Environmental issues are important and, for some people, they are interesting. But for Harvey Stone, the most pressing environmental issue of our time—climate change—had all the built-in elements required to write a fiction thriller. In Melting Down, aging nationalists in the Russian government take advantage of the melting Arctic sea ice to try to leverage the oil and national gas reserves underneath the Arctic for Russia’s world domination. Stone uses the plot to keep the reader reading and, along the way, supplies information about the real world of climate change, and the opposing viewpoints and interests informing our current situation.
SFR: Can you talk about the opening quote from Nobel Prize winner Murray Gell-Mann?
HS: A piece of this book, there’s the problem in the book of climate change and what’s happening and the impacts and there’s a also a whole piece relating it to national security, that’s what I wanted to do. But what I also wanted to do was include the positive side of this, that there’s a way forward…the way forward is adopting a much more systems perspective, which Murray’s quote summarizes, and then beyond that, into a triple bottom line, where you address social, economic and environmental solutions within the same implementation…Until we develop more solutions that address the social, economic and environmental issues simultaneously, we’re going to keep running into unintended consequences.
You were a psychologist, and that theory of interdependency strikes me as comparable to the way the individual works. Did that mode of thinking follow through in the book?
Yes. The protagonist, Tex Cassidy, is a master of systems thinking and interconnectedness…his high school valedictory speech was “Because: The Most Destructive Word in the English Language.” You see [the book] through his eyes primarily. The president, who is his best friend…sends him on this special mission to the Arctic because he doesn’t trust anyone else to see in systems.
It’s a small group of Russians but, more importantly, the book is based on three real-world facts. The Arctic sea ice is disappearing. The largest untapped oil and gas reserves are under the Arctic Ocean, which is now increasingly accessible as the sea ice melts, and Russia, which is a huge land mass in the Arctic, has already laid claims to a lot of those reserves…And because the world has really not gone to renewables to the degree we need to…there’s going to be a long period where we use fossil fuels, and Russia is the No. 1 energy nation in the world, if you take into account oil and natural gas. And one last point…Churchill, Manitoba, it’s the northern tip of Manitoba…and it is the area where polar bears congregate because it’s where Hudson Bay first freezes. So it’s one of the places I went to do research, and every year it freezes later in the year. There is already what they call the Arctic Sea Bridge, which is the sea route from Churchill across the pole…so even though there’s still lots of ice, they’re already planning shipping routes to take Russian natural resources across the pole, through Churchill down into Canada and then down into the rest of northern America. So the Russians are real players.
Did the plot come to you in a flash, or did you sit down and think, ‘I want to write about climate change and I need a story?’
I had an environmental consulting business that crashed along with the economy in 2008. So suddenly I had no clients and lots of time. I had wanted to write a book on climate change, but I’m not a scientist, I’m not a policy worker and I’m not a politician. But I’m good at taking material and synthesizing, and I said, ‘There’s some wonderful nonfiction books out there; I don’t have anything to add, but the problem is, who reads them?’ The same few thousand people around the world…So, [I wondered], ‘How do you reach people?’…and as you may know, thrillers are the most widely read genre of books…so I thought to myself—and I had never written fiction—can I write a book of fiction, a thriller that can reach more people, in the tradition of what Tom Clancy does with the military [and] John Grisham does with law…where you learn a lot while you’re being entertained?
You mention John Steinbeck [and several other writers] in your acknowledgement. Can you explain why a bit more?
Some people think writing is about just description, what’s going on within you, or description of the world as you see it. But there’s a whole other school that says you write to raise awareness and change…and that’s how I saw this. I’m very proud of this [book] and it’s an accomplishment, but if it’s just a book that sells whatever copies, it won’t mean much. I wrote it as a tool to raise awareness to motivate people to action.
Do you feel optimistic about the scenarios you’re writing about?
Somebody once told me that the difference between Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies is, in the comedies, the characters wake up early enough in the play and it becomes a comedy. In the tragedies, they don’t. What I believe is, if we wake up as a civilization fast enough to the dangers and implement solutions, this whole systems approach provides a way to solve these issues, provide enough foods, basics, for the growing population of the planet, and we could actually do it. Am I optimistic that we’re going to do it? That’s less clear.