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EcoGeek of the Week: Author, Paolo Bacigalupi

*A NOTE: Those who have a sensitivity to colorful language may want to tread carefully here.

"Paolo Bacigalupi is one of the most exciting of the new breed of short story writers, one whose ecological focus, unflinching penchant for hard truth, and exacting prose is garnering attention inside and outside of the genre." He is a four-time Hugo Award Nominee, a Nebula Nominee, and the winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Award for best science fiction short story of the year. His novel THE WINDUP GIRL will be released this fall from Night Shade Books. He maintains a website at Sample stories from his first collection, "Pump Six and Other Stories," can be found at his website, as well. His story "The Gambler" was recently nominated for a 2009 Hugo for Best Novelette and you can read it online via Pyr Books.

This is one of the most fascinating in our series of interviews with SciFi authors about our ecological future, and we thank Paolo for joining us.

EcoGeek: What did you imagine the world would be like when you were a kid? Is it better or worse than your childhood fantasies?

Paolo Bacigalupi: I thought we were all going to live in space. Now I'm just hoping we'll still get to keep living on Earth.

EcoGeek: Many of your stories, such as "The People of Sand and Slag" have a dystopian edge to them, and you've said of yourself, "I’m filled with techno-suspicion rather than techno-joy." Despite all that, do you think there are technologies that can have a positive impact on the environment?

Paolo Bacigalupi: I don't doubt our technological capacity, that's actually why I wrote "The People of Sand and Slag." I don't see our environmental ills as a failure of technical capacity. Many technologies can have a positive effect on the environment; the problem is us, and where we tend to focus our innovative energy.

As environmental ideas have entered the zeigeist, mostly thanks to global warming--and still mostly focused on that issue--plenty of technology companies are lining up to tell us how they're helping green/save/clean the environment. Advertising agencies and PR firms are delighted to sell us any number of "green" gizmos and they're throwing in some nice self-esteem blowjobs for all of us, using their persuasive talents to assure us that we're enlightened and forward thinking because we just stuffed a green X into our Prius.

But green blowjobs aren't really my gig. I'm not interested in PV cells, or solar paint, or zero emissions cars, or any of a zillion other objects that companies want to sell us so that we can feel good about ourselves while we roar off the cliff. If I had to think of a couple technologies that I greatly admire, I would say... wool sweaters and long underwear are fabulous. They have a low manufacturing cost and are far more efficient than burning coal for electric heat, or burning heating oil, and they might even obviate the need for a better-insulated house. I remain enamored with bicycles and their gears. These technologies are so wonderfully elegant and do so much while asking so little that I like them quite a lot. And certainly I like the hat and gloves I wear so that I can ride my bike to work in the winter, instead of being tempted to drive my car.

But the one--the most absolutely key, the rock star green technology--that I champion over all others is birth control: vasectomies, IUDs, the pill, condoms. I don't care which kind you or your family prefers or finds most appropriate, I love them all. Any technology that reduces the absolute number of consumers (and particularly Americans and Europeans who consume the most) now that's a TECHNOLOGY!

[ED NOTE: Also see the post "Optimistic CO2 Sci-Fi" from Paolo's blog for some more thoughts about optimism and science fiction. Also, check out EcoGeek's paean to birth control as the "Most Important Environmental Innovation." ]

EcoGeek: The characters in a number of your stories are at the margins of the system, and for whom technology seems to be more of a constraint than an enabler. Do you think this reflects a truer picture of technology in the world?

Paolo Bacigalupi: I think technology reflects who we are--our hungers writ large. There's nothing wrong with technology per se; there's something wrong with us. Technically, we have the capacity and efficiency to work a four-hour week, and live in the standards of the 1950s, thanks to technology. Instead, we've chosen to enslave ourselves to our technology and toys and plug ourselves into iPhones, twitter feeds, laptops, PS3's, flat screen TVs, his and hers sinks, 3 1/2 bath houses, jacuzzi jet tubs, shoes for running, for raquetball, for soccer, for work, for play, for night, for day... Technology is just a reflection of our own selves, our choices, our desires. At some point, we could have lived a relatively utopian life of leisure, but we would have had to make do with fewer toys. We chose the toys, instead of the leisure. That ain't technology's fault. That's just us.

EcoGeek: What environmental issues do you think are going to require technological intervention? Or, to put it a bit better perhaps, what environmental problems do you think *can* be remedied by technological intervention?

Paolo Bacigalupi: LOL. Vasectomies! Lots of Vasectomies! This single technological intervention could mean a stable population of, say, 2 billion, rather than the 9 billion we're hurtling toward. The sheer astonishing number of people on this planet is the multiplier that makes every environmental problem a crisis. It makes every problem more complicated and harder to solve. And because we're still growing ("heathily" as I read recently in a news story about America's birth trends) it means that our problems will intensify. But setting that fairly obvious answer aside, let's turn the question around and ask instead: how many problems can we fix if we as a tool-using bunch of monkeys just backed off for a little while and took a breather?

Instead of insisting on another round of technological solutions, what if we just gave up on some of the world we've created? Maybe gave up on our malls with our Gymborees and our Victoria Secrets and our Apple Stores and our Sports Authorities and our Bed Bath & Beyonds, and our Claire's and Hot Topics and GAPs and... If you wander through the average mall, it becomes apparent that the vast majority of our economic culture is focused on going into debt for the sake of purchasing useless, disposable, forgettable, unneeded objects. How many styles of lamps do we really need for our house? How many kinds of shoes? How many leather club chairs? Futon sofas? How many iPods? How many pubic hair trimmers?

I just bought my son a kid-sized shovel so he could work with me in the garden, but let's face it, a 5-year old with a shovel? That's complete bullshit. He's not going to turn much earth, he's too damn small. But he feels good, and we have a nice time together, so I bought it. But really, that shovel with its wood handle and steel scoop and red paint, it's all resources that didn't need to be used. We would have been *just fine* without it. And each of these objects has a supply chain that stretches around the entire world, to factories in countries we can't pronounce the names of, staffed by peoples we don't give a shit about except that they work for incredibly low wages.

Now, what if we just.... stopped? How many of our environmental problems would almost instantly be reduced? After backing off from our blisteringly stupid level of consumption, if we've still got some environmental problems, that's when it seems appropriate to discuss technological fixes for global warming or habitat destruction or endangered species or clean water or clean air. Before then? It's just enabling a bad behavior.

One of the things I dislike intensely about technological fixes is that they often involve payment in order to replicate a natural service that once was provided free of charge by nature. Don't have clean water? One techno-fix is a water filter. Let's give a huge shout out to Brita filters, right? But then we all have to buy one.

In India, middle-class households all have water filters... the poor go without. The other option would be to protect our water sources. But that's just not sexy. Using a technology almost automatically means we have to hire and pay a technology creator, which in turns creates an economic interest that does not actually care to remedy the core problem. If I sell water filters, I'm not going to be interested in clean water for all. That would kill my market of clean water for the ones who want to buy it from me. Once there's an economic interest, you end up with corporations lobbying tooth and nail to keep us from simply taking the most simple long-range planning steps.

So no, basically, I think trying to find another tool to fix what we've already done with our tools, generally works out poorly. This has partly to do with the narrow way we approach environmental problems and our lack of foresight over cascade effects. And partly from seeing how talk of techno-fixes almost always defaults to a circle-jerk that's really focused on how we can keep enabling our ongoing stupidity. Another drink doesn't help an alcoholic, another toy doesn't fix our environmental problems. Either we deal with root causes, or we pay down the road. None of the ways we make, sell or trade objects are sustainable. The longer we deny it, the harder it will hit us.

EcoGeek: What is your vision of life on Earth 100 years from now?

Paolo Bacigalupi: I think we'll have less clean air, less clean water, less open space, and fewer species. Less. We will give our children a world with less of the natural diversity and services than the one we were provided with.

EcoGeek: In an earlier EcoGeek interview, Karl Schroeder asked the question, "Do you believe that sustainability is a zero-sum game? --In other words, that in order for us to live within our environmental means, we must scale back or abandon our ambitions in other areas?" What do you think of sustainability as a zero-sum game?

Paolo Bacigalupi: This really depends on which aspect of sustainability we're talking about. So let me speak directly to the place I know best. I grew up in the North Fork Valley of the Gunnison River on a farm.

Over course of thirty years, population has increased and land has decreased. The house that I live in replaced farmland, which replaced open range. If we add another house, then there is a little less land. We can stack the house, and make it an apartment. Stack the apartments and make a dense city. These are already a sacrifice for me, a zero-sum choice between being embedded in nature, or living in a more compact arrangement that tosses away the pleasure of open pasture for the misery of apartment neighbors and elevators, but maybe it's worth it to release that landscape back to nature. To do the rewilding that Karl (Schroeder) talks about, perhaps. That's a choice. And yes, for me, it's zero-sum.

Certainly, I think we can be incredibly imaginitive about being more efficient with how we use resources. But resources (open space, land, air, water, minerals, forests, what have you,) are in fact finite. And people, at least in my reality, still do two things very well. We suck in resources and produce waste. If nothing else, I think we have to give up on the dream of unlimited fertility. It has to end. That's zero-sum. The people multiplier has to be addressed. An India with 500 million people would be a much more livable place than the current India with 1 billion. The pressure on the place would just come off. Here in the U.S. where we still perceive a surfeit of open space, maybe we don't feel this crunch yet, but we're all following India into the future. If we like how India looks, if we like the pressures of too much population on too few resources, then by all means, let's not make any hard choices. Or else we decide to scale *something* back. We need to make choices. And let's face it. We won't do it. Because if there's anything more sacred to us than cars and iPhones, it's children.

EcoGeek: Several of your stories ("The Calorie Man," "Yellow Card Man," as well as your forthcoming novel, "The Windup Girl") are set in a future where genetically modified crops and intellectual property laws have significantly constrained life of much of the population. How do you think IP law will be involved in the future of technology?

Paolo Bacigalupi: The same as in the past: to maximise profits. IP laws almost always seem to benefit big companies and big money. Look at what Google's doing with copyrights. Something that was supposed to protect individual creators gets twisted into something else.

EcoGeek: We first learned about your work from Tobias Buckell's recommendation in our interview with him. Who do you think is writing interesting things about environmental issues?

Paolo Bacigalupi: Read MT Anderson's FEED. It's the best book about consumer culture I've ever read. He writes astonishingly sharp stuff, and never panders. It's so sharp, I wonder if he could even be published if it weren't for the fact that he's writing for teens. We're okay sending hard truths about ourselves to our younger generation. As adults, we resent it when those lessons are aimed at us. I wish I could write half as well as Anderson does.

EcoGeek: Do you have an environmental question that you think would be good for us to ask other authors we talk to?

Paolo Bacigalupi: Ask them to imagine a sustainable consumer culture. That would be an interesting thought experiment.

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Comments (13)Add Comment
Literature 'n' climate
written by William Shaw, April 04, 2009
It's taken a while for literature to start building up a body of work on climate change - from Atwood's Oryx & Crake to McCarthy's The Road, to Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel which deals with the subject glancingly. This series of interviews is great, though, as sci-fi is a genre which is fundamentally about prophesy and speculation.

We're doing a big piece on McCarthy's The Road at RSA Arts & Ecology soon, and just reviewed Marcel Theroux's new novel Far North.

I'll blog about this series of interviews tomorrow in the Arts & Ecology blog.

How Unfortunate
written by Beverly Clarke, April 04, 2009
Some very interesting ideas here but it's unfortunate that Americans are so completely tied to their "toys" and can't fathom the idea of limiting the amount of children per family that they won't scale anything back in order to protect our planet. I pray that attitudes will change in the coming years or I'm afraid we will end up looking like India.
written by Barney Sperlin, April 04, 2009
Well if India is going to become the poster child for overpopulation and ecological destruction shouldn't everyone be pointing their fingers at India and insisting that they stop it? If it can't be done there, where CAN it be done? Well, in the US for one, where the non-recent-immigrant population has been quite sustainable (population wise) for some time and it only recent immigration and the high birthrate among them that has fueled the US population growth.
Sorry Barney
written by Paolo Bacigalupi, April 05, 2009
Sorry Barney, Environmental issues are global issues. I don't believe closing the gates of America is remotely a solution.

Given your likely level of consumption as an American, a better thing for you to worry about is the amount of stuff you bought in the last year and the amount of travel you engaged in. When you've reduced that to the level of the average middle class Indian, then by all means, start picking on other people to blame for our global environmental crisis, but until then, just look in the mirror.

The global problem is *not* too many Indians, it's too many rich Americans like you and me. If we stop living like pigs at a trough, then it really matters a lot less who moves here and wants to become American.
Consumption is a problem, but you said..
written by Barney Sperlin, April 05, 2009
"Vasectomies! Lots of Vasectomies! This single technological intervention could mean a stable population of, say, 2 billion, rather than the 9 billion we're hurtling toward."
The above quote is from the article about you, above. I agree with it. This could solve a lot of the consumption problem...and energy availability problem...and C02 production problem...etc. How about taking a stand for birth control in Latin America (and the Latins here in the US), and India, and elsewhere. That is a political and cultural battle that someone in the arts, such as yourself, is equipped to deal with. Technological problems and solutions are another question, but if you could help out with the biggest problem, that would be great!
written by Jon, April 05, 2009
It's sad to read such a pessimistic view. But he's probably right.
Population Organuzations
written by dmc, April 05, 2009
I've felt for a long time that the best cause to get behind is slowing, stopping or even reversing population growth. Are there non-profits out there dedicated to this? On the flip side, are there people out there who have a scientifically based opposing view to this?
written by Magnulus, April 05, 2009
I would imagine that most of what's hindering such a way forward would be sentimentality and the problem that the people producing most of the children aren't the people who are most likely to be making a change for the sake of the Earth.

The biggest hurdle would be to get an open discourse on preventing unwanted pregnancies in all parts of society, though there's also the issue of helping poor societies in developing countries get to a point medically and fiscally where they won't have to have six children for two of them to grow to old age, and THEN you have to make a campaign to get them out of the "habit" of having many children.

There are a number of social and moral hurdles in regulating populations, and even more appear when you want to reverse the growth. Is there are way to do it or to propose ideas on how to do it without looking elitist, snobby, callous, and/ or racist? There probably is, but can't see it.

There is something about every single part of any society that needs to change. People like me need to learn to stop buying new computers and electronic toys we don't need all the time, and others need to stop having babies. (I'm not having babies at all myself, so I can't exactly stop it either.)
Population and poverty
written by William Shaw, April 05, 2009
Either you need to have an authoritarian regime like the Chinese, or you have to accept that population growth only reverses when you reach the standard of living the West has. This is why green growth policies should be aiming at convergence, rather than imposing what we - as populations which have already grown to the upper limit - want from poorer countries.
Blogging this
written by William Shaw, April 05, 2009
...[Much of the art around climate is about imagining new futures. Rubbing up against visions of the future is a good way to reconsider the present. Sci-fi is the daddy of that concept, so it’s interesting to see EcoGeek doing a series of really excellent in-depth interviews with US sci-fi authors.]...
written by P Proefrock, April 06, 2009
BoingBoing also had a bit on Paolo Bacigalupi (including free PDFs of a couple of his stories) in an article today:
written by Magnulus, April 07, 2009
Colvin: You're saying 6 billion people could live on a surface no larger than Texas, including farming plots, housing, etc? AND that they could keep living as they live now? I'm sorry, but that sounds insane and won't fly without some references. THINK about it. 6 000 000 000 people. Six thousand million people. In Texas and nothing else.

You can't put your trust in a discipline, you have to put your trust in people, and that's difficult, because people are the reason why we're at this crossroads as it is.
Zombies are amongst us
written by Mirik, February 17, 2010
I'm confident he solely means food. Which would last only a few harvests untill the soil is depleted, obviously.

What Colvin says is some strange excuse talking point from a cynic skeptic that just wants his kicks and ferrari before the shit goes down. Or repeating someone like that he idolises I suppose.

Pessimism is an irrelevancy at this point, a mirror reflection of practical truth.

The author simply reaches all the valid conclusions; we know the solutions to our problems. But the problems are making some people very rich and wealthy and their followers braindead with greed. No one ever realized the zombie genre is one huge metaphor for brainless greed and consumerism in the face of apocalypse?

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