Thursday, April 19, 2018

Science Fiction Asks: Are We Worth Saving?

Interstellar voyage to Gargantua Black Hole
Science fiction, which Ted Gioia of The San Francisco Chronicle calls “conceptual fiction” explores the interaction of humanity with some larger phenomenon that involves science. SF writer Robert J. Sawyer calls it the fiction of the large. Large ideas, large circumstance, large impact. Science fiction is a powerful literature of allegory and metaphor that is deeply embedded in culture. By capturing context, SF is a symbolic meditation on history itself and ultimately a literature of great vision.

Science fiction is the literature of consequence that, in exploring large issues faced by humankind, can provide an important vehicle in raising environmental awareness and a planetary consciousness. Much of science fiction is currently focused in that direction. Terms such as eco-fiction, climate fiction and its demented cousin “cli-fi”, have embedded themselves in science fiction terminology; this fiction has attracted a host of impressive authors who write to its calling: Margaret Atwood, Emmi Itรคranta, Jeff VanderMeer, Richard Powers, Barbara Kingsolver, Upton Sinclair, Ursula Le Guin, JoeAnn Hart, Frank Herbert, John Yunker, Kim Stanley Robinson, James Bradley, Paolo Bacigalupi, Nathaniel Rich, David Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Claire Vaye Watkins, J.G. Ballard, Marcel Theroux, Thomas Wharton—just to name a few. The list seems endless. Of course, I’m on it too. Many of these works explore and illuminate environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse at the hands of humanity.

Lately, science fiction is asking the question of whether humanity is worth saving and at what expense?

It’s a valid question.

As the first swell of the climate change tidal wave laps at our feet, we are beginning to see the planetary results of what humanity has created and exacerbated. Humanity has in many ways reached a planetary tipping point; a threshold that will be felt by all aspects of our planet, both animate and inanimate as the planet’s very identity shifts.

Scientists have suggested that we have now slid from the relatively stable Holocene Epoch to the Anthropocene Epoch—the age of humanity. The term arose not from hubris, but in recognition of our ubiquitous and overwhelming influence on large systems and planetary cycles. Take water, for instance. Today, we control water on a massive scale. Reservoirs around the world hold 10,000 cubic kilometres of water; five times the water of all the rivers on Earth. Most of these great reservoirs lie in the northern hemisphere, and the extra weight has slightly changed how the Earth spins on its axis, speeding its rotation and shortening the day by eight millionths of a second in the last forty years. Ponder too, that an age has a beginning and an end. Is climate change the planet’s way of telling us that the  Anthropocene Epoch too shall end? Is that when we end … or transcend?

A tidal wave of TV shows and movies currently explore—or at least acknowledge—the devastation we are forcing on the planet. Every week Netflix puts out a new show that follows this premise of Earth’s devastation: 3%; The 100; The Titan; Orbiter 9; even Lost in Space.

Are we worth saving? Below are a few examples of movies, TV series I’ve lately watched and books I’ve lately read that address this key question to an irresponsible humanity that seems unconcerned that we are destroying our very home. In some the question is subtly implied; in others, not so subtle.

Battlestar Galactica (2004)

In the pilot of Battlestar Galactica, Commander Adama gives an impromptu speech (not the one he prepared; but one provoked by an argument with his son), which resonates throughout the entire series as cylon and human must refashion themselves and their relationship to each other while they discover the cyclical recursive nature of all things and that “all this has happened before and will again.”

The Galactica ship is about to be decommissioned and has now become a museum since the cylons have disappeared forty years ago. The great battle between the cylons and their human creators ended forty years ago with the cylons disappearing suddenly, never to be heard from again. But that is about to change; as Adama gives his speech, the first strike occurs, followed by a massive attack that almost wipes out the human race.

In his speech Adama says:

“The cost of wearing the uniform can be high…but sometimes it’s too high. When we fought the cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question why. Why are we as a people worth saving. We still commit murder because of greed, spite and jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the cylons. We decided to play God. Create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God then wash your hands of the things you’ve created. Sooner or later the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done anymore.”


Early on in the science fiction movie Interstellar, NASA astronaut Cooper declares that “the world is a treasure, but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now. Mankind was born on Earth; it was never meant to die here.” After showing Cooper how their last corn crops will eventually fail like the okra and wheat before them, NASA Professor Brand answers Cooper’s question of, “So, how do you plan on saving the world?” with: “We’re not meant to save the world…We’re meant to leave it.” The human-centred hubris in this colonialist mentality lies in what we have left behind—a planet suffocating from the effects of humanity’s careless and thoughtless activities. What Interstellar circles but does not address is the all-important question: is humanity even worth saving?

The suggestion during the movie’s final moments, is that we are worth saving because we will transcend into wiser benevolent beings: a hopeful gesture based on the power of love.

The Three Body Problem (2014)

Cixin Liu’s The Three Body Problem was set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, because, says Liu, “The Cultural Revolution provides the necessary background for the story. The tale I wanted to tell demanded a protagonist [Ye Wenjie] who gave up all hope in humanity and human nature. I think the only episode in modern Chinese history capable of generating such a response is the Cultural Revolution. It was such a dark and absurd time that even dystopias like 1984 seem lacking in imagination in comparison.” (I suppose Cixin did not experience the holocaust of Germany or Stalin’s purge in the Soviet Union).

In the story, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. One of the main protagonists is Ye Wenjie, a young woman traumatized after witnessing the execution of her scientist father in a brutal cleansing at the height of the Cultural Revolution. Considered a traitor, young Wenjie is sent to a labour brigade in Inner Mongolia, where she witnesses further destruction by humans:

“Ye Wenjie could only describe the deforestation that she witnessed as madness. The tall Dahurian larch, the evergreen Scots pine, the slim and straight white birch, the cloud-piercing Korean aspen, the aromatic Siberian fir, along with black birch, oak, mountain elm, Chosenia arbutifolia—whatever they laid eyes on, they cut down. Her company wielded hundreds of chain saws like a swarm of steel locusts, and after they passed, only stumps were left. The fallen Dahurian larch, now bereft of branches, was ready to be taken away by tractor. Ye gently caressed the freshly exposed cross section of the felled trunk. She did this often, as though such surfaces were giant wounds, as though she could feel the tree’s pain… The trunk was dragged away. Rocks and stumps in the ground broke the bark in more places, wounding the giant body further. In the spot where it once stood, the weight of the fallen tree being dragged left a deep channel in the layers of decomposing leaves that had accumulated over the years. Water quickly filled the ditch. The rotting leaves made the water appear crimson, like blood.”

Already cynical about humanity’s failed culture and science—Wenjie acquires a contraband copy of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The book and revelation she experiences from it sets in motion her remaining trajectory.   
“More than four decades later, in her last moments, Ye Wenjie would recall the influence Silent Spring had on her life. The book dealt only with a limited subject: the negative environmental effects of excessive pesticide use. But the perspective taken by the author shook Ye to the core. The use of pesticides had seemed to Ye just a normal, proper—or, at least, neutral—act, but Carson’s book allowed Ye to see that, from Nature’s perspective, their use was indistinguishable from the Cultural Revolution, and equally destructive to our world. If this was so, then how many other acts of humankind that had seemed normal or even righteous were, in reality, evil? As she continued to mull over these thoughts, a deduction made her shudder: Is it possible that the relationship between humanity and evil is similar to the relationship between the ocean and an iceberg floating on its surface? Both the ocean and the iceberg are made of the same material. That the iceberg seems separate is only because it is in a different form. In reality, it is but a part of the vast ocean.…It was impossible to expect a moral awakening from humankind itself, just like it was impossible to expect humans to lift off the earth by pulling up on their own hair. To achieve moral awakening required a force outside the human race. This thought determined the entire direction of Ye’s life.”
Ye is sent to the Chinese version of SETI and succeeds in sending a message to aliens on Trisolaris. Despite a warning that the Trisolarians mean only to invade, Wenjie invites them to Earth. To ensure the arrival of the Trisolaris aliens, she collaborates with Michael Evans—an oil billionaire’s son who is disgusted with human’s destruction of Nature. Despising humankind in its current state, Wenjie believes the aliens will somehow ensure humanity’s transcendence; Evans, however, applauds the coming invasion as the best route to achieve the eradication of humanity and the survival of the rest of the planet.


Miller and Octavia
The Expanse is a stylish and intelligent science fiction (SF) TV series (on Syfy Channel) based on books by James S.A. Corey. It is set 200 years in the future when humanity has colonized the moon, Mars and the Asteroid Belt to mine minerals and water. This sophisticated SF film noir thriller elevates the space opera sub-genre with a meaningful metaphoric exploration of issues relevant in today’s world—issues of resource allocation, domination & power struggle, values, prejudice, and racism. Ever-expanding outward in a frantic search for resources as Earth’s own resources fester in pollution and Earthers languish on “the dole”, colonizing humans on Mars and the Belt have even changed their physiology, culture, language and identity.

The tag line of the first season poster for The Expanse reads: “We’ve gone too far.” The series begins on Ceres with a Belter activist inciting a crowd with talk about how Mars and Earth are squeezing Belters for all their water.

Chrisjen Avasarala
Not so subtle signs of our destructive jingoistic pioneer determination runs through this series (now in its third season). After Under Secretary Avasarala’s friend Degraaf (Earth ambassador to Mars) becomes a casualty of one of her intel games, Degraaf quietly shares: “You know what I love about Mars?… They still dream; we gave up. They are an entire culture dedicated to a common goal: working together as one to turn a lifeless rock into a garden. We had a garden and we paved it.”
Ceres born militant activist Anderson Dawes confides to Detective Miller: “All we’ve ever known is low G and an atmosphere we can’t breathe. Earthers,” he continues, “get to walk outside into the light, breathe pure air, look up at a blue sky and see something that gives them hope. And what do they do? They look past that light, past that blue sky. They see the stars and they think ‘mine’… Earthers have a home; it’s time Belters had one too.”

Bobbie Draper and crew on Mars
The Martians hold Earth in contempt for their cavalier approach to their resources. Onboard the MCRN Donnager, Martian Lopez asks his prisoner Jim Holden if he misses Earth and Holden grumbles, “If I did, I’d go back.” Lopez then dreamily relates stories his uncle told him about Earth’s “endless blue sky and free air everywhere. Open water all the way to the horizon.” Then Lopez turns a cynical eye back on Holden. “I could never understand your people. Why, when the universe has bestowed so much upon you, you seem to care so little for it.” Holden admits, “Wrecking things is what Earthers do best…” Then he churlishly adds, “Martians too, by the look of your ship.” Lopez retorts, “We are nothing like you. The only thing Earthers care about is government handouts. Free food, free water. Free drugs to forget the aimless lives you lead. You’re shortsighted. Selfish. It will destroy you. Earth is over, Mr. Holden. My only hope is that we can bring Mars to life before you destroy that too.” When a Ceres-born Detective Miller asks Holden why he left Earth, Holden responds: “everything I loved there was being destroyed.”

The show makes a few opportunities to point out what we are doing to our planet. Cherish what you have. Cherish your home and take care of it. We’re reminded that time and again, we aren’t doing a good job of that. When Martian marine Bobbie Draper travels to Earth for the first time and is compelled to find the ocean, she is met with the stench of sewage and garbage; yet, she looks longingly out to sea, seeing a dream…


Incorporated is a science fiction thriller that provides a chilling glimpse of a post-climate change dystopia. Created by David and Alex Pastor and produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Ted Humphrey and Jennifer Todd, the TV show (filmed in Toronto, Canada) opens in 82 °F Milwaukee in November 2074 after environmental degradation, water level rise, widespread famine and mismanagement have bankrupted governments. We learn later that Milwaukee Airport served as a FEMA climate relocation centre that resembles an impoverished shantytown. In the wake of the governments demise, a tide of multinational corporations has swept in to control 90% of the globe and ratified the 29th amendment, granting them total sovereignty.

Corporations fight a brutal covert war for market share and dwindling natural resources. Like turkey vultures circling overhead, they position themselves for what’s left after short-sighted government regulations, lack of corporate check and FEMA mismanagement have ‘had their way’ with the planet. The world is now a very different place. There is no Spain or France. Everything south of the Loire is toxic desert; submerged New York City reduced to a punch line in a joke. Reykjavik and Anchorage are sandy beach destinations and Norway is the new France—at least where champagne vineyards are concerned. Asia and Canada are coveted for their less harsh climates.

Incorporated is less thriller than satire; it is less science fiction than cautionary tale.
 “You look to Incorporated for dystopian fiction that expresses our current anxieties,” writes Jeff Jensen of Entertainment Weekly. “What you get is fitful resonance that makes you realize it might be too soon for any show to meet that challenge.”

Or is it more that we may be too late… The question of whether we are worth saving is never asked—it is shown: and perhaps the real reason the show was cancelled after one season.


3% is set in the near future after the planet has fallen into a divided haves and have-nots through environmental calamity. Three percent of the population live well on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, called Offshore (Mar Alto). The remaining 97% struggle Inland with poverty and scarcity. A selection process lies between them.

Every year the 97% send their 20-year olds to undergo The Process, a grueling Hunger Games-style contest run by the Offshore elite to replenish their numbers. Only 3% of the candidates will be considered worthy. They must pass psychological, emotional and physical tests to earn a place in Mar Alto.

By the time Season 1 is over, candidates will have committed a full range of desperate and unsavory acts to make the cut—the stakes are high, after all: secure a position in the 3% elite or die in squalor and poverty. After being eliminated during the interview process, one youth throws himself off a balcony of the testing centre.

3% examines the motivations and paradoxes of heroism and villainy, sometimes turning them on their sides until they touch with such intimacy you can’t tell them apart. At its deepest, 3% explores the nature of humanity—from its most glorious to its most heinous—under the stress of scarcity and uncertainty. How we behave under these polarizing challenges ultimately determines who we are. The question of whether we are worth saving is explored through the subtleties—or not so subtle aspects—of a fascist society that practices exterminism.


Missions is a French TV series about the race by two ships—the Ulysses and Z1, representing two ambitious billionaires—to explore Mars. It opens in 1967 with the heroic sacrifice of Vladimir Komarov, the pilot of the faulty Soyuz 1, who knew he would not return and accepted his mission to save his best friend, Yuri Gagarin (his backup). This heroic act is mirrored in the last episode of Season 1 with a similar selfless act of heroism by Ulysses psychologist Jeanne Renoir to save her crewmembers who are trying to escape a fatal dust storm on Mars.

After the 1967 opening scene with Komarov, we go to the present day with psychologist Jeanne Renoir, conducting an experiment on a child: giving them one marshmallow and leaving the room with the instruction that if they don’t eat the marshmallow but wait for her to return, they’ll get two. Jeanne correctly anticipates the child will eat the marshmallow.

Amid developments between the two ship teams in which self-serving agendas, paranoias and blind ambition reign, Jeanne shares a vision with an entity that looks like Komarov, in which he tells her: “Yes, people dream of other places, while they can’t even look after their own planet…You must remember your past in order to think about your future. Do you think Earth has a future?” When Jeanne says she doesn’t know, Komarov challenges, “Yes, you do. They eat their marshmallow right away, when they could have two. Or a thousand. Do you think humanity can continue like that?” Of course she doesn’t think so. Komarov continues, “People have chosen a brief but exciting life. Your species burns the candle at both ends. You know this. And it terrifies you…”

From the beginning, we glimpse a surreal connection between Jeanne and Komarov and ultimately between Earth and Mars: from her childhood admiration for the Russian’s heroism on Earth to the “visions” they currently share that link key elements of her past to Mars and Komarov’s strange energy-giving powers, to Jeanne’s own final act of heroism on Mars.
As the storyline develops, linking Earth and Mars in startling ways, and as various agendas—personal missions—are revealed, we finally clue in on the main question that “Missions”—through Komarov and finally Jeanne—is asking: are we worth saving?



In The Beyond, the sudden appearance of a wormhole causes the disappearance of astronaut Jim Marcell during EVA on Earth’s orbiting space station, followed by associated calamitous phenomena on Earth. Giant dark spherical clouds then appear and settle all over the Earth, disrupting the world’s population, and setting in motion a series of fearful and aggressive reactions by various sectors of humanity.

The Beyond’s climax, discovery and resolution is really more of a question. The movie doesn’t have a tidy end; its solution is veiled with more questions.

The film ends with a cautious hope, implicitly asking that big question: are we (humanity) worth saving? When Jessica asks why humanity was offered a second chance by benevolent beings way beyond our comprehension, the returned Jim Marcell (currently a spokesman for the aliens) shows her the GAD (Golden Archive Drive with video images of Earth and humanity—basically our “hello” message to extra-solar life like the one placed onboard NASA’s Pioneer missions) that had accompanied the ship into the wormhole. The message displayed scenes of mothers and their children, people laughing in joy; it also showed scenes of other aspects of this beautiful planet worth saving: the ocean surf, the forests and wildlife. In our hubris, we have lost our perspective about this planet. Perhaps, it wasn’t so much humanity the alien beings intended to save but the Earth itself; we just come along with it. The Earth is, after all, a beautiful, vital and unique world, rich with life-giving water, trees, animals, creatures of all kinds in a diverse network of flowing and evolving beauty. A planet worth saving and that, frankly, functions better without us.

So, the question remains: is humanity worth saving? For centuries we have hubristically and disrespectfully used, discarded and destroyed just about everything on this beautiful planet. According to the World Wildlife Federation, 10,000 species go extinct every year. That’s mostly on us. They are the casualty of our selfish actions. We’ve become estranged from our environment, lacking connection and compassion. That has translated into a lack of consideration—even for each other. In response to mass shootings of children in schools, the U.S. government does nothing to curb gun-related violence through gun-control measures; instead they suggest arming teachers. We light up our cigarettes in front of people who don’t smoke and blow cancer-causing second-hand smoke in each other’s faces. We litter our streets and we refuse to pick up after others even if it helps the environment and provides beauty for self and others. The garbage we thoughtlessly discard pollutes our oceans with plastic and junk, hurting sea creatures and the ocean ecosystem in unimaginable ways. We consume and discard without consideration.

We do not live lightly on this planet.

We tread with incredibly heavy feet. We behave like bullies and, as The Beyond points out, our inclination to self-interest makes us far too prone to suspicion and distrust: when we meet the unknown, we tend to respond with fear and aggression over curiosity, hope and kindness.

Something we need to work on if we are going to survive.

Science fiction—the highest form of metaphoric and visionary art—is telling us something. Are we paying attention?


References:

Carson, Rachel. 1962. “Silent Spring.” Houghton Mifflin. 336pp.
Corey, James S.A. “The Leviathan Wakes.” Orbit. 592 pp.
Liu, Cixin. 2014. “The Three Body Problem.” Tor Books. 400pp.



Thursday, April 12, 2018

On Being a Canadian in The Age of Water

 Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself; I am large, I contain multitudes.”—Walt Whitman

I was born on this day, some sixty+ years ago, in the small town of Granby in the Eastern Townships to German-Romanian parents. Besides its zoo—which my brother, sister and I used to visit to collect bottles for a finder’s fee at the local treat shop—the town had no particular features. It typified French-Canada of that era. So did I. I went to school in Quebec then migrated across to the west coast to practice and teach limnology. Given that Canada holds at any one time a fifth of the Earth’s freshwater, that also made sense.

Canada is a vast country with a climate and environment that spans from the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield, muskegs of northern BC, and tundras of the Arctic Circle to the grasslands of the Prairies and southern woodlands of Ontario and Quebec. Canada’s environment is vast and diverse. Like its people.    

In December of 2017 I participated in a discussion on the subject and role of water in literature in Toronto. I came to the event as a limnologist/ecologist, mother and environmentalist prepared to share how water—its meaning and our relationship with it—is used in my writing and how writing about water can help nurture a future of awareness and action. But, as the discussion slid into the slippery subject of colonialism, I made the apparent mistake of sharing that—as a Canadian—I was proud of Canada. I was later schooled that “celebrating the nation” was considered anathema to an audience with strong anti-colonialist sentiments and a hatred for neoliberalist corporate Canada (something I share but do not obsess over); I’d obviously crossed some invisible line and I made a mental note to better assess my audience in future). I also got to thinking about what it means for me to be a Canadian and what my pride in Canada really means. Was I being a “white-toast” nationalist in sharing a pride in my country?

Ecologist vs Nationalist

Ecology is the study of “home” (oikos means ‘home’ in Greek). Ecology studies the relationships that make one’s home functional. It is, in my opinion, the most holistic and natural way to assess where we live. My home is currently Toronto, Ontario, Canada and ultimately the planet Earth.

Country road in the Eastern Townships of Quebec
Growing up in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, I’d always felt an abiding sense of belonging and I resonated with Canada’s national symbols—mostly based on Nature and found on our currency, our flag, and various sovereign images: the loon, the beaver, the maple tree, our mountains and lakes and boreal forests. Why not? Canadians are custodians of a quarter of the world’s wetlands, longest river systems and most expansive lakes. Most of us recognize this; many of us live, play and work in or near these natural environments.

Nina and son Kevin explore Nature
I have long considered myself a global citizen with no political ties. I saw my country through the lens of an ecologist—I assessed my community and my surroundings in terms of ecosystems that supported all life, not just humanity. Was a community looking after its trees? Was my family recycling? Was a corporation using ‘green’ technology? Was a municipality daylighting its streams and recognizing important riparian zones? I joined environmental movements when I was a teenager. I shifted my studies from art to science because I wanted to make a difference in how we treated our environment. After university, I joined an environmental consulting firm, hoping to educate corporations and individuals as environmental stewards. I brought that philosophy into a teaching career and began writing eco-fiction, science fiction and essays to help promote an awareness and a connection with our natural world. My hope was to illuminate how important Nature and water is to our planet and to our own well-being through an understanding of ecology and how everything is interconnected.

Merriam-Webster defines “nationalism” as: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness.” This is not the same as patriotism. Nor does it describe what many think of the word, which is an extreme form of nationalism, in which one nation is exalted above all others (I can think of one nation that is overtly doing that now) and placing primary emphasis on promoting its culture and interests over others—often through isolationism, xenophobia, chauvinism and jingoism. When I think of Canada, I think of my “home”, where I live; my community and my environment. I have traveled the world and I feel a strong sense of “home” and belonging every time I return. Canada is my home. I was born and grew up in Quebec. I lived in British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia; each of these places engendered a feeling of “home”. If a strong sense of “home” and belonging is nationalistic, then that is what I am.

Nina kayaking in Desolation Sound, British Columbia
Or am I something else? Perhaps, we need to redefine our sense of belonging (and pride) in a country that is not tied to some core political identity or melting-pot mainstream. Historian and writer Charlotte Gray wrote:

“we live in a country that has a weak national culture and strong regional identities …Two brands of psychological glue bind Canada together: political culture and love of landscape…[in] a loose federation perched on a magnificent and inhospitable landscape—[we are] a nation that sees survival as a collective enterprise.”—Charlotte Gray

Canada as Postnational State

In October 2015, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the New York Times that Canada may be the “first postnational state,” adding that “there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” This is largely because Canadians, writes Charles Forman in the Guardian, are “philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless.”

To anyone but a Canadian, Trudeau’s remark would rankle, particularly in a time when many western countries are fearfully and angrily turning against immigration through nativism and exclusionary narratives. A time when the United States elected an authoritarian intent on making “America great again” by building walls. A time when populist right-wing political parties hostile to diversity are gaining momentum in other parts of the world. “Canada’s almost cheerful commitment to inclusion might at first appear almost naive,” writes Forman. It isn’t, he adds. There are practical reasons for keeping our doors open.

We are who we are because of what we are: a vast country the size of Europe. A country dominated by boreal forest, a vital and diverse wilderness that helps maintain the well-being of our entire planet. A land that encompasses over a fifth of the freshwater in the world, and a quarter of the world’s wetlands. Canadians are ultimately the world’s Natural stewards. That is who and what we are.

According to Forman, postnationalism frames how “to understand our ongoing experiment in filling a vast yet unified geographic space with the diversity of the world” and a “half-century old intellectual project, born of the country’s awakening from colonial slumber.” As the first Europeans arrived in North America, the Indigenous people welcomed them, taught them how to survive and thrive amid multiple identities and allegiances, writes Forman. “That welcome was often betrayed, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, when settlers did profound harm to Indigenous people.” But, says Forman, if the imbalance remains, so does the influence: a model of another way of belonging. One I think many Canadians are embracing. We are learning from the natural wisdom of our Indigenous peoples. Even our fiction reflects how we value our environment and embrace diversity. “Diversity fuels, not undermines, prosperity,” writes Forman.

As efforts are made to reconcile the previous wrongs to Indigenous peoples within Canada and as empowering stories about environment are created and shared, Canada carries on the open and welcoming nature of our Indigenous peoples in encouraging immigration. In 2016, the same year the American government announced a ban on refugees, Canada took in 300,000 immigrants, which included 48,000 refuges. Canada encourages citizenship and around 85% of permanent residents typically become citizens. Greater Toronto is currently the most diverse city in the world; half of its residents were born outside the country. Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal are not far behind.

Canadian author and visionary Marshal McLuhan wrote in 1963 that, “Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.” This is an incredible accomplishment, particularly given our own colonial history and the current jingoistic influence of the behemoth south of us.

Writer and essayist Ralston Saul suggests that Canada has taken to heart the Indigenous concept of ‘welcome’ to provide, “Space for multiple identities and multiple loyalties...[based on] an idea of belonging which is comfortable with contradictions.” Of this Forman writes:
“According to poet and scholar BW Powe, McLuhan saw in Canada the raw materials for a dynamic new conception of nationhood, one unshackled from the state’s ‘demarcated borderlines and walls, its connection to blood and soil,’ its obsession with ‘cohesion based on a melting pot, on nativist fervor, the idea of the promised land’. Instead, the weakness of the established Canadian identity encouraged a plurality of them—not to mention a healthy flexibility and receptivity to change. Once Canada moved away from privileging denizens of the former empire to practicing multiculturalism, it could become a place where ‘many faiths and histories and visions would co-exist.”

And that’s exactly what is happening. We are not a “melting pot” stew of mashed up cultures absorbed into a greater homogeneity of nationalism, no longer recognizable for their unique qualities. Canada isn’t trying to “make Canada great again.” Canada is a true multi-cultural nation that celebrates its diversity: the wholes that make up the wholes.

Confident and comfortable with our ‘incomplete identity’—recognizing it for what it is—is  according to Forman, “a positive, a spur to move forward without spilling blood, to keep thinking and evolving—perhaps, in the end, simply to respond to newness without fear.”

This resonates with me as an ecologist. What I envision is a Canada transcending the political to embrace the environment that both defines us and provides us with our very lives; a view that knows no boundaries, and recognizes the importance of diversity, relationship and inclusion, interaction, movement, and discovery.

So, am I still proud of Canada? Definitely. We have much to be proud of. We live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the 8th highest ranking in the Human Development Index. Canada ranks among the highest in international measurements of government transparency, civil liberties, quality of life, economic freedom, and education. It stands among the world's most educated countries—ranking first worldwide in the number of adults having tertiary education with 51% of adults holding at least an undergraduate college or university degree. With two official languages, Canada practices an open cultural pluralism toward creating a cultural mosaic of racial, religious and cultural practices. Canada’s symbols are influenced by natural, historical and Aboriginal sources. Prominent symbols include the maple leaf, the beaver, Canada Goose, Common Loon, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the polar bear, the totem pole, and Inuksuk.

We are a northern country with a healthy awareness of our environment—our weather, climate and natural world. This awareness—particularly of climate change—is more and more being reflected in our literature—from Margaret Atwood’s “Maddaddam” trilogy and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “2140” to my own book “Water Is…” and upcoming “A Diary in the Age of Water.” Canadians are writing more eco-fiction, climate fiction, and fiction in which environment somehow plays a key role. Water has become one of those key players: I recently was editor of the Reality Skimming Press anthology “Water”, a collection of six speculative Canadian stories that explore near-future scenarios with water as principle agent.

In a recent interview with Mary Woodbury on Eco-Fiction, I reflected on a trend over the years that I noticed in the science fiction writing course I teach at George Brown College: “It’s a workshop-style course I teach and students are encouraged to bring in their current work in progress. More and more students are bringing in a WIP with strong ecological overtones. I’d say the percentage now is over 70%. This is definitely coming from the students—it’s before I even open my mouth about ecology and eco-fiction—and what it suggests to me is that the welfare of our planet and our ecosystems is on many people’s minds and this is coming through in our most metaphoric writing: science fiction.”

It is healthy to celebrate our accomplishments while remembering where we came from and what we still need to accomplish. This provides direction and motivation.





References:


Forman, Charles. 2017. “The Canada Experiment: Is this the World’s First Postnational Country?” The Guardian, January 4, 2017.

Gray, Charlotte. 2017. “Heroes and Symbols” The Globe and Mail.

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