I was recently interviewed by Forrest Brown on his podcast Stories for Earth, a site in Georgia devoted to entertaining and informing its audience on matters to do with climate change and environment and how literature represents and influences our understanding and behaviour in the current and future issues of planet Earth. The site’s mission statement reads: “Stories for Earth seeks to foster hope and emotional resilience by discussing cultural narratives that contain parallels and takeaways to our current predicament. Cultural narratives provide stories for our past, present, and future, and Stories for Earth critically engages with these narratives through all mediums.”
This is what Forrest says about how and why he started his podcast:
I founded Stories for Earth in the summer of 2019. As a writer and lifelong lover of stories, I never suspected my two biggest interests might have something to do with fighting climate change. That is, until one day when I came across an article about an interesting class at the University of Washington Bothell.
This class, taught by senior lecturer Dr. Jennifer W. Atkinson, sought to help students struggling with the emotional effects of climate change, specifically with the feelings of hopelessness and despair associated with climate grief. Atkinson is a professor of environmental humanities and American literature, so naturally she chose to do this by examining climate change through what she knows best: literature.
After I read this, something clicked. Of course literature can help us face climate change, I thought. Literature and stories in general have helped humanity overcome countless struggles throughout the course of our history—why can’t they help us overcome climate change too?
Stories for Earth is my personal realization of that idea. I want to read books, watch movies, and engage with stories through any other medium out there that can better prepare me to fight climate change in my own way without losing my mind. This podcast is my way of sharing what I learn with you, the listener, and I hope you’ll follow along. If anything you hear sticks or helps you in some way, consider sharing it with a friend who might also benefit from it. We must take care of each other.
Here’s the blurb on the site for our interview:
Nina Munteanu is a prolific and insightful Canadian science fiction writer who has published nine novels, including her most recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This novel imagines a Canada in the not-so-distant-future where water is becoming increasingly scarce, partially because water sources are drying up and partially because the US and China are buying up water from all the recently privatized Canadian utilities. As a limnologist–literally a fresh water scientist–it makes sense for Nina to be the one telling this story, and our conversation ranges from water shortages in the present day to Ray Bradbury to the need for a new paradigm for living.
We also discuss the connection between exploitive capitalism/colonialism and climate change, then move onto the new paradigm for living by looking at regenerative cultures, the gift economy used by many indigenous peoples, and the creation of an ecological civilization.
Here’s part of our interview:
- Tell me about yourself. How did you become a writer? Why do you think stories are important in the climate action movement?
I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I hid myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read comics: Superman, Supergirl, Magnus Robot Fighter. I was obviously enamoured with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read things other than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, LeGuin and Asimov to name a few. Ray Bradbury moved me and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write science fiction like him and move readers like he’d done with me. But I’d also discovered the sensual classics like Thomas Hardy. So, like most beginner writers, I started by imitating my favourites. Imagine the genre-confused chimeric stuff I was writing: Thomas Hardy crossed with Ray Bradbury? It wasn’t until I found my unique voice, which blended these with my passion for the environment, that my own voice emerged. The environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a kid when littering was a pet peeve—it still is… I think that the stories we tell help us define ourselves and our role on this planet. Climate fiction and eco-literature and solarpunk provide us with important narratives that both entertain and educate: from cautionary tales to constructive visualizations of a potential future.
- Your new novel A Diary in the Age of Wateris the story of a young girl in the future who discovers a diary from a Canadian woman who wrote about her experiences living in an increasingly water-scarce Canada in the 2040s. What inspired you to write this story?
It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada. I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst. The short story begged for more and that inspiration came when I attended a talk by Maude Barlow on her book Boiling Point about the water crisis in Canada. We were in a church and I noticed a young mother and her little six-year old daughter in the balcony; I wondered what kind of mother would bring her little girl to a political talk about water in Canada? The diarist character, Lynna, and her mother, Una, were born. It went from there with Lynna—the diarist—writing about not just water shortage but water related phenomena such as climate change, habitat destruction, hormone disruption and the alarming increased infertility in humans.
- Coincidentally, I just interviewed another author, C.C. Berke, about his novel Man, Kind, in which people also become infertile in the future. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a problem I was really aware of until recently, but humans are indeed becoming less fertile with every new generation. Is this something you hoped to raise awareness about with your novel?
The short answer is yes! I hope it helps spark the much needed discussion. Rising infertility is an issue that seems to embarrass us … something we feel we must hide under the rug, so to speak. Like our misbehaving Uncle Zeek. But if we don’t talk about it, we can’t understand the underlying reasons for it, many of which are environmentally induced—things we should be addressing.
- Politics and big business play huge roles in your novel, as they do in real life as well. Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable. Given that Canada is home to a huge portion of the world’s freshwater, what role do you see Canada playing in the coming years when many prominent people—including the Vice President of the United States—have predicted that wars will one day be fought over water?
She’s right. But this isn’t just in the future; water wars are occurring right now and have for some time. Perhaps not between our two countries. Certainly in the middle east and Asia. There are tensions between Egypt, and nine upstream countries for control of water in the Nile watershed; the Sudanese and Ethiopians are building dams and Egypt plans to pump water from Lake Nassar into the Sahara. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China are in conflict over control of rivers such as the Indus, Ganges, and particularly the Brahmaputra. India’s River Link Plan impacts Bangladesh. Meantime Pakistan, Kashmir and India fight over more and more water, as the Indus dries up and no longer flows into the ocean.
But let’s move closer to home, to North America and the premise of water conflicts here… Considering what you mentioned about Canada’s huge water storage of freshwater, water conflicts are inevitable. Canada and America border some significant water bodies such as the Great Lakes and various rivers like the Columbia River in the west. We’ve formed joint commissions along with treaties to manage these trans-boundary water bodies. They’ve often been highly electrified politically. The book by Eileen Delhanty Pearkes—“A River Captured”—explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and the huge dams built on that system that impacted ecosystems, indigenous peoples and local cultures in the Pacific Northwest. That didn’t go very well for Canada and particularly not for some of its indigenous peoples. Another example that my book features is from the 1960s: the NAWAPA project, a plan by Ralph Parsons Company and the Army Corps of Engineers to make the entire Rocky Mountain Trench into a giant 800-km long reservoir to hydrate the US by inundating a fifth of British Columbia’s prime habitat, several towns and indigenous communities and literally destroy a fishery. But guess what? Congress was seriously looking at it and the plan keeps resurfacing among corporate entrepreneurs, engineers and politicians.
- Going back to big business, do you think industry and sustainability are compatible? I know some cultural movements like solarpunk emphasize DIY and more small businesses over mass production and giant corporations. Do you have any thoughts on this? This is one of the defining questions of our time, but can we have both capitalism and a livable planet?
Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes; we just need to be conservationist in our approach to doing business. But the very basis of capitalism is exploitation, not conservation. The driving force behind capitalism is fear and uncertainty and its main process is exploitation. From an ecologist’s perspective, this makes sense for a community during its early succession and growth stage… when it first colonizes a new area. Ecologists call this approach r-selected (for rate), based on profligate and fast growth. But as we reach a climax community and our carrying capacity—where we are now—this r-selected approach no longer works. We need an economic model that better matches this new paradigm. NOT based on continued growth! A climax global economy, one based on cooperation not competition. Elisabet Sahtouris calls this ecological economy ecosophy. In his book “Designing Regenerative Cultures” Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion.
And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world. This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”
- The diary entries in your novel make frequent reference to the post-truth era we seem to be living in. I feel like we’ve been heading in this direction for a while (it seems as though books like Manufacturing Consentby Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman and 1984by George Orwell have documented this), but I think many people feel as though we officially entered the post-truth era when Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in a Meet The Pressinterview in 2017. Again, this is another huge question of our time, but how do those of us pushing for climate action make progress when entire political parties like the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party of Canada are in blatant denial of reality? (Actually, it seems worse than denial of reality—they use the fascist tactic of disregarding reality and replacing it with their own reality, even though they know what they’re doing.)
I have absolutely no answer for that! But seriously, how do you convince someone about an evidence-based truth when they are living by a faith-based or agenda-based truth? As a scientist who has lived most of her life doing research and learning to accept the truth of evidence, I find this belief or stance incomprehensible. So you weren’t asking me a question, were you? Well, I’ve heard some great advice on this actually and that is to appeal to a person’s compassion, their kindness, their links to family and friends and find some common ground through their humanity in the phenomenon—say a local manifestation of climate change—then work from there. Keep it local and practical and nonthreatening. In other words, take the science out of it and the belief out of it and appeal on humane grounds. You can’t convince someone to change their belief, but you might be able to persuade them to accept an aspect of something if it doesn’t threaten their belief.
- I’d like to talk about the persistence of colonialism and how it’s tied to the climate crisis. In your novel, enormous swaths of British Columbia have been turned into reservoirs to store water to sell to Americans. Doing this displaces lots of people, especially indigenous and First Nations people. But things like this are happening even now. In Minnesota, the Canadian energy company Enbridge has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying local police departments to stop Water Protectors from blocking construction of Line 3, which would desecrate indigenous land and transport tar sands oil to US refineries. Could you talk a little about the importance of protecting indigenous and First Nations people’s rights, especially in the climate action movement?
You cite a great example of capitalist exploitation in the fossil fuel industry, which is occurring everywhere on the globe. As I mentioned already, Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge lies at the heart of preserving this planet’s health and balanced climate. And Indigenous people around the world are regaining control of their territorial environments to reinvigorate food security, governance, social relations and economies. To quote Steven Nitah of the Dene First Nation, “because of their attachment to, and dependence on the land, Indigenous Peoples have been establishing their own protected areas for millennia.”
Luckily, we’re getting on board with this on a grass roots level and even government level—where it needs to be. An example of this are the Indigenous-led conservation movements like the Indigenous Guardians and the IPCAs (the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas) where indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. This is linked to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—specifically Articles 29 and 32—to govern themselves and their territories and to conserve and protect them. British Columbia in Canada sees many examples of Indigenous-led conservation leadership such with the Tla-o-qui-aht and Haida.
An example I’m following is the Heiltsuk Nation on the Great Bear Sea who have enacted an Oceans Act to protect their ocean relatives and particularly the Pacific herring—a keystone species. The Heiltsuk-herring relationship have thrived over millennia through a system of traditional ecological knowledge, gwee-ee-las, and sustainable harvesting practices. Under current legislation overseen by DFO, commercial fisheries have pretty much destroyed the herring fishery through unsustainable practices. While the Heiltsuk’s stewardship and governance of this area was recently recognized by Canada’s provincial and federal governments, DFO continued to operate separately through settler law, opening herring seine fishery in violation of Heiltsuk constitutional rights. Then they finally collaborated. We’re working it out. It’s an ongoing conversation.
- We live in a time where it is so hard to decipher what is true, what is propaganda, and what is conspiracy theory. Your novel deals with this theme a lot through the character Daniel and his obsession with a social media-like platform called Oracle. Could you talk about writing this character and what inspired his creation?
Daniel is a kind of twisted hipster version of an oracle. Young. Wise. Naïve all at the same time. I brought him in as a trickster archetype, and a kind of foil to Lynna, the main character in the diary part of the book. He’s her technician and work mate and ends up being her link to the world of gossip and dark truths repressed by the corporations via the traditional internet. He finds these gems in the quagmire of the net to share with her over coffee. He’s really a very bright and astute technologist, but he also seems naïve in some ways. For instance, he’s a researcher who dabbles in conspiracy theory. He’s all about health but he smokes. So, a man of contradictions. So, even though he is Lynna’s coffee companion and amuses her, he also unsettles her. In true trickster fashion, he finds out her secret and pays for it. His character allows me to explore the best and worst of the diarist character Lynna.
- I hope I’m not giving too much away with this question (we can skip it if you don’t want spoilers), but I want to talk about one of the central themes of the book: is it possible to save the Earth while saving humanity? The author of the diary, Lynna, writes about her water activist daughter, Hilde, a little over halfway through the book: “Does Hilde realize that she’s an oxymoron? To fight for water and the environment is to fight against humanity. Because at the root of Daniel’s question—would you save the planet at the expense of humanity?—lies the deeper question: can humanity exist without destroying the environment? And has Hilde made her prognosis? I know Una still believed in her heart that we could. I always thought her optimism was naïve.” For a long time, it seems like a narrative of the environmental movement was that humans are a virus. But now, there’s a big pushback against this narrative, with activists pointing to the systemic players who bear the most responsibility for the climate crisis. What do you think? Are humans the root problem?
On the surface, I’d say yes. Of course we are. But that is a far too simple and easy answer. It’s the easy way out. It isn’t so much that we’re human that created the climate crisis. It is that we— most of us—live and subscribe to a worldview and belief system that came from a place of great uncertainty with a perception of scarcity and an existential model based on fear and separation. Ancient peoples and most indigenous people today do not hold themselves as separate from the land; they already live in ecological civilizations. An ecological civilization is both a new and ancient idea. Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions base their spiritual wisdom on the deep interconnectedness of all things. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer “In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story…The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.” I think we’re starting to do this. Partly through listening to the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of our indigenous peoples.
I do believe that human nature is basically empathic and cooperative over selfish and competitive; I think we are born the former and taught to be the latter. That is what needs to change. How we are taught.
- On a related note, the issue of overpopulation is a highly controversial topic in the environmental movement. This has led to some fear-mongering from Conservative politicians who tell their constituents that climate activists want to make a “one child” law like the draconian one-child policy in China that began in the late 70s as part of a government program to curb population growth. Yet, overpopulation is an enormous problem, with Project Drawdown saying, “Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.” Do you think overpopulation needs to be part of the conversation in the environmental movement? Do you think there are times when pointing to this issue as it relates to climate change is problematic?
It certainly can polarize and spark conflict. Reproduction and the right to reproduce is an innate impulse of all life: to make more of itself. So, we’re in conflict with ourselves already. I agree with Project Drawdown. But how to enter into a rationale and productive discussion on this issue relies on the players, their rationale, perspective, and their personal feelings on the matter. We kind of know there should be fewer of us but how to achieve that is another matter. It comes down to ecological footprints and living lightly on the earth and other philosophical considerations. You and I talked earlier about infertility. It seems a macabre kind of irony going on with habitat degradation caused partially by over-population sparking infertility in humans through endocrine disrupting chemicals in our drinking water…
- Change is another big theme in your novel, reminding me of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece Parable of the Sower, in which she writes, “God is change.” In your novel, Lynna writes, “Trapped by our preordained notion of change, we no longer see what we’re not prepared to see. And that’s the change that kills us.” The problem with climate change is that everything is happening too fast for biological evolution to keep pace. There’s a lot of buzz about transhumanism right now—do you think we’re approaching a point where humans will have to take evolution into our own hands, so to speak, if we want to survive?
It isn’t our intelligence—our cleverness—that will save us; it is our kindness and compassion that will do that. We don’t need to invent some techy thing or reinvent ourselves or implant some intelligent virus into us. What we simply need to do is accept ourselves with humility, find and express joy. Give in to the beauty of our world and our own part in it. Become a participant. Embrace the feminine. Respect Nature and all that lies in it. Find something there to love, cherish it and protect it. The rest will follow.
Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.