04 June 2010

Writers and Climate Change

On Tuesday of this week I went along to the National Concert Hall to see Ian McEwan in conversation with Stewart Brand, the opening event of this year's Dublin Writers' Festival. Ian McEwan's latest novel, 'Solar', takes a sarcastic/humorous approach to Climate Change and the economic opportunities presented by scientific attempts to combat it, or so I am told for unfortunately I have not read it, or any other of McEwan's books. Stewart Brand, on the other hand, is someone I am quite familiar with, his latest book "Whole Earth Discipline" occupied a good deal of my thoughts back in February of this year.

Brand and McEwan are good friends, admirers of each other's work, and share sympathetic views on how to deal with climate change. In "Whole Earth Discipline" Brand argues for nuclear power, genetically modified food, massive planetary engineering projects and a green capitalist economic revolution as the only solutions to our current crises. At no stage is there any serious attempt to suggest a reduction in consumption levels, his starting point is the assumption that consumption and consumerism will continue apace and technologies must arise to meet this demand without adding to the ecological woes of the planet, and this, more than his promotion of nuclear and gmo, is what depresses me most about his arguments. Capitalism should, and will, continue apace and we must all figure out a way to accomodate that.

Brand gave a TED talk last year just before the publication of "Whole Earth Discipline" that gives a pretty good overview of his main arguments:

At the start of Tuesday night's dialogue Ian McEwan was asked if novelists had any role to play in the climate change debate, and after expressing dismay that there still was a debate he basically said that no, when writers try to educate through a novel it ends up being very boring and nobody is interested in a preachy book, that sort of thing is better left to writers of scientific non-fiction, like Brand.

Nobody challenged him on this point, but if they were to they really could do no better than offering up Paolo Bacigalupi's Hugo nominated novel "The Windup Girl", described by the authour as "a dark dsytopic science fiction novel about crushing environmental issues". It is an amazing treatment of the implications of climate change, peak-everything, patented sterile GMO-crops, engineered viruses and the clash between statist and capitalist approaches to all of these crises. Published by Night Shade Books, a small scale press operating out of San Francisco, it is an impressive debut novel making a big impact on the strength of its writing alone.

Bacigalupi visited Google in Mountain View last week to talk about his book, and they've uploaded the video to YouTube, but this only captures a flavour of the wealth of ideas and concepts explored in his book.

I had just finished "The Windup Girl" a few hours before Brand and McEwan's talk, and it was a powerful antidote to their rhetoric indeed, affirming in my mind the positive role speculative fiction can have in sociological, political and cultural debates, despite Ian McEwan's objections.


2010 Dublin Writers' Festival
'Solar' by Ian McEwan
'Whole Earth Discipline' - by Stewart Brand
'The Windup Girl' - by Paolo Bacigalupi
Night Shade Books



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