In ‘After Water’ Project, 12 Writers Imagine Life in Climate Change-Altered Chicago

Ecoterrorists, saboteurs, orphans, activists muck through their separate realities. 'This project is terrifying—the idea of what the world would become.'

Fiction author Nnedi Okorafor gives a talk in Seattle. She's one of 12 writers who participated in the radio project called "After Water" that blends climate science and fiction. Credit: Luke McGuff, flickr

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Four emaciated boys share a canteen of fresh water. They pass the stolen treasure around as they huddle on a raft made of broken furniture, drifting on toxic flood waters. The future has come to Chicago—or at least one future imagined by Abby Geni, a fiction writer in Illinois. 

Geni’s story, “World After Water,” follows four brothers growing up in a world irrevocably altered by climate change. Drinkable water is scarce, the Great Lakes are polluted, and only the rich can afford purified water.

“World After Water” is one story in a series of podcasts produced by WBEZ, a public radio station in Chicago. The series, called After Water, seeks to blend science and storytelling to create new shades of understanding about what the Great Lakes region could look like in the future. To do this, WBEZ reporter and project producer Shannon Heffernan approached fiction writers in Chicago and across the country. She gave them research papers and connected them with scientists, advocates and policymakers who could answer their questions. She then issued the 12 writers one challenge: to take what they had learned and create a story that reflects the difficulties Chicago and the Great Lakes region may face in the decades to come.

“This project is terrifying—the idea of what the world would become,” Geni (pronounced GEE-nie) told Heffernan. (Geni usually writes fiction about the connection between humans and the natural world and stages her work in the present.)

The result is a collection of stories that look at not only how nature will change, but also how that change will shape society. The characters live in worlds where men trade invasive zebra mussels for whiskey, the poor receive welfare water, and children sing nursery rhymes—akin to “London Bridge is Falling Down” or “Ring Around the Rosie”—about water theft. They experience water scarcity, mass human migration, conflict between states, poverty, segregation, riots and death.

A character named Udara, for example, lives in a Chicago where the lake water is toxic and scientists genetically engineer fish to glow blue when they swim in polluted waters. Nnedi Okorafor’s story is called “Poison Fish,” but the heart of her piece is the effect polluted water has on society and on Udara herself.  Standing on a pier at Rainbow Beach, the site of infamous Chicago race riots that killed 38 people in 1919, Udara thinks about her parents, killed a year ago during a peaceful protest. Chicago is on the brink of a water riot, and Udara’s story addresses the social and racial tensions that underlie the struggle for clean water in her city. The Wall, a barrier more than 150 feet tall and 50 miles long, separates the haves from the have-nots, those who can afford to buy bottled water and those who must drink the polluted lake water, those of white middle class and those of color who live in the slums. 

By comparison, Max Andrew Debunisky’s “Thirst” has very little tension. His unnamed characters slip into the false security of inaction. “We got good, and then we got better at pretending everything was fine,” Debunisky’s narrator explains. Time drags on and water restrictions grow tighter, but still the characters continue life as normal. They go to prom, they drink coffee, they party. They even turn the rising temperature into a game, challenging each other to see who can stay under the scorching sun the longest. While the world changes around them, the main characters seem unimpressed. When they are finally forced into action, it may be futile.

Many of the stories may seem bleak or alarmist. Ecoterrorists, saboteurs, orphans and activists muck through their separate realities. Perhaps that tone is to be expected in the science fiction genre. J.P. Telotte, author of “Science Fiction TV,” participated in a New York Times commentary debating the question “Will Fiction Influence How We React to Climate Change?” He argues science fiction film does not “detail the realities of specific problems so that we might avoid them, but rather represent our most pressing cultural fears.”

For some, science fiction is the expression of our cultural anxiety—it is what we are worried will happen. A grim future isn’t the exclusive preoccupation of science fiction authors and screenwriters. Climate scientists—whose job is to separate fact from fiction—are worried, too.

Dr. Terry Root, a Stanford University professor who studies the way climate change affects animals and plants, questions how long she can continue doing her job: “All I do all day is think about how species are going extinct,” Root told Michele Morano, a creative writer. WBEZ connected with Morano early in the After Water project. Morano, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, was already calling climate scientists to ask how they emotionally handle the coming realities of climate change. “[Scientists] are not just crunching numbers and throwing out predictions,” said Morano. “They are really grappling with what climate change means and how to deal with it.”

Just as the writers handled the future differently, scientists also cope in different ways.  Listening to Morano’s interviews, Heffernan noticed a range of responses. Some scientists were distressed. Many conveyed hope. One scientist told Morano he has faith in human ingenuity and engineering. More than one told her the most important thing a person can do is focus on the impacts of climate change and action in his or her community.

Keeping the focus local was one of Heffernan’s goals for the After Water series. Climate conversations often address global issues, but she wanted to scale down the dialogue. “There is no denying that there are certain areas of the world that are going to get hit harder [by climate change],” said Heffernan, “but I wanted to make sure people knew what was going to happen in their own backyard.

“I think it’s harder for people here in the Midwest to wrap their brains around how their world could be changing.”

SLIDESHOW: 7 Stories That Imagine Life in Climate Change-Altered Chicago

Fusion of Science and Art

Explaining the science of climate change has been a challenge for scientists. Researchers have often described climate science through textbooks, PowerPoint presentations, lectures and media interviews. Looking back, some scientists question how effective that is. “Some of the ways that scientists in the past have tried to hit people over the head with the science can be alienating,” said Dr. Maxwell Boykoff, a professor at the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research in Colorado. Using fiction and other forms of art to talk about climate issues makes the science more accessible and reaches a wider audience.

However, communicating through fiction can present its own set of challenges, said Boykoff. When fiction is tethered to scientific research, the line between fact and fantasy blurs. There is even concern that overdramatizing the issue can be misleading. Transparency is key, according to Boykoff. 

Accessibility and clarity were both important to Heffernan. Because the writers could float ideas in any direction, Heffernan felt that After Water should be as transparent about the science as possible. Interviews with scientists and policy experts accompany the fiction stories on the After Water tumblr site. These detail the state of the Great Lakes now. To address the question of what could happen in the future, WBEZ hosted a public event on July 30 with actors and authors reading the stories aloud. Scientists, including Dr. Abigail Derby Lewis, were then invited to comment on the science.

Fiction and other forms of art can do more than convey information. Some scientists, including Derby Lewis, from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, embrace art as a way to engage the public. Scientists can present facts and talk about the future, but they can also listen and learn about issues important to the public. Then scientists can address people’s fears and begin a conversation about what people care about, explained Derby Lewis.

“This needs to be a two-way dialogue,” Derby Lewis said. “I think [After Water] is asking people to come to the table and bring their voices with them.”

Hannah Robbins was a summer intern at InsideClimate News.