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The Author Who Predicted Earth’s Bleak Future Is Back

Environmental doomsayer TC Boyle discusses his new novel 'Terranauts', based on the real-life Biosphere 2 experiment.

by Jim Poyser
Oct 26 2016, 6:00pm

Image: Jameison Fry

Way back at the turn of the millennium, T.C. Boyle published a heartbreaking and horrifying novel about global warming, A Friend of the Earth (Viking; 2000). Swinging back and forth in time between 1989 and a climate-ravaged 2025, Friend follows protagonist Tyrone Tierwater from his eco-radical days in the west, to his elder years as he tends a rare animal zoo. As imagined by Boyle, the year 2025 is a cauldron of constant climate chaos worldwide, as too many humans battle over too few resources during extended droughts and endless rainstorms.

Compared to A Friend of the Earth, Boyle's new book, The Terranauts, is relatively tame when it comes to the subject of climate disruption. But then, it is set in 1994 when climate change impacts are a distant prospect. In fact, The Terranauts is based on an actual experiment, Biosphere 2, launched in 1991. Located in Oracle, Arizona, the 3.14-acre structure contained numerous biomes and was meant to be self-sustaining for the handful of humans voluntarily trapped inside. It was a kind of living laboratory, studying how people deal with closed systems and long-term occupancy, preparing us for habitation on other moons or planets.

Image: Ecco


The premise of The Terranauts (Ecco; release date, Oct. 25) is that eight scientists commit to living under the glass dome for a full two-year tenure with no option to break closure. They enter the structure with a dark history to overcome. The previous experiment had failed when one of the inhabitants was injured and the sealed ecosystem had to be broken, ruining the sanctity of the experiment.

The scientists who inhabit the dome are evenly divided in terms of gender: four men, four women; all the elements you need for a barn burner—or, should I say, a biome burner—of a story, complete with sex, treachery, and despair.

Ultimately, The Terranauts is a portrait of a selfish species—motivated by lust, ambition and ego—in the ongoing battle for dwindling resources. This battle is a thematic thread that runs through nearly all of Boyle's 26 published books.

I recently had the opportunity to talk to Boyle over the phone, when he visited New York City at the end of September (Boyle lives in Santa Barbara, California).

Motherboard: What initially sparked the idea for The Terranauts?
Boyle: When the original biosphere experiment occurred in '91 to '93, I clipped out a lot of articles from the paper. As an environmentalist, I am always interested in ecosystems and their sustainability. It was just wonderful chutzpah on the part of these people who originated Biosphere 2 to put four men and four women together with 3800 species in a three-plus acre enclosure and seal it as tightly as the space shuttle. It was actually sealed tighter than the space shuttle!

The public's fascinations—and mine—was with the idea of absolute closure. So finally I got around to writing the novel all these years later, and I posit a new crew, a fictional crew of a second enclosure, taking the lessons of the first [failed experiment], and refuse, no matter what, to open that airlock.

Sounds like a perfect Petri dish for a novelist: Trap a bunch of characters under glass and watch what they do. You know they're gonna screw it up!
And they are going to screw, literally. I didn't realize how sexy this was going to be until I got the characters in motion. I work intuitively. I collect information and brood over it and then one day I begin to see something and hear something and I start to write. Each of my books, even the shortest of my short stories, evolves freeform in that way. Day by day, it accretes; day by day, I make discoveries. I don't begin any novel—even something like The Tortilla Curtain (Viking; 1995)—with a particular political point of view; I don't think politics and art really mix. I just begin with something that fascinates me, and I write to discover what it is.

At one point in The Terranauts, a power failure in the enclosure creates a rapid increase of temperature. Did you intend to suggest the possibility of abrupt climate change?
Not consciously, but of course all of what we're discussing here infects my brain every minute of every day. We are discovering climate change can be catastrophic. In one life—mine—I have seen enormous climate change. I grew up in Westchester County in New York; when I was a boy in the 50s and 60s we had two ski slopes near my house … in fact, the 1984 Olympics ski jump event was held [there]. Those slopes just have grass growing on them now.

We are now enduring the fifth year of drought in Santa Barbara. Our reservoir is at 91 percent below normal. I was just up in the mountains, and one in four trees are standing dead. The stress of drought on the pines has enabled the pine beetles to do their insidious work.

A Friend of the Earth was published way back in 2000; clearly, you've been thinking about climate change for a long time. Was there a particular epiphany for you regarding your understanding of the science?
I can't say exactly, but I wrote The Tortilla Curtain in 1994, and the whole subtext of the novel is about us as an animal species in an environment of declining resources. It was in the late 90s that I began to think about climate change, and not only that, but massive species extinction, overpopulation, and what we're doing to the earth. We are rapidly destroying those conditions that allowed our species to arise and thrive.

Also, of course, eco-radicalism. Is it morally defensible to stop clear-cutting, or any other kind of radical changes, to the environment? All that played a part in me writing a book [Friend] about climate change that early on.

Confronting the reality of climate change can be traumatic. Did you have a community of people with whom you could process this?
No. How can I put this? I don't play well with others. I am my own thing. It's nice to think writers associate and show each other manuscripts, and share manuscripts, but I have never had any coterie with whom I bounce ideas off of or show manuscripts to. I am just an individual, an artist trying to make art, but I am ecologically and socially aware and whatever disturbs me I want to write about to learn more.

But what about the solace a person needs, given that trauma. Does the intuitive creative process of creativity you describe act as that solace?
It is exactly that. I have been fortunate to be an artist in a free society allowed to do anything I want and have a career: I just delivered my 27th book [a book of short stories slated for 2017 publication]. I am always thankful for this. Yes. I dwell in my own mind, and what gets me out of the consciousness of the material world we all live in is these hours [writing] every day I am in another world and it's wonderful.

I also get this from nature. I am outdoors most of the time when I am not working, whether it be in Santa Barbara out in the harbor in my kayak or more typically up in the Sierras. I follow the paths, I walk in the woods, I know every tree, I know every squirrel by name. It's a way of freeing my mind totally and feeling the pulse of the planet. We need to be free of the clutter of society just to sit on a rock some place and be aware in all five senses to what's around you.

This is why I describe myself as an environmentalist. I am not one to join an organization or hold placards or join a protest. I am one who goes into nature by himself. That's it. That's why I value wild places so much.

Yet we are so actively destroying those wild places. In The Terranauts one of your main characters asks, 'was humanity worth saving?' And Ty in A Friend of the Earth confronts this question as well.
"To be a friend of the earth you have to be an enemy of the people [a direct quote from A Friend of the Earth]."

Here in Indiana, the land of climate denial where I live, when I talk about climate change, people mostly just want to talk about recycling.
As you well know we are doomed because we are caught in this capitalist wheel. All industrial society is built on producing product and buying the product. This is why I wrote Drop City (Viking; 2003): Could we go back to a simpler way of life?

Of course eventually we will, catastrophically, when the whole system collapses and the population is vastly reduced.

In my personal life and in talking with you and other people, I am a nice guy, and I'm joyful, I love to tell jokes and so on and I have a great sustaining group of close friends, and wonderful children, but in my heart I am more depressed than Samuel Beckett. Because I see the human condition and how preposterous it is, and how there are no answers to our existence, and science and religion are really equally voodoo, and we complicate this with rushing to the destruction of everything.

How do you deal with the reality of our potential demise?
I make art and try to explore it. In one sense I make light of it, in the other sense I'm trying to engage the reader to understand this and feel the way I do. It's hard to walk out to the street and see life and embrace life when at the same time you know what the catastrophic problems are.

We all want. We have our wants. We all dominate. We all collect and aggregate that's part of our DNA and hardwiring. When voters are polled in California, overwhelmingly they want to preserve green space and have nature. People give lip service to this. However if the price of gas goes up five cents, we will throw all environmental concerns out the window because we want to pay less for gas.

We are doomed. The only way out of it is to stop consuming and tear all this shit down. It's not going to happen.

However, I will be optimistic. When I was a boy, there were no limits whatsoever. No one had any idea about packaging and recycling. Everything was into the trash and the landfill, including batteries and whatever poisonous materials. Now, at least, elementary school kids are learning about the earth and its ecosystems and recycling. If I have any optimism it is that there is greater awareness and our having this conversation demonstrates this to a degree. We are both influential; as teachers maybe we have an effect in the long run.

In the pessimistic view, though, there are way too many of us and we are already seeing climate dislocations; at least a third of the countries of the world are ruled by gangs whose only idea is to take your living and material possessions and destroy and annihilate everybody else; it is just going to get worse.

My plan, personally, is I'm going to die.

It's easy to experience guilt about our own personal impact. Do you have any advice for us who are struggling with it?
My advice is the standard advice I've been giving for the last twenty years or more. If you are an environmentalist, go directly out into the yard, bury yourself in the compost pile, then shoot yourself in the head.

You and I feel this guilt. If I light a fire up in the mountain in the woodstove I'm destroying the earth. If I go to the supermarket—I very rarely eat any meat but my wife is a carnivore—and buy her meat, I feel guilty. And as Ty Tierwater says, just farting is contributing methane gas to climate change.

It becomes a kind of hatred of our own species and a kind of self-hatred if you take it too far.

I'm trying to find a balance in my own life between despair and ecstasy; between pessimism over what our species is heading toward and optimism about the beauty and creativity of our species.

Jim Poyser is a climate educator based in Indianapolis, Indiana, where he is executive director of Earth Charter Indiana. For more on Boyle, visit his website and follow him on Twitter.

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