You’re an environmental activist, as well as an author of speculative fiction. Tell us a bit about these two aspects of your life, and how they feed each other.
At university I studied Economics which might sound counter-intuitive for an environmental activist. I guess the theories of demand-led growth, markets and so on which get drilled into you drives you also to look at the possibilities beyond that. How else humans could have organised their affairs without plundering the planet, without pegging civilisation on market-driven or centrally commanded exploitation of Nature? You will find many lawyers turn politicians (good or bad) which somewhat parallels my trajectory.
So I signed on as an activist quite early, working in various roles for organisations at the global and grassroots level. This work continues through my involvement with groups like the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Production and Consumption, Integrative Strategies Forum, my columns and community activities. Speculative fiction as you know asks a question similar to what a disillusioned economics student might ask but in the sphere of the imagination. What if? What if things got better or worse? What would the world look like? I ask these questions in my fiction anchoring them to ecological and existential challenges.
The activist work allows me a microscopic role as a change agent while the creative involvement helps one imagine what such change or the lack of it could imply for the characters and the story world. Groups I work with are also trying to bring activists, writers and practitioners on common platforms so that both sides can pool their experience and some good might come out of it!
You at XRWriters are doing tremendously important work as you bring writers to have their say about climate and ecological breakdown.
Your latest book, The Butterfly Effect is an ‘eco-dystopian’ novel spanning several continents. Can you tell us a bit more about the book, and how you feel the experience of climate crisis varies across the globe?
The Butterfly Effect at its heart is a story of the irrationality of science when it plays dangerous games with Nature. It’s about how a rational science guided by ideals of human invincibility, takes risks and disregards the precautionary principle. The narrative unfolds over several locations and time periods beginning with a dystopian near future Asian continent ravaged by a pandemic of rapid aging with climate change as the backdrop. We move back and forth in time gradually unravelling the source of the social and ecological breakdown through the characters of a slightly eccentric private eye in Calcutta, a geneticist in England, North Korean agents, a couple of ghosts and a nature lover called Henry David. It has been slotted by reviewers both as biopunk and ecofiction.
Different factors contribute to how climate change affects people in different parts of the world. The most obvious are geography, local ecology and the interaction of weather systems. If you live in California you know that forest might burst into flames tomorrow because the summer has been unnaturally hot, if you are a fisherman in a coastal village on the Bay of Bengal you fear the rising sea water as well as the oceanic dead zone which means dwindling catch and loss of income. If like me you live in Calcutta you worry (among several other things) that the next dengue outbreak would be more severe as the risk burden of diseases transmitted by aedes aegypti mosquito have increased because of climate change.
However, when it comes to resilience in the face of climate crises, the developing and poorer countries are at a serious disadvantage. Those who are less responsible for the state of affairs often suffer the most.
What do you think might be the role of writers in the Anthropocene?
Both within collaborative and independent formats, writers and creative artists have useful roles to play. We need people in large numbers to believe and engage in efforts that address emissions. Such efforts cover protests, awareness, advocacy and other tools but for movements to gain traction we need a spark, we need momentum. A young girl striking school or a great cli-fi novel can supply the spark and also help sustain the momentum. Schneider-Mayerson’s study of cli-fi has given us an indication of the importance of the latter.
Climate stories provide imaginative renditions of possible futures, good or bad. The literary framing is efficacious as it connects at a deeper level if we compare it to the media or the scientific framing of the problem and the novel is especially well-suited to engage with the hydra-headed creature that is climate change. Still we need to find a balance, an optimum mix of science, stories and other narratives which convey the messages most effectively.
I don’t totally subscribe to the idea that the dystopic lens of literature can breed despair and inaction. In fact as others have said, readers can filter the dystopia and still engage with the themes and darkness can trigger hope and action. Nonetheless, better future settings where people come together for change are desirable in fiction like we find in solarpunk or say in a novel like Pacific Edge. This is not only because they signal hope but also because some of these imagined worlds and the pathways thereto could serve as templates for transition. Above all this, writers have to come out, speak, protest and ask questions, which is what XRWriters has been doing very successfully.
Is there a specific thought or idea that motivates you into taking action over the climate and ecological emergency? (or, if you like, what frightens you the most about the crisis?)
I dream of a world where air, water, river, land, animals and objects all have inviolable rights. It would be wonderful to be born again in a near future where Latour’s parliament of things is established and political boundaries have disappeared.
I’m frightened to think how in some decades there would be more climate-related forced migration, internal and external, leading to serious social unrest. Our families have been through one of the largest forced migrations in human history that happened after the partition of India and those dark memories flow in our blood.
What is the most powerful piece of writing that you have read about the climate and ecological emergency?
There are so many great works now that it wouldn’t be right to quote just one. Still if you ask me I would point to those last lines from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, if we consider that to be cli-fi. Throughout that book, he has done amazing things with the language so much so that the language itself becomes a metaphor for a denuded world. Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island has been a big influence also Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. Among shorter non-fiction texts I consider Jem Bendell’s ‘Deep Adaptation’ a must read.
Do you have a vision for a regenerative future? Does literature have a part to play in creating this future?
Activists, writers, theorists, NGOs have for long been discussing and advocating for concepts like circular economy, degrowth, steady-state, anarcho-primitivism and so on. Meanwhile unsustainable production, and consumption continue unabated and the carbon budget dwindles. It’s difficult to be an optimist in this situation but still we need to keep pushing and the SDGs provide a good set of targets to measure progress with sustainability among other things. So my vision mingles with progress in SDGs. Beyond this, more forward-looking experiments in economic and social organisation need to be tried within small communities and niches which can perhaps become examples for broader adoption and replication. Not the Huxleian island exactly but I would love to work on such a project someday.
Recently there was this news about a glacier flooding a Svalbard coalmine. That’s nature writing her own cli-fi, laced with dark humour. Our books can help dummy run visions of the future through their stories and world-building. Success stories can drive literary plots on one hand while literary imaginaries as I mentioned before can help in transition planning and influence people to take part in change. A literary work would also be of value if it can lay bare the systems and networks of production and consumption that is responsible for climate change and the ecological emergency.
What are the challenges posed by writing about the climate emergency? Or, how can stories and poems help us better understand the emergency?
The challenges are many. For one, many works which try to do the above end up boring the reader. Sometimes they get lost in tons of characters navigating convoluted plots. It is not easy to step back from individual-centric narratives and look at larger pictures, systems, collectives and so on while telling an engaging story. But this is being done and hopefully there will be more of these great stories. Then there is that fear of ghettoisation of cli-fi as genre-fiction which can keep some writers away but this threat seems to be receding. Also many post-colonial writers approach their material through the lens of postcolonial concerns like power, hybridity and so on which is why environmental issues get resolved very differently in this writing. Climate justice is an area where common ground seems to be emerging.
Rajat Chaudhuri is a bilingual Indian author, translator and activist. His most recent novel The Butterfly Effect has been twice listed by the Book Riot community, US as a ‘Fifty must read eco-disasters in fiction’ and among ‘Ten works of environmental literature from around the world’. He edited The Best Asian Speculative Fiction anthology and is co-editor of an Asia-Pacific solarpunk anthology, forthcoming early next year. Chaudhuri is a recipient of the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellowship and a Hawthornden Castle fellowship. A past contributor to the UNDP Human Development Report, Chaudhuri lives in Calcutta and writes about climate change and better future issues for New Indian Express and Scroll. Twitter/Instagram @rajatchaudhuri