My Self-Audit

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?

I read all the books much faster than I otherwise would have, except for Windup Girl and Flight Behavior. Those two I would have read non-stop no matter what; I just couldn’t put them down—which, with Flight Behavior, was very surprising; it’s not my style at all.

This semester, I bought those little Post-It bookmark tabs for the first time, and annotated as I read. This was a new practice for me, and I did it mainly to be ready for in-class discussions. I also high-lighted many of the most overt references to climate change in the stories.

 

How did writing in this format affect your writing process and writing style?

The blog format really freed me up to say exactly what I wanted to say in the way that most succinctly captured what I meant. I could use ellipses and pop culture references, for instance, and even slang, which in a formal essay I would have had to rephrase into two or three whole sentences to convey the same point. For this reason, I’ve loved this class. I believe we’re all highly-enough educated and smart enough here to be trusted when we say, “Yeah, I can write formally, but formal writing is boooooring!” All work and no play… This informal stuff is a welcome respite.

I’m not sure how my writing style here would compare to how I’d write on a non-academic discussion board, though. It’s been years since I’ve been active on one of those, and I’m a better writer now.

But the prospect of a wider audience has certainly motivated me to think all my posts through, with a seriousness that I don’t necessarily apply to all my schoolwork. “Coasting” through this class was not an option for me. The whole world might find out!

 

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

I feel like I should have been reading more of my classmates’ reviews throughout the semester. I’ve read maybe half. But I did make a point of reading at least some each and every week, and I did pay some more attention to the extra stuff like news articles, links we posted to outside resources, and especially the hubbub surrounding Dan Bloom.

Whose reviews I chose to read was typically decided by who had commented on my own posts, who was in my other classes, who was the most outspoken or entertaining, and whoever was at the top of the page.

 

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 like this idea. It feels like we’ve contributed to the worldwide discourse on the topics at hand in a slightly more real way than we’re allowed to in most liberal arts classes. We’ve thrown our two cents into the discourse on literature (on cli-fi particularly), into the discourse on science, and into the big discussion of social criticism.

Do I think other people might read our posts? They might! And they might come from a scholarly direction, or they might arrive here just for fun, wondering about what the heck “cli-fi” is, or wondering how we imbue any words with heavy meaning anyway: “global warming,” “climate change,” “environmentalist agenda,” “carbon combustion complex,” and so on.

The Waterless Flood & More Interplay of Science, Religion, and Economy

In The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, the world has gone bad: the rich live as in castle towns while the poor eke out their livings in more-or-less lawless ghettos called “pleeblands,” which are run by street gangs, “pleebmobs,” controlled by the CorpSeCorp corporation which also owns the police. The corruption in government seems inextricable, and the violations of ethics are wholesale gruesome. For example, HelthWyzer purposely infects the poor with genetically designed illnesses, then profits from selling them the cures. In a world without accountability for big-enough businesses even for crimes as egregious as this, who cares about environmentalist concerns?

I am struck by the implicit relationship between Atwood’s fictional, oligarchic, feudal society and our real, modern trend toward less regulated, more out-of-control, more oppressively big business and wider gaps between rich and poor. It’s as if she is challenging our perspective, prompting us to take a wider, longer view—to consider how our day-to-day lives, our values and priorities, and our most fundamental beliefs might be affected by the onset of such a dreadful dystopia.

Atwood supposes that people who live deliberate, conservationist lifestyles will likely be seen as outsiders. In The Year of the Flood, they’ve assemble into persecuted cults, e.g. the militant Wolf Isaiahist or the pacifist God’s Gardeners. The book follows the God’s Gardeners, who are a bunch of hippies on Jesus, basically, who count prominent scientists among the saints for their secular contributions to humanity.  Their point of view is relayed through three narrators.

The youngest (and most fun, in my opinion) is Ren, who tells her story of move-around adolescent rebellion in the first person voice.

Toby is callused, stern, and unapproachable, an unwilling matriarch; true to character, her story of willful resistance is told in the third person.

The third and least frequent narrator is the spiritual leader of the Gardeners, Adam One. Through his sermonizing, Atwood manages to conflate Christianity, science, and socio-economic commentary into a worldview that is surprisingly cohesive—surprisingly especially because it is incomplete, as revealed by the unresolved debates over matters of doctrine and faith at the councils of Adams and Eves.  It makes me wonder, are our own worldviews any more cohesive?  What am I forgetting when I inform and adjust my own outlook upon the world?  What don’t I know?  What do I take for granted?  And also, why does it always sound silly, eccentric, or insane to attempt a new, holistic worldview?  Did we evolve as spiritual animals, like Adam One says, or as materialistic brutes who are naturally inclined to bully and discredit the peaceful, spiritual thinkers amongst us, like Zeb seems to believe?  “Wherever there’s nature, there’s assholes,” he says (186).  Either way, or both, we can be sure that we are struggling.  This existential struggle is what, I believe, Atwood is trying to evoke.  She gets it.

The book is chopped up into sections, oddly—by theme, by time? (Years pass)—and each section is introduced by a sermon from Adam One paired with a weird hymn.  It does cohere, but not right away. The structure makes the book off-putting early on, but ultimately works to convey a wider perspective, a range of viewpoints, all rich with Atwood’s unique insights into people, society, and religion.

So playfully presented, the plot is almost undetectable until well into the story, but the characters are so sympathetic, the book is gripping nonetheless. I would recommend The Year of the Flood to all readers over age 15, just for the experience of such a wild book, though it’s too full of peroration (blunt, however artful) to ever be a favorite of mine, personally. It is a vast, ludicrous, character-driven, good novel, which raises questions worth asking.

Windup Timebomb

The dystopian future world in which Paolo Bacigalupi sets his award-winning novel Windup Girl is dazzling. It is more immersive, vibrant, and exciting than anything I’ve read since Heinlein’s “future history.” It is as rich as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, and yet not jammed with story-slowing lore. The story is paced like an action movie, especially the second half, which is full of explosions and fires and chases and backstabbings just like the best blockbusters are. It twists through politics and intrigue. It examines greed, disease, bare survival, and what it means to be human.

Many diverse characters drive the story, only some of whom even know one another, and most of whom have names that are confusing to non-Asian audiences. In this regard, Bacigalupi demands a lot from his reader. However, the investment of effort pays off. Every character is deep and believable, with urgent and impure motives that accurately parallel real-world attitudes.

The real world is rarely straightforward.

Anderson Lake, whom at first I thought was the main protagonist, is inscrutable in the end: I have no idea if he was a good guy or a bad guy.

Stonewall Kanya is transformed by the time the story concludes—into what, I’m unsure, but I can tell it’s her own person.

Tan Hock Seng—the scheming, paranoid, little man who lost his whole family and financial empire in the violent overthrow of his homeland years before, and who now diligently protects his own interests, no one else’s—is my favorite, for some reason I don’t understand. He does awful things.

Emiko, the genetically engineered “windup girl” for whom the book is named, is tragic and sympathetic, even as she murders eight people in one second. That scene in particular, I really do hope to see on the silver screen someday.

The moral ambiguity in this book is striking. Some of the ethics that Bacigalupi tangles with, we are already tangling with in our real, modern world, too. The question of how to deal with refugees (political or climate refugees), is a real, terribly ambiguous question, for one. Questions about the use of technology to interfere with the natural reproductive process—“Has science gone too far?”—and of the origins of the human soul, no one is qualified to answer; but they are persistent questions nonetheless.

Of all the big questions that this book raises, the one that captivates me most is: How wrong is it to privatize a public good?

In the world of Windup Girl, rising sea levels have displaced countless people around the globe. The United States have fallen, Finland has been allowed to starve to death, and Burma is no more. Thailand is mostly underwater, and the city of Bangkok is surrounded by tall protective dikes. Increasing religious fundamentalism has driven many (like Hock Seng) away from their homes, and all nations are weakened by political factionalism. International cooperation has deteriorated almost completely in the paranoid aftermath of pandemic plagues, which geneticists designed on purpose. Monstrous, flawed, import-export economies have made all people dependent on free trade, but trade is zealously restricted, both by the white shirts and the Trade Ministry, whose interests do not even coincide. “Calorie monopolies” benefit from this fierce over-regulation, but everyone else suffers. They genetically engineer foodstuffs for sale worldwide, but they engineer them to be sterile, forbidding their customers from planting and farming, forcing them to always buy more, or else. (They are the ones who let the whole population of Finland starve, because a trade agreement couldn’t be reached with the highest levels of the Finnish government.) Anderson Lake is secretly employed by a calorie monopoly, AgriGen Industries, and he is charged with tracking down a man named Gibbons who infringed upon a number of their patents. Patent infringement, in this case, could mean any use of his skill as a geneticist in any way that might benefit anyone at all, except his heartless corporation. The bottom line is the bottom line is the bottom line, humanity be damned.

The term “patent troll” flashes across my mind. This is the derogatory term for software developers and companies who seek patents for their products, with no intention of actually furthering the field of computer technology, but only desiring to make money… waiting for someone else to just try and contribute to computer technology in some meaningful way, using a concept that’s a little similar to theirs, so they can sue ’em. These people are impediments to progress. Mustache-twirling-, coin-counting-villainous as they are, however, their malevolence can hardly compare with that of the heartless calorie monopolies, who hold whole nations hostage.

The Monsanto corporation, on the other hand, compares ominously well. Monsanto practically is a modern-day calorie monopoly. The similarities to AgriGen and PurCal, which are dark, dark figments in Bacigalupi’s dystopian vision, are frightening. To me, it is easily conceivable that, if the political climate ever afforded them the opportunity, even for a second, Monsanto would seize the right to sterilize all foodstuffs except for their own brand, as a perfectly practical measure to eliminate economic competition, and thereby subjugate farmers and consumers everywhere to their will, good or bad… and it’s bad. Monsanto is for profit, not for humanity. It’s a business.

So, to rephrase the question: What’s more important, the safety, security, and happiness of humanity, or profitable business? If you don’t answer “humanity,” then you’re either a sociopath or you don’t understand the question. It is the more difficult-to-defend of the two possible stances (being much less quantifiable than business is), yes, but it is right and good to stand for humanity. Everyone should be as happy and as healthy as is humanly possible. I take this as a given.

I am reminded of another modern-day analog for the calorie monopolies’ evil, too, besides the obvious Monsanto: privatized health care systems. I believe we all deserve state-of-the-art medical treatment (not to mention education, governmental representation, etc.). And I contend that it should be granted to us, for no other reason than that we deserve it, even if we can’t pay for it. Libertarianism and socialism are not four-letter words. They are for humanity. If they are against big businesses, so be it. Big businesses go against humanity when they grow too big, when they dominate their market, removing the consumers’ freedom to choose. They forget their place. Humanity should come first, and profit is incidental.

Windup Girl is a fantastic depiction of a worst case scenario, a scenario that might actually happen if capitalism goes unchecked without regard for ethics.  It’s a mind-blowing, excellent book.

Audit

Discourse is the best part of what we do in literature classes, in my opinion, and yet it’s usually limited to inside the classroom. The blog breaks the walls, and I like it for that reason—one. It also feels a lot less formal, like a message board that I might join for fun, and I like it for that reason, too. I like that it makes our discourse public, as well—because why should we horde these ideas?—three.

I wish I could say that it actually invites the public into our discourse, though. Comments from people who are not in our class should be enabled. Personally, I’m studying to be a creative writer, most of my story ideas are sci-fi, and some include apocalyptic scenarios; there is some overlap in readership between my kind of niche and cli-fi fans; and the time to start establishing an audience is now, but I currently have no internet presence and not enough finished material to start a blog of my own that could really compete for the spotlight.  Meanwhile, this cli-fi course blog is an opportunity.  More comments on the blog will lead to more page views, certainly, especially if we’re talking about comments from the likes of Dan Bloom and maybe even Barbara Kingsolver.  The University should be very open to this kind of publicity.

Anyway, I still only have seven posts, when I should have at least eight by this point according to the syllabus. Maybe this feels too informal for absent-minded me. But that’s my fault.

Our in-class discussions keep raising points in my mind that are somehow tangential to the actual focus of the course. This course gets me thinking, in other words, which is what I like. A course blog is the perfect forum for the sidebar discussions that I’m sometimes inspired to have. Course blogs should be commonplace. So far this semester, I’ve posted two links to related outside media, in addition to my reviews.

What I haven’t done, though, is comment on posts made by my classmates, you all. I’m sorry about that. I will make a point to do so, going forward.

I did comment on a post of yours, Ted, but it was in response to an article whose author, I sensed, was anti-science. The article made me madder than I realized and my comment was more caustic than I’d intended. (My aunt had just died at the time, and I was feeling negative through and through, I guess.) When I revisited the blog a couple days later to delete it before anyone could witness me raving so undignified-like, I found that you’d already deleted it. Good moderating!

Alan Alda is Communicating Science

I took a solo road trip once that led me through that empty, boring part of the country where there is only one radio station.  Since I don’t have an iPod, and I was tired of my CDs, I was forced to listen to talk radio, or else risk driving into a cornfield out of pure boredom.

And I’d taken this trip before.  From what I can tell, this radio station features a preacher with an Irish accent repeating himself about the bible twenty hours a day, and a man with an Ethiopian accent talking about the bible for three hours each day.

But I landed on the “science hour” or something apparently.  It was good luck, I guess.  The voice I heard was excellent.  I went, “Is that Alan Alda!?” And it was!  It was awesome.

This is what he’s doing nowadays.  He runs workshops for scientists, training them to be fluent in normal-people-speak, less dependent on scientific jargon.  Jargon, he said, is a huge barrier to non-scientists’ ability to understand the big ideas of science.  And science really, really needs to be understood.  He talked about politics, and he touched on some of what we just discussed in class today.

I feel good knowing that this is going on, and even better knowing that it’s being publicized in that backwoods part of the country where Gen-e-sis and Le-vit-i-cus are seemingly the biggest words any ever hears.  In a place like that especially, like in Dellarobia’s neighborhood, scientific jargon stands little chance of being comprehended–and folksy locals everywhere still need to be convinced of the facts of evolution, climate change, and equality of sexuality and race.  Alan Alda’s doing good work.

Flight Behavior: a message about climate change disguised as a drama about people

I had fun reading Flight Behavior, trying to decide which of the several subplots was going to become the main story. There’s a lot going on. The narrative follows Dellarobia Turnbow, an orphan, mother, and housewife, whose possibilities are much bigger than the small rural Tennessee town, stale marriage, and “hand-me-down life” she is living. She deals with annoying neighbors, a weird plague of butterflies, a hands-on introduction to science, attempted adultery, a yawning husband and inscrutable in-laws, the memory of a miscarriage, and the big-time worries that come with a dawning understanding of the perils of climate change. There is a wacky friend, too, and even sheep. It’s got everything.

Climate change is a noteworthy antagonist in the story, but the juiciest conflicts are definitely between the characters. Flight Behavior feels like a book about real, vulnerable people. And although the narrative point of view is limited to Dellarobia, Dellarobia understands how people like her husband and her neighbors think. That is, people like farmers who’ve never had much need to think about things outside their farm work, who were never allowed decent educations, who listen to conservative talk radio, and who honestly cannot believe in the fact of global warming. She relays this point of view vividly to the reader, with a sad sympathy that is striking.

Barbara Kingsolver’s writing style is ever-surprisingly fluid, flowing from subject to subject as Dellarobia daydreams or interprets. There are many standout passages. “She couldn’t see these things at all, stricken forests of killing tides. What she saw was the boy inside a man who was losing everything” (281).  “She could see that his old generosity was still there, but was sometimes being held captive by despair, like a living thing held underwater” (239).  “Men and barns are like a bucket of forks. Neatness is no part of the equation.” Delightful!

One portentous theme is the disconnection that people feel from one another. The disconnection between Dellarobia and Leighton Akins (the guy with the “Sustainability Pledge” pamphlets at the monarch roosting site), for example, is a funny one. As if she needs to pledge to be thrifty! And he has no idea what was so funny about it.

The picketers from the community college, too, don’t know the half of Bear’s motivation for considering a logging contract. They seem to think he’s evil, but really, he’s not hell-bent on butterfly blood. He’s desperate for money, about to lose his house to a long run of bad luck and bad weather.

Dellarobia and Cub’s marriage lacks any meaningful communication at all, and Dellarobia’s relationship with her mother-in-law Hester is like a sustained uncomfortable pose.

Even the perceptive and personable Ovid Byron “would have no inkling of the great slog of effort that tied up people like [Dellarobia] in the day-to-day.”

And finally, there are some people to whom the idea of climate change will be forever inconceivable. But to follow Dellarobia’s example, we should still seek hope, even as the sea levels rise, the weather goes haywire, and the epic extinction begins.

Kingsolver presents a broad and rich array of insights in this book.

Mars One: An Uplifting Summary

When Mars One came up in our class discussion on Wednesday, I was thrilled. It’s mind-blowing. I went home and researched the facts, and compiled them in this little essay here, along with my opinions too.

Mars One was conceived circa 2010 by Bas Lansdorp, an entrepreneur, and Arno Wielders, a physicist, both of the Netherlands. It occurred to them that humanity could begin terraforming Mars any minute—we have the technology and the know-how—if only any nation’s space agency would pursue such a mission. It dawned on them, too, that the main thing preventing the national space agencies from even beginning this pursuit was their obsessive worry, “What to do about the astronauts once they’ve landed on Mars? How do we get them back to Earth?”

Turns out, launching a spaceship is hard. It requires the construction of a launch pad, and of a ship of course, and so on… extensive preparations, the scope of which is inconceivable anywhere but on Earth, where we have infrastructure like whoa. So no, there would be no coming back from Mars. The solution to this problem, as these two guys saw it, was simple: Leave the astronauts there.

Lansdorp announced this basic plan in May 2012, and over two hundred thousand people from all over the world volunteered for the privilege, as they see it, of living and dying on Mars for the glory and the future of mankind.

The program recently entered Round 3 of its selection process. They are down to just one hundred ultra-educated candidates now.

In the upcoming Round 4, which will be widely publicized and hopefully televised, six teams will be made up, four people each. They will all be subjected to training and testing in conditions that simulate the planned Martian colony as closely as possible.

And, in what seems to me like a grotesque complement to the short-attention-span, fifteen-minutes-of-fame- and reality-TV-obsessed culture of modern industrialized Earth—but whatever—the Earthling public will actually have a say in which expert-selected contestants will go to settle Mars. A TV show will then ensue, seriously, starring the colonists and following the progress of Mars One and partners. This show will generate much of the project’s funding thenceforth and will work to perpetuate popular interest in the subject of awesome science.

The first wave of settlers, slated to take off in 2024, will be just four people. They will find their amazingly efficient little housing units and some essential supplies awaiting them on the red planet when they get there. There will also be at least two new communications satellites in Martian orbit by that time. Every couple of years after that, as needed or as feasible, the settlers will receive additional shipments of supplies and, in the distant future, more settlers. The first goal is to become self-sustainable as soon as possible. Growing the human population, sprawling, will be a later goal. Everyone involved understands that making Mars livable for any large number of people is going to take thousands of years, maybe even tens of thousands of years.

There are countless reasons why they’re doing this. The impending anthropogenic-climate-change-induced ruination of Earth is just one. My favorite reason is this: because this whole idea is, to date, the most fantastic real thing ever conceived by humans, and because we can!

Another great reason, which ties it all together with “this climate thing” pretty nicely, is this: to set a good example. Mars One is a non-profit organization that, just by its nature, promotes international camaraderie and worldwide solidarity. We are mankind, godlike. (Talking about Butler’s Parable of the Sower has me thinking in religious rhetoric. So I’m going to follow this line of thinking here which some may call blasphemous. Please know that whatever your personal religion is, as long as it gives you a sense of empowerment and happiness and doesn’t hurt anybody else, I respect it. I’m not trying to offend. I’m trying to expound another point of view. I’m sincere.) Why did God destroy the tower of Babel and confuse all human language, according to the bible? Answer: because he was jealous of our potential. See Genesis 11: 1-9. “There is no limit to what they might do!” If we could awaken from the nationalistic prejudices which are our curse, if we could alter our conception of survival from competition-focused to cooperation-focused, if we could put our heads together, then we could solve any problem under the sun. Like they say, we’ve been to the moon already! And now we’re going to Mars!

Wow! We must be able to solve our big domestic problems, too, like the carbon combustion complex, for instance—that insidious, infectious, dark omnipresence that grips the global economy like aspen roots clinging interwoven to whole broad mountainsides, forbidding any change in the landscape except at geologic timescales—which is presently, steadily, unapologetically, dragging Earth to hell in a hand basket. The moon! And Mars now, too! We can do anything. We have powers.

We should aspire to heaven; it’s within our reach. We should realize our roles as gods. We have the Earth in our hands, you see; we should protect it like a loving Father would. But also, we should totally go to Mars, man; it’s right there! Come on!

What else could so inspire so very many people to come together, to think globally, to progress? Only colonizing Mars! Not since the first transoceanic sailing ships has anything ever held such promise to so dramatically resize our existence.

Once mankind is on two planets, the archetype of the “other” won’t evoke ideas of foreigners from other countries anymore so much as the idea of that whole other planet that’s all over TV. I think it may take a few generations to sink in, the awe, or the grace or whatever, but the mass psychological effect will be unequivocally good.

The most commonly voiced objections to Mars One are ignorant of its actual game plan. “I don’t want my tax dollars going to blah blah blah” is a common one, for example. Mars One is not affiliated with any government and will not take a slice of anyone’s tax dollars. Most of its present capital is from private investors and engineering firms.  It takes donations and sells merchandise, too.  (I want this hoodie.)  And much of its future capital will come from the aforementioned TV show.

(It will not be a live broadcast, of course. For anyone wondering, radio waves take between forty minutes and three hours to travel from Mars to Earth, depending on the planets’ positioning. They could be as distant as 401 million kilometers or as near as 56 million kilometers; usually they’re about 225 million kilometers apart. From takeoff to touchdown, the first manned Mars One spaceflight will last about seven months. Also, Mars has only one third the gravity that Earth has, so a 180-pound astronaut will weigh 60 pounds on Mars.)

The only objection to this project that’s worth noting, as far as I’m aware, is this: It is just plain impossible to establish a stable atmosphere on Mars, regardless of what terraforming measures are taken on the surface, unless the molten core is somehow stimulated first to produce a proper magnetosphere.

[Hard science alert!]  The planetary core, which is composed of heavy metals constantly swirling in enormous eddies called “convection cells” (how the continents are floated about the surface), needs to be churning quickly enough to actually magnetize the entire planet to such a degree that the resultant magnetic field, the magnetosphere, is strong enough to deflect a sufficient amount of the horrible solar winds and radiation, which would peel the atmosphere right off the face of the globe, if not for the protection provided by a quickly churning molten metal planetary core. Problem: The Martian core is churning too slowly to create a powerful-enough such force field. [/Hard science.]

And Mars One doesn’t seem to have any idea of fixing this problem. It is merely outfitting its astronauts with hermetically sealed little habitats and, for outdoor excursions, radiation-resistant environmental suits, while the churning of the Martian core continues to slow. This perpetual life-and-death campout scenario doesn’t seem like a generations-long-term solution to me. It feels like, so far, they’re not really even planning to terraform the whole red planet at all, but rather just an infinitesimally tiny part of it.

However, I suspect the mega-minds at Mars One might respond to this objection like, “Hey now. One step at a time. Proof of concept first. Shock the unbelievers. Then a new spring of scientific inspiration will gush out from the minds of humans everywhere, and bright new ideas will cascade forth into a flood of new solutions that who could foresee.”

Remember the twentieth-century Space Race, that rallying wonder that advanced all kinds of great technology? It could be like that again, minus the distrustful paranoia. Humanity is ascending here, as a whole Earthling race.

I’m all for it.

Viewed from the Future, the Present Looks Backwards

I was surprised to read, in the interview with Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway at the end of the book, that they see The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future as merely an essay.  I found the preceding chapters pretty literary in their writing quality and creative and even playful in form.  While there is unmistakably a Big Idea underlying everything in the book (like there is a thesis in every essay), it is still a fun, relatively light read.  What’s more: their Big Idea is important.

The authors offer a view of what the year 2393 might be like—not just based on their guesses or fantasies, but grounded in all kinds of science from chemistry to politico-sociology, with sources cited.  So their predictions are all plausible.  Their critiques of the modern world, seamlessly interlaced with their projections all throughout the book, ring truer and louder as a result.  And they make us sound like we should feel guilty, here in the present, because of how knowingly we’re polluting the Earth despite known fact of what they call the “Penumbra,” which is Latin for something like “encroaching shadow.”  This is their term for the fast-approaching mass extinction of many species worldwide, and the widespread disorder among human beings, as people will be dislocated from their flooded homes or their failing farms or otherwise climate-ruined lives, all because of unnatural changes to the climate that we are ultimately responsible for.  It makes us look like like we’re all backwards, is what I’m saying.  The Collapse of Western Civilization is about how we can solve our climate change problem, but don’t, and probably won’t.

I like to think of myself as more conscious than the average Westerner, but many of the insights that Oreskes and Conway reveal have never occurred to me before.  They even challenge logical empiricism, a philosophy that I thought all scientists agreed was more or less sacred!  This was off-putting for me at first, but after reading their argument—a very broad argument, but not obtuse—I see they make a lot of sense.  Their point is that, sometimes, just sometimes, the 95% certainty criterion to declare causation (not just coincidental correlation) is too rigid.  Sometimes, just sometimes—and in the “approaching shadow” of a man-made climatic apocalypse, now is definitely one of these times—we need to spring into action as if the uber-conservative nay-sayers (the doubt-sellers, who insist on dismissing masses of scientific evidence converging on the same conclusion from a thousand different approaches) did not exist.

However, Oreskes and Conway do not say this with even half the melodrama that I’m employing here.  It is an understated book.  Their just-the-facts narrative voice, like a history textbook, allows for a quick pace to the storytelling; but it’s like a very introductory textbook, not too unbearable to read because it doesn’t get into too much depth.  They allow in-depth, topic-by-topic study, however, by referring readers to many real and available scientific, economic, and historical/political records.  So they manage to craft a great piece of cli-fi that is at once summary and comprehensive and a good, shocking book.

Tough Questions for the Modern Reader & A Demand for a Greener Machine

In his 1949 novel Earth Abides, George R. Stewart presents a deep and well developed speculation about what would happen to humanity if ever a worldwide catastrophe were to cancel civilization. The tale follows Isherwood Williams, Ish, a scholarly, liminal character who, when he finds himself apparently alone on Earth, counts “Always was solitary” as one of his assets in this new world (Stewart, 38). If he sounds to you like an unlikely protagonist, think again. It is only through a person like him—an observer, a person of big ideas, but not of big action or influence—that a story of so vast a scale can be told. The question, “How might humanity adapt?” is not asking, “How would Ish, the individual, adapt?” and Stewart answers the question to the point. This book is about humanity. More precisely, it is about the human tendency to grow comfortable with habits and routine, and to take too much for granted.

Necessarily, since the story spans fifty or eighty years, the actual storytelling is often quick and impressionistic. Character-building dialogue is mostly forgone in favor of frank, succinct assessment of the characters and their thoughts as perceived by Ish. The expositional narrator (third person limited to Ish) is overwhelmingly present. The chapters are noticeably episodic, especially in the first half of the book. Part One reads, at worst, as if Stewart wrote it from a formula: man encounters an unsuitable companion, man encounters a human threat, man begins solitary journey, man gets dog, man gets wife, man gets friend, et cetera. At best, it reads like Stewart is a master of concision, wielding a series of simple anecdotes to accomplish two things at once: make the post-apocalyptic world palpable to his reader, and ease his reader into empathy with Ish.

Stewart is surely successful in crafting a story that is not only understandable to his reader, but also readily experienced. Particularly in the closing chapters, when Ish grows very old and recedes into his mind, to return to awareness of the world again only rarely and haphazardly, the writing style is wonderfully performative. The identities of Ish and the reader become merged. Although at times the drama does seem forced or overblown (like when Ish and Em first make love) or simply too huge to handle (everyone is dead!), in the final reckoning, overall, the writing is effective and the drama of the story is convincing.

Also, all throughout the book, Stewart includes italicized asides in which the voice and point of view switches to that of an omniscient documentarian for a few paragraphs at a time. This is a risky choice, stylistically speaking, but it pays off. Not only does this heavy rhetoric lend an extra credibility to the story, but in addition, these passages contain many of Stewart’s most striking, unexpected insights, and they maintain the scope of the story as something bigger (much bigger) than Ish and his commune. Stewart is projecting the gradual disintegration of American material culture. Ish is only a witness to this grand process.

In the context of a college course on cli-fi, this novel seems out of place at first judgment because it has nothing to do with climate explicitly. The “Great Disaster” that begins the book is not environmental, but viral or bacteriologic in nature. Climate change was hardly known in 1949 when the book was first published. In fact, Stewart lets his characters thoughtlessly pollute. “The half-empty cans they merely left lying. There was so much litter in the street already that something more did not matter” (Stewart 200). Yet little instances like this are relevant. They show that environmental responsibility was not really on anyone’s mind in 1949. (If anyone would have thought of it, it would have been someone like Ish or like Stewart: a big thinker.) So, we are reminded of how far we’ve come.

Scientific progression! How much ignorance we have dispelled! We rule, you might even say. However, our claim to the title of stewards of the Earth is still tenuous at best. We could be called a pest of this planet just as rightly instead. In the sixty-six years that have passed since the debut of Earth Abides, we’ve taken the blame for much of the destabilization of the global ecosystem—it is known—but if we don’t take action to ameliorate this disaster, too, then what’s the use of knowing? History will judge us as pillagers and savages if we do not at least sincerely try to solve to this climate change problem that we’ve caused.

Ish, in the book, struggles with a similar dilemma. His tribe is in the same position in regards to literacy and agriculture as we are now regarding climate change. They are complacent, they are happy-go-lucky consumers, not producers, and they don’t pursue education like Ish had used to do before the Great Disaster. They couldn’t care less about learning how to read or farm. Of course they must realize that the leftover food in supermarkets, restaurants, and homes will eventually spoil or run out, and that then they’ll have to learn to farm without the help of any farmers to teach them. Presumably, in theory, they understand that. Even so, they take no action to insure themselves against this deadly inevitability. The urgency just does not seem immediate enough for them to care. For Ish, there is nothing in life more frightening than their apathy. He tries to warn them, to teach them, and even to preserve the university library like it’s some kind of temple—information is salvation—but they dismiss him as an eccentric. Within four generations, his tribe regresses thousands of years, back to the Dark Ages.

There is a lesson here. Please notice that, for all his talk about literacy, Ish does not think of literacy as his ultimate goal. Rather, his ultimate goal is for his descendants to know what to do with knowledge.

What should we do with all that we know?

First, what do we know? We know that the greenhouse effect is accelerating the onset of the next mass extinction, the likes of which have not been seen in sixty-six million years (Baronsky). This is bad. We know that mankind’s out-of-control emissions of greenhouse gasses is making the greenhouse effect worse by the minute. We know where these bad emissions come from: in 2012, only 10% was from commercial or residential sources, 10% from agriculture, 20% from industry, and the remaining 60% was from transportation or making electricity; tallying up to a total of 6,526 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents unleashed into the atmosphere by Americans (EPA). We know that there are some personal choices we can make to reduce our own emissions, like using public transit or buying CFL light bulbs; but we also know that the effect of each of these little green choices is negligible in comparison to thousands-of-millions-of-metric-tons total of humanity’s harmful emissions. We know, for instance, that even trains and busses emit CO2 and the production, sale, and use of even CFL bulbs puts greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, too. It’s discouraging. Most of all, it seems, we know that it is hard to reverse the damage we’re doing to the ecosystem. Why? Why should it be so hard?

Much of the difficulty and discouragement stems from the fact that environmental irresponsibility is somehow built into so many of the institutions of our society. Consider a modest, unassuming jar of mayonnaise, like the one in your refrigerator at this moment. How did it get there? After producing the feed for the chickens that provided the egg yolks, after producing the vinegar (however that is done), after transporting these, combining and processing them, packaging them, shipping them, distributing them, and after calculating the carbon emissions of each of these steps (including the making of the glass jar, metal lid, and colored label, with glue); and after adding on your car’s CO2 output to and from the grocery store… what is the carbon footprint of this mayonnaise by the time you smear it on your sandwich? The correct answer is: “Way too big!” (Squarzoni 210-212, 317, 363-378)

The good news is that a long supply chain means many opportunities to minimize waste and reduce carbon emissions. The bad news is, well, how can we go about tampering with a super-system of interdependent industries that run together like a perpetually mutually motivated Machine, restructuring all their operations to conform to greener guidelines, across the boards, across the globe?  Is it easy? No. Who is actually empowered to do that? Who can institute sustainability on a wholesale scale? Only very rich, very powerful entities can: the leaders of our big business institutions, the money-hungry “one percent.”

So, who can hold them accountable? Since the late 1960s, the go-to answer has been “the consumer,” but now it is apparent that merely shopping green, boycotting the worst environmental offenders, and picketing evil Wall Street is not enough.

“The balance of power to really influence sustainability rests with institutional investors, the large investors, like pension funds, foundations, and endowments,” says Chris McKnett, leader of the Global Advisors’ Environmental, Social, and Governance Investing team at State Street. Institutional investors include the whole global stock market and the whole global bond market. In 2013, the total value of these markets was one hundred thirty-three trillion dollars—eight and a half times the gross domestic product of the United States—a very persuasive amount (McKnett).

Let us return to the great big question inspired by Earth Abides: “What should we do with all that we know?” In regards to our current predicament, to whom is this question really directed? I contend that it is not you or me, but the whole damned Machine. (It is damned. At this rate, selling all the Earth’s resources faster than Nature can replenish them, the greedy economic Machine damns itself. It damns all of us.) You and I can hardly make any more significant an impact than we already have made when we switched to CFL bulbs. Real remediation of the climate change problem can only be achieved by an inter-industry, worldwide dawn of corporate social responsibility, soon!

Maybe for some, it seems far-fetched to hope. Ish, at the end of his life, seems to reevaluate the worth of all his desperate efforts, and he seems to arrive at a neutral estimation. However, Chris McKnett of State Street insists that, thanks to the general rise in awareness about climate change, most CEOs today have “started to see sustainability not just as important but crucial to business success.” In other words, “cha-ching!” (That’s the language CEOs speak.) Perhaps it has been too hard for corporations to go as green as possible, when the only reason to do so was improving life on Earth for our descendants. Now, for money, they say they’re ready to try.

So we can hope. Maybe we can rebuild the Machine—this time, better, greener.

 

Baronsky, Anthony D. “Preventing the Sixth Mass Extinction Requires Dealing With Climate Change.” Huffington Post. Huffington Post, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anthony-d-barnosky/preventing-the-sixth-mass_b_6161284.html .

 

EPA. “National Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data.” EPA.gov. United States Environmental Protection Agency, April 2014. Web. 9 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/usinventoryreport.html .

 

McKnett, Chris. “Chris McKnett: The investment logic for sustainability.” TED.com. Technology Education and Design, 2013 Nov. Web. 8 Feb. 2015. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/chris_mcknett_the_investment_logic_for_sustainability?language=en .

 

Squarzoni, Philippe. Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science. Trans. Ivanka Hahnenberger. New York: Abrams, 2014. Print.

 

Stewart, George R. Earth Abides. 1949. New York: Del Rey, 2006. Print.T

Finally an approachable account of a larger-than-life problem

So very many variables affect global climate change, the issue is practically incomprehensible to all but expert climatologists. We laymen have mostly heard the gist of it—that human activity, particularly greenhouse gas emissions resultant from our industrializing the world, is exacerbating the greenhouse effect and accelerating the death of our planet as we know it—but that’s all.  As for where to go or what to do with this knowledge, we’re clueless. The problem seems unapproachable.

In Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through The Science, Philippe Squarzoni makes the intricacies of this big issue more clear than ever before. The format—a graphic novel in which each panel contains only a small, easily digestible kernel of information—is more successful at communicating the many details to the general public than any essay, article, or even documentary film could ever be. Squarzoni has an excellent sense of the limits of his readers’ attention spans: as soon as I start feeling overwhelmed by a cascade of statistics or cold, dry science, he injects his narrator (himself) into the presentation, allowing me some time to absorb the essential info, every time. It’s refreshing, this technique.

What’s more, when he cuts from the science-y stuff to the anecdotal personal stuff, the anecdotes are often rather artfully selected. “Sometimes… in the middle… we need to take a break. […] As if to escape the march of time. We find ourselves immersed in our memories,” he writes, captioning a picture of himself as a little boy with an arm around his once-upon-a-time little puppy. “Memories that break your heart when they remind you of something you’ve lost” (96). The emotional implication here is that global warming is a threat by which we stand to lose a lot… a lot!

“How do we fight back? Where do we start?” Squarzoni asks again and again throughout the book, in sympathy with his average reader. As he puts it, “The economic objectives of our society are grounded in a continual increase in the amount of manufactured goods” (187). So how can we face the machine? What can we do? Of course, he does not provide a straightforward answer to this question, but let’s not think of this as a shortcoming. His mission with this book is not to solve the problem—he’s just a mortal man—but rather to express the real scope and urgency of the situation, to tell us what to expect in the years to come.

Besides, he offers suggestions at least, especially in the form of everyday lifestyle choices that we can each make as conscientious individuals; and he relays the experts’ opinions on what policymakers should do for whole societies. In between the lines of his interviews with experts, by the way, he inserts his own comments to supplement whatever they’re saying. These interjections are as effective as those of the most skilled documentarians. Taken altogether, this is likely the most comprehensive (and yet understandable) report on the status of climate change ever written.

In only two area do I feel this account is lacking.  One: sometimes, in Squarzoni’s personal narrative in between the science-y stuff, it seems to me that he is trying to hard to make me react emotionally.  (Whether or not he took that plane ride to Laos, I don’t care, but he keeps talking about it.)  Two: in his interviews with the experts—who, to his credit, do represent a variety of disciplines both directly and tangentially related to the climate change problem—there is a conspicuous shortage of suggestions for governments and policymakers. In other words, this work does not make as immense an impact as it could have made, had Squarzoni focused his attack a little more sharply.

All in all, highly recommended.