EcoGeek of the Week: Tobias Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell is a Caribbean-born speculative fiction writer who grew up in Grenada, the British Virgin Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He has published stories in various magazines and anthologies. He is a Clarion graduate, Writers of The Future winner, and Campbell Award for Best New SF Writer Finalist. We at EcoGeek are huge fans of his novels and his blog, and we're happy to have him as our first Sci Fi EcoGeek of the Week.
The first 1/3 of two of his novels Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin are available online.
EcoGeek: What is your vision of life on Earth 100 years from now?
Tobias Buckell: More of the same, I hope. We're inching forward in our own way, and we've dodged a lot of big mistakes. I hope we're able to fumble on, and I hope that we're able to bring in all the other countries that are developing right now along instead of viewing them as competitors.
EG: You posted a piece on your blog (tobiasbuckell.com) a couple of months ago where you decided you were a "nuclear power loving environmentalist." Can you elaborate further about how you consider yourself an environmentalist?TB: It's a bit of a flip phrase on my part. I'm more an environmentalist due to my background living off the grid, so to speak, because I grew up living on a boat in the Caribbean. You live on a boat and you have your diesel engine and wind generator to charge up the batteries, you use significantly less water, you sail places, and your overall footprint is a bit lower. Moving to the mainland here in the US I use vastly more space and artificial light and so on. As a kid I always viewed people living in houses as extremely wasteful. Now I'm one of them. And one thing I found, moving into a house, is that I'm already strapped for money, time, and the environment around me (people, products, access to products) doesn't focus on rewarding environmentally lower footprint. So I'm not really an environmentalist any more than a wannabe hippy college prof who happens to drive a Prius and hammer his students about how horribly un-environmental they is, but I am intrinsically interested in what it will take to become a better steward of the Earth, but in a way that is easily adoptable by consumers.
I'm also a die-hard capitalist and market believer. So the environmental solutions that interest me are ones that seem counter-intuitive and that are easy behaviors to modify. You see, getting better about our impact on the Earth is like trying to get fit. We all know we're supposed to do it, but altering it is tough. Micky D's is just around the corner, people get defensive when you go on a diet, and if you radically alter your diet and life, socially there is pressure on you to not be different or do it (lift weights intensely, or do a low-carb diet, and be very open about it, and see how people respond, it's usually negatively or suspiciously).
I heard of a green power co-op offering free beer at an expo, I see the Tesla electric car that's a sexy, fast, sports car. That's the approach we need. We need the iPod of alternative energy, so to speak, not the 'build your own Linux distro' version. And as a capitalist, we need competing alternative energy sources, diversification.
I'm not against using fossil fuels, either, it's that burning them, changing them into a non-recoverable state, is criminal. Our world depends on plastics, we build and package everything with it. Burning building material up is a problem, and I think it's important to consider that from a cold, hard economic viewpoint. I'd rather see a world where we use pebble-bed nuclear reactors, wind, and solar power for our transportation and power needs.
EG: What new technologies do you think have the potential for the greatest impact on the environment?
TB: The tough thing is that there is a great deal of power contained in oil, it's efficient from that simple equation. And we've transitioned out of a human-powered world, where bondage and the price of life was cheap because calories were used to do things, to one where fuel powered machines run our world. And for all of the Western world's faults, I'd take our fuel-powered world over a muscle powered world any day. Some third world countries offer a look at post-oil worlds that haven't solved the power and machine problem, and they're tough. Cuba, now bereft of Russia's free oil, uses farm animals to pull buses around and a lot of manual labor.
Right now ethanol and biodiesel has a big buzz, but the issue there is that in order to harvest the amount of ethanol needed to run our country, we'd have to plant just absolutely enormous amounts of crops, it would have a tremendous effect on us to attempt this. Even our attempts to slightly up our ethanol usage are having impacts on the global crop market right now. I've seen some research about algae for biodiesel that looks promising, algae fields are more doable than soybeans and corn, one can grow that stuff in a wide range of locations. And while I like solar and wind, the problem there becomes storage and transmission. Solar and wind are variable power productions, and as a result, you can't just hook them up to your grid willy nilly because of the fluctuations they bring, so you need batteries to store that power. And batteries use nasty heavy metals that are tough on the environment, so you then have that side effect.
So far the most intriguing vision I've seen for alternative power has been the AirCar. What this car does is use electricity to power a compressor that fills a tank with compressed air. That compressed air then powers a piston, much like steam does. The electricity to power that compressor is fairly cheap, and if the AirCar's basic piston design gets as much power out of the compressed air as they're saying it does, then compressed air generators are a complete alternative power change agent.
It's a complete change agent because we already have the technology to easily store compressed air. Scuba tanks are no mystery, and the technology is easy to understand and use. It'll also be easy to adapt our existing patterns to it. So you hook up tidal generators, wind generators, solar power farms, biodiesel generators, whatever, to power compressors that store air. Air generators tap into this resource to again create electricity to do whatever.
If consumers don't want lighter cars, you invest in stronger air tanks to compress air better. It doesn't pollute, anyone can tinker with the fuel storage and delivery mechanism, and I'm very interested in seeing if AirCar's claims hold up. I like this low-tech solution because the biggest problems with pollution and fuel use are going to be the very hungry and always rapidly growing China and India. You can design super advanced tech solutions to these problems and beat the US consumer over the head with a message all you want, but in about a generation the combined forces of China and India will have more of an effect on the world than we will, and so the trick is to find solutions and methods that will work for their economies and people. An expensive fuel cell car or quarter of a million dollar green house isn't going to do the trick, I don't think.
EG: What environmental issues do you think are going to require technological intervention? Or, to put it a bit better perhaps, what environmental problems do you think *can* be remedied by technological intervention?
TB: People focus on cars, I think the big issue will be main electricity generation. Right now the bulk of US power generation comes from coal. It's one reason why the US isn't too threatened by gas issues when you think about. Sure we drive around on it, but most of our power generation comes from coal, and we have a 200 year supply of it. I'm not sure if peak oil theory is correct, but even if it happened, with transportation adjustments, the lights are still going to be on here in the US. But coal is pretty dirty, and even though GE has invested a ton of money in trying to clean up coal, but there's some way to go yet, I believe. And, allow me a digression: here's a sign of where things can and should be going: one of the largest investors in green technology research is GE. Although they're not getting a ton of credit from environmentalists, their current leadership strongly believes green is the way of the future. The company has spread this EcoMagination movement throughout all aspects of their company. They're one of the leading groups studying how to manage power fluctuation when hooking up alternate power sources to a main power grid, and I think they're the largest wind turbine group now, it's pretty interesting.
Okay, that aside, though, I still think energy independence for a country is a rational, patriotic thing to do. I think Denmark is one of the few countries aiming for this, and they've done a lot of neat things to try and get to that point. Besides the environmental reasons, I do think getting out of competing for power resources will get you out of some of the biggest conflicts that will come to a head in the next few generations.
EG: In Ragamuffin, you make brief mention of the orbital mirrors that were used to help terraform the planet Nanaganda. What do you think about proposals to do similar scale projects to adjust Earth's climate?
TB: I don't know. I think the idea of building giant carbon sinks to try and get at some of the carbon is an interesting idea, but that it might be smarter to just try and green things up with smart building design and outside space design. I hate seeing suburbs and giant parking lots. It doesn't have to be that way. You can still have Wal-Mart, but encourage or mandate parking garages with trees on top and on top of the buildings, you know? Green matter is the best carbon sink we have going, I think natural resource management and smart planning works better than big engineering. I live in a small town with lots of trees, and it's cool, shady, makes for good property values. Around the town are a couple developments. Bare lawn all the way. No trees. If the town can mandate that I can't build a bright pink house with neon signs on it, why can't they have tree edicts? A bare development is just as ugly to me.
EG: Who do you think is writing intereting things about environmental issues?
TB: Paulo Bacigalupi has written a series of stories for F&SF; that dwell on a lot of these things, and I'm really enjoying them. He's amazing.
EG: You grew up living in Grenada and the Caribbean for many years, and lived on a boat for some of that time. I've also read that much of your family was (and still is) involved in boats. [ed note: correct me if I'm getting any of my facts wrong here] How did this affect your writing? Do you think you have a different attitude about the environment because of that?
TB: Yeah, like I mentioned, it was living off the grid, and so I got a lot of those viewpoints, but without the sort of super green indoctrination. I never thought of myself particularly as an environmentalist, but we were there in the front lines of that sort of life that many environmentalists kind of dream about.
The other part is that at my time there people became a lot more aware of our impact on our surroundings. Originally boats just anchored wherever. But by the mid-80s or so, as a kid, we all learned that anchors had direct and sometimes irrevocable damage to reef systems. So we couldn't anchor on reefs, but had to use preinstalled moorings. In the Virgin Islands, there were days when dust would fill the air and make it hazy, like L.A. hazy. Hell, we were on an island, what was it? It was dust picked up from the Sahara, borne by jetstream, and then deposited over the islands. It hit home that everything was interconnected, this world, and that if Saharans had poisoned that dust, we would have paid for it. That was profound. And then, later, we learned that one of the reasons some reefs were dying in the islands wasn't man's fault, but the fault of reef eating micro-organisms being carried from the Sahara to us in those storms. It's a complex world!
That was where I got my gray look at this. Earlier we had been told reefs were dying off because of island chemicals and over snorkeling (You Fins is Causing Eco-Devestation! Which is actually slightly true) and so on. Turns out it was a combination of both bad anchoring, too much human interaction, and just nature's fickleness.
EG: What piece of technology do you hope to see developed and widely available in the next 10-20 years?
TB: Pie in the sky is Nuclear Fusion. What I think is doable? I babbled on about the aircar, and I really am rooting for it. I think we could really do something cool with the air generator and aircar.
EG: What did you imagine the world would be like when you were a kid? Is it better or worse than your childhood fantasies?
TB: It's far better. I know that's a minority opinion, but here's the thing. More people have access to clean water than before, or ever in history. There is less war now. There is more education, literacy, access to goods. That canard about most of Africa never having made a phone call? It's actually not true. And a lot of them have cell phones, it's a leap frog technology.
The problem is that we all have too much access to media, and that media can get our eyeballs by telling us something scary, and horrific. Blood leads, Blood sells. Anyone can get followers and eyeballs by saying the world is ending. It's always been so. People who say 'it's not so bad, it's getting better' are trampled by people running over to listen to the dude in the camel shirt, long scraggly hair, and a placard saying it's all over. I don't think that this is done on purpose by the media, but because they need ratings to sell advertising money, they have to go with the story that gets your attention. And nothing gets our attention more than fear and doom. When I was a kid everyone worried about the nuclear apocalypse that Russia was sure to visit upon us, with millions/billions dying. Now everyone around me worries about terrorists killing thousands. Seems like a step forward, it's just that we forget context.
Ten years ago as a teenager I visited my step-greatgrandmother in Florida. I noticed that as I walked into a room alone with her, she'd scurry out with what looked like fear on her face. I asked my stepdad what gave, and he said she'd spent twenty or thirty years in retirement, watching the TV news, venturing out very little, not at all for the last ten or so. She was scared I was going to rape her, or take her money, or beat her up, or kill her. Because thats what teenagers on the news did: commit acts of violence.
We're all kind of like her, sitting in our rooms of reality created by what we see on TV. But the truth is that the world out there is getting better, and you can look at the stats and see that things are improving.