Johan Höglund

Militarizing the Anthropocene: Security, Militant Futures and American Climate Fiction

This American studies project focusses a dominant trend in US climate fiction that depicts future ecological collapse as a time of endemic military conflict. The project relates this fiction to a context where the climate crisis further enhances already existing geopolitical tensions. The US military, ambiguously placed as one of the foremost contributors to climate change but also as the organisation most immediately tasked with maintaining US national security, is consequently preparing to “adapt” (Marzec 2015, 3) to the crisis by securing borders and vital resources, in the process promoting an understanding of the climate crisis as revolving around national security rather than planetary survival. Theoretically informed by the emergent field of literary security studies (Watson 2016, Voelz 2017), the central aim of the project is to show how US climate fiction participates in this securitization of the climate crisis narrative. The study’s resulting monograph is the first to consider the role that military violence plays in climate fiction at this critical juncture in international relations and planetary ecology. The study importantly reveals that US climate fiction, produced not only by individual novelists but also by creative industries sponsored by the military, actively contribute to the mediation of security and thus to the way in which the management of the climate crisis can be imagined and achieved.
Final report
The purpose of the project was to finalize a monograph on how American climate fiction describes a climate-changed future as a time of endemic military conflict. Theoretically and methodologically, the project drew on the emerging field of literary security studies, but it also turned towards the type of world-literature studies introduced by Franco Moretti and further developed by The Warwick Research Collective. The former theory enables the reading of American climate fiction as part of, but also a critical commentary on, the security thinking that permeates much American political and societal discourse, and that regards the climate crisis as a national security challenge rather than a global, ecological, and economic crisis. The latter made it possible to read American climate fiction as an expression from the core of what Immanuel Wallerstein has called the capitalist world-system. When American climate fiction is considered as an expression emerging from a specific location in this world-system, it is easier to understand why it reproduces certain security discourses and geopolitical tensions. The project further utilized research by sociologists such as John Bellamy Foster and environmental historians such as Jason W. Moore who demonstrate that the current climate crisis has not been produced by humans as a species but by the capitalist world-system. The perspectives provided by these scholars were crucial for understanding the relationship between the military processes and the economic systems that much American climate fiction centers and that is important to the climate crisis as general phenomenon.

The monograph reporting the project is titled "The American Climate Emergency Narrative". It will be published Open Access in the spring of 2024 by Palgrave Macmillan in series New Comparisons in World Literature. This text revises significant portions of the existing research on the climate narrative. When I began the project, climate fiction was generally considered a new genre based on existing climate research, offering readers or audiences the opportunity to understand to live in a future where the average global temperature has risen significantly. Climate fiction researchers have even claimed that climate fiction can suggest ”pathways” out of the climate crisis. While such texts exist (my concluding chapter describes some of them), my research shows that much American climate fiction is involved in an entirely different project, and that origins of the genre can be traces far back in time. The key findings of the project can be summarized as follows:

1. The monograph shows that American climate fiction rarely revolves around the climate itself or the processes that have produced the ongoing crisis. Much of this fiction is also not especially interested in describing sustainable paths out of the crisis. Instead, this type of text often depicts a situation where American military forces or individuals are involved in a conflict which purpose is not to restore sustainable frameworks for the global ecosystem but rather to extend the US's control over the capitalist world-system that can be said to have caused the current climate crisis. The monograph further demonstrates that the majority of American climate fiction expresses the fear that American global dominance is ending and that the current world-system, and the comforts it generates for a specific group of people, is collapsing. In other words, much American climate fiction views the climate crisis as an emergency for capitalism and for the American nation-state as the standard-bearer of capitalism. It is with this in mind that I propose the concept of the American climate emergency narrative as a better name for this group of texts.

2. The project revised the current understanding of the literary and material origins and history of the climate narrative, this by tying it to literary research that has explored how stories are made possible by, and simultaneously describe, specific stages of American industrial and military history. With this literary-historical macro perspective, I was also able to show how this view of the relationship between humans, nature, modernity, security, and the military became increasingly important during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and how the security thinking that permeates much American climate fiction is expressed in numerous texts published long before the concept of the climate novel (cli-fi) was introduced.

3. The monograph is also the first publication to demonstrate how the American climate emergency narrative has become a tool for the network of companies, political interests, military authorities, and entertainment industries that generate capital, that are responsible for the national security of the American nation-state, and that produce stories for both the nation and the global society. (James Der Derian calls this network the Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, and MacKenzie War refers to it as The Military Entertainment Complex). A good example of how this network functions and how it generates narrative is the fact that the U.S. Department of Defense has funded extremely violent climate stories staged by Hollywood studios. In these films, the climate crisis takes on a monstrous form, forcing the American military to violently quell a rebellious planet. In this way, the military is portrayed as the only entity capable of handling and solving the emergency that the climate crisis constitutes.

4. Finally, my monograph contributes by exploring how the theoretical perspective of world-literature studies can be used to examine culture emerging from the core of the world-system. The world-literature perspective posits that texts tend to record a specific experience of the capitalist world-system. In the peripheries where metals are mined, oil is extracted, or cheap labor is sourced, the prevailing world-system is experienced as extractive and violent, and how this experience is narrated has so far been the focus of much research produced by world-literature scholars (see WReC 2015, Michael Niblett 2020). My project breaks new ground by using this perspective to focus on culture from the metropolitan core. This is a place where metal is transformed into cars and buildings, oil becomes plastic, electronics, and energy, and cheap labor becomes similarly cheap consumer goods. In other words, from this core position, the same system that creates difficult conditions in the periphery appears as benevolent, natural, and indispensable. This theoretical perspective explains why so many American climate stories produced in the core of the world-system describe the climate crisis as an emergency for capitalism and why military violence is often portrayed as necessary and inevitable when the US state attempts to address the existing crisis. In the concluding chapter of the monograph, I contrast the American climate emergency narrative with texts written from other positions within a socially stratified USA.

These research results are significant not only for those studying climate fiction but also for the environmental humanities in general. By showing how certain discourses focusing on national security and viewing military violence as a solution move in and out of cultural media, my project can stimulate research that encounters the same narrow worldview. By reading the origin of the American climate narrative alongside the origin of the current American military and economic hegemony, the project can inspire fields such as energy humanities and climate humanities research in general. My findings also raise new research questions. Are climate narratives from different Western European countries or from the Nordic region similar to those from the US? How does fiction from the Global South narrate climate change? Can this literature also be traced back in time? Can postcolonial literature be read as a kind of early and radical climate novel? What type of understanding of the climate crisis hinders rational and sustainable solutions? Some of these questions are central to the new externally funded project that I am currently involved and that also sheds new light on climate fiction.

My stay at the University of Southern Denmark was of great importance for the development of the project. The opportunity to discuss my monograph's main thesis and chapters with colleagues from another university was crucial for how my research progressed. Equally important was the fact that I had the opportunity to leave my workplace for extended periods of time. This clearly signaled that I was on sabbatical and created a vital peace of mind even when I was at my own university. Throughout the project, I have connected with a large number of other researchers in Sweden and abroad who also explore climate fiction or work within the environmental humanites. Such meetings occurred when in Denmark and when I presented chapters of the monograph to various audiences. I specifically want to mention the following occasions: I was invited to discuss the project by the Swedish Institute for North American Studies (SINAS) in November 2021, and by the English Research Seminar at the University of Gothenburg in September 2022, and I was one of the plenary speakers at the research school Environments: "Extinct, Envisioned, Evolving", which brought together doctoral students from various Danish universities. I presented one of the monograph's chapters at the European Association of American Studies conference in Madrid in April 2022 and at the Humanities Research Writing Workshop 1 and 2, which took place in August 2021 and March 2022 in Höör. In addition to this, I presented my work at the Ecofiction in the Capitalocene event, October 8-9, 2021, at Linnaeus University in Växjö. As I continue exploring the field, the network that these meetings produced is enormously useful.
Grant administrator
Linneaeus University, Växjö
Reference number
SEK 1,146,000
RJ Sabbatical
Cultural Studies