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Laurie Penny: Why does my generation seem so spineless?

The baby boomers could risk rebellion. Not so for Generation Y.

When I closed the final pages of Francis Beckett's new book, What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do for Us?, I found myself shaking with indignation. The book, which lays out an incisive case for how my parents' generation “squandered the good times” and betrayed the courage of the Attlee settlement, is flawed and uneven in many ways, but it makes at least one important observation.

“The Sixties generation,” says Beckett, “reinstalled the deference it rejected.” In other words, our mums and dads were free to get angry with adults, dabble in revolutionary politics and demand respect and attention, but heaven help Generation Y if we fail to comply with the grown-ups’ view of the world.

When I look at the defeated deference with which my generation treats its elders, I want to take young people by their collective shoulders and give them a good shake.

The young are in the process of being screwed over in a variety of cold and creative ways by an age group that is richer, freer and more powerful than any generation this country has seen or is likely to see again, and yet we have so far failed to come up with any sort of collective response to indignities that the baby boomers simply would not have stood for when they were young.

It’s conceivable that our parents love us, in their own special way, but that hasn't stopped them from mortgaging our futures and selling off all the privileges that they took for granted -- the jobs, the safe places to live, the affordable housing, the free education and the security of a generous and supportive welfare state.

That our parents had all of these things allowed them to produce a sustained cultural rebellion which was, in many ways, genuinely socially transformative. That we have none of them makes us timid, compliant and tragically quick to accept compromise.

I find myself dying a little inside, for example, whenever I hear a bright young liberal telling me that they're supporting Ed Miliband for Labour leader. I have nothing against him, but that's just the problem: the most decisive thing I've heard said about him by the next generation of the British left is that they've nothing against him.

When I ask them why, they generally look awkward, mumble something about progressive ideas, and then say: "He's a nice guy, and he’s quite good on the environment, he’s a good compromise for Labour supporters from across the spectrum, and, hey, he wasn’t around to vote in favour of the Iraq war."

And then they do that awful little smile, that hard, tight little smile forced up at the corners with those wide, willing eyes -- the smile of submission and desperation, the expression I've seen on young people's faces so many times since the credit crisis crunched down on our futures, the expression I've worn myself at countless job interviews, and they say: "And at least he's not as bad as any of the others."

When our parents were young, Beckett reminds us, some of them not only dared to imagine alternatives to militarism, but demonstrated to demand a politics that reflected their ideals rather than those of the overculture. By contrast, I was there when this video, which features prominently on Miliband Jr’s campaign website, was being shot.

Wait for the final three seconds: the young volunteer does the smile, and then delivers the line "Go, Ed" as mournfully as if he were speaking at a memorial service for a spirit of generational rebellion that crumpled at some point in the mid-1990s and inoffensively, quietly died.

Why does my generation seem so spineless? Fear is the reason, rather than lack of fervour. We all know what’s going on, but we blanch at asking for the rights and respect that our parents enjoyed because we’ve all seen what happened to those of our classmates and university friends who refused to play the game, who didn’t smile on cue, pass the exams every year and give the grown-ups what they wanted.

For the baby boomers, as Beckett astutely observes, the risks of rebellion were far lower than they are for us: rejecting your parents’ rules is far easier when you can rely on full employment, a supportive welfare state, free higher education and a culture that respects and nurtures young talent to catch you when you fall through the net.

Both of my parents were working-class kids who left school during their A-levels, and both are now wealthy, property-owning professionals, as are many of their friends who spent the 1970s doing drugs, playing music and rearranging the world to suit their ideals.

How many of today’s impoverished dropouts will be able to say the same in 40 years? “We were young in a kinder society,” Beckett pronounces of his generation. “If we really meant any of the things we said in the Sixties, about peace, about education, about freedom, we would have created a better world for our children to grow up in.”

Today’s young people decline to reject our parents openly, because most of us have no other option, but we know perfectly well that we’ve been had. Whether or not we continue to bite off our resentment behind forced smiles is up to us.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.