Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Email exchange interview between Hamish MacDonald, author of FINITUDE, and Danny Bloom, director of the Polar Cities Research Institute

Hamish MacDonald is the Canadian author of a powerful book about future climate chaos, titled FINITUDE, and it a book well worth reading. He lives in Scotland. Dan Bloom is an American climate activist based in Taiwan.

Dan Bloom: Your novel ''Finitude'' depicts people trying to survive in
dystopian post-apocalypse times, and the book makes it clear that we
humans are very implicit in our own human-made disasters. Human-made
global warming is at the top of our radar screens now, with James
Lovelock and Mark Lynas and George Monbiot and James Hansen, not to
mention, Al Gore, making sure we don't ignore the issues. What is your
take, Hamish, on global warming and what can we do now to try to stop
it from causing devastating climate chaos in some distant future, say
500 years from now? Or do you think things will happen sooner than
that, sooner than 30 generations from now?

Hamish McDonald: I think we're just starting to see the effects of our impact on the
ecosystem. In 500 years, we'll be well settled into whatever's next,
what comes after this. The big concern is the adjustment to the new
'normal' - and from this vantage-point, I don't think anyone can say
what that'll be. This is a chaotic system we're talking about, so
there are no simple "A+B=C" conclusions we can make.

Of course, some people naturally jump straight from that to "Oh, then
it's all just made up. Let's ignore it then." That's just stupid. All
the arguments for doing nothing fail the very simple test of Pascal's
Wager. The changes that leading environmental thinkers are asking us
to make would have so many long-run social and economic benefits that
the only defence against them is intellectual laziness and
intransigence, like sticking your fingers in your ears and singing La
la la.

It's also difficult to separate our personal feelings from this issue.
I find much of consumer culture nauseating, so it's easy to secretly
wish for our society to get a spanking from the universe for our
excesses. This kind of moralising is probably what 'deniers' really
object to, and I can't blame them for that.

In the end, this is all a bit like our reaction when a young person
dies: yes, it's a tragedy, but that tragedy is usually set against a
make-believe story of the world in which that person would never have
died if it weren't for this accident, disease, or choice.

Likewise, I've heard it said that we're the lucky couple of
generations going through an "Anthropocene Era", when conditions on
life happen to be ideal for us. But it hasn't always been this way,
and, with the Earth being a system in constant flux, Gaia might
transition into something hostile anyway. Fast-forward far enough into
the future and total entropy will make the entire universe
uninhabitable, and all evidence of us will be erased in a sea of
energy-less ash.

Hardly the kind of thing anyone wants to imagine over their morning
bowl of cereal.

Still, the changes being asked of us aren't really that big in the
grand scheme of things - if only we could stop getting distracted by
economic crises and wars, both of which are complete fabrications over
which we have total control. At this point in history, we have every
chance to make this short-term period turn out well, but my fear is
that we might just be too stupid to take it.

Dan: For the past 5 years, I have been exploring the concept of
"polar cities" as climate refuges for climate refugees in some distant future, perhaps around the year 2500 AD. But for some
reason, I cannot get the mainstream media in the USA or the UK to
report on my admittedly eccentric and also admittedly "self-appointed
visionary" ideas on this. Why do you think the media is afraid to even
engage with me? Except for one small report in a blog on the New York
Times "Dot Earth" site a few years ago, which was mostly presented in
a humorous, "cute" way --which was fine with me — not one newspaper or
magazine or website in North America or Europe or Australia will talk
with me. Nobody will interview me or present my ideas for polar
cities, pro or con? Why do you think this is, this silence about
"polar cities"? Of course, I am not famous, and I have no PHD and am
not connected with any university or group, so I basically do not
exist for the mainstream media's criteria since I am not an "expert."
I accept all that. But why can't even one newspaper or magazine or
website engage with me about polar cities, as a mere idea? What are
they so afraid of?

Hamish: I suppose they're reacting unconsciously to an outcome that they
either can't imagine or don't want to imagine as a possibility. The
easiest way to save oneself from having to engage with an idea is to
ridicule the source.

Dan: I envision polar cities serving as climate refuges for
climate refugess in the northern regions of the world around 500 years
from now. James Lovelock is my teacher here, and I got the idea
indirectly from him, and he knows of my work on polar cities and has
even seen my illustrations and proposals by email. He wrote back to me
by email two years ago: "Thanks for sharing your polar cities ideas
and images with me. It may very well happen.... and soon!" But I
cannot get the mainstream media or any serious reporter anywhere in
the world to interview me on this topic. So I decided to write a novel
about polar cities, a trilogy really, with a working title now of
"Polar City Red: Arrival" -- followed by Polar City Blue: Awakening"
and finally "Polar City Green: Going Home." I am working with a
published novelist in Texas on the books, and I intend the stories to
be both entertainment and instruction. I want the books to be first of
all, a very good yarn, wonderful storytelling and pure entertainment.
The stories are set in the distant future, in 2500 AD, when the world
population has been reduced from 25 billion to just 200,000 men and women and children living desperate lives in a few
scattered "polar cities" in the north, from Alaska to Canada to
Russia. And in New Zealand and Tasmania, too. But the story I want to
tell will take place in North America. I don't
want to scare people. I want to first, entertain readers, and then
have the books also serve as an alarm bell, a warning, about global
warming, about how if we do not take action now to stop climate
change, then polar cities might become a reality.
I don't want polar cities to ever become a reality. Do you think
readers -- and reviewers -- will go for this kind of storytelling?
What kind of feedback in this regard did you get from readers on your
Finitude book?

Hamish: This is why I set ''Finitude'' in an alternate, yet very similar, world: I
didn't want to come across as a finger-wagging moralist, but to tell a
fun story that just happened to contemplate this huge, important

I think you've chosen well here by giving people an unrecognisable
world with the warm familiarity of a Western. That trope helps readers
understand how the world works, but will also underscore the
differences between that world and ours. These books sound like
they'll be a lot of fun.

My recommendation to anyone writing about a Big Issue like this is to
keep coming back to the characters and let the message and the
importance drift back into a subconscious place while writing. Nobody
likes getting a lecture in their fiction like a rock at the bottom of
their popcorn. As someone once said to me, "Where there is contention
there is never understanding."

Dan: Readers often respond to dystopian novels with the thought
of "Oh no, it can't happen here." For example, people
find it hard to believe that anyone could even imagine a novel where a
corporation send a virus through the world via sex pills. They simply
don't want to believe it. Do you think people could be drawn into a
well-told story about polar cities serving as lifeboats, as saviors of
humankind? Or is all that nonsense to people today?

Hamish: People will accept anything if it's presented with its own coherent
logic, contains vivid imagery, moves ahead at a good clip, and
features compelling personalities whom we care about.

Dan: I have envisioned polar cities for use 500 years from now,
30 human generations from now, not now. Now, life is wonderful. No
need to worry. Yet, I worry about the distant future. I feel that a
novel about polar cities just might help the media to get used to the
idea and maybe start broaching the subject with newspaper and magazine
readers. Not science fiction, but a kind of dytopia fiction, a bit of
Mad Max mixed in with Cormac McCarthy's "The Road." Do you think there
are readers out there who would go for such a book, even as mere
entertainment and fiction? How did readers react to YOUR book?

Hamish: I guess it depends what your agenda is. If you want to make people
take action, is fiction the way to do it? Maybe you can plant the seed
of an idea and really make people feel the issue in their bones. That
is really important right now, and we're not getting that deeply -
especially now that the news is doing its level best to make us all
scared witless about our day-to-day survival, as if we're all
permanently locked into an abusive relationship with this sociopathic
banking system.

The CEO of an environmental group in Scotland told me a few weeks ago
that he'd read Finitude and loved it. That meant a lot to me. I think
we could really use good entertainment about issues that matter,
rather than re-re-reworked plots about dinosaurs, robots, and aliens.
Not that I'm dissing science fiction; I just think it's capable of so
much more than it's being asked to do lately.

Dan: I sometimes call myself "James Lovelock's Accidental
Student." Because it was a remark he made in an interview in 2006 that
gave rise to my thinking about polar cities. He said that in the
future there might be "breeding pairs in the Arctic" after global
warming had caused billions of people to die off in unimagiable
disasters caused by climate chaos. He said there might
be just 200,000 people left on Earth, mostly in the north, and they
would serve as breeding pairs to keep the human species going in the
far north. I said to myself: so where will these breeding pairs live,
in what kind of homes or villages? And the image of polar cities came
into my mind, back in 2006, and I began furiously blogging about them.
But nobody has ever taken me seriously. Only Dr Lovelock has replied to me. Everyone else in the field of climate
research and climate studiea ignores me. They think I am nuts. Five
hundred years from now? They don't want to think that far ahead.
Finitude was also in a distant future. And I loved your book. What's
holding people back, do you think?

Hamish: Thanks very much. I'm really happy you liked "Finitude" so much.
I think you're onto great territory for fiction when you start asking
questions like "What if?" and "Why not?"

As for the reaction or the effect, that's not really something we have
much say over as writers. People will react how they react, and it's
not really our business. Our business is to write what's true to our
hearts, and if others like it, more's the good. If they don't… well,
better we should be true than try to produce something just to be
popular or to try to manipulate others' minds without taking care or

Dan: Most people only care about their present lives, their
families and loved ones and friends now, and their children and
grandchildren of course. But every few people, and especially
politicians who set policy, care about what happens beyond three
generations from now -- or the next election cycle. This is what I am
up against with my polar cities ideas. Very few people want
to go that far ahead, to 2500 AD. Why do you think that is? What holds
people back?

Hamish: You nailed it there: we don't like to think that far out, because then
we enter the realm of imagining ourselves and the people we love not
being around, which makes us feel either sad or indifferent.
Personally, I have to admit that 2500AD is unimaginable to me. To
care, I'd have to get some glimpse of who'd be there, or be given some
concrete image of life then that I could anchor my imagination to.

Dan: Someone asked me once why I care so much about human life
500 years from now. It was actually a newspaper reporter who was
interviewing for me for a big story about polar cities three years ago
-- until his editor killed the piece before publication, without any
explanation other than that I was a nobody and my ideas were pure
nonsense -- and he asked me why I was so concerned about life in the
year 2500. I told him that I cared because I am worried that the great
human experiment on Earth, our long story on Earth, might face
extinction 30 generatiosn from now if we don't take action now to stop
global warming in its tracks. That means dialing back in a big way on
our current lifestyles and changing our manufacture/consume/waste
lifestyle into something that's better for the planet as a whole. Yet,
very few people want to go down that road. I do. I already started
walking on it. I no longer fly in airplanes, haven't flown since 1983,
really. I haven't driven a car for 20 years. I own a bicycle, that's
all. And I care deeply about a future that I am not going to be here
to see. I had a heart attack two years ago and my days are numbered
now. I could go anytime. Certainly before 2030. So my polar cities
ideas and books are intended as a cri de couer. i think you understand
what I am saying here, but why do you think it is so hard to get the
mass media to pay attention to future scenarios that may not be rosy
but are at the same time anchored in a climate reality?

Hamish: The mass media are stupid, that's why. As someone once said, "The
evening news is the bad news so the commercials can be the good news."
The media, like politicians, will rarely lead. They follow because
that's what pays most securely; they're a barometer for what people
are already doing and thinking - which begins with the work of
visionaries, few of whom are ever recognised in their lifetimes.

I'm not trying to aggrandise you and me here, but I do share your
perplexity that so many people and institutions are so steadfastly
ignoring this giant, obvious thing right in front of us. It's great
that you hold this hope that we'll do something and survive. Myself, I
don't know. Maybe we'll come together in a beautiful period of
cooperation and vision. Or maybe we'll simply shop ourselves to death.
We imagine it'll be this huge blow to our quality of life to make the
changes being asked of us - in spite of endless evidence about human
happiness says that owning a lot of stuff doesn't contribute to
happiness at all, and probably diminishes it because it distracts us
from ourselves, each other, and the world around us.

In a cosmic sense, it doesn't matter. None of this will ultimately
survive. So it's simply up to us to choose what we want our experience
to be right now. But such a choice involves first becoming conscious
of the issue before us. In this case, it isn't whether or not "global
warming" is real, but about whether we want to keep living in violent
opposition to the system of life that supports our existence. The
particulars of this or that bit of science are irrelevant. It's about
the choice. Unfortunately, in the context of a two-minute news piece,
that choice doesn't matter. It only matters when you lift your head,
look around, and think.

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