So Long and Thanks For All of the Fish That Haven’t Been Killed By the Warming of the Ocean

How did knowing you’d have to write a Review on the blog change the way you read our books? How did it change the way you prepared for class?

In some ways, I read books more critically. When I know I’m going to be writing a formal essay, I’m more inclined to take a book for what it is and try to work with its ideas regardless of its flaws. When writing reviews, I felt like I could engage with the ideas of a book while also being free to criticize them when necessary. Likewise, writing reviews made me feel more accountable for knowing the entirety of a book, whereas an academic essay allows me to specialize in one particular focus of a book. To some extent that did happen in this context because of the emphasis on climate change, but otherwise I still felt inclined to read with broader lens.

How did writing in this format affect your writing process and writing style? I’m really interested to hear how writing in a blog format was different from writing you’ve done in other classes, whether English classes with more traditional papers, other courses with online writing (blog, discussion board, etc.) or otherwise. Did the possibility of a wider audience – your classmates, or anyone who stumbled upon our blog – change the way you wrote?

Well first it terrified me… but once I got past that, I was excited to have a platform to share my writing. While there’s something more personal about knowing that only a professor is going to be reading your work, there’s also something great about knowing that your writing on a blog may not stuck in such a vacuum. I felt somewhat more pressured to write with a certain quality, (regardless of whether I always achieved that or not), and as someone who enjoys writing, this was a welcome challenge.

How often did you read the Reviews posted by your classmates? Did you gravitate towards reading particular writers?

I tried to read everyone’s reviews to the best I was able. There may have been some skipped because they were posted really close to class, but even then I often tried to catch up after class. I’ll admit that I sometimes skimmed them if there was a lot or could tell where someone was generally going, but I was nonetheless eager to see what everyone else thought about the class. There were a couple of people whose writing I did especially look forward to each week, but I don’t want to name any names at the expense of dismissing other writers.

Did knowing that you had to post on the blog affect the way you read (and watched) stuff unrelated to the course readings?

I generally do a fair bit of reading outside of class, at least in terms of following the news, but this class made pay a little more attention to climate change related issues.

I’d be excited to hear you reflect on whether and/or how your experience with and attitude towards the blog changed over the course of the semester. Did it live up to its promise? Was the blog element of the course better or worse than you hoped or feared?

I didn’t really have any expectations (good or bad) about the blog at the start of the semester, as I’ve never used this medium within a classroom setting, but overall I think it worked out well. Between Dan Bloom and the Reuters article, I’m kind of surprised by the amount of attention that it has gotten, which was pretty exciting.

Finally, if you’d like, reflect upon the possibility that the work you’ve posted on the blog is now available for anyone to read, even now that the course is over. Do you think this blog could be a useful resource for future readers curious about the topic?

I think this blog is definitely an interesting resource, if for no one else, than for writers who may be considering working with cli-fi or just climate change in general. While we’ve produced discourse in the context of a college classroom, I think we’ve kept a level of accessibility that might be useful for judging how readers in less formal settings engage with cli-fi. I don’t know that my own work will necessarily be of help or interest to anybody, but I’m happy if one person gets anything out of it. Even a negative reaction is worth something.

So I don’t leave on a sour note, I thought I’d post this screenshot of the blog dashboard.

clifi posts

As a class we’ve produced 301 posts (+this one), 116 comments, and 7 pages of content over the semester. I think that’s pretty incredible.

Fast, Furious, and Lazy

The problem with Tobias Buckell’s Hurricane Fever is that at every little twist and turn, I found myself cynically muttering: “Of course.” Of course the mysterious Kit is never who she says she is. Of course there’s a character named Katrina in a novel about hurricanes. Of course Roo’s nephew, Delroy, dies. (His barely fleshed out character could never have been more than an awkward third-wheel). Of course Roo is an ex-spy with a lust for revenge and nothing left to lose. Of course Beauchamp cannot stop calling Roo “Mr. Jones.” Of course Beauchamp has a maniacal evil plan that would actually be pretty scary if it was not so ridiculously cartoonish. Of course his henchmen are all neo-nazi goons. (Oh wow, mild foreshadowing! They remind me of something like this.) Of course whenever Roo’s luck seems to have just run out, Kit magically appears to save the day. (Hey, at least there’s a feminist angle in there somewhere, right?). Of course every other chapter is a near cliff-hanger. (Spoiler alert: everything is, of course, always fine.)

Okay, okay… I know what you are probably thinking: “Why do you have to be such a hater, Alessandro?” Fair enough. Maybe (definitely) Hurricane Fever is not my cup of tea. Thrills for the sake of thrills do not excite me. I prefer novels that are slower and more pensive, and even when Hurricane Fever’s 100mph narrative winds do manage to suck me in, I still cannot look past the shallowness of it all. I am not asking for realism, and Buckell sure as hell is not providing any, but is it so much to ask more interesting characters?

As far as reading the novel for its cli-fi setting goes, there is not that much new material worth looking at. Yeah, climate change is there. Constant hurricanes are the new normal. Some islands have sunk. True, there is nothing wrong with the anti-drama of it. Buckell may even be on to something by planting these scenarios into the backgrounds of our consciousness, making us more aware without realizing it. With so many guns, and explosions, and cheesy plot twists, however, will anyone really have the attention span to care about the climate change?

Post-Apocalyptic Feminist Vegetarian Heroines

I must start by saying that I have a lot of issues with Margaret Atwood’s world. I find her constant barrage of satirical portmanteau names for consumer products and bio-engineered animals quickly tiring. I likewise find Atwood’s emphasis on her novel as a work of “speculative fiction,” (as distinct from sci-fi), to be problematic, because while the technologies and much of the society present in The Year of the Flood are plausible enough, her actual narrative struggles to maintain her apparent commitment to realism. Why, for example, do all of these characters, who happen to know each other, also happen to survive the same devastating global pandemic that wipes out approximately 99.9% of everyone else? How does Bee-stings Blanco keep surviving Painball, when we see him disposed of by less rugged competition multiple times? Even if these events technically could happen, the insistence on “speculative fiction” seems dubious given how many coincidences are necessary to support Atwood’s plot.

But all of these issues aside, Atwood’s primary protagonists, Ren and Toby, are not only believable, they are also sympathetic and thoroughly admirable. After reading through the frustrating perspective of Jimmy in YotF’s predecessor, Oryx and Crake, it is refreshing to see the other side of the story. Likewise, Ren and Toby’s vegetarian moralism, while perhaps absurd to average (American) omnivore, is truly fascinating to think about for a real world vegetarian, (i.e. myself). It is tempting to imagine that in any post-apocalyptic world, all of its survivors will adhere to a strict pragmatism, (John Hay has some great thoughts about this in his essay, Shakespeare off the Grid,) but it is not unreasonable to think that people’s spiritual and moral beliefs will instantly dissipate as soon as their first pangs of hunger strike. (Toby and Ren may not take long to resort to carnivorism, but they certainly never feel good about it.) The Year of the Flood is at its best when it makes us consider the necessary compromises of its heroines and the determination of their convictions in the face of such a brutally indifferent and inhospitable world.

Nature and Capitalism in the 23rd Century

It is tempting to read Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl as a story of GMOs gone wild. GMOs themselves are not so much the issue, however, as it is the ethics and philosophy behind their use that cause disaster. In Bacigalupi’s 23th Century Thailand, GMO food is an accepted, necessary part of the nation’s food supply. The problem is not that these foods are unhealthy, but that the actual companies that produce these GMO crops also produce plagues to wipe out their competitors’ products while showing little or no regard to how many people consequentially starve. These companies essentially cause the necessity of GMOs, as new crops are needed to replace those wiped out by plagues, and so Bacigalupi’s concern throughout The Windup Girl is the power that these bioengineering companies have, especially because of how they exploit global vulnerabilities created by climate change and the continued dominance of a capitalist global economic system.

In exploring this issue, Bacigalupi runs into more existential questions about bioengineering: what divides human civilization (i.e. our GMOs) from nature? Gibbons, the premier genesplicer in Bacigalupi’s world, posits that there is no difference: “We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods.” (Bacigalupi 243). While, as Aarthi Vadde notes, there is something “Machiavellian” about characters like Gibbons and his obsession with godhood, the premise that bioengineered, artificial evolution is an extension of nature may not be as radical as it seems. Scientists today arguing in favor of GMOs note that genetic manipulation is merely the advancement of techniques that we have already used for millennia: “according to [Dr. Steven] Novella, humans have been using selective breeding to create more desirable versions of plants and animals for thousands of years. In fact, it was a lone monk, Gregor Mendel, who in the 1800s discovered the laws of inheritance and launched the science of genetics by crossbreeding pea plants.” (Indre Viskontas, “No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health”). Still, no matter how ancient this assessment of nature’s boundaries may be, there are some dire implications to such a notion in the 23rd Century. The most damning of these implications is that if our GMOs are as disposable as the nature we create them from, (as indeed anthropocenic climate change asserts this disposability), then so too are the most ethically problematic GMOs imaginable: the New People.

Emiko, the titular windup girl, embodies the contradictions that this extended definition of nature entails. Emiko is conflicted between her instinctual inclinations for subservience, her strict obedience training, and her desire to be a free person. This desire, although it may deviate from other New People, (it is never confirmed if the village of free New People that Emiko dreams of is real), suggests that however artificial her origins are, she is of emotionally developed. We know that Emiko feels hope: “There is a place for windups. The knowledge tingles within her. A reason to live.” (Bacigalupi 101). We know that she feels pain and anger. Simply the fact that she feels conflicted demonstrates that despite the shackles of genetic programming she was created with, she is capable of experiencing different emotions. This is in turn should be evidence enough of her humanity, but Bacigalupi’s GMO humans experience an oppression that is much older than the technology that creates them.

Windups or New People are subjugated to slavery, and much like European colonial slavery of the past, this new generation of enslaved people is necessarily dehumanized. 23rd Century Thailand uses a Buddhist ideology to assume that New People like Emiko do not have souls, their justification being that New People are created rather than born. This definition of the soul, however, conflicts with the idea that New People are an extension of nature, and does not consider their capability of self-agency. This is because their inclination to follow their instinctual programming hides their agency. When Emiko does contradict these inclinations, while also expressing genuine emotion, she proves her agency resolutely effectively defies this dehumanization.

For these reasons, Emiko’s remarkable humanity is in an odd way, a kind of praise for GMOs, despite the manipulability and other negative traits that she is created with. Emiko is direct evidence for Gibbons’ definition of nature: she both is artificial in origin, yet natural in her humanity. Still, to treat her entirely as a positive portrayal of GMOs is both negligent and overly optimistic, as the cruel and oppressive flaws she is designed with once more remind us of the dangers that a bioengineering-centric view of nature poses. Creating GMO humans may not be such a bad thing if they are used primarily to continue the survival of the human race, (assuming that we count them as members of our kind), like Gibbons more or less hopes: “We should all be windups now. It’s easier to build a person impervious to blister rust than to protect an earlier version of the human creature.” (Bacigalupi 243). Creating GMO human slaves; however, as is the case with the New People, can only be seen as exploitative and sadistic; it relies upon a dehumanization of New People that Emiko’s character so resiliently contradicts.

That the calorie companies in Bacigalupi’s vision of the future can bioengineer both slaves and devastating crop diseases means that we need to be cautious about who has the power to tinker with GMOs and what the limits of GMO production should be. If we are to continue pursuing new GMO technology and crops, then we need powerful regulation, not just the kind we already follow to make GMOs safely palatable, but also the kind that carefully enforces humane ethics as well. Bacigalupi teaches us this and also warns us that as long as nature and civilization progressively meld together, there is much peril if a profit driven elite remains at the center of this fusion.

 

Works Cited:

Viskontas, Indre. “No, GMOs Won’t Harm Your Health.” Mother Jones. N.p., 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Vadde, Aarthi. “Megalopolis Now.” Public Books. N.p., 6 Aug. 2013. Web. 31 Mar. 2015.

Problematizing the ‘Anthropocene’

In his essay, The Anthropocene Myth, Andreas Malm argues that “blaming all of humanity for climate change lets capitalism off the hook.” Indeed, while referring to our new, climate change entrenched, geological epoch as the Anthropocene might be radical in its assertion that humanity’s actions are the primary source of climate change, Malm is keen to point out how this generalization of the problem misses the key issue.

“Climate science, politics, and discourse are constantly couched in the Anthropocene narrative: species-thinking, humanity-bashing, undifferentiated collective self-flagellation, appeal to the general population of consumers to mend their ways and other ideological pirouettes that only serve to conceal the driver.”

Arguing over the semantics of climate change might seem silly, but Malm makes a crucial point about why this distinction is necessary:

“Without antagonism, there can never be any change in human societies. Species-thinking on climate change only induces paralysis. If everyone is to blame, then no one is.”

Should we already rename freshly dubbed Anthropocene to something more specifically targeted, such as the Capitalist epoch? It seems unlikely that any such name will be accepted by the mainstream discourse. Naming things is fickle business, and although sometimes useful for establishing a point, is rarely more than a way of summarizing content. Regardless of what we call the current epoch, however, Malm is right to suggest that how we conceptualize this epoch is important if we want to change the way things are headed.  If the Anthropocene must be understood as involving humanity in its totality, then it must be in recognition of the complicated and varied relationships between climate change and humans, not as cause for universal blame.

40 Signs of Rain Later and I’m Still Dry

The strength of Kim Stanley Robinson’s writing is the pristine clarity with which it delivers his narrative. He does not give us any tangled literary devices, but instead focuses on maintaining efficient, almost scientifically exact, loyalty to the realism of his work. While Robinson certainly does not risk anything with this choice, it pays off to the extent that it keeps the reader moving. The problem then, is that where the reader moves is not always as fantastic as the writing that describes it. Robinson gives us the paddle, but we hardly have a creek worth navigating.

The story itself is a decent enough in concept, but it is the same commitment to hard realism, which makes Robinson’s writing so clear, that also drains away the story’s potential for flair. On one hand, the realism of the novel is useful for creating immersion. The ambiguous, but clearly near future or even present setting is highly vivid and relatable.  On the other hand, the strictness of the realism means that where the novel attempt to liven up, it feels oddly out of place. Frank’s late night office intrusion, for example, seems somewhat farfetched, and for that reason, a bit melodramatic as well. Meanwhile, when Robinson tries to stay more rooted in plausibility, it becomes anti-dramatic, such as when Charlie discusses climate change with the president. The meeting goes on exactly how we expect it too, and while this is congruent with our realistic expectations, it is also a little boring.

That all aside, Robinson is smart for focusing on the lives and personalities of the scientists themselves, rather than drilling home a tired polemic on the dangers of climate. He offers of us tidbits of this polemic here and there, but his emphasis is on the human drama that involves the people who are so closely tied to the issue of climate change. It is a shame then, that some of these characters are not half as interesting as the conflicts at hand, because 40 Signs of Rain would otherwise be a much more compelling drama. Perhaps the first book in a trilogy is too early to fully judge the development of every character, but even if 40 Signs of Rain is read like an extended introduction to the Science in the Capital series, it would not hurt to have more instances where its characters are really tested or have to make hard choices. Without these telling moments, there simply is not enough urgency in Robinson’s work.

Let’s Be Real

A British newspaper, the Guardian, recently announced its new campaign to directly fight against climate change, pledging to ramp up its already ubiquitous coverage of the issue with hard hitting criticisms of the fossil fuel industry and the systems that keep that industry in power.

Commenting on this unusually direct approach from a newspaper, Tim McDonnel, of Mother Jones, notes that “The idea of a newspaper undertaking an openly activist campaign straight from the playbook of Greenpeace or the Sierra Club might seem strange to American audiences, who are accustomed to news outlets at least purporting to adhere to some degree of journalistic objectivity.”

Indeed, Alan Rushbridger, editor of the Guardian, states quite bluntly that the newspaper will be taking a clear stance: “For the purposes of our coming coverage, we will assume that the scientific consensus about man-made climate change and its likely effects is overwhelming. We will leave the sceptics and deniers to waste their time challenging the science. The mainstream argument has moved on to the politics and economics.”

In response, McDonnel asks: “Is it time for the Washington Post and the New York Times to launch climate petitions of their own? [James] Randerson [assistant national news editor at the Guardian] wouldn’t say, but he did argue that especially in the United States, ‘the media have not done a service to their readers in explaining what’s really at stake here.’”

Here in the United States, we emphasize journalist integrity and objective reporting in spite of, or perhaps because of, how blatantly biased our mainstream news outlets are. It was recently reported that Fox News is America’s the most trusted news source, a frustrating, but perhaps unsurprising fact given that their brand is built on the slogan “Fair and Balanced,” (no matter how much their actual reporting betrays this mantra.) The problem isn’t that outlets like Fox News have a bias, but that by denying this bias, they establish a reputation of legitimacy among viewers, and are then able to get away with lying to their viewers. Conversely, it’s worth considering that some viewers may be aware of and even identify with the positions of outlets like Fox News, but by also believing that their particular views are rooted in objectivity, they fail to how their personal vision of objective is actually rendered meaningless.

For this reason, The Guardian’s decision to embrace a definite stance and tackle climate change head on challenges American media in good way. When faced with a situation as dire as climate change, sometimes rules need to be bent in order to do, ironically enough, what is right. Just as the future consequences of climate change are “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community,” so too, I argue, is the probable threat of these consequences incompatible with the currently established journalistic order. I’m not arguing that media should lie when covering climate change, but that,  like how science’s obsession with (an impossible) absolute certainty on all facets of climate change is slowing us down, pretending that covering idiotic, pseudo-scientific viewpoints for sake of being “Fair and Balanced” is also greatly impeding upon our ability to respond to climate change in a pertinent, timely manner. True objectivity is impossible to the extent that biases in the media, now matter how much we try to deny them, are an inevitability; human perception itself is an act of bias. Having a bias rooted in scientific evidence and logical analysis, however, should not be considered the journalist crime that America’s obsession with “Fair and Balanced” leads us to believe it is.

It’s this  adherence to hollow, journalistic ideals that plays into our naïveté in reelecting the same capitalist puppets to government over and over again. As long as we continually listen to these inadequate, misinformed voices in our political discourse, listening solely on the basis that we are being fair, we stand no chance of improving our situation. I believe that thoroughly changing, if not outright rebuilding our current news media is going to be crucial in the climate change fight, and while this is no simple task to accomplish, calling out the intrinsic errors in America’s conceptualization of what the media is and should be is at least an important first step. The fundamental problem with America’s media driven understanding of climate change isn’t that we’re having a debate; it’s that we’re having the wrong debate, and this is where changing our understanding of media bias is important for considering which voices at least have a point, and which are only procrastinating imminent disaster.

Audit: Blogging with Anxiety

Personally, I find the blogging aspect of this class to make things far more daunting than in other classes where the only audience for my writing is the professor. Simply the fact that our work is publicly exposed, (even if most of that exposure is mostly limited to participants in the class,) means that I am always extra careful about what I post, not just in terms of content, but also in the level of quality I attempt to maintain. The major drawback of this is that I am much more timid about posting than I would be about writing in some more private manner. Posting under a pseudonym has helped alleviate a bit of this anxiety for me, but I still feel obligated to maintain a certain composure. Perhaps that is not such a bad thing, but it does make me limit how much I post.

One thing I wish I did more of is sharing articles on the blog. I read many articles on my own time, but I seldom post about what I am reading. While I have maintained the minimum amount of posts required thus far, I cannot shake the feeling that when I do post, it is mainly for the sake of my class grade. If I were less anxious, I would probably enjoy sharing my voice more, but my hesitations drain a lot of the pleasure from the process.

I should also mention that I find the commenting function of the blog itself to be a little weak. I am not talking about the volume or quality of comments, but rather the commenting system itself. As far as I am aware, there is no real notification system for receiving comments beyond the feed of most recent comments on the side of the webpage. It is a shame that this function is so sparse, because I think if it were easier to see and react to comments, there might be more lively discussion on the blog.

“Global Warming and Network Think”

I’ve found this book review that has a lot of interesting ideas to consider, even if you (like me) haven’t actually read the book that it’s written about.

I’m especially interested in the article’s conclusion regarding the democratization of knowledge (network thinking) and how it has/will impact the fight against climate change:

“Network thinking has helped us conceive our present predicament. Yet, if embraced too completely, it may leave us powerless to do anything about it. Global warming is unlikely to be solved by either a Marshall Plan or a popular revolution against capitalism. In lieu of a big fix, we will need many more middle-range solutions. Each will have to be advocated and worked for in local communities and through social media as well as in the halls of Congress and the United Nations.”

To back track a bit in the review, Jordian Sand’s (the review’s author) argument stems from a defense of scientific empiricism, which we discussed when we read The Collapse of Western Civilization. (Both TCoWC and our discussion were critical of over zealous empiricism). He argues both for the necessity of rigorous empiricism (if not too much,) as well as a need to really question who we learn our information from, in the context our globalized internet. In other words, he’s cautious of how anyone can use the internet to circumvent academia and the peer-review process when making scientific or political claims.

While internet skepticism is a pretty logical and obvious solution to this problem, I do think there’s some room to argue about how hierarchies of knowledge are constructed and who has control of those hierarchies, especially in regards to global warming.

The review touches on a lot other aspects of climate change as well, and is well worth the read if you have the time.

The Current State of Geoengineering

Last week we talked about different types of geoengineering as one way of taking action against climate change. Mother Jones recently ran an article that discusses geoengineering in a critical manner, noting in particular that:

“Every now and then, geoengineering of one kind or another gets floated by the media as a possible silver bullet if we continue to fail to make meaningful reductions to greenhouse gas emissions. But as the plankton debacle vividly illustrated, there are any number of very good reasons why the proposition never seems to get any traction. Ideas for how to do it are either too expensive, too entangled with thorny legal and geopolitical complications, too ineffective, or all of the above.”

The article continues with an explanation of two the more commonly discussed kinds of geoengineering, including the burial of CO2 underground, (which I believe was mentioned in our class), and a pros and cons comparison between them.

While the title of the article is boldly worded, the article nevertheless sheds a realistic light on the current state of geoengineering and what, if anything, we should expect to come of it.