Nina Munteanu Talks about more than Water on the Douglas Coleman Show

Nina Munteanu was recently on The Douglas Coleman Show where she and Douglas talked about writing, being scared of water, the sub-genre of eco-fiction and what Canada might have been like if the white settlers hadn’t come.

Here’s the show:

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.

“A Diary in the Age of Water” Reviewed by Kirkus Reviews, The Winnipeg Free Press and The Miramichi Reader

Nina Munteanu’s cli-fi eco-novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” just released in summer of 2020 received several favourable reviews from Kirkus ReviewsThe Winnipeg Free Press, and The Miramichi Reader. The speculative novel about four generations of woman and their unique relationship with water was recently awarded the Literary Titan Award for a book that “expertly delivers complex characters, intricate worlds, and thought provoking themes. The ease with which the story is told is a reflection of the author’s talent in exercising fluent, powerful, and appropriate language.”

“While bringing attention to the current politicization of climate change, the story maintains important underlying themes like family, love, forgiveness, and the complexity of the human soul. The author has gone to great lengths to show that there are different layers to each character, none fully evil nor fully good. A Diary in the Age of Water is an exceptional and thought-provoking dystopian fiction.”
—LITERARY TITAN (4-star)

“In Canadian ecologist Munteanu’s novel, a child in a world of climate disaster discovers hidden truths about the past in a mysterious journal. In a story set centuries in the future, a young girl with four arms named Kyo lives on the last vestige of a planet damaged by climate crisis, water scarcity, and a cataclysm brought on by semi-divine figures called the Water Twins. Kyo comes across the 21st-century journal of a limnologist named Lynna; over two decades, the journal’s author details Earth’s fate with scientific observations on the harm wrought by corporate greed, as well as her own personal struggles raising a child in a world of catastrophe and authoritarianism. She’s a deeply relatable and tragically flawed character who’s wracked by doubt, fear, and cynicism—a stark contrast to her fierce environmentalist mother, Una, and her spiritual, idealistic daughter, Hildegard. What unites them all is the study of water: its intrinsic properties, its mysteries, and ultimately its necessity to the planet. In poetic prose (“We’re going down in a kind of slow violence”) with sober factual basis, Munteanu transmutes a harrowing dystopia into a transcendentalist origin myth…the author asks uncomfortable questions and explores the effects of one generation’s actions upon the next as they ripple outward like a stone dropped in a pond. A sobering and original cautionary tale that combines a family drama with an environmental treatise.”
—KIRKUS REVIEWS

Futuristic novel awash with water warnings

“An engaging epistolary novel. An ecologist and environmental activist herself, Munteanu has no difficulty voicing a fully formed literary character who is both scientifically literate enough to understand how quickly human society is entering its final ebb, and humane enough to mourn the fullness of this tragedy.

The prose here is beautiful and purposeful in the tradition of environmentally and socially minded novelists such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood… It comes down to water: ice sheets, rain and drought, the loss of water tables and the collapse of marine ecologies in an acidifying ocean. The pulse and rhythm of life on this planet is water. Its death throes, too, can be read in the flow of water.

Munteanu has produced something which joins George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Le Guin and Atwood, a warning of the direction we are heading that will be valuable even if we manage to avert disaster.”
—Joel Boyce, WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

“A Diary in the Age of Water commands reader interest on a number of levels…a chilling but believable portrayal of what might happen as fresh water becomes scarcer… Munteanu’s novel provides a cautionary note for what might happen if we fail to pay attention to this precious resource.”
—Lisa Timpf, MIRAMICHI READER

Short Synopsis

A Diary in the Age of Water follows the climate-induced journey of the Earth and humanity through four generations of women, each with a unique relationship to her world and to water. Water plays both metaphoric and literal roles in this allegorical tale of humanity’s final journey from home—where male sterility, heat-shock proteins, horizontal gene transfer, and virgin-births rule a changing world of water securitization through ambitious environmental manipulation (e.g., resurrecting the US Army Corps of Engineers 1960s NAWAPA/CeNAWP plan to create the 800 km long Rocky Mountain Trench reservoir and divert most of northern Canada’s water to the USA—drowning a fifth of BC). 

Told in far-future and near-future frames, the central part of the story is a diary by a limnologist, whose personal account creates a terrifying realism to the geo-political tension of water securitization, plague containment, and police oppression—the diary spans from 2045 to 2064 (when the diarist disappears herself). 

The cli-fi novel begins centuries from now in the dying northern boreal forest with young KYO, a blue water nymph with multiple arms who dreams of the past and of being a normal human. She is on her way to the library to memorize a textbook on the Age of Water and there discovers a piece of her past from that age when The Water Twins destroyed the world. Kyo discovers a diary by a limnologist (who happens to be the mother of one of the Twins). Intrigued, Kyo drops the textbook and reads the diary. The diary, by cynical limnologist LYNNA, describes a near-future Toronto in the grips of severe water scarcity. The gritty memoir describes Toronto in a time when China owns the USA and the USA owns Canada, and aggressively mines its water. While lamenting the greed and destructive nature of her race, Lynna self-servingly helps murder three people; she also gives birth to rebel daughter HILDA (one of the Water Twins) who destroys her world through water and gives virgin-birth to the next stage in human evolution: a mutant who becomes one of the Disappeared who returns centuries later in a dying world as the water keeper Kyo. 

“A Diary in the Age of Water” explores identity and our concept of what is “normal”—as a nation and an individual—in a world that is rapidly and incomprehensibly changing.

Poplar trees in northern Ontario in fall (photograph 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.

How the Bdelloid Rotifer Lived for Millennia — Without Sex

As a child, I always wanted a microscope.

I would have collected slimy waters from the scum ponds and murky puddles near my house. I would have brought them home and exposed them to the light of my microscope. I would then have peered deep into a secret world, where shady characters and alien forms lurked and traded.

It would be many years, when I was in college, before I finally witnessed this world—so alien, it might have inspired the science fiction books I wrote later as an adult. As it turned out, I was led to pursue a Masters of Science degree, studying periphyton (microscopic aquatic communities attached and associated with surfaces like rocks and plants) in local streams in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.

Filamentous algae collected in Lake Ontario, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

While my work focused on how diatoms (glass-walled algae) colonized surfaces, micro-invertebrates kept vying for my attention. Water fleas (cladocerans), copepods, rotifers, seed shrimps (ostracods) and water bears sang across my field of vision. They flitted, lumbered, wheeled and meandered their way like tourists lost in Paris. But this wasn’t Paris; I’d taken the blue pill and entered the rabbit hole into another world…

Sketch of common zooplankton and phytoplankton (illustration by Nina Munteanu)

The Secret—and Dangerous—World of Micro-Organisms

Small Freshwater habitats are home to a highly productive and diverse collection of micro-invertebrates—multicellular animals that can barely be seen with the naked eye. Many average from 0.5 to 1 mm in size and resemble little white blobs; however, a scholar can distinguish each invertebrate by its unique movement. For instance, when presented with a jar of pond water, I can usually distinguish among the wheel-like wandering of a gastrotrich, dirigible-like gliding of an ostracod (seed shrimp), the vertical goldfinch-style “hopping” of the cladoceran (water flea) as it beats its antennae, or the halting-jerking movements of copepods (oar-feet) as their antennae drive them along like a dingy propelled by an amateur oarsman.

Alas, puddles, ephemeral ponds and vernal pools pose sketchy habitats, given their tendency to appear and disappear in a wink. And like the thief in the night, they pose a harsh and uncertain home to many small organisms. These environments are ever-changing, unstable, chaotic and unpredictable. Yet, anyone who has studied these variable ecosystems understands that they team with life. 

When a puddle or ephemeral pond dries up then reappears with rain, how can these communities thrive? Or do they all die off and then somehow recruit when the pond reappears? Many of these invertebrates have evolved creative ways to survive in very unstable environments. Some form a resting stage—a spore, resting egg or ‘tun’—that goes dormant and rides out the bad weather.

Philodina, a bdelloid rotifer (microscope photo by Bob Blaylock)

Animalcules & the Bdelloid Rotifer

In 1701, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek observed that “animalcules” (likely the bdelloid rotifer Philodina roseaola) survived desiccation and were “resurrected” when water was added to them. He’d discovered a highly resistant dormant state of an aquatic invertebrate to desiccation.

Dormancy is a common strategy of organisms that live in harsh and unstable environments and has been documented in crustaceans, rotifers, tardigrades, phytoplankton and ciliates. “Dormant forms of some planktonic invertebrates are among the most highly resistant … stages in the whole animal kingdom,” writes Jacek Radzikowski in a 2013 review in the Journal of Plankton Research. Radzikowski describes two states of dormancy: diapause and quiescence. (on right: sketch of bdelloid rotifer by Nina Munteanu

Bdelloid rotifers can go into quiescent dormancy at practically any stage in their life cycle in response to unfavorable conditions. Early research noted that dormant animals could withstand freezing and thawing from −40°C to 100°C and storage under vacuum. They also tolerated high doses of UV and X radiation. Later work reported that some rotifers could survive extreme abiotic conditions, such as exposure to liquid nitrogen (−196°C) for several weeks or liquid helium (−269°C) for several hours. Desiccated adult bdelloid rotifers apparently survived minus 80°C conditions for more than 6 years. The dormant eggs of cladocerans and ostracods also survived below freezing temperatures for years.

Rotifers are cosmopolitan detrivores (they eat detritus) and contribute to the decomposition of organic matter. Rotifers create a vortex with ciliated tufts on their heads that resemble spinning wheels, sweeping food into their mouths. They often anchor to larger debris while they feed or inch, worm-like, along substrates. Some are sessile, living inside tubes or gelatinous holdfasts and may even be colonial. Rotifers reproduce by parthenogenesis (in the absence of mates), producing clones (like cladocerans). Resting eggs (sometimes called zygotes) survive when a pond dries up. Bdelloid rotifers don’t produce resting eggs; they survive desiccation through a process called anhydrobiosis, contracting into an inert form and losing most of their body water. Embryos, juveniles and adults can undergo this process. The bdelloid withdraws its head and food and contracts its body into a compact shape called a tun; a generally unprotected dormant state that remains permeable to gases and liquids. Like Tardigrades (see below), Bdelloid rotifers can resist ionizing radiation because they can repair DNA double-strand breaks.

The long-term survival and evolutionary success of bdelloid rotifers in the absence of sex arises from horizontal gene transfer via DNA repair.

In my eco-novel A Diary in the Age of Water the limnologist Lynna visits her technician Daniel as he peers through a microscope and makes the observation of why the bdelloid rotifer is well-suited to climate change:

I bent to peer through the eyepiece at what turned out to be a pond sample in a Petri dish. Attached to a pile of detritus shivering in the current, several microscopic metazoans—rotifers—swung like trees in a gale; they were feeding. Their ciliated disk-like mouths twirled madly, capturing plankton to eat. Watching them reminded me of my early research days as an honours undergrad at Concordia University in Montreal. Probably Philodina, I thought; I had seen many during my stream research in Quebec.

“They’re the future,” Daniel said, looking up at me with a smirk as I straightened.

I raised my eyebrows, inviting him to elaborate, which he cheerfully did.

“They’re the future because of their incredible evolutionary success and their ecological attraction to environmental disaster.” He knew he’d piqued my interest. “These little creatures have existed for over forty million years, Lynna. Without sex! And they’re everywhere. In temporary ponds, moss, even tree bark. Bdelloid mothers that go through desiccation produce daughters with increased fitness and longevity. In fact, if desiccation doesn’t occur over several generations, the rotifers lose their fitness. They need the unpredictable environment to keep robust.” They incorporate genes from their environment: they acquire DNA transposons—mobile DNA—through HGT.”

—A DIARY IN THE AGE OF WATER

The bdelloid all-female populations have thrived for millions of years by maintaining a robust and diverse population through epigenetics and DNA repair during dormancy…The dormancy of all-female bdelloids is an elegant technique to ride out harsh conditions. The bdelloids can go dormant quickly in any stage of their life cycle, and they’re capable of remaining dormant for decades. They can recover from their dormancy state within hours when the right conditions return and go on reproducing without the need to find a mate.

Highly variable environments tend to support rare species: organisms that are uniquely equipped for change. These are the explorers, misfits, and revolutionaries who do their work to usher in a new paradigm. They carry change inside them, through phenotypic plasticity, physiological stress response mechanisms, or life history adaptations. Like bdelloid rotifers going dormant through anhydrobiosis. Or blue-green algae forming dormant akinete spores. In tune with the vacillations of Nature, epigenetics-induced adaptation is the only option for keeping up with rapid and catastrophic environmental change, not to mention something as gigantic as climate change. That’s why the bdelloid rotifers survived for millennia and will continue for many more. They adapt by counting on change.

Maple swamp forest in Trent Nature Sanctuary, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

References:

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

Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press, Vancouver. 586pp.

O’Leary, Denise. 2015. “Horizontal gene transfer: Sorry, Darwin, it’s not your evolution anymore.” Evolution News, August 13, 2015. Online: https://www.evolutionnews.org/201508/horizontal_gene/

Ricci, C. And D. Fontaneto. 2017. “The importance of being a bdelloid: Ecological and evolutionary consequences of dormancy.” Italian Journal ofZoology, 76:3, 240-249.

Robinson, Kelly and Julie Dunning. 2016. “Bacteria and humans have been swapping DNA for millennia”. The Scientist Magazine, October 1, 2016. Online: https://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/47125/title/Bacteria-and-Humans-Have-Been-Swapping-DNA-for-Millennia/

Weinhold, Bob. 2006. “Epigenetics: the science of change.” Environmental Health Perspectives, 114(3): A160-A167.

Williams, Sarah. 2015. “Humans may harbour more than 100 genes from other organisms”. Science, March 12, 2015. Online: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2015/03/humans-may-harbor-more-100-genes-other-organisms

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.

W.O.W Interviews Nina Munteanu on “A Diary in the Age of Water”

Thompson Creek outlet, ON (photo and rendition by Nina Munteanu)

I recently chatted with Darshaun McWay on W.O.W. Podcast about my recent novel A Diary in the Age of Water.

We talked about the story, its main characters–including water as a character–and why I write about water. We also covered why the book is written partly as a diary. Margaret Atwood’s name came up a few times…

Here is the W.O.W description of the interview:

Nina Munteanu chats with Darshaun McAway of W.O.W. Podcast about her new clifi novel “A Diary in the Age of Water”: a novel about the journeys of four generations of women and their unique relationship with water during a time of great environmental change. Darshaun and Nina talk about her use of water as a character, her choice of heroines and her use of a diary format to tell the story.  Nina shares that the book–set in the near future as a limnologist’s diary and the far future with an evolved human–explores the premise of a water-scarce Canada whose water now belongs to the USA, who, in turn, is owned by China. The events about which the diarist writes are based on real historic events and people. Nina brings her considerable scientific, limnological and research skills to bear in describing a future Canada both dystopic and harrowing–yet very familiar. One real event taken as premise in the book that Nina shared with Darshaun is the American NAWAPA plan of the 1960s that went to congress and was (and still is) seriously discussed for years following: the plan was to divert massive amounts of fresh water from Canada and store by inundating the Rocky Mountain Trench and piped south to hydrate dwindling aquifers in the USA.

W.O.W Interview with Nina Munteanu and Darshaun McAway

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.

Eco-Fiction: What Readers Get From It and How to Prevent Polemic

Mary Woodbury on Dragonfly.eco recently shared a survey of over a hundred readers to determine the impact that eco-fiction had on them. What did environmental fiction mean to readers? What about it appealed to them? What were their favourite works? And did it incite them to action? The answers were both expected and surprising. Given the sample size and some study limitations on audience and diversity, the results are preliminary still. However, they remain interesting and enlightening.

theoverstorySome of the most impactful novels according to the readers surveyed include Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, Richard Power’s The Overstory, Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Edward Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle series.

Readers gave Woodbury several reasons why they enjoyed and found eco-novels impactful:

  • Realism or compelling account of or reflection of society, scary or not
  • Goes beyond readers’ culture–expands minds
  • Humorous
  • Story focused on characters versus an issue
  • Learned something new
  • Opened readers’ minds
  • Captured imagination
  • Positive endings
  • Good storytelling
  • Interesting characters
  • Suspense and/or psychological burn

One reader mentioned that what appealed to them about Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water was the style of writing. It provoked “feelings of utter beauty but also unease.”

One reader enjoyed Cormac Mccarthy’s The Road “for its spare post-apocalyptic world where even language seems to run out.”

Of Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves a reader wrote that “The dystopic beginning felt so real, and then the positive ending was so good. I loved it and it made me think about how climate change can possibly have impacts beyond just our physical and mental health, but also our dreams!”

A reader of Frank Herbert’s Dune wrote that “it was the first time I’d seen a literary rendering of an ecosystem that felt real. The ideas of ecology are woven into this story in a way I didn’t think was possible for fiction. Interconnection is hard to think about, hard to grasp, and Dune showed me that fiction, done well, can really help with this.” The same reader acknowledged that in Annihilation Jeff VenderMeer “mastered the technique.”

FavTopics Eco-Fiction

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

When asked the question “Do you think that environmental themes in fiction can impact society, and if so, how?” 81% agreed and qualified their answers:

  • Fiction can encourage empathy and imagination. Stories can affect us more than dry facts. Fiction reaches us more deeply than academic understanding, moving us to action.
  • Fiction can trigger a sense of wonder about the natural world, and even a sense of loss and mourning. Stories can immerse readers into imagined worlds with environmental issues similar to ours.
  • Fiction raises awareness, encourages conversations and idea-sharing. Fiction is one way that helps to create a vision of our future. Cautionary tales can nudge people to action and encourage alternative futures. Novels can shift viewpoints without direct confrontation, avoid cognitive dissonance, and invite reframed human-nature relationships through enjoyment and voluntary participation.
  • Environmental themes can reorient our perspective from egocentrism to the greater-than-human world.

Awareness in Fields

Graph from Environmental Fiction Impact Survey by Mary Woodbury

In summary, Woodbury writes:

“The sample size (103) seems to be a good one for people who are mostly familiar with the idea of eco-fiction (and similar environmental/nature fiction genres and subgenres), though I was still hoping to get a larger, more diverse group of participants. The majority of respondents were highly educated middle-aged women. The majority of the group read from 1-29 novels a year. Favorite novels represented mostly North American or European authors (male and female about equally, with J.R.R. Tolkien, Barbara Kingsolver and Margaret Atwood consistently a favorite), with the majority of readers enjoying literary fiction the most, followed by dystopia/utopia and then science fiction.”

Woodbury notes that the genres of science fiction and fantasy were well represented in the survey, “both as favorite and most impactful novels, despite literary fiction being the favorite genre among the participants.” Of novels that respondents enjoyed, “readers were most impacted by good storytelling.” Polemic was not well regarded.

 

Achieving Impactful Eco-Fiction & Avoiding Polemic Through Use of Metaphor

The key to impact and enjoyment for a reader lies in good storytelling. The very best storytelling uses metaphor and oblique description to achieve a deeper meaning. The greatest art must be left to interpretation; not directly dispensed. Great art is felt and experienced viscerally; not just taken in intellectually. Great art shows; not tells.

EcologyOfStoryIn my writing guidebook The Ecology of Story: World as Character, I discuss the various ways that the use of metaphor achieves depth and meaning in story, particularly in eco-fiction. One impactful way is in the choice of setting. In the chapter on Place as Metaphor, I write:

Everything in story is metaphor, Ray Bradbury once told me. That is no more apparent than in setting and place, in which a story is embedded and through which characters move and interact.

Metaphor is the subtext that provides the subtleties in story, subtleties that evoke mood, anticipation, and memorable scenes. Richard Russo says, “to know the rhythms, the textures, the feel of a place is to know more deeply and truly its people.” When you choose your setting, remember that its primary role is to help depict theme. This is because place is destiny.

What would the book Dune be without Arrakis, the planet Dune? What would the Harry Potter books be without Hogwarts?

Metaphor provides similarity to two dissimilar things through meaning. In the metaphor “Love danced in her heart” or the simile “his love was like a slow dance”, love is equated with the joy of dance. By providing figurative rather than literal description to something, metaphor invites participation through interpretation.

When I write “John’s office was a prison,” I am efficiently and sparingly suggesting in five words—in what would normally take a paragraph—how John felt about his workplace. The reader would conjure imagery suggested by their knowledge of a prison cell: that John felt trapped, cramped, solitary, stifled, oppressed—even frightened and threatened. Metaphor relies on sub-text knowledge. This is why metaphor is so powerful and universally relevant: the reader fully participates—the reader brings in relevance through their personal knowledge and experience and this creates the memorable aspect to the scene.

Metaphor is woven into story through the use of devices and constructs such as depiction of the senses, personification, emotional connections, memories, symbols, archetypes, analogies and comparisons. Sense, and theme interweave in story to achieve layers of movement with characters on a journey. All through metaphor.

Symbols and Archetypes

In Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water—about a post-climate change world of sea level rise—water is a powerful archetype, whose secret tea masters guard with their lives. Water, with its life-giving properties and other strange qualities, has been used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans used as a powerful metaphor and archetype in many stories: from vast oceans of mystery, beauty and danger—to the relentless flow of an inland stream. Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is one example:

Water does not resist. Water flows. When you plunge your hand into it, all you feel is a caress. Water is not a solid wall, it will not stop you. But water always goes where it wants to go, and nothing in the end can stand against it. Water is patient. Dripping water wears away a stone. Remember that, my child. Remember you are half water. If you can’t go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.

In my short story The Way of Water (La natura dell’acqua), water’s connection with love flows throughout the story:

The Way of Water-COVERThey met in the lobby of a shabby downtown Toronto hotel. Hilda barely knew what she looked like but when Hanna entered the lobby through the front doors, Hilda knew every bit of her. Hanna swept in like a stray summer rainstorm, beaming with the self-conscious optimism of someone who recognized a twin sister. She reminded Hilda of her first boyfriend, clutching flowers in one hand and chocolate in the other. When their eyes met, Hilda knew. For an instant, she knew all of Hanna. For an instant, she’d glimpsed eternity. What she didn’t know then was that it was love. 

Love flowed like water, gliding into backwaters and lagoons with ease, filling every swale and mire. Connecting, looking for home. Easing from crystal to liquid to vapour then back, water recognized its hydrophilic likeness, and its complement. Before the inevitable decoherence, remnants of the entanglement lingered like a quantum vapour, infusing everything. Hilda always knew where and when to find Hanna on Oracle, as though water inhabited the machine and told her. Water even whispered to her when her wandering friend was about to return from the dark abyss and land unannounced on her doorstep. 

In a world of severe water scarcity through climate catastrophe and geopolitical oppression, the bond of these two girls—to each other through water and with water—is like the shifting covalent bond of a complex molecule, a bond that fuses a relationship of paradox linked to the paradoxical properties of water. Just as two water drops join, the two women find each other in the wasteland of intrigue. Hilda’s relationship with Hanna—as with water—is both complex and shifting according to the bonds they make and break.

Using the Senses 

Readers don’t just “watch” a character in a book; they enter the character’s body and “feel”.

How do writers satisfy the readers’ need to experience the senses fully? Description, yes. But how cold is cold? What does snow really smell like? What color is that sunset? How do you describe the taste of wine to a teetotaler?

Literal description is insufficient. To have the sense sink in and linger with the reader, it should be linked to the emotions and memories of the character experiencing it. By doing this, you are achieving several things at the same time: describing the sense as the character is experiencing it—emotionally; revealing additional information on the character through his/her reaction; and creating a more compelling link for the reader’s own experience of the sense.

Senses can be explored by writers through metaphor, linking the sense to memories, using synesthesia (cross-sensory metaphor), linking the sense psychologically to an emotion or attitude, and relating that sense in a different way (e.g., describing a visual scene from the point of view of a painter or photographer—painting with light). How a sense is interpreted by your protagonist relies on her emotional state, memories associated with that sense and her attitude.

Using Personification

TheWindupGirl Paolo BacigalupiEnvironmental forces—such as weather, climate, forests, mountains, water systems—convey the mood and tone of both story and character. These environmental forces are not just part of the scenery. To a writer, they are devices used in plot, theme and premise. They may also be a compelling character, particularly in eco-fiction, climate-fiction, and speculative fiction. Dystopian fiction often explores a violent world of contrast between the affluent and vulnerable poor that often portrays the aftermath of economic and environmental collapse (e.g., Maddaddam Trilogy, The Windup Girl, Snowpiercer, Interstellar, Mad Max). In any fiction genre it is important to get the science right. Readers of fiction with strong environmental components, however, expect to learn as much from the potential reality as from the real science upon which the premise depends.

In Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta personifies this life-giving substance whose very nature is tightly interwoven with her main character. As companion and harbinger, water is portrayed simultaneously as friend and enemy. As giver and taker of life.

Memory of Water Emmi ItarantaWater is the most versatile of all elements … Water walks with the moon and embraces the earth, and it isn’t afraid to die in fire or live in air. When you step into it, it will be as close as your own skin, but if you hit it too hard, it will shatter you … Death is water’s close companion. The two cannot be separated, and neither can be separated from us, for they are what we are ultimately made of: the versatility of water, and the closeness of death. Water has no beginning and no end, but death has both. Death is both. Sometimes death travels hidden in water, and sometimes water will chase death away, but they go together always, in the world and in us. 

Personification of natural things provides the reader with an image they can clearly and emotionally relate to and care about. When a point-of-view character does the describing, we get a powerful and intimate indication of their thoughts and feelings—mainly in how they connect to place (often as symbol). When this happens, place and perception entwine in powerful force.

Donald Maass writes in Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook: “The beauty of seeing a locale through a particular perspective is that the point-of-view character cannot be separated from the place. The place comes alive, as does the observer of that place, in ways that would not be possible if described using objective point of view.” The POV character’s relationship to place helps identify the transformative elements of their journey. Such transformation is the theme of the story and ultimately portrays the story’s heart and soul.

Connecting Character with Environment

Strong relationships and linkages can be forged in story between a major character and an aspect of their environment (e.g., home/place, animal/pet, minor character as avatar/spokesperson for environment [e.g. often indigenous people]). In these examples the environmental aspect serves as symbol and metaphoric connection to theme. They can illuminate through the sub-text of metaphor a core aspect of the main character and their journey: the grounding nature of the land of Tara for Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind; the sacred white pine forests for the Mi’kmaq in Barkskins; The dear animals for Beatrix Potter of the Susan Wittig Albert series.

The immense sandworms of Frank Herbert’s Dune are strong archetypes of Nature—large and graceful creatures whose movements in the vast desert sands resemble the elegant whales of our oceans:

It came from their right with an uncaring majesty that could not be ignored. A twisting burrow-mound of sand cut through the dunes within their field of vision. The mound lifted in front, dusting away like a bow wave in water. 

Misunderstood, except by the indigenous Fremen, the giant sandworms are targeted as a dangerous nuisance by the colonists—when, in fact, they are closely tied to the ecological cycles of the desert planet through water and spice.

Barkskins Annie ProulxAnnie Proulx opens her novel Barkskins with a scene in which René Sel and fellow barkskins (woodcutters) arrive from France in the late seventeenth century to the still pristine wilderness of Canada to settle, trade and accumulate wealth:

In twilight they passed bloody Tadoossac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement … Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.

These bleak impressions of a harsh environment crawling with pests such as bébites and moustiques underlie the combative mindset of the settlers to conquer and seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource. By page seventeen, we know that mindset well. René asks why they must cut so much forest when it would be easier to use the many adequate clearings to build their houses and settlements. Trépagny fulminates: “Easier? Yes, easier, but we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.” He further explains the concept of property ownership that is based on strips of surveyable land parcels—an application of the enclosure system. For them, the vast Canadian boreal forest was never-ending and for the taking: “It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake. swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning,” Trépagny claims.

Leaves dead litter-long sh TNS

Leaf litter in Ontario forest (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Annie Proulx’s Barkskins chronicles two immigrants who arrive in Canada in 1693 (René Sel and Charles Duquet) and their descendants over 300 years of deforestation of North America; a saga that starts with the arrival of the Europeans in pristine forest and ends with a largely decimated forest under the veil of global warming. “Barkskins” (woodcutters) are, in fact indentured servants who were brought from the Paris slums to the wilds of New France to clear the land, build and settle. Sel is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures; Duquet runs away to become a fur trader and builds a timber empire.

The Mi’kmaq are interwoven with the land and the forest. Missionary Pere Crème, who studies language makes this observation of the natives and the forest:

He saw they were so tightly knitted into the natural world that their language could only reflect the union and that neither could be separated from the other. They seemed to believe they had grown from this place as trees grow from the soil, as new stones emerge aboveground in spring. He thought the central word for this tenet, weji-sqalia’timk, deserved an entire dictionary to itself. 

The foreshadowing of doom for the magnificent forests is cast by the shadow of how settlers treat the Mi’kmaq people. The fate of the forests and the Mi’kmaq are inextricably linked through settler disrespect for anything indigenous and a fierce hunger for “more” of the forests and lands. Ensnared by settler greed, the Mi’kmaq lose their own culture and their links to the natural world erode with grave consequence. In a pivotal scene, Noë, a Mi’kmaw descendent of René Sel, grows enraged when she sees a telltale change in her brothers:

The offshore wind had shifted slightly but carried the fading clatter of boots on rock. They were wearing boots instead of moccasins. Noë knew what that meant but denied it … The men should be setting out to hunt moose, but because of the boots she knew they were going to work for the French logger.

 

Other Articles on Environmental Fiction, Eco-Fiction and Climate Fiction 

Can Dystopian Eco-Fiction Save the Planet?

Science Fiction on Water Justice & Climate Change

Windup Girl: When Monsanto Gets Its Way

Eco-Artist Roundtable with Frank Horvat on Green Majority Radio

 

Thanks to Mary Woodbury for the permission to share her survey results here. Much of the second part of this article is excerpted from the “Story” section of  The Ecology of Story: World as Character.

grape leaves in fall-halifax copy

Grape leaves on fence in Toronto, ON (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.

Defining Moments and The Last Summoner

A few years ago I attended a panel at Toronto’s Ad Astra convention called “Stealth Science Fiction in Person of Interest.” The panel was the brainchild of fellow science fiction writer Ira Nayman, an avid watcher of the TV show. Unbeknownst to me, the panel I’d been assigned to participate with Ira and another panelist was about a TV show (which I’d never seen)—not just an expression.

I bumbled in the beginning as realization dawned on me that this was what the panel was about and quietly berated myself for not rereading the short description (which had been sufficiently vague—at least to me). I finally let the panelists and audience know my limitation when Ira astutely noted that I was being extra reticent (not one of my usual traits in panels). We muddled along, despite my infirmity, and the panel went along admirably—mainly because Ira moderated with great astuteness and audience members participated enthusiastically.

One of the plot points of the show led Ira to share a personality-defining hypothetical dilemma that he’d encountered. Here’s how he described it: if you knew you could save five people by instigating the death of another person, would you do it? Or would you, by your inaction, allow the five to die by not instigating that person’s death? The premise, of course, is that you could tell the future of two divergent actions.

LastSummoner-coverI realized soon after that this is exactly the situation that my main character Vivianne Schoen, the Baroness Von Grunwald, faced in her journey to change the history she’d inadvertently authored (in The Last Summoner). As a medieval time traveler, she was presented with several courses of history and needed to choose her actions carefully in accordance with both short-term and long-term consequences. Faced with the possibility of saving utterly millions of people who were fated to perish in World War I by instigating the death of one man—Kaiser Wilhelm II—Vivianne sets out to do the deed.

Besides her ability to time travel, Vivianne is able to manipulate metal through mind-wave energy. Because of this power, she decides to participate in a momentous event in which her power will have a potentially deadly effect. The year is 1889, just a year after Kaiser Wilhelm II was crowned Emperor, and the place is Charlottenburg Race Course in Berlin in this excerpt from The Last Summoner:

VIVIANNE pulled up the collar and hood of her fur coat to ward off the November chill as she walked next to Jurgen von Eisenreich in Berlin’s Charlottenburg Race Course. The coat barely kept the winter wind from cutting through her cream- colored evening gown. Fastened at the back, it had no bustle and signaled the upcoming style. They were here to watch Europe’s latest touring attraction from America: Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Steering her by the elbow, von Eisenreich guided her up the rafter stairs toward the Royal Box, where the new Emperor was already seated with his retinue of several statesmen, including his aides-de-camp, and two imperial guards. Vivianne recognized the odious and obsequious Count Alfred von Waldersee, seated beside the Emperor. Twenty-seven years the Kaiser’s senior, the Count was a power-mongering anti-Semite, who would prove to mold the weak-minded Crown Prince into the bigoted warlord Kaiser Wilhelm II was becoming.

Wilhelm II

Kaiser Wilhelm II

Vivianne stole a long glance to the Reich’s young ruler. It had been just a year since the Crown Prince had ascended to the imperial thrown and he had already stirred up trouble with his insulting behavior of his mother, the dowager Empress, and his uncompassionate handling of his father’s funeral; then his shabby treatment of England’s Queen and her son, the Prince of Wales.

Vivianne furtively studied the dashing thirty-year old ruler with deep interest. Dressed impeccably in uniform, he was rakishly handsome, she decided, with sharp intelligent eyes, a long aristocratic nose and well-waxed handle-bar mustache. She found herself staring at his withered left arm, which he rested on his lap. Though she could not make it out, it was a good six inches shorter than the other arm and partially lifeless. He’d been a breech birth and both he and his mother were lucky to be alive.

Vivianne reflected on that eventful day when she’d botched her attempt to save the last Emperor of Germany from an unnatural birth. While Oskar had been instantly killed, the doctor had survived the carriage accident with only a severe concussion; he’d still only managed to get to Unter den Linden by early afternoon, having lain unconscious and unattended for most of the morning then having awoken at Humboldt Hospital where he’d ironically been scheduled to speak that day and had then foolishly insisted on tending to Vivianne first, who’d suffered a nasty head wound that she hadn’t even been aware of receiving.

The Emperor—like Vivianne—was here, in the District of Charlottenburg in West Berlin, to see the show’s star attraction, Annie Oakley, who acquired world fame for her skills with a Colt .45. The young sharpshooter had been invited by the Kaiser for a private performance for the Union-Club. Vivianne found her breaths escalate at the thought of what the impetuous Kaiser was about to do; and what she intended to do, as a result. Was it an ironic twist of history that only months ago Adolf Hitler was born this year? Vivianne glanced down at the program in her gloved hand:

Programme of Miss Annie Oakley’s Private Performance Before the Members and Their Friends of the Union-Club, Berlin, on November 13, 1889, at Charlottenburg Race Course.

There followed a list of up to seventeen feats she would perform, beginning with her exhibition of rifle shooting, followed by clay-pigeon sharp-shooting then various feats involving trapping and agility in weapon handling. She was not fated to get very far in her program before calamity of sorts would strike, Vivianne thought cynically.

“He’s alone…without his family?” she asked von Eisenreich. That would make it much easier, she concluded with an inward sigh.

“Dona prefers the comfort and warmth of the royal palace in Potsdam, and the company of her children,” he responded. “She’s not interested in this sort of thing. She has few interests other than church service, I’m afraid.” Then he leaned his head close to hers to confide. “Ten years ago, Wilhelm was smitten by his beautiful cousin, Victoria Elizabeth, the second eldest daughter of the Grand Duke and Duchess of Hesse and the Rhine. But Ella wouldn’t have him.” Then von Eisenreich surveyed Vivianne with an appraising look and smiled enigmatically. “In fact, she looked a lot like you.”

Vivianne swallowed down a sudden discomfort, not sure of its source. Von Eisenreich went on, “Poor Wilhelm became very self-conscious about his arm and thought himself unattractive. That might be why he chose a plain and simple, but pious woman.”

More like narrow-minded, anti-Semitic and bigoted thought Vivianne. Unfortunately the Empress fit in too well with the Kaiser’s own bigoted views and apparently her nature only served to exacerbate the Kaiser’s arrogance and insufferable nature.

Von Eisenreich chuckled to himself. “I heard that the Empress Dona was called unimaginative and prejudiced by the Emperor’s own mother. Dona hates the English. But don’t we all!” He laughed.

Vivianne thought of the cutting words of the gossiping socialite, Daisy, Princess of Pless: for a woman in that position I have never met anyone so devoid of any individual thought or agility of brain and understanding. She is just like a good, quiet, soft cow that has calves and eats grass slowly then lies down and ruminates.

“Apart from that homosexual, Count Philipp von Eulenburg, I’m the Emperor’s only real friend,” von Eisenreich confided rather smugly to Vivianne as they approached the Royal Box.

As if he felt her stealthy glance, the Kaiser turned to look directly at her. After an unabashedly long appraisal, he let his eyes drift away and leaned out, looking past his aide to focus on von Eisenreich. “Ah, Jurgen! So that’s why you dallied and missed my retinue!” The Kaiser yelled in a coarse Potsdam accent, eyes flitting back critically to Vivianne like she was merchandize. He stood up and clapped von Eisenreich hard on the back, clearly happy to see him. Vivianne got a clear view of his short left arm with dark brown mole on his shriveled hand. She noted that he was rather short in stature for a man, about her height or less, with a squat and slightly lopsided neck—owing to his left arm being shorter than the other. Eisenreich drew Vivianne forward.

“This is the Comptesse d’Anjou,” von Eisenreich said.

She pulled down her hood and curtsied slightly, eyes downcast. “I’m honored and humbled, your Imperial Majesty,” she said.

“No doubt you are!” he responded, swiftly tucking his left hand in his pocket. When she raised her eyes to meet his, Vivianne caught the brief instant as his eyes grew wide and deep with hidden intensity.
 Jurgen caught it too. “I thought so, also,” he said with amusement to the Emperor. He was, no doubt referring to her likeness to the Princess Ella.

The Kaiser sucked in a breath and straightened with an imperceptible tremble, as if to shake off an old memory. Then he gave Vivianne a cold smile and extended his good hand to her in greeting. She accepted and instantly winced with excruciating pain. He barked out a cruel laugh and said, “The French are, I’m afraid, just like the English when it comes to my German mailed fist!”

Vivianne had heard of his sadistic handshake: he was in the habit of turning his many rings inward prior to clasping one’s hand with a vice-like grip. Somehow, she hadn’t expected him to inflict her with it. Perhaps it was his way of punishing his cousin for not accepting his marriage proposal, she concluded, regretful of her resemblance. The Kaiser hung on to her hand much longer than he needed to, Vivianne decided, squirming and attempting to retract it from his painful grasp. His grip was too strong.

Their eyes locked. And to her frustrated anger, her eyes teared up with the stinging pain through her glove.

In that moment she saw the hurt little boy in that bigoted, arrogant and angry face. She instantly knew that she’d misjudged one of his critical nexuses. Her mission this day might have been prevented. If she’d intersected with his life earlier, and somehow convinced his beloved Ella to accept his proposal, the single-minded but compassionate princess might have softened him, completed him, inspired him to be the great man he could have become instead of the bitter and insecure bully he now was.

Something passed between them and he abruptly let go of her hand with a sudden intake of air. “I beg pardon,” he said, voice softening from that harsh Potsdam accent. “You reminded me of someone I once knew…” In a flush of solicitous emotion, he pulled off her glove to inspect the damage he’d inflicted on her hand. Several red welts had surfaced on the inside of her lower palm where his rings had gouged into her flesh. “Ahh…such dear soft and warm hands…” he cooed in near reverence. “How remarkable…the soft insides of your hands…”

Vivianne slowly pulled her hand away.

They both looked awkward for a moment. Then the Kaiser broke out into a blustery laugh and turned to von Eisenreich.

“So, where’s your good wife, von Eisenreich?”

“Like you, I left her at home with my dear children, where she should be, your Majesty,” von Eisenreich responded cheerfully. “They’re no fun at these sorts of things.”

“Ah, but I wager the Comptesse is,” said the Emperor brashly and took the opportunity to rake her over with appreciative eyes.

Von Eisenreich let loose a conspiratorial laugh, as if to ratify the Kaiser’s innuendo. He then leaned into Vivianne beside him with a chuckle until his shoulder collided into hers. “I brought my lovely companion, the charming Comptesse d’Anjou, to improve my demeanour and make me interesting.”

The Kaiser threw his head back and shouted an open- mouthed laugh of abandon then stomped his foot. “Indeed, she has managed that!” He surveyed Vivianne with critical eyes that flashed with approval. When she’d first been introduced to him, she’d felt the Kaiser’s burning gaze roam over her like the eager hands of a lover. “Good choice,” Wilhelm said.

He’d clearly deduced that she was von Eisenreich’s mistress and Jurgen had as much as confirmed it. The Kaiser had several mistresses of his own and Vivianne had the impression he wouldn’t have minded another.

As Uta had predicted, Vivianne had indeed filled out into what most men commonly considered a woman of striking beauty. And she’d had many years to cultivate it into an irresistible package. She was now over four hundred years old, yet she looked no more than in her early twenties. That arcane quality alone, she knew, was enough to drive men to distraction.

Vivianne had only met von Eisenreich last week at a masked ball and, knowing his weakness for beautiful women, she’d shamelessly flirted with him; within short order she’d seduced his keen interest in her and ensured for herself an invitation to this event.

The Kaiser let his gaze stray to Vivianne as he spoke to von Eisenreich. Then he finally let his eyes rest openly on her with a cool smile. “You speak German very well for a French woman, Comptesse,” he said to her. “I detected no accent when we were first introduced.”

She smiled demurely and didn’t bother to correct him on her German lineage.

Annie Oakley

Annie Oakley

Then the show began and their attention was diverted to the ring below. Vivianne’s heart raced when Annie Oakley finally emerged. The diminutive woman stood facing the royal box in a smartly collared buckskin dress, bedecked with glittering metals from contests she’d won, cowboy hat, and holding her Colt .45.

Von Eisenreich leaned his head close to hers. “Chief Sitting Bull gave her the nickname of ‘Little Sure Shot’ because of her dead shot with a pistol, rifle and shotgun. Did you know that she began handling firearms at the tender age of nine to supply her widowed mother with game and eventually paid off the mortgage on her mother’s house?”

Vivianne let her brows rise in impressed surprise. In truth she knew. She knew everything about the American sharp-shooter. At 90 feet Annie could shoot a dime tossed in the air. With the thin edge of a playing card facing her at 90 feet, she could hit the card and puncture it with five or six more shots as it settled to the ground.

Vivianne felt her mouth go dry; she knew what came next.

With a flourishing turn, Annie faced the royal box and announced, “For my final act, I will attempt to shoot the ashes from the cigar of a lady or gentleman in the audience. “Who will volunteer to hold the cigar?” she asked the audience. Vivianne’s heart pounded. She knew that the little sharpshooter from Cincinnati expected no one to volunteer; Annie had simply asked for laughs. Her attentive manager-husband, Frank Butler, always stepped forward and offered himself. Not this time—

Just as laughter bubbled up in the crowd, Kaiser Wilhelm leapt out of the royal box and strutted into the arena to a stunned audience. Laughter turned to gasps as the Kaiser approached the sharpshooter. Annie Oakley visibly stiffened. In horror, Vivianne thought. The two guards scrambled forward from the rafters but the Kaiser gruffly waved them off. Vivianne marveled at Annie’s cool resolve; after handing the cigar to Wilhelm, the performer paced off her usual distance and the Kaiser lit the cigar with flourish.

Several German policemen rushed into the arena in a panicked attempt to preempt the stunt, but the Kaiser brusquely waved them off too. Then he lifted his head and placed the cigar to his mouth in a pose of a statue.

“No,” Annie said. “In your hand, please, Your Majesty,” she instructed. He looked disappointed but did as she’d asked.

Annie raised her Colt and took aim.

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Royal Irish Rifles in the Somme, 1916

Vivianne swallowed the gorge in her throat. This was the moment she’d waited for; the moment for which she’d come. If this volatile and ambitious ruler were removed from the scene, one of the key reasons for World War I would also vanish. An entire world war would likely be averted. She only had to redirect the bullet; it was made of metal, after all. Kill a bully and incriminate and ruin the life of an innocent young woman … in exchange for over two million lives and the prevention of an age of non-stop violence—

Annie fired.

First World War wounded

Carrying the wounded and dead out of the battle field

“For those in love with science fiction at its best, The Last Summoner is a complex story of ignored responsibilities and their dire consequences, of love and betrayal that span centures and multiple worlds. Time travel, multiverse travel, immortality, alternate history in which the Nazies have won, not in the twentieth century but way earlier, in the Teutonic age. Angels and mutants, utopias and dystopias, even a Tesla occurrence—everything a science fiction reader could ever desire in a book. A masterfully told story with great characters. Nina Munteanu moves flawlessly from a medieval story to a modern one and everything in between.”—Costi Gurgu, author of RecipeArium

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At the mouth of Thompson Creek, ON (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.

Cymatics: How Frequency Changes the Very Nature of Matter and Energy

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Reeds in Otonabee River (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Music can help recover damaged brain function by activating parts of the brain that are nearby—Oliver Sacks

If, indeed God moves us to express that within us which is divine, then poetry is the language of the heart and music is the language of the soul—Nina Munteanu

We are creatures of rhythm; circadian, diurnal, seasonal. Let’s face it; our environment—light especially—affects our behavior, psychologically, physiologically and even socially. For instance, mood-altering chemicals generated in the pineal gland in our brain, are partially affected by the light received from our retina. In an earlier post, entitled “The Mozart Effect: The Power of Music” I discussed how music can heal the body, strengthen the mind and unlock the creative spirit. For instance, music with a pulse of about sixty beats per minute can shift consciousness from the beta wave (ordinary consciousness at 14-20 Hz) toward the alpha range (heightened awareness at 8-13 Hz), enhancing alertness and general well-being.

Our world is composed of energy, light, sound and matter, all expressed at different frequencies.

The study of cymatics, coined by Hans Jenny from the Greek word kyma (wave), explores how sound affects gases, liquids, plasmas and solids and how vibrations, in the broad sense, generate and influence patterns, shapes and moving processes. When sound travels through non-solids it moves in longitudinal waves called compression waves. In matter, the medium is displaced by sound waves, causing it to oscillate at a frequency relative to the sound, and visible patterns emerge.

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Water drops in rainfall on Otanabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Robert Hooke, and Ernst Chladni investigated this phenomenon in the 1400s, 1500s, 1700s, and 1800s, respectively. In 1967, Hans Jenny, a Swiss doctor, artist, and researcher, published Kymatik-Wellen und Schwingungen mit ihrer Struktur und Dynamik/ Cymatics (The Structure and Dynamics of Waves and Vibrations). Like Chladni two hundred years earlier, Jenny showed what happened when one took various materials like sand, spores, iron filings, water, and viscous substances, and placed them on vibrating metal plates and membranes. What then appeared were shapes and motion-patterns which varied from the nearly perfectly ordered and stationary to those that were turbulently developing, organic, and constantly in motion.

Using crystal oscillators and his invention called a “tonoscope” to set plates and membranes vibrating, Jenny controlled frequency and amplitude/volume to demonstrate that simple frequencies and songs could rearrange the essential molecular structure of water and other materials.

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Raindrops falling among reeds in Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Jenny was convinced that biological evolution was a result of vibrations, and that their nature determined the ultimate outcome. He speculated that every cell has its own frequency and that a number of cells with the same frequency create a new frequency which is harmonious with the original, which in its turn possibly formed an organ that also created a new frequency in harmony with the two preceding ones. Jenny was saying that the key to understanding how we can heal the body with the help of tones lies in our understanding of how different frequencies influence genes, cells and various structures in the body.

Boldly extended his tonoscope research into voice and language, Jenny discovered that when the vowels of ancient Hebrew and Sanskrit were pronounced, the sand took the shape of the written symbols for these vowels, while modern languages didn’t generate the same result. This has led spiritual philosophers to ponder if “sacred languages” (including Tibetan and Egyptian) have the power to influence and transform physical reality, to create things through their inherent power, or through the recitation or singing of sacred texts, to heal a person who has gone “out of tune”?

Cymatics photographer and author Alexander Lauterwasser showed that:

  • Higher frequencies created more intricate and complex patterns
  • Typical line types were radial and spherical or elliptical lines that repeated the outer form of the perimeter
  • When asymmetrical shapes developed at certain frequencies, symmetrical shapes always formed in between

In a controversial movie called “Water”, Rustum Roy, professor at the State University of Pennsylvania and Member of the International Academy of Sciences, suggested that water has “memory”, based on the structure it takes on as a result of electromagnetic fields and various frequencies to which it is exposed.

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Rain falling among reeds in Otonabee River, ON (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’m a practicing aquatic scientist and this is what I find fascinating: noting that the human brain is 75% water, it is not surprising that we can be affected by the shape and form of water itself—and, in turn, may shape water with our minds. This is in itself a startling admission and opens up a myriad of controversial topics, which many scientists find hard to reconcile and refuse to investigate, let alone entertain. And, yes, I am edging into the area of metaphysics, of “science fiction”, of “fanciful thinking”. A place populated by heretics who do “questionable science”, those rogue mavericks who dare step outside the realm of traditional science to imagine, to dare ask the unaskable, to dare pursue a truth using unconventional means.

Here’s my point: water is important to us in ways science can’t even begin to explain. Because science can’t yet explain it, should we abandon the potential and its investigation? All good science was once perceived as magic before it was understood.

Let me take it one step further:

I posit that our entire bodies are sending and receiving vibrations at different frequencies with our environment, other people, other animals around us, inanimate objects, even the seemingly ‘empty’ space. Our intimate relationship with frequency and waves has permeated our culture more than you may realize, including the metaphors we have seamlessly adopted in our common language: terms like “bad vibes”, “making waves”, “you can feel the tension”, and “you could cut the air in here with a knife”.

LastSummoner-coverIf you think this is all too weird, consider the weirdness of quantum mechanics, which shows us that not only is “solid” matter made up mostly of energy and “empty” space but what makes a solid a chair vs. you sitting on it is the vibration of its energy. Quantum science has demonstrated that light and matter are made of both particles and waves (New Scientist, May 6, 2010) and can exist in two simultaneous states. Let’s consider, for instance, “entanglement” (quantum non-local connection), the notion that particles can be linked in such a way that changing the quantum state of one instantaneously affects the other, even if they are light years apart. And what does it mean when solid flows, ghost-like, through itself under certain conditions? Or parallel universes created by splitting realities? Check out my historical fantasy novel The Last Summoner for a unique take on this popular notion.

Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feyman says of the paradoxes presented by quantum mechanics, “the ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ought to be.”

Magic, again… The mind is powerful and graceful in its unanswerable and infinite beauty.

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Near shore of Otonabee River early evening, ON (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.

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.

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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:

 

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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.