Kim Stanley Robinson Interview
By Brenda Cooper, May 2007
I’ve admired Kim Stanley Robinson as a science fiction writer for a long time. He writes books about important topics so cleanly that a reader can both learn about the topic and be entertained. Also, he is a hopeful person and a hopeful writer. This fits our general philosophy as Futurist.com: There are dangers in the world, and always have been. But the possibility of a better future is strong.
I particularly enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent trilogy, which takes on the tough issue of climate change. He writes about the affects of climate change, about policy and brave solutions, and also the simple aspects of family and humanity. His books are not thrillers designed to slam you through a story but rather pleasant reads than capture the awe of all great science fiction and give the reader excuses to think. I was pleased when he agreed to do an email interview for us, and even more pleased at his long, thoughtful answers. I think you’ll like them, too.
At Futurist.com, we’re recommending your environmental trilogy — Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting — as excellent reading for layman business audience members who want to understand the complexity of global warming. In this series, your main characters are almost all at least close to the political stage. Do you think that’s the most important change agent? Will politics and policy matter more than businesses, or is that the only way to change business behavior?
The way I see it, businesses run in a legal system, governed by laws very tightly, and so if you want to change business behavior, you have to change the laws—and that’s politics—the process by which we continuously change our laws to suit our desires of a particular moment. Our capitalist system has a lot of injustice hard-wired into it—I sometimes call it “late feudalism” to remind people of its historical origins, and the current state’s suspicious resemblances to a world in which a small aristocracy lords it over an impoverished and hard-working peasantry—that’s feudalism, right? But in our world half the population gets by on three dollars a day, and American executives make hundreds of times the amount other workers in the system make, even though their work is not actually that much harder or more valuable than what everyone else does. It’s a power hierarchy and is understood as such by all, whether they admit it or not.
And then also the main rule in capitalism is the requirement to increase profits as quickly as possible; if there is damage created by this that will cost people later, then that’s their problem. Capitalism exteriorizes as many costs as it can, but these are all accounting games, because there is no real exteriorizing. Now we’re hitting the limits of the physical systems of the planet we’re on, and the goal of the economy has to change to creating a long-term sustainable civilization, a permaculture that exists within the biophysical constraints set on us by reality. Unfortunately the rule of each capitalist actor in the system acting to maximize its own profits does not create the change of goals we now need. Only changing the laws will do that.
I think it’s possible to legislate our way to sustainability and justice. We’re close now in some ways in the United States, in that democratic mechanisms are set in place that work pretty well. The rule of law obtains, mostly. If Congress voted to change some economic laws, directing the immense creative force of our economy toward the construction of a clean infrastructure, toward landscape restoration, toward education and justice, then it could be done. Businesses would still thrive, money would still be made, but within different parameters and toward different goals.
So I set my novel in Washington D.C. because that’s where the laws are written and made binding. In that sense the political stage is indeed the most important change agent, as you put it. But this is also to say that we ourselves are the most important change agent, because we are our politics, and the American system is doing what Americans have voted that they want. Here I think all of us, business leaders included, should direct the various governments to enact our desire to have our work directed to dealing with the climate change danger and the biosphere degradation more generally. We all can work on that together.
I’ve recently read a lot of news stories about big engineering ideas to counteract climate change. Your trilogy is full of grand big engineering. The recent International Panel on Climate Change working group III report addressed mitigation of climate change. In summary, it said “It’s not too late. Here’s some ways to change policy and behavior which we had best start on now, and it would be good to avoid big engineering.â€ What do you think? Is it already so late in the game that we’ll need to implement some of the wilder ideas out there like Earth-sized umbrellas or mirrors to reflect sunlight away from us? Will we need to terraform consciously?
There’s going to be a big fight to de-carbonize our technology, and we won’t be as fast to swap out the energy and transport systems as we should be, given the clear danger of driving the Earth’s climate over some irreversible tipping point into really radical global warming, which at a certain point could be truly catastrophic. Despite that danger, we will be too slow in decarbonizing (unless we aren’t).
That being the case, some scientists have been discussing possible Big Mitigations, sometimes called geo-engineering. When I wrote my 40-50-60 trilogy I postulated a shut-down of the Gulf Stream, and this is one of the only big changes that could conceivably be reversed, so I portrayed that happening. In my novel and elsewhere I have emphasized how much these kinds of big interventions would be serious gambles with the only planet we’ve got, and as such, would be hard to get consensus approval for, to say the least.
The idea of geo-engineering is also controversial because it would be so much better an option to deal with the problem safely, by an intense effort at rapid decarbonization. Even to explore geo-engineering ideas at this point is to suggest that there might be some safe “silver bullet” solution later on if we screw it up now, and ignore the problem or react too slowly. This then takes the sense of pressure off, and perhaps gives the recalcitrant among us even more excuses to drag their feet and slow the process of adjusting to reality.
In that sense I may have been facilitating bad policy thinking with my novels, but as a science fiction writer I’ve been trying to concoct realistic scenarios, with a mix of good and bad elements to them, as in real history. And I think if you read my books, the action of the story at least clarifies the problems and issues that we are now beginning to face. Some reactions are explored or modeled. That’s what science fiction is for, at least some of the time.
A young woman I know was just starting to grasp climate change. She got about halfway through her first series of questions when her face brightened and she said something like, “Well, this is good. We’ll have to work together. I mean the whole world. It will take all of us to fix this, and if we can fix this, we can fix poverty and war, too.â€ I loved her hopefulness, and I also think she was right about the need for global response. What do you think might be some good mechanism’s for global coordination on climate change?
I like her thinking and I think she’s right, in this sense: for things to go well there has to be a global solution that includes social justice and an end to poverty. Social justice is a technology, in that it is a system for getting large numbers of people to live together in peace. It’s a system that has been improving and needs to improve much more for the climate problem to be solved. Global warming and the destruction of many natural environments and species is partly a problem of human numbers; we need to stabilize the number of people on the planet, it is one of the most important of the stabilizations, although not included enough in these discussions. Populations stabilize when women have full and equal legal rights, and control over their own lives. Also, poor populations have a rapid population growth rate, affluent countries don’t. Women have more rights in affluent countries, less in poor countries. These correlations need attending to, they are very revealing insights into the kind of social justice/climate stabilization/permaculture that we need now. Thinking of the whole story makes it clear that the response to global warming can’t be just a matter of changing machines.
Some good mechanisms would be the already existing democratic governments, the UN, the various trade treaties, the scientific organizations, the whole polyarchy we live in. One thing about globalization, it has put into place an international order for doing business that is quite powerful, and it could be put to positive use just as easily as it can be used to extract money from poor people. In my books I focused on the National Science Foundation and the scientific community that connects to it, but that’s just one knot in the network. One could write other novels foregrounding other parts of the system having these adventures, adapting to reality and thus doing the right thing.
What are we missing about climate change? What’s going to surprise us?
We use climate change, as the most charismatic issue, to stand in for (and even obscure) the more general environmental problem of massive degradation of the earth’s various biomes and life zones and habitats. Maybe we will be surprised by some of the big extinctions, and how really there is no coming back from extinction. We would then be surprised at the despair and nihilism this would create, at how angry our children and the generations to come would be at us—that we could be that careless.
It’s such a danger, however, that maybe we’ll be surprised at how well we respond as a civilization in the face of a general crisis. There are going to be destructive and retrogressive acts, sure, but they all might be part of a larger slurry of actions that will include so many good actions that the ultimate flow of history will be the story of a species adapting well to new conditions. Humanity went through ice ages and climate changes repeatedly when its powers were nothing like what they are now. Now we’ve got the power to pollute the atmosphere in such a way as to threaten radical warming. We may be surprised by our own adaptability and desire to do well for the generations to come.