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We spoke with Paolo Bacigalupi, author of the Hugo & Nebula award winning novel, The Windup Girl. In the novel, you can practically taste the Thailand of the future as AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Bangkok combs the markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct. The company hopes to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories in a dystopian vision that pits the defenders of seed banks against the proponents of global trade in an era when dirigibles rule the skies. We discussed these themes and the future of food with the author.

SFUSA: Many dystopian novels fixate upon the crisis of collapse, leaving little room to imagine starting over. Usually, survivors live off the past by foraging whatever is left. You paint a different picture of what happens next. What does happen next?

Paolo Bacigalupi: One of things that you typically see in apocalyptic novels is a collapse followed by a return to an agrarian ideal. It’s always something of an Adam and Eve story, again and again. It’s like a reboot. I don’t actually think that’s a very good reflection of how societies adapt to even massive collapse events, the sort that actually wipes us out, like a dinosaur-level event. The thing is, we may lose access to cheap energy, but we are probably never going to lose access to certain amounts of knowledge. We’re always going to understand certain core physical principles. We’re never going to lose the wheel again. You know? We’re never going to lose basic levers, screws. There are things we know are out there and that we would actively work to recreate again.

SFUSA: How does this collapse take place in The Windup Girl?

PB: Huge disasters occur: food-based disasters, energy-based disasters, and everybody gets squeezed pretty heavily. Borders come up. Life is less globalized, but it also means that everybody hunkers down for a while. Everybody still thinks, “Oh, but what if we could rebuild that, what if we could reach out?” You get two very different ideas of what’s right in how we redevelop ourselves. You’ve got the Environment Ministry, arguing we survived because we maintained our borders; we protected ourselves and we held ourselves off from the world. Meanwhile, there are people in Trade who point to all this prosperity we accrue only when we interact with the rest of the world. They argue, sure, things went wrong, but look how prosperous we were right before the collapse. So you’ve got those new traders, those new internationalists, pressing at the idea of what happens if we can expand again. What would it be like to have a new expansion after this massive contraction? They’re innovative and they’re using different technologies to expand, but they already posses a road map that says globalization is out there — how do we do it?

SFUSA: Do we adapt to circumstances?

PB: A major collapse may mean you wouldn’t have as much oil. Sure, that means life is less easy. But what does it mean for another energy source? Does it open up other possibilities? And that’s where you see the calorie economy moving into the gap. I was really interested in this. Big Oil really died, but Big Calorie sees an opportunity. What happens is this: Every vacuum invites something to move into it. I think that’s a far more interesting part of the idea of collapse than just simply, “Oh look, everything fell apart.”

SFUSA: Calorie companies ruling the Earth?

PB: Broadly, I think that the apocalypse genre is pretty well played out, especially if all you’re going to do is tell another story about everything going to shit and then people are awful to each other. It’s far more interesting to consider: If we delete this part of our world, what do we fill it in with, and how might that fill in and what does that look like and do we like it better or not? We might hate it. For instance, what happens if calorie companies really did rule the Earth? What happens if they really do dominate the entire food supply? What happens if they really do manage to regularize the terminator gene and make that part of their technology portfolio? What does that imply for food security and sovereignty and vulnerability?

SFUSA: Do we lose all control in our lives?

PB: One of the things that I was really interested in doing with The Windup Girl is this: Most of the characters in the story believe that they’re driving their destiny in certain directions. Anderson Lake thinks that he’s on the path toward the seed bank, but later on the path towards certain kinds of political upheavals. Another character, Hock Seng, has certain big plans. Another, Jaidee, also has a sense of how he will regain control of his destiny. They all have ideas about how they’re driving their individual stories forward. They all have ideas of control over those stories. One of the things I’m really interested in is the hidden narrative. Just because you think you’re master of your universe doesn’t mean that there’s not another plotline moving along parallel to you. Worse, it may turn out to be the dominant one. Someone like Emiko may actually turn out to be the dominant plotline, only nobody saw it happening. Or something that’s going on inside the factory may turn out to be the dominant plotline and nobody can see it happening. I’m really interested in those things.

SFUSA: Tell us more.

I don’t know if you’ve ever read the nonfiction book Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. It’s all about black swan events. These are the ones that history doesn’t predict. They’re ahistorical events. They’re the things where everybody says, “Well, it’s never gone wrong before like that, so why would we think it would go wrong that way?” The 2008 financial collapse is a great example. Most of the financial collapses are always predicated by a bunch of experts saying, “Well why would we be worried about something like that — it doesn’t worry us at all; that’s not dangerous.” The key is that history doesn’t prepare you for them.

The thing that’s terrifying about black swans is that we as human animals are built to manage our anticipation of the future based on our experiences of the past. If we look back on the twenty, thirty or fifty years that haven’t drowned us, why would we think that next year would drown us? There’s no reason for us to. It’s deeply unsettling to have our control over our assumed narrative ripped away from us. That’s something that I was very interested in The Windup Girl in doing. Almost all of the characters have assumed narratives. They think that they’re in control of certain things, but they don’t see the black swans coming. For instance, in the book the Cheshire cats wipe out the bird population. The “somebody” who decided to create a Lewis Carroll-like cat did not anticipate the risks. Similarly, the agricultural companies release bio-plagues. Nobody anticipated that these plagues would adapt, come back and haunt the agricultural companies. Instead of having competitive advantage, they’re in the same boat as everyone else, trying to innovate just ahead of all these terrible plagues.

SFUSA: When should we be worried?

PB: When a genetic engineer says, “We don’t see any problem with swapping this gene in and that gene out,” you say “Well that’s great that it hasn’t caused any problems in the past — what’s the worst case scenario in the future?” We base our risk-assessment on what could go wrong, not on what absolutely couldn’t go wrong. But when that thing that couldn’t possibly go wrong does go wrong, it’s a big surprise.

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SFUSA: Regarding Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), what do you see?

PB: One thing that strikes me is some of these people in this conversation are paid every day to go in and work on these things in order for their side to win. And the other is basically a bunch of volunteers.

You know, when you’re a public relations professional going in every day, being paid well, to make sure that the conversation moves in the direction that you want it to move, I think that that’s going to be a problematic thing. I just spent a whole bunch of time — one of my other books was called The Doubt Factory, and it’s all about PR, public relations, product defense…

I don’t know if you’ve ever read books by like Naomi Oreskes’ Merchants of Doubt, or Doubt is Their Product by David Michaels. They’re interesting books because there’s a playbook that corporations use to defend their questionable products. That started with Big Tobacco and moved on since then to defend other types of products. I do feel like I’m noticing certain dynamics in the debate over GMO food, where the debate is, there are certain logic breaks that happen. Someone will say, “Look, Roundup Ready Soy uses less chemicals that are slightly less horrible than the ones that were used before, therefore it’s an ecological win to use Roundup.” On the face of it, you can say it’s a greener decision. It’s got fewer nasty chemicals than the ones that Roundup replaced. So, this technology must be a superior technology. And yet, instead we could be pursuing another path entirely, in terms of how we grow soy, or how we grow a monoculture. Those conversations are not even on the table.

Short of a major shift in the way that the US thinks about itself, and the way it thinks about government, the value of government, the value of regulation, the value of oversight, I think we’re in for a very rough ride.

SFUSA: How optimistic are you?

PB: I think the larger political culture is capable of treating ideas like Slow Food like an infection and walling them off life a cyst. You can be in encapsulated spaces, but you aren’t exactly permitted to become viral. To the extent that you see an emergent threat coming up to scale is when — if you think about it biologically — then you see the immune system kick into gear.

SFUSA: What are the signs of the system reacting?

PB: Any time something moves to scale in a very successful way, you almost automatically see the money-embedded organizations working to secure their own dominance again. And you see that with most of the organic labels. Most of the organic products have been purchased by much larger Agricultural conglomerates have purchased so many small and vibrant organic companies. These large companies do not share the philosophies of their small organics. They are simply a part of a larger portfolio. Simultaneously, they work actively and aggressively to undermine exactly what that label is, what organic means, for example. Once again, systems react and adapt. If Slow Food ever becomes like a genuine functional threat to the bottom line, you’ll see all kinds of adaptive behaviors coming from the companies. They work to co-opt and undermine it and confuse us. This is natural for them. It’s what they do. It’s their nature.

SFUSA: With regards to preserving biodiversity, do we save endangered seeds by using them or do we save them by preserving them?

PB: I don’t see any either-or in that. One thing we know, when you’re talking about seed vaults specifically, where you’re like, let’s lock it away here and hold it, that’s a purely defensive strategy. That’s a “hold your seeds and keep your powder dry.” It’s a defensive strategy; it’s not an infectious strategy. I tend to think that life wins when it’s infecting other things. You need genetic material getting out and infecting more things. Right now the problem is that the only genetic material that’s infecting any of our landscapes are these corporate crops. If you’re going to really make a play for genuine genetic diversity, that means those seeds have to be able to get out and take territory as well. They have to have beachheads in different continents, they have to be spread; they have to be thriving. Hiding on a single island is actually not a great resiliency position. Also, food is a weird thing because it exists within the matrix of culture. None of the foods that we eat right now are ones that didn’t grow up with us, over the course of thousands of years. We’re symbiotic with these different foods. When you break off that symbiosis, when they stop being part of our human culture, when they stop being part of our daily life, then those things atrophy. And other things will take their place, in fact. That’ll become a gap for something else. So Syngenta can give you gold rice, or whatever it is. And that’s the gap that gets filled. Either they think they’re playing out and continuing to be part of our adapted, symbiotic lives, or they wither. And it’s nice to have backups. I like having backups, everybody should. You backup your data, sure. But you really want that out there taking territory in the world.

SFUSA: The tropical fruit rambutan figures prominently in The Windup Girl. How did this happen?

PB: When I was doing research for the book, I didn’t have those scenes even in my head. It was only when I was in Thailand doing on-the-ground research for the book that I was rooting around in different public markets and I came across it. Rambutan’s appearance is the thing that really caught me. It seemed like such an alien species. It is very much the opposite of genetic monoculture, where all you have are apples and bananas. Apples, bananas and oranges — and then you have something like this, with its green hairs and its red skin and you have to yank it open. It’s a weird looking thing. I was looking for something that had a lot of specificity to the place, and the idea of localized, specific foods, different from other places. In the American context, when you say fruit, there are only four or five images that pop into somebody’s head. There’s an imaginative paucity there that you see, and that’s part of the diversity thing in itself. If you can’t even imagine it, how can you worry about preserving it? We don’t miss the things that we’ve never encountered.

Read more from Paolo Bacigalupi at Windup Stories.