Nina Munteanu On The Age of Water: Interview on “Mysterious Goings On Podcast”

Alex Greenwood, host of The Mysterious Goings On Podcast recently interviewed me about my latest novel and work of climate fiction, the dystopia “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

Alex and I discussed water scarcity and climate change as a water phenomenon. I also shared my thoughts on water as a character in the novel, water’s many anomalous properties–all of which promote life and wellness, and why writing a dystopian cautionary tale is an act of optimism.

Listen to the podcast on: Anchor; Spotify; Stitcher; Apple Podcasts; iHeartRadio; YouTube; Podchaser; Listennotes; Audible

Boys exploring by the Otonabee River, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Look Who’s Been Reading Darwin…

From Anne in Monument Valley, Arizona, to George in Brighton Pier, UK … from Heather coasting on the Ohio River to Noah gliding in a BC Ferry and Jo-Anne basking in the Gulf Islands of BC Canada … from Honoka in Kyoto’s Higashiyama District and Mika in Kyoto’s Bamboo Forest to Rick in his cozy Alberta home and Viviann in a cozy café  … from Anne with her favourite dog in Ladner Marsh and Margaret with a favourite ale in an outdoor pub to Carina beside her favourite Buddha and Cathy by her favourite pool … people are reading Darwin’s Paradox.

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Embracing Your Future: Flying Algal Ships

Hydrogenase design by Vincent Callebaut

You walk toward English Bay to the nearest Hydrogenase Hub, where you are meeting with your team to discuss the presentation.

The hub is a floating algal farm. The farm and the elongated seed-shaped airship docked at its centre both produce biofuel—essentially hydrogen—from the microorganism Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. Your mom, a former environmental consultant and algal scientist—now she writes science fiction—explained to you that this unicellular organism has both plant and animal properties; it carries out photosynthesis but is also heterotrophic (able to use organic carbon to grow) and will in the absence of oxygen produce gaseous hydrogen and metabolites such as formate and ethanol through hydrogenase enzymes. Chlamydomonas reinhardtii was first discovered as a clean source of hydrogen back in 1939 by German scientist Hans Gaffron at the University of Chicago (ironically the same year Germany invaded Poland). Gaffron called it “photosynthetic hydrogen production by algae”; and today it is a process that produces electricity and biofuel with zero emissions. 

The algae farm recycles CO2for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you. The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy. The algae farm recycles CO2 for the bio-hydrogen airship you will be boarding after your meeting in the hub. You enter the airy station, whose honeycomb circular design resembles a stylized lily pad and glance up through the high nano-glass ceiling toward the elongated seed-shaped transport rising ten stories above you.

The sun glances off the diaphanous double helix frame that resembles a freshwater spirogyra. The hub you’re standing in is a floating algae farm with solar cells on top and hydro-turbines below to capture tidal energy.

The concept is the “subversive architecture” of Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut and inspired by the principles of biomimicry, coined by Janine Benyus in 2002 in her book “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature”.  Callebaut conceived Hydrogenase in 2010 as a 100% self-sufficient and zero-emission transport system using algae. He claimed that a hectare of seaweeds could produce 120 times more biofuel than a hectare of colza, soya or sunflower without consuming land needed for crops or forests. He called Hydrogenase a true miniature biochemical power station. Able to absorb CO2 as the main nutrient through photosynthesis the algae, under anaerobic conditions, produce hydrogen in vitro or in bioreactors. 

You swipe your PAL over the ticket booth sensor and the optional ticket-brochure pops out. You take it and read the specs between glances at the tall vessel loading in the dock of the hub. It’s really like a vertical dirigible, you think, studying the seed-shaped airship with self-cleaning “intelligent” nanostructured glass—inspired by the lotus leaf that doesn’t get wet. The semi-rigid unpressurised airship stretches vertically around an arborescent spine that twists like chloroplast ribbons 400 meters high and 180 meters in diameter.

You read that each Hydrogenase airship is covered with flexible inflatable photovoltaic cells and twenty wind turbines to maneuver and collect energy. The interior spaces provide room for housing, offices, scientific laboratories, and entertainment, and a series of vegetable gardens that provide a source of food while recycling waste.

You read that this self-sufficient organic transport flies about 2000 meters high at about 175 km/hr (twice the speed of a conventional ship). Given its ease in negotiating airspace and its ability to land and take off from virtually any location, the Hydrogenase is used by many groups in various capacities. Your friend Michael who teaches at the University of Victoria uses one as a mobile research station in his studies along the coast of northern British Columbia.  

The vessel is made of “intelligent layers” and “self-separable ceramics”. Its bionic coating draws inspiration from sharkskin that is self-cleaning and flow-efficient. 

Hydrogenase concept with algal farm pods and air ships

You head down the spiral staircase to the third subsea level toward the meeting room you booked earlier on your PAL. The view is spectacular from here through the nano-glass panes. Rays of shimmering light stream through a gently swaying forest of kelp. You glimpse the sun-glinted flickering of hundreds of anchovies as they school through the kelp. This floating farm is an organic purifying station of four carbon wells where the algae recycle the carbonated waste brought by the airships and, in turn, feed the airship with biohydrogen. It’s the new “gas station”, you reflect with a smile.

After your meeting with staff, you and three others of your team board the airship and settle in one of the skyview chambers. The journey is relaxing, like the BC Ferry used to be, but without the pungent smell and pollution of conventional motorized sea vessels. It’s a quiet and relaxing trip with a spectacular view of the Gulf Islands. Your team strategizes your presentation over a light lunch and Matcha lattes. 

Vincent Callebaut’s Hydrogenase

The PA system sounds and a woman’s voice informs you that the ship will be making an emergency landing on Saturna Island to rescue two hikers injured at East Point. This will only add twenty minutes to the trip, the woman assures you. You don’t mind and recall the disclaimer at the bottom of the ticket. Given the ability of this airship to take off and accurately land virtually anywhere, all Hydrogenases are by law mandated to be on standby for rescue missions in rough terrain.

You pull out the ticket and read again: The Hydrogenase is affiliated with the International Red Cross and BC Coastguard. The Hydrogenase must by law respond to any distress call at sea or rough terrain associated with coastal waters. Because of this service, we cannot guarantee a timely schedule.  

You recall how Hydrogenases were deployed in the last hurricane disaster off the coast of Florida last year, saving countless people trapped in the flooding that accompanied the storm. The International Red Cross uses them as flying hospitals.

Bernard frets over the time delay. He is concerned about the lack of preparation and set up time once you get into Victoria. You assuage him gently. The best preparation is sincerity, you tell him. The landscape architect Thomas Woltz, whose work you highly respect, saw himself as someone who embraces the complexity of modern life while seeking meaning and narrative in both natural and human-made environments.

“We’re storytellers,” you tell Andre. Invoking metaphor through design. “They know we’re coming and they know we’re helping someone; they’ll wait for our story. And it’s all about harmony.”

The lines of Henry David Thoreau come to you: Man’s life must be of equal simplicity and sincerity with nature, and his actions harmonize with her grandeur and beauty.

Then you point your PAL at the ServiceBot and order three more lattes. You lean back in your bamboo fabric chair and cross your legs over the leg rest. 

It’s a brave new world. 

Pine forest in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

 

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Will Earth Turn into Mars? … Can Mars Turn into Earth?

In my recent eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna makes the following entry in her diary in 2057:

Last night after supper, Hilde and I went for a walk along Shaw to Christie Pits, where I used to play as a kid. She wanted to show me the magnificent aurora borealis that had been streaming dramatically for the past several weeks. When I was a kid, auroras this far south were unheard of. Now they are common. The night sky was clear, and we enjoyed the fresh spring air as we ambled down Shaw Street. We parked ourselves on the damp grass among other spectators of the colourful night sky and watched the dancing light show.

It was mesmerizing: ribbons of mostly green and pink light rippled as if tugged by a mischievous wind. They danced with a kind of life that brought me back to my childhood. Northern lights happen when the magnetic field of our planet is disturbed by the solar wind. As the particles slide along the contours of the Earth’s magnetosphere, they glow as they lose their energy. The particles energize the air molecules enough to make them glow in various colours, depending on the composition of the gases.

Earth’s magnetic field is generated and maintained by an ocean of superheated, swirling metal around a solid iron core. These act like a dynamo to create electrical currents, which, in turn, create our magnetic field. But our magnetic field is weakening, and a flip is imminent. In the past two hundred years, the field has weakened by fifteen percent. That’s why we’re seeing these auroras in Toronto. A weaker field creates more auroras. They’ve become common here, particularly during the winter and spring months. Nasa predicts that the field could be gone in five hundred years or less and then take another two hundred years to rebuild. 

The field will first become more complex and might show more than two magnetic poles—playing havoc with our navigation systems and God knows what else—until it is entirely gone. Then it will presumably build and align in the opposite direction. When the magnetic field goes, so will our shield against radiation. First, the ozone layer—our shield against ultraviolet rays—will be stripped away, and then the atmosphere may lose other key elements and grow thinner. Will we end up like Mars 4.2 billion years ago, when severe solar storms stole its very atmosphere and evaporated all its water? 

Mars once had a strong magnetic field like Earth. But then Mars cooled and its conducting geodynamo stopped rotating. In the absence of the protective field, the solar wind surged in and excited the ions in the upper Martian atmosphere to an escape velocity. The solar wind just swept the air away. The surface pressure of the Martian atmosphere dwindled from one thousand millibars to six millibars. Mars lost about the same atmosphere that Earth has today. 

Mars is our destiny; it’s just a question of when. We’re all batteries, running dry. I considered this probable fate for Earth as we watched the exquisite example of our changing magnetic field. But I didn’t share it with Hilde, who watched with her mouth open in rapt wonder. If she’s lucky, she will experience no more of this progression than these amazing auroras. The weakening magnetic field and the associated loss of protection and atmosphere won’t happen for a while. I hope.
A Diary in the Age of Water

Earth’s magnetic field

In a 2019 article in New Atlas, David Szondy tells us that “North isn’t quite where it was after the Earth’s north geomagnetic pole made an unexpected sprint across arctic Canada.” Apparently the magnetic pole is moving faster than predicted. The shift is caused by a push/pull between two patches of magnetic field—one under Canada and another under Siberia. The Canadian one appears to be weakening…

Every few hundred thousand years our magnetic field reverses—with the magnetic north switching places with the magnetic south. The last major geomagnetic reversal occurred 780,000 years ago. Between the full geomagnetic reversals—which can last up to 10,000 years—shorter disruptions occur. These are called geomagnetic excursions and are short-lived, involving temporary changes to the magnetic field that last from a few hundred to a few thousand years. The most recent recorded geomagnetic excursion is called the Laschamps Excursion some 42,000 years ago.

“The Laschamps Excursion was the last time the magnetic poles flipped,” explains Chris Turney, one of the lead scientists of a study reported in Science. “They swapped places for about 800 years before changing their minds and swapping back again.”

Although scientists have known about these magnetic pole events, they have not clearly understood their impacts on life and the environment. A study published in the journal Science reported on a recent discovery in New Zealand of an ancient kauri tree, that not only confirmed the time of the magnetic collapse, but shed some light on the dramatic period of environmental change, particularly in the time leading up to the few hundred years the Earth’s magnetic field was reversed. These included a depleted ozone layer, higher levels of ultraviolet radiation, and increased atmospheric ionization, all coalescing about 42,000 years ago in the Laschamps Excursion. “Early humans around the world would have seen amazing auroras, shimmering veils and sheets across the sky,” says Alan Cooper, one of the lead scientists. “It must have seemed like the end of days.”

Ancient Kauri tree unearthed in New Zealand (image by New Atlas)

The researchers also speculated that the magnetic field disruption led to an influx of cave art, driven by the need to seek shelter from the increase in ultraviolet rays—particularly during solar flares. The researchers also suggested that the event prompted the extinction of several megafauna in Australia and the end for Neanderthals—whose extinction occurred around 42,000 years ago.

Cooper points to the current movements of the north magnetic pole across the Northern Hemisphere as a potential warning sign of an impending event.

“This speed – alongside the weakening of Earth’s magnetic field by around nine per cent in the past 170 years – could indicate an upcoming reversal,” says Cooper. “If a similar event happened today, the consequences would be huge for modern society. Incoming cosmic radiation would destroy our electric power grids and satellite networks.”

Alan Cooper

Terraforming Mars (images by NASA)

Making Mars Inhabitable By Re-establishing its Magnetic Field

“Our quest on Mars has been to ‘follow the water’ in our search for life in the universe, and now we have convincing science that validates what we’ve long suspected,” said NASA’s John Grunsfeld.”This is a significant development, as it appears to confirm that water – albeit briny – is flowing today on the surface of Mars.”

That was step one. Mars was once just like Earth, with a thick atmosphere and lots of water.

In a 2017 article in Science Alert, Peter Dockrill reported that “NASA wants to launch a giant magnetic field to make Mars habitable.” This bold plan was to give Mars its atmosphere back and make it habitable for future generations of human colonists consists of launching a giant magnetic shield into space to protect Mars from solar winds. With the shield in place, scientists argued that we could restore the atmosphere and terraform the Martian environment so that liquid water flows on the surface again. Mars once had a thick atmosphere like Earth currently has. 

In 2018 NASA concluded: “Our results suggest that there is not enough CO2 (carbon dioxide) remaining on Mars to provide significant greenhouse warming were the gas to be put into the atmosphere; in addition, most of the CO2 gas is not accessible and could not be readily mobilized. As a result, terraforming Mars is not possible using present-day technology.”

Then in 2019, Harvard scientists proposed a way around the problem of insufficient CO2 for greenhouse warming. They proposed that by “covering certain areas of the Martian surface with a thin layer of silica aerogel, namely areas with large amounts of water ice, enough sunlight will come through for warming and combine with natural heating processes beneath the surface to create a potentially habitable environment.”

The study demonstrated through experiments and modelling that under Martian environmental conditions, a 2–3 cm-thick layer of silica aerogel would simultaneously transmit sufficient visible light for photosynthesis, block hazardous ultraviolet radiation and raise temperatures underneath it permanently to above the melting point of water, without the need for any internal heat source. 

“Once temperatures were adequate, the gases released from the ice in the lakes and regolith (soil) would build up to form a pressurized atmosphere under the aerogel layer. If successful up to that point, microbes and plant life could theoretically survive. “Placing silica aerogel shields over sufficiently ice-rich regions of the Martian surface could therefore allow photosynthetic life to survive there with minimal subsequent intervention,” the scientists suggested. This photosynthetic life would go on to produce oxygen for pickier Earth dwellers to utilize,” reports Dacia J. Ferris of Teslarati.

p.s. I’m sure I’m not the only one who sees the irony of this situation: Mars has insufficient CO2to warm its atmosphere, when Earth suffers from an excess of this greenhouse-warming gas. While going to Mars is one of my dreams (quite unrealizable for me; but I’m allowed to dream, no?), I still harbor an unsettling feeling that comes with the uncertainty about our prowess and respect in this endeavor. We haven’t exactly been successful in controlling our own runaway global warming or other degradation of our living ecosystems. Read Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles to get my meaning.

“Watch those disposable coffee cups!”

  

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Water Protectors

“Every story is a story of water,” says Mojave American poet Natalie Diaz

In her article on Diaz, Maria Popova reiterates, “we ourselves are a story of water—biologically and culturally, in our most elemental materiality and our mightiest metaphors.”

There is a reason that women are recognized worldwide as water keepers. Women are intimately connected with flowing water; everything about us is flowing: from our menstrual and birthing waters to the waters of our nurturing milk and the tears we shed for our lost ones. We flow with life and it flows out of us. 

The water walk with Grandmother Josephine along Lake Ontario in 2019 (photo by Nina Munteanu)

So, when Lake Erie became a person with rights in February 2019, this landmark designation came with both triumph and some irony to womankind and water keepers around the world.

“After local residents banded together to compose a visionary bill of rights for the lake’s ecosystem, defending its right “to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve,” it was granted personhood in the eyes of the law. It was an ancient recognition — native cultures have always recognized the animacy of the land — disguised as a radical piece of policy. It was also the single most poetic piece of legislation since the landmark 1964 Wilderness Act, which defined a wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

Based on that quote, it would seem that only men did the trammelling (given that women are not included or the more correct term would be “human”). It was only a hundred years ago, in 1920, that the 19thAmendment granted women legal personhood in the United States; and in that amendment Native American women were not included—until years after. In her poem Lake-loop, Mojave poet Natalie Diaz explored “how that nesting doll of exclusions breaks open into the living reality of this Earth”: 

“Part of the San Andreas fault runs along the Mojave Desert. We see and feel the fault, it has always been a part of Mojave stories and geography. We have always existed with it–in rift–part land. We are land’s action, maybe. I am always wondering and wandering around what it means to be part of this condition, in shift. What it means to embrace discontinuity, to need it and even to need to cause it in order to be–depression but also moving energy. The necessary fracturing of what is broken. The idea of being made anything or nothing in this country–“to be ruined before becoming”–the idea that this country tried to give us no space to exist, yet we made that space, and make it still–in stress, in friction, glide and flow, slip and heave. We are tectonic, and ready.”

NATALIE DIAZ

The Earth is indeed shifting. As are we. If we are to survive, that is. This will come with a connection with Earth’s natural rhythms. We haven’t been doing that very well, particularly under an “othering” capitalist, exploitive, hubristic dogma. It’s time to ride the swells and turbulence of a Nature evolving. And co-evolve; or get left behind.  We can learn much from the stories of our Indigenous relatives. We can learn much from the stories of our non-human relatives too.

That’s what climate change is: a new story. And that story is all about water.

Grandmother with young water keeper (illustration by Michaela Goade)

For this World Water Day, I share with you a wonderful story of water keepers and the water we keep safe. Author Carole Lindstrom, member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, and artist Michaela Goade, member of the Central Council of the Tlingit Haida Tribe of Alaska. have produced “We Are Water Protectors”, a lyrical illustrated celebration of cultural heritage and the courage to stand up for nature.

The water story (illustration by Michaela Goade)

In her address at Scripps College graduatesRachel Carson—who catalyzed the environmental movement with her stunning exposé Silent Spring—exhorted to her future humanity:

“Yours is a grave and sobering responsibility, but it is also a shining opportunity. You go out into a world where [human]kind is challenged, as it has never been challenged before, to prove its maturity and its mastery–not of nature but of itself. Therein lies our hope and our destiny.”

RACHEL CARSON

Today is World Water Day…

I exhort you to do something for water today. Plant a tree (they love water and water loves them). Clean up a local stream or lakeshore. Write a letter to a government official about protecting your watershed. Research something about water and share with someone. Share your watermark on the WatermarkProject.ca site. Buy We Are Water Protectors and share it with someone or give it away. Or buy Silent Spring and share it with someone who hasn’t read it yet.

Keep it flowing…

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Nina Munteanu Talks Water and Writing on Minddog TV, New York

I was recently interviewed by Matt Nappo on Minddog TV in New York, where we talked about the science and magic of water, climate change and how to not become cynical, the process of writing, what scares us and what takes us through it into great storytelling.

Here’s the interview:

Matt Nappo interviews limnologist and clifi author Nina Munteanu on minddog TV
Cattails oversee the snowy plain of the iced-over Trent Canal, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

What Ecology Can Teach Us: “Rogue Harvest” by Danita Maslan

Farmer’s field, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Sometime in the future, Earth is recovering from a devastating 50-year plague that has destroyed most of its natural forests and grasslands and killed two out of every three people. Environmental technocrats now run the world under strict rule: while virgin ecosystems are re-created from original templates through genetic engineering, no human is permitted to set foot in these sanctuaries. As sanctuaries grow ever larger, humanity is pressed into over-crowded cities where boredom and strife dominate. The Emerald Coalition hires reclamation company EcoTech to “recreate the world their great, great grandparents lost.” But their ecosystems are morphing into “aberrations” (new species with surprising properties), which would shock the applied Ecology community—except EcoTech is keeping it a secret. So begins Danita Maslan’s eco-thriller Rogue Harvest by Red Deer Press. Published in 2005, this powerful environmental story is as relevant today as it was fifteen years ago. Perhaps more so.

In his Foreword to Maslan’s book, Hugo-winning author Robert J. Sawyer, shared a story from a 2004 presentation he gave at Mount Royal College in Calgary. In his presentation, Sawyer lamented that science fiction seemed to pull in opposite directions to such an extent that any message was cancelled by its opposition. The example he gave in the Foreword came from two bestselling authors: Kim Stanley Robinson whose Forty Signs of Rainwarned of rising temperatures due to climate change; and Michael Crichton, who denied global warming as fearmongering in State of Fear. According to Sawyer, Rogue Harvest provided a fresh story grounded in the balance of a third perspective—not a neutral middle-ground, but “one that shears away at right angles from the current polarized debate, taking our thinking in new directions by predicting both environmental collapse andenvironmental salvation.” 

Told through the unruly character of Jasmine, Rogue Harvest explores a post-plague world in recovery. After radical environmentalists from Green Splinter assassinate her father, Jasmine enlists a street-smart mercenary to help her vindicate her father’s call to open the forbidden preservesto the public. This leads Jasmine into the depths of the genetically re-created South American rainforest, where political intrigue, corporate greed and violence collide in a combustible mix. This is where it gets messy—which biology certainly is. But it gets messy for other reasons. Human-reasons. Reasons of power-mongering and lack of compassion. The very reasons why the environmental technocrats established their hands-off edict in the first place. This is explored through great irony in Rogue Harvest. An irony that L.E. Modesitt, Jr. astutely notes, “[the environmental technocrats] prove that, given power, they’re just like everyone else.” Just as there remain uncompassionate exploiters and pillagers in the likes of harvester Gunther Vint, who heedlessly pollutes the rainforest as he harvests it.

buttressed strangler fig in Costa Maya jungle (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The South American rainforest provides some of the most vivid, colourful and memorable scenes in the book. Maslan traveled to the tropics and ensured accurate science of this incredibly rich ecosystem through Mark W. Moffett’s The High Frontierand Donald Perry’s Life Above the Jungle Floor, as well as Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata. It is in the South American recreated jungle that the key elements—and posed questions—of the story play out. 

In his testimonial to Rogue Harvest, Hugo Award Finalist James Alan Gardner poses: “We see both sides of an ecological conundrum that resonates with the present day: how can we live in harmony with our environment, neither vandalizing it nor walling it off as too precious to touch?”

This is the tantamount question. Can our species achieve this balance? Rogue Harvest answers this clarion call with mixed optimism. While showcasing the propensity for greed and careless exploitation, the book also reveals a more altruistic and kinder side of humanity. One that promises hope and light to our darker side. But, is this realistic, given our current dominant worldview? 

On page 149 in Rogue Harvest, Jasmine’s politician father Owen Lamberin defends his position of wishing to open up the protected Nature preserves to regular folk by proclaiming, “Do they want to keep us out forever? Then who are we reseeding the globe for if not for us?” This is later echoed by Jasmine to justify flouting the preservationist edicts of the Emerald Coalition. When I first read this passage, part of me rankled. Does not the natural world have an intrinsic value and right to simply be? Must we justify all things by our own presence and direct use of them? Surely functional ecosystems provide ecosystem services for planetary wellness that benefit ALL life, not just humans, and not all directly. For example, our terrestrial and marine forests provide necessary oxygen and climate balance (by removing excess carbon dioxide) that benefits all life on the planet. Ecologists—particularly Canadians—recognize the benefit of ‘preservation’ (wilderness that is not accessed by humans) over ‘conservation’ (areas where humans extract resources with some environmental risk) and the need for both to exist for the planet’s overall well-being. This is based on the simple fact that not all humans behave as they should. Those of us who follow a utilitarian neo-liberal worldview of consumption and “othering nature” are not acting as efficient partners in the natural world. Many see themselves as apart from Nature, above Her, even, and will act less than kindly. Current deforestation of the Amazon and the old-growth forests of British Columbia, are just two examples that reflect this destructive “Nature othering” force. 

Ancient red cedar tree in Lighthouse Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

In contrast, indigenous peoples on the planet incorporate Nature in their beliefs, philosophies and way of life. They conduct themselves with humility and the utmost respect for the natural world of which they are a part. Knowing that they are part of Nature, they act accordingly, with respect. They are efficient partners, taking only what they need, thanking Nature for her gifts, and giving back in return in a process of reciprocal altruism and mutualism.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of “Gathering Moss” and “Braiding Sweetgrass” writes:

“In indigenous ways of knowing, it is understood that each living being has a particular role to play. Every being is endowed with certain gifts, its own intelligence, its own spirit, its own story. Our stories tell us that the Creator gave these to us, as original instructions. The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well. 

These gifts are also responsibilities, a way of caring for each other. Wood Thrush received the gift of song; it’s his responsibility to say the evening prayer. Maple received the gift of sweet sap and the coupled responsibility to share that gift in feeding the people at a hungry time of year. This is the web of reciprocity that the elders speak of, that which connects us all. I find no discord between this story of creation and my scientific training. This reciprocity is what I see all the time in studies of ecological communities. Sage has its duties, to draw up water to its leaves for the rabbits, to shelter the baby quail. Part of its responsibility is also to the people. Sage helps us clear our minds of ill thoughts, to carry our good thoughts upward. The roles of mosses are to clothe the rocks, purify the water, and soften the nests of birds … Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher.”

Robin wall kimmerer

  

Wall-Kimmerer is talking about a way of life through willing participation and an attitude of great respect and humility. But many non-indigenous people do not ascribe to this philosophy and way of life—with dire consequence to our environment and our own welfare. In Rogue Harvest Maslan rightfully demonstrated the continued presence of this destructive force in humanity even as a respectful and thankful attitude was shown by Jasmine and her harvesting team. The question is: How many does it take to spoil this balance?

It would be close to fifteen years after Rogue Harvest was published that I would finally read Maslan’s book—this year, in 2020, during an ongoing planetary-wide plague. Ironically, only two years after Danita’s debut novel, my own debut eco-thriller Darwin’s Paradox was released by Dragon Moon Press in 2007. And the theme was eerily similar: struggling with the devastation of an environmental plague (Darwin Disease), the Gaians—environmental technocrats who run the world—have isolated humanity from Earth’s treasured natural environment. One main difference between Rogue Harvest and Darwin’s Paradox is that in the latter book the technocrats have kept the public ignorant of how the environment has recovered, ensuring its safety from destructive human hands—except for the ‘enlightened’ Gaians, who secretly live out in the beauty of a recovered natural world and commute to the indoor world. However, as the environment recovers, humanity deteriorates in its cloistered indoor world. Darwin’s Disease—related to indoor living—sweeps across humanity with debilitating genetic deterioration, violent death and the promise of extinction.  This is something the self-professed deep ecology Gaians—akin to Maslan’s Emerald Coalition—are content to see in—if it means preserving the natural world.

Both the Gaians and Maslan’s Emerald Coalition demonstrate a lack of faith in humanity and an unrealistic need to restore environments to their pristine pre-human levels; something that is highly unrealistic—and doomed to fail. “Aberrations” (as Maslan’s characters called them) are part of the natural process of adaptation and change inherent in the natural world. As a practicing ecological consultant, I was constantly running against an idealised and unrealizable notion to put everything back to what it used to be. For several decades ecologists were tasked to restore habitats to their pristine condition—when the notion of “pristine” was impossible to achieve, let along discern. It would have been like turning back the clock of history to prevent John F. Kennedy from being shot–with its own unknown consequences. Ecologists finally realized that in lieu of “restoration” and looking back, we needed to “rehabilitate” by looking forward. This is what Nature has always done. Nature adapts. So must we. Our management programs must incorporate Nature’s ever-changing processes of resilience and look forward—not backward—to achieve a sacred balance. 

If there is a deeper message in Maslan’s book, it is this: that our salvation—and the salvation of the world—lies in not obsessing on returning to a past pristine state (with attempts at over-protection), but in looking forward to healing and nurturing a world in which we have a place. This would involve reimagining our niche (our job) as efficient partners in an ever-evolving and changing natural world, by casting off the parasitoid1 role we’ve all too often assumed and replacing with a role of mutualism2. But … and there is a huge BUT here. This will only work if we pursue this approach with integrity. With our eyes and hearts open to Gaia’s sacred plan of which we are a part. Robin Wall Kimmerer shows us the way through Traditional Ecological Knowledge:

“If each plant has a particular role and is interconnected with the lives of humans, how do we come to know what that role is? How do we use the plant in accordance to its gifts? The legacy of traditional ecological knowledge, the intellectual twin to science, has been handed down in the oral tradition for countless generations. It passes from grandmother to granddaughter gathering together in the meadow, from uncle to nephew fishing on the riverbank … How did they know which plant to use in childbirth, which plant to conceal the scent of a hunter? Like scientific information, traditional knowledge arises from careful systematic observation of nature, from the results of innumerable lived experiments. Traditional knowledge is rooted in intimacy with a local landscape where the land itself is the teacher. Plant knowledge comes from watching what the animals eat, how Bear harvests lilies and how Squirrel taps maple trees. Plant knowledge also comes from the plants themselves. To the attentive observer, plants reveal their gifts.”

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss

But is this possible? To return to Sawyer’s remark and Gardner’s question, can we achieve this sacred balance and harmony? For many of us, I think, yes. But for many more, I’m not sure. And that is what worries me. It is my firm belief that until our worldview embraces humility in partnership with the natural world—until we cast off our parasitoid archetype of self-serving, neo-liberal, capitalist ideologies—we will remain hampered in our journey forward towards a sacred balance. And time is running out for us. Time to rewrite our story.

In Maslan’s book, humanity is given a second chance to prove itself worthy of inclusion. Her book is a call to action. Can we do this before it’s too late for us? Time to listen and learn from our indigenous peoples. Time to learn about Traditional Ecological Knowledge. Time to slow down, set aside our egos, and use all our senses to learn from Birch, Bear, and Beaver…

Cedar pine forest in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

1.parasitoid is a term that describes a parasite that grows on the body of another organism from which they get nutrients and shelter. Unlike typical parasites, a parasitoid usually kills its host (Munteanu, 2019).

2.mutualism describes an ecological interaction between two or more species that increases fitness in both, through direct interaction and co-adaptation. Two examples include vascular plants and mycorrhizae, their fungal partners, and flowering plants and their pollinating insects. Even predators act in some form of mutualism when their role of culling weaker individuals from the prey gene pool is considered (Munteanu, 2019). 

References:

  • Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2003. “Gathering Moss.” Oregon State University Press, Corvalis. 168pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2019. “The Ecology of Story: World as Character.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 198pp.
White cedar tree and stump in early winter, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Embracing the Paradox of Creative Destruction

Beech tree in snow-covered cedar forest, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I understand something of paradox. As an ecologist, I deal with it all the time. Destruction in creation and creation in destruction lies ingrained in the life-cycles of everything on this planet. A forest fire can destroy life but in so doing creates a more vibrant, healthier forest. Nature reveals many such examples from its circular patterns and fractal self-organization to its infinite spirals.

The Ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon swallowing its own tail to form a circle. It represents self-reflexivity or cyclicality, especially of something constantly re-creating itself. As the serpent devouring its own tail, the Ouroboros symbolizes the cyclic Nature of the Universe: creation out of destruction, Life out of Death. The ouroboros eats its own tail to sustain its life, in an eternal cycle of renewal. In Gnosticism, the ouroboros symbolizes eternity and the soul of the world.

Ecologist C.S. Holling recognized ecosystems as non-linearself-organizing and continually adapting through cycles of change from expansion and prosperity to creative destruction and reorganization. In his classic paper, entitled: “Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure” (1987), Holling suggested that the experience of instability maintains the structure and general patterns of ecosystem behaviour; that Nature ‘learns’ and accommodates with time. 

In the final analysis, it is a matter of scale.

We can’t expect the natural world around us to run smoothly and safely for our benefit. New diseases, pollution, species extinction, and climate change are all results of unexpected impacts, whether human-caused or not. Though incredibly elegant, Nature is not simple. Scale is something you can’t see or easily measure and assess if you are in it. Scale is like hindsight.

The systems of Gaia are complex from the tiniest cell to the complex planet itself. Weather, for instance, is a “chaotic system” that displays a fractal structure and a range of chaotic behaviour on many scales. Temperature, air pressure, wind speed and humidity are all sensitive to initial conditions and interrelated in multi-scales.

Says Brian Arthur, professor at Stanford University: 

The complex approach is total Taoist. In Taoism there is no inherent order. “The world starts with one, and the one become two and the two become many, and the many lead to myriad things.” The universe in Taoism is perceived as vast, amorphous, and ever changing. You can never nail it down. The elements always stay the same, yet they are always arranging themselves. So, it’s like a kaleidoscope: the world is a matter of patterns that change, that partly repeat, but never quite repeat, that are always new and different.

BRIAN ARTHUR

Western scientists are just beginning to appreciate this through the application of complexity theory and chaos theory. This is something the eastern world has “known” since ancient times: humility before nature; respect for richness and diversity of life; generation of complexity from simplicity; the need to understand the whole to understand the part.

I wish you a safe and wealthy 2021: a year’s wealth of unexpected wonder, of genuine love, of unguarded honor, and dazzling bravery. There is no wonder without tolerance; no love without humility; no honor without sacrifice; and no bravery without fear. I wish you the gift of unbridled compassion. 

As Dante Sarpé (in my story, Arc of Time) said: Without compassion to fill it, knowledge is an empty house, casting its shadow on our courage to embrace the paradoxes in our lives: to feel love in the face of adversity; grace when confronted with betrayal.

Happy New Year!

Recommended Reading:

Holling, C.S. 1987. Simplifying the complex: the paradigms of ecological function and structure. Eur. J. Oper. Rel. 30: 139-146.

Holling, C.S. 1973. Resilience and stability of ecological systems. Annual Rev. Ecol. Syst. 4: 1-23.

Holling, C.S. 1977. Myths of ecology and energy. In: Proceedings Symposium on Future Strategies for Energy Development, Oak Ridge, Tenn., 20-21 October, 1976. Oxford University Press, New York, N.Y.

Beech tree in leaf amid cedars and moss-covered boulders in Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Twelve Books on Climate and Environment for the Holidays

Gift guide: 12 books on climate can environment for the holidays

“For this year’s holiday gift guide,” writes Dr. Michael Svoboda, “Yale Climate Connections has gathered celebrated anthologies, deep-dives into climate-related science and solutions, inspiring books from or about spiritual leaders, and visionary works of climate fiction.”

All were recently published, some within the month, writes Svoboda. These twelve books address decades of writing on climate change, reassess the challenges, offer hope and guidance for action, and envision very different climate-changed futures.

There is, for instance, the anthology The Fragile Earth: Writing from the New Yorker on Climate Change (Harper Collins),which includes Bill McKibben’s seminal essay “The End of Nature.” The anthology All We Can Save(Penguin Random House) edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson is a collection of works dedicated to leadership “more characteristically feminine and more faithfully feminist, rooted in compassion, connection, creativity, and collaboration.”

Hope, guide to action and challenges are provided by Future Sea (University of Chicago Press) by Deborah Rowan Wright, The New Map (Penguin Random House) by Daniel Yergin, Solved:How the World’s Great Cities are Fixing the Climate Crisis (University of Toronto Press) by David Miller, Let Us Dream (Simon & Schuster) by Pope Francis. Tales of Two Planets (Penguin Random House) edited by John Freeman explores inequality and the impact of climate change.

Stand Up! Speak Up! (Penguin Random House) by Andrew Joyner celebrates the inspiration of youth in taking up action through hope, activism and community. Our Only Home: A Climate Appeal to the World (Hanover Square) by the Dalai Lama and Franz Alt is a manifesto that will empower us to take action and save the environment. 

The novel The 2084 Report (Simon & Schuster) by James Lawrence Powell provides an “oral history” through interviews of the devastating effects of the Great Warming, which are both fascinating and frightening. My own novel A Diary in the Age of Water (Inanna Publications) chronicles the journeys of four generations of women, each carrying a unique relationship with water over a time of catastrophic change. Told in the form of a diary by a limnologist, the story explores a Canada mined for its water by United States, which, in turn, is owned by China. The Ministry for the Future (Hachette Book Group—Orbit) a novel by Kim Stanley Robinson uses fictional eyewitness accounts to tell the story of how climate change will affect us all.

Yale Climate Connections:

Edited by veteran journalist and journalism educator Bud Ward, Yale Climate Connections provides content developed by a network of experienced independent freelance science journalists, researchers, and educators across the country.Yale Climate Connections is an initiative of the Yale Center for Environmental Communication (YCEC), directed by Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz of the Yale School of the Environment, Yale University.

Dr. Michael Svoboda, an expert on climate change, is a professor at George Washington University and frequent contributor to Yale Climate Connections.

Jackson Creek in early winter, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Darwin’s Paradox Revisited: Compassion and Evolution

In 2007, when I started my first blog, The Alien Next Door, I wrote an article that explored the term “Darwin’s Paradox”—it’s not just the title of my science fiction thriller Darwin’s Paradox released that year by Dragon Moon Press—but  a term coined by scientists to describe the paradoxical phenomenon exhibited by coral reefs.

Defying The Laws of Thermodynamics

Darwin described coral reefs as oases in the desert of the ocean. Coral reefs comprise one of the richest ecosystems on Earth, in apparent violation of the laws of thermodynamics (high productivity in a low-productivity environment). Productivity ranges from 50 to 250 times more than the surrounding ocean. How do they thrive in crystal-clear water, largely devoid of nutrients? Part of the answer lies in the coral’s efficiency in recycling nutrients like nitrate and phosphate.

First, the rough coral surface amplifies water turbulence at a microscopic level, disrupting the boundary layer that usually settles on objects under water and lets the coral “hoover” up the sparse nutrients. I stumbled upon a similar phenomenon during my grad work on temperate streams and published my serendipitous discovery in the journal Hydrobiologia. I was researching how periphyton (attached “algae”) colonized submerged glass slides and observed that the community preferred the edges of the slides because the micro-turbulence there provided more opportunity for attachment and nutrition.

Second, lots of corals also function symbiotically with specialized algae (called zooxanthelae), which provide the coral with food (through photosynthesis) and, in turn, get food from the wastes created by the coral.  

Can the science of symbiosis teach us something about another Darwin’s Paradox?

The Evolution of Compassion

In a September 2013 article in the Jewish World Review, Boston Globe reporter Jeff Jacobywrote:

“Charles Darwin struggled with a paradox: If evolution is a struggle for survival, how could generosity, compassion, and other altruistic virtues have spread through natural selection? Darwin could see the clear evolutionary benefit to groups that inculcated ethical values in their members. Imagine two competing primitive tribes, equally matched — except that ‘one tribe included a great number of courageous, sympathetic, and faithful members, who were always ready to warn each other of danger, [and] to aid and defend each other.’ (Darwin, “The Descent of Man”). There was little doubt that tribes highly endowed with such virtues ‘would spread and be victorious over other tribes.’”

“How did any tribe evolve such ethical qualities in the first place?” asks Jacoby. Brave individuals who risked their lives for others “would on average perish in larger numbers than other men.” It hardly seemed possible, Darwin conceded, that, “such virtues … could be increased through natural selection, that is, by the survival of the fittest.” So, how did it and why?

Jacoby quotes Sir Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s Orthodox chief rabbi, who pointed to “the central drama of civilization: Biological evolution favors individuals,” says Sacks. “But cultural evolution favors groups.… Selfishness benefits individuals [only in the short-term and only in a limited way—my comment], but it is [ultimately] disastrous to groups, and it is only as members of a group that individuals can survive at all.”

Jacoby describes the vast literature in evolutionary psychology and sociobiology that have demonstrated humanity’s hard-wired moral capacity. “We are born with an aptitude for empathy and fairness,” said Jacoby, citing recent neurological experiments that have demonstrated that an act of generosity triggers a pleasurable response in the brain.

Abraham Lincoln summarized it in seven words: “When I do good, I feel good.”  Psychologists call it the “helper’s high”. Neuroscientists and behavioral scientists are demonstrating unequivocally the benefits of altruism to our health and happiness. Scientists have designed experiments that actually trace altruism—and the pleasure we gain from it—to specific regions and systems in the brain. Key studies now provide striking evidence that our brains are wired for altruism. 

The Social Brain and the Seat of Compassion  

In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Moll et al, 2006), a team of neuroscientists lead by Dr. Jordan Grafman, reported that, “when people made the decision to donate to what they felt was a worthy organization, parts of the midbrain lit up—the same region that controls cravings for food and sex.” The brain experiences a pleasurable response when we engage in good deeds that benefit others. 

Dr. Grafman found that the subgenual area in the frontal lobe near the midpoint of the brain was also strongly active when his study subjects made the decision to give to charity. The area houses many receptors for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes social bonding. “The finding suggests that altruism and social relationships are intimately connected—in part, it may be our reliance on the benefits of strong interpersonal connections that motivates us to behave unselfishly,” reports Elizabeth Svoboda in the WallStreet Journal. The team also found that the nucleus accumbens, which contains neurons that release the pleasure chemical dopamine, was triggered when a person chose to help another.

A 2007 study headed by neuroscientist Scott Huettel and reported in Nature Neuroscience(Tankersley, et al., 2007) connects altruism to the posterior superior temporal cortex (pSTC), an area in the upper rear of the brain that lets us perceive goal-directed actions by someone or something else. Results suggest that altruism depends on, and may have evolved from, the brain’s ability to perform the low-level perceptual task of attributing meaning and motive in the actions of others.

“Our findings are consistent with a theory that some aspects of altruism arose out of a system for perceiving the intentions and goals of others,” said Dr. Huettel. “To be altruistic, you need to see that the people you’re helping have goals, and that your actions will have consequences for them.” 

Research led by Michael Platt reported in Nature Neurosciencein 2012, showed that the anterior cingulate gyrus(ACCg) is an important nexus for the computation of shared experience and social reward. That same year researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York published research in the journal Brainthat suggested that the anterior insular cortexis the activity centre of human empathy.

I find it both interesting and exciting that these studies link different brain regions to altruistic and compassionate behavior. “There are certain to be multiple mechanism that contribute to altruism, both in individuals and over evolutionary time,” added Huettel. This is the nature of the brain, whether we look at intelligence, motivation or physical characteristics. And I am convinced that we will someday find that many other areas—if not the entire area—of the brain are involved. Moreover, researchers have shown that engaging—or even witnessing—generous acts can reduce stress, increase immunity (e.g., increased antibody levels), and longevity.

Emiliana Simon-Thomas, science director for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, explains the chemical activity that happens in our heads when we commit acts of altruism. “There are multiple reward systems that have been tied to pleasurable feelings when people help others or contribute to the well being of the people around them,” she notes. These reward systems are comprised of three main chemicals that are released when we commit an act of kindness and feel pleasure: Dopamine, Oxytocin and Serotonin. According to Simon-Thomas, Dopamine is most closely related to hedonic pleasure — or pleasure derived from self; oxytocin is tied to more social pleasure — especially with regard to physical contact; and serotonin is implicated in a more broad mood state. “All three of these, again, are sort of intersecting and interacting, and depending on the context that you’re in, represent feelings of pleasure in different context,” she explains. “All these systems are activating and parallel, and sort of influencing one another as you go through life.” So when I do a good deed, I am rewarding myself with a cocktail of wonder drugs that please me and make me smile.

So, what I’ve known since I was a child is now proven: doing good deeds is mutually beneficial to the giver and the receiver.

Path through winter forest in the fog, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Altruism in All Beings

The notion that all aspects of life on this planet—not just humanity—have the capacity to act altruistically remains controversial—even among professional scientists and researchers. We are not unique in experiencing or practicing altruism, in acting altruistically and benefiting from our own altruistic acts. It is however a matter of perspective, bias and open-mindedness. Many examples of altruistic behavior and empathy exist in the rest of the living world on our planet.

Nature’s Heroes

Scientists have been demonstrating for years that cooperation among organisms and communities and the act of pure altruism (not reciprocal altruism or kin/group selection) is, in fact, more common in Nature than most of us realize. Valid examples of true altruism in the wild in many species exist. The key here is “in the wild”—not in captivity, where inherent behavior is often modified (see my Alien Next Door article “The SamaritanParadox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma”).

Despite the overwhelming evidence for altruism in every aspect of our world, some researchers continue to design experiments and then draw sweeping conclusions based on animals in captivity to suggest that only humanity possesses the ability to behave altruistically—and then again only by social-instruction (aka “the Selfish Gene” of Richard Dawkins vs. the “Social Gene” of Lynn Margulis).

Examples of altruism abound and range among mammals, birds, invertebrates and even Protista. Some examples include: dogs, cats, ducks, squirrels, wolves, mongooses, Meer cats, baboons, chimpanzees, vampire bats, dolphins, walruses, lemurs, African buffalo—to name a few.

de Waal explained that “evolution favors animals that assist each other if by doing so they achieve long-term benefits of greater value than the benefits derived from going it alone and competing with others” (de Waal 2006). The prevalent phenomenon of altruism is Nature’s answer to the Prisoner’s Dilemma. “Empathy evolved in animals as the main … mechanism for [individually] directed altruism,” said deWaal. And it is empathy—not self-interest—that “causes altruism to be dispensed in accordance with predictions from kin selection and reciprocal altruism theory.” deWaal further proposed that the scientific community has become polarized between evolutionary biologists on the one side, and, on the other, a discrete group of economists and anthropologists that “has invested heavily in the idea of strong reciprocity,” which demands discontinuity between humans and all other animals.

“One of the most striking consequences of the study of animal behavior,” says anthropologist Robert Sapolsky, “is the rethinking … of what it is to be human.” He notes that, “a number of realms, traditionally thought to define our humanity, have now been shown to be shared, at least partially, with nonhuman species.” (Sapolsky 2006). This makes some of us uncomfortable. To some, it threatens to make us less special. The corollary is that this demonstrates that we possess intrinsic virtue, not something “painted” on through cultural teaching or diligent personal effort. Of course, it also means that all other beings possess intrinsic value too. In the final analysis, what we generally “know” is colored by what we believe and want to continue believing.

First big snow in Thompson Creek marsh, ON (photo and dry brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

Universal Altruism and Gaia

What does all this mean? Does the very existence of altruism demonstrate the connectivity of all life on Earth? Let’s not stop there. Does the grace of altruism reflect a fractal cosmos imbued with meaning and intent? Was it the grace of altruism that allowed it all to happen in the first place? Don’t we all come from grace?

Despite struggles with acceptance for some of us, we are emerging enlightened to the fractal existence of grace and altruism embedded in the very nature and intentions of our universe.

I come full circle to my book Darwin’s Paradox, a tale of fractal intelligence and universal cooperation. A tale of emerging awareness of Self and Other as One…Evolution through cooperation… Creative DNA…Manifestation through thought and intent…Self-organization and synchronicity…A hero’s journey…and coming Home…

In this season of gratitude, we celebrate altruism in giving and in receiving graciously.

Merry Christmas!

First snow over Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Links / Books of Interest:

Altruhelp.com. 2011. “Altruism: the Helper’s High”. Altruhelp.com. http://blog.altruhelp.com/2011/04/01/altruism-the-new-high/

Atwood, Margaret. 2009. “Dept: Not Just A Four Letter Word”. Zoomer. March, 2009 (www.zoomermag.com)

Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, Stanford School of Medicine: http://ccare.stanford.edu

Jacoby, Jeff. 2013. “Darwin’s conundrum: Where does compassion come from?” http://www.jeffjacoby.com/13700/darwin-conundrum-where-does-compassion-come-from

Ridley, Matt. 1998. The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation. Penguin Books, 304pp.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. August 31, 2013. “Hard-Wired for Giving” in The Wall Street Journal;http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324009304579041231971683854

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selflessness” Current. 240 pp.

Munteanu, Nina. Aug, 2010. “The Samaritan Paradox Revisited: The Karma Ran Over the Dogma” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/08/samaritan-paradox-revisited-karma-is.html

Munteanu, Nina. June, 2010. “What Altruism in Animals can Teach Us About Ourselves” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/06/what-altruism-in-animals-can-teach-us.html 

Munteanu, Nina. March, 2010. “Gaia versus Medea: A Case for Altruism” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2010/03/gaia-versus-medea-case-for-altruism.html

Munteanu, Nina. Feb, 2009. “Margaret Atwood’s Wise Words About Dept & Altruism…A Portrait of the Artist as a Real Hero” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2009/02/margaret-atwoods-wise-words-about-debt.html

Munteanu, Nina. August, 2007. “Is James Bond an Altruist?—Part 2” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/is-james-bond-altruist-part-2.html

Nina Munteanu. August, 2007. “Co-evolution: Cooperation & Agressive Symbiosis” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/08/co-evolution-cooperation-agressive.html

Nina Munteanu. July, 2007. “Altruism at the Heart of True Happiness” in The Alien Next Door; http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.ca/2007/07/altruism-at-heart-of-true-happiness.html

Ridley, Matt. 1998. “The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation.” Penguin Books. 304 pp. http://www.amazon.com/Origins-Virtue-Instincts-Evolution-Cooperation/dp/0140264450

References for Altruism in All Animals:

Bradley, Brenda. 1999. “Levels of Selection, Altruism, and Primate Behavior.” The Quarterly Review of Biology, 74(2):171-194.

De Waal, Frans, with Robert Wright, Christine Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer. 2006. “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved”. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goodall, Jane. 1990 Through A Window: My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Moll, Jorge, Frank Krueger, Roland Zahn, Matteo Pardini, Ricardo de Oliveira-Souza, and Jordan Grafman. 2006. “Human fronto-mesolimbic networks guide decisions about charitable donation.” In: Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 103(42): 15623-15628. http://www.pnas.org/content/103/42/15623.full

Sapolsky, Robert M. 2006. “Social Cultures Among Nonhuman Primates.” Current Anthropology, 47(4):641-656.

Svoboda, Elizabeth. 2013. “What Makes a Hero? The Surprising Science of Selfishness.” Current.

Tankersley D et al.  2007. “Altruism is Associated with an Increased Response to Agency.”  Nature Neuroscience, February 2007, Vol. 10(2), pp. 150-151.

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press(Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” was released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.