Climate Crisis Meets Flatland’s Multidimensional Imaginaries

Hand drawing of a fictional map, above which are the words "The End of Flatland"

This essay on connections between the climate crisis and the 19th century satirical novel Flatland is part of the Troubling Time series, which interrogates environmental ideas, spaces, processes, and problems through the lens of temporality. Series editors: Rebecca Laurent, Rudy Molinek, Samm Newton, Prerna Rana, and Weishun Lu.

To stop the climate crisis, societies need to look deeply into how they perceive transformations. While most debates on transformations focus on creating material innovations, let’s ask: how can members of communities most responsible for anthropogenic climate warming revolutionize their societies by looking for new possibilities in the unexplored corners of the everyday world? Surprisingly, I find reflections on this possibility echoed in the satirical fictional story, Flatland.

In 1884 Edwin A. Abbott (1838-1926) published his fantasy novella Flatland to denounce various forms of discrimination he saw in the United Kingdom during the Victorian Age. Written as a fictional memoir, Abbott draws metaphors from mathematics and describes the adventures of sentient geometric figures across various mathematical spaces. With satire and fiction, the author unveils how unjust and restricted Victorian society was and, in the process, shows us that societal transformations don’t just exist in the future. They might already be at hand, in unrealized form.

Black and white portrait photo of a man with white hair and beard. His chin rests on his hands.
Edwin Abbot in the early 20th century. Image from Wikimedia Commons

140 years later, Abbott’s dimensional metaphors still apply, as various forms of planetary injustice and restriction are magnified by the climate crisis and the ways societies and institutions are attempting to mitigate its impacts by decreasing greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. 

techno-optimist vision of climate change mitigation dominates thinking amongst many governments and industries. Yet, there is scientific agreement that the necessary societal transformations are achievable with already available technologies. The possibilities for climate change mitigation are here, now, but remain unexplored. Thus, it’s the societally imposed restrictions on re-imagination of the present that are inhibiting decarbonization. In doing so, they limit our imagination of the future of the Earth system. Currently, the inclusion of histories and worldviews from communities marginalized by global power structures in the process of mitigation is minimal. Multiple layers of the present remain overlooked but should be explored to halt GHG emissions. Reading Flatland during the climate crisis one of the novel’s themes catches my attention: the possibilities to transform the future are already present in our world, we—as elitist societies who still contribute to a worsening climate crisis —just aren’t seeing them yet.

Rules of Flatland, Rules of Today’s Societies?

In Abbott’s fictional memoir, the narrator, named A. Square, is an inhabitant of Flatland, a two-dimensional world populated by sentient geometric figures. Flatland is ruled by hierarchy and enforced social cohesion. The status of each figure is determined by the number and regularity of their sides. At the top of the social hierarchy are the circles, with their infinite sides. They can only be men. The other end of the social spectrum are women, rectangles with very limited height; they appear almost as lines. Colors are banned as they could trick the eye and create the illusion that a figure has more sides than it does. As such, by prohibiting colors “the balance of classes remains fixed.”

Social power structures inhibit our capacity for re-imagination—in service of the interests of those with power

Satirical portrayals of nineteenth-century classism and misogyny are omnipresent throughout these pages, particularly when Square describes the rules of Flatland that make material the strict societal hierarchies extant in Victorian Britain.  Reading Flatland in a time of climate crisis, I see parallels between Abbot’s satirical descriptions of the role of ideas found in the arts and humanities and current conversations I hear about climate change mitigation. These conversations have occurred across disciplines for decades, with technological innovation at the center of these debates. Given this techno-optimist bent, the arts and humanities have played a limited role, echoing Flatland, where “’Feeling’ is discouraged or absolutely forbidden […] and […] is regarded as a most serious fault.” In that two-dimensional society, power structures hinder imagination, which forces Flatlanders not to feel and, instead, prioritize time-efficiency. Imagining otherwise is a transgressive activity in Flatland.

As the plot progresses, Square visits other worlds. Possibilities appear—possibilities that are already present in Flatland but haven’t been noticed. In one-dimensional Lineland, Square meets the King. The King sees lines, while Square sees figures. Used to seeing Lineland from his perspective, the King fails to experience the same space as two-dimensional. “I fear that no words of mine can make my meaning clear to you,” Square tells the King. Square and the King are in the same place at the same time, yet Square is able to see two dimensions and the King only one. The situation is reversed when Square enters Spaceland, the land of three dimensions. “Now stretch your imagination a little,” Square hears from a three-dimensional Sphere. Square does so and is transformed, experiencing one more dimension than he has seen before. Seeing Flatland through the three dimensions of Spaceland for the first time, he realizes it’s full of beauty. Such beauty was already present, yet unnoticed because of the limited vision created by Flatland’s obstructed imaginaries.

Spatial dimensions are not the only ones to consider when imagining what the world could be like. Time is elastic, not only in Flatland. What Square experiences by traveling to Lineland and Spaceland shows that parallel dimensions unknowingly co-exist. These events speak to us, the readers of Flatland. We can also observe how multiple presents co-exist in our world, outside of the pages of this book. Imagination allows us to explore these spaces in our thoughts and create multiple presents in our minds. For us, all these presents inhabit the noosphere, what philosophers and scientists conceptualized as the highest state of the biosphere, including mental activities and human thoughts. Like in Flatland, parallel dimensions of the present already co-exist in our world.

Square’s adventures show that systems of oppression and inequalities limit the possibilities of imagination, destroying those parallel dimensions of thought. It applies also to how we are addressing the climate crisis today. There are multiple presents across multiple dimensions, while our world remains anchored in the present that power structures build for us. This poses fundamental questions to any view of climate crisis mitigation focused only on future innovation: What is the present? What possibilities of the present are we overlooking by blocking our imagination? Projecting futures while not re-imagining the present limits our possibilities for transformations. Transformations are already here in the present, flowing in an unrealized dimension, and remaining unrealized because of socially dominant institutions.

A drawing from the first edition of Flatland showing a three dimensional sphere interesting with two dimensions as it rises.
Abbott’s drawing of how a three-dimensional sphere intersects with space in lower dimensions. From the first edition of Flatland, 1884. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Decarbonizing Transportation and the Re-Imagination of the Present

Halting GHG emissions in the transportation sector provides an example of how unrealized dimensions are already present when future-focused thoughts are retrained to current possibilities of re-imagination. Public transport systems are vital to eliminating GHG emissions for socially just societies. Since the nineteenth century, trains have allowed for both short- and long-distance transport and provided significant opportunities to limit CO2 emissions. Considerable scientific evidence highlights that rail transportation, using only technologies and infrastructure already developed and deployed, can drastically decrease emissions. Recent models detail that full decarbonization by 2050 in the U.K. is possible using already-present technologies. Short- and long-distance travel compatible with this model require the expansion of the network for rail transportation simultaneously to the uptake of ready-to-deploy renewable energy technologies (such as solar PV, onshore and offshore wind) to power electric trains. 

Trains are one of the many ready-to-use answers to the climate crisis—together with other forms of public transport, cycling, and car-sharing. Yet, the role of trains has had limited space in public debates on the future of low-carbon transportation. Techno-centric interests accentuate other novelties. Electric vehicles would allow the automobile industry to be maintained, while cars are increasingly becoming bigger. Challenges on materials used to produce such vehicles are overlooked in the discourses on emission reduction for transportation, similarly to issues such as their affordability and the urban space needed to accommodate them. Along this dominant mindset, addressing the climate crisis is all about material innovations—i.e. technofixes. Techno-fixes reinforce a message that climate change mitigation cannot be re-imagined without novel innovations. Similar to a limited view of dimensionality in Flatland, imaginaries of climate change mitigation are bounded by techno-optimism’s effects on society’s ability to transform the unexplored corners of the present. In this constrained view, the possibilities of the present are disregarded in favor of futures built to serve current economic interests and power (im)balances.

Once re-imagination becomes a practice, though, the possibilities are endless, and the present feels unmoored from enforced conceptions of linear time. In Flatland, Square echoes this by saying “Nothing could stem the flow of my ecstatic aspirations […] I was intoxicated with the recent draughts of Truth to which [Sphere] had introduced me.” The present offers a multitude of experiences, glimpses of “Truth,” depending on the constraints that limit imagination. Lineland, Flatland, and Spaceland co-exist together, yet their inhabitants are trained to see their surroundings in only one way. Each dimension has its own approach which accommodates local power structures in the interest of the status quo—reconfiguration, but no revolution. 

Societal transformations might already be at hand, in unrealized form

Similarly, dominant discourses on the climate crisis frame mitigation as a market-based process, building upon neoliberal institutional structures and a consumption-production status quo that discourages re-imagination. Techno-fixes provide concealed hope: tomorrow a brand-new technology will allow us to maintain our lifestyles but will not address the core of this anthropogenic crisis. Possibilities of current realities remain unspoken. But, the potential of revolution stretches what we perceive as the present. Once Square transgresses, he exclaims “I looked, and, behold, a new world!” Spaceland is unveiled to Square because he looked at the world differently. He can witness the beauty that was already standing before him, but that he could neither see nor feel. What if our status quo and approaches to climate mitigation are no different from Flatland? What are the dimensions that we are not yet seeing?

The Politics of Re-Imagination

In Flatland, the limitation of imagination is linked to a limitation of empathy. When Squares surrenders his constraints to see in three dimensions in Spaceland, he proclaims how much more loving and merciful he feels. Likewise, allowing ourselves to imagine breaks down barriers to understanding how others perceive the same situation as us. Once again, what’s true in Flatland is also true in a world of climate change.

The inner cover of a book with a hand drawn illustration of a cloud and pentagon-shaped house. Text on the image reads "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange," "Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions, by A. Square (Edwin A. Abbott)", and "And therefore as a stranger give it welcome."
The inner cover of the first edition of Flatland, including a map of A. Square’s two dimensional home, 1884. Image from Wikipedia Commons.

Like in Flatland, the current state of the world places communities into separate dimensions, each with its own set of resources and facilities. As such, there are a plethora of climate change experiences and needs to account for when mitigating the climate crisis. Yet, these do not enter—or better, are not allowed to enter—spaces of power. If we know only what we see through a limited scope, aimed to foster the status quo, then how could we know what others are experiencing?

Abbott suggests that across dimensions the level of imagination is similar. Once Square experiences the third dimension in Spaceland, he ponders a possible fourth dimension. Spaceland’s King stops him there. He utters “let us return to business.” What at first appears as progress turns into another status quo, where people are once again blocked from re-imagining the present, even when they inhabit “progressive” places—at least, “progressive” according to dominant worldviews. This is very much visible in how our most polluting societies imagine the present reality. We generally remain unaware of experiences of the present that are occurring in different dimensions. Practicing re-imagination, then, holds the possibility of wondering, and through wonder, to plan a process that also includes others’ experiences.

Reading Flatland in the age of the climate crisis uncovers how constrained we are in not transforming our futures by being limited in our re-imagination of the present. Seeing our present times through new lenses unlocks possibilities of accessing alternate realities that already exist, but just aren’t widely perceived or prioritized. Social power structures inhibit our capacity for re-imagination—in service of the interests of those with power. The governance of Flatland is analogous to the current, dominant processes of climate change mitigation. Understanding this gives us the opportunity to break out of socially imposed paradigms and live in remarkable realities with of climate crisis mitigation that are already here in our world. They’re just waiting to be fully explored.

Featured Image: The final page of the first edition of Edwin Abbott’s novel Flatland. Hand drawn by Abbott, 1884. All images are in the public domain as the author has been deceased for more than 70 years.

Valeria Zambianchi is a PhD candidate jointly based at the Faculty of Social Sciences (KU Leuven, Belgium) and at the Faculty of Geosciences (Utrecht University, the Netherlands). She is examining the history of climate policyscapes in the UK and the effects of interactions within climate policyscapes on the uptake of solar PV and offshore wind. She is keen to research the spectrum of (in)coherent worldviews and narratives about the climate crisis, and their socio-ecological and political effects. Valeria is grateful for the suggestions of Mark Dehlsen and Denitsa Marchevska in earlier drafts, and thanks Jan Lukas Klein for sharing reflections and observations about the content of this piece. Twitter. Contact.