Nurturing creativity with art, animals, and science fiction

Category: Response to Disasters Page 1 of 21

Covers for Jan's three "Cops in Space" books, "The Other Side of Fear," "What's Bred in the Bone," and "A Bone to PIck."

What should police do?

By Jan S. Gephardt

We rarely think to ask a fundamental question: what should police do? What part should they play in a multicultural, representational democracy? The ubiquity of police forces around the world argues that many societies believe police do have a role in civilized life. But what – exactly – should it be?

As a novelist whose primary characters are science fictional detectives, I am in an unusual position, both to ask and to answer this question. But I believe it’s also a question everyone should ask. Especially every citizen in a representational, multicultural democracy.

Why should we ask? Isn’t the answer to that question obvious? Well, no. We’ve all grown up “pre-loaded” with conscious and unconscious attitudes and understandings of what police officers and police forces do, and why they exist. But clearly, those seldom-examined attitudes and understandings aren’t leading to very good outcomes. Not in much of the world. And certainly not here in the United States.

"Understand, our police officers put their lives on the line for us every single day. They've got a tough job to do to maintain public safety and hold accountable those who break the law." - Barack Obama.
Many thanks to BrainyQuote.

Asking as a Novelist

One of the best things science fiction does is hold up a mirror to society. If you think about it, all fiction does that in a certain way, because all fiction is a reflection of our experiences of life. I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the novelist in society. And yes, a fundamental aspect of our work is purely to produce entertainment.

But it’s not the only aspect. I would (and frequently do) argue that it may not even be the most important aspect, particularly in the realm of science fiction. That’s because science fiction is all about thought experiments.

When we start asking “what if?” a whole multiverse of possibilities opens up. What if a recent scientific discovery led to a new technological breakthrough? How would that change the world we live in? What if our society continues on its current course in this aspect, what might the future look like? How would our world change? How would we react?

So, as a novelist who writes about police in a future society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"My role as a novelist is to explore ideas and imagination, and hopefully that will inspire people from my world to continue dreaming and to believe in dreams." - Alexis Wright.
Thanks again, BrainyQuote!

Asking as a Citizen

But I’m also a citizen: of the world, and also specifically of my country and community. I’m a taxpayer, a voter, a member of “the public.” I can be sliced and diced out and defined demographically, culturally, and any other way you choose. Mother. Wife. Daughter. Woman. Educated. Teacher (retired). Middle class. United Methodist. White. Senior citizen. Democrat. Science fiction fangirl. Creative person. Animal lover. Multiculturalist. I am all of those things and more.

And as that complex, multi-aspect creature, I bring all of my experiences, understandings, and biases into my role as a responsible adult in contemporary society. For me, that involves an active interest in news and politics. I have formed some rather strong opinions over the course of my life. Each day I refine them or adjust them or reinforce them as I receive and process information.

I see it as my right – indeed, my responsibility – as a citizen to ask if my government and community leaders are representing me and governing in a way I think is appropriate. Are they respecting and honoring values I share? If they’re not, then I have a right to question them, and to seek better representation. As do we all.

This means, as a citizen in contemporary society, I must ask “What Should Police Do?”

"Each day, millions of police officers do the selfless work of putting their lives on the line to protect civilians, frequently responding to or preventing crises completely with no recognition." - Letitia James
You’re now 3-0, BrainyQuote!

What Do We Ask Police To Do?

We currently ask police to fill a wide range of roles. “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said in a 2016 interview by the Washington Post. “We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

I tend to agree with Chief Brown. As a teacher, I learned all too much about the many things our communities want to dump in the laps of their public servants. Usually while also underpaying them, restricting their operating budgets, and asking them to do work they never trained or signed up for. I get it, and I agree.

But what problems are the police meant to solve? Unlike some observers on the leftward end of the spectrum, I do believe there is a role for police in society. Unlike some observers on the rightward end of the spectrum, I don’t believe we will ever be well served by our current system. Certainly not when it’s focused on criminalizing poverty and mental illness. Not when it majors on crackdowns on minority populations and small offenders. And certainly not when it perpetuates the school-to-prison pipeline.

This graph charts United States crime clearance rates in 2020, the most recent year for which the statistics are available. “Murder and nonnegligent homicide:54.4%. Aggravated assault: 46.6%. Violent crime: 41.7%. Rape: 30.6%. Robbery: 28.8%. Arson: 21.5%. Larceny-theft: 15.1%. Property crime: 14.6%. Burglary: 14.%. Motor vehicle theft: 12.3%”
Graphic ©2023 by Statistia.

What Problems WERE Police Meant to Solve?

If you were to ask the average “person on the street” this question, they’d probably say “Solve crimes,” or maybe “keep public order,” or perhaps “enforce the law.” Fair enough. So, how well are they doing?

Let’s take that first one, “solve crimes.” A look at the crime clearance rates (percentages of crimes that are cleared in a given year) is downright discouraging. “Clearance rate,” by the way, does not mean the full Law & Order-style litany of captured, charged, tried, and convicted. No, “clearance” means at least one person has been arrested and charged, or it means the probable perpetrator(s) are identified, but outside circumstances make arresting and charging them impossible. For two examples, circumstances could include that they died. Or maybe they’re in another country from which we can’t extradite them. Stuff does happen sometimes.

Clearance rates vary by the type of crime. But according to the only type that gets solved more than half the time in the USA is “murder and non-negligent homicide.” The clearance rate for that is 54.4%.

Flunking Crime-Solving

Think about it. That’s only a bit better than a 50-50 chance that any given murder will be solved. If I were grading a test and my student made a 54.4% on it, their grade would be an F (On a normal grading scale, 0-60% = an F). And that’s the best they do! You want them to solve your burglary? Sorry to tell you, but you have only a 14% chance that the perpetrator will be caught and charged with the crime. Someone stole your truck? Oh, dear. You only have a 12.3% chance they’ll ever arrest the thief.

So, basically, police in the United States flunk at crime-solving. Why? Well, there are a lot of reasons, and many of them are tied up in the other answers to the question “What should police do?”

"When you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe." - Mary Frances Berry
Thanks yet again, BrainyQuote!

What Should Police Do to “Serve and Protect”?

What does “keep public order,” “enforce the law,” or “protect people” look like, when it’s happening? Does “keeping public order” mean bulldozing camps of unhoused persons? Or imposing a curfew on a small population’s free movement during a specific part of the day or in a specific place? Does it mean beating or injuring protesters? The words “keeping public order” have been used to justify all of those actions.

On the other hand, it also could mean directing traffic away from an accident. Maybe it means repelling a violent insurrection from the Capitol. And it could mean shielding a person who has not been convicted of any crime from a lynch mob that wants to kill them. It’s an umbrella phrase, broad and nonspecific enough to be both used and abused.

Standards Without Clarification

And in the end, it’s not a very helpful standard without further clarification. The seemingly obvious “protect people” brings the same host of issues when we try to apply it to specific cases. Which people are the police to protect? From whom or what? In a racist, sexist society (don’t kid yourself: that’s this one), how many ways could that go wrong?

“Enforce the law” is only deceptively “more specific.” Does that mean “enforce all the laws, all the time?” By that standard, most of us should be, or should have been, arrested at many points in our lives.

People are fallible. There are times when we’re sick and can’t cut the noxious weeds in our front yard. Or we’re forgetful and only notice later that our driver’s license has expired. Perhaps we’re tired or in a hurry, so we jaywalked when we saw an opening, instead of walking down to the corner and waiting for the lights to change. Minor traffic violations, legally carrying a gun, or simply walking down the street have resulted in citizens being killed by police in the name of “enforcing the law.”

"Accountability for police officers should be an expectation, not an aberration." - Alex Padilla
You rock, BrainyQuote!

Okay, so: What SHOULD Police Do?

As we’ve seen, that’s a really problematic question! But, both as a citizen and as a novelist, I want to find better answers to it. I cannot endorse a blanket approach such as “abolish the police.” I’m not a fan of “defund,” either. Neither of those represent where I think this conversation should go.

On the other hand, a thoroughgoing interrogation of that “what should police do?” question isn’t going to deal kindly with old-school “cop culture.” Not with many contemporary police training techniques and approaches, either. Nor even with a fair number of contemporary laws and standards.

Yes, dear reader, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m cueing up a series of blog posts on this topic. I’m not sure how long it’ll be. Considering our upcoming publication schedule, it most definitely won’t be every single post for the next umpty-dozen times without a break!

But over the next few months, I propose to take up one aspect of “what should police do?” at a time. I’ll examine how it’s currently being handled in the USA, survey the critiques, and then explain “how we handle it on Rana Station” and why I think that might work better. I hope you’ll find the series interesting.


Many thanks to BrainyQuote (what would I have done without you for this post?) and Statistia.

“Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.” — Brian Tracy

Gratitude isn’t only for one day

By Jan S. Gephardt

Here in the United States, we recently celebrated Thanksgiving. As I noted in my last post, it’s supposed to be a time to reflect upon the blessings in our lives and be grateful. My purpose today is to make the point that gratitude isn’t only for one day a year. It’s better understood as a lifestyle.

It’s my lived experience that when one looks at the world with gratefulness, it’s easier to see the blessings that fill our lives. Even when our lives are hard. Maybe especially when they’re hard. And yes, this marks me as an optimist by nature.

I recognize that pessimists have an important place in the grand scheme of things. They do seem naturally better-suited for some essential roles in society. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily fun or easy to go through life as one. And it doesn’t mean that the pessimists in the world don’t need us optimists around. If they’ll accept it, we can give them necessary balance when they start going totally sour on everything (as is their natural bent).

“Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.” — George Bernard Shaw
Balance in life and human society requires both! (Many thanks to Quotefancy).

Are We Wise Enough to See It?

An important part of bringing that balance into one’s perspective is a key awareness. NO human is a totally “self-made” person. That “self-made” poppycock is a self-aggrandizing fallacy. It flies in the face of human nature because we are a social species. Our primary survival mechanism is gathering into interdependent groups. All of us, no matter how independent-minded and  contrary, must depend on others in many ways and for many things.

Maybe our families bestowed riches, education, and advantage on us. Or maybe they did just the opposite. Whatever our history and personal level of success, we all have received favor and grace somewhere along the line from someone. From society’s basic infrastructure, if nothing else! If we are wise enough, we recognize that.

And if we recognize it, honesty demands that we be grateful for it. Gratitude isn’t a show of weakness – it’s an acknowledgement that our species’ greatest survival skill is active in our lives. That’s why I contend that gratitude isn’t only for one day (for instance, Thanksgiving. Or perhaps the day after Christmas. Or some moment when we can’t escape the obligation to write a thank-you note). Gratitude isn’t only for one season. It isn’t only for one year, or any other finite period. Properly understood, it’s perpetual.

"Be thankful for what you have; you'll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don't have, you will never, ever have enough” — Oprah Winfrey
Maybe not a law of nature, but certainly a law of human psychology. (Courtesy of Wow4u).

Seven Days of Gratitude

Back in 2017 I wrote a series of seven blog posts in a row. I posted one right after another on seven successive days. They were my response to a self-challenge to think about the things I was most grateful for. Now, as I just pointed out, if gratitude isn’t only for one day – and it isn’t only for seven.

But that exercise provided a learning experience. Several patterns of thought emerged. Had I pushed the experiment further, I’m sure I would have discovered more. But even though I clearly had lots more time to write blog posts back then, there were limits.

What themes did I choose for my Seven Days of Gratitude? They covered quite a range, from the personal to the broadly institutional. Considering them from that perspective, let’s take a quick look. Are these things you would have chosen?

“Develop an attitude of gratitude, and give thanks for everything that happens to you, knowing that every step forward is a step toward achieving something bigger and better than your current situation.” — Brian Tracy
Don’t just take my word for it. The lives of the grateful are richer in every way. (Thanks again, Quotefancy!)

Gratitude for Personal Things

As I said, some of the things I was (and am) thankful for were personal. Take for instance my family (that was Day Two’s topic). Cliché, much? Yes, “I’m grateful for my family” is basic elementary-school essay fodder, but that doesn’t rob it of validity for many of us. Some people’s families are real-life horror shows, but most of us regard our near kin more kindly. How do you feel about yours?

Another important point of gratitude for me was the companion animals in my life. In genuine ways they also are family. Pack is Family, after all! Even though I didn’t bring them up as a topic till Day Six, they are an active force that makes my life better. This blog is so pet-friendly, that won’t surprise you. Since pet-related posts often get more traffic, if you’re reading this post you probably feel much the same!

One “gratitude topic” that isn’t in the lineup of “usual suspect” clichés was another deeply personal one. I expressed gratitude for my callings. That is, for the things I do well and that give my life meaning and purpose. I believe that each of us comes into the world with a unique suite of abilities and predispositions. When we find ways to develop and express those “best things” in our lives, everyone in our lives benefits in some way. It is a supremely satisfying “fit,” even when it’s also a lot of work. What are your callings? How do you express them?

This montage consists of three quote-images. The one on the left says, “Gratitude: Today be thankful and think how rich you are. Your family is priceless. Your health is wealth. Your time is gold.” – One Bite Wisdom. The middle one reads, “I am thankful for my pets because they complete my family.” – Anonymous. The one on the right says, “Your talent is God’s gift to you. What you do with it is your gift back to God.” – Leo Buscaglia.
How do these things work in your life? Do you see them as blessings? (See credits below).

Gratitude for Broader-Based Gifts: Food Security

Gratitude isn’t only for one day, and it isn’t only for one “level” of blessings. When I looked beyond my personal existence, I found yet more things to be grateful for. I’m privileged to be able to claim some of them. Take food security, for instance!

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in September that more than one in five Americans has experienced food insecurity this year. One in five! In the country that is the richest nation in the world! And speaking of “in the world,” we’ve got a global food crisis on our hands. So, if food insecurity is not one of your clear and pressing worries, you have a very great deal to be thankful for!

Those of us blessed with food security should lift up a hearty “thank you!” And then why not look into Charity Navigator’s excellent guide to giving opportunities that fight hunger? But for a few twists of fate, we could be among those on the “hungry” side of the line!

“Before you eat food or drink water, look at what you’re about to eat or drink and feel love and gratitude. Make sure your conversations are positive when you are sitting down to a meal.” — Rhonda Byrne
An excellent place to start! But don’t stop there. (Quotefancy comes through for me again!).

Yet more Societal Gifts: Peace

Number Three on my 2017 list was Peace. Yes, we’ve all seen the clichés and memes about “whirled peas” and beauty pageant candidates claiming they’re all in for world peace. But gratitude isn’t only for one day, and it isn’t only for my small part of the world. Anytime we feel blasé about peace, we need to remember what’s actually going on in the world.

What would Somali farmers say about peace in their part of the world? How would Palestinian or Syrian children (whether refugees or not) feel, if they could grow up in peaceful neighborhoods? Or schoolgirls in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or Pakistan, or Afghanistan? How would Rohingya refugees feel about the ability to live quietly in peace? Or, of course, the Ukrainian people spending this winter huddling in what’s left of their cold, dark homes?

And let us not forget violence in our own country. The murder rate in my hometown of Kansas City is nothing short of blood-drenched, although (for now) my little neighborhood is relatively quiet. We “only” hear gunfire once in a while (last night, for example), and usually a fair number of blocks away. No, I don’t take peace for granted at all, and neither should anybody! You bet I’m grateful!

“My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.” — Anton Chekhov
Freedom from violence makes all our dreams more possible. (What would I do without you, Quotefancy?)

But Wait! There’s More!

The last two items on my “Grateful” list deserve at least one separate blog post, so I’ll mention them only as a preview of future (and a reminder of past) posts. Kind of an “alpha and omega” for my thank-you roundup, the very first item on my list was freedom of religion, a topic I’ve already written about several times, including in my 2020 series on the First Amendment, and in a 2019 post about violence against places of worship.

The “omega,” but far from the least important on my list? Gratitude for the arts. I’m a writer and artist. My career history includes work as an art and writing teacher, a graphic designer, a journalist, and an art agent, among other arts-related work. I come from an artistic family (for one, my sister and publishing partner is the Director of Concert Operations for The Dallas Winds, as followers of this blog may recall).

My whole LIFE has been about, and suffused with, the arts. They have not only sustained me as the source of my most meaningful work, however. The amazing thing about the arts is that they can touch any human life with a near-miraculous gift of grace. They have lifted our spirits in times of dire darkness, helped us find meaning, and opened untold wonder for untold numbers of people. So I’d be pretty darned ungrateful to leave them off of my list!

The quote on the left says, "Religious freedom should work two ways: we should be free to practice the religion of our choice, but we must also be free from having someone else's religion practiced on us." — John Irving. The one on the right says, "Art gives its vision to beauty not always recognized. And it surrenders freely -- whatever power it possesses to every sincere soul that seeks it. But above all else--it presents us with the gift of ourselves." — Aberjhani
Gratitude for these blessings brings richness and joy to our lives. (Double thanks to PictureQuotes; see credits below).

So, then. That’s my list. And while gratitude isn’t only for one day, it also isn’t only for one person’s list. What’s on yours? Can you find seven things to be grateful for? Share in the comments if you wish. But more important by far is to recognize them. Cherish them. And do your best to spread the gratitude you feel into the world around you.


And now for more gratitude! First of all WOW, Quotefancy! This blog post wouldn’t be the same without my access to your trove of image-quotes. See the individual credit lines in the captions for the four different, but highly appropriate, quotations from this resource. Thank you very much! I also owe a double debt of gratitude to PictureQuotes for the two images used in the final montage. They provided both John Irving’s words on religious freedom and those of Aberjhani on art.

To the rest of my image sources, I also am grateful to you! Many thanks to Wow4u, for the Oprah Winfrey quote-image. And three hearty “thank you!” shout-outs to One Bite Wisdom on Pinterest, Quotesgram, and Biblereasons. I loved being able to find the component quotes that I used to build the three-part personal gratitude montage. I appreciate all of you!

Here are two illustrated quotes: first, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.” – George Jean Nathan. Second, “If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.” – George Carlin.

We Get One More Chance

By Jan S. Gephardt

I almost didn’t post anything this week. Life events (my daughter’s health crisis and my father’s recent death) have just about sandbagged me. But, with a little encouragement from my Weird Sister (who’s also had her cataclysms this year), I concluded I did need to say something this week. Because things in my beloved country are rapidly running toward a collision point. And because in this season of advance voting, we get one more chance.

Anyone who’s followed this blog for long knows I am passionate about voting. I was among the first crop of 18-year-olds allowed to vote in the US, and from that day on I have never voluntarily missed an election. While this makes me pretty run-of-the-mill in my family, it makes me rather uncommon among the general US population.

I wish it wasn’t so. I wish everyone who was old enough and eligible understood how important it is to make an educated vote on the key matters of the day.

Here are two illustrated quotes: first, “We do not have government by the majority. We have government by the majority who participate.” – Thomas Jefferson. Second, “Someone struggled for your right to vote. Use it.” – Susan B. Anthony.
Voices from the past weigh in. I hope people consider their words. (See credits below).

Of Primary Importance

Here in Kansas, we proved just how wrong polls can be, and just how powerful women – especially young, angry women – can be in an election. Back then I posted, tweeted, and blogged for all I was worth about the incredible importance of voting in every election, not just the big, “sexy” ones in the fall. I am under no illusion that I made a measurable difference, but enough people did step up to create a rather amazing outcome.

Nobody thought young people would vote. Nobody expected angry young women to vote in such numbers. Everybody had kind of written Kansas off as “oh, well, they’re a red state.”

They’re doing that again this fall. Will the “sleeping giant” of angry young women go back to sleep, assuming they “fixed it all” in August? Well, the issues are less clear-cut in November, if you choose to look at it that way. They aren’t for me personally, but I vote anyway. I guess we’ll find out what others decide.

The cartoon shows two crowds, one of which is about double the size of the other. Everyone in the smaller crowd wears a T-shirt that says, “I voted.” The larger crowd wears blank shirts, and a word balloon above them reads, “We didn’t vote because it won’t make a difference.”
This cartoon image says it better than I ever could in words. As the picture makes clear, it WOULD have made a difference. Whatever you do, don’t sit this one out! (See credits below).

Don’t be Discouraged by the Polls

One thing I keep telling myself is that I can’t lose hope. If Kansas in August is anything to go by, the polling then showed a close race. It was anything but close, although one benighted idiot did demand – and pay for – a recount.

When was the last time you got a call from an unknown number and actually picked up? Pollsters do their best, I assume. But they’re at a disadvantage in an age when we have to jealously guard our time and our privacy against abuse. Recent polls have consistently skewed conservative, in large part because who has landlines these days? Who routinely answers phone calls? Older people who haven’t caught on to the pitfalls.

Other places, such as focus groups, public events (fairs, shopping centers, etc.) offer opinions from small populations who often self-select to at least a certain extent. Email polling is often partisan to the point of becoming an echo-chamber. I’ve come to the conclusion that polls are just “iffy” guesses (sometimes accurate, sometimes not) till the election happens. Kansas in August proved that to a more dramatic extent than we’ve seen in a while.

Here are two illustrated quotes: first, “Bad officials are elected by good citizens who don’t vote.” – George Jean Nathan. Second, “If you don’t vote, you lose the right to complain.” – George Carlin.
The two “Georges” have it right. Inform yourself and vote, if you haven’t! (See credits below).

In the General Election we get One More Chance.

The outcome still lies with us. We get one more chance. A lot of the candidates have bought into the “Big Lie” that previous elections were rigged. Note that none of that camp who DID get elected seem to worry that the vote was rigged in their case, however. We get one more chance to refrain from giving more power to that group.

In the name of “election integrity” state legislators already have instituted changes that inhibit many of the voters they deem to be skeevy (weirdly enough, they don’t seem to target old white conservatives, although those who need assistance to vote are out of luck). If some of the candidate-election commissioners, secretaries of state, and/or attorneys general are voted in, we’ll get more of that, plus legislatures with the power to reject results they don’t like.

Elections matter. We get one more chance in November.


Largely because (mentally and emotionally) my main reactor core has already melted down and I’m limping along on “impulse power” toward the nearest repair base, I used illustrations from my previous blog posts for this one. The two “vote-quote pairs” are both from my November 4, 2019 post, “Vote Tuesday! Will your voice be heard?” See that post for sources.

Similarly, the cartoon image by Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle came from my 2016 post, “Vote Like your Life Depends on It – Because it Just Might,” which used an image from The Coffee Party USA’s Facebook Page. Many thanks to all the original sources!

“The American Dream Game,” a 2014 David Horsey cartoon.

The Legend of the Undeserving Poor

By Jan S. Gephardt

A cluster of recent news articles have, to me, pointed to an older-than-America problem. I mean the recent water-quality issues in Jackson, MS, and the end of the universal free public school lunch program. A local infrastructure issue and a nationwide nutrition program might seem to have little in common, but under the surface they do. Both resulted, ultimately, because government officials bought into the Legend of the Undeserving Poor.

Now, before you get your feathers all ruffled about my obvious Bleeding-Heart-Liberal stripes showing, please hear me out. Certainly, there are unmotivated, indolent, and unwise individuals out there in the general population. They exist in all economic strata of society, from frivolous trust-fund babies on down. Users, grifters, and cheaters exist, and they certainly do their best to let the efforts of others “carry” them.

But years of studies, analysis, and personal experience should tell you that the growing ranks of the “Working Poor” in this country aren’t all (or even mostly) a bunch of so-called “Welfare Queens.” So where does this persistent legend of the undeserving poor come from, and why does it persist?

"Never let the truth get in the way of a good story." - Mark Twain
Some folks take this advice a bit too literally in public policy matters. (Statustown).

Tradition, Worldview, and Convenience

The legend of the undeserving poor is nothing new. It has the powerful forces of tradition, worldview, and convenience working in its support. Some historians say it dates back to the economic and social changes as the Plague waned in Europe. Wealthy people resented the growth of burgeoning “underclass” populations, with their desire for a better place in life than was comfortable for their “betters.”

My first inkling of how old (and unfair) the tradition might be while viewing Dutch art from the Reformation era (1500s-1600s). I was scandalized to see a mocking engraving that purported to illustrate disabled war veterans and other classes of the “undeserving poor.” How, I wondered, could anyone disabled while fighting for his country be considered “undeserving”? Of course, when you consider how the United States has treated 911 responders, as well as soldiers exposed to Agent Orange and burn pits, that outrage seems naïve at best. But then, it all makes me angry.

The legend of the undeserving poor has a long and ugly history. It offends anyone who values equity and social justice, and yet it persists. Why?

“Even climate action at home looks suspiciously like socialism to them; all the calls for high-density affordable housing and brand-new public transit are obviously just ways to give backdoor subsidies to the undeserving poor.” – Naomi Klein
Wouldn’t want to help the “undeserving,” of course! Not even if it helps to save the world. (Quotestats).

A Worldview Predicated on “Personal Responsibility

Did you choose to be born to, or adopted by, the parents who reared you? Were you personally responsible for choosing the color of your skin? Not if you’re a natural-born human being, you didn’t. Yet these involuntary conditions are massive predictors of how successfully you’ll be able to live your life.

But it seems clear that some people in our society think the situation into which you were born should make no difference to your outcomes in life. Somehow, despite all the evidence to the contrary, they believe we all start from the same point and compete equally. If you didn’t struggle sufficiently to be an economic success – regardless of your opening situation – then that’s on you. Somehow, you are simply a lesser human being. And in that case, they appear to think that you deserve to just suffer and die, already.

It’s a supremacist worldview. Weird, how often it’s held by people lucky enough to have been able to access opportunities and capitalize on them. You’ll often hear such folks describe themselves as “self-made” or having “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.” Never mind that the original definition for the latter phrase implied the completion of an impossible and unbelievable task. And if you somehow failed to do the impossible, well then, the legend of the undeserving poor is tolling the bell for you.

This cartoon shows what looks like a board game. One route, marked “Black” at the starting point, is long, winding, and includes lots of lost turns. Some of the sections say things like “Slavery, lose 100 turns,” or “Denial of Voting Rights, lose 10 turns.” The other route, marked “White” at the start is short, straight, and has sections that say “Free land from Indians, jump 2 spaces,” and (2 spaces later) “Free Labor from Slaves, take another turn.” A young White man near the end turns to his Black competitor and asks, “Are you just slow, or what?”
“The American Dream Game,” a 2014 David Horsey cartoon, is one of my favorite “pictures worth 1,000 words.” (LA Times, #142 of 200).

It is Inconvenient to Think Complex Thoughts

Thinking is hard. It actually uses energy and it can genuinely wear us out. That’s probably why some of us try to avoid doing it at all costs. Unfortunately, that attitude is kind of baked in to our culture. Americans (and, increasingly, supposedly-educated people everywhere) want clear-cut answers, they want them right now. Preferably in bullet-points that would fit on a bumper sticker. We’re already busy enough as it is. Our lives are already rife with complexity.

Unfortunately, our world faces a lot of complex problems, with multilayered causes. We need to solve them before they kill us. Climate change is one of those things that is complicated, famously inconvenient, and increasingly deadly. All the reasons why the legend of the undeserving poor is misleading and wrong are another.

But wait! If it’s so bogus, why does it persist, you might ask. It persists because it is convenient for those who don’t want to engage their empathy for the “poors.” Even more so, for those who don’t want to spend any extra tax money (“my hard-earned money!” whether it truly came hard or was inherited) to help others live a better life.

"Power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate." - Peggy McIntosh
The legend of the undeserving poor persists because it serves unearned privilege. (AZ Quotes).

This falsehood, this enduring legend of the undeserving poor, perversely persists. It endures for the same reason a deeply misleading – but catchy – meme persists. Because it suits the purposes of undeserved privilege.


Author/producer Jan S. Gephardt is grateful to all the image sources credited in the cutlines above. She isn’t quite Taking a Sick Day (after all, there is a blog post for today), but let’s just say she’s had peppier, healthier moments.

"A vote is a prayer about the kind of world we want to live in." - Rev. Raphael Warnock

It’s Important to Vote

By Jan S. Gephardt

In Kansas and Missouri, we’re holding a primary election next week. And every time there’s a primary, some people question whether or not it’s important to vote in it. I’ve blogged about Primary Elections in other years. Longtime readers of my “Artdog Adventures” blog know very well that I feel it’s important to vote.

I realize some of my readers don’t live in the United States, and many others live in states hold their primaries earlier or later in the year than now. I was talking about this with my sister recently. She agrees with me on the importance of voting, although for her the primaries are so last March (she’s a Texan, as longtime blog-followers well know).

But in my neighborhood, the primaries are looming (August 2). It’s important to vote because elections are always a potential turning point of some sort. And that’s where life is informing my art rather a lot, recently.

“So long as I do not firmly and Irrevocably possess the right to vote I do not possess myself. I cannot make up my mind – it is made up for me. I cannot live as a democratic citizen, observing the laws I have helped to enact – I can only submit to the edict of others.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Image courtesy of Medium).

Life, Art, and Science Fiction

I’ve already blogged some about politics on Rana Station. Rana is the fictional, far-future space-station home of the XK9s and their favorite humans, the setting of my novels. Readers of my stories may recall mentions of elections for Premier that were held while the XK9s and their partners were still on Chayko. POV characters Pam and Charlie voted absentee, and talked with their XK9s about the elections. It’s unspoken but clear that both think it’s important to vote.

There are political undercurrents throughout the XK9 “Bones” Trilogy. On Rana, Boroughs are sort of a cross between a city and a state or province, politically. Readers saw the local Borough Council in a special session during What’s Bred in the Bone. In the second novel, A Bone to Pick, Ranan politics received less focus. But that realm returns in a big way –on a national level – in the third novel, Bone of Contention. As it happens, I’m writing some of that part now.

Of course, politics in science fiction is nothing new. I’ve been thinking about that a lot, recently.

"The job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be." – Jan S. Gephardt.
(See credits below).

Eroding Rights

Women who pay attention know our rights and freedoms are always under attack. Cases in point: horrifying recent stories about Mongolian schools that require “virginity checks.” Patriarchal cultures use force to suppress education for girls. Invading armies use rape as a means of terrorizing civilians. All across the world our freedom and bodily autonomy are at continual risk, and they always have been.

Even before the United States Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health verdict that made it official, we in the USA saw the warning signs if we were paying attention. Remember “pussyhats” and the Women’s March on Washington in 2017?

As a science fiction reader and writer, I’m aware of many dystopian “futures.” It’s a time-honored science fiction tradition to base dystopias on contemporary trends taken to extremes.

And in nearly any dystopia ordinary people are powerless. They have no agency, no autonomy. Goes without saying they have no vote.

The cover of the book “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a page from a graphic novel adaptation of the book, and a background photo from the television show based on the book.
Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has been adapted into a graphic novel and a television show. (See credits below).

Tales and Parables

One science fiction story that has resonated deeply with women – and in the wake of Dobbs feels even more relevant – is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In this dystopia, first released in 1985. Starting production in 2016 (imagine that), a television series by the same name, based on the novel, has been renewed for season after season.

But the science fiction that’s resonating most deeply for me this week is Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower. I’ve been re-acquainting myself with it. I remember when it first came out in 1994. Back then, I was a mother with young children and little time. I had difficulty reading it, probably because I wasn’t ready to contemplate a world like the one it depicted.

Now, in 2022 (the book starts in 2024, in a world both unfortunately like, but also different from our current situation), I’m finding the parallels interesting. Butler’s world, in fact, feels like an oddly familiar place. For one thing, there’s more than a small echo of the assumption I grew up with, that it was only a matter of time before disaster hit. At the age of Butler’s main character Lauren, I tried to learn canning and gardening, assuming I’d need such survival skills after the coming nuclear apocalypse. But there are other parallels, too.

Two book covers, one for the original novel by Octavia E. Butler, the other for a Hugo-winning graphic novel adaptation.
Octavia E. Butler’s book Parable of the Sower has been adapted into a graphic novel and optioned for a film. (See credits below).

A Different Apocalypse, But it “Rhymes”

The kind of apocalypse Californian Lauren Olamina faces in Parable of the Sower didn’t start with a bomb blast. Some reviewers call the novel “post-apocalyptic,” but that’s not correct. The slow-rolling apocalypse Lauren and her neighborhood face is protracted and actively ongoing. There is nothing “post” about it.

Its origin lies in steadily-chipped-away rights, a process that has disabled all government protections for ordinary people. This has led to savage economic disparity and inflamed racial division. Of course, those dynamics further cripple government. The power and importance of voting has been reduced to choices between bad and worse impotent politicians. But you can only vote if you can make it through the mean streets to the polls in one piece.

By the time of the novel, all the last safety nets of civilization have been stripped away. This dysfunctional dynamic empowers the rise of business behemoths that capitalize on the power vacuum to further entrench their own advantage. No surprise, there’s a massive and growing unhoused and dispossessed population that’s increasingly desperate and lawless.

"A vote is a prayer about the kind of world we want to live in." - Rev. Raphael Warnock
(See credits below).

The Antidote? It’s Important to Vote! (While we still can)

Does any of this sound familiar? If not in exact mirroring, it certainly takes little effort to recognize parallel dangers in contemporary gerrymandering and false claims of vote fraud that threaten to actually do the real thing. If it’s okay to declare that corporate “free speech” (AKA money) is protected, and that some people have no right to bodily autonomy, how far from slow-rolling apocalypse are we, truly?

All of this brings me back to the importance of voting. We’re not yet in full-blown apocalypse. We won’t be (barring unforeseen disasters) in 2024. But we’ve been flirting with it for longer than many people have noticed. And if more of us don’t wake up to the serious issues that threaten our freedom and our democracy, we’ll wander blindly into it.

Our rights are increasingly on the line. Our best defense is our vote, and here the advice is “use it or lose it.” That’s why it’s important to vote. Every time. In every election. Vote.


The quote-image for Dr. King’s view of the importance of the vote came from Medium. The background for the quote from Jan is Nebula 2, ©2021 by Chaz Kemp, first published in the blog post “Looking for Hope.” Design by Jan.

Jan also assembled the two montage images built around two of the books mentioned in the post. The Handmaid’s Tale montage Includes several images. The cover for Margaret Atwood’s novel is courtesy of ThriftBooks. A page from a graphic novel adaptation by Renee Nault comes via Maclean’s. And a still from the television adaptation of the book is courtesy of Woman & Home.

The montage for Parable of the Sower features the cover of Octavia E. Butler’s book, courtesy of the North Carolina State University Libraries. Butler’s book also has been adapted by Damian Duffy into a graphic novel illustrated by John Jennings. No TV show yet, however it’s been optioned for a movie.

Jan first assembled the final quote-image in this post from a tweet by the Rev. Raphael Warnock (now US Senator Warnock) in November 2020. The background photo is originally from the Baltimore Sun, taken at the Maryland primary election, June 2, 2020 by the multitalented Karl Merton Ferron. Deepest appreciation to all of them!

No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother. - Margaret Sanger

Liberty and Personal Freedom on Rana Station

By Jan S. Gephardt

Recent events have gotten me thinking about liberty and personal freedom. Here in the United States, we recently seem to have had an unusual amount of trouble defining just exactly what those are. To whom should they be extended, and in what measure? There seem to be different standards, depending on who you’re talking to, and about whom they’re talking.

Yes, I know. We Americans are kinda famous around the world for having staked a claim, back in the day, that “all men are created equal.” But the qualifiers were there, even then. At the time, they literally meant only male humans. They also assumed these “endowed by their creator” male humans were white landowners.

A whole bunch of people fell outside of that definition, but the Founders didn’t seem much inclined to talk about them (indeed, the less the better, they judged, for the sake of the union).

Freedom is not the absence of limitations and constraints but it is finding the right ones, those that fit our nature and liberate us. – Timothy Keller
Many thanks, Quotefancy!

Today, it seems that liberty and personal freedom – at least, for some of us – are once again under assault. I suppose, when are they not, in one way or another? But by golly, if I were Queen of the Universe . . . oh, wait.

In one particular universe, I am the Queen.

A few Words from the Queen of . . . A Universe

The realm where I actually am the Queen of the Universe is a place where I’ve been running a little thought experiment on Rana Station, in the Chayko System of Alliance Space. As I explained in an earlier post, I’ve been exploring a kind of outrageous idea.

It’s a human-run system that tries to create an environment where all of its citizens have the tools to reach their full potential. Strange idea, right? We certainly don’t have such a system around my neck of the woods, “equal protection under the law” notwithstanding. How would such a system even look? How would it operate?

Rana Stationers value their liberty and personal freedom as much as anyone. But how is ‘liberty and personal freedom” understood in Ranan culture? How does it compare with the way we understand these concepts in the United States?

Don’t forget – no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell. – Charles de Lint
Many thanks, Ms. Mullin!

Rather than speak in broad generalities, let’s look at a particular point of friction in the United States, especially after the United States Supreme Court’s most controversial recent decision, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Health Care on Rana Station

Readers of my books probably have observed that on Rana, unlike in the United States, both mental and physical health care is considered a basic right. Even if you’re poor. Even if you’re not a citizen. And even if you’re a criminal suspect. Access to care is essential if liberty and personal freedom are to translate into reaching one’s full potential.

My readers know some things about Ranan health care because my characters spend a fair amount of time interacting with the Ranan health care system. Most of them have dangerous jobs. They get banged up sometimes (some more than others). And some of my characters work in the Ranan health care system.

Of all the forms of inequality injustice in healthcare is the most shocking and inhumane. – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., March 25, 1966
Many thanks, Medium (scroll down).

But except for passing comments, none of my characters or situations has directly addressed reproductive health yet. That’ll change in future books, but here’s an overview. Because space is not unlimited on a space station, the population’s size must be carefully controlled.

Reproductive Rights and Reproductive Health on Rana

I know I’m not the only teacher who’s sometimes been exasperated by the fact that people don’t have to get a license to be a parent – even when there’s ample evidence of malpractice. So, when I conceived of Rana Station I decided to explore that idea.

On Rana, you really do have to apply for a license to have children. You have to show you have the mental and physical capacity to parent a child and an understanding of child development and appropriate care. But how can that square with liberty and personal freedom?

It’s not an ideal situation, and it definitely puts limitations on adults and their free exercise of the right to bodily autonomy. But let’s be clear. The focus isn’t on the adults.

Choosing to have a child means your life is no longer your own. Behave like it. Cherish them. –“Laws of Modern Man” blog by Erik Angstrom.
This doesn’t mean you’re a slave to your child. But it does remove you from the center of your universe. (See credits below).

Call it a “Nanny State”?

Social and legal structures are in place on Rana to ensure that parents and children have strong support networks. Call it a “nanny state” if you must. But on Rana the focus is on child care, not on needlessly coddling adults in the pejorative sense that some conservatives and “rugged individualists” use the term. When the state is dedicated to ensuring that all of its citizens have the tools to reach their full potential, it has certain responsibilities – especially to children.

And perhaps the most important of those responsibilities is making sure parents are equipped and empowered to care for their children well. Most of us want this for our kids, but in the American system it’s hideously easy to fall through the cracks, especially if you are poor or part of a minority community. Of course, in any human-run program, things will not  go perfectly.

Effective parenting requires being the grown up version of what you want your children to be. Why? Because example is the most compelling superpower. – Richelle E. Goodrich, “Slaying Dragons.”
How to build a healthier world? One wise-adult-to-child bond at a time. (See credits below).

The Crucial Trade-Off: Fertility and Autonomy

If a state is going to require a license to become a parent, it instantly brings up some very sticky points, if one is focused on liberty and personal freedom. Remember China’s misguided and draconian “One Child” policy? Outside control of an individual’s fertility is always, without question, coercive and invasive.

Today, young women in the United States are properly alarmed at the prospect of being forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term (or dying for lack of needed health care). But the “flip side” of forced sterilizations is just as horrifying. Its oppressive and racist applications in the past were unconscionable. That in some cases the practice continues today should be an automatic argument for public scrutiny.

More horrifying questions follow. The power to choose between who may become a parent and who may not is frightfully open to abuse, even when it’s kept transparent and carefully safeguarded. Americans, Europeans, and especially the Nazis enthusiastically embraced the eugenics movement that began in the late 19th Century. Eugenics history alone should offer more than enough nightmarish warnings. Here on earth, many people rightly see reproductive rights as human rights, essential to liberty and personal freedom. Yet new biological advances force us to confront new ethical questions.

No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body. No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother. - Margaret Sanger
Many thanks, AZ Quotes!

Contraception and Yet More Ethical Questions

The fact remains that Rana Station is a carefully-balanced, closed ecosystem. Its sovereignty and national security require that it be a self-sustaining island in a great sea of space. They have to be able to feed themselves and meet all other needs through internal resources. Too much dependence on outside resources makes them vulnerable to powers in the system that definitely don’t see liberty and personal freedom the way Ranans do.

It’s all too easy to throw a balanced system out of safety margins and risk famine. The population, among a laundry list of other things, must be meticulously controlled. It’s not a “Cold Equations” scenario, but sober caution is an existential necessity.

That means there can only be a limited number of new births and immigrations allowed in any given year, to balance the “expected deaths.” In its 90-plus years of history, the Station has only expanded its territory once, by adding Wheels Seven and Eight. That was a difficult and expensive venture, one the government is still paying for. Unlimited reproductive freedom simply is not practical.

Eventually we'll realize that if we destroy the ecosystem, we destroy ourselves. - Jonas Salk
Many thanks, AZ Quotes!

So, How do the Ranans do it?

Any tight control of population growth requires an ironclad means of contraception, something we don’t yet have in our contemporary world. Science fiction, y’all. I’m assuming someday we will have such a thing. I can do that because I’m the Queen, remember?

Given this infallible means of contraception, certain rules fall into place. From the onset of puberty, all Ranan kids must undergo a reversible procedure that renders them temporarily sterile. Same goes for anyone seeking to immigrate, even on a temporary visa. It’s a requirement that the law mandates must never bent or fudged.

In this situation, abortion is a non-issue. No pregnancy gets that far. No one can force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term if she doesn’t want it, because she and her partner(s) have to literally sign up for it. This also means that one form of bodily autonomy – and a measure of liberty and personal freedom – must be subsumed for the greater good.

Most Ranans have long since accepted it. But of course, not everyone is happy with the trade-off. Therein lies the seed of conflict, and conflict is the stuff of which plotlines are built! Stay tuned.


We have lots of people to thank this week, most especially AZ Quotes, which provided the quote-images from both Margaret Sanger and Jonas Salk. Other excellent sources included Quotefancy, for the Timothy Keller quote and Ms. Mullins (teacher extraordinaire) for the quote from Charles de Lint. Medium published the article that included the quote-image from Dr. King. Jan found the quote from “Laws of Modern Man” by Erik Angstrom via Connie Young’s “Let’s put children first” Pinterest Board. Finally, we’re grateful to Quoteslyfe for the words of Richelle E. Goodrich, from her book Slaying Dragons. Many thanks to all of you!

On a background of plastic straws, a photo of The Ocean Cleanup’s haul of waste plastics after a day’s run, and a mountain of baled plastic waste in Boise, Idaho.


By Jan S. Gephardt

Which eco-dreams will fuel the solutions of tomorrow? The climate change challenge has put fire in many bellies. It’s inspired the imagination of people all over the world. And well it should! Our future depends on those clever ideas and ambitious visions.

But not all eco-dreams work out the way we expect.

“If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
Characteristic wisdom from Mrs. Roosevelt. (Many thanks, Be An Inspirer).

A Brilliant Idea

Back around 2009-2010, a Japanese scientist-inventor named Akinori Ito developed what he hoped could be a solution to two problems: the global ballooning of plastic waste, and the fact that petroleum production was controlled by a small number of countries who’d formed into a cartel to collude on prices.

Plastic is made from petroleum. What if he could devise a practical way to use thermochemical decomposition – a process called pyrolysis – to retrieve useable petroleum from waste plastics? The earliest online references to Ito’s process that I could find date to about 2010. He created a “home pyrolysis unit,” which he called the Blest Machine. It could be used on a consumer level, and dreamed of scaling the process up. He formed his Blest company for that purpose.

Ito’s Process

As Michael Luciano described the process in Design World, Feb. 21, 2017, “Plastic waste is placed into a large bucket inside the machine, where the temperature inside slowly rises to melt and eventually turn the plastic into a gas. Upon entering its gaseous form, the plastic passed through a tube into a water-filled container, where it cools and forms the oil. The final product can be burned in this form, or further processed into gasoline, diesel, or kerosene.”

Wow! Talk about an eco-dream with potential! Even if it just stayed on the household level, perhaps people could form co-ops to collect enough gasoline, kerosene, or other petroleum products to create a supplementary resource. Unfortunately, the most recent reference to the Blest Machine or Ito’s process that I could find is from 2017.

Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine, at top in a display, at lower left set up on the floor and ready to work. At right, Ito demonstrates his machine to a group of schoolchildren.
Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine showed up fairly often in news articles, on waste management and engineering websites and in demonstrations by the inventor. I couldn’t find online references newer than 2017, however. (See credits below).

An Eco-Dream of Energy Independence for the USA

Back in 2015, we were still talking about a future in which we might become energy-independent. Hydraulic racking had begun to be deployed widely enough to prove its worth in that respect . . . and to raise a whole bunch of questions about “What is it doing to the groundwater?” And “How can it be a coincidence that we’re having earthquakes in fracking country?”

My focus in the blog post then was the opening of the Bakken Formation, which was experiencing boom times in 2015. Still reeling from the Great Recession, people were flocking there for good-paying jobs – then arriving and discovering there was no place to live and the winters were colder than they could possibly have imagined.

Images of oil fields and two of the mobile-home developments that sprang up all over the Bakken Formation region.
The oil fields of the Bakken Formation extend from North Dakota into Montana. In the early 2010s at the end of the Great Recession, people rushed to the area to work in fields newly opened by hydraulic fracking. Mobile home boomtowns like those above sprang up nearly overnight, to house them. (See credits below).

Eco-Dreams of an Oceanic Application

I first learned of the Blest Machine through an online video in 2014. At first I was dubious. It sounded too good to be true. But I checked into it and discovered that a lot of people were taking it seriously. After I’d originally reposted the video, I wrote an update and posted that on my blog in 2015.

In my blog post, I speculated about scaled-up applications that might help to deal with ecological obscenities such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. In passing I mentioned that a young engineer (named Boylan Slat) had proposed ideas about how to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and other global gyres, which also are collecting plastic waste.

Speculating as Science Fiction Writers are Known to Do

In my post, I asked a question: Could the pyrolysis process of Akinori Ito be combined with cleanup ideas such as those of Boylan Slat, to both supply the need for energy independence from the oil cartel and deal with plastic waste?

“Yes, yes, I know,” I concluded my post back then. “I’m WAY over-simplifying. My idea is impractical for thousands of immediate reasons. But what if they can be overcome? The key to any innovation is first to think of the idea, then solve the problems that currently make it impractical. Simple? Easy? No. Worth considering? We won’t know till we consider the possibilities for a while.”

A world map illustrates the five “Ocean Gyres of the World;” an iconic photo of a baby seahorse clinging to a 2-ended swab with a plastic shaft.
All five ocean gyres of the world contain greater or lesser Garbage Patches. The most famous is the Great Pacific. The iconic “Sewage Surfer” photo © Justin Hofman (used with his permission) shows a baby seahorse in the Indian Ocean Gyre, clinging to an entirely unsuitable “stalk of seaweed,” instead of better-rooted support. The photo won Hofman honors in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2017. (See credits below).

Well, it’s Been a While. Where do the Eco-Dreams Stand?

In my 2015 post, I reported that Boylan Slat was planning to launch his first efforts through his organization called The Ocean Cleanup “next year.” So, then, what’s “the rest of the story”? As far as I can tell, The Ocean Cleanup is going strong. Their objective is to clean up 90% of floating ocean plastic pollution. They’re now actively collecting waste plastics from all five major ocean gyres.

Since the first effort, they’ve learned a lot and refined their techniques for tracking, sourcing, and collecting plastic waste. They’d love to tell you all about it (and show you why your generous donations would be put to world-saving use). They’ve also branched into the much knottier problem of river cleanup.

Oceanic Waste Management

Inevitably, of course, there’s a question of “what do we do with it once we collect it?” They most emphatically don’t want to hand it off to irresponsible “recyclers” like those who helped create the problem in the first place. In 2020 they launched a proof-of-concept project, The Ocean Cleanup Sunglasses. This sold-out prototype demonstrated that, “plastic caught in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch . . . can be recycled into high-quality consumer products.”

However, their specialty and strong point is collecting the trash, not recycling it. “In the future, we no longer intend to create our own products; instead, we will work with partners to develop products using The Ocean Cleanup Plastic. This will allow us to focus on our core mission of cleaning up.”

On a background of plastic straws, a photo of The Ocean Cleanup’s haul of waste plastics after a day’s run, and a mountain of baled plastic waste in Boise, Idaho.
By sea or by land, we’ve created literal mountains of plastic waste that we must now deal with sustainably. (See credits below).

How About Energy Independence?

Since 2015, the United States has indeed achieved energy independence on the fossil fuels front. According to Forbes author Robert Rapier, the US has been a net exporter of coal and gas for a while, now. That status does not appear to have changed, even during the Pandemic. Rapier points out that the Energy Information Administration (EIA) determined the US to have been energy independent in 2019 and 2020. So, since before the Pandemic hit. He also offers a primer on what “energy independence” means as he uses it.

The US is able to cut off Russian oil imports, unlike some European countries that are dependent on Russia for gas and oil. Unfortunately, we’ve continued to flirt with other oil-producing autocrats, and our national energy sources still remain all too heavy on the fossil fuels. Mr. Biden recently opened up some federal lands for gas and oil leasing, against future need, which I wish he hadn’t.

The most depressing part is the continued heavy emphasis on fossil fuels – which are causing our problems in the first place!

But What Happened with Pyrolysis?

Those eco-dreams have a murkier story. My 2015 blog post mentioned several startups that seemed to show promise. One was a company in Utah called PK Clean. It later changed its name to Renewology, still making efforts to scale up the chemical recycling of plastic.

Renewology and the City of Boise, Idaho formed a partnership im 2018 to turn waste plastics into fuel. They introduced what they called an “EnergyBag” program to collect consumer plastic waste at people’s homes, and bag it separately so it could be used for the program. By 2019 the “EnergyBags” were piling up, but not being used for fuel. In 2020, Boise renewed its “EnergyBag” program, but with a different destination planned for the plastics collected.

PK Clean/Renewology also launched a partnership in Nova Scotia with a company called Sustane Technologies in 2017. There was a glowing update in 2018 about how they were seeking approval to convert plastic waste to fuel. An update overview from Sustane in 2020 does not mention PK Clean or Renewology, but Sustane does claim to use a pyrolysis system, purchased from a Utah companyto create synthetic diesel fuel. So, maybe it worked, there.

The building and even the signboard are the same. Only the name changed from PK Clean at left to Renewology at right. The two photos, along with an aerial view of the Sustain plant in Nova Scotia, are placed on a background image of a literal wall of “Energy Bags” stockpiled in Boise, Idaho.
Whether they called themselves PK Clean or Renewology, the City of Boise, Idaho (background image is a wall of Boise’s “Energy Bags”) never reached the desired result with them, and they now appear to be out of business. Sustane Technologies in Nova Scotia (see their plant in the aerial view with the local landfill in the background) may have found the key to using pyrolysis, however. (See credits below).

Investigative Reporting Tells (Most of) the Rest

I finally found my answers about PK Clean/Renewology from a Reuters investigative report published in 2021. Pyrolysis, at least as Renewology attempted to implement it, had proved unsustainable. Plastic waste is more easily burned to create energy, but there are toxic byproducts, and burning is still a contributor to the greenhouse effect.

Of the Blest Machine in 2017, Luciano wrote, “there are some relatively unanswered questions regarding the true extent of the Blest Machine’s reduced CO2 emissions and what happens to discarded chemical compounds during the conversion process.” Any inefficiencies an “discarded chemical compounds” would tend to scale up with attempts to use the technology at scale. At a guess, that’s probably what happened with the Boise and Nova Scotia efforts.

Keep on Following Eco-Dreams

The hard truth is that not all promising technologies work out – certainly not immediately, and maybe never. If you’d asked me to bet, in 2015, whether Akinori Ito’s pyrolysis or Boylan Slat’s eco-dreams to clean up the ocean would succeed better, my money would’ve been on the pyrolysis.

Which goes to show that science fiction writers only look like prophets of the future later, if they guess right!

The fact is that either initiative could have failed, depending on luck, management decisions, technical problems or a thousand other things. And either initiative also could have succeeded brilliantly, as it appears The Ocean Cleanup mostly is. Were both worth trying? Absolutely.

Eco-dreams can’t turn into a better future for us and our planet if we don’t even give them a try. No new technology or process is easy at the start, or it would already have been done long ago. And maybe we shouldn’t give up too soon, even on something that looks as if it failed. Sustane Technologies is keeping its cards close to its chest at this point, but there may yet be hope for Akinori Ito’s plastic-to-fuel pyrolysis eco-dreams, too.


Many thanks to Be An Inspirer, for the Eleanor Roosevelt quote. All montages are Jan S. Gephardt’s fault. The upper photo of Akinori Ito’s Blest Machine comes from MB&F, AKA Maximilian Büsser & Friends (on display with a green background). The other two came courtesy of The Civil Engineer. Deepest gratitude to both!

Photos of the Bakken Oil Fields at their height in the early 20-teens came from a variety of sources. I’m indebted to Zack Nelson/AP, The Williston Herald, and The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington (where I found it), for the photo of repair work on a pipeline leak near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, ND in 2015. Many thanks to Gregory Bull/AP and NPR for the 2011 photo of the company-owned “man camp” (long, straight, prefab rows), also near Williston. Deepest gratitude to Tim Smith Photography, for the photo of row after row of new mobile homes installed near Watford City, ND. Also to KERA News for the gorgeous, uncredited photo of a pump-jack at sunset near downtown Sidney, Montana in 2015.

Thank you very much to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Their 2018 blog post “The Plastic in our Oceans,” provided the illustration-map of the Earth’s five ocean gyres. And I continue to be grateful to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 competition and to photographer and copyright-holder Justin Hofman, for permission to use his “Sewage Surfer” on my blog, including my original post.

So. Much. Plastic Waste!

Many thanks to Public News Service for the photo of the huge pile of plastics in Boise, Idaho in 2018. At that point they still had faith in Renewology. The Ocean Cleanup provided the photo of their “catch of the day,” a mountain of recovered plastic waste on “System 002’s” deck in October 2021. And I owe The New York Times thanks for the background photo of colorful plastic straws. It originally illustrated a story about their use by hotels and resorts.

Thanks to a whole lot of people for the “Renewology Woes” montage! The background photo, from 2019, is a literal wall of “Energy Bags,” from Reuters and photographer Brian Losness. Thank you! Big piles of “Energy Bags” were still sitting around in Boise, long after the bloom was off the Renewology rose. Eventually, those bags did produce energy, BTW. They even did it through a form of pyrolysis: they were burned to power a cement plant. Yes, burning produces thermochemical changes. Unfortunately, also toxic wastes.

Reuters and photographer George Frey also provided the 2019 photo of the Renewology sign in front of the company’s Utah building. I was somewhat amused to note that there are only two changes in 2019 from the photo of the PK Clean sign in 2017. Thank you, Waste Dive, for that photo. It’s credited to PK Clean, but we know they’re not answering anymore. The only differences in the photo from 2019 were the words on the signboard and the mounds of plastic waste. The building, and even the sign’s support structure, look exactly the same.

And Yet, Possibly an Eco-Dreams Grace Note

Finally, I’m also grateful to Sustane and the CBC for the 2018 photo of the Sustane Technologies plant. It’s located 25 km north of Chester, Nova Scotia, close to the Kaizer Meadow landfill, which supplies it with waste. In a 2020 article it says it turns about 90% of the municipal waste from the landfill into reusable materials. About 50% becomes pelletized biomass. And somehow they’re turning the 20% of their feedstock that’s plastic into synthetic diesel through pyrolysis.

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." - Tom Clancy

It Has to Make Sense

By Jan S. Gephardt

Along with the rest of the world, I’ve been watching with horror as Mr. Putin’s army invades Ukraine. It appears to be a senseless act, mindless in its wanton brutality. I’d never get away with this in a story, is a thought that has frequently recurred. In fiction, it has to make sense.

"It's no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense." - Mark Twain
In case it’s ever bemused you, this is why (Thanks, AZ Quotes).

Putin was warned, and with each new development, he’s warned again. He had ample opportunities to turn back from this course. Now his country reels under the opprobrium and sanctions the world has leveled at them, with more to come. Is he, himself, feeling the pinch yet? Has it penetrated to that man way down there 20 feet away at the other end of his table, that he’s just joined the ranks of history’s most despised villains? Hard to say. But other Russians are certainly feeling it.

His military strategy basically sucks. Even his soldiers are conflicted, when they’re allowed a glimpse of what the rest of the world sees. This invasion is even more ill-conceived, ill-planned, and short-sighted than the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. But somehow it has to make sense to Putin, or he wouldn’t be doing it.

Vladimir Putin takes social distancing to a several-yards-away extreme in a meeting with his Defense Ministers.
Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that his nuclear forces be put on high alert on Sunday, Feb. 27, 2022. (See credits below).

Villains Think They’re the Hero

One of the first rules of villain-construction that fiction writers learn is that the villain in a realistic story almost never sets outto be a villain. They think they’re the one with the clearest vision, the true grasp of how the world works or how things should be. Whatever they do, no matter how bizarre, it has to make sense to them.

This is essential, to support the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief. Cartoon villains in a parody may band together in a Guild of Calamitous Intent, create an organization like COBRA, or join forces in Skeletor’s castle. But nobody does this in real life (no, not even the Trilateral Commission or the Elders of Zion).

"Nobody is a villain in their own story. We're all the heroes of our own stories." - George R. R. Martin
You know it’s true. (Thanks, Brainy Quote).

When I look at popular media I also see another glaring disconnect. Other than a general mistrust of “people who are smarter,” I’ve often wondered why the trope of the evil, mad scientist persists so stubbornly. Especially since the greater dangers in real life tend to come from people being irresponsible with political—not scientific—power. (Like You-Know-Who-tin).

Why does popular media keep giving our kids villains like the Smurfs’ Wizard Gargamel, Big Hero 6’s Professor Callaghan, or other (anti-intellectual) bad guys when real-life bad guys are of a completely different sort?

Why do we Cling to the Mad Scientist?

Fictional “mad scientists” descend from Dr. Frankenstein, Dr. Moreau, and other, similar bogeymen from an earlier century. Individual scientists of today may be arrogant or have a “god complex” that results in grief and pain. But the really dangerous people are the ones who want to be (or are) dictators in their spheres of influence. They generally have ambitions much grander than dominating just one lab or hospital.

But here’s the thing. Back in Mary Shelley’s or H. G. Wells’ day, you had to have a certain level of wealth, privilege, and thereby political power via your caste or social class, to get any kind of education at all. (Wells’ family was less exalted than Shelley’s, but he joined a more privileged, educated class as his career prospered). It may be that the “scientist” part got more attention because cultural blindness made “undeservedly rich and powerful” invisible to the trope’s progenitors.

Mad scientist laughing insanely by his laboratory desk
Here’s a classic mad scientist, by the Finnish cartoonist “gnurf” (Paul Soderholm, via 123rf).

When a person is determined that “it has to make sense,” they come up with explanations that fit their biases. Villainizing the intellectual was easier and far, far safer than calling out the undeservedly powerful. Especially because they were part of that undeservedly powerful class (or wanted to be), and thus were blind to it.

Questioning Undeserved Privilege, and Other Uncomfortable Ideas

We don’t have any excuses today. If we do not recognize the existence of undeserved privilege and its corrosive effects after the worldwide awakening in 2020, that makes two things clear. (1) We are among the privileged group (or we’d definitely realize it exists). And (2) we’re willfully limiting our inputs to head off and eliminate any such troubling realization.

“Man is not, by nature, deserving of all that he wants. When we think that we are automatically entitled to something, that is when we start walking all over others to get it.” - Criss Jami
Entitlement is seductive (quote by Criss Jami. Thanks, ReadersHook).

It’s frightening and threatening to question one’s own place in society. That tends to shake one’s sense of self. It’s equally scary to question one’s pet political ideas. We like our comfortable boxes, where everything makes sense. Well, makes sense as long as we don’t probe too deeply, or ask too many worrying questions. It has to make sense to us that we’re in our position, whatever it might be, so we frame it however we can to make it make sense.

All that said, it’s much easier and more comfortable just to blame all the ills of the world on that guy over there who’s too smart for his own good. He’s probably thinking subversive thoughts right now.

Everybody knew that books were dangerous. Read the wrong book, it was said, and the words crawled around your brain on black legs and drove you mad, wicked mad. - Frances Hardinge
Gotta watch out for those shifty-eyed intellectuals! (Many thanks, Quotestats).

Is Actual Evil . . . Boring?

I believe there’s also another reason why a storyteller might be drawn to a villain of the Evil Mad Scientist variety. That’s because the Evil Mad Scientist, to be true to form, is also a genius. An evil one, of course. But one who is likely to have a variety of clever tricks up his or her lab-coated sleeve. Of course, I’m a fine one to criticize this trope! XK9 protagonist Rex’s primary antagonist in my novel What’s Bred in the Bone was an evil (greedy and self-centered, but not really “mad”) scientist named Dr. Ordovich.

Bottom-line, though. The protagonist must outsmart the antagonist. The outsmarting part must be hard to do, or where’s the fun in reading about or watching it? It has to make sense that the villain is intelligent and cagey, because if the villain is your ordinary stupid criminal, there’s no challenge for the hero.

And, can we talk? In factual reality, criminals are often not terribly bright. Ask any police detective. People commit crimes of passion or greed, and they often don’t cover their tracks very well because they didn’t think ahead before they acted. Or, really, think at all. They may get away with their crimes for a while, but if they do it’s likely because they lucked out or somebody on the investigation messed up. All too often, it’s both.

"He pegged criminals as impulsive, immature, deprived of affection, and lacking in restraint, all qualities that later studies bore out." - Jack El-Hai
An early, crucial linkage between psychology and criminal behavior (see credits below).

Criminals and Despots fall into Predictable Patterns

Most people have heard the phrase, “follow the money.” And it’s true that the spouse or significant other is frequently the murderer (consider the 2021 case of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie). The Jack El-Hai quote above points to the dawning realization in the 19th century that criminal behavior had a psychological aspect to it. Current law enforcement practice recognizes patterns of criminal behavior that often is linked to greed, strong emotions, or other related motivations.

Leo Tolstoy wrote in the opening of Anna Karenina that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” But I’d like to counter that blanket statement. There’s a consistent set of factors that characterize dysfunctional relationships and families (which I’d call “unhappy”). In the same way, there are several common factors that characterize much of what we define as criminal behavior. Despots and dictators fall into patterns, too. For case studies in point, watch the PBS series, The Dictator’s Playbook.

Slide four of Kohl’s presentation lists “Techniques of Dictatorship: Censorship of media and limitations (or elimination) of free speech. “Personality cult” or “Cult of the leader” – glorifying of a single leader as a great man beyond question. Use of military, police, or secret police to create a climate of fear to encourage obedience. Removal of political opposition, only one party or ideology is allowed to exist, rigged elections. Use of a scapegoat – blaming one group for society’s problems.”
Dictators follow tested and predictable patterns. Vladimir Putin has checked all of these boxes. (See credits below).

It’s not enough to say “They’re crazy. Who knows what they’ll do?” If that’s the extent of our thinking about it, criminal behavior seems terrifyingly random (and doesn’t generally “ring true” for readers). But people who do strange, horrifying, and vicious things usually have what they think are good reasons. They are delusional reasons, based on distorted understandings of reality. But it has to make sense to them, or they wouldn’t do it. Writers who want to portray either criminals or dictators need to study up on the patterns, and how they make sense to those who fall into them.

In Fiction it Has to Make Sense

Stories live or die by the readers’ willing suspension of disbelief. If I want my readers to believe in sapient police dogs with the ability to talk, I’d better give them good, internally-consistent reasons to accept the idea. And if my stories are to resonate with readers, they need to offer something deeper than novelty.

We read stories and we write them, tell them, perform them, sing them to fill the age-old need to make sense of the world. Tales from ancient religious texts or stories ripped from today’s headlines, they all have that same goal. They all have been told to help us make sense of things.

Even when things don’t make sense, as in the case of Mr. Putin’s brutal, violent, counterproductive war, we resort to fiction. We tell ourselves stories about how it might make sense, if only we knew more. It has to make sense, you see, or it messes with us. So we use fiction to fix it.

"The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense." - Tom Clancy
An important distinction! (Thanks, Brainy Quote).


We have a lot of images to credit, in this post – and for once, not a single one is a montage that Jan made! (well, she did kind of over-achieve on that score last week). Some of the sources for illustrated quotes are longtime favorites, such as AZ Quotes (thanks for Mark Twain’s words and photo) or Brainy Quote (thanks for the quotes from George R. R. Martin and Tom Clancy!). We’ve also previously used images from Quotestats (quoting children’s author Frances Hardinge). But we’re new to ReadersHook (thanks for the quote from Criss Jami!)

A Quote With a Story Behind It

We’ve used imagery from Wise Famous Quotes before. Thanks go to them this time for the quote from Jack El-Hai! But a bit longer story than usual must accompany that one. Thinking “it has to make sense,” Jan was curious to know who “he” was, at the start of the quote. She eventually tracked down the entire passage from which it was taken. It comes from a book titled The Nazi and the Psychiatrist, about Hermann Göering and Dr. Douglas M. Kelley.

The “he” of the quote is a 19th-century criminologist named Cesare Lombroso. As author Jack El-Hai notes in the full passage, Lombroso was often very far from correct in many of his understandings. He embraced phrenology, the idea of the ”born criminal,” and distinguished between “natural women” and “criminal women” (prostitutes), for three “biggies.” But in this case he made an important linkage between psychology and criminal behavior.

The Three Non-Quote Images

The photo of Mr. Putin’s long, long table actually comes to us from the Russian-government-controlled Sputnik News Agency and one of their photographers named Alexei (or Aleksey) Nikolsky (so identified by D. Hunter Schwartz on Yello). We also thank The Wall Street Journal, which is where we acquired it.

The personification of the Evil Mad Scientist comes from Finnish cartoonist Paul Soderholm, AKA “gnurf,” via 123rf.

After a fruitless search for images from the Dictators’ Playbook series, Jan found an informative presentation on the patterns and Techniques of Dictators via Slide Player. Its author, Frieda Lilli Kohl, possibly is a history teacher/professor, but she doesn’t have an active online presence under that name beyond this presentation, as far as Jan could find. We thank her and all our sources!

“The Future is not something we enter. The Future is something we create.” – Unattributed.

Looking for Hope

By Jan S. Gephardt

Sometimes it seems that looking for hope in an era of climate change can seem like a fool’s errand.

Climate change is already upon us. This is not news to anyone who’s been paying attention. Remember those horrifying outcomes the climate scientists warned us about in the 1990s? They’re here. Happening now. The mega-storms, the super-wildfires, the changing weather patterns. Rising sea levels? Mass extinctions? Melting polar ice caps? Yup. All happening now.

Congratulations, climate-deniers! You, um “won”? The oil companies’ disinformation campaigns, combined with ghastly leadership deficits and rich nations’ widespread unwillingness to inconvenience themselves, have wrought the predicted result. So, now what? Is it “Game Over” for us now?

Weather disruptions these days come from ever-more intense tornadoes, hurricanes and typhoons, intense snowstorms, drought and wildfire.
Looking for hope seems hopeless sometimes. Clockwise from top left, the aftermath of a tornado in New Jersey, Hurricane Irma in the Bahamas, wildfire in California, and the aftermath of Typhoon Rai in the Philippines. At center, a heavy snow in Scotland. (See Credits below).

What Have We Done?

Well, we’re not dead yet (not if you can read this post), so we can keep looking for hope. If the goal was to avoid catastrophes, though, we can kiss that one goodbye, We screwed that up bad. Catastrophes are everywhere.

The United States offers a global microcosm. The deep south is the New Tornado Alley. Kansas wishes you all the best of luck, and advises you to build storm shelters. California is a near-year-round Burn Zone. Miami Beach and the Florida Keys are barely treading water (at least until the next King Tide), and the Pacific Northwest is still recovering from Death-Valley-like heat last summer. Oh, and . . . how many bomb cyclones have you Northeasterners weathered, in recent years?

If the goal is to avoid making it even worse, well, that, we still can do. But we need the will, the urgency, and the vision. Looking for hope in an era of climate change is hard, but it’s not impossible.

"People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction. And all you can talk about is money and fairytales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! You are failing us." - Greta Thunberg, to the United Nations Climate Action Summit, 2019
Greta Thunberg at the United Nations Climate Action Summit in 2019. (See Credits below).

What Can We Do?

First of all, we can stop kidding ourselves. Politicians and pundits who consider climate to be “one of many issues,” and mostly important to a small group of “green nuts,” are deluded. Anyone who doesn’t care about climate change at this point hasn’t been hit hard enough yet. Give it enough time and apathy, and it’ll be their turn soon enough.

Thanks all the same, I’d rather take a different path. And I know I’m not alone. I’m still looking for hope in an era of climate change. I fully realize that I could never in three lifetimes of stringent measures offset the deleterious effects of one poorly-managed feedlot or gas pipeline. But what a defeatist attitude, to decide that if I can’t solve it all, I won’t even bother. Get real!

No, I’ll do what I can – and one thing I can do is educate myself and then speak up. I can demand that polluters and outsized greenhouse gas-emitters be forced to change their ways. That wasteful habits be shunned and more eco-appropriate methods be rewarded.

And I can collaborate on a more hopeful vision. Looking for hope in an era of climate change only seems stupid and pointless to people who can’t see any way forward. How do I know this? Because I’ve already seen something like it before.

Photos from earlier decades show many drawbacks to pollution.
On a background of Bavarian trees killed by acid rain, the images include one of the many fires on the Cuyahoga River, this one in 1952; warning signs on roads in Times Beach, MO; shattered, thin-shelled duck and osprey eggs due to DDT; a lake killed by acid rain, and metal barrels strewn across Love Canal, back when it was a hazardous waste dumping site. (See Credits below).

Looking for Hope – Again

I think it’s important to consider what negative views of the future do to people – especially to young people. I remember growing up during the Cold War, and the heavy certainty that nuclear Armageddon wasn’t a matter of if, but when. That makes looking for hope harder. It skews a person’s view of the future and what’s possible, believe me. It was only after I’d been an adult for while that I truly started believing we might not blow ourselves up after all.

Instead, it seemed we would choke ourselves to death on pollution. Do you remember the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire? How about the “dead” lakes of Europe, the Adirondacks, and Ontario, killed by acid rain in the 1960s through the 1980s? The fish kills, the lakes too dirty to swim in or eat fish from? The years when we thought bald eagles, ospreys, falcons, and other bird species were doomed to extinction? Do you remember Love Canal and Times Beach? I do (especially Times Beach, MO, which was near my in-laws’ home).

I remember living in a Kansas City where after a few years of residence doctors routinely expected our lung X-rays to show clouding. Where we could park our car outside overnight and the next day it would be covered in a fine layer of tacky, oily pollution. Where, when the wind came in from a certain direction the whole area would stink. All this, even though I lived in a “good” neighborhood, by the redliners standards. How bad must it have been in poorer neighborhoods of color?

Organizational logos for many global climate action agencies and groups.
Many organizations and agencies have been formed to address climate change around the globe since the 1970s. Here are just a few. (See Credits Below).

What Changed?

People started to notice, be outraged, and speak up. The Environmental Protection Agency and other, more global initiatives came into being because people saw a need, not because the government had something against Big Business. We also should recall that the EPA was created during the Nixon Administration. By Republicans. And although Nixon vetoed the Clean Water Act, a bipartisan vote overrode it. Yes, it was a very different world.

The EPA has always been vilified by some groups. But, backed by strong legislation such as the clean water and clean air acts and the endangered species act, it staved off many disasters. It created some unintended consequences, granted. But Love Canal-style cleanup sites come around far less often now. My neighborhood doesn’t ever stink, my lungs are clear, and the primary everyday hazards to my car come from birds and tree sap, not oily, nasty pollution.

Anyone who tries to claim that pollution standards aren’t necessary, or that we’ve learned better now so we can ease up on restrictions ignores reality. They’re either lying, or don’t choose to remember history. Self-interested humans and profit-driven companies will cut corners and costs, unless some greater power forces them to clean up their act and keep it clean.

“We are the first generation to be able to end poverty, and the last generation that can take steps to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Future generations will judge us harshly if we fail to uphold our moral and historical responsibilities.” – Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations.
What he said. (World Economic Forum).

Looking for Hope in an Era of Climate Change

Remember that point I made above, “consider what negative views of the future do to people – especially to young people”? It’s equally true in reverse. What if enough of us around the world could come together and throw our whole-hearted efforts into combatting climate change? We could still mitigate some aspects, and perhaps reach a new balance. But crucial to any such effort is a powerful vision of the positive outcomes we still can create.

Powerful, big-money-driven lobbying groups, twisted ideologies of denial, and short-term political concerns remain. They’ll keep short-circuiting the ever-more-more pervasive ongoing threats from continued climate change, if we don’t push back. And we can, we must push back.

But we won’t, if we don’t believe that positive change can still happen. That’s why we desperately need stories and popular media that offer visions of positive outcomes after appropriate effort.

"The job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be." – Jan S. Gephardt.
Consider this a pull-quote. (Nebula 2 background artwork ©2021 by Chaz Kemp).

Can Science Fiction Save the Planet?

No literary genre can create the changes that are needed. But the job of speculative and science fiction is to envision future outcomes in accessible ways. It’s what we sf writers do: we create engaging thought-experiments about how things might be.

And it is historical fact that science fiction has shaped, and continues to shape, the world we live in today. I’ve already written about environmentally-focused science fiction on the “Artdog Adventures” blog, as well as sf writers’ perhaps-lamentable tendency to envision ways we might destroy the Earth.

Dystopian stories envision how things can go terribly wrong, before their protagonists win their way to freedom and security (or tragically fail to do so). And Lord knows, we’re currently living in an environmental dystopia. But how about more hopeful future-environment stories? They’re available, too! Forbes recently published an excellent list, but it’s not exhaustive. And there’s definitely room for more.

“The Future is not something we enter. The Future is something we create.” – Unattributed.
Consider your actions and attitudes carefully. You’re creating tomorrow, right now. (See Credits below).

A Vision of Hope for the Future We Want

We can envision the future we want, if we have the will and the imagination. We can take a proactive approach to finding better visions, as well. If we readers seek out more science fiction that ends well for the environment, we’ll get it. We need to ask for such books at bookstores of all kinds. Run online searches for them, ask for them in author forums. If we seek them persistently, publishers large and small will answer a perceived market need.

As a society, many of us are looking for hope in an era of climate change. We need fresh and positive visions to guide us. And we who write science fiction can offer a historically-proven place to start looking.


The first montage was composed from many sources. Sincerest thanks to NY1 and the uncredited AP photographer for the New Jersey tornado damage photo, to ABC News for the photo of Hurricane Irma, and to ABC 7, for the uncredited wildfire photo. Thanks also to the San Diego Union Tribune and photographer Jay Labra, AP, for the photo of destruction left in Talisay, Cebu, Philippines after Typhoon Rai, and to The Guardian for the photo of snow in Tomintoul, Moray, Scotland, by photographer Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images. The stormy background is “Storm at Sea,” by plus69 via 123rf. Jan S. Gephardt assembled and designed the montage.

Deepest appreciation to Greta Thunberg for her iconic and straight-to the-heart words, to Wikipedia for making them available, and to the AP via the Los Angeles Times for the photo of Greta at the UN. Jan S. Gephardt assembled the quote-image for her blog post “It’s Okay to Feel What We Feel.”

Environmental Destruction of Yore

Many thanks to the sources of the photos used in the montage of climate destruction from the mid-20th Century. They include Wikimedia and an unidentified German photographer, for the background photo of acid-ran-killed trees in Bavaria, and to Ohio History Central for the photo of a 1952 fire on the Cuyahoga River, from the Cleveland Press Collection at Cleveland State Library. The photo of the DDT-damaged mallard duck eggs in the upper left of the montage is courtesy of the “Rachel Carson” blog from the Nanyang Technological University of Singapore, while the photos of similarly-damaged osprey eggs at bottom center and far right came from the “Osprey Tales” blog.

The photo of the gross-looking acid-rain-killed lake at the top is the header for Interesting Engineering’s article, “What Acid Rain is, and Ways to Restore the Damage it Causes.” (photographer unattributed). IDR Environmental Services provided the photo of Love Canal in the early days, when it was openly used as a hazardous waste dump by Hooker Chemical Company. It illustrates Part Two of a series on “America’s Hazardous Waste History,” by Dawn DeVroom.

The color photo of the Times Beach “Dioxin” road was taken by legendary St. Louis Post-Dispatch photographer and Missouri Photojournalism Hall of Famer Robert LaRouche. The black-and-white photo is a 1982 photo by James A. Finley/AP, provided by Legends of America in their article “Ill-Fated Times Beach, Missouri.” Jan S. Gephardt assembled and designed the montage.

Environmental Agencies of the Globe

This montage shows logos and headers from a small fraction of the many governmental and non-governmental agencies and organizations from around the world that have developed since the 1970s to combat climate change. They include the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (courtesy of EurOcean), United Nations Climate Change Global Climate Action, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Others whose logos are represented are the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (courtesy of PAHO, the Pan American Health Organization), The African Climate Foundation, and the Climate Action Network of Southeast Asia (CANSEA). Many thanks to all, and good luck with your varied missions! Montage by Jan S. Gephardt.

A Collection of Quote-Images

Deepest thanks to the World Economic Forum, which provided the Ban Ki-moon quote-image as part of an excellent collection. This image also was featured in an earlier Artdog Adventures post as an Artdog Quote of the Week (contrasted with one from the disgraced, twice-impeached 45th US President, in 2017), but I thought it fit so well I’d use it again.

The background artwork for my pull-quote on the job of speculative and science fiction is Nebula 2, © 2021 by Chaz Kemp.

I’m sorry to say that QuotesHunter (my original source for the “Something We Create” quote-image) doesn’t seem to be around anymore, but you can still find this image on my Artdog Adventures posts “Creating Well” and “The Future we Want, and How to Get There.” It’s something of an emblem for this “The Future We Want” series.

"Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity." - Robert Alan Aurthur

See Diversity as a Strength

The Future We Want” Series – Part 1

By Jan S. Gephardt

I want a future in which we see diversity as a strength. Yeah, right, you might well scoff. Jan, have you noticed the hate crime statistics, lately? That’s not where we’re headed!

But what if it could be?

A few weeks ago, I posted an article about using science fiction as a way to envision a more positive future. Today, in the first of three planned posts, I’d like to delve a little deeper into that idea. In future posts I plan to talk about the environment and human rights. Today, let’s explore ways that science fiction writers can help readers see diversity as a strength.

We’re losing biodiversity globally at an alarming rate, and we need a cornucopia of different plants and animals, for the planet’s health and our own. – Diane Ackerman
When we see diversity as a strength, we better understand what’s at stake. (LATESTLY).

Diversity is a Mark of a Vibrant Community

Scientists have long since discovered that biodiversity improves the stability and resiliency of an ecosystem. Similarly, sociologists and historians attest that civilizations have thrived most brilliantly when cultural diversity increased. Whether cultural mixing arises via trade, conquest, or cataclysm-driven migration, throughout history the result is predictable. Cultural cross-pollination fosters innovation and new ideas.

The cultural and genetic mixing generated by the ancient Roman Empire created a legacy that endures to this day. Poorly-conceived though they were, the medieval Crusades led to the European Renaissance. Trade routes such as the Silk Road in Asia and Trans-Saharan routes in Africa stimulated vibrant cities and civilizations. I blogged about another fruitful period of Japanese/European cross-cultural exchange a few years ago, in “A Tale of Hokusai and Cézanne.

A great case in point is Medieval Cordoba, where Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived in relative peace. Its leaders could see diversity as a strength. They kept their subjects free from religious persecution, and created arguably the greatest city in Europe at the time.

"Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity." - Robert Alan Aurthur
Cultural tensions are inevitable, but we must not let them destroy the creative synergy of cultural exchange. (See Credits below).

How Can Science Fiction Help us See Diversity as a Strength?

Why – other than the fact that I write science fiction – do I see sf as a vehicle to foster a brighter future? Wouldn’t it be better to go on a lecture tour like Al Gore with his “inconvenient” slideshow? Well, there’s a place for that kind of presentation.

But as advertisers long ago figured out, the very best way to make an idea compelling is to embody it in a good story. I touched on this a few years ago when I blogged about the influence of science fiction on environmental awareness.

But I’m not the only one who sees sf this way. That bastion of liberal arts, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has recently offered a class on contemporary science fiction. The course uses 21st Century science fiction novels (see the illustration below) to help students see the world in a different way. These books provide a starting place for discussions that grapple with problems and questions we’ll confront in the future.

The government of China agrees with me in this, too. It has begun to view science fiction as an avenue for the use of “cultural soft power. Not only did it win a Worldcon bid (Chengdu, 2023), but it has begun to promote science fiction stories of which it approves (political critique is a whole different story). It’s also a growing player in the global movie industry.

I’d rather not let the government of the Peoples Republic of China envision our future for us, thanks. If you agree, seek a range of different voices—and see diversity as a strength!

Covers for “The Fifth Season” by N. K. Jemisin, Apex Magazine, featuring “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse, “The City & The City” by China Miéville, and “Annihilation” by Jeff Vandermeer float above a photo of the MIT Media Lab Building.
These books spark discussions about the future, at MIT. (See Credits below).

Can You Envision A Diverse and Harmonious Future?

A lot of people can’t. In our current political climate, unfortunately, anti-Semitism, anti-Asian hate, and the ever-popular urge to oppress Black people are enjoying an apparent groundswell of enthusiasm.

This is happening alongside a steady, depressing drumbeat of homophobia, trans-phobia, and anti-immigrant measures against Muslims and people from anywhere in Latin America. We have armed militias of people abroad in the land who seriously want to re-enact The Turner Diaries in real life.

If ever there was a moment to promote a new vision, one that can see diversity as a strength, surely today gives us that moment. Dystopian science fiction has long depicted “worst-case scenarios,” and they genuinely do have a role to play. But how about some more positive visions to function as an antidote to the poison?

“Strength lies in differences, not in similarities” - Stephen R. Covey.
We have an uphill climb to convince some people this is true. (TextAppeal).

Creating a More Positive Vision

In teaching and parenting, “catch ‘em being good” is a sound approach. If a child/student receives positive reinforcement, this offers a better foundation for going forward than always just being told “no” or “don’t.”

Kids are feeling their way along, trying to figure out how to “be” in the world. Positive reinforcement offers a map, a goal, a sense of what is desired. Negative reinforcement only tells them what not to do. How efficiently do you think you could get to a destination if you had a map that onlytold you where not to go?

That’s why I think we need positive future visions, as well as dystopian takes. Can we please stop fictitiously killing the earth and our fellow beings all the time? It’s good to be able to foresee that “this trend could lead to a bad outcome.” But in my opinion it helps more to see that “this really might be a good way to move forward.”

A collection of “dead end,” “road ends,” and “road closed” signs.
Negative messages help little when you’re searching for a way forward. (See Credits below).

A Vision for a Way Forward

I certainly can’t claim to be the only science fiction author who ever thought of this. I read a review just the other day for Central Station by Lavie Tidhar that you might enjoy. And Forbes recently published a whole list of sf novels with positive climate-change explorations. Moreover, multiculture-positive thought experiments seem to be the direction N.K. Jemisin is headed in her Great Cities project, if The City We Became is any guide.

What I want to do with my XK9 novels, in part, is give readers a glimpse, a way to see diversity as a strength in action. What would a society/culture/polyculture look like, if it could truly be mostly free of racial animus? If religious intolerance was mostly absent, and near-universally frowned upon? If the society was mostly without homophobia, trans-phobia, or a backlash against any other individual expression of identity? (I say “mostly” and “nearly,” because humans are humans).

It’s fun to explore those ideas in my XK9 novels. I hope my readers enjoy it, too. And I’d like to see more authors ask how they can inform a more positive view of possible futures. Especially those that see diversity as a strength.


Many thanks to “LATESTLY” for the quote-image featuring the words of Diane Ackerman, and to TextAppeal, for the quote-image featuring the words of Stephen R. Covey. The other quote-image, featuring the words of Robert Alan Aurthur, was assembled by Jan S. Gephardt, with help from a Wikimedia image. It shows a detail of the Almoravid Minbar, commissioned by Ali Bin Yusuf Bin Tashfin al-Murabiti in 1137 for his great mosque in Marrakesh. Photo by By إيان – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia.

The two photo montages also were conceived and assembled by Jan S. Gephardt. The montage inspired by the MIT science fiction literature class is composed from a photo of the MIT Media Lab Building from Dezeen, three book covers, and a magazine cover. Books: The Fifth Season, by N. K. Jemisin (thank you, Target). The City & The City, by China Miéville (thank you, Penguin Random House). Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer (thank you, LA Times, FSG Originals, and illustrator Eric Nyquist). Apex Magazine’s cover features Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™, by Rebecca Roanhorse.

The montage of the map hemmed in by “Do Not Enter,” “Road Closed,” “Road Ends,” and “Dead End” signs includes a map of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. I chose it for its map-folds and size, not to express any opinion of those lovely states. It comes courtesy of The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Road signs come from a variety of sources. Driving Tests provided a “Do Not Enter” sign and a “Dead End” sign. Two “Road Closed” signs came from the City of Prairie Village, KS, while Angela Carmona uploaded the third, rather dramatic one to Pinterest. Also via Pinterest, I’m grateful to Todd Gordon and Kevin Barnett for the two “Road Ends” signs. Many thanks to all!

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