Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Hamish MacDonald, author of FINITUDE, a novel about future climate chaos in an un-named country, talks about climate change, media awareness and fiction writing

Hamish MacDonald, the Canadian author of FINITUDE who is now based in Scotland, has written a powerful novel that 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.

When MacDonald was asked what his take is on global warming and what can we do -- if anything -- to try to stop
it from causing devastating climate chaos in the distant future, he replied: "I think we're just starting to see the effects of our [human] 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."

When asked why the mainstream media, even book reviewers, are staying clear of discussing the real possibility of climate chaos in the future and even mocking those who go out on a limb and push the proverbial envelope, MacDonald said: "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."

Whena asked by this blogger what kind of feedback he received from readers and reviewers on his
''Finitude'' book, he replied: ''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."

What makes a good novel about climate change and global warming? MacDonald noted: "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."

MacDonald added: "I guess it depends what a fiction writer's agenda is. If he wants to make people
take action on climate issues, is fiction the way to do it? Maybe a writer 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.''

And how have readers reacted to FINIUDE? The author said: "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.''

When this blogger told MacDonald that he really enjoyed reading FINITUDE and has re-read it ten times since he received in the mail a year ago: "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

When asked why the MSM has not done a good job covering climate change
and the real possibility of major disasters befalling humankind, and not just with Hollywood disasgter movies, MacDonald said: "The mass media are stupid, that's why. 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 the general
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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