MIND MELD: Ecological Science Fiction
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
The recent United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, also known as Rio 2012 or Rio+20, where the heads of state of 192 governments discussed sustainable development and declared their commitment to the promotion of a sustainable future, has – even if for a short while – galvanized the media attention. Science fiction, however, has never turned its back on ecology, being a constant theme, growing strong particularly in the past few years, with authors ranging from the master ecothinker Kim Stanley Robinson to younger and prolific Paolo Bacigalupi, all focusing in strategies to survival of humankind under a grim scenario of climate change.
So, we asked this week’s panelists:
Here’s what they said…
Is potable water really that huge of a threat, I wonder? I think my background actually plays into my answer here. I spent my high school years in exactly the sort of dystopia that people posit when talking about ‘peak water’ or ‘water wars.’ In St. Thomas, USVI, the sole spring doesn’t produce much in the way of potable water for the 150,000 or so people on the island at any given time (residents plus tourists). As a result, water is made using reverse osmosis from the ocean. There’s a lot of ocean in the world, well over some 1 billion cubic kilometers. What happens is price. The reverse osmosis system requires energy (in St. Thomas it’s diesel power, so the whole edifice of being able to drink there requires fossil fuels) to be created, and the cost of water I grew up using was $65 per 1,000 gallons, versus $1.50 in Ohio for the very same amount. I grew up with water costing 50 times what it does in the US. What does it do? Well, it changes your conservation behavior, for one. I remember reading in the papers that Californians were in a drought, and being told to limit their showers to ‘fifteen minutes’ and laughing. Who the hell took fifteen minute showers? That shit was expensive.
But even at over 50 times the cost, we didn’t don our Mad Max American Football-inspired leather uniforms and head out to do battle. There were water trucks, more conservation, more awareness of water use, and lots of clever human hacks around the situation (roofs that collected rain, cisterns, etc). People are clever.
But I do think the important line in there is that we used Diesel to make our water, and that was a major part of the cost (gas in the islands is expensive because you have to use gas to ship the gas there). Once you burn a fossil fuel, instead of doing something really useful to it like turn it into plastic which can be recycled, you lose it forever. It goes through a change state. And to scoff at peak oil demonstrates silliness. You may disagree with how much fossil fuels are packed away under the earth and when we *will* peak, but you can’t argue that the supplies are *infinite* and that we’ll *never* peak because that just ignores reality. The supplies are finite. There was only so much biomass turned into fossil fuel over the millions of years, and plastic is way more of a necessity in the long run so we can have cheap cool things like gadgets and furniture.
For me in the beginning I saw SF was always a literature that talked about the future. Grappled and wrestled with it. I’ve come to believe that it’s just as much a genre about the present. A mirror to who we are and what we’re trying to do. And as such, I think SF’s role in talking about this kind of stuff is… well, there’s lots of stuff to talk about. I mean, if SF thinks its really a literature about the future it would be nice to see more engagement, but we’re here to entertain as well. Not lecture. If you can figure out how to do this in a way that gets readers engaged with the text and not feel lectured, sure, get on that. I’ve been enjoying grappling with it in some stories and with my last novel. But I’m not sure it’s an imperative. I would like to see more stuff that grapples in interesting ways, just because we know that the genre has such an impact on scientists and inventors. So many people attribute SF to sparking their imagination and going on to work in space programs or science labs. So yeah, I think there’s a tremendous positive, but we don’t need any diktats handed down, do we?
So what are my favorite SFnal scenarios about this stuff? I really pay attention to Paolo Bacigalupi’s musings on the future of a ‘calorie society,’ though I think he’s a bit optimistic about what a calorie society would look like. Before oil we used to have a ‘calorie’ society, and we saw what it looked like: animals and slaves. When Cuba collapsed briefly into a post-oil state when Russia stopped shipping cheap gas to them, they had oxen pulling buses, until things recovered. That’s a taste of animal power. We all know about horses pulling carriages. But the flip side of lack of cheap energy is that mercantilism, corporatism, and capitalism can make a leap back in thinking: hey, if we can force people to take lower and lower wages to increase profits, and if corporations keep trying to get around that and hire illegal immigrants to farm for less than minimum wage, trying to get free labor is an end point of a slippery slope. The arguments made by southern politicians against abolishing slavery, if you pick them up and read them, are not all that different from modern day corporate-speak about the ‘unfortunate need’ to use poor people overseas for human capital, as well as the language about the need to abolish minimum wage. I know some people of a certain political stripe are already warming up their keyboards to get angry at me, but seriously, go read oral arguments for slavery of the time. The acknowledgement is made about how horrible its made, but then the counter argument is then forwarded that ‘it’s necessary for the economy and goods, for capitalism to move forward.’ I don’t think it’s a good argument (being someone who has the genetic and racial heritage that means I would likely be a target and on the wrong side of that), but it’s one that will resonate.
This is why I’m a fan of energy (even dirty fossil fuels): It really helps take slavery off the table. And slavery has often been the answer to a calorie based society through the ages, and peasantry and feudalism where it wasn’t. Modern life as I enjoy it is based on the necessity of good access to energy. Which is why I have become interested in it. I don’t want it to go away for us.
The science fictional scenarios where we get access to free energy via cold fusion interest me. Although, I really think we’re still trying to grasp what a post-fossil good energy society will be like. And a massive chip-in-every place we can put it society. Karl Schroeder is playing in this vein in interesting ways, particularly in Lady of Mazes. I have to think, if the jump from calorie society to somewhat cheap fuel is the difference between the 1800s and today, the leap next is fairly fascinating.
If we can make it.
Is that all worth grappling with in science fiction?
I’d like to think so.
What is science fiction’s role in a world characterized by limited resources and global warming? To show the consequences if we do nothing or too little; and to show what can be done, what kind of world we can build if we dare. The first can be described as, If this goes on. The second is, What if?
People need to know – in a concrete, specific way they can see and feel – how dangerous the current situation is; and they need to know that Margaret Thatcher’s dreadful aphorism TINA – There Is No Alternative – is wrong.
Writers can do this through cautionary stories that portray a future depleted and ruined Earth, or through stories that show environmental problems being met and solved. My own bias is toward stories that show how problems can be solved. It’s a more cheerful kind of fiction.
What are your favorite SF-nal scenarios for problem solving? Global warming and environmental collapse present us with two kinds of problems: technological and political/economic. The most difficult right now is a political system that is gridlocked and an economic system that seems to have reached a stage of auto-predation, when it consumes what it previously built, rather than building anything new. This is not a good place to be, when we must rebuild the planet. Real world solutions to our current problems must address politics and economics; and fictional solutions really ought to give a think to them. Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy — Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting — is my favorite SF treatment of global warming, because it focuses on politics.
I have read more cautionary tales than stories that focused on specific technical solutions. Either I haven’t read the right stories, or science fiction is more about problems than solutions. I have to admit that I’ve been reading nonfiction and fantasy recently. There may be terrific science fiction out there, which I have missed.
We have a lot of solutions in the real world, though we are not putting them into use rapidly enough. The obvious one is conservation. Beyond that is wind power, solar power, geothermal power, hydro – including tides and the motion of waves.
In addition, there is geo-engineering. I like the idea of space parasols to reduce the sunlight reaching Earth, though there are problems with this. What will it do to the weather? And will plants get enough light? There is also dumping iron in the ocean or sulphates in the upper atmosphere. Conservation and alternative energy seem less risky than geo-engineering, but I suspect we will have to try geo-engineering; and geo-engineering has an obvious appeal to SF writers and readers. I really want those space parasols.
There are also possible biological solutions. Bacteria are amazing little critters. In theory, they can be used to clean up pollution, create food and make petroleum, which we are going to need for plastics, among other useful things.
I am pretty sure the world’s population is going to drop, either due to social changes – birth rates are going down worldwide right now — or due to catastrophe. James Lovelock says the planet’s human population will be one billion by the end of this century. An 85% drop in world population by 2100 would make a lot of our problems less severe, though it wouldn’t be pleasant to live through.
Most of all we need to allocate wealth away from finance, the rich and the ‘free market’ to the human race in general and to the problems the world faces. Technological solutions are going to require a lot of money and planning. Science fiction needs to talk about all of this.
I don’t think a market economy works in this kind of situation. Instead, we are likely to need a command economy like the one the US used during World War II or the kind of autonomous economy we see in the Spanish Mondragon Co-op. (Mondragon is the seventh largest company is Spain. In 2009 the American United Steel Workers signed an agreement with Mondragon to work on the creation of workers co-ops in the US.)
We need to imagine a world where wealth is widely distributed; people use far less energy; and fear, greed and mindless consumption do not drive society. This would be my favorite solution, though I am sure there are SF writers who imagine a world where capitalism and the ‘free market’ solve all our current problems.
Is there any scenario that science fiction could be exploring better? We need to be less despairing; and we need to address political and economic issues.
Well, if I might put my day-job hat on before responding to your first question: there’s no fear that we might be running out of potable water. It is already happening. A little-mentioned component of the grand neoliberal project to turn every damned thing into a tradeable commodity for the benefit of the parasitic rentier classes is the buying up of natural resources from poor nations sent to the IMF’s sin-bin; rainforest logging rights are a long-running example. Put it this way: if the venal scumbags at Citigroup are already saying that water-as-tradeable-commodity will be a bigger deal than oil, we can assume that a) they know whereof they speak, and b) they’ll go through the water rights of the developing world like a wolverine through a chicken hutch, just as soon as someone’s stupid enough to frame a legal method for them doing so, if not sooner.
So, what is sf’s role in this situation in which we find ourselves? It was once way out in the eco-futures vanguard; Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, Ballard’s assorted ecopocalypses, the market-ruled futures of the cyberpunks… like some sort of ecohipster, sf was worried about the future of the biosphere way before it was cool. But I look at sf now and I see a genre which assumes that we’re ecologically screwed. Given sf’s obsession with rational extrapolation, it’s easy to see why; the more data we acquire to support scientific models of climate, the more stridently the paid shills and their dupes shriek denial. The more we learn about how carbon dioxide is dooming the only environmental system that can sustain more than a handful of human lives at a time, the more of the stuff we release into the atmosphere. The bus is headed for the cliff-edge, and the folk who duped us into letting them drive are drunk at the wheel, preparing to jump just before the edge looms up. Viewed in this context, sf’s role in the ecological debates is surely some crude hybrid of the band playing on while the Titanic goes down and Charlton Heston’s final lines in Planet Of The Apes.
Part of me would like to be able to see sf – and other artforms – playing some useful polemical role, but the older I get the more I suspect that polemic art merely fires up those already inclined to support the cause while further repelling those opposed to it. I’m also wary of saying art has a duty to do anything beyond what its creator intends it to achieve. Speaking for myself as a creator, I’m past thinking I can change people’s minds at any useful or even measurable scale. My stories are a process whereby I try to come to terms with the parts of the world that trouble me, and I assume whatever appeal they have rests in resonances with the experiences of those who read them; I suspect it is the same for many writers of far greater experience and skill than myself. As such, I suspect that sf’s best role in the ecological situation is to act as a forum wherein we can rehearse our fears. Literature, much as we love it, was never going to save the world. The best we can hope is that it might make the world a little more bearable.
So as to avoid ending on a very bleak note, however, I’d mention that certain techniques which have their roots in sfnal speculation are becoming part of the praxis of the sciences and engineering. Speculative foresight, scenario analysis, design fiction, speculative urbanism, creative prototyping, systems thinking, dynamic modelling… at long last, the sciences are coming to terms with the fact that their actions have an effect on the future, and trying to assess those risks before they’re taken. I’m very pleased to be involved with this sort of work, as are a growing number of smart people who want to steer us toward a brighter, cleaner and fairer future for everyone, everywhere.
But there are hard sacrifices to be made, and the oil-tanker of technoscience takes a long time to turn. Whatever those lips slick with oil money might say, we know what it’ll take to save ourselves; we’ve known for decades. Whether we can avoid the reefs ahead is a question of political will alone. Can sf generate or modify political will? I don’t know – and increasingly, I’m ashamed to say, I doubt it. But it allows us to explore possibilities, and to rehearse rhetorics, in a way that other literature cannot… so perhaps the best thing we can do is keep grinding out our dystopias of environmental collapse and corporate greed, reminding ourselves and each other of what’s at stake. Because as grim as things look on this front, I’m not ready to lay down and let the bastards win just yet.
1) SF’s role as regards global warming and scarcity of resources.
First, I see a difference between what SF’s role in this regards is (has been so far), and what it could be. Science fiction’s main role in the ecological and environmental debate to date is to be the person shouting ‘Fire!’, very often and quite loud.
The entry on ‘ECOLOGY’ (written by Brian Stableford) in the online SF Encyclopedia is, as far as I can see, taken verbatim—except for an added paragraph about ‘Ruined Earth’ stories—from the last paper version in 1993: it gives a nice overview (even if it omits several important ecological SF novels such as John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up) that is also almost twenty years outdated. It does list a great number of ecological disaster novels (the first one dating from 1938) running the gamut from John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, Brian Aldiss’s Earthworks and J.G. Ballard’s The Wind from Nowhere/The Drowned World/The Burning World/The Crystal World through Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang and David Brin’s Earth (among many, many others).
If that litany of ‘the-world-will-end-in-eco-catastrophe’ isn’t enough, there are the so-called ecological ‘Ruined Earth’ novels—such as Alfred Bester’s Adam and No Eve, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home and several more, up to and including Paul Ehrlich’s “Ecocatastrophe” short story presenting a condensed version of his The Population Bomb book—that depict a world gone to ecological hell après la lettre.
Brian Stableford’s ‘Emortality’ series of novels (The Cassandra Complex/Inherit the Earth/Dark Ararat/Architects of Emortality/The Fountains of Youth/The Omega Expedition/The Dragon Man: A Novel of the Future) would fit in the ’Ruined Earth’ mold, depicting a large-scale economic and ecological collapse in the 21st Century brought about by Climate Change—amongst other factors—after which a society of humans with very long life spans (‘emortality’ as opposed to the impossible ideal of ‘immortality’) takes over.
The eco-catastrophe-cum-Ruined-Earth novel continues until today, where Paolo Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl, Ship Breaker, The Drowned Cities) is its most vehement proponent amidst a flurry of (topical) ecological SF thrillers from both the genre (Stephen Baxter’s Flood, Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, to name but a few) and the mainstream (even called ‘eco-lit’ : Ian McEwan’s Solar, Matthew Glass’s Ultimatum and many others).
After screaming ‘Fire! Fire!’ for so long and so loud, one might wonder if science fiction is also manning the fire guard, or is—at least—spreading out tips about fire prevention. If expecting this, one would be quite disappointed.
The first “constructive”—these quotes are very deliberate—reaction of the SF genre was Eco-Mysticism, where the power of Gaia will set things right (OK: I’m exaggerating here, but not by much). It runs through Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Frank Herbert’s Dune and The Green Brain, John Varley’s Titan and Wizard and—most prominently—Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia.
The sole prominent exception—that I’m aware of: do feel free to correct me on this, and give many more examples!—is Kim Stanley Robinson. His 80’s ‘Three Californias’ trilogy: The Wild Shore/The Gold Coast/Pacific Edge shows, roughly speaking, humanity ignoring technology, then humanity overindulging in technology—both leading to disastrous results—and finally humanity finding a balance between using technology and living sustainably with the environment. Even as Pacific Edge reads as a Utopian novel, it is not without conflict and tragedy.
In his ‘Science in the Capital’ series—Forty Signs of Rain/Fifty Degrees Below/Sixty Days and Counting—he again explores the consequences of Global Warming, but here lets things go to the brink of disaster (and quite a bit over it: the Gulf Stream fails, for one) before a modicum of sanity sets in and, if not actually saving the day, keeps hold of what’s left of it.
2) SFnal scenarios for problem-solving with regards to the maintenance and sustainability of ecosystems.
Easy answer: kill a large chunk of the biggest consumers annex polluters. This is what literally happens in John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up: in the end the USA burns down amidst its own strifes. To quote its third penultimate paragraph:
”We can just about restore the balance of the ecology, the biosphere, and so on—in other words we can live within our means instead of an unrepayable overdraft, as we’ve been doing the past half century—if we exterminate the two hundred million most extravagant and wasteful of our species.”
Also in Ursula LeGuin’s Always Coming Home the main ingredient against eco-catastrophe is a lifestyle that eschews overpopulation, but it doesn’t show the actual transition from today’s highly urbanised lifestyle to the more rural culture that seems to be required.
Apart from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Pacific Edge, I can’t come up with SF novels that actively try to come up with possible working solutions to our ecological and environmental problems (again: do correct me on this: I love more examples!).
Basically, I suspect almost everybody agrees that overpopulation (combined with the unsustainable lifestyle of an increasing amount of the world’s population) is one of the main causes of ecological disasters, environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity.
But, to be absolutely clear: in my opinion killing off a substantial part (200 million? one billion? six billion? At some point, Joseph Stalin’s quote “The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic” seems to have been taken—figuratively, I might add and hope—at face value by a huge number of SF novels where apocalypse, dystopia and Armageddon seem to be de rigueur) of humanity is *NOT* the correct way to solve our ecological and environmental problems.
(And yes: in my anthology SHINE there are a number of stories that try to address—how successful or not I’ll leave to the readers and critics—ecological and environmental problems. I’ll mention them for the sake of [relative] completeness.)
So what to do? This brings us to your third question:
3) Scenario(s) SF could be exploring better with relation to ecology.
As I’ve discussed above, the utmost majority of ecological SF novels and stories focus on how things go from bad to worse to worst, and rarely—if ever—try to come up with something approaching a solution.
(Also, don’t get me wrong about my critical remarks regarding the old Eco-Mysticism: I I certainly don’t mind imagining a better future, but I prefer to have it depicted with a certain degree of realism. Obviously, YMMV.)
Basically, there is nothing wrong with pointing out—no matter how often and forceful—that the ecology is deteriorating, the environment is increasingly getting polluted, and that biodiversity is going down the drain. As an engineer, I like to think that 50% of the solution is pin-pointing the problem.
Unfortunately, this is only true for localised problems in a (relatively) small system. It is completely different when the system is, quite literally, the whole world we live in. As the problems become larger and more intertwined, so do the solutions become ever more complex and all-encompassing.
Therefore, two things:
First: SF should try to think towards solutions. It is not enough to just keep shouting ‘Fire! Fire!’: at some point people are going to lose interest (if they haven’t already).
It’s also a slanted way to educate people: imagine you are bringing up your children, and your only approach to teach them doing wrong things is to chide and punish them, while not telling them what behaviour is good and rewarding it. Constant punishment, no reward. Only stick, no carrot. I leave it up to your vivid imagination as to what type of balanced individual this kind of upbringing will bring.
Yet, rarely does anybody in the genre address this imbalance. The usual excuses apply:
- “SF is meant as a cautionary tale” (and absolutely no mention of possible solution: this is not one-sided?);
- It’s not SF’s function to provide solutions” (So standing by the sides while shouting to the people that do actually try to change things for the better that they are doing it wrong! will certainly endear the wider world to SF’s charms);
- “Utopias are boring” (They need not be: see Pacific Edge, and Utopia is, like Dystopia, an extreme: the real world will *always* fall between the two, with a wide variety of conflict, hope/despair and triumph/loss in between);
- “Optimism is not realistic” (while, decades after decades after decades of the first and ongoing apocalyptic/dystopian novels total Armageddon yet has failed to take place, and such things as life expectancy and internet coverage—meaning more access to knowledge—have continually increased while the rate of poverty, hunger and armed conflicts world-wide has decreased. And, I’m willing to bet, despite the current economic crisis—during this very crisis the economies in both South America and Africa went *up* with 4% a year, on average—things will continue to improve, world-wide, on average. My advice: prepare for a future that needs flexible people with technological skills rather than hoard food and wait for the apocalypse.)
The root of this problem—SF being extremely reluctant to address our huge current problems—is, I strongly suspect, a lack of audacity in the utmost majority of our current SF writers. Bluntly, and simply put (this piece is too long already): it is multitudes easier to write how things go from bad to worse to worst rather than coming up with approaches and solutions that might turn the tide.
So, basically, SF writers are either too lazy or too incompetent to try to come up with solutions? I certainly hope not, but the general impression I’m getting so far doesn’t provide much inspiration.
On a note of hope, though, there are some positive developments:
- Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph project (although not aimed at ecological/environmental problems, it does promote forward-looking and inspiring SF);
- Redstone SF’s “Show Us a Better Way” contest;
- Crossed Genre’s new guidelines (which include ‘science saves the day!’ as one of the things, amongst other things like more diversity, they like to see more of);
- Recent novels like Alastair Reynolds’s Blue Remembered Earth and (again him) Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312—and if I read his post right, Charlie Stross’s upcoming Neptune’s Brood—depicting a future where things change for the better. Note: these futures are a century (or more) away, and don’t depict the part where that change actually takes place: this remains the true challenge;
- And several posts lamenting SF’s predilection to apocalypse, dystopia and gloom’n’doom;
Second: in general, though, I think SF needs to refocus: in almost all stories and novels the spotlight is on the gifted individual who overcomes the big problem(s). In reality, though, the problems of climate change, ecological degradation, pollution, loss of biodiversity and more are both intertwined and much too complex for a single person—no matter how brilliant—to handle. It needs co-operation over a wide range of specialties, fields and nationalities.
In the real world, teams solve the utmost majority of the highly complex problems, not individuals (even if some of them try to steal the thunder). In most SF novels and short stories (hey: I plead guilty, as well) it’s the brilliant individual who saves the day. The latter is increasingly unrealistic.
As it is, there is already an effort towards teamwork: professors and writers team up at the University of Manchester (and a real-life example from last year: Help Us Find People Who Make Britain a Better Place). I can only hope more will follow, as I increasingly believe it’s co-operation, collaboration and cross-border teamwork that will be needed to save the day.
My favorite SFnal scenario for the helping the environment right now would probably be protecting women’s rights globally, increasing education access for women, and ensuring that women have control over their reproductive decisions. Those things have been shown to have a positive impact in terms of slowing population growth, and seem to hold the potential for the win-win scenario of increased human dignity for everyone, while also reducing our human footprint on the planet.
As far as questions SF could explore better, related to ecology. I continually return to the question of “what are we missing?” What don’t we understand about ecosystems unravelling? What don’t we understand about global warming? What cascade effects have we failed to anticipate? How might small changes that we’ve easily dismissed turn out to indicate larger vulnerabilities? Every time I speak to a biologist or a climate scientist, I learn a new small scary detail. I’d like to see more investigation of those small scary details and their larger implications.
Filed under: Mind Meld
Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!