I have to admit some biases off the bat. Whenever someone describes themselves as a futurist—as Andrew Dana Hudson does on his website—I bristle. Probably because I don’t quite understand what a futurist is even supposed to do, but also because they sell themselves as writers/artists/activists who spend time thinking about the future, incorporating research-based probability outcomes and scenarios into their art to imagine multiple types of futures, all filtered through a litany of variables and projections. Whoever their audience is—another huge question I still have—will then input these futurist scrying-stone predictions into their capitalist think-tank machine (the RAND Corporation or Google, probably) and then … make change happen? A futurist sounds like something Elon Musk would be excited about, or a role he might even imagine himself as fulfilling.
So there’s that. (My second bias has to do with the publisher, Fordham University Press. Fordham is a Jesuit university, and I’m currently a PhD candidate at Saint Louis University, another Jesuit school. I feel obligated to say that SLU is way cooler.) But despite all of this, I think Hudson’s intellectual project here is an intriguing one and worth a look. Whether you’re a climate scientist, an ecocritic, a teacher who incorporates climate change into the curriculum, or just a lover of science fiction, Our Shared Storm has something to offer. The subtitle here is A Novel of Five Climate Futures, and the book itself requires some explanation as to what it actually is and what its goals are.
Broadly, Hudson has crafted five novelette-length stories that all share the same setting and characters, but which are each specifically reacting to different types of climate future scenarios. Each story is set in 2054 in Buenos Aires during the Conference of the Parties (or COP, which is just one of many, many acronyms in this book). “However,” Hudson explains in his introduction, “depending on which future the story takes place in, events unfold differently. The characters are different people, having lived, for the thirty-odd years between now and then, diverging lives. And, depending on the future, the COP will be a very different kind of gathering as well.” How does Hudson determine what each future will look like? Enter another acronym, the SSPs (Shared Socioeconomic Pathways), which are “a set of climate modeling scenarios” that project climate outcomes “on a chart where the axes are ‘challenges to mitigation’ and ‘challenges to adaptation.’” So each story is imagining the outcome of one of five different SSPs that Hudson adopts and adapts. If you’ve seen the “Remedial Chaos Theory” episode of Community, you know what you’re in for.
It should be noted that Hudson is not making these models up wholesale, but instead incorporating scenario-thinking and climate models that have existed for several years and/or decades, developed for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In this way the text is a useful teaching tool for anyone invested in contemporary conversations around climate change. While Hudson makes some oversights (as any scenarios thinking model will), any reader will come away from this book with a stronger grasp on what the climate change controversies actually are, the parties involved that ultimately determine how or what change is made, and the socio-political and cultural context against which these decisions unfold.
Since the bulk of this text revolves around scenarios-thinking, I think it’s helpful to detail what those scenarios are, even in brief. According to Hudson, since 2017 these SSPs are narratively figured in a language of “the roads ahead,” and they summarize in broad strokes what the climate future will look like, again, according to axes that chart challenges to mitigation and adaptation. Hudson writes:
SSP1 is the sustainability pathway—“taking the green road” … challenges to both mitigation and adaptation are low, and so the world makes a relatively smooth transition to more sustainable lifestyles and economies focused on human well-being … SSP2 is a “middle of the road” scenario … development and climate change proceed unevenly … no single trend swerves our current trajectories … SSP3 is a scenario where both mitigation and adaptation challenges are high, producing a “rocky road” … nations focus on preserving their own energy and resource security … SSP4 is a “road divided,” defined by inequality … poor countries and poor people experience much worse impacts from climate change than the wealthy … SSP5 is called “taking the highway” … a world where little is done to curb emissions … the world looks to technology and geoengineering to solve the climate crisis.
This is pretty much the roadmap of the book, as each story plays out according to these economic pathways, and Hudson lays it all out nicely in his introduction. If you, like me, had never heard of any of these acronyms before, now you know. And knowing is half the battle.
Because of this concept-first approach, the characters that you’ll meet—Noah, Luis, Saga, and Diya—all become interchangeable ciphers for whatever geopolitical or cultural stand-in they’re supposed to represent. I personally don’t find this too much of an issue, but those looking for deeper characterization may be disappointed. Of course, these are also novelettes, which is like the baby version of a novella, itself the baby of the novel, so there’s not as much real estate to develop—especially when Hudson’s primary concern is science communication more than the intimacy of specific human experiences. While these characters retain some similarities through each story, part of the practice of reading Hudson’s text is deciphering how each character has been impacted by the global circumstances surrounding climate change, and how that particular climate response resonates differently across class, gender, race, and national spectrums. What circumstances surround Noah’s pivot from a sincere if disillusioned policy-maker in one story to a capitalist schill in another? Does Saga’s role as an international pop star create a greater environmental impact than her role as a negotiator for impoverished countries? There is a certain charm in seeing these characters occupy different roles, and it provides a sufficiently solid through-line that helps link the stories, and provides a set of useful reference points in analyzing the impact of policy decisions and cultural shifts.
Due to the nature of their fairly prescriptive composition, Hudson’s stories can feel repetitive and episodic. They are, though, dense with information and brimming with ideas. In proper futurist fashion, Hudson extrapolates several technological, social, and cultural possibilities, both intriguing and depressing. My favorite is from the third story, “Too Fast to Fail,” which is based on SSP5 and basically a capitalist hellscape. In this scenario Luis works for Noah on a project titled Ark: Build It Before the Rain (more of a brand than actual strategy or technology). This “uses state-of-the-art deep unlearning to predict and manage an ever-accelerating future … an adaptation platform you’ll want to invest in and use yourself.” Anyway, Luis drives a car through a neverstorm (climate change-fueled superstorms) and “turned his wipers on low, then up to the super-fast speed you had to swipe your credit card to activate, because they wore out the blades.” The capital-operated wiper blades are a small detail, but SSP5 is actually the most believable of these futures, because it’s basically the one where capitalism just continues like normal and doubles down on marketing and capitalizing on catastrophe: it’s full of the boringly depressing realities of a car that requires a credit card swipe just to see through the rain. Hudson’s pie-in-the-sky future (SSP1) is full of equally engaging thought experiments, but it’s much easier for me to believe that catastrophe tourism will become a thing before the world’s billionaire class decide to voluntarily invest their wealth in a global fund dedicated to mitigating climate change. I’m probably revealing the lack of my own imagination in comprehending something beyond capitalism, but contemporary billionaires are busy investing billions of dollars into penis rockets to blast into space to colonize Mars. So it goes.
I mentioned at the start some oversights in Hudson’s work, and they emerge early. The first paragraph, even. “As grim as things are,” Hudson writes, “I believe we still have options. Depending on the choices we make now and in the next couple of decades, we can steer into or serve away from the worst of the damage still to come. We can reduce our emissions … we can shore up our cities, agriculture, and infrastructure … we can fall in disarray and civilizational ruin – definitely an option!” (My emphasis added). I don’t know about you, but I am very tired of hearing people tell me that we can individual-responsibility our way out of systemic problems. There’s nothing we, the readers of Hudson’s work, can do to significantly deter global emissions, unless you happen to be a billionaire and/or world leader—and the impulse to appeal to a universal humanity degrades climate change into an issue of personal choice. Climate change is fueled by a handful of powerful historical and contemporary forces, and they’re each rooted in global imperialism, extraction, and the transformation of human bodies into capital. Hudson is a futurist, which seems to involve a disregard for the historical circumstances of the moment; but his work needs to be read alongside Black and indigenous environmental scholarship that locates the consequences of climate change within a history attuned to the Atlantic slave trade and European (read white) imperialism. An example would be Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018), in which she also bristles at the “we” gesture: “to be included in the ‘we’ of the Anthropocene is to be silenced by a claim to universalism that fails to notice its subjugations, taking part in a planetary condition in which no part was accorded in terms of subjectivity.” Hudson definitely signals an awareness of global inequality, both through his characters and the policies his stories explore; but his assessment of climate change remains anthro-centric and therefore Euro/white-centric. In this way, for all the emphasis on imagination, the text struggles to imagine a scenario where the world’s climate problems aren’t solved by a bunch of powerful people representing powerful interests talking to each other.
In an essay that closes Our Shared Storm, Hudson imagines his work as what he terms “post-normal fiction,” which “can be a tool for making sense and meaning out of the enormity of the climate crisis; for creating narratives that drive positive collective action on climate; and for exploring the possibility spaces of diverse climate futures.” Coining a new term is definitely an unfortunate academic impulse, but his description of the project as a tool is productive. As someone who teaches literature to undergraduate students, Hudson’s work represents a potentially generative resource for introducing the basics of climate science and the controversies around climate fiction to an audience that might only be cursorily familiar with the conversation. It’s not necessarily compelling as much as it is informative fiction, and I admire Hudson’s commitment to foregrounding communication and instruction within his narratives. While Hudson might argue that the book adopts multiple political and cultural viewpoints, its mere existence as a text designed to engage honestly with climate change grants it a decidedly political edge that is refreshing and earnest.