Prove your humanity

A new collection of stories looks into the future to find hope and community-based solutions amid the climate crisis. Imagine 2200 Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors is a short story contest from Grist, an environmental news site. The contest, in its second year, is a project of Fix Grist’s Climate Solutions Lab.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Tory Stephens, climate fiction creative manager, about this new collection. 

LISTEN to their conversation

Kara Holsopple: How did this contest come about, and what’s the idea behind it? 

Tory Stephens: I work at Grist magazine, but I work on a specific team called Fix, which is Grist’s Solutions Lab. We’re looking for stories about climate solutions, but really the people behind those solutions. So sometimes we gather those folks to have really interesting and dynamic conversations. 

Tory Stephens. Photo by Raya Al-Hashmi.

Right when the pandemic was getting started, we had an event that was going to take place in the woods. So we quickly switched to Zoom because of the pandemic, and the facilitator – two of them that we would work with – had a background in visioning and how to get people to talk and think and explore things that are outside of their daily scope. 

The other gentleman had a background in creating role-playing games and said, you can use roleplaying games as a way to do a visioning quest. He said, “How cool would it be to bring four people onto a Zoom, and there’s a timeline where they have to get from now to 2200 and everything, be clean, green, and just buy this 180-year mark, and it’s their choice as to how they play this game and role play?” 

The folks we brought together come from a cross-section of America that’s very diverse: queer folks, disabled folks, BIPOC individuals, and a variety of people from different parts of the climate sector. 

So they went on their quest, and what we found was a lot of the things that old-world environmentalists would call kind of adjacent to climate were center. [Things like] showing up for folks with disabilities, calling out anti-Blackness and standing up for Black folk. 

We held in high regard Indigenous wisdom and knowledge and things that could come to the table that could be a climate solution that was not a tech-focused solution. 

What we noticed is like, wow, it’d be really interesting to situate a climate fiction contest that has more than just the focus of climate. It also has these other things at the table, like caring for immigrants. 

I went back to the drawing board with a few people, and we decided that Imagine 2200 is going to be a little bit different in its call to action in that it’s going to be about climate solutions and hope, but it’s also going to be about justice and intersectionality and connecting with our allies in other movements that we care about. 

Holsopple: This year’s first-place winner is “The Metamorphosis of Marie Martin” by Nadine Tomlinson. It’s about a Jamaican woman who, with her sister, fishes for parrotfish which is important to the health of coral reefs. And her young daughter doesn’t want her to do it. Here’s an excerpt where Marie talks to her daughter about it.

Audio excerpt: And yuh auntie and me not going to prison, so stop worry. We not hurting anybody, baby. We trying to survive. Listen, sometimes you have to do things that people say are wrong for a good cause.” She kissed her forehead. “You are my good cause.”

Holsopple: But Marie Martin changes her mind. Can you say a little bit more about how that happens in the story? And the takeaway for readers?

Stephens: I love this story. This was a beautiful story that shows there’s not one way to get to the end of this crisis that we’re in. And you have to hear from frontline folks. 

The story is set in Jamaica, but the writer is also from Jamaica, and the story is done in Jamaican patois. The idea being that the government has decided that you can’t fish these important fish because they’re important to the coral reef, but they’re also important to the ecosystem. 

But what they didn’t account for is the humans, right? The folks that rely on these fish to feed themselves. So it’s showing a glaring problem that can happen. When you don’t approach and talk to front-line communities, you don’t have solutions that include them. 

It might have been a good solution for protection of the coral. It’s a good solution for the protection of that species of fish, but you’re forgetting, we do all these things…we do it all for the Earth, the animals and humans. You have to balance that. 

So it’s important to talk to frontline communities. I think that’s the really big lesson in this story. There was a disagreement between the mother and the daughter in the story, and I think through what happens in the story, the daughter learns and so does the mother. They both see a different vantage point, a different point of view, that they didn’t have. 

Holsopple: Who is the intended audience for these stories? Because the title is Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors. Who are the future ancestors?

Stephens: Yeah, I love that name. I didn’t think of it. We did a collective brainstorm, and that was the best one that I really felt fit what we’re trying to do with this. The future ancestors are us for sure, but also the folks that come after us: our children, our children’s children. Not even my children, but just people. So it’s really, write a story about a world that you want to live in. 

‘The type of hope I’m looking for is realistic hope on how we can get out of the climate crisis in a just way. Where are those stories? Why aren’t they showing up?’

Sometimes people label our stories as utopian. I shy away from that, even though I’m fine with people submitting stories that are utopian, and some that envision a utopian society have come close to winning or have won. But I would say they’re more hopeful stories. Even some that have like pretty bitter endings. in the end, they have a hopeful outlook and approach. 

Holsopple: Yeah, there’s an emphasis on hope. And I read something that you’d written about how there’s a lot of dystopian climate fiction, looking at the worst-case scenario. These stories are different from that. 

Stephens: Yeah, for sure. I think dystopian stories are totally appropriate for climate fiction. It’s really scary, and I’m not going to downplay the situation we’re in. It’s about our humanity. Are we going to survive this thing? 

I really think that everything is at stake here. But I think that we as a society are addicted to the dystopian or the grim dark. The type of hope I’m looking for is realistic hope on how we can get out of the climate crisis in a just way. Where are those stories? Why aren’t they showing up? 

I would challenge story writers, screenwriters, Hollywood, and others who write and tell stories to tell more stories that talk about the climate crisis. If I asked you to name your top five books that you’ve read in the past year and then your top five TV shows, series that you binge-watched – is there a climate plot at the center of any of those?

It’s like climate is being erased from the story. Where are the climate stories when this is the biggest thing that’s happening in our world? I’m just making a call for more of that, and I would want them to be hopeful.

Tory Stephens is the climate fiction creative manager for Fix, Grist’s Climate Solutions Lab. Each of the 12 stories in this year’s Imagine 2200: Climate Fiction for Future Ancestors has illustrations and audio recordings.