Sunday, April 27, 2008

The future of the planet

Women Strike for Peace
Photo credit: Dot Marder. I worked at Women Strike for Peace in 1981-1982 and was 23 when this photo was taken.

(Inspired by the prompt from Sunday Scribblings.)

I grew up in the days of the Vietnam War. My mother taught in an inner-city high school and came home with almost daily reports on on-site violence. She also praised students who fought for their education against tremendous odds. Every day, it seemed, I heard about drug epidemics, riots, the war, the population explosion, massive pollution events, and hyperinflation.

I lived through my childhood in a state of almost constant terror and was fairly certain I wouldn't survive past my 20s. This year I turn 50, which to me means 20 years of pure gravy. I celebrated turning 30 in 1988 and I've been celebrating ever since -- even though I've lately felt a sense of dread about the future of this planet that I haven't felt in almost 40 years (continued)....

A major heart attack almost killed my mother in 1969, when I was 10 years old. She died in 1982, shortly after turning 57 and when I was 23. I've lost other people dear to me who died too young. At age 7 I almost lost my life in a major car accident. As a toddler I dreamt repeatedly that I was dead. No wonder my childhood fantasies included reincarnation as a component. No wonder mortality infuses my writing.

Shows like the History Channel's Mega-Disasters and National Geographic Channel's Six Degrees underscore my emotions. One moment the planet seems distressingly fragile, the next it seems miraculously resilient. One moment I'm learning about the latest archaeological and paleontological breakthroughs, the next moment I'm learning about how they could all be wiped out by one cataclysmic event or another, leaving me with questions like:

What happens to all we are and all we have created -- art, music, writing, theater, the works that live after us -- in the aftermath of global disaster?
How many people, species, environments, and everything they've generated, and of which the rest of us have never become aware, have already been lost?

Thoughts about planetary decline, species extinction, and personal mortality fuse at times like these. I often have trouble untangling the threads.

Mary and I try to address those factors within our control. We save and use our gray water. We try to strike a balance between incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. (The only reason why we haven't gone completely fluorescent is because we've heard that fluorescents should be on for 15 minutes or more to make up the difference in their higher energy startup costs. The lights we have on for only a minute or two at a time therefore remain incandescent.) Except for weed-whacking to appease the neighborhood association, we let Nature take care of the yard. We piggyback errands to get more accomplished in a single drive. Our dishwasher is our hands, we use a hand-cranked pressure washer for small laundry loads, and we dry our clothes before our refrigerator's air vent. (When we had gas heat up north, we used our oven's pilot light instead.) My treadmill is a NordicTrac WalkFit, which uses no electricity (that model seems discontinued; I wish they'd bring it back) -- and if there were a way for me to generate electricity from foot-power, I would. Apparently it can be done, at least for small appliances (see, for example, this article, and this one). We've got crank flashlights, crank radio, solar-powered lantern.

On our walks, Mary (more so than I) picks up fallen wheel weights and discarded batteries to keep lead and corrosives from contaminating the aquifer. She chases after wayward plastic bags and scoops up littered bottles and cans to wash and dispose of properly.

Baby steps, for sure. We can always do more.

I watch the battles overhead: crows driving marauding hawks away, mockingbirds driving marauding crows away. In our five years of living in Florida, I have never before seen so many hawks in our neighborhood. After three years of being a waystation for flocks of robins in late January, the flocks returned early, in December 2006, and we haven't seen them this year. We speculate about changes in migratory patterns.

The future of the planet plays a significant role in my attitude toward my writing and toward the industry. I've always had trouble reconciling the spiritual component of my craft with its business end and I try to educate myself in the latter. For me it's all pretty much an exercise in blind faith. I make my mudpies, show them off where I can, and hope readers can relate to my corner of the human condition.

A while back I answered a post from someone who had been published but who was dealing with the fear of submitting larger works. This person wrote:

"That desperate need to prove yourself but being deadly afraid of failing and hearing the I told you sos."

One of my favorite ads reappeared in the January/February 2008 issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. The ad is for the Author's Guild. It wasn't the Guild that caught my eye, but the way it advertised itself, beginning with:

"Kafka toiled in obscurity and died penniless. If only he'd had a website...."

I love the irony here. Did Kafka think he failed while he was alive? Maybe. Did people tell him, "I told you so," or the equivalent?


Look at the attention he gets now. He and his works are remembered long after he's dead. I wanna be like him when I grow up and push daisies.

Another quote I love comes from Henry Petroski, PhD, PE, who is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering at Duke University. Among other works, Petroski is the author of Success Through Failure: The Paradox of Design (Princeton University Press, 2006).

In an interview with Jeff Stein, AIA, in the May/June 2007 issue of Architecture Boston, he said:

"If we copy success, the eventual result is going to be failure. We don't often understand fully why successful designs work. And they often mask potential failures. No matter how closely we follow successful models, designing something new involves new conditions that require changes in the design."

Petroski was talking about engineering, but for me his quote holds a universal appeal. Following the beat of one's own drummer courts failure. Exploring new avenues and improvising court failure. But taking the well-trodden, "safe" path -- the "successful" path -- also courts failure.

Given those odds, I'd say follow your gut and your heart.

Several years ago I listened to a panel discussion about how SF print runs on average have plummeted for both books and magazines. Years ago, what authors lacked in pay they got in circulation. Now the circulation is also largely gone. And the pay per word has in many cases gotten worse than when I was published 20+ years ago, not counting the effects of inflation.

We might be looking at a collapsing industry and precipitous declines in readership. But we might also be looking at global warming, asteroidal impact, pandemics, and any one or more of a number of disasters that result in massive species extinctions and the fall of civilization as we know it. So even the long term might be moot. In the end we're all a bunch of dust.

So, in the spirit of all that potential futility, I write anyway and send my stuff out. What the heck.

Sergei Rachmaninoff is a cautionary tale for me. From the liner notes for his First Symphony on my CD of Ashkenazy conducting the Concertgebouw:

"It was a fiasco. It earned the composer notices that were almost unqualifiedly unfavorable ... and undermined his confidence in himself as a creator ... for nearly three years. Happily, in 1900 the ministrations of Dr. Nikolai Dahl, a Moscow neurologist who specialised in a type of hypnosis-therapy, led to the spectacular resurgence of creative power which produced the Second Piano Concerto. The First Symphony was not performed again nor the full score ... published in the composer's lifetime." (Christopher Palmer)

Look at it (or listen to it) now. It's a much-beloved classic.

I wrote to the person who posted, "I believe that as creators we must take the long view because, in my not-so-humble opinion, creativity is larger, much larger, than the people who channel it. It's not about us and never was. It's about the Work."

And then there's the tremendous wisdom of Marge Piercy in her poem "For the young who want to," at

Whether or not my work survives for any length, or I do, or the planet does, all three are where I live. So I hang onto my blind faith, do what I can to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem, and keep on keepin' on.

Covenant, the first volume in the Deviations Series, is available from Aisling Press, and from AbeBooks, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Book Territory, Borders,,, DEAstore,,,, Powell's Books, and Target. The Deviations page has additional details.


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