Glaciers are melting and snowfall in many places is diminishing. But if those facts aren’t enough to inspire people to reduce their energy consumption, maybe fiction can do the trick.

During the fall semester, students in the interdisciplinary class “Where is the Science in Science Fiction?” read stories about rising sea levels, brains that are computing slower because of rising atmospheric pressure, and other topics related to anthropogenic climate change.

The faculty members who co-teach the class—Jon Miller, professor of astronomy, and Lisa Makman, lecturer of English language and literature—recognized an educational opportunity based in reality that was inspired by the fictional stories.

The exercise was intentionally small-scale. “Instead of having them merely reflect, I thought it was interesting to give them a challenge: cut energy consumption by 50 percent in a week,” Miller says. 

“They really accepted the challenge. They were biking and taking scooters more,” Miller says. “They discovered that, if they have their own dorm fridge and it’s mostly empty, they could turn it off and instead put food in a common fridge.” 

Emma Dismondy was a student in the class. “The first week we simply took stock of our electronic use, and I wrote down each thing that used electricity,” she recalls. “I put everything in the spreadsheet: the lights in my room, the fridge, microwave, my roommate’s fairy lights, every time I used the TV in the lounge.” 

In the second week, she cut down on her usage by unplugging the microwave in her room and unplugging lights when she wasn’t using them. She also didn’t drive home to see her family in Plymouth. “The biggest thing for me,” she says, “is that I have become more aware of my electronic usage in terms of my power strip. I make sure I turn off the switch whenever I’m not using it. I also try not to do a constant charge on my phone or laptop. I’ll let my phone go down to 20 or 10 percent before I charge it. Yesterday, I used my laptop and didn’t plug it in for seven hours.”

That’s the kind of lasting change the instructors were hoping for. “This generation is very familiar with apocalyptic narratives that imagine a grim future. But they also believe in themselves as agents of change in the world,” Makman says. “Students felt really good about this assignment and the way it generated optimism.”

Student Isabel Torok cut back on energy by not using her dorm fridge, which had been the main culprit in her daily energy usage. “When I actually tracked the energy I was consuming and I was able to cut back half without it really affecting my life very much,” she says. “I tended to leave the lights on in my room all day. Now when I see a light on that I don’t need, I turn it off.”

The sometimes-bleak future presented in the stories was pulled into sharper focus for students taking the class during the turmoil of a global pandemic. On the flipside, says Miller, the past couple of years also provided a backdrop of positive environmental impacts. 

“During the pandemic, people have become aware of seeing more bees and birds and butterflies in the back yard,” Miller says. “We have seen how humans not doing their typical thing can have a positive effect."

Along with many other science fiction books and stories, students read four stories about anthropogenic threats:

  • “Racing the Tide” by Craig DeLancey, in which the mayor of a small town in a sunken Florida faces a crisis of conscience
  • “The Proving Ground” by Alec Nevala-Lee, in which the main character hopes that a colony on the Marshall Islands will let her people survive sea-level rise—but some local birds present an unexpected threat
  • “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang, an epistolary in the form of a scientist’s journal entry that describes a race of air-driven mechanical beings
  • “Entanglement” by Vandana Singh, in which people confront the destructive effects of climate change around the world and support one another through an experimental network that connects people virtually at critical moments when they need inspiration and support


Illustration by Emma Bumstead