Eric Otto and Environmental Science Fiction

Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies, you too will die.
- John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota, 1932

The particular kind of wonder elicited by environmental crises and the ecosystems that humans develop in response is one of the consistent overarching themes of environmental science fiction. Those themes invariably flow from and then back into an engagement with politics and how they influence society, both now and in the potentialities of the future. Eric C. Otto, an Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities at Florida Gulf Coast University, understands well the issues surrounding environmental science fiction and the strands of critique associated with the genre. In his book Green Speculations, Otto looks at how science fiction (sf) critiques the human values associated with environmental ruin. In conversation, Otto carefully points to a future that involves reckoning with disaster and thoughtfully mobilizing human ingenuity against that disaster.

- Joseph Hurtgen

In Green Speculations, you discuss the role of wonder in sf's descriptions of human ecosystems. The sense of wonder is often inspired by technosocial responses to ecological disaster and climate change in sf--for example, Kim Stanley Robinson's flooded New York City in 2140. What does it mean that flooded cities are entering the sf megatext? Is this an admittance of environmental defeat? How do you read these new science-fictional ecosystems?

The question of human-created, “artifactual” wonder and non-human, “natural” wonder was something I really grappled with in writing Green Speculations. And I continue to grapple with, for example, the fact that my emotions upon flying over the Grand Canyon for the first time equated to my emotions upon flying over Manhattan for the first time (i.e., tears, and a silent expletive). Both places are indeed awe-inspiring, yet they are radically different ecologically and historically. (Not to mention I was in a heavier-than-air flying machine!)

Environmental sf complicates the question and meaning of wonder, because at the same time it is concerned with human impact on the non-human world, its authors also imagine some pretty “Manhattan-esque” (if you will) responses to, and engagements with, ecology. We can’t say environmental sf wants to return us to a lost nature and restore wonder in the Rachel Carson sense, but we also can’t say it wants to solve environmental issues with wondrous technology. Instead, the “new science-fictional ecosystems” seem to be the most genuine narrative responses to a global situation where human ingenuity has impacted ecosystems but can also be thoughtfully mobilized to reverse or minimize this impact (e.g., permaculture).

Does science fiction imagine human-induced ecological disaster because it is admitting defeat? I don’t think so. There are sf stories featuring flooded cities, extinct and exploited species, overpopulation, drought, toxic waste, and more, and I think writers are telling these stories (1) to remind us that we’re not there yet, and relatedly, (2) to urge us to avoid moving toward these futures by being more thoughtful about the artifacts we create (i.e., technologies, economies, etc.).

I've had a similar experience of the sublime, flying over New York City, thinking of the multiple New York Cities in sf: the carceral one Kurt Russell escapes in Escape from New York, the frozen one that Jake Gyllenhaal escapes in The Day After Tomorrow, the buried one that Tom Cruise escapes in Oblivion, to name a few. It strikes me that escape has a special register in regard to narratives of environmental and social collapse. What do you see in the proliferation of these environmental disaster escape narratives?

It is interesting that your examples are all films, and I wonder if escape has a special register not necessarily in regard to environmental/social collapse narratives in general, but instead to a specific genre of storytelling—that is, film. Escape seems less central to the environmental science fiction novels and short stories I’ve encountered. Sure, there are books like Liz Jensen’s The Rapture and Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm that feature escape in the sense you mention—escape from various human-induced disasters. (Interestingly, those books are especially cinematic in their storytelling; they are thrillers.) And then there are works like Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Joseph Green’s “Turtle Love,” but the escape in these is more like “relocation” in response to environmental and social collapse. (There’s an interesting topic: the semantics and politics of escape/relocation.)

I’m not sure that what I am calling “environmental science fiction” deals much in escape, and I’m not sure that it should. There is an apocalypticism in a lot of environmental sf, but it’s not usually Žižek’s sense of apocalypticism—it is not a way to fantasize about regaining some pure state of nature. Instead, the work I’m looking at has characters living among all of these environmental and social crises that we today grow more and more anxious about. They are navigating the challenges of ecological and social collapse, and it is a totalizing collapse that cannot be escaped. It is very clear in most environmental science fiction that the future faces this collapse as a consequence of the past’s actions.

So, sf texts with environmental and social crises are not necessarily environmental science fiction--here I'm thinking of Alastair Reynold's Redemption Ark or Cherie Priest's Boneshaker. Those works contain plot points that hinge on a crisis, but the collapse is background material for ideas the authors are interested in more than the collapse itself. Unlike a masterwork like Dune, there's no planetologist declaring that “The highest function of ecology is understanding consequences.”

To turn the conversation somewhat, but still thinking of Herbert's words from 1965 about understanding ecological consequences, how should environmental sf and concomitant theory respond to climate change deniers and an executive branch in the US making policy based on climate change denial?

That is a great observation: “sf texts with environmental and social crises are not necessarily environmental science fiction.” I think we have to consider the degree to which ecology and ecological crisis structure the lives of the characters in these texts, and the extent to which the narrative gets us to reflect on ecological crisis as something we are living in now and still have an opportunity to fix.

In Greg van Eekhout’s The Boy at the End of the World, which I am currently studying from a perspective outside of ecocritical analysis, there is one paragraph that tells us why the future world is what it is: “Human activity changed the climate. It poisoned the waters. It stripped the soil of nutrients …” (19). Would I call this book, with its prevailing focus on the relationship between a boy and his robot caretaker, “environmental science fiction”? I’m not sure. Environmental crisis certainly structures the protagonist’s life; he has awakened into a future that is the outcome of “[h]uman activity,” and he has to navigate the challenges of this future. But does the story do more than tell us that global warming, water pollution, and more created the future world of the story? Not really.

On the other hand, Dune is indeed an environmental sf “masterwork,” as you say. It makes it very clear that ecology is the structuring force of our lives, and while it doesn’t have the environmentalist message of, say, David Brin’s Earth or Nicola Griffith’s Slow River, it casts light on historical choices that have undermined a more careful consideration of the role of ecology in human society.

Speaking of undermining a more careful consideration of the role of ecology in human society, I’ll turn to the second part of your question. President Trump has made climate change deniers very happy. It is disheartening to see that the leader of the US has firmly backed away from any leadership role on this issue—and other environmental issues—and inserted himself into the whole denial machine. (I recently received in the mail The Heartland Institute’s denial propaganda, and K-12 teachers are receiving this stuff, too. What’s more, my state is a governor’s signature away from a law that will allow anyone living in a school district to request a formal school board hearing to challenge the “balance” of anything in the curriculum. Nature documents the clear, denialist motivation behind the bill.)

I would say, though, that environmental sf and environmental thinking need to focus less on the science and politics of climate change specifically and more on getting people to understand first that human activity does impact the material world of ecology. We can continue to provide climate research or base stories on this research, but I imagine it will not be very impactful if people can’t accept first that, yes, there are actual material consequences for the things we do. Many people just cannot accept this; we are too small and insignificant, they say. But the argument about human impact can be made very effectively with stories about species extinction, water pollution, deforestation, drought, ocean dead zones, and more, all of which can be linked to certain human activities.

So I would actually like to see more sf about all these other ecological issues. More stories like M.M. Buckner’s Watermind and John Scalzi’s Fuzzy Nation. If we understand our role in toxifying waterways and decimating species, we can then see more clearly how today’s global warming is likewise human-induced.

When you mention the machine of denial, it takes me back to the end of Green Speculations where you discuss whether the individual or systemic capitalism is to blame for the ecological crisis, where capitalism exerts an influence among the societies organized around its principles to keep the machine running at all costs. So, capitalism--at least the industrial brand of capitalism that we have mostly seen--is life, but that life is slowly poisoning everything.

And as “life,” capitalism must defend itself from predation, as it itself preys. Anti-capitalist efforts (they don’t have to be deemed “anti-capitalist” or “leftist” or even “activist”) can be as simple as wanting a deeper understand of the life-cycle of a product, and of course doing something with that information. Where does X come from? Where will it go after it is used? What social, ecological, and personal impacts accompany its production and consumption? Capitalism must, or certainly feels it must, erase or mystify this life-cycle. Look at the resources it puts into fighting labelling regulations; look at the resources it puts into the misinformation and obfuscation campaigns it calls “marketing” and “advertising.”

The capitalist narrative conceals the material reality of capitalist exploitation, and I think the counter-narratives we tell—which the capitalist “machine” will designate as “anti-freedom,” “leftist,” and so forth—must document these consequences. Sf can do this very well, because of its future-orientation (of course, then it’s more rational speculation than documentation). I’m happy to see the amount of work happening these days across many genres and media to provide this counter-narrative, and being an sf scholar, I’m especially excited to see the steady flow of environmentalist work in that genre.