Boom: But, as you’ve said, all of California in some ways has been terraformed. It’s not natural in the way we usually conceive of natural. Are we as gods, as Steward Brand famously proclaimed, so we better get good at it?
Robinson: California is a terraformed space. I think we have accidentally become terraformers, but of course we are not gods. We don’t actually know enough about ecology, or even about bacteria, to do what we want to do here. We could make environmental changes that could do damage that we can’t recover from, so it’s dangerous. We’re more like the sorcerer’s apprentice. We can do amazing things on this planet, out of hubris, and partial ignorance, and yet we are without the powers to jerk the system back to health if we wreck it. If ocean acidification occurs, we don’t have a chance to shift that back. So we’ve accidentally cast ourselves into this role by our scientific successes, but we don’t have the power to do what we need to do, so we need to negotiate our situation with the environment. The idea that we’re living in the Anthropocene is correct. We are the biggest geological impact now; human beings are doing more to change the planet than any other force, from bedrock up to the top of the troposphere. Of course if you consider twenty million years and plate tectonics, we’re never going to match that kind of movement. It’s only in our own temporal scale that we look like lords of the Earth; when you consider a longer temporality, you suddenly realize we’re more like ants on the back of an elephant. By no means do we have godlike powers on this planet. We have a biological system we can mess up, a thin wrap on the planet’s surface, like cellophane wrapping a basketball. But there is so much we don’t know. You can do cosmology with more certainty than ecology.
Boom: Speaking of terraformed, the Delta, where you live here in Davis, is a great example of a terraformed landscape.
Robinson: It’s kind of great. It’s troubled, but I think it’s still beautiful. I like these human-slash-natural landscapes. I like terraformed landscapes. The Central Valley has been depopulated of its Serengeti’s worth of wild creatures, and that’s a disaster. But you could do amazing agriculture in the Central Valley and add wildlife corridors, where the two could coexist in a palimpsest, big agriculture and the Serengeti of North America, occupying the same space. And then it would be that much more interesting and beautiful. If you went out there to the edge of Davis now, you would see nothing in terms of animals. But if you went out there and it was filled with tule elk and all the rest of the animals and birds of the Central Valley biome, occasionally a bear would come down out of the hills; and, well, you couldn’t run alone out there, because of the predators. You’d have to run in a group. But humans are meant to run in groups. The solo thing is dangerous. So it would all come back to a more natural social existence. This is the angle of utopianism that I’ve been following. It’s a kind of natural-cultural amalgam, whereas utopian literature historically was mostly a social construct, and it was kind of urban. Utopia was thought of as a humanist space, but when you think of humans as part of a much larger set of life forms, then you get to a utopia that includes it all and is a process. I haven’t actually written the novel that would put all of this together, because each of my novels has been a different part of the puzzle and a different attempt at it. So I keep having an idea for the book yet to come. Seems like I might start another one like that sometime soon.
California is a terraformed space.
Then: Southern California burns, 2008
Even for the literal-minded, it was hard not to lump the conflagrations on Wall Street with those in Southern California. The meltdown of 401(k)s with the street signs at Sylmar. The frantic, ever-escalating press conferences and bailouts of any significant credit institution with the desperate deployment of ever-greater masses of engines and helitankers, all equally ineffective. Somehow the spark of a credit crunch managed to leap over fiscal firewalls and spread throughout the economic landscape, much as relatively small blazes blew over I-5 and threatened the power supply of Los Angeles. The general destruction has moved upscale, so that trophy homes burn along with trailer parks, and hedge funds with day traders. When the winds blew, they exposed any combustible object to embers, and threatened to incinerate anything vulnerable. The entire system, it seems, is vulnerable, and everyone knew that the winds always blow. It’s just been convenient to pretend otherwise.
Now: Southern California burns, 2009
Another round, this time without the Santa Anas to drive them over and through the Transverse Range. More blowups. More houses burned. More evacuations. More declarations of disaster and states of emergency. More crews, more planes, more helicopters, more TV cameras. More posturing. Meanwhile, the Great Recession continues, refusing to be extinguished. Investors applaud each stock market rally as homeowners in Altadena do retardant drops by DC-10s. The fires continue for the same reason the economy continues to smolder, because the fundamentals have not changed. Until they do, we will be left with damaging breakouts and political theater.
* * *
Like economic transactions, fire is not a substance but a reaction – an exchange. It takes its character from its context. It synthesizes its surroundings. Its power derives from the power to propagate. To control fire, you control its setting, and you control wild fire by substituting tame fire.
In fire-prone public lands, where the setting will not convert to shopping malls and sports arenas, some fire is inevitable and some necessary. From time to time a few fires will go feral. Without fire some biotas will only build up combustibles capable of stoking still-more savage outbreaks, and equally, some will cease to function. Fire is a force of “creative destruction” in nature’s economy. Without it, particularly in drier landscapes, nutrients no longer circulate freely but get hoarded. It’s as though organisms hid their valuables in secret caches dug in the backyard or in socks under the bed. The choice is not whether or not to have fire but what kind of fire we wish.
As the world becomes more human dominated and people enclose an increasing number of ecological commons we can probably expect conflicts over ecosystem services to become more common. In California there is currently a new conflict over pollination. From Associated Press: Tangerine growers tell beekeepers to buzz off.
Is it trespassing when bees do what bees do in California’s tangerine groves?
Mega-grower Paramount Citrus has already sent letters to beekeepers near the company’s Kern County clementine groves threatening legal action and promising to seek “compensation for any and all damages caused to its crops, as well as punitive damages” if seeds develop. Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.
The new regulations would affect Kern, Tulare, Fresno and Madera counties in the southern San Joaquin Valley, where many orange growers converted to easy-to-peel tangerines. The fruit’s California acreage was expanded from 24,000 in 2005 to 31,392 in 2008 to compete with imports from Spain and the Middle East.
Tangerines and other normally seedless mandarins do not need bees to move pollen from the male to female parts of the flower in the process known as pollination. But if bees cross-pollinate the crop with the pollen of other fruit, mandarins develop undesireable seeds.
Almond trees on the west side of the valley, on the other hand, need lots of bees to pollinate. For the February pollination season, almond growers hire beekeepers from around the country to bring tens of thousands of hives to California, home to 70 percent of the world’s supply.
As almond blossoms drop in late March, citrus growers say, beekeepers relocate hives to make orange blossom honey before heading to the Midwest for spring clover season.
Some growers, who by law must ban spraying for citrus mites and other pests when bees are present, say the bees are an increasing burden.
“We’ve coexisted with them, but we don’t need them,” said Joel Nelson, executive director of California Citrus Mutual, a trade association. “Now we’re trying to adapt to changing consumer demands, and we’re hamstrung.”
I wonder if this means that allergy sufferers will be able to sue people who plant pollen producing plants?