Solarpunk and Cli-fi, Oh My! The Case for Optimism

Cli-fi, fiction about the climate crisis, is still hardly a household word—or even a known genre among booksellers—years after Dan Bloom coined the term in 2007. I still get blank stares most of the time when I introduce Weather Menders to a bookseller, or talk about the genre with people who are not deeply involved in the climate issue.

Which is why it was so heartening to attend an event in Santa Fe last week called Cli-Fi: Altered Futures through Film and Literature, part of Creative Santa Fe’s Disruptive Futures Dialogue. Somewhere out there, there really are other authors and filmmakers working on the human heart-response to the climate crisis. Many have been doing so, as I have, for at least the past 10 years.


The energy was buzzing as a crowd of various ages gathered. Many of the volunteers were Millennials, while much of the audience was over 50. There were lots of opportunities for friendly and thought-provoking interactions. You could get a raffle ticket for your reusable water bottle, and for posting ideas on post-it notes on boards about what you are already doing to address the climate crisis and what issues you most want to see action on.

I’ve recycled for more than the 25 years I’ve lived in Santa Fe and have been involved in sustainable solutions to architecture and growing food since the mid-80s—before anyone but Exxon’s secretive scientists and CEO’s knew the extent and likely timing of the climate crisis—so I come up with lots of answers. I was able to invest in solar panels a few years ago, and have grown organic vegetables both at home and in the Eldorado School Community Garden since 2009. I even made a film on our Community Garden, and one in South Africa. And these delicious veggies help my aspiration to eat lower on the food chain more often. I get more raffle tickets, but neither my friend nor I win anything.

We also participate in the Climate Ribbon project. The question is what each of us will grieve most if we lose it to climate chaos. You write your answer on a ribbon that becomes part of a massive public art installation, similar to the AIDS Memorial Quilts. My answer is easy, after grieving the Sixth Extinction and trying to figure out how to prevent it for the past 10 years: “Biodiversity.” I write out names of some species I love, starting with several big cats, and adding elephants, newly-endangered giraffes, and remembering snakes and bees. I sum it up: “all creatures great and small.”

I enjoyed the four very original short films that were shown, even though they were not strictly “cli-fi” films, but rather about environmental issues intersecting with moral and even spiritual issues. In The 6th World, by Nanobah Becker, astronauts headed by a female Navajo commander head for Mars with GMO corn. When it fails, it starves them of nutrition and oxygen. But luckily a Medicine Man has given a gift to the commander containing the seeds of natural corn that connects them to Mother Earth and gives the crew the opportunity to create the prophesied Sixth World on Mars.

Plastic Bag by Ramin Bahrani humorously chronicles the life of a plastic bag, voiced appealingly by Werner Herzog, as it goes through its immortal journey. Its poignant conclusion, after journeying to the fabled Pacific Vortex and back, is “I wish you had created me so that I could die.”

I found Seed, by Hugo Perez, distinctly creepy but a powerful statement. It is a cautionary tale about a world where only corporate-owned GMO seeds are allowed and keeping heritage seeds is a crime punishable by death. The fable is told with both suspense and grim humor. For me, the idea of militarized boy “Sprouts” checking for heritage seeds in the fields conjures up nightmares reminiscent of Orwell.

Spring of Sorrow by Suzi Yoonessi, is a fantasy of a world where water is so precious that it must be stolen or found by questing. It’s the story of two sisters, Spring and Sorrow, an ultimately lyrical dance of restoration to balance and joy.

At the intermission I buy books from the two women who will speak in the next portion of the evening. I chat with Lauren Teffeau, author of the cli-fi novel Implanted, and Sarena Ulibarri, editor of Glass and Gardens: Solarpunk Summers and other books in the genre. I choose that one because she says it’s the most optimistic. And then I get a pleasant surprise when a woman standing behind the book table introduces herself as Emily Tippetts, the wonderful formatter of Weather Menders, who I had never met in person.

I’ve never heard of Solarpunk except in passing, and had no idea what to expect. In her presentation, Sarena says Solarpunk, a term popularized by Brazilian editor Gerson Lodi-Ribeiro, invites us to imagine a future in which we humans made the changes necessary to survive—and/or adapt to the things we can’t change. She reads part of a story called The Spider and the Stars by Australian author DK Mok. It’s a sort of magical journey into a world very different from the present, one I’m not sure I want to live in, but with its own joys, hopes, aspirations, and connections.

I later read that story at home over a cup of tea, so I can savor and appreciate the theme of an idealistic girl-to-woman as she explores her close connection to the insect world. She never gives up her dream of taking insects to the stars, reasoning that humans truly can’t survive without them.

I read another story, Under the Northern Lights by Charlotte M. Ray. I find it a winsome story of connection, set in a post-Collapse world that is attractive in its simplicity. In the end it’s simply an innocent love story of two lonely and isolated people finding each other.

Solarpunk, Sarena says, is generally more utopian than dystopian, though she finds that a false dichotomy. “The way we talk about climate change is important,” she says. She had spent the first part of her life “taking it for granted that the world was doomed.” Solarpunk offers the vision of a “better future even if it’s not perfect.”

I wonder if Weather Menders fits under the Solarpunk category in a loose way. I find it interesting that the two stories I read both assume that the Internet somehow survives the depredations, something I’m not at all sure about. I prefer to imagine a world where mental and spiritual “technologies” like time travel and teleportation were the paths that humans chose, hence the extraordinary ability of my character of Sitara, the time-traveling math whiz from 2350, to read the history and time codes off the stones of Avebury. I have a healthy suspicion of AI, especially since it’s currently so corporate-controlled, and prefer to imagine a future without it.

Lauren reads from Implanted, her story of humans living for two generations in highly technological domes but preparing for “emergence” from the domes. Her heartfelt characters whet my appetite for reading the book, which I plan to blog about at a later date.

The event leaves me intrigued and hungry for more well-written, heart-centered cli-fi. Cli-fi is, after all, the human creative and imaginative response to the unthinkable climate crisis we now find ourselves in. Fiction can wake people’s minds, and stir and open their hearts in a way that news and scientific reports and the increasingly frightening plethora of non-fiction books—though they occupy an important place of witnessing—cannot.

If we are going to survive as an organized civilization with arts—or perhaps at all—we are going to need to use our collective imagination and visioning on a scale that the world has never seen before. As panel moderator Cyndi Conn puts it, cli-fi allows its creators to “imagine a future that no one else has ever imagined.” And I’m betting, and believing, that we if we can imagine it, we can bring it into being.

Debra Denker is the author of the ecotopian cli-fi novel Weather Menders.


4 thoughts on “Solarpunk and Cli-fi, Oh My! The Case for Optimism

  1. This inspiring event, you wrote about so eloquently, makes me want to move to Santa Fe to accompany your incisive awareness. I’m off to buy your book. Blessings,

    1. Thanks, Chris. I know you’ll enjoy the book. I’m seeing it as a movie too, and wrote a treatment and the first few pages of the screenplay to enter the George RR Martin screenwriting contest last year, but it wasn’t what they were looking for. I’m aiming to inspire and entertain, with joy and love.

  2. What about Shawn, now? Wanna try again.. I can send you her e-mail if you no longer have it. Love to you and many blessings….

    1. Good idea! Should I send her a book or treatment and first few pages of screenplay? I’m on my way to Alaska, so might wait till I get back. I feel the interest in cli-fi is building. I envision the young girl who played Meg in Ava DuVernay’s version of “A Wrinkle in Time,” Storm Reid, as old enough to play Leona the Shaman by the time the movie gets made! And I also wish you lived in Santa Fe, or at least can visit again.

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