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I must admit, I love this title, because it says everything that’s wrong with ecology these days. Right. Don’t worry, this ends up in science fiction in about seven paragraphs.
The title comes from the August 2010 issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which fortunately for all of us is available free online. This journal is published by the Ecological Society of America (yep, I’m a member), and it’s about all the problems ecologists, climatologists, and environmental scientists are having getting the public to tune in to reality. And yes, that’s my bias.
But the interesting thing for me is how much a culture clash there is. Back as a grad student, I got a paper bounced from several publications on the grounds that “we don’t publish speculation.” To their credit, they did publish a mathematical model I created, but this mindset was fascinating. Some of these people were colleagues of a late, lamented giant in that field who said something like “evolutionary biology is for people who can’t do field science.” Since I respect his field science a great deal, I won’t name him. However, this refusal to deal with the past, or to play with conjecture, was and is striking.
Back to the Frontiers in Ecology articles, on “Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies.” It made me sigh, because it’s so earnest. My favorite is the shortest, Katherine Ellison’s ‘Media mea culpa’. She’s a professional journalist, and she points out the problems the media have in covering environmental issues.
Two quotes particularly stand out:
“’The great need isn’t to explain the science one more time, as many reporters seem to think’, says David Roberts, who covers climate-change issues for the online magazine, Grist. ‘People just can’t absorb it unless they can picture a reasonable way out.’”
and her closing thought:
“Averting the worst climate-change scenarios will require nothing less than the systematic upheaval of our economy. My hope is that we journalists still have time to help lead the charge, instead of merely being swept up in it.”
This is where we get to the culture conflict and science fiction. Science fiction, to grossly oversimplify, uses the future as a setting, and when it inspires, it seems to inspire mostly the wonderful gadgets and scenarios that inspire young readers to go into the technology fields to create these things. Love it or hate it, Start Trek has inspired loads of engineers, as did Neuromancer (cyberspace) and Snow Crash (Second Life).
Ecologists tend to get into their science by reading John Muir, or by those long hikes their families took when they were young, and they tend to get radicalized when they see their favorite areas trashed. Many have read science fiction, but now days, they are too busy saving the world (ideally), or at least trying to keep employed (speaking for myself).
Beginning to see the disconnect between cultures? While there are whole subfields of disaster science fiction, the future inspires SF. In ecology, the past inspires, and the future is the problem. To make it even more explicit, I’ll point to a question from Don Fitch to John Scalzi the current president of the Science Fiction Writers of America, a few months ago:
from Don Fitch: ” Plants. I’m pretty sure you’re not A Plant Person — not much beyond lettuce, tomato, onion on a hamburger, or grass; a small tree in photos of sunsets — but I’m wondering if you’re as virtually-blind to plants the way some s-f writers/readers I know are.”
Scalzi’s answer: … “So, no, I don’t think I’m virtually-blind to alien flora, but I do think alien flora on an earth-like planet (where many of my books take place) will be at least slightly familiar.” (I cut out the rest).
Oh dear. It’s not a question about alien plants, John, it’s about whether you see the world around you.
I like Scalzi. He’s one of the more ecologically aware major authors out there. He deserves credit, but the thing that sucks is that there are so few authors like him. And even he may have trouble seeing the trees outside his window, unless a camera is involved.
To oversimplify, we have ecologists who don’t like the speculation on one side, and on the other side, we have science fiction writers who, as a group, are thought to be tree-blind if not totally clueless about anything that isn’t shiny.
We also have declining readership of science fiction.
To me, this looks like a couple of problems that have a common soluton. The environmental community is stuck with doom-and-gloom as their deeply engrained belief in the future, and the science fiction community has a lot of trouble imagining a future that realistically solves the problems we all know are out there. Part of the problem may be the publishing culture of science fiction, rather than the authors, but still, good environmental science fiction is scarce, and it even more rarely gets wide readership.
Recently there was Scalzi’s Metatropolis and Jason Andrew’s Shine, both collections of short stories. And…I’m not sure what else. Did any of you read either of these? They’re not bad.
So the question for discussion is: what does a reasonable future look like? Can we bridge the cultures of the ecologists and the futurists? Or do we see both of them, bashing their heads on opposite sides of the same brick wall?
And while we’re at it, can we have some of the writers from Wired go over and help on the titles of Frontiers? “Effective Communication of Science in Environmental Controversies” is a sleep aid, not a phrase that gets me motivated.
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