‘Overcoming the Monster’ and DuPont’s Dark ‘Magic’

The Ohio River at Parkersburg, West Virginia, contaminated for decades with C8 used by DuPont to make Teflon

I write science fiction and fantasy. On occasion magic or something that stands for magic enters in.

But that’s my fiction. In my ordinary very real life, I tend to be suspicious of claims of ‘magical’ properties, particularly those that claim to provide great convenience and utility with no expenditure (except money). Perhaps it’s my half-German ethic of good old-fashioned honest work; these claims seem like a big cheat: mops that clean the floor spotless without you ever having to bend over or scrub; carpets that resist spills or clean themselves; non-stick pans where cooked food just slides cheerfully from pan to plate without sticking.

In my experience, I have often found that if something seems too good to be true—like magic—there’s a catch. And just like magic in a good fiction story, it comes with great hidden cost.

Enter DuPont and its dark magic…

DuPont Washington Works facility at Parkersburg, West Virginia

DuPont is one of the richest families in the United States since French aristocrat Irénée du Pont de Nemours fled the French Revolution in 1802 and built a gunpowder mill in northeast Delaware. DuPont soon expanded to bombs and poison gas and over its more than a hundred years of operation DuPont has been linked to dangerous products that have caused health problems, particularly to its own workers. By the 1930s DuPont had created leaded gasoline, which ended up causing madness and violent deaths and life-long institutionalization of workers. Certain rubber and industrial chemicals turned the skin of exposed workers blue. Bladder cancers developed in many dye workers.

Spruce trees damaged by Imprelis

Then there was DuPont’s Imprelis, an aminocyclopyrachlor herbicide to control weeds that caused widespread death of mature trees and created ‘killer compost.’ DuPont failed to submit reports to the EPA about potential adverse effects of Imprelis and sold the product with misleading labelling. When damage reports began to surface weeks after Imprelis was introduced, DuPont simply continued to sell the product until the EPA finally banned its sale and DuPont was charged for negligence and violation of FIFRA. A year after the ban, impact from Imprelis use continues to be reported throughout the northern United States for a range of trees including maples, oaks, honey locust, Norway spruce and white pine (stunted, twisted or curled new growth, bud-kill, delayed leaf-out, stem die-back). Trees that initially experienced minor affects from Imprelis later developed more severe damage (e.g. bud formation and cold hardiness).

Concerned over “the tendency to believe [chemicals] are harmless until proven otherwise,” staff doctor George Gehrmann convinced DuPont to create Haskell Laboratories in 1935. The lab became the first in-house toxicology facility; but, due to its position within DuPont, Haskell Lab also inherited limitations on its ability to conduct and report objective science. Just as self-regulation is a ridiculous concept, self-analysis is feckless and fraught with the potential for omission and false reporting. When pathologist Wilhelm Hueper tried to share his results with the scientific community on how dye chemicals led to bladder cancer, he was gagged and fired, and DuPont went on to use the chemicals for decades after in what appeared to become a common pattern for this company.

Early ad for DuPont’s “Happy Pan”

DuPont developed many astonishing products, mostly for warfare, including nylon, Lycra, Saran wrap and, of course, Teflon—their magic non-stick compound. By the late 1940s, they were producing a wide variety of industrial chemicals, synthetic fibers, petroleum-based fuels and lubricants, pharmaceuticals, building materials, sterile and specialty packaging materials, cosmetics ingredients, and agricultural chemicals worldwide. By the early 1950s, a group of Columbia University scientists published several papers describing high rates of cancer in rats exposed to plastics such as vinyl, Saran wrap and Teflon. This did not deter DuPont from continuing its production line for these products.

Representation of 1950s DuPont “Happy Pan”

By 1954, during the ramp up for the Teflon rollout, DuPont’s toxicologist R.A. Dickison noted possible toxicity of the surfactant C8 (PFOA or Perfluorooctanoic Acid) used to make Teflon. By 1961, the same year they rolled out their Teflon-coated “Happy Pan”, DuPont knew C8 was a toxic endocrine disruptor and caused cancer. DuPont’s chief toxicologist Dorothy Hood cautioned executives in a memo that the substance was toxic and should be “handled with extreme care.” It didn’t stop the roll out. By 1982, DuPont had confirmed the high toxicity of C8 in humans.

Teflon-lined Tefal (T-fal) pan made with C8

From the 1960s well past the millennium, DuPont displayed gross criminal negligence in not reporting their in-house findings of C8 toxicity to the EPA, and doing nothing to protect their workers exposed and working with C8 (and eventually their community when C8 leaked into the water supply). For over five decades, DuPont executives chose to: 1) continue using toxic C8 despite its proven toxicity; 2) expose C8 to their own workers without telling them (and even testing their workers without telling them why); 3) dispose of C8 unsafely, releasing the toxin into the communities and the environment; 4) cover up and deny that they did, when they were caught in the act.

Effects of PFOA (birth defect in Bucky Bailey whose mother was on the Teflon line without protection during her first trimester; blackening teeth from the excessive fluoride, from scene in “Dark Waters”)
DuPont’s Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia

Finally, in 2019—sixty-seven years after DuPont knew PFOA was toxic and did nothing—this forever chemical was banned globally under the Stockholm Convention. Unfortunately, by 2019, PFOA was already literally everywhere on the planet in concentrations considered unsafe. Given its high water-solubility, long-range transport potential, and lack of degradation in the environment, PFOA persists in groundwater and is ubiquitously present in oceans and other surface water around the globe. It is found in remote areas of the Arctic and Antarctic (where it was not used or manufactured), no doubt transported there through ocean currents and in the air, bound on particles.

Average surface water levels of PFOA and PFOS by country in 2012 (from Kunacheva et al. 2012)

In 2020, NBC News revealed that DuPont was still avoiding its responsibility to clean up its C8 mess and compensate those harmed by DuPont’s negligence. In 2015, DuPont began a series of complex transactions that transferred its responsibility for environmental obligations and liabilities associated with PFAS (C8) onto other entities such as Chemours, Corteva, and NewDupont. If Chemours becomes insolvent, Corteva will be responsible. Corteva does not have the funds to cover tens of billions in estimated PFAS (C8) costs to their victims.

Timeline for DuPont’s use of PFOA (C8) to 2006 (image from The Intercept)

Their Story…My Story…

In his 2006 book The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Write Stories, Christopher Booker told us that there are seven types of plots in story. One is entitled “Overcoming the Monster,” an underdog story where the hero sets out to destroy an evil to restore safety or order to the land. The evil force is typically much larger than the hero, who must find a way, often through great courage, strength, and inventive cunning, to defeat the evil force. This is the story of David and Goliath, of Beowulf and Grendel, of Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader in Star Wars, of Jake Sully and Miles Quaritch in Avatar, of Rita Vrataski and the Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow. The list goes on…

Miles Quaritch and Jake Sully face off in the film “Avatar”

The “Overcoming the Monster” plot, whether told literally or through metaphor, reflects an imbalance in the world—usually of power—that the hero must right. The true story of DuPont’s evil maleficence reflects the great power imbalance of many large corporations and the evil they enact through willful deception and mischief to increase profit, their god. 

We’ve now come full circle to me and my relationship with magic. For in some terrible way, the story of DuPont is also my story. One of power imbalance, of deception and ignorance. Their deception; my ignorance:

In 1954, the year I was born, DuPont discovered the toxicity of C8 in its Teflon products at its Washington Works plant in Parkersburg—and proceeded to roll it out for mass use.

In 1964, I was ten years old and struggling with my Grade 5 teacher who was trying to curb my unique self-expression. I was already aware of environmental imbalance and destruction in the world. My pet peeve was littering because it demonstrated great disrespect for others and the environment; I told environmental stories. That year DuPont had already begun its great deception; having confirmed the toxicity of C8, they simply watched (and recorded) as this cancer-causing endocrine disruptor injured, maimed and killed their own workers. The company did nothing to prevent it and they told no one.

In 1969, I wrote my first dystopia, Caged in World.  The eco-novel was about a subway train driver and a data analyst caught in the trap of a huge lie. The story later morphed into Escape from Utopia. Several drafts and years later the novel became the eco-medical thriller Angel of Chaos, set in 2095 as humanity struggles with Darwin’s Disease—a mysterious neurological environmental pandemic assaulting Icaria 5, an enclosed city within the slowly recovering toxic wasteland of North America. The city is run by deep ecologists who call themselves Gaians, and consider themselves guardians of the planet. The Gaians’ secret is that they are keeping humanity “inside” not to protect humanity from a toxic wasteland but to protect the environment from a toxic humanity.

In the early 1970s, I entered college and contemplated becoming an environmental lawyer; I wrote short stories, mostly eco-fiction, and joined marches protesting environmental destruction by large corporations.  DuPont confirmed that C8 not only persisted in the environment; it bioaccumulated in animals. A 1979 internal memo in which humans exposed to C8 were referred to as “receptors,” DuPont scientists found “significantly higher incidence of allergic, endocrine and metabolic disorders” as well as “excess risk of developing liver disease.”  DuPont withheld this information from EPA.  

In 1981, when I got my first job as a limnologist and environmental consultant in Vancouver, DuPont confirmed that C8 caused birth defects in its own workers—and did not warn its workers; in fact they created false data for EPA and continued exposing women of childbearing age to C8. In 1984, a year after I formed my own consulting company Limnology Services in Vancouver, DuPont staffers secretly tested their community’s drinking water and found it to contain alarming levels of C8. Deciding that any cleanup was likely to cost too much and tarnish their reputation, DuPont chose to do nothing. In fact, they scaled up their use of C8 in Teflon products and bought land to dump their toxic sludge in unlined landfills. Deaths in DuPont workers from leukemia and kidney cancer climbed.

Throughout the 90s, I started teaching college ecology courses in Vancouver; Shared Vision Magazine published my first article “Environmental Citizenship” in 1995. Meantime, DuPont’s Washington Works plant pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds of PFOA sludge, powder and vapor through stacks and outfall pipes into the Ohio River and surrounding air. By 1996, C8 was in the drinking water of Parkersburg and other communities. Despite what they knew of C8’s toxicity, DuPont kept it a secret (no one else was testing for PFOA because it was unregulated).

In 2007, Darwin’s Paradox, my eco-fiction novel about an environmental pandemic, was published by Dragon Moon Press in Calgary, Alberta.Four years earlier, the law had finally caught up to DuPont, but not before they had dispersed 2.5 million pounds of harmful C8 from their Washington Works plant into the air and water of the mid-Ohio River Valley area. It would be another twelve years before DuPont would stop making C8 (in 2015) and another four years after that when C8 would be banned from use globally (2019). PFOA is still unregulated by EPA; the best they can do is issue a non-enforceable health advisory set at 70 parts per trillion.   

Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker face off as Palpatine looks on in the film “Star Wars”

It isn’t the Darth Vaders or Miles Quaritchs we must overcome. Yes, they are monsters, but they serve a greater monster. For Vader it is Emperor Palpatine and for Quaritch it is the RDA Corporation. While Vader and Quaritch may be the face of evil, true evil lurks behind them, orchestrating. It is an evil we must fight internally, because each of us carries that evil inside us—in the urge to cheat on our taxes; in looking for the free ride (there are no free rides); in coveting what others have when what we have is enough; in embracing self-deception through unsubstantiated narratives and choosing to remain ignorant to suit a self-serving agenda.

I only heard of the decades-long environmental dispersal of PFOA (C8) by DuPont in 2022. I’d lived in total ignorance through DuPont’s entire five decades of deception with C8. This past year, I chanced upon “Dark Waters,” the 2019 film starring Mark Ruffalo as lawyer Robert Bilott, who took DuPont to court in 2002. I found out seven years after DuPont agreed to stop using PFOA (DuPont currently uses other PFAS compounds that are unregulated and whose toxicity is unknown).

Lawyer Robert Bilott (Mark Ruffalo) investigates leachate-infected cows from nearby DuPont landfill (photo from film “Dark Waters”)

Ignorance breeds complacency and hubris. Both will lead to downfall.

If you think you’re getting away with something … if you think you’re getting a free ride … think again. You’re being taken for one. Short cuts are dangerous. Nature is complex for good reason. Complexity builds in a diverse spider web of safeguards that interact to sustain the greater existential collaborative.

That is the real magic. And we’re not even close to understanding it.  

“Angel of Chaos” and “Darwin’s Paradox” explore human-induced environmental catastrophe

DuPont’s Forever Weapon of Death: Teflon and C8 (PFOA)

Teflon was created in 1938, quite by accident, by Dr. Roy J. Plunkett, who was working on alternative refrigerant gases. Plunkett had stored the gas (tetrafluroethylene) in small cylinders where they were frozen and compressed. The gas had solidified into a waxy white material, which came to be called Polyetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a slippery substance that was non-corrosive, chemically stable and with an extremely high melting point. Through polymer research, PTFE was combined with PFOA to make Teflon, a type of fluoropolymer and telomere-based consumer product. For every two carbon atoms, there are four fluorine atoms attached throughout the entire molecular structure. The fluorine atoms surround the carbon atoms, creating a protective armor, preventing the carbon atoms from reacting when anything comes into contact with them—such as food in a non-stick frying pan. The fluorine atoms also decrease friction, making it slippery.

Chemical formula for Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA) also called C8

DuPont registered the Teflon trademark in 1944, and the coating was used in the Manhattan Project’s A-bomb effort. Like DuPont’s other wartime innovations, such as nylon and pesticides, Teflon found its way into the home. In 1951, DuPont started using PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) known as C8 in its Teflon production at the Parkersburg factory. By the 1960s, DuPont was producing Teflon for cookware and advertising it as “a housewife’s best friend.” C8 was eventually used in hundreds of DuPont products, including Gore-Tex and other waterproof clothing; coatings for eye glasses and tennis rackets; stain-proof coatings for carpets and furniture; fire-fighting foam; fast food wrappers; microwave popcorn bags; bicycle lubricants; satellite components; ski wax; communications cables; and pizza boxes.

Farmer Tennant and lawyer Rob Billot encounter a leachate-infected mad cow in the 2019 film “Dark Waters”

PFOA is a member of a family of over 4,500 synthetic chemicals called PFAS (polyfluorinated alkyl substances), also known as the Forever Chemicals. Due to their strong carbon-fluorine bond, PFAS chemicals don’t break down easily and persist in the environment for decades. PFAS also bioaccumulate, which means these chemicals are absorbed and not excreted and therefore buildup in the body. The higher up the food chain, the greater the PFAS concentrations. Before their manufacture started in the 1940s, no PFAS compounds were present in the environment. Now, thanks to their persistence and bioaccumulation, they exist everywhere in the environment, occupying virtually 99% of all life on the globe.

Currently, PFOA is one of only two PFAS chemicals regulated globally (the other being PFOS, which was banned in 2009, that DuPont replaced with another toxic unregulated chemical, GenX). Over 4,000 other PFAS chemicals remain in use that have not been studied and are not regulated. CHEMtrust, points out that when one PFAS chemical is regulated, “it is replaced in products and manufacturing processes by a similar, unregulated PFAS chemical. Unfortunately, the chemicals’ similarities often extend to their hazardous properties, and the replacement chemical is found to have similar harmful impacts on human health and the environment.”

DuPont’s Washington Works facility in Parkersburg, West Virginia

References:

Ahrens L. 2011. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the aquatic environment: a review of their occurrence and fate.” J Environ Monit 13: 20–31. 10.1039/c0em00373e

Barton CA, Butler LE, Zarzecki CJ, Laherty JM. 2006. Characterizing perfluorooctanoate in ambient air near the fence line of a manufacturing facility: comparing modeled and monitored values.” J Air Waste Manage Assoc 56: 48–55. 10.1080/10473289.2006.10464429

Barton CA, Kaiser MA, Russell MH. 2007. “Partitioning and removal of perfluorooctanoate during rain events: the importance of physical-chemical properties.” J Environ Monit 9: 839–846. 10.1039/b703510a

Busch J, Ahrens L, Xie Z, Sturm R, Ebinghaus R. 2010. “Polyfluoroalkyl compounds in the East Greenland Arctic Ocean.” J Environ Monit 12: 1242–1246. 10.1039/c002242j

Kunacheva, Chinagarn, Shigeo Fujii, Shuhei Tanaka, et al. 2012. “Worldwide surveys of perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS) and perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in water environment in recent years.” Water Science & Technology 66(12): 2764-71.

McMurdo CJ, Ellis DA, Webster E, Butler J, Christensen RD, Reid LK. 2008. “Aerosol enrichment of the surfactant PFO and mediation of the water-air transport of gaseous PFOA.” Environ Sci Technol 42: 3969–3974. 10.1021/es7032026

Paustenbach, Dennis, Julie Panko, Paul K. Scott, and Kenneth M. Unice. 2007. “A Methodology for Estimating Human Exposure to Perfluorooctanoic Acid (PFOA): A Retrospective Exposure Assessment of a Community (1951-2003)” Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health

Prevedouros K, Cousins IT, Buck RC, Korzeniowski SH. 2006. “Sources, fate and transport of perfluorocarboxylates” Environ Sci Technol 40: 32–44. 10.1021/es0512475

Rauert, Cassandra, Mahiba Shoieb, Jasmin K. Schuster, Anita Eng, Tom Harner. 2018. “Atmospheric concentrations and trends of poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) and volatile methyl siloxanes (VMS) over 7 years of sampling in the Global Atmospheric Passive Sampling (GAPS) network.” Environmental Pollution 238: 94-102.

Velez, M.P., T.E. Arbuckle, W.D. Fraser. 2015. “Maternal exposure to perfluorinated chemicals and reduced fecundity: the MIREC study.” Human Reproduction 30(3): 701-9.

Vierke, Lena, Claudia Staude, Annegret Biegel-Engler, Wiebke Drost, and Christoph Schulte. 2012. “Perflurorooctanoic acid (PFOA)–main concerns and regulatory developments in Europe from an environmental point of view.” Environmental Sciences Europe 24: 16

Yamashita N, Kannan K, Taniyasu S, Horii Y, Petrick G, Gamo T. 2005. “A global survey of perfluorinated acids in oceans.” Mar Pollut Bull 51: 658–668. 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2005.04.026

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.

Apex Magazine to release 2021 Anthology This Fall with “Robin’s Last Song” by Nina Munteanu

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

Apex Magazine will release its 2021 Anthology this fall with my short story, Robin’s Last Song in it. They are running an Apex Kickstarter Campaign until April 30 to fund the anthology.

Apex Issue 128 and upcoming Anthology for 2021

Robin’s Last Song first appeared in the #128 Issue of Apex Magazine in 2021. It tells the story of Robin, 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. Here is how it begins:

May, 2071

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. The human-made scourge came like a thief in the night and quietly strangled all the birds in the name of progress.

Robin’s egg, discarded in the forest to distract predators, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Bird Population Decline

The number of birds in North America has declined by three billion, some 30 percent, over the last half-century. The October 2019 issue of Science magazine reported a staggering decline in North American birdsKenneth 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.

Bird population decline since 1970

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.

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel.

Robin fledgling rests on a patio chair, ON (photo by Merridy Cox)

Common bird species are vital to ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

The Trump administration heinously and foolishly demolished or maimed several key bird protection acts, which hopefully the new administration has or will reinstate in full force: Migratory Bird Treaty Act; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; National Fish and Wildlife Act; and the Endangered Species Act.

Bernie Krause uses soundscape to measure ecosystem function

Useful Tool: Soundscape Ecology

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 for many decades 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.”

Rachel Carson and her iconic book, “Silent Spring”

Silent Spring: Rachel Carson’s Ominous Prediction

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.

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.

Three baby goldfinches in a nest in a staghorn sumac shrub, 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.

What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?

Sample of eco-fiction publications Nina contributed as author or editor
“What is Eco-Fiction and Why Should We Care?”

In 2019, at the When Words Collide writer’s conference in Alberta, I participated in a panel on eco-fiction. The panel, consisting of Alex Reissen, Merilyn Ruth Liddell, Claudiu Murgan, Nina Munteanu, and moderated by Canadian speculative author Candas Jane Dorsey, discussed what eco-fiction is, what it means to its writers and its readers and why it’s an important genre of literature. How, for instance can eco-fiction writers influence our audience to engage in helping the planet and humanity, in turn? How can we do it without turning to the polemic of non-fiction? We discussed the importance of “storytelling”, bringing in characters to care about, making the global experience (and issue) personal. Essentially dramatizing the premise.

Candas described fiction writers as “sneaky,” exploring the issue (and message) through context and setting with a focus on character journey. This includes use of sub-text and subtleties embodied by individuals. I mentioned treating the environment as a character—a character to care about.

We explored several areas in which writers could elucidate ways to engage readers for edification, connection and participation. We discussed optimism, new perspectives, and envisioning our future.

“Science doesn’t tell us what we should do,” Barbara Kingsolver wrote in Flight Behavior. “It only tells us what is.” Stories can never be a solution in themselves, but they have the capacity to inspire action.

Cedar pine forest during winter snow, Jackson Creek Park, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

“People need such stories, because however dark, a darkness with voices in it is better than a silent void.”

Margaret Atwood, Maddaddam

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.

When We Burn Books…

Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen


—Heinrich Heine
House of Leaves burning (photo by Learning Lark)

In her 2017 article A Brief History of Book Burning, from the Printing Press to Internet Archives Lorraine Boissoneault writes, “As long as there have been books, people have burned them.” Books were burned to silence a dissonant, threatening and potentially rousing voice; they were burned to wipe out a cultural presence; They were burned to control and curtail intellectual freedom; they were burned to simply ruin and pillage and destroy.

Books and libraries have been targeted by people of all backgrounds for thousands of years, sometimes intentionally and sometimes as a side-effect of war, Boissoneault tells us. “In 213 B.C., Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang (more widely remembered for his terracotta army in Xian) ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire.” According to historian Lois Mai Chan, “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely as to place them under governmental control.” 

Boissoneault adds, “When al-Qaida Islamists invaded Mali, and then Timbuktu in 2012, among their targets were priceless manuscripts—books that needed to be burned.” The damage might have been much worse if not for men like Abdel Kader Haidara, who risked their lives to protect the medieval works. He and others succeeded in smuggling out 350,000 manuscripts.”

“Qin was only one in a long line of ancient rulers who felt threatened enough by the ideas expressed in written form to advocate arson,” says Boissoneault. Qin and religious leaders like him are only a small part of the early book-burning equation. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” writes author Rebecca Knuth. The Library of Alexandria had its contents and structure burned during several periods of political upheaval as a casualty of brutal war and associated despoliation and pillaging.

When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, there were suddenly far more books—and more accessible knowledge. Book burning continued, unfettered, perhaps taking on a more symbolic and insidious role, and no less violent.

In 1966, when Mao Zedong took power in China and implemented the Cultural Revolution, any book that did not conform to party propaganda, such as those that promoted capitalism or other dangerous ideas, were destroyed. In 1992, the Jaffna Public Library of Sri Lanka—repository of nearly 100,000 rare books of Tamil history and literature—was burned by Sinhalese Buddhists.

German writer/poet Heinrich Heine

Heinrich Heine’s Prediction

In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer/poet Heinrich Heine wrote: Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen, “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn human beings.” He was referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qoran as part of the eradication of the Moors from the Iberian Peninsula, during the Spanish Inquisition half a century before.

A century later, on May 6-10th, 1933, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes publicly hauled out and burned by Nazi brownshirts, SS and Hitler Youth groups in Berlin’s Opernplatz (Bebelplatz). A violent outburst that, in fact, did foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust. Some twenty thousand books were burned, including those by Heinrich Mann, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein.

Nazi book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933
Brownshirts and Hitlerjugend perform Nazi salut as books burn in Opernplatz, Berlin in 1933

Wikipedia defines ‘book burning’ as the “practice of ceremoniously destroying by fire one or more copies of a book or other written material.” The practice, usually carried out in public (like public hangings in Medieval times) is generally motivated by moral, religious or political objections to the material. Some notable and particularly destructive book burnings have included:

  • the destruction of the Library of Alexandria;
  • burning books and burying scholars (‘live burying’) under China’s Qin Dynasty (3rd Century);
  • Cathar texts in the Lanquedoc region of France in the 13th Century;
  • the Talmud in Paris by the French crown in 1242;
  • Arabic and Hebrew books at Andalucia, Spain, in 1499;
  • Servetus’s “heretical” writings along with the writer at Geneva;
  • Maya sacred books in Yucatan (1562);
  • Tyndale’s New Testament by the English authorities in 1525 and 1526;
  • Luthar’s Bible in Germany (1624) as ordered by the Pope;
  • Robespierre’s destruction of religious libraries in 1793;
  • anti-communist books by the Bolsheviks in 1917;
  • Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s;
  • Communist and “fellow traveller” books by Senator McCarthy in 1953;
  • The Satanic Verses by Muslims in the UK in 1988; and,
  • Harry Potter books at various American cities.
Hitler youth burning books at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933
Book-burning crowd at Opernplatz, Berlin, in 1933

“Even when the knowledge itself isn’t prevented from reaching the public, the symbolic weight of burning books is heavy,” writes Boissoneault.

“Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them as to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are,” wrote John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, in his 1644 book Areopagitica. “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature… but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”

Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury on the Dummying Down of an Obedient Society

In the 1967 introduction of his novel, Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury implied that the Nazi book burnings inspired his story. I found this statement both eloquent and powerful: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.”

Addressing currently relevant themes of censorship, conformity and anti-intellectualism, Bradbury’s 1953 cautionary tale explores a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning in an effort by authorities to maintain order and ‘happiness’. In this world, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. The book gets its title from the temperature that paper catches fire and burns.

The book-burning fireman Guy Montag in Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film Fahrenheit 451

The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman, after a day’s work of burning:

It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of historyMontag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”

–Fahrenheit 451
Firemen Beatty and Montag on their way to burn books (from Francois Truffaut’s 1966 film)

Soon after, Montag encounters an old lady who refuses to leave her house when the firemen come to burn her books. She dies alongside the stories she cherishes. Montag then meets the girl, Clarisse, who knows something of the past, when firemen used to put out fires, during a time when there were no informers and people were not afraid.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” Montag’s superior warns him, arguing for why they must be burned and their knowledge erased. “Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?” A foreshadowing of what follows.

Fahrenheit 451 weaves a compelling political and social tale that follows one man’s journey in finding his soul and his ability to judge for himself—through his rediscovery of literature.

Book burning in Opernplatz, Berlin, 1933

“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”

Barbara Tuchman, 1980 address at Library of Congress
Burning German book (photo by Amnesty International)

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.

The Day We’re Not Allowed to Drink Water…

Dew drops on Hawkweed hairs, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

That day may seem like science fiction or the far future, but as William Gibson famously proclaimed, “The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

This is partly why I’ve been recently writing speculative (mundane) science fiction in which components of fiction blur with non-fiction. In a recent interview on the SolarPunk Magazine Podcast, I discussed with hosts Justine and Bria how my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water blurred fiction with non-fiction. The novel achieved this through the use of a diary to create a gritty realism in a mundane narrative hard to put down. The intention was to achieve personal relevance for the reader to what was going on, particularly with climate change—a water-driven phenomenon. In The Temz Review, Marcie McCauley postulated that “[Munteanu] does not appear to view fiction and non-fiction as separate territories; or, if she does, then this book is a bridge between them.” I had to laugh when I read this; “she gets me,” I concluded.

In the near-future of A Diary in the Age of Water, Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable.

In her entry for July 13, 2049, Lynna the diarist writes:

“Today CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be aested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.”

Nina Munteanu, A Diary in the Age of Water
Raindrops on a black locust leaf, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

What follows in the novel is complete commodification of water and further restrictions for citizens in the form of house tap closures and daily water quantity quotas from paying public water taps. No form of water is free or available without payment. And if you can’t pay, well…

Dizzy and shivering in the blistering heat, Hilda shuffles forward with the snaking line of people in the dusty square in front of University College where her mother used to teach. The sun beats down, crawling on her skin like an insect. She’s been standing for an hour in the queue for the public water tap… The man behind Hilda pushes her forward. She stumbles toward the tap and glances at the wCard in her blue-grey hand. Her skin resembles a dry riverbed.

Heart throbbing in her throat, Hilda fumbles with the card and finally gets it into the reader. The reader takes it. The light screams red. Her knees almost give out. She dreaded this day…

A tiny water drop hangs, trembling, from the sTap faucet mouth, as if considering which way to go: give in gravity and drop onto the dusty ground or defy it and cling to the inside of the tap. Hilda lunges forward and touches the faucet mouth with her card to capture the drop. Then she laps up the single drop with her tongue. She thinks of Hanna and her throat tightens.

The man behind her grunts. He barrels forward and violently shoves her aside. Hilda stumbles away from the long queue in a daze. The brute gruffly pulls out her useless card and tosses it to her. She misses it and the card flutters like a dead leaf to the ground at her feet. The man shoves his own card into the pay slot. Hilda watches the water gurgle into his plastic container. He is sloppy and some of the water splashes out of his container, raining on the ground. Hilda stares as the water bounces off the parched pavement before finally pooling. The ache in her throat burns like sandpaper and she wavers on her feet. The lineup tightens, as if the people fear she might cut back in. She stares at the water pooling on the ground, glistening into a million stars in the sunlight…and knows she is dying of thirst…

Nina Munteanu, The Way of Water / la natura dell’acqua

This excerpt from my bilingual short story “The Way of Water / la natura dell’acqua” (Mincione Edizioni, 2016) follows the life of Hilda Dresden, daughter of Lynna, the diarist in “A Diary in the Age of Water.”

Science fiction, you think…

Far future, you think…

Think again…

In 2010, Mike Adams of Natural News reported that collecting rainwater was now illegal in several states of the USA. Utah, Washington and Colorado had outlawed individuals from collecting rainwater on their own properties because, according to officials, that rain belonged to someone else.

In 2015, thousands of citizens in two of America’s poorest cities, Detroit and Baltimore, had their water shut off for being behind on their water bills (which had been sharply increased).

Both are inhumane examples of government-imposed oppression over what should be a public and free resource: water.

Dew drops on hawkweed hairs and Mealy Pixie Cup lichens, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Maude Barlow, the Chairperson of the Council of Canadians, writes in Boiling Point of the water crisis in Canada—perhaps our best kept secret, considering that Canada is supposedly so water-rich. Are we giving it all away? And what of our indigenous communities, some of whom have not had potable water for decades?

So, I agree with Gibson about the future not being evenly distributed. This is because the present isn’t evenly distributed. Much of this disparity arises from an extractive and exploitive mentality and practice. One that commodifies what needs to remain free and available for all users. Capitalism ensures an uneven future by focusing on fear and stressing competition, separation, and exclusion.

In his book Designing Regenerative Cultures Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion.

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world.

This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

So, “The Day We’re Not Allowed to Drink Water…”

…Let that day never come.

Make it so…

Moss with raindrops on capsules, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

References:

Barlow, Maude. 2016. “Boiling Point: Government Neglect, Corporate Abuse, and Canada’s Water Crisis.” ECW Press, Toronto. 312pp.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. 2020. “The Serviceberry, An Economy of Abundance.” Emergence Magazine, December 10, 2020.

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water.” Mincione Edizioni, Roma. 114pp.

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Inanna Publications, Toronto. 300pp.

Wahl, Daniel Christian. 2016. “Designing Regenerative Cultures.” Triarchy Press Ltd. 288pp.

Raindrops ‘float’ on a black locust leaf in a light rain, 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.

On Writing Hopeful Dystopias and the Blur of Fiction with Non-Fiction

‘Hopeful dystopias’ are much more than an apparent oxymoron; they are in some fundamental way, the spearhead of the future—and ironically often a celebration of human spirit by shining a light through the darkness of disaster. I discussed this in a recent interview on Solarpunk Futures Podcast.

In a recent interview on the CBC Radio show Ideas “Beyond Dystopia”, Canadian author Margaret Atwood (who penned the dystopic The Handmaid’s Tale and Maddaddam trilogy) said much the same thing. Atwood argued that dystopias and cautionary tales ultimately embrace an element of hope, through a character’s experience. Dystopias can serve as a road map for individual endurance, resilience, and triumph through disaster.

I talked with Solarpunk Futures about how the purposeful blur of fiction with non-fiction in my latest eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water produced a heightened relevance to the dystopic journey for the reader.

Solarpunk: Your latest book is an eco-novel, or rather something of a fiction-nonfiction hybrid perhaps, called A Diary in the Age of Water. Tell us a bit about that novel and the role that water plays in the story.

Nina: A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of Earth and humanity through four generations of women and their battles against a global giant that controls and manipulates Earth’s water. The book spans over forty years (from the 2020s to the 2060s) and into the far future, mostly through the diary of a limnologist, which is found by a future water-being. While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few…

I chose a diary format to purposely blur the fiction with non-fiction. 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 real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is 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. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

Solarpunk: Can you give us an example of an event in your book where the lines between fiction and nonfiction get blurred?

Nina: In the diary entry entitled “Watershed,”, for July 14, 2049, Lynna writes:

Today, CanadaCorp announced that the collection of rainwater was illegal. As of today, I could be arrested for using my rain catcher and cistern. I’ve decided to continue using the cistern, and I’ve warned Hildegard not to breathe a word to anyone at school about what we’re doing with the water. Thankfully, I have time to train her in the art of subterfuge before she starts Grade Two in the fall.

What follows in the story is a series of greater water restrictions that mimic some of the currenet ongoing scenarios in other parts of the world (e.g. illegal rainwater collection in parts of the USA; shutting down of home water taps in Detroit; required and restricted water collection at public water taps in parts of the world).

Lynna’s August 13, 2051 diary entry in my 2020 novel seemed to predict the atmospheric river disaster that befell British Columbia in November 2021:

In the mid- to late-twenties the west coast succumbed to massive atmospheric river storms. San Francisco. Los Angeles. Seattle. Even earthquakes seemed to follow climate change’s lead. The earthquake / tsunami that hit Vancouver Island in 2029 shifted the Earth’s axis by three inches, Daniel informed me. The American military stormed over the border with swift aid. “Did you know that they never left?” Daniel asked me. I hadn’t known that. But I wasn’t surprised either.

Of course, these “predictions” were really just good research into the current scientific knowledge and what current circumstances may naturally generate in the future. I was just doing a good job at reading water.

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

Given that cli-fi features climate change, environmental destruction, and species extinction, you must think ‘how can it not be all doom and gloom?’ But dystopias often do reflect—in their depiction of terrible circumstance—an element of triumph, of overcoming adversity, and ultimately of hope. In fact, dystopias generally draw on a writer’s optimism; else, why would we write these cautionary tales? A strong belief in humanity underlies much of eco-fiction. Solarpunk is a rising light of eco-fiction that has emerged recently in response to the denial-despair dilemma many of us face when we think of climate change. This kind of eco-fiction features ingenuity, generativity, independence, and community. And it ultimately leads us through it all toward the light. A Diary in the Age of Water is in fact a dystopia with elements of solarpunk.

You can listen to the entire podcast interview on Solarpunk Futures: Imagining a New World here.

Thompson Creek Marsh 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.

Overcoming Climate Change, One Story at a Time: “Stories for Earth” Interviews Nina Munteanu

I was recently interviewed by Forrest Brown on his podcast Stories for Earth, a site in Georgia devoted to entertaining and informing its audience on matters to do with climate change and environment and how literature represents and influences our understanding and behaviour in the current and future issues of planet Earth. The site’s mission statement reads: “Stories for Earth seeks to foster hope and emotional resilience by discussing cultural narratives that contain parallels and takeaways to our current predicament. Cultural narratives provide stories for our past, present, and future, and Stories for Earthcritically engages with these narratives through all mediums.”

This is what Forrest says about how and why he started his podcast:

I founded Stories for Earth in the summer of 2019. As a writer and lifelong lover of stories, I never suspected my two biggest interests might have something to do with fighting climate change. That is, until one day when I came across an article about an interesting class at the University of Washington Bothell.

This class, taught by senior lecturer Dr. Jennifer W. Atkinson, sought to help students struggling with the emotional effects of climate change, specifically with the feelings of hopelessness and despair associated with climate grief. Atkinson is a professor of environmental humanities and American literature, so naturally she chose to do this by examining climate change through what she knows best: literature.

After I read this, something clicked. Of course literature can help us face climate change, I thought. Literature and stories in general have helped humanity overcome countless struggles throughout the course of our history—why can’t they help us overcome climate change too?

Stories for Earth is my personal realization of that idea. I want to read books, watch movies, and engage with stories through any other medium out there that can better prepare me to fight climate change in my own way without losing my mind. This podcast is my way of sharing what I learn with you, the listener, and I hope you’ll follow along. If anything you hear sticks or helps you in some way, consider sharing it with a friend who might also benefit from it. We must take care of each other.

Here’s the blurb on the site for our interview

Nina Munteanu is a prolific and insightful Canadian science fiction writer who has published nine novels, including her most recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water. This novel imagines a Canada in the not-so-distant-future where water is becoming increasingly scarce, partially because water sources are drying up and partially because the US and China are buying up water from all the recently privatized Canadian utilities. As a limnologist–literally a fresh water scientist–it makes sense for Nina to be the one telling this story, and our conversation ranges from water shortages in the present day to Ray Bradbury to the need for a new paradigm for living.

We also discuss the connection between exploitive capitalism/colonialism and climate change, then move onto the new paradigm for living by looking at regenerative cultures, the gift economy used by many indigenous peoples, and the creation of an ecological civilization. 

Here’s the interview:

Here’s part of our interview:

  1. Tell me about yourself. How did you become a writer? Why do you think stories are important in the climate action movement?

I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. While my older brother and sister devoured The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, I hid myself in the back corner of Williams General store and read comics: Superman, Supergirl, Magnus Robot Fighter. I was obviously enamoured with the fantastic. When I earnestly started to read things other than comics, I came across the SF classics: Huxley, Orwell, LeGuin and Asimov to name a few. Ray Bradbury moved me and his “Martian Chronicles” made me cry. I wanted to write science fiction like him and move readers like he’d done with me. But I’d also discovered the sensual classics like Thomas Hardy. So, like most beginner writers, I started by imitating my favourites. Imagine the genre-confused chimeric stuff I was writing: Thomas Hardy crossed with Ray Bradbury? It wasn’t until I found my unique voice, which blended these with my passion for the environment, that my own voice emerged. The environment and how we treat it (and ourselves by extension) has always been something important to me since I was a kid when littering was a pet peeve—it still is… I think that the stories we tell help us define ourselves and our role on this planet. Climate fiction and eco-literature and solarpunk provide us with important narratives that both entertain and educate: from cautionary tales to constructive visualizations of a potential future.  

  • Your new novel A Diary in the Age of Water is the story of a young girl in the future who discovers a diary from a Canadian woman who wrote about her experiences living in an increasingly water-scarce Canada in the 2040s. What inspired you to write this story?

It started with a short story I was invited to write in 2015 about water and politics in Canada.  I had long been thinking of potential ironies in Canada’s water-rich heritage. The premise I wanted to explore was the irony of people in a water-rich nation experiencing water scarcity: living under a government-imposed daily water quota of 5 litres as water bottling and utility companies took it all. I named the story “The Way of Water.” It was about a young woman (Hilda) in near-future Toronto who has run out of water credits for the public wTap; by this time houses no longer have potable water and their water taps have been cemented shut; the only way to get water is through the public wTaps—at great cost. She’s standing two metres from water—in a line of people waiting to use the tap—and dying of thirst. The short story begged for more and that inspiration came when I attended a talk by Maude Barlow on her book Boiling Pointabout the water crisis in Canada. We were in a church and I noticed a young mother and her little six-year old daughter in the balcony; I wondered what kind of mother would bring her little girl to a political talk about water in Canada? The diarist character, Lynna, and her mother, Una, were born. It went from there with Lynna—the diarist—writing about not just water shortage but water related phenomena such as climate change, habitat destruction, hormone disruption and the alarming increased infertility in humans.

  • Coincidentally, I just interviewed another author, C.C. Berke, about his novel Man, Kind, in which people also become infertile in the future. I’ll be honest, this isn’t a problem I was really aware of until recently, but humans are indeed becoming less fertile with every new generation. Is this something you hoped to raise awareness about with your novel?

The short answer is yes! I hope it helps spark the much needed discussion. Rising infertility is an issue that seems to embarrass us … something we feel we must hide under the rug, so to speak. Like our misbehaving Uncle Zeek. But if we don’t talk about it, we can’t understand the underlying reasons for it, many of which are environmentally induced—things we should be addressing. 

  • Politics and big business play huge roles in your novel, as they do in real life as well. Canada has privatized its water utilities after the Conservative Party comes into power, and a giant company called CanadaCorp removes municipal water connections from people’s homes and imposes strict water rations, all while selling off Canada’s precious water to US states like California that would otherwise be uninhabitable. Given that Canada is home to a huge portion of the world’s freshwater, what role do you see Canada playing in the coming years when many prominent people—including the Vice President of the United States—have predicted that wars will one day be fought over water?

She’s right. But this isn’t just in the future; water wars are occurring right now and have for some time. Perhaps not between our two countries. Certainly in the middle east and Asia. There are tensions between Egypt, and nine upstream countries for control of water in the Nile watershed; the Sudanese and Ethiopians are building dams and Egypt plans to pump water from Lake Nassar into the Sahara. India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and China are in conflict over control of rivers such as the Indus, Ganges, and particularly the Brahmaputra. India’s River Link Plan impacts Bangladesh. Meantime Pakistan, Kashmir and India fight over more and more water, as the Indus dries up and no longer flows into the ocean.

But let’s move closer to home, to North America and the premise of water conflicts here… Considering what you mentioned about Canada’s huge water storage of freshwater, water conflicts are inevitable. Canada and America border some significant water bodies such as the Great Lakes and various rivers like the Columbia River in the west. We’ve formed joint commissions along with treaties to manage these trans-boundary water bodies. They’ve often been highly electrified politically. The book by Eileen Delhanty Pearkes—“A River Captured”—explores the controversial history of the Columbia River Treaty and the huge dams built on that system that impacted ecosystems, indigenous peoples and local cultures in the Pacific Northwest. That didn’t go very well for Canada and particularly not for some of its indigenous peoples.  Another example that my book features is from the 1960s: the NAWAPA project, a plan by Ralph Parsons Company and the Army Corps of Engineers to make the entire Rocky Mountain Trench into a giant 800-km long reservoir to hydrate the US by inundating a fifth of British Columbia’s prime habitat, several towns and indigenous communities and literally destroy a fishery. But guess what? Congress was seriously looking at it and the plan keeps resurfacing among corporate entrepreneurs, engineers and politicians.

  • Going back to big business, do you think industry and sustainability are compatible? I know some cultural movements like solarpunk emphasize DIY and more small businesses over mass production and giant corporations. Do you have any thoughts on this? This is one of the defining questions of our time, but can we have both capitalism and a livable planet?

Some people—mostly economists—would say definitely yes; we just need to be conservationist in our approach to doing business. But the very basis of capitalism is exploitation, not conservation. The driving force behind capitalism is fear and uncertainty and its main process is exploitation. From an ecologist’s perspective, this makes sense for a community during its early succession and growth stage… when it first colonizes a new area. Ecologists call this approach r-selected (for rate), based on profligate and fast growth. But as we reach a climax community and our carrying capacity—where we are now—this r-selected approach no longer works. We need an economic model that better matches this new paradigm. NOT based on continued growth! A climax global economy, one based on cooperation not competition. Elisabet Sahtouris calls this ecological economy ecosophy. In his book “Designing Regenerative Cultures” Daniel Christian Wahl talks about changing our evolutionary narrative from one based on fear defined by a perception of scarcity, competition, and separation to one based on love defined by a perception of abundance, a sense of belonging, collaboration and inclusion. 

And moving forward we can take a lesson from Robin Wall Kimmerer who talks about a gift economy—an economy of abundance—whose basis lies in recognizing the value of kindness, sharing, and gratitude in an impermanent world. This is what she says: “Climate change is a product of this extractive economy and is forcing us to confront the inevitable outcome of our consumptive lifestyle, genuine scarcity for which the market has no remedy. Indigenous story traditions are full of these cautionary teachings. When the gift is dishonored, the outcome is always material as well as spiritual. Disrespect the water and the springs dry up. Waste the corn and the garden grows barren. Regenerative economies which cherish and reciprocate the gift are the only path forward. To replenish the possibility of mutual flourishing, for birds and berries and people, we need an economy that shares the gifts of the Earth, following the lead of our oldest teachers, the plants.”

  • The diary entries in your novel make frequent reference to the post-truth era we seem to be living in. I feel like we’ve been heading in this direction for a while (it seems as though books like Manufacturing Consentby Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman and 1984by George Orwell have documented this), but I think many people feel as though we officially entered the post-truth era when Kellyanne Conway used the term “alternative facts” in a Meet The Pressinterview in 2017. Again, this is another huge question of our time, but how do those of us pushing for climate action make progress when entire political parties like the Republican Party in the US and the Conservative Party of Canada are in blatant denial of reality? (Actually, it seems worse than denial of reality—they use the fascist tactic of disregarding reality and replacing it with their own reality, even though they know what they’re doing.)

I have absolutely no answer for that! LAUGH! ARGH! But seriously, how do you convince someone about an evidence-based truth when they are living by a faith-based or agenda-based truth? As a scientist who has lived most of her life doing research and learning to accept the truth of evidence, I find this belief or stance incomprehensible. So you weren’t asking me a question, were you? Well, I’ve heard some great advice on this actually and that is to appeal to a person’s compassion, their kindness, their links to family and friends and find some common ground through their humanity in the phenomenon—say a local manifestation of climate change—then work from there. Keep it local and practical and nonthreatening. In other words, take the science out of it and the belief out of it and appeal on humane grounds. You can’t convince someone to change their belief, but you might be able to persuade them to accept an aspect of something if it doesn’t threaten their belief. 

  • I’d like to talk about the persistence of colonialism and how it’s tied to the climate crisis. In your novel, enormous swaths of British Columbia have been turned into reservoirs to store water to sell to Americans. Doing this displaces lots of people, especially indigenous and First Nations people. But things like this are happening even now. In Minnesota, the Canadian energy company Enbridge has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars paying local police departments to stop Water Protectors from blocking construction of Line 3, which would desecrate indigenous land and transport tar sands oil to US refineries. Could you talk a little about the importance of protecting indigenous and First Nations people’s rights, especially in the climate action movement?

You cite a great example of capitalist exploitation in the fossil fuel industry, which is occurring everywhere on the globe. As I mentioned already, Local and Traditional Ecological Knowledge lies at the heart of preserving this planet’s health and balanced climate. And Indigenous people around the world are regaining control of their territorial environments to reinvigorate food security, governance, social relations and economies. To quote Steven Nitah of the Dene First Nation, “because of their attachment to, and dependence on the land, Indigenous Peoples have been establishing their own protected areas for millennia.”

Luckily, we’re getting on board with this on a grass roots level and even government level—where it needs to be. An example of this are the Indigenous-led conservation movements like the Indigenous Guardians and the IPCAs (the Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas) where indigenous governments have the primary role in protecting and conserving ecosystems through indigenous laws, governance and knowledge systems. This is linked to the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)—specifically Articles 29 and 32—to govern themselves and their territories and to conserve and protect them. British Columbia in Canada sees many examples of Indigenous-led conservation leadership such with the Tla-o-qui-aht and Haida. 

An example I’m following is the Heiltsuk Nation on the Great Bear Sea who have enacted an Oceans Act to protect their ocean relatives and particularly the Pacific herring—a keystone species. The Heiltsuk-herring relationship have thrived over millennia through a system of traditional ecological knowledge, gwee-ee-las, and sustainable harvesting practices. Under current legislation overseen by DFO, commercial fisheries have pretty much destroyed the herring fishery through unsustainable practices. While the Heiltsuk’s stewardship and governance of this area was recently recognized by Canada’s provincial and federal governments, DFO continued to operate separately through settler law, opening herring seine fishery in violation of Heiltsuk constitutional rights. Then they finally collaborated. We’re working it out. It’s an ongoing conversation. 

  • We live in a time where it is so hard to decipher what is true, what is propaganda, and what is conspiracy theory. Your novel deals with this theme a lot through the character Daniel and his obsession with a social media-like platform called Oracle. Could you talk about writing this character and what inspired his creation?

Daniel is a kind of twisted hipster version of an oracle. Young. Wise. Naïve all at the same time.  I brought him in as a trickster archetype, and a kind of foil to Lynna, the main character in the diary part of the book. He’s her technician and work mate and ends up being her link to the world of gossip and dark truths repressed by the corporations via the traditional internet. He finds these gems in the quagmire of the net to share with her over coffee. He’s really a very bright and astute technologist, but he also seems naïve in some ways. For instance, he’s a researcher who dabbles in conspiracy theory. He’s all about health but he smokes. So, a man of contradictions. So, even though he is Lynna’s coffee companion and amuses her, he also unsettles her. In true trickster fashion, he finds out her secret and pays for it. His character allows me to explore the best and worst of the diarist character Lynna. 

  • I hope I’m not giving too much away with this question (we can skip it if you don’t want spoilers), but I want to talk about one of the central themes of the book: is it possible to save the Earth while saving humanity? The author of the diary, Lynna, writes about her water activist daughter, Hilde, a little over halfway through the book: “Does Hilde realize that she’s an oxymoron? To fight for water and the environment is to fight against humanity. Because at the root of Daniel’s question—would you save the planet at the expense of humanity?—lies the deeper question: can humanity exist without destroying the environment? And has Hilde made her prognosis? I know Una still believed in her heart that we could. I always thought her optimism was naïve.” For a long time, it seems like a narrative of the environmental movement was that humans are a virus. But now, there’s a big pushback against this narrative, with activists pointing to the systemic players who bear the most responsibility for the climate crisis. What do you think? Are humans the root problem?

On the surface, I’d say yes. Of course we are. But that is a far too simple and easy answer. It’s the easy way out. It isn’t so much that we’re human that created the climate crisis. It is that we— most of us—live and subscribe to a worldview and belief system that came from a place of great uncertainty with a perception of scarcity and an existential model based on fear and separation. Ancient peoples and most indigenous people today do not hold themselves as separate from the land; they already live in ecological civilizations. An ecological civilization is both a new and ancient idea. Buddhist, Taoist, and other traditions base their spiritual wisdom on the deep interconnectedness of all things. According to Robin Wall Kimmerer “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…The foundation of education is to discover that gift within us and learn to use it well.” I think we’re starting to do this. Partly through listening to the Traditional Ecological Knowledge of our indigenous peoples.

I do believe that human nature is basically empathic and cooperative over selfish and competitive; I think we are born the former and taught to be the latter. That is what needs to change. How we are taught. 

  1. On a related note, the issue of overpopulation is a highly controversial topic in the environmental movement. This has led to some fear-mongering from Conservative politicians who tell their constituents that climate activists want to make a “one child” law like the draconian one-child policy in China that began in the late 70s as part of a government program to curb population growth. Yet, overpopulation is an enormous problem, with Project Drawdown saying, “Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.” Do you think overpopulation needs to be part of the conversation in the environmental movement? Do you think there are times when pointing to this issue as it relates to climate change is problematic?

It certainly can polarize and spark conflict. Reproduction and the right to reproduce is an innate impulse of all life: to make more of itself. So, we’re in conflict with ourselves already. I agree with Project Drawdown. But how to enter into a rationale and productive discussion on this issue relies on the players, their rationale, perspective, and their personal feelings on the matter. We kind of know there should be fewer of us but how to achieve that is another matter. It comes down to ecological footprints and living lightly on the earth and other philosophical considerations. You and I talked earlier about infertility. It seems a macabre kind of irony going on with habitat degradation caused partially by over-population sparking infertility in humans through endocrine disrupting chemicals in our drinking water…

  1. Change is another big theme in your novel, reminding me of Octavia E. Butler’s masterpiece Parable of the Sower, in which she writes, “God is change.” In your novel, Lynna writes, “Trapped by our preordained notion of change, we no longer see what we’re not prepared to see. And that’s the change that kills us.” The problem with climate change is that everything is happening too fast for biological evolution to keep pace. There’s a lot of buzz about transhumanism right now—do you think we’re approaching a point where humans will have to take evolution into our own hands, so to speak, if we want to survive?

It isn’t our intelligence—our cleverness—that will save us; it is our kindness and compassion that will do that. We don’t need to invent some techy thing or reinvent ourselves or implant some intelligent virus into us. What we simply need to do is accept ourselves with humility, find and express joy. Give in to the beauty of our world and our own part in it. Become a participant. Embrace the feminine. Respect Nature and all that lies in it. Find something there to love, cherish it and protect it. The rest will follow. 

Nina Munteanu and Forrest Brown on “Stories for Earth” Podcast

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

Nina Munteanu Talks About ‘Water Is…’ and ‘A Diary in the Age of Water’ with Dr. Steven Miletto

Nina Munteanu appears on “Teaching, Learning, Leading, K-12” Podcast with Dr. Steven Miletto

I was recently interviewed by Dr. Steven Miletto in Georgia on his podcast “Teaching Learning Leading K12”—Episode 401. We talked about my two recent books on water,Water Is…and A Diary in the Age of Water. The 1-hour interview covered a range of topics from why water makes us feel so good, to the study of limnology, and writing both non-fiction and fiction about water. In the latter, I talked about water as a character in story. We also talked about how characters form in a story and how to keep going when the muse or the joy buries itself.

Jackson Creek, ON (photo and dry-brush rendition by Nina Munteanu)

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

Nina Munteanu Talks Books, Water and Climate Change on Warren Lawrence’s Morning Show WKNY am Radio Kingston

I recently appeared on Warren Lawrence’s Morning Show on WKNY am Radio Kingston, New York, where we talked about water as a life-giving substance and a force of climate change. We talked, of course, about my recent eco-fiction novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”, which Warren had totally enjoyed and recommended to his listening audience (to my delight!) 

Warren asked me to share my process of writing this particular book as a diary and a work of “mundane science fiction:”

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 real people. I wanted personal relevance to what was going on, particularly with climate change. I also wanted to achieve a gritty realism of “the mundane” and a diary felt right. Lynna—the diarist—is 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. The diary-aspect of the book characterizes it as “mundane science fiction” by presenting an “ordinary” setting for characters to play out. The tension arises from insidious cumulative events and circumstances that slowly grow into something incendiary. The real events are the fuel that incite a slow-burn fictional drama that blurs the reader’s perception of reality and heightens its relevance.

We talked at length about the blur between real events and the fiction of this book and how the diary conspired in that felt blur for the reader. To Warren’s question of what I expected my audience to get from the book, particularly on the importance of water, I responded: 

While A Diary in the Age of Water is a work of fiction, its premise and much of its story are firmly based on real events, people and phenomena. The dramatization of these through four main characters carry the reader into consequence and accountability. Water’s relationship with each character provides four different perspectives on the value of water to humanity—from the personal and practical to the spiritual and existential. For readers with an evidence-based approach to learning about water’s importance, the diarist provides interesting facts on water in each of her entries in the form of epigraphs (mostly from Robert Wetzel’s Limnology). Things like: watershed, hypolimnion, aquifer, thalweg, clapotis gaufre, and petrichor, to name a few. 

Regarding whether Canadians see water, deforestation, pollution, or climate change differently than Americans, I responded:

My first response to that is no, we’re all North Americans. If there is a noticeable divergence, it is between North Americans and the rest of the world, based on our shared capitalist worldview and mixed settler and indigenous heritage. But Canadians do share some subtle differences from our southern neighbours. We are a northern people; much of our land lies in the unsettled northern boreal forest. Our population is far more sparse at five people/km2vs. close to 40 people/km2in America. With a majority of our population occupying the most southerly ten percent, Canada has large regions of pristine natural environments. I once entertained a ‘romantic’ metaphoric notion of Canadians resembling the settlers of Winterfell in the Westeros of Game of Thrones; a people more attuned to their land. Canadians profess to place environment high on our list of values and concerns. And yet we share a legacy of appalling forest management, rampant clearcutting of old-growth forest in British Columbia, insufficient federal and provincial water legislation, and environmentally-catastrophic mining practices in the oil tar sands of Alberta, the northern boreal forest of Canada and abroad.

Warren and I also talked about New York state and NYC, particularly to do with climate change, and how NYC fared in the novel (not well, I’m afraid). As example, I read a portion of the book from the diarist’s entry called “Climate Change”:

When I was growing up, we were already feeling the effects of a changing climate. The most obvious change was in the hundred-year floods calculated by engineers; they started to occur every other year. When I was five years old, Houston suffered a devastating flood and the city and surrounding area basically crashed under the wind and rain deluge of Hurricane Harvey. They lost power. Then their sewers backed up. But it didn’t get ugly until they lost their drinking water.

Five years later the Category 3 Hurricane Norma stormed though New York City with a twelve-metre-high wall of water. Manhattan drowned. Subways and car tunnels drowned. Kennedy Airport drowned. Homes drowned. People drowned.

The same storm put Providence, Rhode Island, under twenty feet of water.

A few days ago, Daniel told me that New York City water is still unfit to drink. “New York will be the new Pudong District,” he quipped with churlish humour. All of Florida south of Orlando is already there. “Like they weren’t warned,” he scoffed.

–A Diary in the Age of Water
Pond lilies in Thompson Creek marsh, 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.

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

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

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

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

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