Friday, January 15, 2016

No ‘silver bullet’ exists for fixing climate change: an interview with Steve Masover

No ‘silver bullet’ exists for fixing climate change

By Dan Bloom

On my Internet rounds the other day, quite by chance, I met up online with a Berkeley novelist and social activist named Steve Masover, whose debut novel titled Consequence was published last fall.  In a recent email interview, Masover was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about literature, climate change and and other pressing and important issues of this Anthrocene Age, and we talked about the power of novels and movies to instigate change in society.

First I wanted to know how his Jewish upbringing in the Midwest and California had influenced his life as a social activist and novelist.

“No question about it,” Masover said. “To begin with, as far back as I remember I saw Jewish adults in my community taking a forward and public role in the civil rights and antiwar movements. I still have an ‘I Have A Dream’ button picked out of a basket of buttons honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. that a Jewish school friend’s mother kept in their family’s front hallway in the mid-1960s.

“When our family moved to California, we learned that the rabbi of our new synagogue had marched with King in Selma and protested the war in Vietnam,” he added, noting: “Growing up, the part of the seder that moved me most deeply was when the story of Passover was told to the youngest of The Four Sons, beginning with a verse from the book of Exodus: ‘And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.’

“The lesson of Exodus 13:8 is that each and every one of us is personally located in and responsible for history, what came before us and for what comes after. We don’t live our lives only as individuals, but as members of a community that spans thousands of generations; and we are responsible to and for that community and that history, past and future. My Jewish upbringing was thus a moral education in social engagement and activism.”

During our online chat, when I asked Masover if he felt that novels or nonfiction books on climate issues had the power to impact change, he said he wasn’t sure, noting: “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.”

“In the case of fiction [in novels or movies], I think that exploring characters who are grappling with particular issues in a larger environmental and social context … can help readers to situate themselves in our precarious moment in human history,” he added.

Masover has done his homework and has thought about these issues a lot. He’s see the big picture so to speak.

“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,” Masover told me.  “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.”

When I asked about the future, and how he see things playing out over time, Masover said he didn’t like to put a time frame on any predictions, noting: “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). 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.”

Masover told me that he doesn’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,” he said. “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.”

When I asked the author if a book such as Nevil Shute’s On the Beach published in 1957 compelled world leaders to face the potential catastrophe of nuclear war, Masover said he didn’t think so.

“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.”
AUTHOR ID: Dan Bloom is a climate activist and PR operative based in Taiwan where he runs The Cli-Fi Report.

Steve Masover is the author of "Consequence."

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