environmentalism

The Lorax

Anyone who read Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax as a kid might dread the movie version. No one really needs another moralizing, hectoring lecture from environmentalists on the need to save the trees from extinction, especially since that once-fashionable cause seems ridiculously overwrought today. There is no shortage of trees and this is due not to nationalization so much as the privatization and cultivation of forest land.

And yet, even so, the movie is stunning and beautiful in every way, with a message that taps into something important, something with economic and political relevance for us today. In fact, the movie improves on the book with the important addition of “Thneed-Ville,” a community of people who live in a completely artificial world lorded over by a mayor who also owns the monopoly on oxygen.

This complicates the relatively simple narrative of the book, which offers a story of a depleted environment that doesn’t actually make much sense. The original posits an entrepreneur who discovers that he can make a “Thneed” — a kind of all-purpose cloth — out of the tufts of the “Truffula Tree,” and that this product is highly marketable.

Now, in real life, any capitalist in this setting would know exactly what to do: immediately get to work planting and cultivating more Truffula trees. This is essential capital that makes the business possible and sustainable through time. You want more rather than less capital. An egg producer doesn’t kill his chickens; he breeds more. But in the book (and the movie), the capitalist does the opposite. He cuts down all the trees and, surprise, his business goes bust.

The book ends with the aging capitalist regretting his life and passing on the last Truffula seed to the next generation. The end. However, the movie introduces us to the town that is founded after this depletion occurs. It is shielded off from the poisoned and depleted world outside, and oxygen is pumped in by the mayor who holds the monopoly on air and builds Lenin-like statues to himself. The people eventually rise up when they discover that “air is free” and thereby overthrow the despot, chopping off the statue’s head.

It was this line about how air is free that clued me in to the movie’s possible subtext. You only need to add one metaphor to see how this movie can be the most important and relevant political-economic drama of the season.

The metaphorical substitution is this: The Trees are Ideas.

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Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell

Arctic Rising by Tobias S. Buckell

I have previously read and reviewed Tobias S. Buckell’s Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin, both of which I enjoyed. On the other hand, I am skeptical of alarmist claims about global warming. So it was with some ambivalence, a mixture of excitement and trepidation, that I began reading my advance review copy (ARC) of Buckell’s latest novel — his first foray into techno-thrillers — Arctic Rising (Tor, 2012). Though he had me worried a time or two, I was pleasantly surprised and glad I read it.

Arctic Rising is set in the near future — the Earth is warmer and the Arctic Circle is largely ice-free year-round. States and corporations are racing to take advantage of the new oversea North Pole trade route and the untapped resources made accessible by the receding ice. As you might expect, this is a situation ripe for political conflict, and environmentalists are none-too-happy with the change in climate either.

Buckell handles the environmental angle fairly gracefully. The global warming issue mainly shows up as background, for the setting, and as a plot device. Speaking of the plot, don’t read the GoodReads description of the book if you prefer to avoid major spoilers.

For the most part he avoids thumping you over the head with an ideological bludgeon. The one time I got really worried he was going to spoil the book for me was about 3/4ths of the way through when the co-founders of a green energy corporation go off on a talking point–ridden tag-team duologue, but let’s just say that the impact was lessened by the way they were subsequently portrayed.

Unlike many environmentalists I’ve encountered, Buckell has no difficulty recognizing that global warming would be harmful to some but also beneficial to others; that, contrary to the frequent warnings of doom and gloom, it wouldn’t be all bad. Sea levels would rise. But rising temperatures would open up more arable land in the north. While already hot regions might get detrimentally hotter, colder climes would get warmer as well and benefit from longer growing seasons. Resources previously buried under tons of ice would become open to exploitation. Moreover, once people have adjusted to the warmer temperatures, a return to colder temperatures of previous decades would result in winners and losers as well. There are no neutral climate changes; any changes in the Earth’s climate will have both positive and negative consequences.

As Arctic Rising opens, we are introduced to our sole viewpoint character — one Anika Duncan, a mixed-race Nigerian airship pilot for the chronically underfunded United Nations Polar Guard. As the story progresses we gradually learn more about her colorful past as a child soldier and later a mercenary pilot. When offered her dream job by the UN, prior to the start of the action, Anika had jumped at the chance for a safer, less eventful career doing what she loved.

And things were nice and quiet for Anika… until a hunch leads her to take a second look at a freighter. When something radioactive in the ship sets off her neutron scatter camera, Anika, thinking they are just nuclear waste dumpers, orders them to prepare for boarding. But the crew respond by blowing her and her co-pilot, Tom, out of the sky and into the still-frigid waters of the Arctic. Something bigger than nuclear waste dumping is going on here.

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High Desert Barbecue by J.D. Tuccille

High Desert Barbecue, by libertarian author and columnist J.D. Tuccille, is a fun romp through the dry country of the southwest. The protagonists are libertarian and manage to slip in many an observation about life and the government. The antagonists are government agents, usually environmentalist wackos and bumbling idiots to boot. Mr. Tuccille does not try to hide his colors, but whatever the reader’s are he will at least find some humor and adventure in the tale, and if he is libertarian some satisfaction as well.

The story concerns a plot by environmentalists to burn out animals — humans especially — from northern Arizona so that plants may take their place at the top of the food chain and not be bothered by inferior creatures. The irony of these mammalian Forest Service enviros passionately fighting for plants, against their own kind, is thick throughout the book. One can sense the author’s amused disdain and the pleasure he takes at the antics of these defectives.

Their act of arson — referred to as “The Carthage Option” — is witnessed and filmed by Rollo, his friend Scott, and Scott’s girlfriend Lani. A chase through uninhabited territory follows, while the fire burns. The three protagonists are desperate to get the footage uploaded to the internet so that everyone can see what the government is up to. The Forest Service hippies, a group of incompetent boobs who are good for a couple dozen chuckles through the course of the story, pursue them, determined to keep the intelligence from reaching Youtube but having difficulties getting out of their own way during the chase.

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Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach

Few philosophies have a greater mutual suspicion and natural antipathy to each other than libertarianism and ecology. This is not surprising, since the former takes the human individual and the latter the nonhuman environment, as its sovereign concern. But since our state-plagued era has seen the degradation of both individual liberties and the quality of the environment, we ought to question the degree to which these exist in an inverse relationship. Libertarians who wish to learn how to accommodate ecological ideas could do no better than to begin with a short 1975 novel by Ernest Callenbach, not because the novel has any libertarian intent (it clearly doesn’t), but because the principle of political decentralization, which Callenbach sees as an ecological necessity, leads him unconsciously, almost blindly, in a libertarian direction.

Ecotopia was clearly born out of the political and economic turmoil of the 1970s. As the book describes it, “The persistent inflation and recession of the seventies had caused widespread misery and undermined Americans’ confidence in economic progress.… And chronic Washington scandals had greatly reduced faith in central government.” Of course there was also a war that dragged on and on despite widespread opposition. In other words, it was a time much like our own, which may be why there has been a renewal of interest in the book in the last few years. A New York Times article from 2008 called it “The Novel that Predicted Portland” for its advocacy of green lifestyles. Well, not quite, as we shall see.

While contemporary greens tend to advocate greater power for national and international governmental agencies to regulate on behalf of the environment, Callenbach’s book was informed by decentralist and anti-authoritarian ideas of the New Left. These led him to a solution that had long since been thought impossible in American politics: secession. Ecotopia is also the name of a new nation in the novel, consisting of what used to be Oregon, Washington, and northern California, which seceded from the United States in 1980.1 In 1999, Will Weston, a journalist from what remains of the United States, sets out to write a series of articles about Ecotopian life. These, alternating with Weston’s private diary entries, comprise the novel.

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  1. Interestingly, Quebec seceded from Canada in the early 1980s, and Weston hints that parts of the Soviet Union will soon break away. At the time, the first prediction must have seemed like a much safer bet than the second, though subsequent history proved the opposite to be the case. 

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Pump Six and Other Stories

I’ve read a number of Paolo Bacigalupi’s short fiction stories and, though I am skeptical of his environmentalism and don’t agree with (what I can glean of) his politics, they have all been uniformly well-written and compelling — interesting worldbuilding coupled with fine prose and characterization. They all seem to be set in a post–global warming/post–energy crisis future Earth, maybe a century or so hence. “The Calorie Man” is no exception. There’s even a libertarian angle that I’ll get to in a moment.

Paolo Bacigalupi is being nominated for, and winning, awards left and right. “The Calorie Man,” actually a novelette, was nominated for the Hugo Award and won the Theodore Sturgeon Award in 2006. First published in the October/November 2005 double issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, this story can also be found in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Third Annual Collection, edited by Gardner Dozois — where I first encountered it — and in Bacigalupi’s short fiction collection, Pump Six and Other Stories, itself a winner of the Locus Award for Best Collection in 2009 and containing a number of award nominee and winning stories.

Our petroleum-based and prosperous time, referred to in “The Calorie Man” as the Expansion, gave way to an energy Contraction and one gets the impression that humanity has struggled slowly to adapt. This future earth is more advanced in some ways (e.g., genetic engineering) and less advanced in others, mainly owing to the lack of cheap and powerful fuel (e.g., people are reduced to methane lamps for lighting and powering computers with human labor via treadles). There are trappings of steampunk — dirigibles are mentioned, and high-precision kink-springs are the primary means of storing kinetic energy and powering engines — but the tone is decidedly not that of steampunk. I thought to call Bacigalupi’s style of science fiction biopunk but alas someone else has already coined that term for it; enviropunk would also be a good label.

The plot of the story centers around greedy megacorporations and the genetically engineered and patented crops that are used to feed and fuel human beings, their genetically engineered beasts of burden, and their machines. We’re not talking your run-of-the-mill biofuel, such as ethanol, here. No, Bacigalupi’s twist is to have the crops used to feed mulies and megadonts (genetically engineered descendants of mules and elephants, respectively, I think) that transform those calories into stored kinetic energy by walking treadmills that wind the aforementioned high-precision kink-springs. All “natural,” unpatented crops have been conveniently wiped out by agricultural disasters and diseases to which the genetically engineered crops turned out to be resistant or immune, leaving a few agricultural corporations in tightfisted, monopolistic control of the world’s primary sources of food and energy.

As “The Calorie Man” opens, we’re introduced to the main character — an Indian transplant to the American South. Lalji plies the Mississippi River in a kink-spring-powered boat looking for antiques from the Expansion to salvage and sell. But an old friend has an unusual and dangerous job for him now. He is to travel far up north to find and smuggle back to New Orleans a man the big agricultural corporations want captured or killed, a man who supposedly can upend the economic status quo.

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Ceres by L. Neil Smith

Ceres by L. Neil Smith

Ceres, a finalist for the 2011 Prometheus Award for best libertarian novel, is the latest opus from noted libertarian author L. Neil Smith, best known for The Probability Broach.  As you would expect from Mr. Smith, Ceres is a treasure trove for the liberty lover, a work that could only come from an uncompromising libertarian.  Nearly every page has some sound libertarian principle or perhaps a new twist on libertarian ideas that the reader may not have considered before.  For instance, we know that government is coercion, an institution organized around this principle, but have we considered the role of agriculture in the development of the State?  Was it perhaps our settling down into permanent communities that allowed for the contraction of that particular disease?  Right or wrong, it’s food for thought and worth considering.  Ceres is filled with such things.

The story takes place in the 22nd century and follows the lives of characters connected in some way to the terraforming of Ceres, the planetoid – now called a dwarf planet — and largest object in the main asteroid belt.  Most of the protagonists belong to the Ngu family, and those that don’t are close friends.  Llyra Ayn Ngu is a figure skater born on Pallas, an object in the asteroid belt even smaller than Ceres.  She goes to Ceres to acclimate her body to its greater gravity, and from there moves to the Moon, and thence to Mars and finally to Earth, where she dreams of ice skating success.

The different sections of the book are named after the gravity of each body, whether it’s one tenth gee, one sixth, one third or one gee.  Given this, we might call Llyra the main character, although her brother Wilson gets just as much attention.  Nevertheless, Llyra’s goal and struggle to achieve it are the only constants in the novel, present from the opening chapter to the end.  The rest concerns the various interests of the Ngu family and friends, often when in conflict with the environmentalists who seek to stop human expansion into space and the sullying of the environment as they see it.

It is beyond dispute that L. Neil Smith is a dedicated libertarian.  He has spent many hours of his life pouring himself into prose, seeking to spread the libertarian ethic and philosophy for the betterment of mankind.  However, just as, in a debate, a libertarian stands a better chance of convincing if the other party genuinely likes him, so too does a book stand a better chance of convincing in proportion to how much it charms the reader.  One might make a few suggestions in the interest of getting the most out of Ceres.

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MOVIE REVIEW | Children of Men Thumbnail

[Warning: Minor, vague spoiler in last sentence of 3rd paragraph.]

Children of Men is an interesting dystopian film set in a near-future fascist Britain. The country has traded freedom for “security,” has closed its borders to immigrants and systematically rounds them up into concentration camps and deports or exterminates them. It is a world beset by terrorism, of the Islamic fundamentalist variety and others.

The premise of the movie, however, is such a stretch that it makes it hard for one to maintain adequate suspension of disbelief. Suddenly and inexplicably over a very short span of time (a few years maybe?) the entire female sex of the human race becomes infertile. Then, just as suddenly and inexplicably, a group of resistance fighters discovers a pregnant woman. Much of the movie is their attempt to smuggle her out of the country.

Though the premise is rather far-fetched, the movie makes interesting use of it for social analysis. With no possibility of children, the extinction of the human race is not far off. Hope for the future seems lost. What effect will this loss of hope have on individuals and on society as a whole? The movie does a good job of dramatizing this on both levels.

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