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Santa Fe Reporter, October 28, 2009

Apocalypse Soon
Today’s environmental horrors could lead to a scary Sci-Fi future

By Laura Paskus

Within the short stories and novels penned by science fiction writer Paolo Bacigalupi, the planet has fallen apart and humans confront unimaginable moral challenges. His most recent novel, The Wind Up Girl, is set in a post-oil world in which genetically engineered plants and animals are the norm and “calorie companies” control not only food distribution, but the plagues and diseases that destroy crops.

The most frightening aspect of all the stories he tells, however, is their genesis: Bacigalupi examines current environmental conditions and events, then extrapolates those into the future. Within those futures, readers experience a world in which the consequences of our present-day choices—consumption, environmental degradation and loss of community—play out in often grotesque ways.

“Writing science fiction allows me to say, ‘Here are some things that I see right now, in today’s world, and now if I take these three things and mix them up in a blender, and if I just stretch them and take them 100 years down the road, what are the implications if these are the dominant story lines?’” Bacigalupi tells SFR. “If Monsanto is really going to control all of the building blocks of our food supply, what does that look like? And so you can stretch that out and then mirror back to our present world and say to your reader, ‘How do you feel? What do you think of that?’ And hopefully, the reader comes away with a visceral reaction to a set of issues that might have been abstract or simply not on their radar at all.”

Here in the Land of Enchantment, environmental horrors abound. Corporations influence the government’s ability to regulate environmental emergencies, people who might otherwise be allies have faced off against one another in battle, and climate change is already punching its tentacles into the Southwestern landscape. Herein, SFR explores New Mexico’s potential, scary science fiction future—the dystopias that could be—if actions aren’t taken to address today’s environmental, economic and political realities.

1. It’s a gas, gas, gas

Dystopia: While plenty of post-apocalyptic science fiction books and movies detail nuclear accidents and wars, many tales, including the films Blade Runner and Children of Men, and Cormac McCarthy’s book, The Road, portray worlds in which pollution has thrown the planet out of whack and impaired humanity’s ability to survive and thrive.

But what might the world look like at the beginning of the end?

On the brink of new economic and environmental realities, lawmakers and investors cling to familiar—though not necessarily functional—models. In a rush to replace the use of coal in the nation’s power plants, natural gas production is bumped and, in states with natural gas resources, the landscapes become overrun with increasingly dense networks of roads, drill pads and pipelines.

Soon, places like New Mexico are considered national sacrifice zones—though some promise these lands will someday be restored through a Work Progress Administration-style Green Lands Again work program.

Alas, political action lags and, within decades, chunks of New Mexico have degraded into uninhabitable industrial wastelands.

Reality: For decades, climate scientists have warned that burning fossil fuels wreaks havoc on the atmosphere. Congress is finally acknowledging that coal use in the US must be rethought—but many, including some Democratic lawmakers, are touting natural gas as an answer to the problem.

While natural gas combustion at power plants produces half the carbon of a coal-fired power plant, that doesn’t mean natural gas is a clean fuel, Western Environmental Law Center staff attorney and Southwest Office Director Erik Schlenker-Goodrich says.

“There’s this myth that natural gas is a clean energy source, and the canard that’s often tossed around is that the combustion of natural gas is cleaner than combustion of coal,” he says. “But when you look at the life-cycle emissions, the production process is quite dirty and quite wasteful.”    

While the natural gas industry is positioning itself as a climate solution, he says, lawmakers must remember natural gas is a part of the climate problem.

“We’re very worried that [the natural gas industry] is going to extract concessions from Congress in the climate bill, to exempt emissions from natural gas, when Congress should reduce all fossil fuel emissions significantly.”

If natural gas production is bumped in order to compensate for coal, he says, states such as New Mexico will experience dramatic impacts.

During the Bush administration, drilling regulations were relaxed significantly. The process to drill on federal lands was streamlined and developers were granted the unregulated use of hydraulic fracturing fluids, which boost a well’s production through the use of toxic and proprietary chemicals. That lends urgency to the position that today’s focus should be on cleaning up natural gas production, not offering the industry additional exemptions.

Schlenker-Goodrich isn’t calling for a complete halt to the production and use of natural gas, he says, but it shouldn’t become embedded within the US energy system for the next century.

“If we want to use it as a transition fuel, I think we can do that over the course of the next 20, 30 years,” he says. “We can recognize the benefits, but recognize they are limited and should be used over a limited period of time.”

Here in New Mexico, the state has spent two years working toward its own greenhouse gas reporting rules; the first stage would require the industry to report its emissions and, eventually, emissions would be reduced.

But in early October, the state announced it would hold off on some of its proposals in order to ease economic burdens on industry.

Despite the setbacks, Schlenker-Goodrich remains confident the state will eventually move in the right direction.

“But I would note that we have an ever-narrowing window of opportunity to reduce emissions to optimize our ability to combat global warming effectively,” he says. “The key question for industry is whether they want to be part of the solution or part of the problem.”

2. Too many mouths, too many feet

The human population continues to burgeon, increasing demand for everything from food and water to wood, metals and electricity. While rampant new diseases—as well as resistant strains of old diseases such as tuberculosis—and increased warfare help thin the human population, overwhelmed government entities abandon the enforcement of environmental and public health regulations to focus instead on space exploration as a means of finding new planets to colonize.

Even if you’re not feeling nostalgic for pre-National Rifle Association Charlton Heston, it might be worth revisiting the 1973 film Soylent Green. By 2022, there is a “year-round heat weave” due to a “buildup of greenhouse gases” and, despite a scarcity of real food—meat, fruit, eggs—the population is completely out of control.

Everyone remembers the kicker—“It’s people!”—but the saddest line of the film might have been, “The ocean’s dying, the plankton’s dying.”

Reality: As of mid-October, the US Census Bureau estimated the world’s population at 6,791,640,434. For its part, the United States hosts almost 308 million people.

And even though New Mexico’s population remains relatively small—under two million—the state’s natural resources suffer as overpopulation drives the need for more energy development, heavy metal mining and more water.

“Virtually everything that is destroying wildlife habitat and the environment is driven by overpopulation,” Kierán Suckling, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, says.

“Whether it’s too many people diverting water out of the Rio Grande or too much wood use leading to the logging of old-growth forests or too many people emitting too many greenhouse gasses and leading to global warming,” he says, “the bottom line is there are too many people using too many resources to be able to have a healthy environment.”

He points out that the growth of the human population has reached a point at which new technologies, better conservation practices and attempts at recycling simply aren’t enough. “It’s great to focus on reducing our carbon footprint, but that won’t get us away from the basic fact that there are too many footprints to begin with,” he says. “Unless we start reducing the footprints to begin with, we and other species are not going to survive on this planet.”

Suckling also is disturbed by the environmental movement’s unwillingness to confront the issue of human overpopulation.

Last month, when the London School of Economics released a report urging governments to consider the promotion of birth control as a means of dealing with climate change, The Washington Post ran a story on the issue. Within it, the Sierra Club’s David Hamilton is quoted saying: “I don’t know how to say ‘No comment’ emphatically enough.” That attitude is typical of environmentalists when it comes to population issues, Suckling says.

“The majority of environmental groups avoid addressing overpopulation like the plague—they’re just deathly afraid of the issue, and I think that’s largely because they lack the courage of their convictions,” he says. “If you talk to environmentalists, they’ll always agree that the country and the planet is overpopulated, but they are fearful that in saying that they will be viewed as being anti-human somehow—as if squalor and overpopulation is somehow pro-human.”

That fear is unfortunate, he says, “and a large part of the environmental movement has taken itself out of the game for what I think is the biggest single environmental problem of our time.”

3. Oil is thicker than water

Dystopia: Scrambling to shore up traditional industries during an economic panic, regulators delay or overturn environmental protections meant to protect water supplies. In the future, inhabitants of the area find they are unable to find clean sources of water for drinking or agricultural uses.

Remember how surprised those astronauts in Planet of the Apes were to find the Statue of Liberty on the shores of that unknown planet? Just imagine how upset and confused future migrants through New Mexico are going to be when they find drill rig after drill rig—and as they walk for days from water source to water source, seeking water that sickens even the stoutest of men.

Reality: In the past, oil and gas developers were allowed to leave or bury wastewater—brackish water brought from deep beneath the surface that was also contaminated with chemicals or oil and gas residues—on-site, according to Bruce Frederick, an attorney with the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

Between the mid-1980s and 2003, the New Mexico Environment Department recorded nearly 7,000 cases of waste pits causing soil and water contamination and, in 2005, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division documented almost 400 incidents of groundwater contamination from oil and gas pits.

Then last May, after weeks of hearings and expert testimony, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Commission signed a new rule changing the way developers handle waste water from oil and gas wells.

In a victory for landowners and environmentalists, the state had decided, Frederick says, the practice should end unless the waste met some pretty stringent standards, including that the waste’s chloride load not exceed 250 milligrams per liter.

Industry protested having to haul pit waste to disposal areas where it would be regulated and monitored, preferring instead to bury it on-site.

After meeting with oil and gas industry representatives, Richardson directed the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department to work with them and modify provisions of the rule.

At that point, the chloride standard was relaxed from 250 to 3,000 milligrams per liter—that’s 12 times what the state had previously determined safe.

Frederick also points out that while the state will require drillers to line waste pits, that doesn’t guarantee protections.

“We know all liners leak after a time, and the model predicts that given certain optimal conditions, we won’t have groundwater contamination for 2,000 years,” he says. “That assumes perfect installation in these hundreds of pits, but there is no inspection and no monitoring.”
4. Let’s fight

Dystopia: Remember how in Lord of the Flies the kids started squaring off against one another? Even though they were all marooned on the same island and faced the same challenges? Sadly, it’s all too easy to imagine a Lord of the Flies scenario here in which citizens battle with one another in the tired, old “environment versus the economy” dichotomy rather than working together toward common goals like clean environments, safe workplaces and healthy children. The long-term outlook leads to a balkanization of the state. Members of increasingly poor communities act with aggravated suspicion toward one another, while corporations reap the economic benefits of mining and polluting a state in social and political disarray.

Reality: In 2008, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee announced that under an emergency designation, Mount Taylor—an 11,000-foot mountain about an hour west of Albuquerque—would be protected as a Traditional Cultural Property.

That decision came at the request of five Native American tribes to which the mountain is sacred; the designation meant developers would need to consult with tribes before moving ahead on new projects. Environmental groups also supported the designation, largely because the area was slated for uranium mining.

That emergency designation, however, dredged up unpleasant emotions within the community. Recalling one meeting at a high school gymnasium in Grants, in the spring of 2008, people on both sides of the issue note that uranium mining proponents and Traditional Cultural Property proponents ended up facing off against one another from opposing bleachers.

Tribal officials with both the Zuni and Laguna pueblos requested a change of venue for future meetings due to the “level of hostility and potential air of racism,” while members of the local land-grant communities signed letters to the state, saying they were “concerned and fearful” that the tribes were trying to control public lands and curb economic use.

In anticipation of the final meeting this spring, Gov. Richardson’s director of policy and issues, Bill Hume, even sent an email to the Historic Preservation Division, suggesting consultation with New Mexico’s Department of Public Safety secretary on security issues: “I expect a comfortable—but not oppressive—showing of uniformed officers at the hearing would be appropriate, with possibly some reinforcements stashed out of sight nearby.” Although the committee granted the mountain permanent protection in June, some members of the uranium industry have now filed an appeal of the decision—and bad feelings still linger within the community.

Meanwhile, two Southwestern tribes are telling environmentalists they are no longer welcome on the reservations.

On Sept. 28, the Hopi Tribal Council in Arizona voted 12-to-0 to ban the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Grand Canyon Trust from the reservation. By opposing coal development, the groups have threatened “total economic collapse” of the tribe. When environmental groups sued over pollution from the Mohave Generating Station, the facility was closed. That closure, according to the Hopi, has cost the tribe between $6.5 and $8.5 million in lost annual revenue from the Black Mesa Mine.

Days later, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. echoed the sentiment. The Navajo Nation hosts the Navajo Generating Station, a 2,280-megawatt coal-fired power plant, and had hoped to build another plant. It also earns revenue from coal mining.

Calls to the president’s office were not returned, but in a press release, Shirley is quoted saying, “Unlike ever before, environmental activist and organizations are among the greatest threat to tribal sovereignty, tribal self-determination and our quest for independence.”
Shirley added that environmentalists are good at identifying problems, but poor at identifying feasible solutions: “They support tribes only when tribes are aligned with their agenda, such as our opposition to renewed uranium mining in the Grand Canyon and on Native land.”
Navajo environmental activist Elouise Brown says such simplistic characterizations aren’t helpful to Native communities.

Not only that, she says, but there remains a discrepancy between the revenue Shirley says the tribe will earn from development—including the proposed Desert Rock Power Plant that Brown’s group Dooda (No) Desert Rock has fought—and the money tribal members will see.
“How much money is the health of the people of Shiprock and the northern Navajo Nation worth?” she asks. “We still haven’t gotten answers from the [Environmental Protection Agency] about its finding that, in fact, pollution from the two existing power plants is causing Shiprock Navajos to get medical attention for breathing problems at twice the rate of other people in the area. The figure is 10 times “normal” for children and older people.”

5. New Mexico blows away

Dystopia: Within a few decades, New Mexico experiences massive landscape and vegetative changes. Hundreds of species of plants and animals either go extinct or are forced—due to warming temperatures—to range from their traditional habitats. As water becomes increasingly scarce, people with economic resources leave the state, while the poorest residents stay behind, eking out marginal livings in an increasingly arid region. Competition for resources, including farmland and food, leads to social strife and localized warfare.

If that’s not clear enough a scenario, think Mad Max. Fans might recall that those films, from the 1970s and ’80s, were set in Australia “a few years from now.” The future is already there, however: The continent is already experiencing devastating impacts from climate change, including prolonged drought, wildfires and, this fall, extreme dust storms. Unlike the US, Australia already has a national Department of Climate Change, dedicated to reducing the country’s carbon emissions—and figuring out how to adapt to changes that can no longer be avoided.

Reality: “We don’t need models. Climate change is already happening, and we can look at the data,” University of New Mexico earth and planetary sciences professor David Gutzler says. “There is nothing hypothetical about warming trends.”

In the Middle Rio Grande Valley, the growing season has already increased by about a week since the ’60s.

Based on one of the more conservative carbon emission scenarios, Gutzler found that the area will see annual warming increases of 6.9 degrees Fahrenheit per century. (Winter warming will be by 5.8 degrees; summer warming 7.4 degrees and, by the mid-21st century, summers here will be much warmer than any conditions humans have ever experienced in the area.)

Not only that, but warmer temperatures will increase evaporation from reservoirs. And even though precipitation predictions are more optimistic than the temperature models, warming will cause soil moisture to decrease.

Snowpack also will decrease, the snow line will move higher in elevation and further north, and snow falls will start later and end earlier in the season.

Considering that most of the state’s surface water comes from snowpack, that’s an alarming scene for New Mexicans. In the late spring and summer, snowmelt sends water down the Colorado and Rio Grande rivers, providing water for farmers as well as cities.

Already, experts predict the Colorado River Compact—the agreement by which the basin’s water is tallied among states—will become unenforceable by the mid- to late-21st century; water rights and allocations will exceed the actual amount of water flowing through stream banks.
Meanwhile, on the Navajo reservation, US Geological Survey Project Chief for the Navajo Land Use Planning Project Margaret Hiza has been studying sand dunes—those rises of accumulated sand that in the Southwest are covered with vegetation during moist times—to determine how sensitive they are to climate change.

Hiza combines satellite imagery, historic aerial photos and meteorological data to predict how the dunes are going to change. “Things are moving so fast, I had to rethink how to put the map together,” she says.

As the climate warms, less vegetation grows on the dunes, causing them to destabilize and become mobile. Those changes cause shifts in vegetation patterns—the loss of native flora and the fauna associated with them, as well as the invasion of weeds—and also toss increased amounts of dust into the air during wind storms.

“The whole area is really on the threshold, climatically, between having active and stable sand dunes,” she says, adding that on top of very, very dry conditions, this year was marked by “unusually high wind events.”    

While Hiza’s on-the-ground research focuses on Arizona, dust from these mobile dune fields blasts across large areas, including the Colorado Rockies, where it affects snowpack and snowmelt.

The dust forms a layer atop the snowpack, she notes, which then reduces the snow’s capacity to reflect heat. The snow melts more quickly—and that, of course, brings us back to the issue of water.

With a modest El Niño brewing in the tropical Pacific, Gutzler says, odds are shifted somewhat in favor of a decent snowpack and a wet winter. But he cautions against getting too excited.

“One of the things that I find interesting about this business, but that’s hard for the public and policy makers, is the long-term aspect of climate, by definition,” he says.

But, the question, Gutzler says, isn’t whether the Earth as a whole, or nature, is going to survive.

“People are the species to worry about,” Gutzler says. (Think The Day the Earth Stood Still remake…minus Keanu Reeves coming to save us all.)

“After all, it’s the species that has a big infrastructure built up that is dependent on a stable climate,” he says. “The Earth, the insects, they’ll do just fine. It’s human societies; anytime there is a big change, there are winners and losers.”

Copyright Santa Fe Reporter 2009.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton