‘Perhaps by then the water barons will have found a way off this planet they’ve mined to death. They’ll take what they decide is theirs and leave behind what they no longer want. Is that what the Bible really meant by ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth?’”

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This article was published 26/9/2020 (233 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

‘Perhaps by then the water barons will have found a way off this planet they’ve mined to death. They’ll take what they decide is theirs and leave behind what they no longer want. Is that what the Bible really meant by ‘the meek shall inherit the Earth?’"

This is one of several unrelenting questions Nova Scotia’s Nina Munteanu poses through her main protagonist and narrator in her engaging epistolary novel. An ecologist and environmental activist herself, Munteanu has no difficulty voicing a fully formed literary character who is both scientifically literate enough to understand how quickly human society is entering its final ebb, and humane enough to mourn the fullness of this tragedy.

The prose here is beautiful and purposeful in the tradition of environmentally and socially minded novelists such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. The way Munteanu structures her story compares in some ways to Atwood’s apocalyptic tale Oryx and Crake (and sequels), where the story opens in a ruined future before shifting back to the main story, set in a more familiar albeit still future setting, but before the big disaster.

Unlike Atwood, there is no shifting back and forth between parallel stories. The girl in Munteanu’s opening paragraphs, a rare human in the last boreal forest, appears for only a few pages bookending the main story. In the opening she stumbles upon a leather-bound diary covering a period in the 2040s, which we are given to understand will shed some light on how the world, and humankind, came to ruin.

It comes down to water: ice sheets, rain and drought, the loss of water tables and the collapse of marine ecologies in an acidifying ocean. The pulse and rhythm of life on this planet is water. Its death throes, too, can be read in the flow of water.

The 2009 film The Age of Stupid used a similar structural trick, using the framing device of a man in a post-collapse 2050s sorting through real archival footage from the period of the film’s creation in order to hammer home the danger. This future setting allowed him to ask, on behalf of the filmmakers, "why didn’t anyone do anything to stop this?"

And while this was a clever twist on the documentary structure — to foreshadow with a fictional framing rather than warn with a scientific model — the film as a whole was not nearly as engaging as Munteanu’s fully fictionalized (but thoroughly researched) work, which also works on literary terms. Here Munteanu has produced something which joins George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, Le Guin and Atwood, a warning of the direction we are heading that will be valuable even if we manage to avert disaster.

It will be valuable because it will represent a time of crisis, a point in our history where we could have gone either way, and the sort of meditation on the human condition that becomes most clear when facing the void and understanding the fragility of all that humanity has built. It will also, unfortunately, be valuable in the same way that Orwell continues to be valuable.

His warning against the rise of totalitarianism, written in the wake of the just defeated Axis powers of the Second World War, was an eternal one, one that was invoked again in the rightward slide that began again in democratic countries in the 2000s.

Likewise, environmental disaster of one kind or another, due to human shortsightedness and the politicization of numbers and scientific facts, will be a recurring challenge for some time to come.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.