do you imagine that society will have made significant progress to combat it?
Last year, myself and fellow researchers from the University of Southern Denmark, in collaboration with volunteer teachers, asked high school students questions like these and tasked them with responding in the form a short story.
The resulting stories, over 150 in total, presented a wide variety of scenarios, but widely agreed on one thing: the future is a dangerous place.
Our results are brand new, and so far, only presented at a conference. A scientific article is forthcoming.
Worst-case scenarios take center stage
Rogue tidal waves. Killer heat waves. Prolonged drought. Unbreathable air.
These examples might seem like the absolute worst-case scenarios when we think about climate change, but they are at the center in nearly all the stories the young authors wrote.
In many cases, these disasters disrupt families, kill loved ones, and create violent societies.
In short, the stories tend to imagine dystopia, an undesirable future world characterized by widespread suffering.
»…the year now read 2062, and the city was under water«
For example, one story begins:
»Alfred had lived all of his five years in this city, his entire life he had lived here. He knew everyone and everyone knew him. The city was like any other city, with its houses, streets, supermarkets, gardens and all the things that come with a city,« the young author writes.
»The only difference was that the year now read 2062, and the city was under water. And the reason Alfred knew everyone was because he had never been outside the giant dome that was their life.«
In many of the stories, the rising sea level forces people to live in underwater domes (as in the story above), on the sea in boats, or on spaceships that flee the planet.
These scenarios are certainly not the most likely to happen within forty years.
But the fact that they appear so frequently in these stories suggests they are much easier to imagine than, say, stories where only incremental changes occur or, more importantly, stories with a positive outcome.
Survival is related to separation from nature
In several stories, the technology created to protect humanity from an inhospitable environment imposes an unhappy separation between people and nature.
The sense of isolation this separation creates is at the center of another story:
» He loved walking around the neighborhood looking at beautiful buildings, the architecture, the technology, the functionality of everything, and the beautiful creations of happiness […] He wished to touch it all. Touch the happiness - all the greenery.«
»But every time he tried; it was as if it all became a ghost. As if the trees weren’t really there, neither the bushes nor the flowers. Like only the spirit of them, all were left lingering here on earth.«
Climate anxiety lies between the lines
The dystopian imagination on display here might not come as a surprise.
The students’ stories also affirm studies showing the negative emotions young people associate with the future due to climate change.
According to one survey, two-thirds of people between the ages of 16-25 respond that they feel sad, scared, and anxious when thinking about the future.
These findings point to the emotional toll faced by young people, who have every reason to believe that the climate crisis will only expand within their lifetimes.
These widespread negative feelings are often described as ‘climate anxiety,’ and are only now beginning to be studied. While the stories do not talk about climate anxiety explicitly, they often stress the sense of despair and isolation that their characters feel.
The internalized dystopic story
What should come as some surprise is the ease and fluency with which these young people, who generally have no experience writing fiction, can imagine dystopia to the exclusion of other types of stories.
This fluency suggests that young people are not only immersed in media with apocalyptic or dystopian overtones, but that they have internalized it in profound ways; it is a language they have learned to speak exceptionally well, even if they don’t realize it.
And just like as language we speak shapes the way we express ourselves, the stories we tell about the future shape the way we see the world around us as well as the world to come.
In fact, young people might find themselves stuck in a feedback loop with respect to media they see about climate change:
They read negative stories and watch dystopian films, which means they become trained unconsciously in retelling negative, dystopian stories.
This is an observation that we have begun to establish based on our data. Other researchers are discussing the same issue (in relation to, for example, the immense popularity of dystopian fiction among young readers), but we have yet to empirically substantiate it.
Hope does not make a compelling story
Another, more concerning, result of this dystopian fluency has to do with how young people interpret information about climate change.
If they inhabit a dystopian worldview from the media and other cultural products(?), they might turn a blind eye to stories that do not conform to this template.
In other words, they reject (consciously or not) more optimistic or hopeful stories on the basis that they do not meet their negative expectations.
We saw some evidence of this trend among the student writers, many of whom explained to their teachers that they wrote dystopian stories because they wanted these stories to be good and compelling.
How do we engage readers the right way?
Hopeful, optimistic, or utopian stories were simply not interesting according to these young writers.
Here the students echo the concerns of many in media and research who, faced with expressing facts about climate change, must consider how to make this information engaging to readers.
As the young authors themselves explain, stressing the most distressing aspects of a story grabs out attention, but it also can train us to overlook or diminish stories that do not use this formula.
Is there reason to find hope in the stories?
Recognizing young people’s dystopian fluency gives us an important insight into their expectations for the future.
But even though these stories largely highlight disasters and negative emotions, they also contain some reason for hope.
First and foremost, by writing dystopian stories the young authors are pointing out problems in society today that they think should change.
By imagining societies where people do not trust each other and are disconnected from nature, the stories acknowledge problem areas in the world today. In doing so, the stories contain some reason for hope.
The claim that science fiction stories are more about the present than the future is familiar to both writers and scholars of the genre.
The American sci-fi writer William Gibson explains that it is ‘impossible’ to write about the future, which means science fiction is »only really about the moment in which it's written.«
Dystopian fiction reflects today's problems
The same is true of dystopian fiction. The dystopian societies we read in fiction are not built completely out of thin air.
They are built from observations about social problems in the present, which the author identifies and explores in a futuristic setting.
For example, the violent fundamentalist society imagined in Margaret Atwood’s famous novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was a direct response to the politics of the 1980s, when religious conservatives in the US held political sway under President Ronald Reagan.
The dystopian features in the students’ stories should be understood in the same way: beneath their fanciful scenarios, there are valid concerns about the climate crisis and, implicitly, about society in general.
How do we create hope and motivation?
In other words, the fact that these stories are dystopian does not necessarily mean that young people have given up hope for the future.
The stories they create, however, tend to focus on the failure of society to change in a meaningful way.
These dystopian stories are very good at presenting future worlds that we want to avoid. They also indicate that it is harder to imagine worlds that we would like to inhabit.
In order to encourage these positive narratives, whether we be teachers, scientists, or policy makers, we first need to acknowledge how deeply this dystopian imagination has taken hold.
People will ignore utopian stories of the future when they have come to inhabit a dystopian worldview.
But we can still recognize that people raise valid criticisms of the way things are today when they forecast a dystopian future.
The task of channeling these criticisms into meaningful outlets remains to be done, but it cannot be accomplished without considering the narratives we tell ourselves about climate change.