The people who are protecting the planet are often the most marginalized – Amit Sengupta in conversation with Vandana Singh
Born and raised in India, Vandana Singh is a science fiction writer and a professor of physics at the Framingham State University, Boston area. Her most recent work is a collection of short stories, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories(Small Beer Press and Zubaan books), that was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award and earned critical acclaim from multiple publications, including the Washington Post, Publisher’s Weekly and the Times Literary Supplement. A former particle physicist, she has been working for nearly a decade at the intersection of climate science and other disciplines, including climate justice. She has also written children’s literature in Hindi and English.
You are an acclaimed science fiction writer. How does science fiction reflect the bitter or optimistic realism of the times?
This is a great question. There is a general impression that science fiction is about the future. That may literally be the case for some stories, but, inevitably, imaginings of the future reflect the concerns of the present day. Science fiction has come a long way (but not long enough!) from its roots as literature inseparable from colonialism. It is no longer the exclusive literary tool of Americans and West Europeans. There are people from different countries – India, Nigeria, Brazil, for example – or from marginalized groups – Dalits, Native Americans, or women – who are using and modifying the tools of science fiction to write literature that challenges imperialism, colonialism, capitalism, and thereby also influencing the mainstream. Science fiction’s potential as revolutionary literature lies in its use of ‘what-if’ questions – what if things were not like they are today? What if gender and political relations were different?
A reflection of the times today, with its tin-pot dictators and collapsing democracies, is the profusion of dystopic fiction. Not all of science fiction’s dystopias are gloom and doom – some of the best ones are shot through with defiance, hope, passionate creativity, imagining alternative ways of living and being even as things fall apart. Examples include Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, and P. Djeli Clark’s The Black God’s Drums. In contrast, there is dystopic fiction that is basically a kind of disaster porn, unrelentingly grey and miserable. Although intended as a warning of dire possibilities, too much of that sort of thing can stifle the imagination: it is so much harder to imagine avoiding or creatively working through dystopias and envisioning within them islands of resistance. There are works that imagine the gritty details of living under extreme climatic conditions, which re-vision human relationships with each other, with natural forces and with technology such as Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140set in a drowned New York. So, there is a lot of potential in science fiction, more than in any other genre, to think differently about our very fraught moment in history.
Tell us about your connection with the famous science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin. What are your other writing influences?
I got to know Ursula Le Guin first through her remarkable novel The Dispossessed, which is among the finest works of political imaginative fiction that I’ve come across. I discovered her late – I was in my early 30s, just starting to write fiction. Then I happened to meet her at a writers’ conference in Oregon, which led to my attending a six-day writing retreat for women in the Oregon wilderness. Ursula was the kindest of mentors – we corresponded over the years until some months before her passing in 2018. Back when I was a new writer trying to get published and collecting my first set of rejections, she encouraged me to keep going and validated the worth of my stories. We also had discussions about the climate crisis over email. In 2015, I was one of the keynote speakers at a science fiction research conference at Stonybrook University, where I gave a talk about one of Ursula’s most famous short stories ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. Preceding that, I had a lovely extended discussion with her about it.
You know, it’s not realistic to expect a great writer to be a great human being, but Ursula was all that. When she passed away in January 2018, I wrote a tribute on my blog which you can find here.
Some ten years ago, I discovered Premendra Mitra and the Bengali science fiction tradition, which is marvellous. I even wrote a short story as a tribute to Mitra’s character Ghanada. More recent writers whose works resonate with me include Jose Saramago translated from Portuguese, and Nirmal Verma in Hindi. This is by no means a complete list!
You are a physicist and interdisciplinary scholar of global warming and climate change. There’s a powerful corporate lobby led by the current US president which denies global warming and climate change. What is your opinion?
It is quite logical for the corporate lobby to deny climate change. Climate change is the outcome of an economic system bent on extraction and profit, where damage to the systems that allow us to live and breathe is referred to as ‘externalities’. So the fact that we have a climate crisis is the evidence of the failure of the current economic system. Those who profit from it, unless they happen to be very honest and tuned into reality, will want to retain the status quo, and will fight to keep the current power structures intact.
There is no doubt that climate change is real, that it is caused by the exploitative nature of modern industrial civilization (as evidenced by the link between fossil fuel use and GDP, among other things) and that it is very serious. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a special report last year, warning that we cannot afford an average global surface temperature rise of 2°C by 2100 and that 1.5 °C, although problematic, is not likely to be as catastrophic. To give you some perspective, the current global surface temperature is about 1°C above pre-industrial times, and if we do nothing to address climate change, we are on a path to a 4- 6°C rise by 2100, which would be unimaginably catastrophic. Now, any economic system that leads to such a scenario is a failure.
Currently, the boldest climate action plan proposed in the US is the Green New Deal, which calls for a massive restructuring and transition to green energy, and is sensitive to a just transition, where the people most vulnerable to climate impacts are protected. While it has its shortcomings and doesn’t go far enough in some areas, it is the kind of bold step we need. We should not forget that the Green New Deal has arisen due to people’s movements — the relatively diverse climate movement in the US, including the youth-led ‘Sunrise Movement’. Really, we should not expect governments and corporations to make the needed changes — it is the public that needs to rise up and push these entities in the right direction.
How do you think global warming might affect the advanced capitalist countries and developing countries like India which has suffered prolonged droughts, while rains have destroyed land and ecology in states like Kerala and Assam?
The best source for that information is the AR5 IPCC’s report, but, briefly, the global impacts of climate change include: sea level rise, killer heat waves, more floods and droughts affecting food and water security, the poleward movement of tropical diseases, mass extinction of species, and ocean acidification. Now, impact is one thing, and resilience another. Those who have better access to infrastructure – the rich everywhere, and the West, compared to the Global South – are better able to withstand the effects of global warming, at least in the short term. In fact, we are already hearing about the rich building luxury climate bunkers to safeguard themselves and hiring security to protect their enclaves from the fury of the masses. This is what is referred to as Climate Apartheid.
In India the climatic impacts also include more variability with regard to the monsoons, rising sea levels threatening major coastal cities and towns, and heat waves where temperatures 35°C and higher combined with high humidity can kill a person exposed to such conditions in a few hours.
A wise government would protect forests and rivers, protect the rights of tribal and other traditional forest dwellers who safeguard our natural resources, and embark on a radically different, ecologically just, socially equitable model of development that would mitigate climate change and ensure comfortable living standards and wellbeing for all. This is possible — it requires a kind of vision that starts with the question of wellbeing for all and considers the technological change in that context (instead of the other way around), where participatory, grassroots democracy is a given. There has been a lot of scholarship revealing that so-called ordinary people or even (that terrible term) ‘backward’ people are likely to contribute most to alternative visions of the future – we know, for example, that indigenous people, despite being only 5% of the population, care for about 80% of the world’s biodiversity, and keep nearly 300,000 million tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere. There is also work suggesting that the energy usage of the urban poor – which is sustainable – may be something to aspire to.
Can we do this while increasing our wellbeing? These are all really important questions. We should be having national and global conversations about this. Instead, the world is run by fascist demagogues who seem bent on the destruction of everything, from trees and wild animals to human beings, for the temporary profits of a few.
The most recent horror as of August 2019 is the deliberate torching of the Amazon rainforest, including the burning of indigenous villages. It is bad enough that extreme weather is causing wildfires in several places around the globe. There are massive fires in Siberia, parts of Europe and Africa, and in the Arctic. We live in a preposterous age – imagine the Arctic burning! There have been fires in Alaska and Greenland. July this year was the hottest month ever recorded since instrumental records began in 1880.
There has been outrage over the torching of the Amazon. Protests from youth movements like ‘Extinction Rebellion’ and the ‘Sunrise Movement’; indigenous rights groups and ordinary citizens from multiple nations have welled up worldwide. Mother Nature recognizes no national boundaries – the oxygen in the air we breathe comes from the world’s oceans and forests (a substantial chunk from the Amazon alone), and whether we live in Brazil or Japan or India, we owe the fact that we are alive to multiple lifeforms and cycles and systems that operate on a global scale.
You were a supporter of the Native Americans who fought a prolonged struggle against the oil pipeline in their indigenous homeland. What is the state of that struggle and what are the lessons we should learn from it?
Well, it’s been about three years since the movement started – the Standing Rock Sioux tribe water protectors and their allies fought the energy company and the government with great courage, facing water and sound cannons, tear gas, incarceration in terrible conditions, arrests, strip searches and the forced shut-down of their camp. They then took the battle to the courts, but despite all this, the pipeline was built. The tribe and its allies are still fighting – for instance, a recent proposal to double the carrying capacity of the pipeline is being opposed by the tribe. That the issue is still alive is evidenced by the fact that some of the Democratic presidential candidates have vowed to cancel the permit of the pipeline if elected.
The pipeline carries oil from the shale oil fields of North Dakota to Illinois. Shale oil is difficult to extract – you have to inject water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale rock, using a process known as fracking. Fracking is problematic for many reasons, including groundwater contamination, local seismic disturbances and methane gas emissions. It is also indicative of the fact that fossil fuel companies are having to seek harder-to-extract sources of oil. Their excuse is that they need to meet the energy demands of the emerging consumerist middle class in India and China, but what we really need is an aggressive transition away from fossil fuels toward green energy, accompanied by a just socio-economic transition to a different model of development. The overarching danger of these projects is that they delay that very urgent transition while adding to greenhouse gas emissions.
As for lessons learned – the people who are protecting the planet are often the most marginalized. In India, tribal groups have also been on the frontlines of the fight to protect the forests – the Dongria Kondh tribals in pristine Niyamgiri, Orissa, fighting one of the most notorious and powerful mining companies in the world backed by the Indian State is just one example. We need to salute their courage and support them.
The struggle is a long one, and there will be many apparent failures and disasters along the way. The important thing is to be able to think both short-term and long-term. You have to strategize for the immediate future, but you have to be willing to be there for the long haul.
The phenomenon of fracking in the face of the most dire developments in the Earth’s climate – signs that we are possibly crossing tipping points like the melting of the great ice sheets for example – means that fossil fuel companies and the governments they have in their pockets are phenomenally greedy, incalculably stupid and willfully blind. We have to be more intelligent, more empathetic, more loving, more creative, and much, much stronger than them.
Do you think Indian democracy is in danger? If so, why?
It seems that democracies all around the world are in danger. While the hijacking of the democratic nation-state started a long time ago, it has come to a head in so many places now. There is always a danger with representative democracy that the representatives of the people will be bought by vested interests, and that sort of high-level corruption has been the case for a long time in many places like India and the US. However, what we are seeing now is the blatant takeover of nation-states by corporations. The public is continually distracted by non-issues, and by making non-issues into apparently real issues through the fake news machinery.
Behind the scenes, the keys of the country are being handed over to powerful corporations, through the dilution or removal of laws for environmental protection and civil liberties. This is happening in the US as well. The nation-state-corporations nexus allows tax money from citizens to be channelled into the wallets of the super-rich. It allows the commons – forests, rivers, air – to be invaded or used as dumping grounds for the profiteers. It brutally dispossesses the already vulnerable. Loot at the scale we are seeing today can only happen if the truth is suppressed and the truth-tellers silenced. The sense of not being able to recognize your own country – even though you know that things were far from ideal in the past – and the short time scale over which drastic changes have been brought to bear – that is something we can share with Americans.
Consider only one current US issue – the incarceration of thousands of migrant children in cages, children forcibly separated from their parents. The apparently unending cruelty of those in power – not even lip service to basic standards of human decency, let alone civil rights – seems to be a hallmark of our era.
We are living in a nightmare. I remember when I was a kid, our school bus would go past Boat Club in Delhi, where I witnessed so many demonstrations (and marched in some myself). People shouted slogans against the government, and even called the prime minister names without any fear. Whether one agreed with the issues or the name-calling is not the point. The fact is that for the most part you could freely criticize the most powerful person in the country without fear of reprisal.
Authoritarian regimes cannot stand that – they are colonialists in their own lands. I was quite young when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in India for a year, media was gagged, dissent was crushed, and all fundamental rights were suspended while thousands were put in jail. But I still remember how strange it felt, the repressed quality of the silence.
Today what we have is something far more devious and complex – the manipulation of reality itself, so that millions of people sacrifice their intelligence and humanity on the altar of the political demigods. Anyone who has ever lived long enough to remember the dreams of the post-independence era – the idea of India as a great experiment, the aspiration so beautifully described in Rabindranath Tagore’s poem ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’, — anyone who shares that dream will weep today. And, yet, we have to remember this is a long struggle, and we can’t give up.
You also write fabulous children’s literature located in small towns and the rural backdrop of India. What is the relevance of children’s literature in resurrecting our forgotten memories, relationships and communities of childhood?
Well, I’ve only written two books for children and a handful of short stories, but I hope to write more. My Younguncle books are based on memories of time spent as a child in Patna, Bihar, and my experiences as a teenager growing up in Delhi learning about and witnessing some of the issues involving environmental justice. It is true that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing – when we look back at the past through rose-tinted glasses, we allow reactionary forces to distort and occupy history, thus leading to such slogans as “Make America Great Again” and its equivalents around the globe. But, I think it is possible to remember and treasure certain aspects of the past while still acknowledging the things that were problematic. The past is a complex terrain – to vilify or deify it is to fail to understand its nuances and contradictions. So, when I remember summers in Patna with my grandparents, I remember the clean air, the guava tree which was my refuge, the kindness of ordinary people in our neighborhood; and with hindsight, I also recognize the serious issues of the day (and of today) – class and caste and gender and poverty that were relatively obscure to my ten-year-old self.
There were so many things that were wonderful – being able to spend most of my day after school outdoors; the diversity of our social circles across caste and class, which for example enabled us to celebrate Eid with our Muslim family friends; the slow pace at which life moved, giving time for deep contemplations of such things as insects in the bushes and birds on trees; and the friendships I made with pariah dogs.
And, yet, I can appreciate some aspects of the present day. I am glad that we are hearing Dalit and Adivasi voices in politics and literature more loudly than ever before, and that manual scavengers are issuing manifestos – even while I deplore what’s being done to the Earth’s living systems that sustain life.
So, in my children’s books, although they sometimes look back at a different era and way of life, I try to complicate the story by entangling with such things as caste, or the exploitation of the poor, or women, or forests. Younguncledeals with the upper caste mafia of his ancestral village, the arranged marriage of his sister to someone she dislikes, the stealing of a milkman’s cow by a rich local profiteer, the proposed destruction of a Himalayan forest to build a spiritual retreat. And he does it with a wacky craziness, a great deal of aplomb, and unfailing kindness.
So, yes, I do believe there is a way that children’s fiction can connect with certain positive aspects of the past, without denying the problematic ones. It is so important to keep dreams of alternative futures alive in our sorely troubled world. The past, when interpreted with sufficient complexity, can give us the inspiration to realize some of those futures.