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 Starfire 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. 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 parasitoid1role 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.parasitoidis 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.mutualismdescribes 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.

Warneken, F. & Tomasello, M. 2006. “Altruistic Helping In Human Infants and Young Chimpanzees.” Science, 311, 1301–1303.

Warneken, F., Hare, B., Melis, A. P., Hanus, D. & Tomasello, M. 2007. “Spontaneous Altruism By Chimpanzees and Young Children.” PloS Biology, 5(7), e184.

de Waal, F. B. M. 2008. “Putting the Altruism Back Into Altruism: The Evolution of Empathy.” Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 279–300.

de Waal, F. B. M., Leimgruber, K. & Greenberg, A. R. 2008. “Giving Is Self-rewarding for Monkeys.” Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., USA, 105, 13685–13689.

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.

Atlantykron Summer Academy—2020

Because of the COVID19 pandemic, The 31st annual summer academy for learning was held virtually this year by New Horizons (of the World Genesis Foundation and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Because of this, I was finally able to participate. Virtually and all the way from Canada.

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Atlantykron on the Danube

The international event is normally held on an island on the Danube River near the village and ancient Roman ruins of Capidava, Romania. First held in the summer of 1989, the event has attracted hundreds of youth and teachers from around the world to learn with scientists, artists, writers and other professionals in a wilderness setting.

Coordinated by Sorin Repanovici of the World Genesis Foundation and run by Dr. Florin Munteanu, Heather Caton-Anderson and Constantin D. Pavel, Atlantykron promotes UNESCO core goals of promoting sustainable development and creating dialogue and collaboration among nations in the areas of education, science, culture and communications.

Key presentations in the 2020 Atlantykron included:

  • “New Horizons of Animal-Human Relationships” by Chan Chow Wah in China
  • “Mars 2020 Mission Perseverance” by Ravi Prakash and Erisa K. Stilley in USA
  • “Planning and Scripting a Time-Lapse Movie” by Stan Jiman in USA
  • “Generating & Solving Crisis to Avoid Imbalance and Catastrophe” by Dr. Florin Colceag in Romania
  • “The Science and Meaning of Water” by Nina Munteanu in Canada
  • “Who’s Afraid of Autonomous Cars” by Pompilian Tofilescu in USA

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Florin Munteanu

Dr. Florin Munteanu

I’d met Florin Munteanu in 2012, when I went to Bucharest, Romania to participate in the launch of the Romanian translation of my book The Fiction Writer (Manual de Scriere Creativa: scriitorul de fictiune) with Editura Paralela 45 at the Gaudeamus Book Fair. Florin met me at the airport and took me to the Phoenicia Grand Hotel where I was staying. We had some coffee and pastries over a wonderful chat and he then coordinated a tour of the city for me with one of his students at the Centre of Complexity Studies where he taught.

When Florin invited me to speak at Atlantykron 2020, I was more than pleased.

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Nina with “Water Is…”

As a limnologist and with two major books on water published, I gave a talk on the science and meaning of water. Much of what I shared is in my book Water Is… The Meaning of Water, which provides 12 different angles on what water means—to different people from scientists and technologists to politicians, spiritualists and lay folk.

Water is so much more than the sum of its parts…

“Ultimately, water and our relationship with it is a curious gestalt of magic and paradox. Like the Suntelia Aion described by the Greeks, water cuts recursive patterns of creative destruction through the landscape, an ouroborous remembering. It changes, yet stays the same, shifting its face with the climate. It wanders the earth like a gypsy, stealing from where it is needed and giving whimsically where it isn’t wanted; aggressive yet yielding. Life-giving yet dangerous. Water is the well-spring of life. Yet it is the River Styx that leads the dead to Hades… Water is a shape shifter.”—Water Is…The Meaning of Water

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Nina with “A Diary in the Age of Water”

I overviewed some of water’s many anomalous qualities such as its unique density, cohesive, and adhesive properties—all life-giving. I discussed the water bridge, demonstrated by Dr. Elmar C. Fuchs and Professor Jakob Woisetchlager in 2007. I explored why water—particularly moving water—makes us feel so good (all those negative ions!). I went over the water cycle, water’s role in most natural cycles, and how it contributes to climate.

I then explored some of the oddest but most common tiny water residents. One example is the bdelloid rotifer—featured in my latest novel A Diary in the Age of Water—which is smaller than a millimeter, ubiquitous, lives wherever there is some water and can withstand desiccation, drying up into a dormant stage called a tun. Bdelloids create protective proteins, such as LEA, which act as a molecular shield.

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Sketch of a bdelloid rotifer (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The bdelloid rotifer has existed for over forty million years. It reproduces through obligate parthenogenesis to produce all females, called thelytoky. Their long-term survival and evolutionary success in the absence of sex is largely a function of ecological adaptation that involves horizontal gene transfer through DNA repair. While they are patching up their broken genes from desiccation, they stitch in foreign DNA from the environment through horizontal gene transfer.

I ended the talk with some notes about conservation and stewardship of water. Using twelve-year old Rachel Parent and Greta Thunberg as examples, I stressed that no one is too young or too alone to make a difference; we then explored several activities that anyone could do.

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

Age of Water Podcast: Interview with The Water Brothers

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AoW Logo-smallWe are now living in the Age of Water. Water is the new “gold”, with individuals, corporations and countries positioning themselves around this precious resource. Water is changing everything. The Age of Water Podcast covers anything of interest from breaking environmental news to evergreen material. This also includes human interest stories, readings of eco-literature, discussion of film and other media productions of interest.

Join the discussion!

In Episode Six of Age of Water, we join Canadian film educators The Water Brothers—Alex and Tyler Mifflin—in Toronto, Ontario, where they discuss their eco-adventure TV series and other documentary initiatives to educate, entertain and connect people with water and environmental issues. Alex and Tyler are two young eco-adventurer brothers who travel the world to explore our relationship with water. What are the problems and where will the solutions come from? The next generation takes us on the search.

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The Water Brothers

The Water Brothers is an eco-adventure documentary series that follows brothers, Alex and Tyler Mifflin, as they explore the world, uncover the planet’s most important and leading-edge water stories and interview top scientists and experts on solutions to help overcome the many and diverse environmental challenges we all face. There is nowhere they won’t go from high mountain peaks to the bottom of the ocean.

 

Alex and Tyler are passionate about the subject of water conservation and use their respective educations in film and environmental studies to create this award-winning series. Alex is the lead researcher, co-writer and co-host and Tyler is the co-host, director, videographer and co-producer. They share a love of travel and adventure, a passion for the subject and a powerful desire to communicate their passion to audiences, especially their own generation.

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Water Brothers

Age of Water talked to the Water Brothers about their adventures from the Kumbh Mela on the Ganges River—largest gathering of humans on earth—to diving into dead zones to sailing into the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The Water Brothers circle the globe to bring back stories that affect, inspire and educate viewers.

The Water Brothers airs in Canada on TVO, Knowledge Network, and Radio – Canada in Quebec, as well as in over 50 countries worldwide.

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.

 

 

 

Reconciling Yesterday’s Future with Today’s Past

Metropolis man on clock

A worker tied to “the machine” in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis

Metropolis posterOur predictions and visions of the future are certainly predicated on our perceptions of the present and the past. So, what happens when yesterday’s “future” collides with today’s past? Well, retro-fiction, alternate history and steam-punk, you quip, eyes askance with mischief: edgy sociopathic Sherlock Holmes with bipolar or obsessive /compulsive tendencies; flying aircraft carriers in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, robot-like workers of Metropolis

But what of the vision itself? History provides us with a panoply of realized predictions in speculative fiction:

In 1961, Stanislaw Lem’s novel Return From the Stars predicted the invention of the touch pad, iPhone, iPad and Kindle. The telescreens that monitored the citizens of George Orwell’s Oceania in his dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was reflected, twenty years later, in the first closed circuit TV (CCTV) installed in the United Kingdom. Almost a century before the Internet was conceived, Mark Twain alluded to the future of a global, pervasive information network. In his 1968 novel 2001: A Space Odyssey Arthur C. Clarke discussed a future where people scanned headlines online and got their news through RSS feeds. In his 1888 novel Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy describes a “future” society in 2000 where money is eliminated due to the proliferation of plastic credit cards. Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report accurately predicted personalized ads, voice-controled homes, facial and optical recognition, and gesture-based computing. Other advances and usage of technology have been predicted in speculative literature, including body scans, RFIDs, spy-surveillance, and touch screen interfaces.

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Tom Cruise’s character using gesture-based computing in the film “Minority Report”

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1950s ad for flying car of future

But there have been many speculations not realized. Where are the flying cars? Where are the moon colonies, rotating space stations and space elevator? What of the envisioned totalitarian states not realized; civilizations not demolished; utopias not developed?

Are those past dystopian or utopian visions failed attempts at predicting a future that eluded their writers? Or is it a question more of defining vision in speculative writing?

Ray Bradbury suggested that “the function of science fiction is not only to predict the future but to prevent it.”

2001 a space odysseyThere are, in most cases, no technological impediments to the flying car, the jetpack, and moon-bases; only cultural ones.  “These SF predictions ought to be viewed as visions of where we could be, as opposed to where we will be, or, keeping Bradbury in mind, visions of where we don’t want to go and, thankfully, have mostly managed to avoid to date,” says Steve Davidson of Grasping for the Wind. “Perhaps it’s all cultural,” he adds.

How and why is it that our contemporary view of dystopian and utopian speculative fiction has shifted from an open-minded imaginative acceptance of “predictions” nested within a cautionary or visionary tale to a knowledge-based demand for largely unattainable predictive accuracy?

GeorgeOrwell 1984 signetGeorge Orwell wrote his dystopian satire in 1949 about a mind-controlled society in response to the Cold War. The book was a metaphor “against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism,” said Orwell in his 1947 essay Why I Write, adding, “Good prose is like a windowpane.” Was Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four a failed novel because the real 1984 didn’t turn out quite like his 1984? Hugo Award-winning novelist Robert J. Sawyer suggests that we consider it a success, “because it helped us avoid that future. So just be happy that the damn dirty apes haven’t taken over yet.”

Dystopian and utopian literature, like all good allegory, provides us with scenarios predicated on a concrete premise. What if we kept doing this?…What if that went on unchecked?… What if we decided to end this?…

LookingBackward EdwardBellamyA hundred years before 1984, Edward Bellamy published Looking Backward, “a romance of an ideal world”. It tells the story of a young man who falls into a hypnotic sleep in 1887, waking up in 2000 when the world has evolved into a great socialist paradise.  It sold over a million copies and ranked only behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as the top best-seller of the era. Looking Backward laid out a futuristic socialism, or was it a socialistic future?

At any rate, it influenced a large number of intellectuals and generated an unprecedented political mass movement. The book spawned experiments in communal living and fed socialist movements that promoted the nationalization of all industry and the elimination of class distinctions. Bellamy’s book was cited in many Marxist polemic works. Groups all over the world praised and embraced its ideals: Crusading Protestant ministers, American feminists, Australian trade unionists, British town planners, Bolshevik propagandists, French technocrats, German Zionists, and Dutch welfare-state advocates.

Bellamy’s conviction that cooperation among humans is healthier than competition formed the basis of Looking Backward. He predicted a revolution in retail that resembled today’s warehouse clubs and big-box stores. He also predicted a card system much like a modern debit card and people using enhanced telephone lines to listen to shows and music.

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“Socialism, of course, had different connotations in the 19th century when it rose, principally as a backlash to the brutalities of industrialization and the exploitation of the workers by the ruling class,” says Tony Long of Wired Magazine. Bellamy’s socialism is perhaps best described as a syndicalism than what most of us think of as socialism today. Long somberly adds, “Were he alive today, Bellamy might note, with interest, that while the worst excesses of the industrial age are gone, the exploitation continues. Had Bellamy lived to the ripe old age of 150, he no doubt would have been disappointed to find capitalism running amok, and his fellow man no less greedy and self-serving than in his own time. But he didn’t live to be 150. In fact, Bellamy was still a relatively young man when he died of tuberculosis in 1898.”

 

So, what happens when history catches up to the vision?

BraveNewWorld-AldousHuxleyIn a foreward to a later printing of Brave New World years after it was first published, Aldous Huxley explained why, when given the chance to revise the later edition, he left it exactly as it was initially written twenty years earlier:

Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is almost an undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.

Art also has its morality, and many of the rules of this morality are the same as, or at least analogous to, the rules of ordinary ethics. Remorse, for example is as undesirable in relation to our bad art as it is in relation to our bad behavior. The badness should be hunted out, acknowledged and, if possible, avoided in the future. To pore over the literary shortcomings of twenty years ago, to attempt to patch a faulty work into the perfection it missed at its first execution, to spend one’s middle age in trying to mend the artistic sins committed and bequeathed by that different person who was oneself in youth–all this is surely vain and futile. And that is why this new Brave New World is the same as the old one. Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book–and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else.

And with that, I leave you with a quote:

“…the past gives you an identity and the future holds the promise of salvation, of fulfillment in whatever form. Both are illusions.”–Eckhart Tolle

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Snowing in New York City (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

Launch of “A Diary in the Age of Water” by Nina Munteanu

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Diary Water cover finalOn June 18th, Toronto book publishing house Inanna Publications launched its second spring series and A Diary in the Age of Water, my near-future/far-future speculative fiction book was among them.

A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to water.

Evoking Ursula LeGuin’s unflinching humane and moral authority, Nina Munteanu takes us into the lives of four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. In a diary that entwines acute scientific observation with poignant personal reflection, Lynna’s story unfolds incrementally, like climate change itself. Particularly harrowing are the neighbourhood water betrayals, along with Lynna’s deliberately dehydrated appearance meant to deflect attention from her own clandestine water collection. Her estrangement from her beloved daughter, her “dark cascade” who embarks upon a deadly path of her own, is heartwrenching. Munteanu elegantly transports us between Lynna’s exuberant youth and her tormented present, between microcosm and macrocosm, linking her story and struggles – and those of her mother, daughter and granddaughter – to the life force manifest in water itself. In language both gritty and hauntingly poetic, Munteanu delivers an uncompromising warning of our future.

—Lynn Hutchinson Lee

 

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Renee Knapp and Nina Munteanu toast Inanna and all participants at the launch

A Diary in the Age of Water starts with young Kyo in the dying boreal forest of what used to be northern Canada. Kyo yearns inordinately for the Age of Water, a turbulent time of great change, before the “Water Twins” destroyed humanity. Looking for answers and plagued by vivid dreams of this holocaust, Kyo discovers the diary of Lynna, a limnologist from a time just prior to the destruction.

At the book launch, I read from Lynna’s first diary entry—in 2045. I then answered questions from audience members who came from Canada’s coast to coast:

 

What inspired you to write this book?

The Way of Water-COVERWho really… My publisher in Rome (Mincione Edizioni) had asked me for a short story on water and politics. I wanted to write about Canada and I wanted something ironic… so I chose water scarcity in Canada, a nation rich in water. “The Way of Water” (“La natura dell’acqua”) resulted, which has been reprinted in several magazines and anthologies, including Cli-Fi: Canadian Tales of Climate Change (Exile Editions), Future Fiction: New Dimensions in International Science Fiction (Future Fiction/Rosarium Publishing), Little Blue Marble Magazine, and Climate Crisis Anthology (Little Blue Marble). The story was about young Hilde—the daughter of the diarist—dying of thirst in Toronto… It begged for more … so the novel came from it…

 

Why did you choose to write your novel as a diary?

I was writing about both the far and the near future and much of it was based—like Margaret Atwood and her books—on real events and even real people. I wanted personal relevance to what’s going on, particularly with climate change.  I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of the mundane and a diary felt right. The diarist—Lynna—is also a reclusive inexpressive character, so I thought a personal diary would help bring out her thoughts and feelings. There’s nothing like eves-dropping to make the mundane exciting.

 

If the oceans are rising because the ice caps are melting, is the ocean actually getting less salty?

The short answer is “yes.” As glaciers melt and introduce fresh water to the ocean—contributing to the rise in sea level—salinity is reduced in the surrounding sea. This has far-reaching consequences that lie beyond just rising sea levels and promise to affect all ocean life. Because freshwater is less dense than seawater—hence the saltwater wedge we experience on the lower Fraser River in Vancouver—freshwater increase in seawater will interfere with the pattern, mixing, and movement of ocean currents; this could be devastating to ocean life. The overall movement of ocean currents throughout the planet is called the Great Ocean Conveyor—or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—which circulates ocean water very much like in a lake, with dense water sinking beneath warmer, less salty water. As my diarist in the book writes, dumping in more and more freshwater into the ocean has slowed the sinking (and mixing) and the whole machine is slowing down. Freshwater is jamming the conveyor. If it stalls, this would unbalance the heat flux of the planet with more climate devastation.

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Sketch of Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) from “A Diary in the Age of Water” Inanna Publications (sketch by Nina Munteanu)

The main protagonist is a limnologist; so are you; is there any resemblance?

Oh yes! Well, apart from the obvious—we both chose the same scientific discipline, we have similar views on the environment and humanity’s place in it. I might even have some of her foibles…hopefully not ALL of them… But, I’d say that all good characters have a piece of ourselves in them. Some dark and some light. The resemblance is heightened because she is depicted through her diary, which adds a gritty realism and a highly personal aspect to the fiction. In truth there’s a piece of me in each of the four women depicted in the story.

 

What is happening to the water in Ontario?

Water quality in Ontario waterways has not improved in the last decade and this can be placed squarely on the shoulders of local, regional and provincial governments and their failure to legislate and act. Inaction varies from lack of regulations and policing of industry to lack of city infrastructure and lack of ecological foresight.

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Cladophora alga in Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario itself receives pollution from Chicago, Sarnia, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, Hamilton and Toronto. Pollution includes agricultural runoff (such as excess nutrients and cancer-causing pesticides and herbicides), disease-carrying sewage, and hormone-disrupting storm water runoff. Nine million people rely on the lake for drinking water. Greatest threats to the lake’s health come from urban development, electricity generation, sewage, and storm water contamination. In cities with large amounts of impervious surfaces, storm water runs over pavement and parking lots, picking up oil and other pollutants before flowing into a nearby river or stream. Flash floods are often accompanied by sewage overflow, which carries numerous pathogens. In addition, storm water picks up toxic heavy metals, endocrine disrupting chemicals and pharmaceuticals. All with devastating consequences to humans, never mind aquatic life and other wildlife.

Every five years the Conservation Authority Watershed Report Cards provide an assessment of ground and surface water quality in various watersheds of Ontario. The latest one by the TRCA (Toronto and Region Conservation Authority) in 2018 gave an overall grade of “D” (unchanged from 2013). They cited storm water runoff and lack of its management improvement as the chief reason for the poor grade. Increasing chloride concentrations in the Toronto region (mostly from liberal use of road salt) poses a real problem to aquatic life.

 

Log over water forest-DeasPark copy

Forest swamp in Deas Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

You mentioned that each of the four generations of women have a singular relationship with water. What role does water play in the book?

Well, in some important way, water is the fifth character. You could say even the main character. Water is the theme that carries each woman on her personal journey with climate change and the devastation that occurs—through water, I might add. Climate change is a water phenomenon, after all… So, water—like place and setting—plays a subtle yet powerful role in the story, influencing each character in her own way and bringing them together in the overall journey of humanity during a time of great and catastrophic change.

 

Are there other ages/epochs?

Yes. The story begins in the far future with young Kyo during the Age of Trees, after the end of the Age of Water. It is, in fact, the end of that age as well and that is why she prepares for the Exodus to “humanity’s” new home.

All Inanna titles are 30% off with coupon code: summer20. Please also consider purchasing “A Diary in the Age of Water” from an independent bookstore this summer. Find your local bookstore: http://open-book.ca/News/Your-Community-Your-Bookstore. And here is the current map of independent bookstores that are doing curbside pick up and delivery across Canada.

 

Beach stones foam HB-NS drybrush

Surf on Hirtle Beach, NS (photo and illustration by Nina Munteanu)

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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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

 

 

Endocrine Disruption in The Age of Water

Diary Water cover finalIn my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water published by Inanna Publications Lynna, the diarist, talks with colleague Daniel about the increase in human infertility related to endocrine disruption. Daniel starts with a litany of reasons for human infertility:

“Scientists all agree that environmental factors are the main triggers for male and female infertility through epigenetics. The list of exposure triggers is endless. You know the main culprits: heavy metals, pesticides, PCBs, PAHs, VOCs, car exhaust, tobacco smoke … mostly chemicals with hormonal properties” Leaning on his microscope, Daniel went on, “Wherever there’s a sewage treatment plant, pulp and paper mill, or herbicides and pesticides in a stream, you get endocrine disruption, which causes more female or intersex fish populations. Then there’s nonylphenols—”

“—Degradation products of surfactants used in commercial and household detergents,” I ended for him and leaned against the doorway.

He nodded. “They inhibit breeding in male fish. And herbicides like atrazine—”

“—Create feminized males with female eggs, along with reduced immunity to disease,” I finished for him.

I knew all this. Hormonal disruption is global. Environmental toxicologists have been finding it in many aquatic animals like fish, turtles, alligators and frogs. And some terrestrial animals…Even humans…Was it also causing the steep rise in ambiguous sex in humans? Apparently 1 in 30 now have bodies that differ notably from standard male or female. Klinefelter, androgen insensitivity syndrome, presence of ovotestes, mixed gonadal dysgenesis, and mosaic genetics are all on the rise.

Daniel added, “The environment is changing us faster than most think and it’s doing it through epigenetics and HGT.”

Their discussion, which leads to something far more disastrous, is based on the reality of today.

endocrine systemThe endocrine system is a set of glands and the hormones they produce that help guide and regulate the development, growth, reproduction and behavior of most living things (yes plants too!). Some hormones are also released from parts of the body that aren’t glands, like the stomach, intestines or nerve cells. These usually act closer to where they are released. The endocrine system is made up of glands, which secrete hormones, and receptor cells which detect and react to the hormones. Hormones travel throughout the body, acting as chemical messengers, and interact with cells that contain matching receptors. The hormone binds with the receptor, like a key into a lock. Some chemicals, both natural and human-made, may interfere with the hormonal system. They’re called endocrine disruptors.

Endocrine (hormone) disruptors are substances that interfere with an organism’s endocrine system and disrupt the physiologic function of hormones. Studies have linked endocrine disruptors to adverse biological effects in animals, giving rise to valid concerns that low-level exposure can cause similar effects in human beings.

common endocrine disruptors

Common endocrine disruptors

 

Disruption of the endocrine system via Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) or Hormone Disrupting Chemicals (HDCs) happens in different ways. Some chemicals mimic a natural hormone, fooling the body into over-responding to the stimulus, or responding at inappropriate times. Other endocrine disruptors curtail the effects of a hormone from certain receptors by blocking the receptor site on a cell. Still others directly stimulate or inhibit the endocrine system and cause overproduction or underproduction of hormones.

EDC path

The effects of endocrine disruptors in humans include:

  • Reduction of male fertility;
  • Abnormalities in male reproductive organs;
  • Female reproductive diseases;
  • Earlier puberty; and,
  • Declines in the numbers of males born.

Some EDCs can also affect the development of the nervous and immune systems. Some well-known examples of EDCs include the contraceptive pill (17-alpha ethinylestradiol), dioxins, PCBs, PAHs, furans, phenols and several organic pesticides (most prominently DDT and its derivatives).

Pathways of endocrine disruptors

Pathophysiological pathways of EDCs

Sources for common EDCs in our daily lives are provided by Hormone Health Network in the table below:

Common EDCs: Used In:
DDT, Chlorpyrifos, Atrazine, 2, 4-D, Glyphosate Pesticides
Lead, Phthalates, Cadmium Children’s Products
Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and Dioxins Industrial Solvents or Lubricants and their Byproducts
Bisphenol A (BPA), Phthalates, Phenol Plastics and Food Storage Materials
Brominated Flame Retardants, PCBs Electronics and Building Materials
Phthalates, Parabeans, UV Filters Personal Care Products, Medical Tubing, Suncreen
Triclosan Anti-Bacterial Soaps, Colgate Total
Perfluorochemicals Textiles, Clothing, Non-Stick Food Wrappers, Mircowave Popcorn Bags, Old Teflon Cookware

Several chemicals have been found to disrupt the endocrine systems of animals in laboratory studies, and strong evidence exists that chemical exposure has been associated with adverse developmental and reproductive effects on fish and wildlife. The relationship of human diseases of the endocrine system and exposure to environmental contaminants, however, is still poorly understood (Kavlock et al., 1996, EPA, 1997).

One example of the devastating consequences of the exposure of developing animals, including humans, to endocrine disruptors is the case of the potent drug diethylstilbestrol (DES), a synthetic estrogen. Prior to its ban in the early 1970s, doctors mistakenly prescribed DES to as many as five million pregnant women to block spontaneous abortion and promote fetal growth. It was discovered after the children went through puberty that DES affected the development of the reproductive system and caused vaginal cancer. In addition to disruption of reproductive hormones, modulation of adrenal, thyroid and growth hormone function have also been described for various compounds in both humans and some animals, although the significance of these effects have not yet been fully determined.

Chemicals with affinities for estrogen receptors may cause lowered sperm count and other related reproductive abnormalities. Male fetuses exposed to high doses of estrogens may develop many female characteristics. Lower doses may alter the differentiation and multiplication of the germ cells that eventually give rise to sperm. Dr. John A. McLachlan, director of intramural research at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences noted that “some of the environmental chemicals that have estrogenic activity also seem to have a long half-life and can bioaccumulate” in the body’s fat tissue. Most endocrine disrupting chemicals are fat-soluble. This means that they do not get rapidly flushed out of the body, but are stored in fat. These chemicals bioaccumulate up the food chain. As a result, an individual will accumulate more of these chemicals throughout his/her lifetime. Major routes of removing these chemicals involve transfer from mother to child, through the placenta and in breast milk.

In 1992 researchers at Lake Apopka in Florida associated a declining alligator population with a depressed reproduction rate. Many of the male alligators had tiny penises that prevented successful reproduction. These developmental problems were connected to a large organochlorine pesticide spill several years earlier; although the water tested clean, the alligators and their eggs contained detectable levels of endocrine disrupting pesticides.

Atrazine male female frogs

Fish in the Great Lakes, which are heavily contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and other organochlorines, exhibit numerous reproductive function problems and swelling of the thyroid gland. Fish-eating birds, such as eagles, terns, and gulls are also showing similar health effects, as are mink, a mammal that also eats fish from the Great Lakes. These findings are consistent with lab studies that indicate that PCBs interfere with thyroid function and with sex hormones.

The environment is a global entity that recognizes no political boundaries. Issuing a plea for wise action, the National Resources Defense Council state: “Dioxin from a paper mill in the US can accumulate within livestock that is exported to another country; water vapor carrying DDT (now banned in the US) from Mexico can be rained down in Minnesota. Individuals living near the North Pole, where DDT has never been used, have surprisingly high levels of it in their body fat. The laws that ban the production and use of specific chemicals in the United States do little to regulate against exposure via imported products from countries that allow the use of these chemicals.”

Given the common use of sources (in industry, agriculture and residential) that contain and distribute endocrine disruptive chemicals by the human population, and given their bioaccumulation in human tissue, I can practically guarantee that virtually all humans carry some endocrine disruptive chemical in their bodies. How much depends on your life style, where you live and work, your eating habits and your physiology.

freighter-rowers-sailboat-web

Freighter in Toronto Harbour (photo by Nina Munteanu)

 

Recommended Reading:

Lauretta, Rosa, Andrea Sansone, Missimiliano Sansone, Francesco Romanelli and Marialuisa Appetecchia. 2019. “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals: Effects on Endocrine Glands.” Front. Endocrinol. Online: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fendo.2019.00178/full

Colborn, Theo, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers. 1996. “Our stolen future : are we threatening our fertility, intelligence, and survival? : a scientific detective story.” Dutton, New York.  306 pp.

Hormone Health Network. 2020. “Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals EDCs.” Website: https://www.hormone.org/your-health-and-hormones/endocrine-disrupting-chemicals-edcs

National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. 2019. “Endocrine Disruptors.” Website: https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/endocrine/index.cfm

NRDC. 2016. “9 Ways to Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals.” Website: http://www.nrdc.org/health/effects/bendrep.asp

 

More on A Diary in the Age of Water:

 

nina-2014aaa

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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in June 2020.

 

What If the Birds All Die?

 

Over increasingly large areas of the United States, spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds. The early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song.”—Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Sunset 2

Sunset in Niagara on the Lake, Ontario (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a science fiction writer. I’m thinking “what if” premises all the time. One that nags me is: What if the birds all die?

We might be closer to it than you think…

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Chickadee in Ontario (photo by Merridy Cox)

The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birds. Kenneth V. Rosenberg and his team of researchers estimated that three billion birds of various species have disappeared in Canada and the US since 1970.

That’s a third of the entire bird population lost in five decades.

The focus of the study wasn’t on extinction; these are still common species—just greatly diminished in numbers. This makes sense to me. My naturalist friend and I have both noticed how even the common house sparrow have declined in our neighbourhoods. My friend noticed fewer dashes of colour in the trees provided by yellow warblers in the past few years.

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Northern Cardinal (photo by Merridy Cox)

 

The Guardian reported that two thirds of the house sparrow population have disappeared in Europe. That’s close to 150 million birds. The article blamed changes in land use (destruction of habitat), coastal management (destruction of wetlands) and weather (including climate change). In another study, car exhaust was implicated in a 60% loss of common sparrow numbers from the mid 1990s.

In North America, warbler populations dropped by 600 million. Blackbirds by 400 million. The common robins, cardinals, and blue jays had noticeably declined. Even starlings—once considered a kind of fast-breeding pest—have dwindled by 50%. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services have determined that three-quarters of Earth’s terrestrial and two-thirds of the its marine environments have been severely altered by human actions.

Unchecked deforestation. Unchecked use of toxic pesticides. Turning wetlands into parking lots. Climate change. We are destroying the integrity of ecosystems throughout this planet on a massive scale. And the birds are telling us…

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Baby Robin rests on a porch chair in Mississauga, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

subTerrain 85 coverMy short story “Out of the Silence,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of subTerrain Literary Magazine (Issue 85), tells the story of Katherine, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences. After years of living in self-exile and getting around poorly on sight-enhancing technology, a discovery gives her new hope in rekindling her talents in the field of soundscape ecology.

I rock on the cedar swing on my veranda and hear the wind rustling through the gaunt forest. An abandoned nest, the forest sighs in low ponderous notes. It sighs of a gentler time. A time when birds filled it with song. A time when large and small creatures—unconcerned with the distant thrum and roar of diggers and logging trucks—roamed the thick second-growth forest. The discord was still too far away to bother the wildlife. But their killer lurked far closer in deadly silence. And it caught the birds in the bliss of ignorance…

RachelCarson-SilentSpring

Rachel Carson was nothing short of prophetic when she published Silent Spring in 1962 (in reference to the dawn chorus most noticeable in spring during breeding). Silent Spring cautioned burgeoning ag-biotech companies (like Monsanto—now Bayer—Sygenta, Dow, and DuPont) who were carelessly and flagrantly spraying fields with pesticides and herbicides—at the time DDT was the main culprit. This would soon become a GMO world where gene-hacked plants of monocultures can withstand the onslaught of killer pesticides like neonicotinoids (currently killing bees everywhere) and Roundup.  Roundup is a carcinogenic glyphosate-based weed killer that has recently been shown to kill beneficial insects like bees) and has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, birth defects, autism, and several kinds of cancer in humans.

RachelCarson-LindaLearIn her 1997 biography Rachel Carson: Witness for Nature, historian and science biographer Linda Lear wrote:

Silent Spring, the product of [Carson’s] unrest, deliberately challenged the wisdom of a government that allowed toxic chemicals to be put into the environment before knowing the long-term consequences of their use. Writing in language that everyone could understand and cleverly using the public’s knowledge of atomic fallout as a reference point, Carson described how chlorinated hydrocarbons and organic phosphorus insecticides altered the cellular processes of plants, animals, and, by implication, humans. Science and technology, she charged, had become the handmaidens of the chemical industry’s rush for profits and control of markets. Rather than protecting the public from potential harm, the government not only gave its approval to these new products but did so without establishing any mechanism of accountability. Carson questioned the moral right of government to leave its citizens unprotected from substances they could neither physically avoid nor publicly question. Such callous arrogance could end only in the destruction of the living world.

Despite Carson’s warnings in 1962 and despite some action eventually taken (e.g. the ban on use of DDT in 1972—the precursor to Roundup and other neonicotinoids currently in use), the use of chemicals in big ag-industry has increased over five-fold since the 1960s. And this is destroying our bee populations, other beneficial insects, beneficial weeds, small animal populations and—of course—our bird life. And it’s making us sick too.

Bumble bee

Bumble bee at risk

In a 2012 article in the New York Times—exactly fifty years after Silent Spring was published on September 27, 1962—Nancy F. Koehn tells us that, “[Rachel Carson] was a slight, soft-spoken woman who preferred walking the Maine shoreline to stalking the corridors of power. And yet Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, played a central role in starting the environmental movement, by forcing government and business to confront the dangers of pesticides.” Carson, writes Koehn, was an introverted scientist with a lyrical bent, who saw it as her mission to share her observations with a wider audience. Carson wrote Silent Spring while battling illness (including breast cancer) and caring for her young son. When the book was published, she faced an outburst of public reaction and strong backlash, primarily from chemical companies. Not unlike another female eco-hero (Greta Thunberg), Carson endured with dignity and deliberation the vulgar censure by opponents (virtually all men tied to corporate giants) who attacked her personally with vilifying stereotype. Men accused her of being disloyal and unscientific, and being a hysterical woman. One letter to the editor that the New Yorker saw fit to print read:

silent-spring-rachel carson“Miss Rachel Carson’s reference to the selfishness of insecticide manufacturers probably reflects her Communist sympathies, like a lot of our writers these days. We can live without birds and animals, but, as the current market slump shows, we cannot live without business. As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs! As long as we have the H-bomb everything will be O.K.”

Former Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson wrote privately to former President Dwight Eisenhower that Carson was “probably a communist.”

Environment & Society Portal provides a revealing synopsis of the response by established patriarchy at the time:

Allegations that Carson was just a hysterical woman appeared both in the pages of chemical and agricultural trade journals as well as in the popular press. Women were imagined to be less rational, more emotional, and more sentimental than men, who could be relied upon to study the issues dispassionately and propose rational solutions. An agricultural expert told a reporter at the Ribicoff hearings, “You’re never going to satisfy organic farmers or emotional women in garden clubs” (Graham 1970, 88). In his letter to Eisenhower, Benson wondered why a “spinster was so worried about genetics” (Lear 1997, 429).

As Carson had no institutional affiliation, she was dismissed as an amateur who did not understand the subject like a professional scientist would, or who distorted or misread the science. To her critics, Carson’s frequent use of terms like “nature,” “natural,” and “balance of nature” identified her as a mere sentimental nature lover or a pantheist like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Henry David Thoreau. Reviews in TimeU.S. News and World Report, and even Sports Illustrated took her to task. The reviewer in Time, for example, criticized her “emotion-fanning words” and characterized her argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional and inaccurate outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature” (Brooks 1989, 297).

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American Robin (photo by Merridy Cox)

Even inoffensive public portraits of Carson showed her in more domestic rather than scientific settings. Life magazine published a story about her accompanied by photos of her talking with children while on a nature walk or watching birds with a group of Audubon Society members. Dressed like a housewife and surrounded by children and “bird people,” Carson projected an image of a teacher or stay-at-home mother, although the picture on the first page of the article showed her at a microscope. Carson, said the story, “is unmarried but not a feminist (‘I’m not interested in things done by women or by men but in things done by people’)”

According to historian and biographer Linda Lear, “the industry spent a quarter of a million dollars to discredit her research and malign her character. In the end, the worst they could say was that she had told only one side of the story and had based her argument on unverifiable case studies.” According to Lear, “Carson was an outsider who had never been part of the scientific establishment, first because she was a woman but also because her chosen field, biology, was held in low esteem in the nuclear age. Her career path was nontraditional; she had no academic affiliation, no institutional voice. She deliberately wrote for the public rather than for a narrow scientific audience. For anyone else, such independence would have been an enormous detriment. But by the time Silent Spring was published, Carson’s outsider status had become a distinct advantage. As the science establishment would discover, it was impossible to dismiss her.”

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House Sparrow (photo by Merridy Cox)

Not unlike Greta, Rachel and the message in her book exerted a great impact on the environmental movement. Silent Spring became a rallying focus for a new social movement in the 1960s, which endures to the present day.

According to Lear:

“Carson’s concept of the ecology of the human body was a major departure in our thinking about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It had enormous consequences for our understanding of human health as well as our attitudes toward environmental risk. Silent Spring proved that our bodies are not boundaries. Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death. Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable. All forms of life are more alike than different.

“Carson believed that human health would ultimately reflect the environment’s ills. Inevitably this idea has changed our response to nature, to science, and to the technologies that devise and deliver contamination. Although the scientific community has been slow to acknowledge this aspect of Carson’s work, her concept of the ecology of the human body may well prove to be one of her most lasting contributions.”

Bernie Krause Florida

Bernie Krause

In the meantime, alarming signals suggest that Rachel Carson’s 1962 warning is currently underway. The new science of soundscape ecology can analyze the health of an ecosystem. Bernie Krause, a soundscape ecologist who has been conducting long-term recordings recently noted that in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, not far from his home in Northern California, “the effect of global warming and resulting drought has created the first completely silent spring I’ve ever experienced.” Stuart Winter at Express reports that “many of the iconic birds whose mating calls ring out across woodlands and open fields during early May are vanishing at an alarming rate.”

“Man’s war against nature is inevitably a war against himself.”—Rachel Carson

 

 

nina-2014aaa

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 Waterwas released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in May 2020.