cli-fi Ivan

Reduce. Reuse. Run for the hills.

In August 2008, I started blogging for EcoTech, a IBM-sponsored, TechWeb-produced website that explored environmental-themed business opportunities for banks and insurance companies.

From the press release:

EcoTech is dedicated to practical applications of green technology and ecologically sound business practices in financial services, with a special focus on reducing power and paper usage, new “green” financial products and services, and general environmental awareness and advocacy programs at commercial/retail banks and insurance companies.

The site addresses the growing concern and awareness in the financial services community of climate change, environmental issues and natural resource constraints. Through interviews with industry leaders and commentary from knowledgeable experts, EcoTech focuses on the needs and responsibilities of financial services executives from a practical business standpoint.

EcoTech’s tagline: “Reduce. Reuse. Return on Investment.” captures the site’s unique content approach, the coverage focuses on actionable steps that financial services firms can take to reduce their environmental footprints while keeping a firm grasp on the reality of running a successful banking and insurance franchise. With obligations to stakeholders including customers, shareholders, regulators and employees, financial services firms truly have to “do well” and “do good” in equal measure.

It was a great gig with a brilliant and patient editor, a generous pay scale, and a hands-off corporate sponsor.

The only limitation was that the content had to stay away from doom-and-gloom predictions. Unlike most climate-themed blogs at the time, my job wasn’t to convince skeptics of the reality of climate change or to track the latest signals of an overheated planet.

Instead, I had to keep it positive, writing about profit opportunities for the financial institution: e-statements, energy-efficient data centers, lending for energy-efficient buildings, lending to sustainable businesses, auto insurance for public transit riders, triple-bottom-line priorities, CO2 trading and solar credits. “Green,” above all, was to be a profit opportunity.

Based on my five years as an editor for a tech-themed trade magazine in the banking industry, I knew the financial services topics well enough. As for the environmental side, I needed a fast introduction. That fall, I enrolled as an online, non-credit student in Harvard Extension School’s “Environmental Ethics and Land Management” course.

“Disaster of the Week” was more like it. In three months, the course raced through planetary-scale disasters, Neolithic population growth, anthropocentrism, mass extinctions, sprawl, misallocation of public lands, agricultural hard limits, depletion of fisheries, water crises, toxic and nuclear waste, and public health emergencies. Climate change is just the tip of the melting iceberg.

I had partaken of the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, and the knowledge was that we were about to die in a gruesome ecological collapse.

Eyeing the approach of the galloping cavalry squadron of apocalyptic horsemen, this worldview began to enter my writing. My blogs began to cover rising levels of atmospheric CO2, mountaintop removal mining, coal ash spills, historical precedents for economic sensitivity to climate disaster (e.g. The Dust Bowl), and even the potential effect on the financial services industry of a shutdown of thermohaline circulation.

There’s a banking angle for just about any human activity you can imagine, and I became rather creative in coming up with financial-themed frames for what was really on my mind.

Creative, perhaps; clever, no. If I had written fifty blog posts about how to optimize power consumption in data centers, maybe I’d still be working on that site today. Instead, the blog quietly wrapped up in May 2009 with an assignment to write a few “top five” lists. The site disappeared practically without a trace, my 50 blog posts with it.

I must have seen the end coming. Yet I wanted to stay involved somehow, to do something else with the unbearable foreknowledge of impending ecological collapse. Perhaps another climate-themed blog, something more open-ended.

I can’t quite reconstruct how it happened, but somehow I ended up with a nifty Twitter handle: @clifi, for “cli-fi,” or “climate fiction,” the atmospheric and oceanic offspring of sci-fi. I probably imagined that I would reinvent myself as an aggregator and commentator on those fictional worlds rooted in the emerging ecological realities and the hard sciences of climate. I may have even believed that I had invented the term. Or perhaps I simply saw that nobody had claimed this interesting Twitter handle and just snapped it up.  

And soon after, I forgot all about @clifi, pushing climate change and the rest of the disaster parade way to the back of my mind.

* * *

Throughout my time as an EcoTech blogger, I was shacked up with my Canadian girlfriend, deep in the heart of David Suzuki country in a small town near Vancouver, B.C. We lived in her small apartment with her small pets. She didn’t eat meat, rode transit, conserved water, and dreamt of living off-grid in a retrofit shipping container in the desert. A suitable partner for an eco-warrior.

The break-up was spectacular.

* * *

Rebuilding my life in Seattle, I stopped paying attention to the climate blogs. Although still convinced of the science, for my mental health I had to cease thinking about the countless ways that we may die. In fact, I quit reading blogs altogether. (Thanks, Google Reader!)

I took up other passions: literature and language. I picked up the guitar again, took drawing classes. I fell in love and got married.

It’s not that I’ve forgotten about the environment. I recycle and compost. I’ve cut down on food waste. I don’t own a car. I ride and vote for public transit. I fly a lot less than I once did. My carbon footprint’s still higher than the average human, but edging toward the virtuous end of the scale.

Yet this is the first I’ve written about climate change since 2009.

Why now?

First, I’m in a better personal and mental space for re-engaging with the topic. I’m feeling relaxed and creative, and believe that I have the potential for positive influence.

Second, I’m making a good-faith effort to understand the science, rather than just the politics and the economics. As a fan of the free Open Yale Coursework (OYC) videos, I am now about 20 percent through “The Atmosphere, The Ocean, and Environmental Change,” a quantitative-based course that conveys an intuition for the physical and chemical principles involved in planetary climate mechanisms. I’d like to be able to understand climate scientists the same way I can talk to bank technologists.

I’ve started reading some of the blogs again, and climate change has once again started to bubble up through my various feeds. In July, I read Margaret Atwood’s article: “It’s Not Climate Change, It’s Everything Change.” In it, I read about Danny Bloom, who coined the term “cli-fi” in 2008.

I contacted Danny and sold him the Twitter @clifi handle for $1.2 million in preferred stock.

No, wait, that’s not correct. What actually happened was that I gave him the keys to the account as a gift, along with my respect and gratitude for shouldering for so many years the burden of fostering climate awareness, doing so with a dedication that I had only briefly envisioned.

* * *
Can cli-fi make a real difference?

Well, it’s a bank shot. Not just from behind the eight ball, but from one of those formations where you’re trying to sink a solid blocked by a whole mess of stripes, the only viable shot off two rails into a combination.

The straight shot would be to get those responsible to stop screwing up the planet. But if that option’s blocked, we’re stuck with workarounds such as cli-fi.

Climate fiction has a dual-purpose role: The first is to make the reader more aware of the need for radical action on climate change, even if the people seeking out and reading cli-fi are already aware of the problem. That’s why the second and greater role of cli-fi is to activate the problem-solving instinct of the reader.

At the dawn of the age of rocketry, science fiction awakened us to the limitless possibilities of life among the stars, leading successive generations to dream up and build technological marvels.

At the twilight of the coal and oil economy, climate fiction has to spur the generations alive today to invent new strategies for adapting and surviving in a painful-to-imagine future, a future that we must reimagine with all the imagination we can muster.

Image: Self-portrait #4 (2015), color pencil.