Sci-Fi Writers Discuss Climate Catastrophe: Nina Munteanu, Author Of Darwin’s Paradox

nina-nov2015To mark the end of the COP21 climate conference in Paris, I contacted three Canadian science fiction writers and asked them what might happen to the planet if we can’t reach an international deal on greenhouse gas reductions. The article that came out of those conversations is titled Apocalypse Hot and is in the Dec 10 Prairie Dog.

The writers I spoke with covered more stuff than I could cram into my meagre word allotment. So, I’m publishing longer versions of those interviews here.

This is the second interview in the series. It’s with Nina Munteanu, a limnologist, ecologist and author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction such as The Splintered Universe trilogy and The Last Summoner. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Her non-fiction reflection on the meaning of water, Water Is…, is coming out soon.

We spoke for over an hour and I didn’t transcribe the entire conversation. Here are some highlights…

NINA MUNTEANU on what climate change is doing to the water: We are 70per cent water, the planet is 70 per cent water. Water is all around us and we are part of the hydrological cycle whether we think of that way or not.

Climate change is only an aspect of what’s going on with water. We’re talking about over population, the misallocation and misuse of resources including water. The way water is being used, it’s traded on the stock exchange right now. it’s commodified. I had a thing about how many Americans drink bottled water versus whatever else. It’s huge. We’ve commodified water. We grab it from one watershed — there’s the word mining water — they grab it from one water shed and then they bottle it and then they send it off to somewhere else.

NINA MUNTEANU on Memory of Water by the Finnish writer, Emmi Itäranta: It takes place post climate change. Water is very scarce, there were wars for resources and in so doing, they also inadvertently wrecked things even more. They made water even more scarce and polluted. It’s about a tea house, someone who makes tea like the Japanese. It’s about the whole tea ceremony. I won’t tell you the whole story, it takes place during that time and it makes really good commentary on what’s going on because we have the social/governmental conflicts that have occurred and taken hold all come about as well.

I wrote a short story that’s going into an Italian publication very soon. [an English version will also be available]. It’s a collection of short stories, [the story’s] called “The Way of Water” and it actually takes place in a future Toronto right outside where I teach. It’s a story of Hilda who lost her job and she’s standing in front of a public water tap with her W-Card in her trembling hand and she’s waiting for her water quota for the day and she’s literally dying of thirst. This is a Canada where a company called Canada Corp owns all the water including rainwater.

We’re living science fiction right now, in a way.

At the same time, Canada Corp, because it owns all the water, people pay a high water tax. They basically cement the taps shut for people who can’t afford to pay the water tax. So everybody is only allotted a certain amount, rich or poor — supposedly — 2 litres a day at a cost of say $20 a glass. So obviously some people can’t afford it. And all the water’s been diverted to the States, which is owned by China — including the Great Lakes.

Put this into context, collecting rain water is illegal in several state.

[I double checked this because I wanted to find out more and Munteanu’s right that there are states in the US where rainwater collecting has been illegal. However, the laws are changing rapidly — some have changed within the last couple years. And some of the laws are really confusing. But for certain, rainwater collection is very illegal in Colorado because of the doctrine of “prior appropriation” — meaning that agricultural users have put dibs on flowing, fresh water in the state. And any water that could conceivably end up as part of a watercourse — including rainwater — is included in what they’ve claimed. Meanwhile, states like Utah and Ohio, under public pressure, have recently changed their laws to allow rainwater collection.]

MUNTEANU: One scenario that’s obvious is everyone looking to [Canada] like they’re looking to Brazil and other water-rich places — Brazil and a lot of South America is very rich in water— and they’re putting the pressure on, first of all through economics.

Quebec’s looking, “Ooh, it’s looking pretty good these guys down south want our water!” and they could make a mint if they started the process. Lake Michigan, the way it is right now is nobody’s supposed to grab for themselves at the expense of others, but Michigan is really petitioning to have the rights to take whatever they want out of there. And at some point I think it’s going to happen. We already in BC other parts of Cnada we’re already, look at the way that oil and other resources are going. WE’re definitely being pressued to send the water down there. If we don’t — which we sorta aren;t doing — then what’s going to happen? As soon as a little bit happens, the precedents get set and then the whole thing, it’ll be like a dam overflowing.

Water will— I don’t know if you’re aware of the whole scenario with California? We are already engaged in water wars and they call them water wars. Shiva Vandana the Indian physicist who’s a strong activist, an extremely well spoken lady, wrote a book called Water Wars, and she spoke about the situation in India and there’s nasty stuff going on there. Corporatinos going in there and mining water and taking water away. Much like what I mentioned before with the bottling companies. Every single bottling company you can think of is involved. Any of the pop companies, they’re all doing water because water is probably making them more money than their pop. One in particular has the lion’s share 80%.

PRAIRIE DOG: Is it Coke?

MUNTEANU: No, it’s not. It’s Nestle. They are… oh… they’re nasty people. I’ll say that out loud. They’ll go into a place like Pakistan and find places where there’s water, take all the water away from the native people, bottle it and sell it back to them. Obviously they’re selling it to the people who can afford it.

I think what will happen is it will go from polite to not polite. And of course the next step is the politics will follow. The social constructs will follow. The conflicts will escalate. It’s happening already in small areas but it will grow globally.

The scenario I came up with, the scenario that Emmi [Itäranta] came up with, is actually quite scary but I think it’s a potential scenario where corporations… right now, food is commodified, all our resources are commodified, so they put a price tag on it, and they put a value on it that then allows it to go back and forth and do things, and water is very much commodified right now to the point where it’s owned. The states own that water so that you can’t do anything about it. The scenarios that will come about will be very tough on the general public. Governments vie for resources and eventually will possibly go to war over them. So I see these conflicts being escalated, potentially.

NINA MUNTEANU on Canada as a water-rich nation: We are a land of plenty but in my story we become like a third world nation because we’ve been sucked dry by a political entity that is backed by yet another larger political entity. And believe me, the Chinese are very interested in Canada’s water right now. But the States also owe [trillions?] to China as well. On top of that we have corporations like Nestle coming in, originally surreptitiously,

Canada, we’re such a beautiful country,beautiful people and I write in my book too, we’re a giving people, very tolerant and we’ll engage in things in good faith.We’re in a really interesting place because we have some amazing things that other people want and it’s going to go… interesting.

MUNTEANU on whether we’ll become sustainable in the future or become Mad Max: Fury RoadThere’s a lot of literature, a lot of upcoming literature that’s very much based on that scenario, environmental calamity of some kind, mediated by climate change. Several of my own books are based on that premise.

Personally, I have great faith in the human race and in life generally. And I think that there are a huge number of people who are compassionate individuals and believe in equality and respect for all life and I believe that is actually growing out of all this.

Do I dare to bring up what happened in Paris a little while ago? It’s an example of people really all over the country — at least I saw this — where people really rallied. And what they did is not so much with anger, there was shock like with 9/11 and other incidents of that magnitude, there was definitely shock, and there was less of that anger, that “Let’s get those guys.” But there was compassion and bringing people together and moving on and looking for peace and unity and support. There was so much of that. It was really beautiful because I remember with 9/11 there was a backlash. So many people were angry and pointed and were, “Go get those guys!” In this case it was more of an embrace. And this is us changing. I really believe that. That we are evolving, that we are growing, that we are getting smarter and better.

The whole thing with climate change and what’s going on with the planet, those things are happening. Some of them are natural, some of them are us-mediated. Of course we’re going to look at things from a human-centric position because that’s who we are. So we’re going to look at value things, good/bad, based on our needs, based on our position. What’s good for us. But what’s actually good for the planet, if you even want tot say “good” because the planet is more zen? It has no morals, per se. A lot of the discussion that is going on is in fact very myopic. It’s to do with our own limited vision and our scope. If you look at it, all these things are global. But it’s actually more than global, its universal. There are planetary aspects, there are cosmic aspects to what is going on with the planet. To see it from a greater picture is also something that is hopefully… well, it is happening.

That’s a convoluted way of saying that I’m hopeful that what will be will be, we’ll adapt, we’re incredibly resilient, the whole planet is resilient — this is one thing we sometimes mistake as “We can do whatever we want” — it’s not that kind of resilient. But, the planet will be what it is, we will be what we are and we are changing. Some people would say not fast enough, but what does that mean? There are all those transhumanist people out there claiming we’re heading towards the singularlity with technology. Now some said that technology will solve all the problems and that’s the other thing a lot of people are hoping that’s the case. We’re coming up with all these interesting devices and ways to combat climate change like seeding the planet with things.

But then there’s the guy who made Snowpiercer — cool guy. [Bong Joon-ho directed the film Snowpiercer. It was based on a French comic by Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette. Munteanu were on Skype wracking our brains to remember who these guys were and couldn’t remember. If only we’d had access to some kind of globe-spanning repository of human knowledge.] The premise with [Snowpiercer] was that they came up with some kind of technological fix, they were seeding the sky with something, and in so doing they created the next holocaust of cold weather. The big freeze. That movie made so much commenatary on how we function as people. I really believe that that is shifting. And we are making commendaty on it. And literature and movies are a part of that and I see that as a shift as well.

[I didn’t transcribe this next part, knowing there was no way I’d have space for it in an article. But, at this point in our conversation, Munteanu told me about the sci-fi writing workshops that she teaches. She says she’s excited by the kinds of stories that are coming in from her students because, while many imagine dire, apocalyptic scenarios, the writers are giving the planet a kind of agency in these stories. She sees this as writers wanting to find some optimism in an extremely dark genre.]

MUNTEANU on the lost culture of Angkor in Cambodia: They had an irrigation system and they diverted tonnes of water all over the place. And what they were dealing with were the monsoons and then the drought, they had an amazing back and forth. Too much rain and then nothing. So they created this system where they could store water in a reservoir, divert it and store it and then use it. As a result of the fact that they could do that, that they could keep the water there all year round, the population exploded. They were so successful because they could sustain themselves. As a result of the huge population, they needed to do more. It was this pressure that happens. So they started cutting down all the forest and building and as a result of that — you can see where the story is going — that choked up the system, caused sedimentation to occur and the whole system crashed.

So they were in a sense a victim of their own success. And we do this. The thing is, all natural forms do that. And we think of parasites and viruses and all those organisms, they do the same thing. They operate, they get successful, they have this boom-bust sort of thing. All these things are really natural. So what’s natural and what’s not natural?

Many thanks to Nina Munteanu for taking the time to do this interview. Also available in this series of interviews: my conversation with Julie Czerneda. Coming up: My interview with Robert J Sawyer.

Author: Paul Dechene

Paul Dechene is 5'10'' tall and he was born in a place. He's not there now. He's sitting in front of his computer writing his bio for this blog. He has a song stuck in his head. It's "Girl From Ipanema", thanks for asking. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldechene and get live updates during city council meetings and other city events at @PDcityhall.