environmental disaster

Cli-Fi: Eco-Disasters and Electric Sheep

Last month I wrote about eco-disaster as a form of entertainment and its lack of spirituality. While conducting some research I came upon a news story from the University of Copenhagen of a thesis defense that argued environmental disaster fiction prepare us or inform our imaginations on potential climate change disasters.

Gregers Andersen PhD, using the term ‘Cli-Fi’ (coined by climate activist Danny Bloom) for the genre, is quoted in the university news piece, “We use these films and novels to imagine what life and society might be like in a future when global warming has dramatically changed our world because, as opposed to numbers and statistics, fiction can make us feel and understand the changes.”

Andersen importantly diversified the spectrum of experiences created by the Cli-Fi he studied breaking them down into five themes: social breakdown of civilization, nature judges man, establishment conspiracy, loss of nature’s aesthetics and mankind developing technology to survive disasters.

Also, Andersen hit on something with fiction adding punch to our understanding potential ecological disasters. Only when rendered in print or pixels does disastrous consequence come to life, even if briefly.

An example of fiction’s power to portray ecological themes is a scene from 1968’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In Phillip K. Dick’s novel the extinction level of animal life is vividly portrayed by the character of Rick Deckard encountering a wildlife menagerie collected at astronomical costs.

In the scene, Deckard is transfixed by an owl, long time symbol of wisdom and mystery, “For a long time he stood gazing at the owl, who dozed on its perch. A thousand thoughts came into his mind, thoughts about the war, about the days when owls had fallen from the sky; he remembered how in his childhood it had been discovered that species upon species had become extinct and how the papers had reported it each day- foxes one morning, badgers the next, until people had stopped reading the perpetual animal obits.”

Deckard longs for a real owl and sees a raccoon for the first time. He understands a clearing house has been created for the sale of once mundane now exotic animals and loathes the synthetic sheep which he cares for, “the tyranny of an object,” as Dick wrote. The sharp loss of something like a raccoon seems insignificant considering they are often nuisance animals to suburbanites. They are pest dumpster divers to be trapped or poisoned. Yet remove them from the picture entirely, as Dick does, and the raccoon becomes as precious and invaluable.

Perhaps our every day lives keep us preoccupied or blind to the news of climate change, disasters or extinctions. Or perhaps we retain an pre-Copernican view, where we are the center of the universe, the Earth merely a vehicle for our corporeal form to bide time until an after life? Potential disasters are as inexplicable or mysterious as the minute tweaks and changes of Darwin’s Evolution. And no fiction or scientific lecture will change minds.

The complete press release on Andersen’s thesis defense can be read here.


Asymmetric Fiction: Spawn of the Lost Moon Pt. 1

Galileo_moon_phasesEverything changed in a flash of the darkest night. Nearly three months after the destruction of the moon, resulting in global panic and steady maleficent affects on the environment, a rumor emerged that a fragment of our lost orbital mate may have landed in the remote Berkshire Mountains.

As part of an ongoing series about ‘The Loss,’ my newspaper sent me to the Berkshires to meet residents of Massachusetts and see how they were adjusting to the new normal without the moon, how they are surviving the turmoil and doubts about our ability to endure this strangest of calamities. I also hoped to join the search for the moon artifact in an effort to find an answer as to why it burst into cosmic dust.

Life in Boston remains strange and strained as I boarded the train at Back Bay Station last night. The city was recovering from the initial panic that crushed many metropolis around the globe. The Internet and cell phone service that crashed mightily in those hours right after the moon exploded at 2:45 a.m. on June 21 struggled to come back. Banks and Wall Street are limited to two hours of exchanges each week. Commodities, like oil and cotton, shot up to inconceivable values. Those first few weeks of no more moon rises were bleak. Most nations declared varying degrees of martial law or loosed draconian economic sanctions upon their populace. Churches, mosques and synagogues all remained packed full of expectants of an impending Apocalypse.

Three months in, however, the world has not ended entirely. And people are trying to figure out what life will be like next. Most are worried. They should be, according to a New England-based scientist.

“We’re seeing the first stages of ecosystem collapse in the world’s oceans,” said Harvard scientist Sarah LeBlanc who accompanied me on the train ride to the Berkshires in search of the fallen moon stone.

“The coastal ecosystems are declining dramatically without the tidal effects of the moon. A vast majority of the world’s population live within 60 miles of the sea and almost four billion people rely on the ocean for daily sustenance. Sea life in the valuable coast zones have essentially plummeted to extinction,” explained LeBlanc.

“We believe the lack of tides, coupled with the shift of ocean volume towards the poles, along with mans previous abuse and pressure on the sea have put the entire ecosystem on the brink.”

According to LeBlanc, the moon of course, influenced tides, but its push and pull also kept the sea water evenly distributed around the surface of the globe. With the moon gone, she explained, the volume of water is moving towards places like Iceland and Greenland, Norway and Scotland to the north; and the to the south Argentina, Australia and New Zealand, resulting in sea-level rises of inches per month that has already taken several thousand acres of land in those nations.

The final outcome, LeBlanc believes will be the speeding up of the Earth’s rotation, “Without the moon to act as a gravity ball and chain, if you will, the Earth appears to be accelerating. It is possible that within a year, our days will be as short as six hours. Same for the night. Weather systems appear to be moving faster and more violently as well. You can imagine the devastating affect this will have on not only man, but more importantly, crops and livestock may not be able to adjust to these diminished cycles and aggressive weather changes. If mankind falls, it will occur in the next 12 months and it will happen because of a complete collapse of the food system.

I asked LeBlanc if mankind could survive without the moon, she watched the countryside sped by the train window.

“Most experts will say yes, the moon didn’t make life on Earth possible. But do I think mankind will survive? No.”

To Be Continued…


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Eco-Disaster Fiction: Mankind’s Folly? Why Not Displeased Gods?

From 2012 to Day after Tomorrow, environmental disaster films center on spectacle rather than substance. The modern movie goer revels in easy to digest worst-case scenarios rather than tackle the real-world questions about climate change that spur the fiction. The mainstream book world is also dotted with environmental calamities such as these lists from Bookish, io9 and The Guardian. These are horror stories, horrific tales on a global rather than intimate scale.

Many of these stories and films offer a bleak look at man-made environmental cataclysm, during and/or after the destruction. Taking a closer look at non-fiction environmental writing of the past century, you see bleak warning signs that fortify many scriptwriters and fiction scribes. These real environmental stories are mixed equally with rhapsodic prose of nature’s beauty and fragility. Mankind;s connection to nature was elegantly stated by environmental writer Wendell Berry who wrote in Preserving Wilderness, ” A culture that does not measure itself by nature, by an understanding of its to nature, becomes destructive of nature and this itself.”

From Berry to Emerson, we have a rich perspective on the preciousness of the environment that was intimately connected to the spiritual world. Where has this spiritual link between man and environment in our disaster fiction? Could there be another way of telling dire environmental stories without relying on the folly and failure of mankind? What would stories of environmental disasters of a spiritual nature look like? Nature folklore has never truly been syncretized into fiction.

Environmental Ecstasy

The stalwart and respected environmental essayist Berry wrote, “We need to come into the presence of the unqualified and mysterious formality of Creation.” Berry’s use of Creation, placing God within the conversation about the environment, and you have heavier, more Biblical language. The wilderness, according to Berry, is required for us to survive, as “an essential measure of our history and behavior.” The wilderness of the Bible is a place of hardship and discovery. It is the harsh crucible of races and individuals, the wilderness of the Bible. This is a language of devotion and reverence, a rarity written in today’s of scientific arguments.

Environmental writers of the last century freely used language of ecstatic religious experience where many modern environmental takes a decidedly secular tact. Conservation champions like Thoreau and Muir are what many associate with environmental writing. Ralph Waldo Emerson, articulated the Transcendentalist philosophy of soul and nature, “Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”

The wilderness of colonial Americans, those Puritans of New England, was not a place of trial and redemption but often a place of horror and temptation, occupied by the Devil and his pagan minions. Within two centuries, America’s progress changed the language of our relationship with the environment. The wild was either cheapened, conquered and harvested, or sanctified as a place of personal discovery. By the 20th century, environmental activism and awareness replaced theology and spiritualism with data and scientific theory. This non-fiction change is directly reflected in the tales of global disasters, now carbon footprints stomp our arrogance where fickle gods once did. The deluges of Gilgamesh and the Bible are replaced by humanity choked by greenhouse gas and mankind’s consumerism.

Spirit Never Left The Wood

The ideas of nature’s spiritual power, its potency and humanity’s relationship with it, are not lofty ideas generated by thinkers of centuries past. The spiritual connections between man and nature were being explored by David Abram in his 1990s, The Ecology of Magic. A trained stage magician Abram traveled the world seeking to rekindle humanity’s embrace of nature’s spiritual side. Abram would meet modern men and women, shamans and magicians of, who worked for man, but nature, performing “constant rituals, trances, ecstasies, and ‘journeys,’ he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal.”

Imagine Wicker Man‘s Lord Summerisle invoking Berry’s “culture” and “nature,” what tone does it take then? Strange, ominous or ‘backwards’? Or are they saying the same thing, just choosing a different path of worship to the same ends? Abram’s shaman and magician, like those of Summerisle, walk the path between the “human and more-than-human worlds.” Abram’s

The Green Man and Maypole are the environmental folklore descended from ancient tales born at the dawn of civilization. They are the mythologies of man’s relationship with the environment, shunned by the Christian world. The stories we are telling today about environmental horror are that of mankind’s doing, not a god displeased or spirit unsatisfied with tributes paid. Abram caught this modern oversight when he wrote, “modern civilized assumption that the natural world is largely determinate and mechanical, and that which is regarded as mysterious, powerful, and beyond human ken must therefore be some other, nonphysical real above nature, ‘supernatural’.” Modern mechanistic attributes of nature have left little room for the supernatural in much disaster story telling.

The cold sureness of science informs the screenplays and manuscripts about our bruised and battered environment. The narrative of nature before was told reverently through forest mythologies, faiths or religions; and are decidedly absent from modern disaster-tainment. Introducing the ideas of gods, spirits and beings tied to our environmental well-being would not trivialize the problems we face nor absolve us of guilt in the damage done. Watch Princess Mononoke or Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind to appreciate strong environmental stories told from a supernatural or magical perspectives. It is time to return to these old ways to provide new insights, add a spiritual and environmentally redemptive value to stories of global natural collapse.