Wednesday, January 13, 2016

An Interview with Berkeley novelist and social activist Steve Masover on Pressing Issues of the Anthrocene Age

INTRO: Steve Masover is the author of a debut novel titled "Consequence,"  published in paperback last September (2015). See the Amazon description and ordering link here.  In a recent email interview with this blog, Steve was kind enough to answer our questions below about literature, climate change and other pressing and important issues, and the power of novels and movies to effect change in society and national leadership in nations around the world. It's a fascinating discusssion, and his answers are worth pondering and underlining.


@Cli_Fi_Books: What are your personal thoughts, as both a longtime Berkeley social activist and a novelist, about how climate-themed novels such as FLIGHT BEHAVIOR by Barbara Kingsolver or ODDS AGAINST TOMORROW by Nathaniel Rich and other novels dubbed now as CLIMATE FICTION, or cli-fi..... might be a sufficiently wide lens [OR NOT] to take in the range of harms that human/industrial activity has inflicted and is currently inflicting on Earth's biosphere? And if NOT a wide enough lens, then how wide should the lens extend outward?

STEVE MASOVER: No single book, whether fiction or non-fiction, can portray the full complexity and range of environmental threats to our planet at serious depth. Ditto for a set of books themed around one aspect (such as climate change) of the spectrum of environmental threats we face. I think all that’s okay, so long as authors don’t pretend that dramatic (in the case of fiction) or analytical (in the case of non-fiction) focus on one or a tailored range of issues (or aspects of an issue) paints the whole picture. In the case of fiction, I think that exploring characters who are grappling with particular issues in a larger environmental and social context is true to how individuals grapple with and in real life … and so can help readers to situate themselves in our precarious moment in human history.

@Cli_Fi_Books: During the Cold War, many folks (yourself included) were pretty convinced that nuclear war was going to do us in [''and it may yet!''], with books and movies like Nevil Shute's ON THE BEACH from 1957 and the movie in 1959 .......and there have been multiple books that have been widely read about the possibility that a virulent contagion that could decimate human populations (The Hot Zone, The Coming Plague);...... a range of biological activities from monocropping to GMO agriculture threatening soil, aquifers, and landscape....... and then there's climate change, which to many (yourself and myself included) looks today like the Biggest Threat Out There, given its clear and inexorable progression and its staggering collateral effects (from drought to rising seas to incalculably vast migrations -- not only of humans). But do you think maybe we're missing something by reducing perception of and dialog about ecological threats to a narrow(ish) focus on climate change? Your thoughts?

STEVE MASOVER: I do think that focus on climate change -- or any issue -- in isolation can distort the range of threats to Earth’s biosphere through over-simplification. We live amid and as a part of complex, interdependent systems, amid complexity that is (as near as I can make out) beyond the ability of individual human beings even to comprehend in toto. Reduction of this complexity to narrow analyses of cause and effect, to isolated problems and focused solutions, is nearsighted and insufficient absent circumspect acknowledgement that any “explanation,” “portrayal,” or “solution” is at best part of a larger picture. That said, I think it makes good sense to emphasize climate change (and what humans can and can’t do about it at this point) in some books and films, so long as that emphasis acknowledges a range of concerns beyond the principal frame of the story or analysis. We humans comprehend and respond to representation of aspects of our world that fit within the scope of our ability to understand. We’re also also capable of serial focus, and of grasping connections between issues and situations on which we focus serially. So I think that telling many stories with diverse foci can have the greatest impact over the long term.

@Cli_Fi_Books: You seem to have been paying close attention. What do you think about the threat of global warming impact events in the future, say 100 to 500 years from now?

STEVE MASOVER: I won’t put a time frame on any predictions: that’s beyond any expertise I can plausibly claim. I think that catastrophic impacts could take many forms, including vast migrations and wars sparked by urgent need and by contested claims to territory. I think those vast migrations could in large part be responses to food and water scarcity in regions whose ecosystems are disrupted by climate change compounded by other factors (industrial waste, monocropping, strip mining, clear-cutting, etc.). I think that if and as modern, developed society is disrupted by drought, wars, and migrations, deadly outbreaks of disease might take great tolls, in part due to limitations on modern medical technology as it too is disrupted. And it’s important to acknowledge strong arguments that we’re seeing the start of this kind of thing already, from climate change’s effect on Syria’s civil war and the migrations that conflict has sparked; to the spread of Valley Fever in the United States, exacerbated by climate change. I think it is safe to say at this point that it’ll get worse before any possibility of it getting better.

@Cli_Fi_Books: Some say that Climapocalypse is coming in the next 50 years, or by 2100 AD at least. I believe it won't happen until 30 more generations, around 500 years from now, and there's still time to plan and think about things. What's your take on the time frame we face as the human species?

STEVE MASOVER: I think the time to plan and act is now. It’s decades ago, actually. But those decades are gone, so let’s get to it. As for fine-grained predictions about what might happen when and just how awful it might be -- I don’t like to indulge in that sort of speculation, I don’t see how it’s practical or helpful. All we need to know is that we’re behind the curve. Let’s get to work.

@Cli_Fi_Books: To fight against man-made global warming (AGW) in the here and now, should we all stop using cars and buses and trucks and airplanes for both transportation and shipping and go cold turkey on the use of fossil fuels in our daily lives or is that too strict a point of view? Should we wait for the government to tell us what to do or should we voluntarily take matters in our own hands. For example, I do not fly in airplanes anymore. I owned or driven a car for 25 years a car now, and just use a bicycle to get around my small town.  I do not travel from my little town. more than 10 miles outside to visit a local university and then back again. I do not take exotic Third World vacations since I do not fly. I  live a simple life and am preparing to try to live as if  the end if coming (to preare in my mind) and what it might be like to face a total NO GO for cars and airplanes and travel and vacations. PERIOD. Is that too extreme OR do you think we need to prepare for these things as a learning curve, just to feel the PAIN?

STEVE MASOVER: I don’t think it hurts to cut back, even to radically cut back on one’s personal share of unsustainable consumption. I think that doing so helps us to adjust to the different (more sustainable) way of living in the world to which we must shift if humankind is to have any sort of a future. It would be best to encourage a habit of thinking of this shift not as “pain,” but rather as living in a different mode. It can only be a good thing to demonstrate to ourselves and each other the ability to live full, satisfied lives while consuming much less than the average person currently does in industrialized nations. On the other hand, individual decisions about consumption are not sufficient to drive the degree of change in aggregate behavior and consumption necessary to put meaningful limits on harms to Earth’s environment. I haven’t found studies that apply exact numbers to this question, but I suspect that if you sum up manufacture and operations for the military, plus commercial transport of ‘civilian’ goods between markets, you’re already talking about orders of magnitude more energy consumption than any reduction that might be achieved by individuals volunteering to ride bikes and reduce or forego use of cars or air travel so long as these are broadly accepted and utilized modes of living. We’ll make systemic changes in humankind’s consumption of energy -- as a collaborative effort across nations, cultures, and economies -- or there won’t be change enough to matter.

@Cli_Fi_Books: I believe that we have about 30 more generations of humans left to prepare for the end. What your take on my take on this? How many generations before the shit hits the fan? IN YOUR POV? I posit 500 more years. Some say 100 years. Some 1,000 more years. Where do you stand on this?

STEVE MASOVER: As I said earlier, I don’t think it’s helpful or practical to indulge in that sort of speculation. I don’t have an opinion to share.

@Cli_Fi_Books: ''ON THE BEACH'' served as a good global wake up call warning flare alarm bell on nuclear war and ''nuclear winter.'' Could a climate-themed novel or movie with the same WARNING BELL / alarm bell power of ''ON THE BEACH'' work to bring world leaders together to face what we face or are literature and cinema just ENTERTAINMENT and escapism, and do they serve no other real purpose than that?

STEVE MASOVER: I think literature and film play a critical role in shaping human understanding of real world issues and solutions, and that changes in human understanding drive changes in social organization and behavior. I don’t think that any one book or film will turn the tide on its own. ''ON THE BEACH'' was extraordinary and powerful in its time. [But] it did not stop development of nuclear weapons or nuclear power. Culture is vast and complicated. So are globally-scaled shifts in  culture and behavior.

@Cli_Fi_Books: Humankind, the human species, faces a major existential threat to our continued existence past 30 more generations or so. I am a pessimist about climate impact events in the distant future, but at the same time I am optimist about life in general myself.  I do think we are ''doomed, doomed'' in 500 more years or so, but I think in a positive approach and in a postive way that we can help future generations prepare for the End by writing and creating multimedia guides about how to die with grace and dignity when the End comes. Is that a bit too extreme? What is your POV on this? I am happy pessimist, I wake up every morning full of life and happiness, but I know or feel we are ''doomed, doomed'' in 500 years or so. Maybe 1000 years. I can ''see'' the future, sort of. Nobody wants to hear what I say or what I ''see.'' Can you see what I see?

STEVE MASOVER: I think lots of people can see what you see, that’s why there’s so much dystopian literature and film being produced, and why so many people are immersing themselves in it. I think that confronting the possibility that such dystopian futures could actually happen is constructive. I do not think it makes sense to give up hope, not now, not yet. The Earth will outlive humankind. Humans may well outlive human civilizations. Perhaps we would do better to be thinking about how to preserve the most valuable aspects of human civilizations in the face of a radically changing planet than about how to die. I’m inclined to be circumspect about writing guides to a future that will probably be different from anything we’ve yet imagined, especially in the longer term.

@Cli_Fi_Books: Is there anything else you' d like to say here?

STEVE MASOVER: Hubris *** is a deep, arguably the deepest wellspring of human troubles. Honest humility coupled with realistically-scaled responses to clear-eyed assessment of dangers is, in my view, key to finding viable paths forward.

*** Hubris [dictionary definition]: ''excessive pride or self-confidence; arrogance''


San Francisco activist Christopher Kalman has little to show for years spent organizing non-violent marches, speak-outs, blockades, and shutdowns for social and environmental justice. When a shadowy eco-saboteur proposes an attack on genetically engineered agriculture, Christopher is ripe to be drawn into a more dangerous game. His certainty that humankind stands on the brink of ecological ruin drives Christopher to reckless acts and rash alliances, pitting grave personal risk against conscientious passion.

"Consequence is a great read, full of building tension and excitement, written by someone who really knows the activist scene, with its moral dilemmas and its ideals. But this isn't just a book about activists--Masover writes about conflicts central to the human situation."

 -- Starhawk, author of ''The Spiral Dance'' and ''The Fifth Sacred Thing''

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