October 16, 2003

An Animated Discussion

Speaking of the Future with Nina Paley

One of the distinguishing characteristics of what I have dubbed serious optimism is the requirement that we deal substantively with objections to projected positive outcomes. "Cheap" optimism makes no such requirement. Disciples of Dr. Pangloss insist that all outcomes are positive, even optimal, by definition, while Pollyanna's brothers and sisters insist that every setback leads inevitably to an even happier ending than was originally expected.

Serious optimists can't allow themselves to indulge in these fantasies. Any sought-after positive outcome is one possibility among many. Like the hero of a Greek tragedy, the tomorrow we seek most earnestly may carry within it the seeds of its own destruction.

Consider MacBeth (not Greek, but a good example of a tragic hero.) The Weird Sisters tell him that he will be king, that he will hold power until a forest marches across the land, and further that no "man born of woman" can ever harm him. This all sounds pretty good: he gets to be king, and there doesn't seem to be any way anyone can hurt him.

To kind of kickstart the process, he and the little Lady commit a fairly gruesome act of regicide right in their own house. Taking the crown in such a barbaric manner is not well-received by MacBeth's fellow nobles, so they put an army together and come after him. The soldiers employ a crude form of camouflage, covering themselves with tree branches (taken from the very forest the Weird Sisters mentioned) as they make their way towards MacBeth. Our hero ends up in a sword fight with his enemy, MacDuff, whom he learns a little too late was delivered via caesarian — and was thus (technically) never "born of woman."

The serious optimist must do what MacBeth could not, anticipate the catastrophes that may paradoxically result from going after some good aim in the wrong way. A cynic can achieve apparent prescience by speaking with delphic ambiguity (and therefore always be "right" no matter how things work out), but this is of no help to those who earnestly pursue a specific outcome. The serious optimist has to embrace multiple possibilities, outcomes both positive and negative, in order to formulate scenarios that transcend the pairs of opposites. It's no coincidence, for example, that the same guy who coined the term nanotechnology also introduced us to the idea of gray goo.

In an effort to transcend simple pairs of opposites, to embrace risks and dangers as well as rewards, I have actively sought individuals with outlooks distinctly different from my own for the Speaking of the Future interviews. Although I may have points of disagreement with any and all of the people I've interviewed up to this point, I share a common philosophical orientation with all of them.

Not so with today's guest.

Filmmaker and cartoonist Nina Paley has agreed to be the first participant in a planned subset of these interviews, what I have facetiously referred to as the "Buzzkill of the Month." (Since this is the first such interview I've published, it would probably make more sense to call it the "Buzzkill of the Quarter," but I do intend to do them more often and, besides, that name just isn't as funny.) Having completed the interview with her, and having already published her answers to the Seven Questions, I've come to the conclusion that Nina is probably not a very good candidate for the position of Buzzkill.

She's just too lively and interesting to be any good at it.

However, in spite of her shortcomings, I've decided to go ahead and run the interview. In our recent cyber dialog, Nina and I talked about overpopulation, biodiversity, and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Nina sets me straight on Escher and takes issue with my use of the term "anti-humanist." And while I strongly disagree with her assertion that anything these creeps do might be described as having "artistic merit," overall I find that Nina sketches out an intriguing alternative role to that of the serious optimist: the interested observer of interesting times.

These certainly are interesting times, all the more so from having folks like Nina living within them.

Nina, I really enjoyed your short film, The Stork. Living in one of Denverís biggest suburbs, I resonated with the images of tract housing and SUVs piling up on each other in the wake of the bombs the Stork was dropping. How did you come up with the idea for The Stork, and how has it been received?

Thanks! The idea for The Stork came out of a conversation. Iíd seen a lot of those illustrations of storks for new parents — cards, signs in front of peoplesí houses, "stork parking" — and I joked that the "bundle of joy" the Stork is carrying is really a bomb. Then a friend of mine added, "yeah, and instead of leaving craters in its wake, it leaves new subdivisions."

The filmís been received remarkably well. It was invited to Sundance last year, and it just won a prize in the EarthVision Environmental Film Festival in Santa Cruz. I thought it would anger and confuse people, but most viewers seem to get it, even if they donít agree with it.

I made a few other shorts about overpopulation along with the Stork: Fertco and the Wit & Wisdom of Cancer. Those films kind of exorcised my demons. I used to get into heated arguments about population; now I donít. The films speak much more eloquently and concisely than I do, and the fact that theyíre animated makes them go down easier. My anger went into those films, and now Iím much calmer and can get on with my life. So as therapy, The Stork and its companions were a raging success.

Itís interesting that you choose the image of an archetypal Gerber Baby — with blonde hair, blue eyes, a sweet smile, etc. — as the culprit. But if the filmís message is about overpopulation, why aren't those little brown bundles that the Stork is dropping? In the West (where the blonde babies come from) the birth rate has dropped dramatically over the past 50 years. Even in the US, where the population continues to grow, the rate is considerably less than in much of the third world.

Thereís an equation used by population activists: I = PAT. Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology. The Stork is about population in the affluent West, where consumption and pollution are 20 to 40 times the rest of the worldís. The point I tried to make is that every new First World consumer has a huge impact on the environment.

Thereís a little-known paper written by Dr. Charles Hall of the State University of New York, called "The Environmental Consequences of Having a Baby in the United States." He actually measured how many barrels of oil, how many hectares of forest, how many cows and chickens and pigs, each new American will consume in their lifetime. Meanwhile environmental groups urge us to "save a tree," save this, save that ó but saving a tree is like pissing in the ocean when we destroy dozens of trees just by living an American lifestyle.

Speaking of which, I know many Americans who delude themselves into believing they donít really live an American lifestyle, because they (like me) recycle or donít drive or donít eat meat. But the "savings" inherent in those choices pale in comparison to what impact we do have, just living here. A car-free vegetarian in India has a fraction of the impact of a car-free vegetarian in the US, because of social circumstances beyond our control. For example, food in the US travels hundreds of miles by truck, is over-packaged, and comes from unsustainable agriculture. So an order of rice and curry in the US has many times the impact of the same meal in India, where food is grown locally and served in a banana leaf and an old newspaper, instead of a styrofoam clamshell in a paper bag in another plastic bag with plastic forks and extra napkins. But I digress.

My point is that as the biggest per capita consumers and polluters on the planet, every new American has a huge environmental impact. Add to that the choices many parents make, of moving to the suburbs and buying larger cars and SUVs, and disposable diapers for their offspring, and it all adds up to The Stork.

If, on the other hand, your subject was consumerism rather than population, why blame the babies? Itís adults, after all, who build the tract housing and drive the SUVs.

I donít blame babies. I blame their parents. At the very end of the credits thereís a childís voice saying, "I donít want to!" followed by the harsh shriek of a hawk, which represents the Stork. Babies donít make any of these decisions, including the decision to be conceived in the first place.

Thereís no question that the culture of child-rearing can be overbearing, especially for those who have decided not to be a part of it. I personally find it disturbing when I meet adults who describe raising their children as "the meaning of life" or who seem to have completely subsumed their own identities in the pursuit of bringing up their children. But what I read on your site, along with some of the sites youíre linked to via the Childfree Ring, seems to go well beyond simple disagreement or opposition to this culture. You use epithets to describe children ("kidlets," "baybees," "bag-o-sprog,") and openly accuse their "breeder" parents of being stupid, irresponsible, and dishonest. One "humor" site in the Childfree Ring includes a cartoon showing a man smashing babies with a sledge hammer to make baby oil, with an interactive feature that allows readers who are so inclined to help smash the babies. Canít people be opposed to having children without being so strident (and often downright nasty) about it?

Please donít hold me responsible for the Childfree Ring! A lot of these people are nuts. Others arenít nuts, but are ranting in anger, as I did on my own site. Thatís why the page says "rants." But you raise a good point Ė if I want serious attention for my project, I should probably remove the more provocative rants. Politics.

I really have nothing against babies and children. Some of my favorite people are children. Babies Iím simply not attracted to, and the constant expectation that as a woman Iíll be delighted by some strangerís baby wears me down. Again, itís parents I have more of a problem with, although I count many parents among my friends, and all of my immediate family. Most members of the "Childfree Movement" are outraged by bad parents, people who neglect or abuse their children, and expect the "Village" to cover for them. Iím not really a spokesperson for the CF movement, and The Stork isnít a film specifically for or about that movement. Itís a film about human impact on the environment.

Iím pleased to see the Childfree movement growing, though. In my more obnoxious zealous days, I tried to convince people not to have children for the sake of the environment. Then I discovered the CF movement, people who just didnít want to have kids for any number of reasons. Instead of convincing people who do want kids not to have them, I realized I should help make it possible for people who donít want them to not have them. Then everybodyís happy, and no oneís making a "sacrifice." Thereís nothing worse than someone who intentionally creates more humans and considers it a sacrifice; that burdenís especially heavy for their kids, who are raised with excessive guilt and resentment. The CF movement says, if you donít want Ďem, donít have Ďem. If you have Ďem, make sure you want Ďem, and take responsibility for your choice.

Some of the more extreme groups that you link to on your site are the Church of Euthanasia and the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. The latter group makes the pitch that we should eliminate the human species completely in the interests of biodiversity. They appear to be serious. Do you identify yourself as a member of this movement? If so, can you explain how you reconcile being an artist, a proponent of the humanities, with membership in an anti-humanist movement?

VHEMT appeals to me in large part because of its humor. It takes an obvious idea to its logical end. The only means of human extinction advocated by VHEMT is voluntary non-reproduction, a strategy with exactly two chances of success: "slim and none." It stuns me that people donít recognize, let alone enjoy the overt absurdism in VHEMT and the Church of Euthanasia.

As for being an artist, a "proponent of the humanities" ó VHEMT and the Church of Euthanasia are art. The CofE especially ó it was founded by artists, and its main activity is performance art, street theater. It has an environmental message, but it exists to communicate ideas to, and entertain, humans. The CofE is a modern descendant of the Dada movement, which was equally misunderstood in its day.

Iíve never called myself an "anti-humanist," but as long as weíre on the subjectÖ. I donít know exactly what people mean by anti-humanism. I suspect anti-humanism isnít against humans, but rather against the philosophy known as Humanism, which arose in response to the European Christian worldview that placed God in the center of the Universe, and man in a subordinate position. Humanism placed Man in the center of the Universe. Anti-humanism, I think, simply says Man is not the center of the Universe; that humans are part of an interconnected web of life, that we need biodiversity but biodiversity certainly doesnít need us. Maybe a more accurate term would be Post-humanism. I think this philosophy is also called "Deep Ecology."

What are your thoughts on the relationship between economic development and population growth? Itís been widely asserted that, as a nationís economy grows, its rate of population growth slows. A good example of this is India, where the population growth rate has slowed almost to zero in the four southern states. India has benefited tremendously in recent years from its participation in the global information technology marketplace, which has contributed to this change in population dynamics. I know from reading your web site that youíre an outspoken critic of globalization. But if globalization contributes to raising standards of living and lowering population growth rates, why oppose it?

I = PAT. Itís not just population, itís consumption times population. Lowered birth rates donít mean lowered environmental impact if consumption and pollution increase. And they are increasing in India, far more rapidly than the birth rate is decreasing. Furthermore, a decline in birth rate doesnít mean a decline in population. The birth rate must drop to below replacement for population to decline. People talk about "slower growth", but growth is growth. Any growth rate above zero translates to exponential growth. Just because something is growing less fast this year than last year, doesnít mean itís not growing.

I spent last Summer in Kerala, India. That experience really took the wind out of my sails. Theyíre dealing with huge environmental problems in India, things as simple as garbage removal. Garbage in Kerala was traditionally biodegradable; you could just chuck it in the back yard or on the street and it would compost itself. Now they have plastic bags mixed in with the garbage, and the results are disastrous. It piles up in the streets, stinks, and attracts vermin. Now it needs to be trucked away to landfills (where will they put the landfills?) and thereís simply no infrastructure to handle the increasing amounts of garbage piling up. The garbage is a by-product of economic prosperity. Having seen life there first-hand, who am I to fault Indians for wanting economic prosperity? They want computers, they want cell phones, they want electricity to run 24 hours a day. They want stuff to work like it does in the US. And I donít blame them Ė I want that stuff too, and Iím glad I have it. So you have what humans want vs. what the rest of life on Earth needs to survive. And these forces seem to be totally at odds with each other. And I no longer think I have any answers. Now Iím just sitting back and watching events unfold like a big show.

If your objection to economic development is that it brings about higher levels of unsustainable consumption of resources, what are your thoughts on emerging technologies that are expected to simultaneously increase material production and make the environment cleaner? Many of those who are optimistic about the future share the concerns of the Green and Sustainable Growth movements, but disgaree with the proponents of these movements on the question of how these problems should be addressed. Christine Peterson, the President of the Foresight Institute, has said that she is motivated by "a desire to help Earth's environment and traditional human communities avoid harm and instead benefit from expected dramatic advances in technology." Christine's views are shared by many of the folks involved in developing these new technologies. What if we could produce more, more cheaply, without the negative impact on the environment and, in fact, begin to correct much of the damage that's been done to the environment?

Hey, sounds great to me. You wonít convince me of anything, but I donít need to be convinced; Iím just watching the show.

Technology has solved all our problems so far. Itís just that itís created new problems we couldnít foresee. Cities used to have the terrible problem of horse shit all over the streets. The Horseless Carriage solved that problem. Now we have suburban sprawl, loss of public space, pedestrian deaths, obesity, air pollution, and oil dependence.

Whether Iím cynical about technology or optimistic doesnít matter. Technology is part of the unfolding drama, and itís interesting to watch. Really, the best I can do to try to make the future brighter is simply not reproduce. In my opinion, thatís the best any of us can do, but thatís just my opinion. People will do what they will do, whether thatís breed like rabbits or have just one kid or no kids or solve problems with technology or make art or start wars or whatever. Iím just one person, out of 6.5 billion, living in "interesting times."

Letís switch back to your movies. I love Fetch!. Iíve watched it repeatedly. Itís like an Escher painting come to life. In fact, if Iím not mistaken, the dog and its owner run through some of Escherís work

You are indeed mistaken; the optical illusions in the film are based on the "three-pronged blivet," which never made its way into Escherís work, as far as I know. The "impossible box" toward the end is the only truly Escheresque scene in the film, but that design pre-dates Escher. Iíve given up on the distinction, though, and just write "Escheresque" in the festival entry forms, because people associate Escher with all optical illusions.

The film is obviously informed by a sense of play, but it seems to touch on some profound ideas about shifting perspectives and the somewhat malleable nature of reality. I get into some of that kind of stuff myself from time to time. So tell us...is Fetch! a philosophical treatise, or were you just having fun making a cartoon?

Fetch! was inspired by philosophical pondering on the malleable nature of reality. You know, "that horizon is actually a wall! Wait a minute Ė itís just a line. Why do I think a straight line is anything other than a straight line? What is real, anyway?Ö" That kind of thing. Fortunately, I made it kind of cute, so the result is watchable, even by my friendís 4-year-old. Fetch! has done well in childrenís film festivals. Kids are a tough audience, so I consider it an honor when they like my work.

Pandorama is another short film combines evocative images, a sense of fun, and serious (in this case, mythic) themes. You employed an unusual technique in making that one, drawing directly onto 70mm film. Youíve also used that technique on at least one other film. How does that technique compare to the animation techniques you used in making Fetch or The Stork? Which do you prefer?

Drawing on film is about as low-tech as you can get. You make every image by hand, unmediated. Fetch! and The Stork were created digitally, relying on high technology; the art is all virtual, untouched by human hands. I enjoy both techniques. I do more stuff digitally now because itís faster and cheaper, but working by hand is exciting because itís so real.

What can you tell us about your latest project, Thank You for Not Breeding?

Thank You for Not Breeding is on the back burner right now. I completed 4 animated shorts about population and the environment, and planned to fold them into a documentary about fringe groups like VHEMT and the CofE, but I put that project on hold last Summer when I went to India. My current project is actually called The Sitayana, based on the Indian myth the Ramayana, or Story of Rama. The Sitayana, or Story of Sita, is about Ramaís wife. Iíll have a web site for it up soon.

What kinds of projects do you hope to be taking on in the future? Do you think you might ever be persuaded to do a film about i Space or Practical Time Travel?

If someone gives me a free Time Vacation, Iíll make a film about it, sure. Actually, visiting India was like Time Travel, and a little like going to another planet.  

Posted by Phil at October 16, 2003 06:09 AM | TrackBack

I don't hate babies. I just hate the thickies their parents become when they have them. "Who is the little shitty cutie pie, then?"

Posted by: bob at October 17, 2003 05:28 PM

So Paley went throught all of that trouble to to say 'I dont give a damn about people'. Maybe her parents should have huged her more. Or, maybe they huged her too much.

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