Deliberate dystopias: Uncovering our climate futures with Paolo Bacigalupi

paoloFor many of us living in the Southwest, the sprawl of desert combined with a growing number of people serves as a constant reminder of water security and how we will sustain it in the future. With neighboring California experiencing a record drought, at nearly half of the state hitting driest levels, whether or not Arizona is close to follow has become a serious possibility. This then, begs the question—what would happen if Phoenix lost access to water? New York Times-bestselling author Paolo Bacigalupi has built a successful career out of asking tough “what if?” questions to design future societies affected by climate change. In his latest novel, “The Water Knife”, Bacigalupi explores a not-so-distant future where Arizona is in the midst of a dust-bowl. The Colorado River is on the brink of drying up, and the millions who count on its water are fighting to survive. Last month, Bacigalupi visited Phoenix to discuss his novel and the future of water in the Southwest as part of ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative. “I write about people who are living on the shards of the future,” Bacigalupi said. “These are people who took a wrong turn and are living with the consequences.” LightWorks recognizes that surviving and mitigating the effects of climate change cannot be achieved solely through scientific research and development. This “wicked problem” needs to be approached in dual effort with expert humanists and artists like Bacigalupi. By revealing humanity impacted by climate change, the climate fiction genre opens up a discussion where not only are we compelled to ask “what if” we lost important natural resources, but also to ask “what if” we act now, rather than later. We cannot afford to wait until it is too late. The characters of “The Water Knife,” as described by Bacigalupi at ASU in the fall, are created out of a concept called the black swan theory. This theory explores an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact that it has happened. Because climate change is rooted in great scientific and economic complexity, the task of mitigating the risk can be described as a “wicked problem” due to the lack of agreement of what climate change is and as a result, becoming too confident in past solutions for future threats surrounding the issue. Bacigalupi explained that missing data and information coupled with a confidence in past solutions are at the crux of the black swan theory. While researching for “The Water Knife”, Bacigalupi ran into people who controlled drought status in the Southwest who believed that because a major drought had never reached a catastrophic levels that it would not happen in the near future. “We can’t be too confident about past solutions,” Bacigalupi said. “Just because that drought plan was a good in the past, doesn’t mean that it is a good plan for today. You can’t use history to anticipate the future.” Bacigalupi discussed the notion of “earning a future” where we have worked hard to design and build the tomorrow we want to see. This however, is not the path he takes when writing his novels. The dystopias that Bacigalupi paints are indeed deliberate. According to Bacigalupi, this is the time to be asking questions and uncovering potential risks. The notion of exploring a world on the edge of ruins could in turn inspire others to truly grasp the risk of climate change. Although the genre does not typically intend to offer distinct solutions, climate fiction is an excellent venue to explore risks and bring them to the discussion. In a recent article by the New York Times, J.P. Telotte, a professor of film and media studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote “science fiction does not detail the realities of specific problems so that we might avoid them, but rather represent our most pressing cultural fears.” However, writing about dystopian worlds are certainly not the only way of exploring climate futures. Bacigalupi encouraged writers to explore other ideas of what they think the future may look like whether it be black swan stories or optimistic action stories. Speculative climate fiction is a powerful tool to clear up the “wicked problem” of climate change by reflecting on current scientific knowledge, obscure jargon and abstract policy and relate it to how it could directly affect individuals, communities, organizations or societies in the future. “Our future will hardly look like a Mad Max film,” Bacigalupi said. “People do really badly when they run off into the distance and fend for themselves. We are social species and we succeed when we work together.” ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative recently announced their 2016 Climate Fiction Short Story Contest which will be accepting speculative climate fiction stories from writers in and outside of ASU. The contest will be judged by award-winning science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson along with other climate fiction experts from ASU. For more information and to submit a story click here. Stay up to date with ASU’s Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative events by visiting Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks Photo by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks. Additional Information: