Jacquelyn Gill and Ramesh Laungani chat about the Green New Deal and bittersweet arrival (almost) of spring before welcoming journalist author and “culture doctor” Annalee Newitz on to talk about communicating climate science through science fiction.
In Everyday Science, how climate change can make a butterfly’s favorite snack toxic. — www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/…0403120004.htm
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Transcript by Joe Stormer @PopulusEyedJoe
[Instrumental theme music]
Jacquelyn Gill: Welcome to Warm Regards — conversations from the front lines of climate change. I’m Jacquelyn Gill and assistant professor of paleoecology at the University of Maine. In today’s episode, we will be grumpy about the Green New Deal, talk science fiction and scary futures with Annalee Newitz, and nerd out about how monarch butterflies are changing what they eat in a warming world. My cohost this week is Ramesh Laungani, associate professor at Doane University in Nebraska. How’s life in the heartland, Ramesh?
Ramesh Laungani: Things are good. The temperatures are finally warming up. So yesterday it was 75 degrees. That was a nice change of pace from seemingly endless amount of snow.
Jacquelyn: Wow. I feel like you and I talk about weather a lot.
Ramesh: We do, but I feel like it’s good.
Jacquelyn: Between the really season all interior and me being in New England, it’s like a good conversation opener.
Ramesh: I feel like it’s fitting. Things are fine. There are people facing some challenges here in Nebraska because you may have heard about the flood events that have occurred recently, and so there are farming communities facing a lot of challenges. This brings up a lot of questions about climate change and what is a bomb cyclone and what does this mean? There’s a lot of great efforts being put forward by local communities to help each other out, and really that’s the most important part — that everyone’s getting the help they need and the communities are coming together around these disasters to help each other.
Jacquelyn: I was feeling like I wasn’t even hearing a lot about it on the news recently and was sort of wondering are we just burnt out from natural disaster news or our people? Is this a new normal, we’re getting used to it? Or do people not care because it’s not a major urban center.
Ramesh: I think that’s the one, I think it’s because it’s the Midwest, unfortunately.
Jacquelyn: Flyover country.
Ramesh: I’m a little bias since I live out here so that’s at least how I interpreted the sort of trickle of news coverage, but it seemed to tick up a few days post event. But I think that happens quite a bit where if there’s a large weather event about to hit let’s say the east coast, there’s a lot of coverage before, during and after; whereas in this case, obviously most of the coverage was happening post the actual weather event. And that was really due to the high amount of snow we had and there was such a high amount of water in that snow. Combined with the rain event we caught it was just overwhelmed our rivers and so a lot of communities got a sort of devastated from it. People were digging out slowly and they’re digging out together, so that’s a good thing.
Jacquelyn: That’s good. Well here in Maine, I have some news and that I found out on Monday that I’m tenured. I will no longer be Assistant Professor Gill. I will be Associate Professor Gill and I feel like neither.
Jacquelyn: Thank you. I feel like neither of those titles really tell you anything about what we actually do — like assistant to what or associate of what? So I have tenure or will have tenure as of September and that just feels really good, although quite surreal because this whole process takes like a year and so it doesn’t quite feel real yet. But yeah, it’s nice to be over the hump.
Ramesh: I feel like we just celebrated a very big accomplishment in a very podcasty kind of way. We were just like, “And I got tenure.” “All right. Good job.”
Jacquelyn: And let’s talk about the Green New Deal.
Ramesh: What are your thoughts on it?
Jacquelyn: I was going to tell people to like send me chocolate on the website. Yeah, we should talk about the Green New Deal because there have been some updates that the house resolution did not go through. Both of my senators (Collins and King) voted against it because they felt like it was “too strong and too aggressive,” and I feel like the whole messaging around it has been really kind of silly since the beginning; and I’m really grumpy about it probably for different reasons than everyone is grumpy about it. I think we all have our own reasons to be grumpy about the Green New Deal. Why are you grumpy about it, Ramesh? Cause I know you’re also grumpy.
Ramesh: Yeah, I’m a little bit grumpy about it. I’m not grumpy about its aspirations. I’m grumpy about the lack of understanding of the fact that it’s a House resolution. I’m grumbling about the civics of it. It’s (what?) six pages I think, and basically talks about, “Hey, climate change is a problem. We need to solve it.” And because of the six page resolution (nonbinding), it doesn’t necessarily lay out any details of how we’re going to achieve those goals. And so in the details as with everything, but the devil is in the details; the details are important. And because it’s a House resolution, I think the left is sort of falsely characterizing it as the thing that’s going to solve all of climate change; and the right is falsely characterizing it as this massive thing that’s going to take away all of our freedoms and cows and -
Jacquelyn: Freedoms and cows. And hamburgers.
Ramesh: So I think about the language in it; it’s not meant to be a bill or a law that has those details. I think all the language around the Green New Deal is really a lesson for all of us in civics. What is a House resolution? I was just thinking about School House Rock, right? “I’m a bill on the steps of Capitol Hill.”
Jacquelyn: There was no [singing] “I’m just a resolution.”
Ramesh: Right, because that would be the end of the song. That’s what makes me grumpy about it and how it’s being characterized. Again, aspirationally, I think it’s great. I think about the Green New Deal like the destination you put into in Google Maps, but it’s not even like I’m putting in a specific address. It’s like me in Nebraska saying, “I want to go to Maine,” and Google Maps is saying, “Okay, here are ten different road pathways that you can take.” But if I was ultimately trying to get to your house, Jacquelyn, I wouldn’t be able to get there based off of that scale of direction; I need your exact address. It’s just giving us an end point if not outlining how we are going to get there.
Jacquelyn: Right. And I felt like there was just a lot of enthusiasm for something that a lot of folks just didn’t really know much about in general, too. This sort of discussion of the Green New Deal is something that was — again — this bandaid that was going to . . . or not even a bandaid; I guess would silver bullet be the better metaphor. And for me, I was frustrated by the fact that I would try to talk to people about it and a lot of folks didn’t actually know what was in it. And that was true on both the Right and the Left. I think there’s a lot of lessons about messaging, too, and just in terms of how everything was rolled out and the incredible enthusiasm that pushed this forward really quickly but then ultimately, now, it’s like, “What’s the next step?” And I don’t think it’s going away. I think this idea or the concept of the Green New Deal has a lot of energy behind it, but I think we need to be thinking very carefully about how we’re actually going to lay out a real platform for this going into the future.
Ramesh: I absolutely agree. And so the hope is that those details will come into focus sometime soon and we’ll get some legislation moving us in that direction.
Jacquelyn: Yeah, that’d be great. I’m also one of those really nerdy people who really likes to see the nuts and bolts and get into the details. I choose candidates based on their platforms and I read them very carefully and I care less about how cool you look with your jacket over your shoulders standing on a dirt road an Annie Liebovitz photo. But that’s just me.
Ramesh: Right, right. I mean, I choose my candidates based on how they eat their pizza. If they eat their pizza with a fork and a knife, they’re out.
Jacquelyn: What sauce do you put on your steak? Ah, so much to be grumpy about. I am grumpy, even though things are starting to thaw out here in Maine. I saw a pair of ducks today on my way into work, which is very exciting. And yesterday while I was trying to motivate myself to get out of bed, I heard geese fly overhead for the first time since they left us last fall. But spring is still a ways off, which is unsatisfying. And I feel like this is a metaphor for so many things right now. We’re in the middle of what New Englanders call “mud season”. There are piles and patches of dirty snow that are giving way to last year’s dog poop, broken campaign signs that people never took off their lawns and then blew into my lawn, crunchy leaves, half frozen mud. There are potholes on my street that are large enough to swallow small cars and large children. The daffodils and the tulips are still in bed and the trees are just bundles of sticks. There’s still snow in our ten-day forecast and we are guaranteed — like dollars to donuts — I would bet you anything that we will get at least one more spring blizzard here. But my people of New England, we have a strange resiliency when it comes to mud season. So my favorite local ice cream spot has already been open for two weeks and the lines were basically stretching into the parking lot, even though it was below freezing out when it opened. And more excitingly, I think, the sap is running. So during this brief, muddy window in spring where it gets above freezing during the day and then below freezing at night, people poke holes in maple trees (this is how maple syrup happens), they hang buckets on the trees, they collect sap, they boil that sap, and they make maple syrup. And no, it doesn’t hurt the maple trees; they’re just fine. Sugar shacks (where the syrup is made) open their doors and they sell these little maple candies that are shaped like leaves or small children. They pour maple syrup into soft serve machines and onto snow; we all eat it, it’s very fun. And then we do things like go to garden centers and start seeds indoors, and we wear shorts when it’s 40 degrees, and we very optimistically put our road salt and ice scrapers away (even though we know that we’re going to need them at least once again before the mud season is over). And this kind of optimism is pretty easy because we all know that spring is actually coming to the Northern Hemisphere and thanks to climate change, it’s coming earlier and earlier every year — which can actually cause its own problems as plants start to wake up only to be hit by these late spring cold snaps. But if you’re in the middle of it, it still seems like an act of faith to take the storm windows down and to sign up for a spot in the community garden. A lot of my friends struggle with seasonal effective disorder, and depression in general can just make it feel like this is all there is — just you and your sad lamp and an electric blanket and a lot of Cheezits. And I actually find mud season to be much harder than winter; there is nothing hygge about mud season. It’s gritty and it’s dirty and it’s dead and you can’t get decent strawberries; and what is the point of longer days when all the trails and sidewalks are covered in water and ice and my house smells like a freshman dorm. You can tell I’m a little grumpy about this. So yesterday on my way to the gym, I was listening to NPR and I heard this interview with author Barry Lopez. He’s got a new book out and a deals like much of his writing with the lessons we learned from wild places. And the interviewer asked him how he stays hopeful when it feels like the world is falling apart. He said, “How embarrassing to give up when everything around you is growing.” It reminded me that (even though I can’t see it) underneath the ice and the trash and the dirt, nature is waking up — just like it always has and just like it always will. Our guest today is Annalee Newitz — journalist, editor, author and (I think it’s okay to say this) a professional nerd. She was the founder of the science fiction and futurism blog (io9) and she’s now a freelance science journalist. She currently cohosts a podcast of her own about science fiction and culture with her partner Charlie Jane Anders called Our Opinions Are Correct. If you don’t subscribe, you really should. It’s awesome. Annalee, I’m so excited to have you on our show today.
Annalee Newitz: Yeah, thanks for having me.
Jacquelyn: I actually was reading your Wikipedia page today (as one does) and I didn’t know that you actually have a PhD, which means your Dr. Newitz, which is pretty cool. Your dissertation was on images of monsters, psychopaths and capitalism in 20th century American pop culture. And I know people probably don’t ask you about that very often, but I kind of want to hear about it for a minute.
Ramesh: Yeah, me too.
Annalee: Yeah, no, I’m happy to talk about it. I am a doctor of culture, so if you have a cultural emergency, you can kind of call out on the plane, “We don’t know how to interpret this.” So then I come in and help out. I did an interdisciplinary degree. We called that American Studies and that’s still a discipline that’s kind of in the process of coalescing in academia. I was kind of combining methodologies from political science and social science with humanities. So I was looking at a whole bunch of stories (movies, TV, books) that focused on monsters and people who were sort of treated as psychopaths by the stories they were in. I was interested in how those stories were affected by economic shifts in the United States. There’s a couple of ways to look at that. You can sort of say, “Well, there was the Great Depression and then we suddenly had a whole bunch of stories about a particular type of monster.” But it’s complicated because the stories that become popular, it’s not just about what Hollywood pays to make; it’s also what people will pay to see. So you’re kind of measuring what people want to seek out as their diversion or their entertainment, but then you’re also measuring what does Hollywood (or what does the publishing industry) think people want. And so once you can see that, once you can see which things broke out at the box office or which things sold really well in bookstores, then you can start to tease out how does economic crisis tempt us into reading certain kinds of stories. And it’s interesting because if you trace a monster — like one of the monsters I looked at was cyborgs. And if you look at cyborgs throughout the 20th century, they change a lot. And they do really change in response to social shifts. And the same thing for stories about the undead, which was another kind of monster that I looked at; that monster comes right out of fears about sort of post-slavery, postcolonial relationships and then it winds up being stuff like the Walking Dead much later and so it kind of gets away from that original colonial meanings. It was really fun. It turned out it prepared me really well to be a journalist, but not so much to be an academic where interdisciplinary degrees were not easy to turn into a job.
Jacquelyn: I kind of want to follow up on that for just a second, because it sounds like the the monsters that we create in our fiction (that we consume in television or comics or books or movies) are really reflections of what we’re afraid of. We hear from a lot of people about climate anxiety or environmental anxiety. Do you feel like that’s risen to the point where we have monsters that are standing in for that anxiety? Like what would be the climate monster?
Annalee: There’s a bunch of climate monsters and you’d be surprised how far back in science fiction fears about climate go. Again, it’s important to remember that these kinds of creatures, they do represent fears but oftentimes buried in these monster stories you find a lot of hopes as well. And I think the first big climate story is really from 1915 (or 1912, maybe) called Princess of Mars. It was made into it relatively terrible film called John Carter of Mars. And it’s about how Mars was devastated by some kind of massive climate transformation and they’ve lost their water. The main character in the story, John Carter, comes to Mars and is like, “Holy shit,” this is what it looks like when a planet changes so dramatically. It’s climate changes so dramatically and there’s political instability as a result, and they’re kind of reaching to other planets and trying to get help there. And so you see that. And then, and then of course, much later in the 20th century you get stories like Dune, which is also about a planet that has had dramatic climate transformation and it’s connected with exploitation of resources. And so a lot of times when you see a monster of climate change, it’s a giant monster because the climate is really big; so it’s like a giant worm. I totally think of later Godzilla movies as having a climate change aspect. In fact, the very important early 70s Godzilla film Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster is literally Godzilla fighting climate problems.
Ramesh: So Annalee, I guess a question that comes to mind as you’re saying this is do you think that the explicitness of those climate monsters being climate-driven has become more prevalent? I recently saw this movie Annihilation; I think it had a Natalie Portman in it.
Ramesh: And I’m not gonna lie, I kept falling asleep on the couch. But this idea of this mythical force — do you feel like it’s more effective for these climate monsters to be represented as actual climate change or do you think it’s more impactful to an audience if sort of the climate monster is actually manifested as a physical monster?
Annalee: As a kaiju that we can fight with our giant robots?
Ramesh: Yeah, right.
Jacquelyn: Or The Day After Tomorrow.
Annalee: There’s The Day After Tomorrow and Geostorm. There’s a ton of super cheesy climate change movies that are actually trying to be about climate change or extreme weather. Interstellar does that as well. We got a lot of climate change imagery early in that film, although the later part of the film is really terrible. You know, it’s funny cause when you say, “Is it more effective?”, then the question is effective at what?
Annalee: So are you trying to teach people, “Here’s how climate change works and here’s a possible way that we could be resilient,” or are you just trying to tap into our deepest fears about the world being yanked out from under us and all the habitats that we love turning into habitats that are unlivable? Good fiction really does both. Good fiction is gonna sometimes just give you a giant monster. Jeff Vandermeer wrote the novel Annihilation that the movie is based on (and by the way, the novel is just SO much better than the film); it is about an environmental scientist and Jeff Vandermeer just such a great job capturing what it means to study ecosystems and ecosystems in transition. I think that’s great example of a novel that actually does teach you about how the science works as well as providing this spooky, weird “thing” that we can’t name or understand that is changing our ecosystems. And in the novel (like I said) it’s very explicit that the main character studies ecosystems and transition. The terrible weird force that we don’t understand is transforming ecosystems. And it’s as we go through, it’s very clearly an allegory. There’s no solution because of course it’s a weird forced from outer space that’s like digging weird fungus holes in the ground. [Laughs] The sort of fiction-y part. How do you tap into people’s fears and how do you kind of open up their minds to the story while you do it through having creepy monsters that don’t educate you about anything really? They just serve as the kind of underpinnings that help us get into the story.
Jacquelyn: Yeah. What’s really striking about that book to me (reading it as someone who loves science fiction and who is a scientist) is that it captured that sort of angst about uncertainty so well and that sort of second guessing yourself about what you’re seeing and what you’re doing and what the path forward is. And it makes me think, too, about The Day After Tomorrow, which I actually, I actually have a very soft spot in my heart for that movie.
Annalee: [Incredulous] What, really?
Jacquelyn: It came out just as I was figuring out what I wanted to be when I grew up, just before I got into grad school and there’s a paleoclimatologist in it. I love everything about that film except for the wolf CGI.
Ramesh: I think this is actually the ninth time that The Day After Tomorrow has come up. This is like a running theme in a number of episodes. Which is fine.
Annalee: What I like in that film is that they kind of tried to split the difference between having a giant monster and having climate change because climate change actually chases them down the hall, not in the wolf school. We see like the walls are freezing behind them and they’re like running, running. So yeah, that’s kind of a fail. But I’m glad that someone likes that film.
Jacquelyn: I had freezing nightmares about that for a long time.
Annalee: Yeah, well it’s an intense . . . yeah.
Jacquelyn: There was some climate communication research (I think at the Yale Climate Communication Project) about that movie. It turns out that the day after tomorrow did more to increase public awareness of climate change, then Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which came out around the same time. You’ve done nonfiction and fiction writing. Why do you think fiction is so powerful at doing what facts tried to do but often fail?
Annalee: It’s such a good question and I will be completely honest and say that one of the reasons I started writing fiction was because I was so frustrated with the reactions I got from nonfiction. I have done a lot of writing about a geoscience and climate change and I wrote a book about mass extinction. People, when they hear the words climate change, when they hear even just the word environment (and when I say “people”, I mean sort of the general public) . . . people just shut down. They close up; they kind of refer back to what they sort of already know or already believe. And it’s very hard to kind of knock on that door and say, “Hey, I’ve got some new facts for you.” But with fiction, I think there’s an opportunity because we have characters that you can identify with. There’s scenarios that are removed from our everyday life. They’re removed from what we think of as facts. When you knock on that door, people open up and they say, “Alright, I’ll listen to a story. I want to hear a story.” And as a writer, then your job is to, first of all, tell a good damn story so that people don’t shut the door. But then you can do a lot in that story to work in themes about science or climate change that kind of just sneak in. They sneak into people’s minds. I think it’s because when we agree that we’re all in a fantasy world or where we agree that we’re in the world of fiction, we let our guard down a little bit and we are open to hearing perspectives that we wouldn’t if it was just an actual person saying, “Hello, I have a chart.” I mean I do have characters in my novel Autonomous who literally do hold up charts, say things are happening. A lot of the action takes place in the ice-free Arctic because there’s a pirate with a submarine on the Arctic. Somehow because it’s a pirate in a submarine and she’s super bad-ass, we can suddenly talk about the fact that the Arctic Sea is ice-free; what does that mean?
Ramesh: So Annalee, do you think that part of people’s ability to (as you said) “let their guard down” has to do with the fact that when they’re reading fiction, they are not playing a role in the story (as opposed to when you hand them facts implicitly, they are still a character in that interaction). They are expected to take in those facts and then act on those facts, not in a particular way but they’re supposed to act on those facts. Do you think that leads to them shutting down because that idea of being a fly on the wall versus being an active participant?
Annalee: That’s an interesting way of thinking about it because a lot of times when we write about climate change there is an implicit call to action — or, more frustratingly, there’s no call to action. So it’s just kind of like, “Well, you should feel bad and things are bad,” and you wind up feeling like everything is garbage and there’s nothing you can do. I think that part of it is that that feeling of fiction — like I said — is not part of my life. It’s something that’s out there; it’s, it’s a dream world. But people take really strong ownership of their fiction. Like if you look at how people respond to, Marvel films or Star Wars; there’s activism around those stories and how they want the stories to be told. So I’m not sure if that’s the difference. I think that the difference between fiction and nonfiction really is just that, “Okay, we’re all going to agree that this isn’t real and then we’re going to have a story.” And once we kind of make that agreement (we’re all agreeing that it’s not real), then people feel more liberated. And even when you start talking about real stuff, it’s just that it’s (lack of a better term) a “safe space” where we can all meet and just all we’re doing is just telling stories. There’s no pressure to vote. There’s no pressure to come up with a solution necessarily. It’s just we’re exchanging ideas. It is interesting. I mean, I think it’s partly about not feeling like you have to do something, but it’s also partly just feeling like you’re not — I don’t know — maybe that you’re not implicated, like you don’t feel guilty about what’s happened in the story. Whereas with climate change, there’s a lot of, “Oops,” we did this to ourselves and to all the other life forms around us. So it’s kind of bad.
Jacquelyn: All the facts that were like tied to you personally in a way, right? Like YOU have a carbon footprint; YOU did this. to you,
Annalee: Even if you didn’t.
Ramesh: Even something qualitatively different. I think about even reading in a fiction novel, “Humans increased CO2 and caused climate change.” You’re still able to separate yourself because of that fiction like, “Oh, this is fiction,” as opposed to hearing Al Gore go up the graph there because you’re implicitly one of those dots that’s going up the the Y-axis.
Annalee: In fiction writing, we talk about world building and when you read a book or if you see a movie, all of the little details are part of that built world. And so part of that world building can be, “Climate change is real for sure and all this stuff is going on.” And even if you’re not a believer in climate change, you can just say, “Well, in the rules of Game of Thrones, winter is coming and everything’s going to be screwed up. So that’s why continue to watch Game of Thrones even if we’re climate deniers.
Jacquelyn: You’ve written a lot of nonfiction before; you have this great book about mass extinctions that I love that I want to talk about in a minute. But your first novel, Autonomous, as you said takes place in a very warm world. It takes place in is somewhat near-future in an Arctic where there is no sea ice anymore. What made you decide to write about climate change in particularly this way? There’s a real sort of health aspect to your novel and I feel like a lot of the discussions or at least even a lot of the fiction around climate change tends to focus on the impacts on the environment — like climate change is something that will happen to trees and polar bears and coral reefs, but maybe not necessarily people as long as we don’t live on the coasts or near a place that tends to catch fire a lot. So what have you personally learned about the connections between climate change and human health, and why did you decide to frame your novel in that particular way?
Annalee: Well, there’s the very basic answer, which is that I think it’s irresponsible to write about the future without writing about climate change because all evidence suggests that that’s coming in our relatively near future. I mean this book is set about 130 years in the future, so there are some pretty significant changes. Again to go back to the world building idea, that has to be part of the world building. And I was involved for about a year on the sort of leadership council of the American Geophysical Union. And it was during the time when the AGU first started publishing a new journal called Geo Health (which is actually great journal, highly recommend if you’re interested in the connection between environment and health) and I was just really impressed with how much we already know about how human health (of course also the health of nonhuman animals) are connected to habitat derangement or habitat disturbance and climate change. So I really wanted that to be something that would fit into the book, that people could kind of figure out that health will be impacted and also politics will be impacted; social relationships are impacted. In the future in Autonomous, basically slavery has been reinvented; they call it indentured servitude, but it’s basically slavery once your indentured. This is partly a fallout from how destabilized countries have become because of dealing with climate change.
Jacquelyn: That makes me think of this quote by Ursula K Le Guin that I really love. She had this collection of blog posts later in life that was published as a book in (I think) 2017 called No Time To Spare. She’s talking about how we often sort of are really dismissive of speculative fiction or science fiction fantasy as being escapism. And she says, “The direction of escape is toward freedom. So what is escapism an accusation of?” I really love that for those of us who engage in science fiction as not “just escapism”. I met you at Wiscon, which is a feminist science fiction convention which was really my personal crash course in feminism and social justice. You know, what you said about Autonomous makes me think too about the power of imagining these futures both in terms of imagining better futures for ourselves, but also imagining where we are potentially headed; if you sort of take the present to its logical conclusion, we are going to show you, we’re going to reflect society back to you and show you what’s possible. But we can also imagine the sort of better futures. And so I guess a lot of what you write about it involves things like mass extinction or this sort of having to biohack our way out of this very hot planet with these new emerging infectious diseases. So you write a lot about these sort of darker futures. And do you ever feel like . . . I’m trying to figure out what I’m trying to ask here because, on the one hand, I think it’s really important that we show people what the future could look like and show people what the possibilities are; but on the other hand, when the present is really bleak, there’s also this this need also for escapism, right? So moving towards something like, “I want to read my Dragon Lance novels because today was a really bad day,” right? I think I’ve kind of figured out where I’m going here, which is that this idea of speculative fiction as both as both a mirror that we can hold up to ourselves and also something that allows us to escape from the difficulties of the present. You seem to walk that line really deftly in your own work, both your fiction and nonfiction work; you sort of think about the intersection of society and culture. That’s not a question. [Laughter] Help me, doctor, help me.
Annalee: So I’m really glad that you brought up the Ursula K Le Guin comment about escapism because I think that people mistake escapism for kind of just obliterating your consciousness — as if it’s just sort of taking a drug and not thinking about anything. But when escapism really is is allowing yourself to think about possibilities. And I think when we are at a very dark point in history or when we’re up against a really tough global problem like climate change, we kind of shut down our ability to imagine possibilities. We’re afraid, we are uncertain what’s coming next, and we get into a mode of thinking only really near-term and really just one possibility. We don’t open ourselves up to multiple possibilities and so one of the things I try to do both in my nonfiction and my fiction is to have what I call pragmatic optimism, which is not the kind of goofy kind of techno optimism of “We’re going to solve everything with an app”. We need to realize that we are going to survive as a species. There’s a lot of evidence from the history of the planet that species like Homo sapiens tend to survive mass extinctions and tend to survive major habitat disturbances because there’s a lot of us; we can survive in a lot of different habitats. We can eat garbage and we don’t seem to mind. We’re very resilient in that way. Maybe we won’t survive at the population size we are now, but we are going to survive and so we need to plan for that survival. That’s where escapeism and can be really useful because we can think about not just the dark possibilities in the near future, but how do we rebuild from a huge disaster or a series of disasters. There’s a really great series of books that I keep recommending to people by Carrie Vaughn that starts with the novel Bannerless and the second one just came out; it’s called the Wild Dead. And it’s about a series of California coastal communities trying to rebuild after the United States has collapsed because of so many climate disasters, kind of just crumbling the government away. The government can’t hold on anymore. These are communities that are in a kind of climate disastrous scenario. There’s huge mega storms; the seas are rising, but they’re building agricultural sustainable communities at a small size. They’re trying to keep their population down; they’re trying to only grow enough food for the people in their communities. And it’s this weirdly hopeful scenario. Of course it’s dark; it’s it not forgetting about all the things that are going to be really awful. But it also imagines a future beyond that disaster and how do we rebuild in a direction that might be more sustainable than the one that we’re in now? That’s what’s great about escapism; you learn about all kinds of possibilities and you keep in mind that your species is going to survive and it’s going to be really weird. It’s going to look really different in a hundred years, in a thousand years, a hundred thousand years. Who the heck knows what Homo sapiens is going to be doing? But we probably will be around. Maybe we’ll have speciated so there’ll be like a bunch of other crap around. I mean, hopefully everybody’s going to keep speciating and we’ll have new new life forms all over the place. In my nonfiction book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, that was kind of what I tried to think about — where does humanity go in the longterm and how do we get there and how do we remember that we’re not all going to be wiped out. We’re not going to get chased by ice down a hallway and then all freeze to death.
Jacquelyn: So we’re basically more like a cockroaches than trilobites, right?
Annalee: Why are we casting shade on trilobites? You know, trilobites survived TWO mass extinctions so if we can be trilobites, I am psyched.
Jacquelyn: We’ll be doing pretty well.
Annalee: Yeah, I think we will be. We’ll be doing good.
Ramesh: As you were saying all this, something that came to mind was this idea of survival; like “We need to do this for the survival of the species.” But also, as you were talking that the idea of survive and thrive came up as well. And so I just guess I want to get your take for as a fiction writer: as you tell these climate change sort of themed stories or even your belief that we are going to survive, do you feel like we should just be telling stories of survival, or do you think we need to be telling stories of survival and thriving? Again, the idea of thriving is sort of a wonky definition; it’s sort of a judgment call. To me there’s a difference and I wonder if part of the challenge around climate change is because we’re framing the discussion around about surviving, which inherently is optimistic and simultaneously dark.
Annalee: Yeah, you raise a really good point because we do have to distinguish between surviving and thriving, because survival can look pretty frickin’ grim. Survival just means you’re able to reproduce. You can reproduce living in a storm drain, eating garbage; that’s totally one possibility for our future. It’s a place where people live now. It’s not outside the realm of possibility. One of the problems that I’ve had with SOME environmental rhetoric is this idea that we’re all just going to die out or we’re going to kill the world, and that that’s the real threat. Obviously that’s not going to happen. There’s literally no evidence that suggests we are going to kill everything on the planet, or even that we’re going to necessarily kill all humans. But we ARE looking at a future where if we don’t start having more sustainable environmental policies, we’re looking at a future of mass starvation; we’re looking at a future where a farmland is disappeared; we’re looking at a future where pandemics spread more easily because you have a population that’s already weakened by lack of access to food. This also leads to political instability, which leads to its own kinds of problems with famines and kind of forced relocation. So that’s all under the umbrella of “survival”. We’re going to survive; it’s just going to suck ass. [Laughter] Like, nobody likes that. So what we really need is a way of thinking about how do we survive in a way that feels like we’re thriving — where we’re living in ecosystems that are resilient and where we’re hopefully reducing our footprint on those ecosystems. It’s just really hard to explain that. I think this gets back to something we were talking about earlier with the kind of uncertainty where you can’t say to people, “Well, basically the future under climate change will just be much worse for poor people and for SOME people who aren’t poor. But, you know, a lot of people are just going to keep living pretty much the way they are now. It’s just there’ll be fewer places they are where they can do that.” Once you start getting into the kind of reality of what might happen, people are like, “Well, that doesn’t seem so bad. We already have rich people and poor people. And like, so what? I heard somewhere in Africa there’s a new inland sea, but that’s far away.” So I think instead you get a lot of people who are telling environmental stories. I don’t just mean people in science fiction; people in the kind of activist community want to tell stories about how there’s just going to be total death. They don’t want to tell the complicated, nuanced story; they’re just like, “Look, we change or we die.” I think that’s really a problem. I don’t have a solution at all, but I do think that the solution requires us to tell fictional stories to convince people as well as presenting them with facts that are nuanced and sometimes don’t exactly line up with the kind of doomsday scenarios that might move people. I dunno. That was a long answer. [Laughs]
Jacquelyn: It’s good. I mean, it kind of jives with what we know about environmental communication and how people get burned out by those narratives. There’s, there’s this community of people who are concerned and they want motivate people to act and so they try to frighten people by telling them the truth or telling them a truth about, again, the sort of total devastation narrative. “We are here to save our lives. We’re here to save the planet. We are here to save our species.” Yet we know that that tends to backfire. Then you see people pulling back from that narrative and then other folks get upset because we’re kind of underplaying. It’s like I get yelled at for being too much of a climate hawk and not concerned enough about climate change in the same day, about the same tweet. There’s such a spectrum of opinions about the environment and our relationship to it; people are pretty entrenched so it can get really frustrating. But thinking about your own writing, the futures that you imagine are not always awesome, right? Like surviving a mass extinction — surviving is pretty optimistic, but a mass extinction is still (as you said) a pretty tough time; and even the present can be pretty scary too. You do a lot of writing and reporting on a lot of really current and pressing issues in science and technology. A lot of those stories about everything from information to people losing their jobs because of automation to sex robots — all of that can be pretty bleak. So I want to know how YOU stay resilient. We ask a lot of our guests this because something that our listeners ask us a lot is, “How do you keep going? How do you stay resilient? How do you stay positive and do this work in the face of so much bad news when it’s your job and it’s not just something that you can tune out and turn off.”
Annalee: It’s a good question. I’m working on a nonfiction book right now that’s about cities that have been abandoned — ancient abandoned cities and why people abandoned them. A huge part of it has to do with environmental shifts and changes and how that affects political structures. It’s actually weirdly hopeful and helpful to be able to look back (even look back 9,000 years to Neolithic cities that struggled with climate shifts) and see that, yeah, times get tough but people still struggle through and that there are always survivors who managed to come up with a slightly better idea, a slightly better way to design a water system, a slightly better way to integrate health care into a city. I mean things don’t always get better immediately and it’s tough to think, “It might take a thousand years for us to fix this problem or two thousand years,” but we HAVE done it in the past. Humans have been recording their own history for thousands of years and things have been dark for centuries at a time, and yet there’s always someplace in the world where people are doing something awesome. Europe had a really crappy thousand years, but in the Middle East things were awesome. The Middle Ages were time of great flowering of science and math — but just not in Europe. So Europeans are like, “It was the dark ages,” and it’s like, “Yeah, only for YOU guys.” So I always think of that and think of basically the long-term picture. Maybe in a thousand years or two thousand years people will be looking back at us and saying, “Wow, that was a tough time; but luckily we pulled through. We figured something out,” or “We made it work.” And so I take hope from that — which, again, it’s just having faith in this big longterm project that is Homo sapiens. We don’t necessarily have to be good people for it to succeed. We just have to be animals who want to survive, who are tool makers. We use tools to survive. We keep trying to live and we keep trying to help each other live. And that’s a big source of hope for me.
Jacquelyn: It’s funny that you say that because that’s like basically what I say when people ask me about the climate system and the environment. When I look at the really long-term records of how environments respond to climate change, I actually find a lot of stories of resilience and hope in that. It’s funny too because I’m teaching a graduate class that I co-teach with an archeologist and next week we’re talking about civilizational collapse, and just the very idea of whether or not a collapse is really a failure. Because for a lot of these cities that get abandoned, that sort of scattering and adapting and sort of trying (to kind of throw back to the title of your book) new approaches that involve maybe abandoning urban centers and kind of decentralizing everything can be as a form of resilience. It’s just our value judgement that looks at that and says, “Well, we no longer have this big shiny thing with these really big, tall stone buildings and the centers of commerce that have these really rigid power structures,” but they’re not necessarily flexible, right? Moving into smaller communities or changing your subsistence strategies — that is a form of persistence. Like knowing when to let go, right? It’s not like everybody in those cities all disappeared or died in one day. They moved out, they did other things, and that’s I think a form of resilience. It’s a way of kind of spinning that collapse narrative. And I’m sorry if I’m totally like spoiling your book or something.
Annalee: [Laughs] Spoiler! It’s not really collapse. No, I mean, that’s one of the things I love about archeologists and I do think that they share this with environmental scientists — it’s this notion that it’s not ever really a collapse; it’s a transformation, it’s a transition. A lot of archeologists now really hate the term (not hate, but they shy away from the term) “collapse” because it doesn’t actually capture what happens. It IS a transition. It’s a civilizational transition and it often is a renewal. Like you said, when people choose to leave a place they have a good reason and it’s hard to leave home. People don’t do it without thinking about it really hard and thinking that there’s a better alternative; I think we forget that. Again, humans love apocalypse stories. We really just think they’re super great and we love to watch ourselves die. Like nobody wants to watch the dog apocalypse, right?
Jacquelyn: I couldn’t do it.
Annalee: That is just like NOT acceptable. But the human apocalypse is super exciting.
Jacquelyn: Why? Like . . . I mean . . . I watched that movie (the World War I documentary) They Shall Never Grow Old. And I’m sitting here through original footage, piles of dead bodies and people blowing up. One horse dies and I’m like ready to get up and leave the theater. I’m sobbing hysterically in the theater. I can’t watch a horse die even though I’ve seen thousands of men dying.
Annalee: I think that’s something that environmental activists have figured out and gotten right. If you appeal to people about, [sentimental] “Humanity will die,” they’re just like, “All right, let me get the popcorn.” But if you’re like, “This cute, tiny frog is going to die,” people are just like, “Okay, drop everything. Donate to the frog fund,” or the seal fund.
Jacquelyn: It’s one one sea turtle video and we get straw bans, right?
Jacquelyn: One sea turtle video.
Annalee: Yeah. And I actually don’t mind that approach at all. If we can appeal to people’s love of charismatic microfauna, minifauna.
Annalee: Megafauna, yay. That’s also good, but we don’t have a lot of that left. So I think it’s really true that we’re super attracted to those stories of collapse and apocalypse. But buried under that I think is a real true desire for renewal and for rejuvenation. The secret of the apocalypse story — that it’s really a wish for something better and different.
Jacquelyn: I like that a lot and I think it’s a good place to end too because it sort of takes this idea of endings and turns them into new beginnings or new transitions. I think that seems to be a theme in a lot of your work, right? Just taking what we have and kind of tinkering and kind of becoming makers, and figuring out what to do next with what we’ve got.
Annalee: Yeah, that’s right. Survive the dark times and keep going, and keep making friends. [Laughs] That’s really what’s going to get us through, having good friends and good communities. And I think that’s where it all starts.
Jacquelyn: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much. I really enjoyed getting to talk to you from the future (if you’re on the East Coast).
Annalee: Thanks for having me.
Jacquelyn: Well I think, we’ll move on briefly to our unexpected science for the day, with a story of some charismatic microfauna. Ramesh, why don’t you tell me a little bit about monarch butterflies and how they are going to be affected by climate change.
Ramesh: So many people (or most people) have seen a monarch butterfly or seen an image of a monarch butterfly, either in slow motion or the big migrations moving through the U.S. Spring is springing here, plants are grown out of the ground and an important plant for these monarch butterflies is milkweed. We think about milkweed as maybe a single plant, but they were actually a few different types (a few different species) of milkweed. Some are native to the U.S. and some are invasive. There was this really interesting study trying to understand how a warming climate is going to impact the relationship between monarch butterflies and those milkweed species. And so these researchers down at LSU, what they did is they grew some milkweed (sort of the native milkweed). Not surprisingly, the monarch butterflies were doing their thing; they were eating it and they were chomping on the leaves and taking in the poisonous sap that milkweed have that the monarch butterflies are actually resistant to. They also fed these monarch butterflies this invasive milkweed. What they found was that under normal conditions, the monarch butterflies really fell in love with the invasive milkweed. Survival of the monarch butterflies went up on this invasive milkweed. So all right, that’s under normal current conditions. But what was interesting was that then they did the same experiment but just under warmer conditions. The plants still looked the same to the butterflies, but what they found was that the monarch butterflies that we’re now still preferring the invasive milkweed had a significantly lower survival. What they found was that that invasive milkweed was now producing too much of the toxin that the monarch butterfly had been able to withstand under normal conditions. The author, Matt Faldyn, basically characterize this invasive milkweed as an ecological trap. It was sort of the trail of candy leading to the oven essentially. And so it’s a really interesting way to look at how climate change is going to affect these iconic relationships and these iconic/charismatic microfauna — something like a monarch butterfly at a scale that can be seen in somebody’s backyard cuz I think that (for better or for worse) you can buy these invasive milkweeds at like your local hardware store or your local garden center because they look pretty and they make really nice flowers. And so it was a really interesting way to study this relationship between butterflies and and plants. And as a plant ecologist, I always love it when plants get a little more press, even if it’s through a dying butterfly.
Jacquelyn: Well, and it kind of also gives a lie . . . you often hear the phrase, “Well, climate change is great for plants; CO2 is a fertilizer for plants.” But of course, there are lots of issues with that and the plants are going to be behaving differently with warmer conditions and higher CO2. And in this case, these plants are making more poison that then the butterflies are not able to withstand. I’m just trying to think of like a good metaphor. It’s like you go into the Old Country Buffet or whatever and do you have this wonderful array of stuff. And of course you don’t want like the crusty old mashed potatoes and so you go for like the cheese fountain and get your own fondue. I don’t actually know if Old Country Buffet has a cheese fondue.
Ramesh: Let’s go with it. Cheese fountain.
Jacquelyn: But then it’s suddenly like we’re just jacking up the cholesterol in the cheese fondue fountain and so suddenly this look more attractive thing is just becoming less and less good for you in the end. Again, we try to talk about the unexpected ways in which climate change might be influencing the planet and its inhabitants, and this is I think a classic case of things are more complex than just warmer and more CO2 equals better growing conditions for plants and more fertilizer. Of course milkweed are fine, but it’s the butterflies that are going to suffer.
Jacquelyn: Well on that happy note, those butterflies better learn to a scatter, adapt and remember if they want to survive. We want to thank you all for listening to our show today. I hope that you found it hopeful, even though we talked about things like mass extinction, monsters, and climate disasters. We’re really happy to have had a great guest today. Warm Regards is a labor of love, and we are always looking for sponsors to help us grow and to sustain the efforts of the amazing volunteers who run the show. So if you’ve got something that you would like us to share with our community, please reach out to us; we’re always looking for sponsors. We would also love to hear from our listeners. You can follow us on Twitter, @OurWarmRegards, and email ideas or feedback to OurWarmRegards@gmail.com. You can listen to all of our previous episodes on whatever your favorite podcast service is — including iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud. Warm regards is produced by Eric Mack and Justin Schell. Joe Stormer writes our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. My cohost today was Ramesh Laungani. Our guest was Annalee Newitz, and I’m Jacquelyn Gill. From all of us at Warm Regards, thanks for letting us into your head.
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