This month I have a fascinating interview for you. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson is an author and Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Yale-NUS College, who studies climate fiction. His latest academic study, “‘Just as in the Book’? The Influence of Literature on Readers’ Awareness of Climate Injustice and Perception of Climate Migrants,” examines the impact of climate fiction – specifically, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife – on readers. We discuss his findings below.
Your latest article, “Just as in the Book,” is a fascinating look at how Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife influences readers. What inspired you to conduct this study?
I started reading a lot of climate fiction in 2011 or so. As it became more common and received more attention, it struck me that while there was a lot of interest in different aspects of this new category of literature, its psychological and political potential was frequently highlighted by authors, critics, and scholars. They were, and still are, responding to an important question – what can literature and art do to move and inspire readers, and thereby contribute to efforts to respond to climate change, that other forms of communication don’t? This is a fascinating theoretical question, but it’s also an urgent empirical question. Given the incredibly short time frame we have to transform fossil-fuelled civilization, the empirical element seemed particularly important to me. So I was surprised to learn that until recently, there were no empirical studies on what happens when real people encounter environmental literature. An article I published in 2018 was the first empirical study to examine the influence of climate fiction on its readers. This study continues that research, but focuses on more specific questions, and a single novel.
Why did you choose to center this study on The Water Knife?
I found Paolo Bacigalupi’s previous novel, The Windup Girl, to be really innovative and provocative, and I read The Water Knife when it came out in 2015. One of my main areas of research is climate injustice, the disproportionate consequences of climate change on different groups of people, as well as climate displacement and migration, which are expected to accelerate in the next few decades. While a lot of climate fiction touches on injustice in some form, The Water Knife really centers it, along with climate migration. So it seemed like an ideal choice for a study focused on the ability of climate fiction to influence readers’ awareness of climate injustice and perception of climate migrants. Beyond its conceptual focus, The Water Knife is a popular and critically acclaimed novel by one of the most widely read and respected environmentally-engaged English-language authors of the last decade. As most readers will attest, it’s a very engaging book – a speculative eco-thriller set in a desiccated, collapsing, and apocalyptic near-future Southwest, and an effective exercise in placing a pulpy and hard-boiled thriller in a climate-changed future.
Could you briefly describe the framing of this study? How did you choose your participants, and what key question(s) did you seek to answer?
The main questions we were interested in exploring were who reads a novel like The Water Knife, and why; how it influenced readers’ perceptions of climate change; whether it raised awareness of climate injustice; whether it led readers to identify with climate migrants; and what lessons or messages readers took away from their reading experience. We recruited participants through Mechanical Turk, an online service that has become popular for social science research, and sorted them into two groups: Americans who had read The Water Knife; and Americans who read fiction regularly but hadn’t read The Water Knife. The former group was the focus, and we asked them a battery of multiple-choice and open-ended questions. The latter group was a kind of control; we asked them some of the same questions, and, after presenting them with the book cover, a description, and a blurb, asked them if they were likely or unlikely to read the book.
I found it interesting that many respondents – both liberal and conservative – found the novel to reinforce an individualistic if conservative view of the world. Why do you think that is?
I was also surprised by this at first, but it makes sense. The world of The Water Knife is very Hobbesian – the government and the social order are collapsing, states’ borders are closed, opportunities are few, everyone is out for themselves, empathy is fatal, and violence is ubiquitous. Judging from the public statements Bacigalupi has made, he intended this as a cautionary tale – if we don’t act now to mitigate climate change, this is the kind of hellish future we’ll be stuck with. And that’s been a common framing for apocalyptic climate fiction. Given the tendency towards confirmation bias, it’s not surprising that some conservative readers found this depiction of the selfishness of human nature to be accurate – that’s a common belief among American conservatives. But liberal readers also picked up on this individualistic framing, and some found it to be compelling and “realistic” – it’s a very engaging novel. This is potentially problematic, since the novel might unintentionally reinforce an inaccurate perspective on human nature that won’t help us respond collectively to climate change, and might contribute to some exceptionally bad outcomes.
How did the novel influence participants’ views of climate change?
On views of climate change in general, the responses generally echoed what I described in my 2018 article. For many readers, the novel minimized the psychological distance that many people feel from climate change, which is one obstacle to recognizing its gravity and urgency – that it’s something that happens in the future, in faraway places, to people who are unlike them. The Water Knife, like other works of climate fiction, seemed to make a climate-changed future much more vivid and visceral, and this led to some intense emotional reactions. Unsurprisingly, given the novel’s dystopic world, these were mostly negative emotions – worry, sadness, and fear. Very little hopefulness or joy.
Additionally, the novel seemed to lead to more awareness of climate injustice. There was no existing polling question to measure awareness of environmental injustice or climate injustice, so we asked participants in both groups, “Picture the people most affected by climate change. What do they look like?” Then we coded the responses. After excluding the participants that gave non-substantive answers or purely physical descriptions, there was a significant difference between those who read the book and those who didn’t. This suggests that The Water Knife was effective at raising awareness of climate injustice. This is valuable not just because climate injustice is real and important, but because just and effective policy and political responses will need to address climate and environmental injustice, and support for those responses requires an understanding of these basic facts.
How did the novel influence participants’ views of climate migrants?
Here the results were mixed. On one hand, the novel was effective in getting a diverse range of American readers to identify with climate migrants. This might have been because two of the three protagonists were climate migrants, and they offered a wide range of pathways for identification – different ages, genders, backgrounds, and social status positions. This identification and empathy is potentially important, because as climate displacement and migration become more central aspects of the world we inhabit, developing just, humane, and effective policies will be absolutely critical, and literature and media might play a role in influencing people’s willingness to support such policies.
On the other hand, we found that the Hobbesian violence of The Water Knife is potentially counterproductive. Authors and critics might hope that portraying a dystopic cautionary future will scare readers into engaging in progressive politics today, but it might not work out that way. A vivid depiction of desperate climate migrants engaged in a self-interested and violent struggle for survival can backfire, since even liberal readers might not empathize with climate migrants, but fear them. This is a real risk, and it’s one that authors and other cultural producers should take seriously. It’s possible that narratives like The Water Knife might not motivate progressive environmental politics, as authors and critics often hope, but support for climate barbarism – callously allowing the less fortunate to suffer – or even ecofascism. In the past this possibility might have seemed merely theoretical, but the recent rise of ethno-nationalism around the world, as well as recent acts of mass violence that have been justified in part on environmental grounds, should raise concerns about the shape that conservative responses to climate change might take.
What’s next for you? Do you have any other empirical studies of climate-fiction in the works?
I’m currently collaborating on a quantitative experiment focused on two climate-fiction short stories, and I’m planning a study focused on the ability of climate fiction to inspire readers – that feels like a crucial subject. And I’m working with three colleagues, Alexa Weik von Mossner, Wojciech Małecki, and Frank Hakemulder, to develop the field of empirical ecocriticism, which this research is part of, and bring more empirical attention to environmental literature, art, and media. We’re hoping that this kind of research will be useful to critics and scholars as well as authors, artists, and other cultural producers. Readers can check out our website to see the work that’s been done in this area, get in touch about collaborating, and add their own.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.