Writing into Being a World We Want to Live in

by Christina De La Rocha

For Christina De La Rocha, solarpunk isn’t merely a trend in science fiction. It’s a movement that can help imagine a better future. The article, “Will Nuclear Power Save us From Global Warming?” is her contribution to solarpunk, and a “bridge between the science and the dreamers.” We feature it in our [November/December issue, on sale now!]

All the floods and fires this year! Eek! Let’s throw the kitchen sink at climate change. Anything to stop global warming in its tracks, or at least slow it down. Including increasing our nuclear power production . . . ? Massively . . . ? To keep our production of energy high while we slam the breaks on our emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere?

Usually, it takes 20 for the amnesia to set in, but just ten years after the disaster at Fukushima, this is what some people are saying, including a few who were staunchly anti-nuclear before.

It helps that it’s easy to say “more nuclear power!” without thinking it through. But here’s a bottom line: generating a lot more nuclear power will take a lot more nuclear power plants. Considering how little nuclear power currently contributes to our production of energy, it’s enough to make you wonder—or at least it was enough to make me wonder—how many more nuclear power plants it would take to make a meaningful dent in our carbon emissions. No matter which side you’re on, that’s a good question to answer. Because generating nuclear power is risky and comes with side effects, not least of which is the nuclear waste that will last literally millions of years longer than our current climate crisis. What if the number of new nuclear power plants needed turns out to be something we don’t want to live with? And, even if we were okay with it, given how expensive it is to establish a new nuclear power plant, is such a building spree likely to occur? These are the questions that spawned my article, “Will Nuclear Power Save Us from Global Warming?” that appears in the November/December issue of Analog.

But that’s not the whole story behind the piece. Writing articles that explore things like geoengineering, or the energy transition we’re starting to undergo, or the way the climate system operates, is my humble contribution to the growing solarpunk movement (or trend, if you prefer a lighter word) in science fiction.

You’ve probably heard of solarpunk—probably even long before I heard about it—but I’ll tell you what I think it means. Although there are a lot of earnest discussions about what solarpunk is or isn’t and ruminations about exactly what’s punk about something so earnestly optimistic and sporting a bright color palette, to me, at its core, solarpunk is about imagining a near future that would be both possible and awesome to live in—one with room for people and nature—and then working toward it. A future where the planet doesn’t bake, the ice sheets don’t collapse, and we stop the current mass extinction in its tracks. A future in which we’ve refashioned our cities, societies, and economic systems into ones that support as many people as possible to live prosperous and meaningful lives. Although that sounds utopian, the point of solarpunk sci-fi is not to explore what would be horrible about a better future, but how we people might create a future like that and how we would inhabit it, thereby helping us to envision something we might be able to achieve if we would just start working on it.

For me, while art and fiction play the lead in inspiring us to act toward such a future, spinning gold requires straw and in solarpunk’s case, that straw is the good, solid, factual ground of the cutting edge of science and technology. Otherwise, most of what will be imagined will be unattainable fantasy.

But unless you are an expert among experts in several STEM disciplines, several steps ahead of the current cutting edge is a difficult place to set a story. That’s where people writing non-fiction come in. The article I wrote on whether nuclear power could save us from global warming is a stab at being a bridge between the science and the dreamers. In short, here is some information, now go do something creative with it! Take the cold hard facts of power production or climate change and write a story that means something to people in ways that a straight explanation of those facts doesn’t. A story that people can relate to, that helps us envision ourselves in a future where we’ve made the changes we need to make and thus either avoided catastrophic global warming or figured out how to weather it. Because stories have the power to inspire more actual change than all the climate scientists in the world wondering, in nearly impenetrable reports, if we should aim for no more than 1.5°C of global warming or 2°C.

A future where the planet doesn’t bake, the ice sheets don’t collapse, and we stop the current mass extinction in its tracks. A future in which we’ve refashioned our cities, societies, and economic systems into ones that support as many people as possible to live prosperous and meaningful lives.

We’ve definitely been short of stories like these, with all the playing of the Hunger Games and looking into the Black Mirror that we’ve been doing. Admittedly, it has been fun wallowing in visions of ourselves fighting to survive what could happen if we rise to the current occasion of crises by being the worst possible people that we could be. Exploring how we could come out the other side of the darkness, violence, and chaos that we expect to descend, dreaming of what heroes we could be, also has allure.

But, honestly, enough already. Because isn’t this a self-indulgent way to end up with exactly the sort of future we’d rather not live in? Isn’t it more than time to increasingly use our stories to dream up a better world and figure out how to make it real?

Even without the hellscapes and oppression, there’s fertile dramatic ground to plow. Getting through the next few decades without civilization crashing and most of the world’s non-human species going extinct will take radical transformation of the way we do everything. And if the reaction to something as simple as mask mandates is any indication, that won’t happen without fear, rage, clashes, triumphs, and tragedies.

How radical is the transformation we’re heading into? I’m no historian, but it seems to me it will be at least as convulsive as the Industrial Revolution that, also by broadly adopting new-fangled technology and shifting to new sources of energy to fuel everything, changed everything about how we work; produce and consume food and goods; and live our lives. That transformation triggered wars and toppled empires as it ushered us into modernity. Shifting into a zero-carbon future will also shatter certain major industries and make certain jobs and occupations obsolete, even as it begets others. Even more challengingly, we need to get through this at the same time that we will have to deal with the effects of climate change, overhaul how we grow our food, and let go of endless growth as a sustainable economic model.

In other words, the revolution will not be boring. Why not, as a writer or a reader, play in that playground now, before we’re really in the thick of it?

I hope you enjoy my little article about the potential future of nuclear power. I’ll be thrilled if you find in it a story to write about us not waiting to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of global catastrophe, but acting now to avoid disaster. Or a story about how we’ll overcome the rage with which we are treating each other, that clash between the will to change and the abject terror of an uncharted future that is distracting us from making progress. Give us a goal, a target to aim for, in terms of the lives we could be leading ten, 20, 50, or 100 years from now.

Then I’d love to see us start working on it.

Christina De La Rocha was a biogeochemist and full professor who worked across Europe and parts of the United States. After 20 years in science, she could no longer resist the lure of the writer’s life, so she packed up and moved on to pursue what she calls “Unrealistic Career Plan B” in northern Germany. Read more of her work at her blog: https://germanium-geranium.com/

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