I am pleased to share this interview with Krista Foss, an Ontario-based writer of novels, essays, short stories and journalism. Her first novel Smoke River was published by McClelland & Stewart (2014). Krista recently published a short story in Granta called “Cloud Seeding” about a futuristic company that learns to control the weather through technology and human activity. We spoke about why the story resonates in the Anthropocene era, how climate change is intertwined with capitalism, and why storytelling is key to getting the public to take climate change more seriously. I hope you enjoy it!
Your recent story in Granta is about a “cloud seeding” company that uses technology and child labor to generate and move storms. What inspired this idea?
The technology of cloud seeding has been around for at least 80 years, deployed most commonly for farms and ski hills. But a decade ago, Moscow’s mayor used it to prevent rain on parade days (he wanted to reduce his snow clearing budget with it too.) Beijing has its own weather modification office; it was used to hustle stormy skies away from important events at the 2008 summer Olympics, for instance.
This was all news to me: I stumbled upon it while researching something else and of course got hooked.
In Canada, weather is religion. The idea that it could be so easily manipulated (although weather modifying technology is expensive and not always reliable) was intriguing and disillusioning.
So this hubris, this god-like posturing, became the story’s starting point. I speculated about a world where weather mod was a more effective and competitive remedy for climate change and asked myself, what happens when we’re no longer in awe of the weather?
Do you think about extreme weather patterns, environmental issues, and/or climate change beyond what you write about in your fiction?
I live in a mid-sized southwestern Ontario city that’s physically scarred by its industrial past and in the midst of reinvention. It’s surrounded by a unique escarpment and swaths of Carolinian forest. This ecology is vulnerable to every variety of human encroachment. Climate change is a biggie.
As I write this, it’s 40 C. (with the humidex). Grass is brown and crispy and it’s only mid-June. New species and diseases have migrated here – possums (adorable), Lyme-disease infected ticks (less adorable). Emerald ash-borers and gypsy moths regularly attack the tree canopy. Our storms are wild – they’d be thrilling if they weren’t so damaging.
But compared to the whole country, my corner of Ontario is not getting the worst of it. The severity of forest fires, flooding and infestation is on the rise in other provinces. For our First Nations communities, climate change converges with all the other injuries inflicted by colonialization.
It’s impossible not to think about it; it’s right there, just outside my front door.
Your story speaks to so many real-life issues, including the capitalistic mindset that drives climate change. In “Cloud Seeding” the capitalist critique manifests as the company’s willingness to let children die to increase their profit margins. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the intersection of capitalism and climate.
Where to begin? By using the technology to write these answers, I participate in capitalism and will contribute to climate change by pressing the send button. My choices are made at that intersection. So how do I square my individualism with the collective needs of the planet, and those displaced by climate change? One way that’s fresh for me is how I vote.
We just had an election in Ontario that brought in an inexperienced politician who leaned on the Trump playbook: He leveraged public outrage over high electricity costs to win votes. One of his first promises is to end our cap-and-trade system that makes companies pay for greenhouse gas emissions in his quest to create a more business-friendly environment (code for trashing environmental regulation among other things.) Two-thirds of voters did not choose him. (So now we have an issue of electoral reform converging with climate change.) But his appeal to the “big-government-stealing-from-your-wallets” mindset highlights an essential tension. What are we individually willing to give up for a greater good? Or, alternatively, why are we so okay with climate–the natural world – acting as a subsidy for big business and the artificially low costs we pay here for food, fuel and stuff?
Our political economy, our corporate oversight, reflects our shared values. On a fundamental level our values got us here. Every kid who walks outdoors and looks at bugs or salamanders or wants to identify a bird, gives me hope. Because they’re engaged: They’ve got a personal stake in something bigger than themselves. And those kids grow up to be activists and leaders and voters.
The ending of your story cuts through the heart by suggesting that the people in charge of the company have grown emotionally numb to loss, to death. Again, I can’t help but think of this story in terms of our larger cultural moment, of how there still seems to be such a psychological barrier to climate change. There’s lots of discussion about how best to break through. Some say that stories of hope are the answer. Others argue that fear is a more useful tool. What do you think?
A story breaks through when it leaves readers thinking with more complexity about the world or themselves. We have to earn that: we have to enchant readers with that complexity. It can be ugly or it can be beautiful.
I know my barriers are broken down by writing that moves me from my comfortable pieties to somewhere else, disorienting even distressing, wholly unexpected. As long as I’m left looking at the world in a way I didn’t have the imagination or the subtlety for before, I’m paying attention. I’m changed.
The litmus then isn’t whether it’s hopeful, or fearful, but rather, did it wake me up?
What can fiction show us about climate change that perhaps scientific reports can’t?
I go full nerd for scientific reports, journals and writing: it’s a source of inspiration. But of course, scientific objectivity and evidentiary rigor limit the way I can be moved by that information. I don’t expect a lot of pathos with data. Fiction that is scientifically, as well as imaginatively informed, doesn’t have these limits. It can bridge the silos of art and science and show us what we care about (or don’t), understand (or don’t). It can confront us with our sanctimony and unreliability and that intriguing gap between our actions and words. It helps us imagine where we’re going, fathom what is gone and leaves us with a richer understanding of what’s happening out there right now.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.