HCN looks to the future

by Greg Hanscom

"WHAT in the HECK is that merry band of High Country News pranksters up to this time? I mean, science fiction on the cover?" Well, yes — and trust us, it’s not as much of a stretch as it seems.

Each summer, we take a break from the hard news and send you an issue dedicated to summer reading. Usually we pack it with nonfiction essays. This year, we give you Paolo Bacigalupi. Many of you know Paolo as HCN’s online editor, the man behind hcn.org, the Goat blog and the e-newsletter. But to science fiction fans, he’s one of that genre’s hot up-and-comers. His short stories have been nominated for sci-fi’s highest awards; one of them, inspired by an HCN essay about the dog that survived for years in a mine dump outside of Butte, Mont., was a finalist for both a Hugo and a Nebula.

Paolo’s cover story for this issue is set in the future — 2030 or thereabouts, he says — but his world won’t be unfamiliar to HCN readers. He’s simply asked what might happen if a massive, decades-long drought arrived in the Southwest — not an unlikely scenario, given what we’re learning about the region’s history of severe droughts and the world’s warming climate. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change forecasts that by 2100, average global temperatures will rise by up to 10 degrees, far more than the roughly 1 degree increase observed over the 20th century. And it’s not only warming that threatens to squeeze Western water supplies: Researchers say greenhouse gas pollution could also shift rain and snow patterns, further drying out the already drought-prone Southwest. So in this issue, we endeavor to bring one of our possible futures to life.

I won’t give away Paolo’s story, but I will provide this bit of important background: Under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, the states in the Upper Basin (Utah, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico) are obligated to deliver an average of 7.5 million acre-feet of water to the Lower Basin (Arizona, Nevada and California) each year — regardless of how much water is in the river. And within the Lower Basin, California is top dog. In the midst of "Big Daddy Drought," as Paolo’s characters call it, things could get ugly.

We had hoped that Paolo’s story wouldn’t run alone. Last winter, we sent out a call to science fiction writers nationwide, asking for stories of a future in which people have learned to live sustainably in the West. "We’re not looking for an idyllic utopia," we told them, "but a realistic assessment of people and their place in the landscape." We got dozens of submissions, from some solid and successful writers. People imagined a future where American Indians had taken (or bought) back chunks of their territory, where Big Brother regulated breeding (humans and wildlife both), and of course, we got more than a few urban and rural utopias. Some interesting glimmers, but no one had a plausible explanation for how we might get from here to there.

In the end, sad to say, it may be easier to imagine a future of catastrophe and chaos than one where humans have learned to live well in the West. We’re rife with examples of short-term and selfish thinking, and hungry for stories of sustainability, empathy and altruism. So consider this issue both a cautionary tale and a call to pick up your pen or sit down at your computer and write us a note: What do you think a sustainable Western society might look like, and where are the communities that are leading us in that direction? The minds of science fiction haven’t answered the challenge. I guess it’s up to all of us — the people who work day-in and day-out to create Wallace Stegner’s "society to match the scenery."

© High Country News