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The Exchange: Matt Bell and Seth Darling discuss a sustainability paradox and the role of research in novel writing.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together author Matt Bell with molecular engineer Seth Darling.

Matt Bell is the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.

His latest book, Appleseed, has been widely praised. According to Laird Hunt in the New York Times Book Review, “Excellent… formally ambitious but still deeply humane… an appealing earnestness undergirded by deeply felt optimism influences Appleseed… Bell has achieved something special here. Appleseed, a highly welcome addition to the growing canon of first-rate contemporary climate fiction, feels timely, prescient, and true.”

Seth B. Darling is the Director of the Center for Molecular Engineering and a Senior Scientist in the Chemical Sciences & Engineering Division at Argonne National Laboratory. He also serves as the Director of the Advanced Materials for Energy-Water Systems (AMEWS) Energy Frontier Research Center. He received his PhD in physical chemistry from the University of Chicago. His group’s research centers around molecular engineering with a current emphasis on advanced materials for cleaning water, having made previous contributions in fields ranging from self-assembly to advanced lithography to solar energy. He has published over 140 scientific articles, holds over a dozen patents, is a co-author of popular books on water and on debunking climate skeptic myths, and lectures widely on topics related to energy, water, and climate.

Matt Bell (CREDIT: Jessica Bell)

MATT BELL: One of the most intriguing/dismaying problems I came across during my research for my novel Appleseed was what I saw as the link between sustainability and conservation projects/technologies and continued (or even unlimited) growth. For instance, in David Owen’s Where the Water Goes, about the Colorado River, he writes about how designing cities and homes to be more water efficient didn’t reduce overall water usage: “increasing the water efficiency of existing households,” Owens writes, “creates a water surplus that can be used to support the construction of more sprawling subdivisions.” A similar effect seems likely with the increasing pace of our necessary switch to renewable energy and electric cars in the years to come: using renewable energy isn’t the same as reducing the amount of energy we use, and might actually lead to our using more, in total.

It seems obvious to me that the solution to this paradox isn’t to stop increasing water efficiency or not to switch to renewable energy, but to make other changes to our economy and our culture, as well as our personal habits. If scientists (and city planners and natural resources departments) can’t force those larger structural changes, for understandable reasons, are there still ways scientists might design or frame efficient homes and other technologies, renewable resource infrastructure, and future city planning to prevent our efforts at sustainability from becoming de facto encouragements for even more growth?

SETH DARLING: Your question hits on an important nuance in any sustainability effort. On one hand, efficiency is obviously a positive change because it means we waste less. There is, however, often an unintended consequence that our new-and-improved efficient process means we encourage further (likely unsustainable) use of the underlying resource. This phenomenon even has a name. It’s known as the Jevons paradox, named after William Stanley Jevons, who raised this issue in the context of increasingly efficient coal use in England in the middle of the 19th century. Here we are, more than 150 years later, facing the same dynamic. As you point out, the solution to this dilemma is not to cease efforts at increasing efficiency. So what can we do?

Advocating for efficiency carries little political risk, whereas pushing measures that require sacrifice (like increasing the price of energy or restricting where construction or farming can take place) is hazardous territory for policy makers. This is even more true in the context of national and global energy and water equity. Fostering sustainable behavior relies on social influence, forming new habits, tying individual activity tangibly to social and environmental well-being, and other tools. But your question isn’t about policy makers or steering social behavior, it’s about scientists. And yes, there is something we can do.

The first step in any sustainability effort is to perform what is called a life-cycle assessment. This is an analysis technique to calculate environmental impacts associated with all stages of a product’s life, from raw material extraction through processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, and—ideally—recycling. Life-cycle assessment is critical to figure out what is actually sustainable and specifically how sustainable it is. Armed with this knowledge, scientists and engineers can target the most problematic processes and develop innovative ways to improve on the sustainability of our actions, whether its energy generation and use, agriculture, transportation, or any other human activity.

Let me give you a specific example of how we can reimagine our activity with the help of science. You mention scarce water resources in the Southwestern U.S. We have a huge structural flaw in how we handle water as a society—our systems are almost entirely “once-through.” We extract water from a lake, river, or aquifer, we clean it up if needed, use it once, and then dump it down the drain. Only making water use more efficient (say, with low-flow faucets) might lead consumers to increase their consumption elsewhere.

Instead, we need to undertake a paradigm shift from this once-through approach to one focused on water reuse and recycling, closing the loop. Why not take that water we used to wash our dishes or cool a manufacturing tool, clean it up locally, and put it right back into the system for reuse? Closing the loop in this way would dramatically reduce the need to extract new water from the environment. But to enable this paradigm shift, we need new, higher-performance materials for water treatment. That’s where scientists come in. We can make better membranes to filter out pollutants, catalysts to destroy harmful substances in the water, and coatings for surfaces that prevent all the gunk in wastewater from sticking to them.

Water recycling is just one example…there are parallels in electrification of transportation, plant-based meat alternatives, and many other exciting areas. Working together, scientists, policy makers, and consumers can overcome the Jevons paradox and together move our society toward a sustainable future.

Seth Darling (CREDIT: Seth Darling).

SETH DARLING: When writing a book that weaves a scientific theme or a problem that science could address into the story (i.e. climate change), how much of the time on the novel is spent researching the science? Also, how does the information you learn from the research affect the creative process as you are developing the characters and the story?

MATT BELL: One of the truest pleasures of novel writing is the research! It takes a couple years for me to draft a novel, and much of that time inevitably ends up being spent learning and thinking about the book’s particular issues. For Appleseed, I read books and articles on climate change, geoengineering, CRISPR, extinction, the settling of the Midwest, the proposed nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, 3D-printing, seed and gene banks, the history of the domestication of the apple, the history of industrial agriculture, the formation of glaciers, and so much, including a lot of historical material related to the book’s historical timeline. I also read a lot of environmental philosophy and literature that undergirded the novel’s worldview in different ways: Timothy Morton’s idea of the hyperobject, for instance, was an inspiration for how the novel is constructed and how I think about climate change, the fossil fuel economy, and other related issues.

It’s not always clear what research will be useful to a novel, especially at the start, so I usually begin broadly and narrow down as I start to figure out my novel’s plot and its particular interests. I often talk about each book having its own “form of attention,” a way of looking at the world: the farther I get into my novel draft, the easier it becomes to imagine what might be useful to me, or for the novel to “choose” details and ideas from the research I’m doing.

In the end, there’s probably more over-research than under-research, at least as far as what I need to make a good story goes. For instance, in Appleseed, I started including a storyline about genetic engineering, and wanted to be sure I understood how it worked, so I read a half-dozen books about CRISPR and similar subjects—almost none of which I used in my novel. I’m glad I read the books, because they were interesting, but that part of the science wasn’t the core focus of the novel, and didn’t end up needing to be highly detailed.

Theories about geoengineering the stratosphere to reduce the effects of global warming were more central to the novel, and so I tried to be very careful to get the details as accurate as possible, especially about the benefits and costs of such a drastic action. My delivery vehicle for stratospheric aerosol injection is perhaps fanciful in the novel—it’s a self-perpetuating swarm of nanobots, controlled by a global hivemind—but the effects are as close to my understanding of the current science as I could make them. Even the nanoswarm was a result of my thinking through one of the problems with this form of geoengineering: it’s relatively easy to disrupt, if you’re doing it with airplanes or something similar, because someone might bomb the airfields. So I designed a solution that once set in motion couldn’t be easily stopped, as a solution to what I saw as a complication in the currently proposed methods.

The other place where research drove the action was in the political situation of the novel’s near-future timeline. The disaster capitalism described in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine gave me a framework for how a corporation could seize enough power to take unilateral action, in the United States and abroad. I bent my novel’s political situation toward Klein’s ideas, using the real world examples she described to create a fictional scenario whose consequences I then played out in story.

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