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In attendance:

  • Ishki Ricard is a Two Spirit diaspora Choctaw parent, stay-at-home decolonizer, activist, writer, game developer, and multi-medium creator from the US with dreams of a better world for the next Seven Generations.
  • Kate Elliot is Danish-American, Jewish by religion, married parent of three (now adult) children. She writes adult and YA science fiction and fantasy, and her novels include Black Wolves, Cold Magic, Jaran, and Court of Fives. She lives in Hawaii.
  • Rebecca Roanhorse writes rez-based fantasy and Indigenous futurisms. She is also a lawyer and Yale graduate. She lives in northern New Mexico with her daughter, husband, and pug. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, is slated for publication with Saga Press (Simon & Schuster) Summer 2018. Find her on Twitter @roanhorseBex.
  • Joyce Chng is an articles editor at Strange Horizons.

Joyce Chng: Climate change— the rise in sea levels, etc.—has been the concern for many. The discussion is more pertinent now when we see the increase of mosquito-borne viruses like dengue or Zika, and the devastating effects on populations, especially in infants and the elderly. As people who depend on the river or the coast for your livelihood, in what ways do you think climate change is indeed changing the physical landscape you see? How does it affect your environment? How does it affect the biodiversity, the species of flora and fauna on the land?

Ishki Ricard: Aside from the obvious degradation and disappearance of land and homelands, losing the land means losing traditional foods and medicines. Indigenous life ways and knowledge. It forces coastlines further inland with different flora and fauna, forces the culture and life ways to adapt or disappear, and affects Peoples themselves by changing the diet and environment they are used to living in and surviving on for millennia. The whole ecosystem—plants, animals, and humans—is adversely affected. Can we adapt? Yes, certainly. We have no option. But should we have to? Well . . .

Kate Elliot: I have to address this from three perspectives. My ancestry is Danish and Faroese. I don’t know any specifics about rising sea levels affecting coastlines in Denmark and the Faroe Islands, but I do know two things about how Denmark is dealing with climate change: One is its championing of bike lanes and bicycling as healthy both for the environment and for humans; a second is Denmark’s specific goals toward relying solely on renewable energy by 2050. I grew up in the Willamette Valley in Oregon (home to the indigenous Kalapuya peoples), in a region that today remains primarily agricultural. Rising temperatures mean that, for example, crops that couldn’t be grown in the area when I was a child are now being grown there; for farmers this means shifting strategies to cope with changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, and water availability. I currently live in Hawaii. Of course climate change directly affects island nations in multiple ways. In Hawaii we have water pollution from overuse and overpopulation as well as a severe loss of ecosystem diversity in shoreline and near-shore ocean areas. Also rising tide levels affect beach erosion and undercut houses and shoreline roadways, some of which are the only road in and out of an area. Warming waters bleach corala serious problem worldwideand warmer waters also increase the risk and intensity of hurricanes hitting the islands because hurricanes lose power when they hit cooler waters. Development and building over agricultural lands is a constant issue here because of high population levels. Just today in the newspaper I read about ground being broken on a new housing development that will cover 1,500 acres of prime farmland with 11,500 homes (in 2009 the site was reclassified from agricultural zone to urban use).

Rebecca Roanhorse: While Ishki and Kate have eloquently spoken about coastal erosion, the primary impact of climate change in New Mexico is drought. Drought and the effects of resource extraction are the hallmarks of climate change all over the Southwest.

In 2010, I lived on the Navajo Nation. I drove by a town called Red Lake every day to and from work. It was named Red Lake after the eponymous lake that ran along the road for a good mile and a half. Every morning I’d watch the sun illuminate that lake, birds diving in between the occasional fisherman in his boat, both looking for food. In the evenings, I might catch a glimpse of an elk coming down off the mountains for a drink. That lake is gone. Drought and invasive flora species destroyed it. There is literally no water there nownot even a mud puddle. What happened to the birds, fish, and other wildlife that Red Lake supported?

At another place on the Navajo Nation, the water has turned neon yellow. In 2015, the Gold King Mine spilled three million tons of arsenic, lead, and other waste into the Animas river. Farmers along the river were told not to irrigate or water livestock from the water. People in general were warned to stay away. (Unnecessarily, since the water was literally bright orange/yellow and I don’t think anyone was contemplating a swim.) There was also a rash of suicides in the Navajo communities that border the river. We, especially as indigenous people, are deeply tied to the land. We are its caretakers and its protectors. We have only begun to measure the cost of the spill (in litigation brought by both the Navajo Nation and the State of New Mexico against the Environmental Protection Agency) to both humans and the environment.

Joyce Chng: As writers of science fiction and fantasy, does climate change affect your writing? As people who live on/along the coast or river, are the effects reflected in how you write?

Ishki Ricard: It does some, yes. It pushes me to put more of our histories and lands and cultures into my writing before it has changed too much, almost to act as a historical record of sorts within my writing. What will our children think, reading these things? Will they wonder if the land we are talking about is some fantasy setting? Or some historical fiction setting that takes its cue from real events of sorts, like Atlantis? Or Pangea? What kind of new land and life can we forge for ourselves from this, though, as well? Can we write our adaptation into existence before disaster happens? Can we divert the inevitable and create something new and hopeful? It is highly complex for me personally. Creating combinations of preservation of ways that were once dependent on the land and water itself, melding it into a new setting, writing into being the survival of my People. Climate change is an impact of colonization and continues to further the genocide of many of the world's indigenous peoples. Fighting back against that, in any form, is something we are tasked with yet again.

Kate Elliot: I’ve actually been struggling with how to discuss and incorporate climate change and what it means into my fiction. Because I grew up in farm country, I have always written about agriculture and its importance to society as well as the health of water systems, given agriculture’s dependence on water; it’s what I saw around me. Living in Hawaii and paddling outrigger canoes has allowed me a closer look at the health of oceans and what it means to so many human societies. When we have rafts of discarded plastics floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean thousands of miles from land, it means our patterns of consumption have become deeply unhealthy. That’s just one example. Capitalism as a system in which maximizing profit is the primary goal is not an environmentally or culturally sustainable system. I believe the most cogent and important critiques of the system today are coming from indigenous cultures. For example, the Polynesian Voyaging Society is currently sponsoring the worldwide voyage of the double-hulled canoe, the Hokulea. To quote them from their website: “Hokulea and Hikianalia, our Polynesian voyaging canoes, are sailing across Earth’s oceans to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world. The Malama Honua Worldwide Voyage began in 2013 with a Malama Hawaii sail around our archipelago, and will continue through 2017 when our new generation of navigators take the helm and guide Hokulea and Hikianalia back to Polynesia after circumnavigating the globe.” You can follow the voyage here.

Rebecca Roanhorse: My stories are primarily set in a fictional Southwest and specifically in “Indian Country." I don’t think you can talk about this area of the world, past, present, future or fictional, without talking about water. Climate change has pushed our awareness that “water is life” (a saying found among many Native American cultures) to the forefront. The water that sustains us simply won’t be there in the future and the massive overconsumption of the more populous western states ensures that there’s not enough to go around. I would consider it not only unrealistic, but irresponsible to write SFF set in this part of the world and not mention water.

Joyce Chng: How do you see the tools (or you can pick a less utilitarian term -- specialties or concerns or something like that) of science fiction and fantasy being particularly useful for discussing climate change and our relationship with the environment?

Ishki Ricard: I feel it allows us to envision a different future for ourselves and provides us with hope; alternately, it allows us to discuss the current and future effects of the global disaster in a fantasy or scifi setting to work through trauma and let others know how it is really affecting and harming people with hopes to snap people awake to action.

Kate Elliot: I agree with Ishki. SFF is a tool for speculation and through that means allows us to examine and create new visions and highlight new perspectives. As a species we have to change course if we want to save the world for our descendents, and if we want to save the most fragile and at-risk cultures as part of the vital diversity of human cultures past and present.

Rebecca Roanhorse: We humans are storytellers. Whether we come from a long oral tradition or now convey our stories primarily on paper and e-readers, it is the way we learn. The way we pass information on to our children and the next generations. The way we dream about the future. SFF plays a large part in that future dreaming. I think everyone over a certain age can name at least one idea or technology they first saw envisioned in SFF. The genre helps to form our collective imaginations, to help us imagine what is possible, and what is inevitable if we don’t change our ways. A dozen scientific journals on climate change don’t have the same impact on the general population as a well-crafted Hollywood movie or a thoughtful novel. It is artists and storytellers that bring the effects of climate change to life.

Joyce Chng: Do you find that climate change is also changing your language/dialect? Have new words/vocabularies/ideas linked to climate change emerged? What are your thoughts regarding these linguistic changes?

Ishki Ricard: I, unfortunately, only know so much of my language as a descendant of a residential school survivor, so I would not know much. I do know that words for some animals or places have fallen out of use since colonization and relocation for some, or as the animals have relocated, in part due to climate change.

Kate Elliot: My first language is English so many of the new words and ideas are present in world-English (as the current global lingua franca).

Rebecca Roanhorse: That’s an interesting question. I don’t personally know, and I don’t speak my mother’s traditional language, but all living languages are fluid flexible things. If it hasn’t happened already, I imagine it’s only a matter of time.

Joyce Chng: As indigenous people, how do you feel about climate change and how it’s affecting your land? If possible, could you share what’s happening?

Ishki Ricard: My homeland is literally being swallowed by rising coastlines. I've already heard of the loss of one of my ancestral homeland areas, and imagining the land where great camps and villages used to be is now underwater is . . . traumatic. Knowing it is approaching our burial mounds stirs something indescribable. We're not only losing land we lived on, but land we farmed. Wild food staples we have gathered since time immemorial are disappearing and we are once again being forced to consume colonized food that makes us sick with foreign diseases. It is posing a very serious problem to our sovereignty and culture.

Kate Elliot: My spouse is at the moment working in Tarawa. The threat of climate change to low-elevation island nations is stark and it is happening in real time RIGHT NOW. Land is also identity to many peoples, and the rising seas put cultures at risk in multiple ways that aren’t just physical. Every loss of language and culture is a personal loss to the people of that culture and also a loss to the greater web of human culture and diversity.

Rebecca Roanhorse: I don’t think it’s too strong a sentiment to say I feel heartsick. I once heard someone say that Indigenous peoples’ lives were a land-based love story. That, in some languages, the way to say “I love you” could be broken down to, “I care about you the way I care about the land." Climate change feels like watching the inevitable decline of someone you love, and knowing that if we don’t do something quickly, your loved one will die.

I don’t know how many people have been following the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota, but that’s an exciting development that many indigenous nations are watching closely. More than 200 sovereign tribal nations have come together to fight this threat to the drinking water of the people downstream from where the pipeline wants to cross the Missouri River. That’s powerful and unprecedented solidarity and activism that I hope will set a precedent far beyond what ultimately happens to the Dakota Access Pipeline. You can find out more about this protest at the Standing Rock website.

Joyce Chng: As writers, we want our writing to speak to our children and their children. When it comes to climate change and its consequences, do you think that our writing (and our words) about and on it would affect our kids and future generations too?

Ishki Ricard: I do. I hope it does, anyway. I feel like each generation, more than the last, is more astute about how we affect the environment around us. At least in our youth! [laughs] There are many in our generation who get lazy in adulthood, hoping to just pass the buck to the next group of youth. But I hope the next generations don't make the same mistakes. I hope we can use it as a warning, but also a bit of light in teaching that we can and will always find ways to adapt and carry ourselves forward with strength and perseverance, to keep fighting no matter what.

Kate Elliot: My experience with my own children and their generation is that many of them have a good idea of the challenges they face. This is one reason (I believe) that for all that some people mock the prevalence of fictional YA dystopias, these kind of stories in fact represent the fears of a generation living with a high degree of ambivalence and uncertainty about what lies ahead. Obviously non-fiction (journalism, scientific articles and books, etc.) is necessary to continue to bring the issue of climate change to the public in ways that will encourage people to take action, but fiction also works well to make people emotionally engage with an issue in a way that, one can hope, will encourage them to make dealing with climate change a priority.

Rebecca Roanhorse: I think our writing can serve as a warning for a future that will come if nothing is done to change the path we are on. It can also serve as inspiration to a new kind of collaborative, kinship-focused future. Or it can do nothing. There are a lot of strong voices in SFF speaking about the environment and climate change, indigenous and non-indigenous. It remains to be seen whether future generations listen to them or not.

Ishki Ricard is a Two Spirit diaspora Choctaw parent, stay-at-home decolonizer, activist, writer, game developer, and multi-medium creator from the US with dreams of a better world for the next Seven Generations.
Joyce Chng is Chinese and lives in Singapore. Qar writes urban fantasy, YA, and things in between, and wonders about the significance of female knights. Also wrangles kids and cats. Qar’s website can be found at (Also likes wolves.)
Kate Elliot is Danish-American, Jewish by religion, married parent of three (now adult) children. She writes adult and YA science fiction and fantasy, and her novels include Black Wolves, Cold Magic, Jaran, and Court of Fives. She lives in Hawaii.
Rebecca Roanhorse is an Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African-American writer of rez-based fantasy and Indigenous futurisms. She is also a lawyer and Yale graduate. She lives in northern New Mexico with her daughter, husband, and pug. Her debut novel, Trail of Lightning, is slated for publication with Saga Press (Simon & Schuster) Summer 2018. Find her on Twitter @roanhorseBex.
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10 Jun 2024

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