Imagination, Climate Futures, and the Politics of ‘Positivity’

August 18, 2021

I have the honor of being one of four international writers as part of the Climate Imagination Project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, in collaboration with the upcoming UN Climate summit COP 26 in November of this year.  My colleagues are:  Libia Brenda, a writer, editor, and translator based in Mexico City; Xia Jia (pen name of Wang Yao), a speculative fiction author and associate professor of Chinese Literature at Xi’an Jiaotong University; Hannah Onoguwe, a writer of fiction and nonfiction based in Yenagoa, in the Bayelsa State in southern Nigeria, a region famous for its oil industry. Read more about them here!

Since we are charged with creating, through fiction, ‘positive’ climate futures, and because ‘positive’ is used in so many senses, I want to interrogate the term ‘positive’ here, in the light of the new and unsurprisingly dire UN Climate report, IPCC AR6

Above: Global Warming from 1880 to 2020. Animation by NASA

What does it mean to even talk of positivity at a time like this, when people less privileged than global urbanites are already experiencing various degrees of apocalypse?  As Barbara Ehrenreich so eloquently articulates in this animated video, the term is loaded.  “Be Positive” has been used by authoritarian governments to suppress dissent and distract from their failure to deal with real problems.  When the second wave of the pandemic hit India, government leaders pushed positive thinking even as the crisis revealed the lack of proper planning and preparation.  A hollow ‘Positive thinking’ is a luxury afforded to the privileged, who are insulated through wealth and power from the worst effects of pandemics and climate change.  At best, such positivity is delusional in a world of vaccine discrimination, melting ice sheets, deadly heat waves and disappearing species.  At worst it is cruel in its dismissal of the real suffering of real people and nonhuman species, and harmful because it distracts from meaningful action.  This kind of empty positivism may well be how politicians and billionaires anaesthetize their consciences in order to sleep at night, as a source of comfort, an alternative to taking a good, hard look at themselves in the mirror.  I want no part of that.  I’d rather be a thorn in the side of such people. 

The kind of ‘positivism’ I want to talk about in the context of climate fiction is much more in line with the ‘optimism of the will’ attributed to Antonio Gramsci. The kind of positive future I want to imagine does not shy away from real problems of the world, nor does it look beyond or around them. Instead, it engages with real problems in an imaginative way.  Our present is already dystopic for billions of people and millions of other species.  We can’t usefully imagine ‘positive’ futures without first acknowledging this, without attempting to walk through – not around – the valley of despair and suffering with all who are forced to do so by the powers that be.  What dystopian stories do is to walk into this valley and stay there.  While dystopias are often necessary as warnings and wake-up calls, an overabundance of them can stifle and constrain our thinking by evoking fear and despair.  Fear is useful and necessary, but when we are stuck in it, it can paralyze us into inaction; worse, it is hackable, as one might ascertain from the rise of populist authoritarian leaders around the globe.  A certain kind of fear response seems make us more likely to give up our power to others, to seek ‘strongmen’ to lead the nation, or to surrender agency to technobillionaires. 

So what I would consider ‘optimism of the will’ in the context of climate change, biodiversity loss and our various other social-environmental crises would be to use the power of speculative fiction to do the hard work of imagining ways to engage usefully with our current crises.  To avoid becoming pointless escapism or heartless dismissal of stark reality, such an approach must be grounded in place.   After all, climate change is a global phenomenon, but it manifests locally as changes in temperature, precipitation, and the like.  Abstractions like a target of 1.5 ⁰C global average surface temperature are important and necessary in certain contexts, but used carelessly they can obscure the fact that some places will be quite a bit hotter than others even with such an average being maintained globally. Similarly, the term ‘net-zero has been co-opted to allow business as usual – if you are an industry emitting carbon dioxide, no problem, you just have to offset your emissions by planting trees (no matter that a plantation isn’t a forest and trees take time to grow) or capturing carbon through still-unproven technologies.  Or, you can go for the brilliant illogic of the US and the EU that promotes burning forests as a net-zero technology. You can always hide carbon excesses through global accounting tricks.  Then, net-zero becomes a smokescreen that allows the very same socio-economic structures to continue to exist that caused the problem in the first place.  You can pollute here, and claim to offset emissions over there. 

Hence the importance of place, localness and community control over resources.  It’s not that local and global are in opposition here – both are important, and we must connect one to the other. Because we are in a planetary crisis, I believe we need stories from multiple places, with multiple voices so that we can make connections across scales.  Imagination inspired and aided by reality can be a powerful instrument.  Consider for example what communities around the world are already doing, in their distinct geographies and cultures, to deal with their problems.  There is a lot that speculative fiction writers can learn from real people. Consider Parvati Devi, a woman from an impoverished village in Jharkhand, India, who, along with several other women, regenerated their degraded forest over twenty years of protection and care, thus regaining some measure of water security in a land desertified by forest destruction for development projects. The women who saved their forest have no formal education, and live hard lives.  There is no doubt that they have multiple reasons to weep, to mourn, to suffer, and they do.  Yet when I got the chance to speak to Parvati Devi (she had to travel 5 kilometers to speak to us via a borrowed phone) she was passionate, articulate, ebullient, determined.  This is, to me, what climate action should look like – communities deeply engaged with crisis, drawing upon collective intelligence, mourning, grieving, celebrating and working through problems together, informed by a generous, empathetic, courageous way of being in the world.  

Above: Parvati Devi with other village women in Jharkhand. Photo Credit: S. Mukherji

A misalliance between the complex, nonlinear nature of climate reality and our simple, mechanistic frameworks of thinking is likely to encourage false solutions and false optimism. Mainstream paradigms can be challenged by the ideas and actions of people marginalized by modern industrial civilization, which may give rise to new and better ways of working through the apocalypse.  This is one reason why Indigenous epistemologies are so crucial. Some of them point to an entirely different, even revolutionary way of being in the world, see, for example Robin Wall Kimmerer’s essay on an economy based on abundance rather than scarcity, or Kyle Whyte’s notion of Time as Kinship. In my new to-read book pile are such works as ‘Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World,” by Tyson Yunkaporta, Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Learning from Indigenous Practices for Environmental Sustainability (edited by Melissa K. Nelson and Dan Shilling), Whale Snow: Inupiat, Climate Change and Multispecies Resistance in Arctic Alaska by Chie Sakakibara. In all these readings are currents of possibility, and a kind of ebullient, restorative, joyful positivity that can only be wrought by those who have walked through, and are still walking through the hell of colonialism, precarity, and climate impacts, and surviving.

One of the great comforts we have is that there is no lack of people with good ideas who are active in the world. Parvati Devi isn’t an exception – there are hundreds of such initiatives led by so-called ordinary people all over India and the world. The denial of their intelligence, creativity and agency is one of the biggest mistakes that the privileged of the world can make.  Top-down approaches are likely to fail without the crucial information and action that comes from the ground up – the former must be informed and animated by the latter.

This is why I am glad to note that the description of the Climate Imagination project specifies stories about “collective action, aided by scientific insights, culturally responsive technologies, and revolutions in governance and labor.”


Returning to this blog at long last! Two Interviews

July 30, 2021

After a hiatus of way-too-long, I am reviving this blog in defiance of increased time pressures and commitments. Greetings, world! Let me begin by linking two recent video interviews of mine, one with Dip Ghosh of Kalpabiswa along with Debajyoti Bhattacharya and Soham Guha, and the other with Ishita Singh at Mithila Review. Both in July 2021, the second year of the Covid 19 Pandemic, and the nth year of horror for climate change, biodiversity loss, increasing social inequality and other disasters. I had more time with the Kalpabiswa interview, so we had questions from the audience, which I always appreciate. The Mithila Review interview was also rich with deep and thoughtful questions from Ishita, but I regret I did not have time then to engage with the audience.

It is always a pleasure to engage with fellow enthusiasts in India on speculative fiction. I write for the world, but my ‘home audience’ is central. Any imaginative richness I possess has been engendered and nurtured through my growing up and young adulthood in India, and continues to be informed by my multiple entanglements there. To have these lenses with which to venture forth into the world – and the cosmos – has been a priceless gift, in writing and in life.

True Journey is Return: A Tribute to Ursula K. Le Guin

January 26, 2018

It is difficult to put into words what I am feeling at this moment, at the death of a great writer and a great human being.  That Ursula K. Le Guin happened to have taken an interest in me and my work is part of why my grief is personal, but not entirely.  She was a generous human being and a kind mentor who took interest in the works of multiple authors, so my story of our association is, I am sure, not unique, except, perhaps, in the particularities of the interaction.  We met three times, (once for six whole days during a writing retreat), and we corresponded about a couple of times a year on average.  But in my life she had a disproportionate effect, and it is safe to say that I would not be the writer or the person I am without the deep and abiding influence of who she was and what she wrote.

So what follows is an account made somewhat incoherent by the aftershocks of grief, for which I apologize in advance.

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Art Beyond the Human

April 16, 2017

Well, I’d read about bower birds since childhood, and later about paintbrush-wielding elephants, but the former seemed to be the sole example of deliberate manipulation of the surroundings to create beauty.  Until I saw BBC’s Life Story – here’s a clip from it, a video of a stunning piece of mathematical art created by a puffer fish.  One more nail in the coffin of human specialness!  Although I will put us on the top for destructive potential.

The puffer fish’s remarkable performance reminded me of an article I’d read recently, about mathematics as performance and play, with particular attention to sea slugs – but I suspect one can argue that all of nature is performing what we might call mathematics, or at least that mathematics is one of the things nature performs, embodies, articulates, along with art.

How very fortunate for us humans not to be alone as artists and mathematicians!

Thoughts like a herd of reindeer on a cold December night

December 23, 2016

It is a dark night in December, a cold and dreary New England night. I am returning to this blog after a long absence, because the times we live in – such dark times! – compel even as reluctant a voice as mine to declare itself. To breathe is to be alive, but to inscribe with electrons on a screen is to be alive a little more loudly. So to speak.

So, to speak.

The thoughts going through my head are like a herd of reindeer on a frozen tundra. Questions arise. How does one survive this life? How do you reach out when the doors are shut? What separates truth from untruth? How do you know when something is true, or not true, or something in between? How do I know, hunched against the winter cold in a little wooden cottage, that there is anyone in the world outside? There are hints and intimations – an airplane flying overhead, the distant traffic on the highway making the road sing in a deep, soft, low tone. The creatures of the night all know to be silent, but I wish they would say something, just for conversation. An owl’s hoot would be a friendly thing to hear through the double-paned window, at least if one is not a rodent. But right now the existence of the world outside seems strangely hypothetical.

So I will take a few random steps outside my cottage and into this blog, simply putting one foot – one word – in front of another. You can follow the trail if you wish, or not, whoever you are. Assuming you exist of course.

Winter break is a day away now, and it is both welcome and unwelcome. So let me pick up the first crumb on the path – look, it’s a book, a tome. It’s called The Restless Clock, by Riskin. The first chapter is a treat. I didn’t know that Europe was populated by mechanical saints and toys and trickeries during Medieval times! No wonder the Newtonian paradigm with which we are still afflicted took such a hold! Another book – Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble – begins like a roll of multicolored wool – but the strands are woven together in strange ways – as I read the first chapter, I feel I am being woven into the book, into the strands. And there’s Ursula Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter. I imagine words being made into dough, shaped into stories, and the thought makes me hungry. For words and bread. Words are my matter too, as are equations. Certain equations are as beautiful as poems. A conversation with an astrophysicist reverberates in my mind, and I am distracted for a moment by blazars. Separated from an article of clothing by a mere vowel, these extraordinary celestial objects represent Nature at her spectacular and melodramatic best. Supermassive black holes in a feeding frenzy – only my late dog at his food bowl would be a worthy rival.

A prolonged exposure to undergraduate papers perhaps has a deleterious effect on the mind. There are so many huge and terrible things happening on our beleaguered planet, and amazing things too – but I am robbed of speech of those things for this moment. I will get to them soon, but not before the job is done. I wonder to what extent the job at hand has kept us sane, kept us from acting, kept us acting, kept us with or from each other. Right now for me the job at hand is a source of utter exhaustion but also the fire before which I warm myself before it is time to stare, once more, into the dark.

Writing on Climate: My Other Blog

July 31, 2015

Just a note to say I have revived my sabbatical blog, which has to do with my other life (inextricable from this one).  I took a sabbatical last year to learn something about Arctic climate change.  Since then climate change has only got worse, carbon dioxide emissions are increasing, and as the world burns, the powers-that-be are focusing their energies on finding more fossil fuels to burn, such as in the until-now pristine Arctic.  (See the breaking news about Shell’s drilling, which has just commenced). I can’t just stand on the sidelines and wring my hands in despair.  I continue to learn, and investigate creative ways to communicate on the issue and to act in ways that make meaningful change.  The revived and updated blog is one small step in that direction.  It is a repository of thoughts, comments and updates on climate, and also includes my scientific-travelogue-style account of my Arctic trip in April 2014.

A Love Song to Pluto – with reservations

July 31, 2015

Note: I wrote this just after the fabulous photos came back from the Pluto New Horizons mission but only had a chance to post it now.

Once it was a round dot in the night sky, distant, cold, too small to be a planet, too far to be on one’s mind. It was a dead rock in space, accompanied only by a moon almost as large as itself, with whom it danced about their common center of mass. Discovered by American astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, Pluto was far less interesting than the nearer planets. It famously lost planetary status in 2006, being demoted to ‘dwarf planet’ after the discovery of similar-sized objects in the Kuiper belt. Science fiction writers dreamed up fantastic scenarios, such as Stephen Baxter’s lovely “Gossamer” (1995).

Pluto, By New Horizons, Courtesy NASA

Pluto, By New Horizons, Courtesy NASA

I was never all that interested in Pluto, which paled quite literally before the mysteries and gorgeousness of such glamorous rivals as Jupiter and Saturn and their moons. Then in 2005 two little moons of Pluto were discovered, Nyx and Hydra, and in 2012 Kerberos and Styx joined their numbers. Pluto had courtiers! I had the chance to let my non-science students infer the presence of these moons on their own from a series of photos, much as Galileo did with the Jovian system. A great teaching moment, especially in the absence of much press coverage (combined with the general lack of interest American students exhibit in keeping up with the news) but it didn’t really turn me on to the Plutonian system, which was, after all, still blurry and distant. Now, in 2015, I am grateful to have seen, along with millions of other people, the face of Pluto in gorgeous detail. And I’m in love!

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Speaking in Tongues: Gibbonese, Prairiedogese and other languages

April 20, 2015

Note: I wrote this little essay about a month ago, when New England was still under a thick shawl of snow.  I lost the essay, and just found it again.  So here it is.  

The day after New England’s first blizzard of the season, I saw tracks on the snow.  The snow was 2-3 feet thick, and except where I’d ploughed a canyon through it, was smooth as a blanket.  Looking carefully, though, I saw a single line gouged in the smoothness, from the elm tree all the way to the covered porch.  There is a space under the porch that is home to a mysterious animal, which may be a possum.  (When my dog was alive I always knew, from his excited sniffing, when our tenant was home).   There were rabbit tracks all the way to the front door, and a more delicate tracery of bird footprints.   These spoke to me of recent histories almost as explicitly as if each track, each footprint, was a letter or pictogram of a language inscribed on the featureless white page of snow.

That Nature speaks – that animate beings and inanimate things communicate – is perhaps no mystery to the scientist or artist.  The world is full of stories, although we humans seem to be disproportionately tuned to the exclusively human ones.  But animals, trees, protons and stars are always telling stories, and it is our loss that our selective deafness shuts out these other tales.  To the naturalist, the nibbled tips of a wild plant, or the change in flow of a stream, hint of certain animal presences.   To a geologist walking through a canyon, the colors, striations and textures of rocks tell a story of the earth’s past.  To a particle physicist looking at particle tracks, the intangible mysteries of the sub-atomic world are, for that moment and context, revealed.  There is an aesthetics of science that is missed by most non-scientists, and sometimes by scientists as well.  Ultimately what pure scientists do is to listen to, and interpret through mathematics and conceptual structure-building, the stories Nature tells us.

The stories told by inanimate things is truly fascinating, and is part of my work on creative new ways of teaching physics, but that is a whole other post.  Today, while snowbound during yet another storm too soon after the last one, I want to think about communication and language in the context of our non-human fellow earthlings.

I’ve seen cartoons about the search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe, on the “Are We Alone?” theme.  A human looks through a telescope at the stars, wondering if our species is an anomaly in the universe.  What I’ve always found ironic about this trope is that we are surrounded by other beings that are constantly communicating.  I am a fan of the search for life beyond Earth, don’t get me wrong — I think that the huge numbers of exoplanets discovered on a near-daily basis indicate that life, (‘intelligent’ or otherwise according to our standards), may be rather common outside of our little rock – but my point is that we are so arrogantly or ignorantly unaware of all that is being spoken around us that it would be laughable if it wasn’t also sad.

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On the Kindness of Strangers

February 2, 2015

Ah, the kindness of strangers!  We are having a second snowstorm, too soon after last week’s blizard, so I trudged out into the whiteout to get started on the shoveling, despite my annoyingly persistent respiratory sickness.  To my surprise I found that somebody had already started carving canyons out of the snow behind my car.  Yesterday I had left a note with my neighbor, whom I barely know other than the occasional hello, asking whether she knew someone whom I could pay for snow removal.  So it must have been her, I thought, and then I saw her coming toward me, shovel over shoulder, like a modern day knight-in-winter-gear.  She’s a cheerful woman, one of my town’s many Brazilian immigrants, who lives with her husband and stepsons and dog in the house next door.  I got a lovely scolding to ‘get back inside so you won’t get sicker’ and that ‘we’ll take care of it, there are four of us!’  So I thanked her profusely and went back inside.

It’s not the first time that I’ve been at the receiving end of altruistic acts from people I don’t know, or don’t know well.  One of my most remarkable and humbling experiences was at a convention several years ago, when a particularly virulent stomach bug hit, laying low hordes of attendees.  I was afflicted particularly badly, lying in my hotel room with high fever, far from home.  My roommate, understandably concerned about her own health, moved out.  I contacted one of the organizers to request some dry crackers and ginger ale, and the result was extraordinary.  Not only did this woman come in with a bag of edibles, but she re-arranged my ticket, and, because the hotel didn’t want sick people staying on, took me to her house, where she took care of me as a sister would, for three days.  We may be used to the tender care of a daughter when we have the flu, or the comforting touch of a mother when we fell sick as children – but a stranger who would go to such lengths is a rare phenomenon.   I lay on her couch and we talked about life, the universe, and everything, while she cooked bland stuff that I could eat.  She herself got a mild version of the virus later on, but not for a moment did she complain, or indicate in any other way that my presence was anything other than a delight.  I will never forget her.  Sickness, or the threat of sickness generally brings out the worst in non-sick strangers.  But then there are people like her, to restore my faith in humanity.  One day I will write a story in her honor.  I’ve already started exploring the theme of the kindness of strangers in my fiction (my Project Hieroglyph story ‘Entanglement’ being the first), but so far I haven’t written anything deserving of a dedication to someone like her.

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Words and Worlds: A ‘Gandhi Indian’ reads Sherman Alexie

January 18, 2015

Over at the Aqueduct Press blog I have an article about the stand-out books I read in 2014.  I start the article by talking about how the imagination, experience and intent of the writer, and the reader’s own context and desires form a separate little world, a bubble universe for the duration of the reading experience.  Each reader therefore creates a different, unique world during his or her interaction with the book.  Sometimes these worlds leak into our everyday existence, so that the books reverberate through our daily lives.  Our inner selves are shifted subtly.  Who knows – small shifts in the moment might well lead to large changes in the long term.  My own life has been changed by many things, and books are among them.

In the article I wrote about a dozen or so remarkable books.  Unfortunately I wasn’t able to finish one of the books I had hoped to include in 2014, because I was already way past the deadline for the article.  So I want to mention something about it here.

I’m talking about Sherman Alexie’s short story collection, Blasphemy.  I saw it staring at me in the library; I had heard of Alexie but had never read him.  With a title like Blasphemy, how could I resist?

My latest collection contains 15 classic and 15 new stories about, well, you know, various Indians and their father issues! You can learn more about the book at Grove Press.


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