Winners of io9's Environmental Writing Contest

In November 2010, we offered two prizes of $2000 each to writers who could show us the effects of environmental disaster, whether caused by random asteroid impacts or oil drilling accidents. Now, we have our winners.

We received over 250 entries to the contest, which includes a first prize for nonfiction and a first prize for fiction. Entries came from all over the world, with stories from amateurs to published authors. There were many incredible, moving stories in the bunch, and it was hard to narrow the field down. Many thanks to our team of judges, New Yorker environment writer Elizabeth Kolbert, Windup Girl and Ship Breaker author Paolo Bacigalupi and award-winning science fiction editor Jonathan Strahan, for their tireless work.

When we announced this contest, this is what we said:

We believe that the first step to solving planet-scale problems is to assess, honestly and critically, what it would mean to experience such a disaster. We need mental models that can help policy-makers, researchers, and individuals prepare for the kinds of cataclysmic events that have occurred regularly throughout Earth's history.

We're holding this contest to reward people for coming up with ideas that could help avert the next Deepwater spill and Pacific garbage gyre - or help people prepare better for the next Indian Ocean tsunami and Haiti earthquake. Storytelling is a powerful tool. We want you to use it well.

And you did. All of you who entered.

And now - the winners. We've included excerpts below, and you can click through at the end to read the rest.

Nonfiction

Runners Up:
Lara Zielin, "Toxic Waters"
John Spencer, "Southern Discomfort"

First Prize: The Earthquake Zone
By Jeremy Kutner

Winners of io9's Environmental Writing Contest

AP photo by Wang Jiao Wen

The old man called to me from the side of the road. "Sit for a while," he said. "Talk to me." It was getting late. Aside for a few streetlamps scattered between the rigid blue refugee tents there wasn't much in the way of light. The earthquake had extinguished the neon signs that still clung to the shells of abandoned buildings.

When I pulled up a rough wooden stool and looked at the man, close, for the first time, I saw how old he was. His face was creviced and deep. The crags of his nose heaved his huge glasses askew and you could wonder if he had been struck by lightning. His block torso was tied to the faintest rods of legs, bent in two at the nub of the knees. He didn't offer me anything to drink because he had nothing to offer. We sat and exchanged the usual pleasantries, and he chided me for getting a hotel room in the one hotel still standing in town (most visitors were funneled there, and my room was a converted gaming den - an air mattress stuck in the space between a mahjong table and the TV – no one in town seemed much in the mood for games) because I could share his bunk in the tent with him. I told him next time, I would take him up on his offer, and he smiled and looked off at the steam shovels still digging across the road.

It's rare to find an old man all alone and I worried about asking the unthinkable, if his family was crushed when his city shook. It shouldn't be surprising, in the midst of obvious devastation of the largest earthquake in China in thirty years, hearing people point out sites of death, watching them list lost family members with the vacant stare of two months' grief. But the old man wasn't one of those people. He lowered his voice as he told me. Years ago, while he worked away from home, his wife started sleeping with his best friend. This was back then, long ago. He said he hadn't seen his wife around for years.

So the whole situation seems ironic to him. How when the earthquake started and cracks appeared on the walls he could imagine chunks of his home cascading down and burying him, and how, now that he's alone and he's old and his legs don't work well and his lungs seem to take in no air at all, no one would hear him scream, and how he walked away from his ruined home with the slightest of injuries and wandered on the streets for hours, alone and unattended to as he listened to the shrieks of trapped neighbors. He didn't know what to think about that.

Read the rest of his story here.

Science Fiction

Runners-Up:
Ekaterina Sedia, "Say Rice"
Tim Jones, "Icebergs"

First Prize: Carbon
By Jef Cozza

Winners of io9's Environmental Writing Contest

Photo by Chris Gold

Our rain gear hung from hooks lining the wall, dripping onto our galoshes. Most of us stood around Sproiles' desk while he leaned back in his chair, pointing to each of us in turn with a badly chewed pencil.

"There's a Chinese company that's working on something new," said someone in the back. "Its reflector-based technology. They seed the upper atmosphere with sulphur."

Sproiles shook his head. The reporter knew enough to stop. "The Spanish proposed the same project five years ago. The loss of solar radiation would kill off too much biomass. No way the Chinese would get it to work. Next."

"The drought in Russia. Wheat prices are already up 50% this summer."

Sproiles gave an absent-minded nod. "It's an old situation, but one we should stay on top of. Keep tracking it, let's do an update. What else?"

"A story on London's new water locks?" The voice came from the corner. Sproiles seemed to at least consider that one.

"We already did a story on the Mumbai water locks. You'd have to find a new angle on it."

"Hey Sproiles, how did those locks work?"

The laughter that followed was about the only thing still dry in the newsroom.

"Poorly." More laughter. No place like a newsroom for gallows humor. "What else? We'll need something for a feature."

I hate the weekly ledes meetings. The pressure to perform in front of your coworkers makes you grasp at straws.

"I've got something," I said. Sproiles swiveled around in his chair to look at me. "Al-Jabra called me. Says he's got something new."

Sproiles narrowed his eyes. If his mother ever told him she loved him, I'm sure he'd ask for a second source. "Why would Al-Jabra call you out of the blue, Beedie?"

"We used to be close."

"How close?"

"He was the first person to call me Beedie."

I heard someone whistle low. I'd never told anyone in the newsroom I knew Ali Al-Jabra. I'd never done a story on Vermillion before. "You think it's something big?" Sproiles asked.

I tugged my ear. "He probably thinks he can use me to get some good press on whatever new toy Vermillion's building. He asked me to lunch tomorrow."

"Given our readership share, he's probably right." Sproiles swung his chair back around and jotted down my name on his notepad. "Take the lunch. Tell me what he says. Okay, who's doing the piece on the space elevator for us this month?"

Read the rest of the story here.