Patrik Sampler interviewed by Z. Gizem Yılmaz Karahan, Assistant Professor of English Literature, Social Sciences University of Ankara, Turkey. This interview appears in Turkish at The Pentacle.
Although your ecological dystopia, The Ocean Container, seems futuristic, it still covers some environmental problems at stake now. What would you like to say about this issue?
The Ocean Container is a so-called experimental novel created from a pastiche of styles including surrealism and mundane science fiction. Where it invokes the latter, it is certainly an ecological dystopia, which is to say we live in an ecological dystopia now. When the United Nations Director General António Guterres says, “Humanity is waging war on nature,” I doubt he’s being flippant. More likely he’s expressing an international consensus opinion based on decades of analysis. Returning to the topic of style or genre, I think science fiction really struggles these days to find a purpose—that is, to make original observations or predictions. We’re seeing the ecological crisis move forward quite rapidly.
The novel wittingly depicts a world where environmental disasters are just the new normal for people. Do you think this is our possible future?
I think an increase in environmental disasters is less a possible future than an ongoing reality. One well documented example is the increasing intensity of forest fires on the west coast of North America. Anecdotally, I have no memory, prior to the 2010s, of forest fire smoke reaching the Vancouver region, which is where I live. Now it’s just an accepted fact of life here. The big question for me is why there is so much reluctance to mitigate human-caused climate change. Short term thinking has something to do with it, I’m sure. Note that the protagonist of The Ocean Container is aware, for some time, of the dangers he faces as a dissident. But he is too complacent, waits too long to long to do something (that is, leave Canada), and then he is trapped. This is like the risk we face by not acting quickly to mitigate the causes of global heating.
As the novel is about an environmental activist labelled as eco-terrorist, what do you think environmental activism should cover? Do you think it is influential in changing government policies towards environmental issues?
I don’t adhere to one particular belief in what environmental activism should cover. I suppose it can cover a wide range of things, and I’m sure there are options I haven’t yet considered. If climate change is an “emergency” then we should be doing anything and everything we can to respond, and here I’ll remark on strategy.
The Ocean Container raises the topic of direct action, and includes reference to a Canadian direct action group that came to be known as the Squamish Five. As a teenager in the 1980s, reports of their activity certainly made an impression on me. Their approach, however, was clearly loaded with risks, and it’s not the right approach for someone who prioritizes, for example, a stable upbringing for his children.
There is also the activism of individual consumption habits. Critics of this approach point out, rightly, that the climate crisis requires a collective solution. However, if we are to address the crisis, there will have to be changes in our individual consumption habits, anyway—particularly in a country like mine, where we consume resources at many times the Earth’s carrying capacity. Speaking for myself, I don’t want to be part of the destruction of our planet, so I ride a bicycle instead of driving a car, I give my children opportunities to connect with their local environment rather than flying them to Disneyland, etc. If more people are to live in peace with the natural environment, I think there will need to be a profound mental shift. On that topic, I recently revisited Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, which was first published in 1967 but remains a coherent backgrounder on the mental environment.
As for a strategy I do not endorse, it is the invocation of identity politics. If the protagonist of The Ocean Container is labelled as an “eco-terrorist” and must go into hiding, it is an allusion to attempts by a recent Canadian government to criminalize environmental activism by way of its Bill C-51 anti-terrorism legislation. The government of the time, under Prime Minister Stephen Harper, was practicing an us-versus-them identity politics of the “good, hardworking, oil-pumping Canadian” versus the “eco-terrorists” who would destroy resource sector jobs. It was a scary and depressing time to be an environmentalist in Canada, and I don’t wish that kind of fear on anyone, regardless of their political viewpoint. When environmental activism has achieved positive change, it’s because it was interested in facts, and was open to new information—even that which challenged its assumptions. Any movement that wants to shut down debate has, I think, questionable motives.
As for the effectiveness of environmental activism in changing government policy, I have to admit that change has been far too slow. (I would have used the cliche “glacial” to describe the pace of change, but the metaphor is no longer apt.) The reasons for this are too complex to enumerate here. Recently I’ve been interested in the legal approach of Client Earth and other organizations.
What about academia? What do you think is the role of academia in raising consciousness about environmental problems we are facing today?
I am grateful there is a class of people whose primary occupation is to uncover knowledge. With regard to environmental problems, academia plays a necessary role in accurately identifying the causes and solutions, and in exploring what is meaningful and beautiful in our relationship to the natural world. Which is not to say I’m overly sentimental about academia; I know it is just as co-optable as any other sector by dogma, bandwagonism, and other vices. But that gives us even more reason to support it; to be vigilant in protecting the ability of academics to freely access information and take part in open debates.
And now, literature. I am aware that people can be moved emotionally by stories of individual humans, animals, or plants suffering from a particular environmental disaster. We are not interested in seeing numbers (like 400 casualties as a result of X storm), but we cry when we read a story or watch a film on a particular person suffering from X storm. Attending to this comment, how do you think literature plays a role?
I believe it’s true that empathy for other beings is a powerful way to make a reader care about the impacts of climate change. The opening section of The Ocean Container is narrated from the perspective of a whale, and it has crossed my mind to seek other writers for an anthology of short stories narrated by non-human animals experiencing the Anthropocene. (Whether I can do so is a matter of having time.)
As for literature’s role, I’d like to change the focus from its content to its form. There’s a lot of didactic literature in the world. It largely, I think, preaches to the converted, and for that reason it doesn’t really change anyone’s mind. Furthermore, because it tends to be conventionally written, it doesn’t surprise readers or bring them a new way of seeing. This brings me back to the need for a mental shift. If literature is to be involved in that mental shift, it needs to surprise readers to awareness right at the level of form. Literary experimentalism is a proponent of new ways of thinking, which are what we need if we are to remake the world in a way that allows us to live with—rather than against—the other living inhabitants of our planet. Conventional literature, on the other hand, supports the logic of consumer capitalism—obviously with its emphasis on what sells, plotting stories so as to evoke a craving for what comes next, tidy solutions, etc.—and consumer capitalism, as we have seen, is a major contributor to our environmental malaise.
Whether my own novel really challenges that logic, I have my doubts, but it does try a few things, one of which is to invoke the techniques of surrealism. While not new, these techniques are still unconventional, and I was encouraged to discover, about five years ago, that I wasn’t the only one who felt literature needed to be refreshed in such a way: for a short time I helped edit the surrealist journal Peculiar Mormyrid, which had then just been founded. I think there is a rising interest in experimentation, even if mainstream publishing (at least in the Anglophone world) hasn’t embraced it.
We are all good at determining the problems, but what about solutions? What else is important in offering solutions?
There is a lot of stoking of outrage in the world right now (that’s my impression, anyway, though I wonder if it’s especially true of the Anglophone world), and I think we need to question what it serves. Certainly it’s distracting us from solutions, which are badly needed.
The ability to find alternatives is essential to creativity, so I think it is important that we nurture creativity both as a route to solutions, and also because it brings pleasure to our lives. I believe if we are able to find beauty in life—not only our own lives, but life in general—we’ll be motivated to protect it.
As an example of problems and solutions, take the private automobile. Symbolically and actually, it’s wrecking our planet. Car culture is dehumanizing and ecocidal. To be sure, I could rage against the automobile almost endlessly, but my efforts might better be used to demonstrate alternatives. Back in 1917, in his novella The Walk, Robert Walser wrote this about the car: “I do not understand, and I shall never understand, how it can be a pleasure to hurtle past all the images and objects that our beautiful earth displays, as if one had gone mad and had to accelerate for fear of misery and despair.” I love this because it remarks on the miserable insanity of the private automobile (especially the car-based transit systems that came to be in many parts of the world), and shows us the alternative—that is, to notice all that is beautiful in the world. I raise this to emphasize one solution to the environmental crisis, which is to turn the focus away from what consumer capitalism offers us—that is, the consumption of second-hand experiences (see Society of the Spectacle)—toward first-hand engagement in the beauty of life. Again, if we can’t understand the beauty in life, we’ll hardly be motivated to protect it.
Think of all the ways life is superior with a smaller ecological footprint. Clean air or dirty air? Engagement with real people, or engagement with things? Being active or sedentary? Hearing birdsong or not hearing birdsong? I think the answers are clear. Solutions to our ecological crisis can be aspirational; we need to see what can be gained. First, however, we need to beat some deeply ingrained collective addictions. I admit we’re swimming against a pretty strong current.
I am very curious about the song of the whale at the very end of the novel. I find it so connecting and touching. The song can be associated with an earthquake, suicide, or death. Why especially the whale and the ocean? Why not a rocky mountain container? Is it because we return to our material selves in such environmental problems, which we can easily trace in watery formations?
It is literally “the oceanic experience”—pure Sigmund Freud, from the opening to Civilization and its Discontents: a return to the condition of a newborn “who does not as yet distinguish his ego from the external world as the source of the sensations flowing in upon him”; the religious “sensation of ‘eternity,’ a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic.'” In other words, it’s about our “oceanic” interconnectedness with world. We are a part of nature and of this planet.
To be sure, I’ve also chosen the ocean because, as you point out, watery formations often show the damage we are causing. (One of the examples mentioned in the book—shellfish affected by acidification—is based on local evidence.) In addition, I have always lived near the ocean, and have always been attracted to the ocean. As for whales, I’ve had a fascination with them since childhood. They, too, are an indicator of what we are doing to our planet.
Final question: What do you think is the most efficient way to move people towards urgent action: dystopia or utopia? I mean, do you think people can feel the urgency through fear or hope scenarios?
Well, I suppose both. We need to be aware there’s a problem to begin with. For example, life without pain or envy might seem attractive at first, but a book like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We makes quick work of that proposition. We shows us how our received wisdom about “progress” is sending us in the wrong direction. It evokes (or should evoke) fear. That’s the value of the dystopian novel. It is inherently alarmist, and sometimes we should be alarmed. On the other hand, We also balances that fear with examples of a better world, and that is quite powerful. So I think the dystopia and the utopia serve useful purposes, although I would rather people be motivated by hope than fear—better yet, by “aspiration.” I like that word because we cannot afford merely to hope anymore: we need to do something.