Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction

Photograph by Boaz Ng


words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an aerial view of the latest events in climate and culture—and how they all fit together.

Photograph by Boaz Ng
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“Fantasy is hardly an escape from reality. It’s a way of understanding it.”


I have always loved fantasy and fairy tales. I love being transported to other worlds, and the power that storytelling has to transform our understandings of our own. If I were to psychoanalyze myself, I might argue that was because, as a trans person, my external world never quite lined up with the one I experienced inside. We draw boundaries and binaries between fantasy and reality, but the truth is more blurred. Fantasy and reality inform one another, and either can be helpful or harmful depending on whether or not they are in balance.


It’s been a while since I’ve kept up with what’s going down the catwalks, but from what I understand, surrealism is making a resurgence in fashion—no doubt due to the very surreal state of the world. On Tuesday, I watched a blood red sun make its way across an apocalyptic-looking New York City skyline, hazy with particles from the forest fires currently raging on the other side of the country (the worst the city’s air quality has been in 15 years). Scenes like this, alongside sweltering heatwaves and deadly floods across the world, make the times we are living in feel like fiction.


The climate crisis reveals the dark side of fantasy: denialism. On the one hand, I understand; eco-anxiety is real, and sometimes it all feels like a little too much to deal with. On the other hand, I am mystified at how anyone can read the news or walk outside and act like we aren’t in a planetary emergency. Escapism is how we got here; perpetuating it is only going to make matters worse. And besides, how many fairy tales have you read where the protagonist runs away? How many mythologies come down to the moral that our fears don’t need to be faced?


“We are in the beginning of mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth,” Greta Thunberg said in her now-famous speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit. Her words ring no less true two years later when the wealthy are racing into space to seek new frontiers—despite the disasters unfolding below. As former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich put it in a tweet: “Is anyone else alarmed that billionaires are having their own private space race while record-breaking heatwaves are sparking a ‘fire-breathing dragon of clouds’ and cooking sea creatures to death in their shells?” 


In “The Amazonification of Space Begins in Earnest” published by the New York Times this week, David Streitfeld and Erin Woo assess the larger implications of billionaire space travel and the commercialization of it. It’s a particularly poignant title, speaking not only to Jeff Bezos’s company, but also the rainforest—which has recently hit its tipping point, now emitting more carbon dioxide than it absorbs thanks to industrialization and extraction. However, the article misses a critical angle. Not only does the space race attempt to escape our problems here on Earth, it exacerbates them. According to the Guardian, one rocket can produce as much as 300 tons of carbon dioxide that lingers in the upper atmosphere.


Imagine what might happen if all of the time, resources, and creative energy spent attempting to escape our problems went toward solving them. This is where fantasy can be a powerful ally, and why the arts play a critical role in this movement. As artist and climate justice leader Favianna Rodriguez told Yessenia Funes on The Frontline this week: “​​The power of art and culture is that it speaks to our heart. It speaks to our emotions, but it also opens up our imagination to show us what’s possible. It takes us to another world, and we can experience that world.”


A defining aspect of fables is that they convey a lesson to be learned. There are many morals we could draw from the stories we read in the news today—which feel equal parts parable and reportage—about how greed is all-consuming and how destructive delusions of grandeur can be. It’s up to us what we decide to do with those messages: what new narratives we can create, what legends of regeneration, and tales of retethering we can write into reality. As Tom Robbins once penned: “A better world has gotta start somewhere. Why not with you and me?”

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