“People think that stories are shaped by people; it fact, it’s the other way around.”
—Terry Pratchett, from his novel Witches Abroad
Science fiction, especially the adolescent genre of climate fiction or “clifi,” is notorious for its cautionary tales about the future. Epic dystopias of ecological collapse due to human failure, such as Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, may be great literature, but I would argue (as I did in my previous post) they aren’t that great for actually motivating people to action.
People tend to be motivated by solutions that seem both desirable and attainable, and even better if all our friends want them, too. But science fiction stories with happier endings are scarce. I’d like to believe that’s not because they don’t make for great literature.
Thus, there is a need for more stories that get people saying, “Now that’s a future I’d want! What can I do to make sure that’s the future we get?”
That’s why I am excited to be part of a team that recently launched a writing contest called “Our Waters, Our Future,” a call for short stories that counter dystopian visions and, instead, aim to seed public discourse with solutions-oriented visions of a resilient and desirable future for water and people. United by our belief in the power of the human imagination to shape our future, the contest team includes the UW-Madison Water Sustainability and Climate project (of which I’m part) and Center for Limnology, Madison Magazine, Sustain Dane, and the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters.
Why stories about water? We all know water is essential to our lives and to those of future generations, and many of us feel some sort of connection to it, especially in this land of lakes. It is also intertwined with many of our society’s “issues,” like food, energy, and social equity.
Moreover, big changes, like a warming world and growing populations, are bringing big challenges for our waters and communities. Ensuring we build a desirable future, given these changes, entails imagining what that future looks like and sharing those visions with each other. “Our Waters, Our Future” serves as a platform for this sort of storytelling.
The contest is a spin-off of Yahara 2070, a set of four scientifically-plausible stories about the future of the Yahara Watershed, the land surrounding Yahara lakes that includes Madison. The Water Sustainability and Climate project created these “what if” scenarios using public input and scientific modeling to estimate possible future outcomes for the region’s water and people based on different ways to address present-day water, land-use, and climate challenges. But these stories are just four of the many stories we could tell about the region’s future.
Through this contest, we hope to gather more “what if” stories. Specifically, we are seeking short stories (1500 to 2000 words) that are scientifically plausible and reflect a positive vision of the future for both water and people in the Yahara Watershed and/or the affiliated counties of Dane, Rock, and Columbia. The reason for these geographical boundaries is, in part, to echo the place-based nature of Yahara 2070. But you do not need to live in this region to enter. Anyone who resides or attends school in Wisconsin and is 18 years or older can submit a story. We recognize many people have a connection with this region, even if they don’t currently live there. And perhaps this contest can provide a template for a future contest with a statewide geographical scope.
I encourage you to check out the contest website for the full details and to submit a story. The submission deadline is February 1, 2016. The winner will be announced at a World Water Day event in March hosted by the Wisconsin Academy. Madison Magazine will publish the winning story in their June 2016 issue, and Sustain Dane will provide awards from local businesses to top finalists. We may even create an anthology of the finalists (fingers crossed that we get a lot of great submissions!). We are also pondering what else this contest could give rise to—if any readers have ideas, please get in touch with me at email@example.com.
When we launched this contest at the Badger Bioneers conference last week, the announcement followed an inspiring talk by writer and sci-fi scholar Adrienne Maree Brown, who invited everyone to give positive science fiction—what she calls visionary fiction—a shot. We agree. You don’t need to be a professional writer to enter this contest. You just need to believe in the power of your own imagination. Help us write the future.