An Interview about Science Fiction and the Environment

By David Brin, Ph.D. and Saren Starbridge

1. How important are the environment and environmental concerns in your science fiction writing?

Very important, indeed. Sustainability and diversity are words I use a lot, whether it's in books that involve far-out futuristic settings or locales and situations much closer to home.

Actually though, I'm just part of a long tradition of pro-environmental science fiction novelists. Early in the Twentieth Century, Olaf Stapledon predicted that civilization might collapse from resource depletion, something hardly mentioned anywhere else at his time. Science fiction (at its best) is about exploring issues of how humanity deals with change. And no process of change threatens us more radically than what we are doing now to a natural environment we totally rely upon.

2. What sort of environmental issues and solutions have you dealt with in your writing? How close are any of them to happening?

Earth is my most famous and overtly environmentalist work -- a sprawling treatment of the near future dealing with everything from global warming to rather extravagant forms of potential pollution. Some things that seemed far-fetched when I was writing it, in the mid-to-late eighties, have since come true -- like global warming and world-spanning networks of environmental activism that use the Internet to focus, almost instantly, on a wide variety of abuses. The latter represents the kind of positive trend that may help us keep up with the furious pace of modern change.

My more space-oriented works, like Startide Rising -- are immersed in issues such as how humanity may relate to other species in a complex web of life. Everyone notices the talking dolphins, of course, piloting their own starship to far reaches of the galaxy! The adventure aspects of that novel, and its sequels, speak for themselves. But on another level I'm saying that we have an extra reason for preserving and protecting other species -- the reason that they may be our friends and companions someday, adding diversity and richness to a solar culture that is no longer centered solely on humankind. It changes your attitude toward other creatures, if you consider the possibility that their descendants may actually look your descendants in the eye and demand explanations.

The Postman dealt with the ultimate catastrophe -- a collapse of human civilization and the destructive chaos that would inevitably follow. I'm rather caustic toward the notion that nature will somehow be "better off if humanity just goes away." That's romantic twaddle. Environmentalism came about in the first place because of expanding science, communications and the wealth-driven satiability that has let hundreds of millions stop worrying about daily survival for the first time in history. That has let many of us cease obsessively looking on every other living thing as a food source. Only when the satiability benchmark is passed -- when you're not worried about where your next meal will come from -- do some people become environmentalists. If civilization ever collapses, environmentalism will be the first victim.

This magazine is an example of what will save the world -- a civilization on its way toward becoming universally rich, educated and hyper-tolerant... in other words, eager to preserve the diversity of nature for its own sake, not driven to exploit it by the pangs of hungry bellies.

I suppose the closest any of my predictions have come to reality is in the burgeoning animal rights movement. The aim to include higher creatures such as apes into our system of "human" rights follows directly from trends of the last thirty years.

What's more impressive to me the way habitats and food chains are becoming the true focus of mature environmentalists, who understand that such things matter far more than individual animals. Alas, they are abstract and less easily bonded-to than a fuzzy face. They aren't cute, like pandas, but our long range species survival depends on preserving these networks.

Environmentalism ultimately involves a level of pragmatic self-interest. Saving the world in order to save ourselves. People who don't think so haven't spent time speculating about the needs of his or her great grandchildren. They haven't been reading enough good science fiction.

3. What sort of role do you see for science fiction in exploring environmental issues and solutions?

I've been active in environmental movements since I was a teenage boy scout, during the mid-sixties, when a few science fiction novels were among the only works warning about dangers of pollution, overpopulation and resource depletion. The stark futures they portrayed, in books and films like Soylent Green and Silent Running, helped spur the movement we see spreading across all continents today.

This is all part of something I call the "new immune system against error" in my nonfiction book, The Transparent Society. We evade the worst mistakes only by maintaining an open society in which a million Cassandras are free to poke around and holler about things that they see wrong. Only today, Cassandras are often heeded. Enough to save us? Who can say?

Stark portrayals of possible failure modes -- as in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four -- are self-preventing prophecies. Their value is in warning people so starkly that citizens are frightened into acting to prevent the scenario from ever coming true. That's something you can accomplish better with a good movie or novel than a thousand arguments or demonstrations.

Some of the best modern writers doing this in science fiction today include Kim Stanley Robinson -- who is even more concerned with the issue than I am -- and Greg Bear. Authors who seem bit more pessimistic, but also quite stirring, include Octavia Butler and Nancy Kress.

4. What role do think science fiction might have in environmental education?

I've begun promoting several educational efforts. One is the Webs of Wonder contest to develop internet-based curricula that use good science fiction stories to help teachers illustrate difficult subjects in schools. I hand out annual $1,000 (US) prizes and I hope we'll have several entries this year dealing with environmental curricula. Another effort has been a series of short novels, many of them having environmental themes, aimed at younger readers. The series is called David Brin's Out of Time... an odd choice by the publisher, with several parallel meanings that I hope are inapropos! People can find out more about the series at my own web site.

5. You have mentioned that some science fiction offers a single charismatic hero or the external wisdom of an alien race as the salvation of humanity or planet. Other authors emphasize more social or community-based ways of dealing with issues.

Both approaches have ancient literary traditions. Since Homer, there's been a fascination with the demigod -- or "ubermensch" -- who shakes everything up by dint of his own brilliance, power, or will, needing little justification other than his own inner greatness. Sounds kind of fascist, when I put it that way, right? Yet there are countless tales you and I have enjoyed in which the ubermensch seemed just great, because he or she was on the right side, and uttered the right kind of words. Maybe words that denounced patriarchy? Or Earth-raping exploiters? It's harder to notice demigods, and resent them, when they seem to be on your side.

I don't care for demigods or charismatics. As humans, we are at our best when we take a lot of individual passion and brilliance, and mix it in with lots of debate, science, accountability, more argument, and heaps of honest professional skill. This more mature process sounds less romantic than the Homeric image, but it gets more done. There are plenty of environmental 'heroes' out there. They are most effective in the context of a community... a worldwide community of rising consensus that a living world is much better than a dead one.

6. Your biography mentions that you have three young children and a hundred demanding trees. This sounds as though you think the planet has a future, and that it is a future worth participating in. True?

I am often accused of being an optimist, because I foresee a 60% chance that we'll eke through the crises ahead and make it to an era when humans become mature and careful planet-managers, instead of frantic overexploiters. But I don't consider those odds "optimistic" at all! Not when the alternative is so horrible. Such odds are barely good enough to justify having kids, then using every day to help them become joyful problem-solvers who will be net-benefits to the world.

Pessimists and optimists offer little to this transforming process, because both views encourage complacency. Cautious hopefulness seems best, recognizing that good things are happening. No civilization ever saw so many concerned and active citizens, seeking to hold accountable the forces that might blindly ruin the world.

It means recognizing that self-righteousness is a deadly drug that ruins the problem solving centers of human brains, preventing you from recognizing that even your enemy may have a point or two worth considering as we negotiate our way toward complex solutions to complex problems.

But above all, it requires the endurance to dedicate at least a few moments, each day, to grand matters beyond the frantic scope of daily life... asking yourself "what might I do today, to help shift the odds just a little more toward better tomorrow."