I live in Santa Barbara, where all eyes are on this week’s oil spill. The worn-out word “tragedy” gets tossed about in this kind of situation, and though it’s often overused, tragedy really fits here… in the sense of an utterly preventable yet somehow unstoppable horror. Regulation short circuited by industry’s power = disaster. Adding another oily, anthropogenic stratum.
I’m coping, then, with how reality can come crashing down on academic abstractions. In the end, I’m still processing what the spill means to me. I read it in terms of teaching and learning, of course, and in terms of the ideas I was exposed to during a class called Science/Fiction.
This thing happened just this spring. A kind of culmination of an idea that’s bounced around my mind for years, since I first heard of that book The Physics of Star Trek, back in the early 90’s I think. The idea was inchoate then, just something like… “yeah, someone’s thinking about the bedrock underlaying this show I’m enjoying!” And at that time I was (as now) a pretty voracious reader… though in the 90s I was busy with the something you might call “the literary fiction of the underrepresented.” But piles of Sherman Alexie and Sandra Cisneros paperbacks nothwithstanding, there’s always been room for the science fiction genre in my life. Indeed, scifi was a big deep eddy in my life’s flow of words that I kept (and keep) getting swept into.
As I slowly transmogrified from a kid studying science into a scientist who teaches most of the time, the idea became more fixed in my mind. Now, it’s well known that I’m easily distracted, and so it should be no surprise that one thing I spend lots of time doing is letting my interests push away the things I should be doing (teaching biochemistry, doing biochemistry) so that I can teach courses in those other things.
I develop courses as a way of getting to spend more time thinking about my distraction du jour. And like many paths I take in my life, I strike out into the unknown, expecting that somehow, miraculously, the stepping stones that lead to the real from my imagined world will appear. And they do, they just keeping freaking appearing! I don’t know.
Anyway, the latest incarnation of my state-funded distraction was CHEM/ENG 345. Better known as “Science/Fiction”, a class dedicated to Exploring the Connections between Science and Literature! So after about 20 years of thinking, the idea finally crystallized, and I asked then-new CSUCI faculty member Dr. S_____ if she’d be interested in developing it with me. At that time, she didn’t really know me from Adam and so she knew no better than to join forces with me. Which she did! And so began an interdisciplinary course co-taught by the unlikely duo of lovable loser and world-renowned fantasy author.*
Science/Fiction, represents a key to my own ongoing educational experience. It required to me to develop general education-level lessons on the physics of relativity and black holes, faster-than-light travel, time travel, astrobiology, genetic engineering, extinction, and artificial intelligence. On top of this, I had to wrap my mind around my colleague’s analysis of the two novels and twenty-odd stories on our fiction list. This meant fifteen weeks of hard work. Hard, but completely satisfactory for me, as I struggled to assemble my ideas into some coherent narrative. Not that it wasn’t also filled with stress; I am never free of the disappointment of never quite igniting in my students the degree of excitement I myself feel. It is the fundamental paradox of why I keep this job: it didn’t work, let’s try again!
And it was fun and – if I’m honest with myself – pretty successful.
But that’s not what this blog entry is about.
It’s about what happened after.
Or nearly after, since the ink is not yet dry on this semester’s grades.
See, in S/F we created this section on “The Anthropocene”. It’s a term my friend and colleague B____ suggested we cover in S/F, and which has been around for years now in the sciences. Formally, as originally stated, it’s an argument among geologists as to whether to amend the currently designated “The Holocene” to include the fact that humans have distorted the pathway of geologic history in a unique and recognizable way. And the idea fits so well into such a wide swath of post-apocalyptic science fiction, we felt we must incorporate it specifically into S/F’s curriculum.
And that was a great addition, because it allowed me to talk about the history of life and extinction on earth, and we got to read Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, and we got to think about how humanity’s own stab at The Big Kill is going.
Now, a scientist looks at a couple billion years’ worth of data and says “Yes, the end is nigh… Again.” And then she starts ticking off the ways a future geologist from a planet in Globular Cluster M13 is going to read our geological record: it’ll note a stratum of upheaval we know today as “Mining” and “Drilling”, it’ll see a layer of plastic and radioactivity, and it’ll see a precipitous drop in species diversity. But it definitely won’t see us, or anything else that’s dear and familiar to us; that’ll all be gone.
Here, finally, is what this essay is about. My colleague and I agreed to cancel our last class session so that we and our students could go to a conference at a nearby university on “Approaching the Anthropocene: A Perspective from the Humanities and Fine Arts.” B____ was presenting, as it happened, and so it seemed the stars were aligned….
Turns out that writers, artists, academic film scholars, and the rest are all interested in this notion of the Anthropocene as much or more than the scientists who coined the term. And their perspective is not focused on the traces humans will leave on future geological layers. Instead, they want to understand how culture interfaces with the destruction of the earth, how art informs humanity’s wrestling match with the idea of The End. And mostly they fervently hope that it’s really not The End.
So, close your eyes and imagine it…
There, in the sparkling and comfortable McCune conference room at UCSB, I sit: the only scientist in a room of high-powered Humanities academics and thinkers. The curtains are drawn, hiding the sparkling view of the Santa Barbara Channel. The lights dim, a digital projector flashes into life, conference badges are fiddled with, conference folders are shuffled in eager anticipation, and…
Well actually, I was late. I decided to ride Joy’s bike (mine has a flat), since it’s only 8 miles from my house. So I was sweaty, out of breath, and coffee deprived, and I sheepishly interrupted the first talk, which was on medieval mining practices.
Of course, I was stoked! I introduce my students to Agricola’s De Re Metallica in my own Non-western Origins of Science class, so I actually know from medieval mining practices. And I thought it set the tone pretty well: “Let us now turn to past examples of humanity’s destructive signature to develop a framework for thinking about the Now.”
I’m not going to recount all the talks, I would do some great speakers a real disservice, but you can read one here. I was infected by the eagerness of these colleagues’ reflections on going down fighting. What I want to impart is a sense of what a scientist learns from such a meeting, which is a lot.
I suppose the easiest thing to say is that a conference like this is enriching in the same way as developing a new class is enriching. New ideas and vocabulary excite me. But there’s a deeper effect, too, stimulating me to find a bridge between the Science-y version in which the Anthropocene is fodder for science fiction, just another stratum-bookmark in a story full of endings (and beginnings!), and the Humanities-y version focused on finding meaning, solutions, or both.
This week’s oil spill, just a few miles north of my home, throws my puzzlement into high relief. Catastrophes like this are at once inevitable and preventable, and the pain that all share can be a uniting force for positive environmental change. But one of the coolest things I learned is that the artist must be skeptical of mere solutionism – the “masculinist” impulse to fix stuff.
But my knee-jerk appreciation of layered ironies isn’t complete, either. I’m drawn to the vulnerability of the monied elites who live here in the so-called “birthplace of the environmental movement”. My inclination to say, “No, you may not go surfing while the rest of the world burns,” is a little bit right, but takes me just part of the way there.
Mere irony is not… filling, let us say. In the end, I think the conference urged me to think harder about how I could elevate or complicate the end of nature dialog beyond both cynicism and heroism. It’s facile to say that I changed things just by introducing 20 kids to the idea of the Anthropocene, a concept none of them had ever contemplated. Perhaps it’s a little richer to acknowledge that I learned from them, to be encouraged by their contentment with fighting for a better now even in the knowledge that there is no future.
With oil inking all my thoughts this week, I find myself returning to a phrase uttered at the conference by my friend B____. He suggested that “contingent resilience” allows creation of community more honestly, more stably, than crisis can. Maybe contingent resilience can be loosely translated as “making what you have work, where you are.”
On the other hand, I’m jarred by an image I took away from the spill cleanup zone. Mounds of clear plastic bags full of waste, piled high by the side of the freeway. In terms of the Anthropocene, the oil in these bags will show up in the same layer, whether it amounts to pollution in the ocean or pollution in a landfill. And of course, the oil is wrapped in plastic. But rather than being trapped by recursive ironies on a Möbius strip of waste and destruction, the conference’s keynote speaker exhorted us to pursue a kind of intentional, constant playful creativity.
This last concept really resonates with your distracted narrator, Oh best beloved, because it suggests that the contingent community created between you and me can act by sampling or sifting a never ending stream of ideas, our own and others’. Perhaps I find the notion attractive because it sounds so much like studying, and learning, and making (a few of my favorite things). And because it holds out some hope, not hope that I or anyone else will charge in and fix it all, but hope that engaging with one another amounts to the formation of a universal mycelium from which ideas (good, bad, and indifferent) sprout like mushrooms. Step inside the ring with me.
*Lots of science fiction courses exist, but none are like ours, and none are called Science/Fiction.