The Facts and Feelings of Fiction

Recently, I’ve needed to turn to fiction. Amid the general turbidity of early 20s life, I’ve also watched the seemingly endless torrent of bad news. The Caldor Fire raging through the Tahoe area, Hurricane Ida ravaging the Gulf Coast, Ida striking again with deluges of deadly rain in the Northeast. The climate crisis is here, and I take heart in seeing the ways that people have come together to support one another, but sometimes, when I see our leaders still waffling, wavering, and failing to step up, I get discouraged. So, I continue fighting, because that is what we must do. But I also turn to fiction, the book equivalent of a hot bowl of mac and cheese, for sustenance. 

Last week, together, we pondered the possibilities of television. I asked why climate change wasn’t making its way onto the latest Netflix dramas or network procedurals. This week, I’d like to return to the original pop culture medium — the book. These days, books may not take over the zeitgeist in the way they did in the 1800s, or even the way they did during my childhood; however, books have already made advances the advances that television has not. Books, and their fans, are taking on the climate crisis.

Harry Potter

There is nothing more warm and familiar to me than the safe haven of Hogwarts. I am a little young to have caught the real first wave of Potter — the first book came out in the UK the year I was born — but I fell for the series regardless. I may have just missed waiting in lines that streamed out of bookstores or staying up for midnight movie premieres, but in my first, homesick year of boarding school, Harry was always there for me. Harry Potter was the first thing I was truly a fan of.

 Now, I cannot write this without acknowledging the damage done by the books and their author (see this wonderful essay for more about that ). However, like Aja Romano from Vox, today I am celebrating my fellow geeky fans.

The Harry Potter fandom is prolific and groundbreaking. It made quidditch a real sport, created a musical genre, and spawned various social movement organizations — one of which is now focused on the climate crisis! The Harry Potter Alliance, a Potter themed social justice organization founded in 2005 aims to “turn fans into heroes.” Just like this newsletter, they believe in the power of pop culture to mobilize people for social justice. This year, they rebranded as Fandom Forward to better mobilize many different fandoms. Just this week, they launched a campaign with Honor the Earth, an indigenous-led grassroots organization, to mobilize Avatar: The Last Airbender fans to stop construction of Line 3 — a pipeline which would continue us down the road of fossil fuels and trample on indigenous rights. And it was a success! Around 50 fans have already taken over 300 actions to stop the pipeline.  

While Avatar: The Last Airbender was more my time than Harry Potter, I sadly missed it. Now? I might have to give it a watch. I’ve been thinking more and more about how fiction can inspire great activists. To me, it comes down to the feelings and facts inherent in fiction.

Fiction is often used as an escape. The overall structure of the world is given a clear narrative arc, and so things feel just a bit simpler. We’re always around to get to the end where good can overcome evil. In escaping the world, though, I believe that we also come back to it just a bit better. That’s because we come back filled with feelings of hope and love. Now I am strongly optimistic. I believe Martin Luther King Jr. saying, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” However, I know that sometimes the moral arc of the universe can be so long as to seem flat, and that the narrative arc of Harry Potter is orders of magnitude shorter. When I can’t see progress in this world, I simply move to another, and bring the hope back with me. The feelings that good fiction can inspire are what make it such an effective organizing tool.

Sometimes feelings aren’t enough, though. The fact remains that in Harry Potter they have wands and spells, and from what little I know about the characters in Avatar, they also have some pretty cool powers that you and I don’t have. Sometimes, we’re in need of fiction that hits a little closer to the facts of this world.

The Other Cheek: An Epic Non-Violent Yarn

That’s where I bring you to part two! On September 1st, world-renowned environmentalist and writer, Bill McKibben took to Twitter to announce a change in direction, or a return of sorts. Check the full thread, because there is a LOT to be excited about — the first of which dropped today! For those who do not know, McKibben’s books are almost exclusively groundbreaking nonfiction. That is, with the exception of Radio Free Vermont, a little book with a cult of fans. I was perhaps tailor made to love this fable that included social movement organizing, biathlon, and the Northeastern United States. Now McKibben has written a prequel/sequel in serial form that spans the globe — the first chapters of which are available for free and came out today. Later chapters will be available by subscription (eventually it will all be made available for free), and his portion of the proceeds will go toward funding Third Act — his exciting new climate movement for “experienced people” or the 60+ crowd.

The Other Cheek: An Epic Non-Violent Yarn has started out beyond, or rather, exactly in my wildest dreams. Where Harry Potter deals in feelings, The Other Cheek brings some more of the facts of this world. Now, I should be careful to clarify that this book does not bring a factual account of history. It is page-turning make-believe through and through. However, what it does is bring the facts about what has been shown to be effective in our world to fiction. In his author’s note, McKibben explains, “Academic research in recent years indicates that nonviolent campaigning is the most effective way of confronting power, far more likely to succeed than violent revolution… But this terrain is largely underexplored by the popular artists creating our vision of the world.” So far, wands have not had success in stopping the climate crisis (but we’ll keep an eye out). In our world, non-violent organizing is what has gotten us places. So, that is exactly what this story is about.

In this book, there may not be wands or airbenders, but there are heroes. There is a West-Point like academy for non-violent learning, the Dalai Lama talking hip-hop, and characters from around the globe. In just the first installment, I’m hooked. It’s definitely the read for any organizer to be. Check it out here!

This week has undoubtedly been a hard one — to watch from afar, or, for millions around the country, to experience firsthand. What I am trying to say is that it is ok to want to escape. It is natural, and even necessary sometimes. It doesn’t matter whether you choose a familiar favorite or a new adventure. It doesn’t matter whether you go for something more on feelings or facts side of the spectrum. Choose an escape that fills you with hope. Choose an escape that fills you with ideas. Choose an escape that makes you better. All I ask is that you come back, because, look around — we’ve got a fight to win.

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