What Does it Take to Change the Future?
Marta Peirano in conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson
In 2021 Aksioma | Institute for Contemporary Art, Ljubljana proposed a hybrid festival of conversations curated and led by writer and journalist Marta Peirano entitled (re)programming—Strategies for Self-Renewal. This piece is an excerpt of the reader that collects all the edited transcripts. It is a conversation between the curator Marta Peirano and sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson with thoughts by Lučka Kajfež Bogataj, Luka Omladič, Ida Hiršenfelder, James Bridle, pinchito, Navine and Sinan.
You can get a copy of this reader by ordering any book on our webstore, and inserting the code “(re)programming” in the field Order Notes.
Marta Peirano: You have written a trilogy about terraforming Earth where we see our planet turn hostile to human life through climate change and about terraforming other planets and moons in the Solar System as in your extraordinary Mars trilogy, which is also a fascinating exercise in comparative governance. In the last few years you have been carrying very specific simulations under the “what would happen if” genre. There is Aurora, where you send a multi-generation colony to conquer a planet 12 light years away from Earth, a story narrated by the ship itself. In New York 2140 you subject the city to a 15-meter rise of sea water turning New York into a kind of strangely alluring new Venice. And, finally, in The Ministry for the Future, which was published in October last year, the projection is of the very right now. What happens if the world’s political leaders keep ignoring their own climate agreements, if we can possibly imagine such a thing happening? A heat wave in a particular region in India kills 20 million people in less than a week, triggering a chain of events. This is both the most terrifying and also the most optimistic book I have read in a very, very long time. Is this what you think it would take us to take appropriate action and what made you go for a heat wave in India? Did you consider other possible triggers that you discarded and was any of them a pandemic?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I had been reading in the scientific literature that if global temperatures pass the two degree Celsius average rise that has been defined as high as we can go without dangerous side effects, you almost immediately get to moments where the combination of heat and humidity is so intense that humans can’t survive it. Therefore all the talk that you hear out there that we will just adapt, that we have to go with the flow, is actually fantasy thinking. The human body, when a certain combination of high heat and high humidity is reached, dies of overheating because our sweating system doesn’t work. I was thinking that if I could write this scene vividly enough then maybe we don’t have to have the actual event happen, maybe the knowledge that it could happen would be enough to shock us into action. I did think about using fiction as a warning system to see if I could stimulate people to the realization that this could really happen. Because it can and I’m frightened, everybody should be frightened. The tropics are in greatest danger in India because of the back wall of the Himalayas but, in fact, one of the highest wet-bulb temperatures—as they call heat and humidity combined—ever recorded was outside of Chicago in the United States. It isn’t true that it’s just a tropical problem, it could happen anywhere where heat and humidity combine, which goes way far to the north and south of the Equator. To your last question, I didn’t think of a pandemic at all. I wrote this book in 2019 and I was thinking of communicable diseases like the flu; either they were localized like SARS was in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong or they would be mild enough that people would just go on living with them the way we were living with ordinary flus. When the pandemic struck the world I learned a new lesson, that we are very dependent on the rest of the biosphere for our own health.
MP: One of the important obstacles that you often point out is that people think of climate change as some sort of a thermostat. When it gets too hot we can just stop flying for a while, turn it down a little bit. Which is, ironically, the reason why people keep buying SUVs, but at the same time reject geoengineering. You’ve studied geoengineering extensively for many years, what chances do we have to survive without deliberately manipulating the climate?
KSR: We’re almost to the 1.5 degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures that the Paris Agreement and the IPCC call out as being as high as we can go safely. The question then becomes how quickly can we stop burning carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not going to be instantaneous, it’s going to be a process, so we might pass the two degree limit, we might get up into that area of the wet-bulb 35 °C temperatures that endanger millions. Then comes this concept—geoengineering—and it has to be said that the word has come to stand for doing bad things to try to get away with our previous bad things. There’s a knee-jerk reaction against the whole idea of geoengineering. But interventions at a mass scale, we’re doing them already, we’re doing them accidentally and damaging the biosphere. If we were to plan to deliberately reduce that damage, I don’t see the harm in it. The so-called moral hazard, that if we knew we had such a thing we would keep polluting the atmosphere, we’re past that point. It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. These things need to be studied and considered because we may be doing them. Some of them seem quite crazy to me and dangerous. If you seed the ocean with iron filings and you create an algal bloom and that sinks to the bottom, this is messing with an ecological system, the oceans, which have already been acidified by us. It’s an area that’s crucial to us, that’s already damaged, and you can’t turn down the acidity of the ocean the way you can maybe turn down the temperature of the air. People also think about turning down the temperature of the air by throwing dust into the atmosphere like a volcano. It’s very commonly known, it’s called solar radiation management. Compared to many things, it wouldn’t be expensive to do and it’s within our powers, so it’s getting discussed. I want to throw in one more thing though. If over the next decades the human population were to go down faster than we think that it will, you could call that geoengineering. What creates that effect of bending the curve of human population rise is precisely women’s education everywhere. When women are educated and have their full legal and political rights, the rate of population increase drops to below the replacement rate within one generation. This is not by coercion, this is simply by the liberation of women in education. You suddenly get to a replacement rate of, say, 1.5 children per woman on the planet and the population begins to go down faster than is expected. At that point you have to realize that everything we do now as a civilization could be reinterpreted as a kind of geoengineering. Some of it is intensely positive in itself, such as women’s education, and would then have environmental effects that are also positive. These double goods have to be sought out and we have to start thinking about geoengineering as something that we’re already doing and organize it for the good of the biosphere.
MP: One of the things that we, or at least I, didn’t think too much about before I read The Ministry for the Future was the possibility that geoengineering could be done by a country unilaterally. India decides to start this project of throwing particles in the air in order to avoid a new mass death event like the heat wave. How likely is it that—within the current geopolitical environment—a country like India or maybe a coalition of countries in Latin America could actually take that decision by themselves?
KSR: I think it is a real situation. It’s not expensive, maybe it would cost a billion dollars to recreate the equivalent of Pinatubo, the volcano that went off in 1991. We have studied it enough to know that such an amount of dust in the atmosphere would drop temperatures by a degree or two for about five years. Then the dust settles out and you’re back to where you were before. It looks relatively safe. The dust involved should not be the same kind of dust that comes out of volcanoes because that sulfur dioxide in it wrecks the ozone layer a bit. It would need to be something like limestone, calcium carbonates, just ordinary dust that’s already up there. It’s so easy to do, you can imagine not just one country unilaterally doing it but even one of our billionaires deciding this would be a cool thing to do, thinking they were being altruistic. With an individual there would be shock and dismay, people trying to stop it. If a country did it, especially if a big nuclear-armed country did it because it had been torched by the rise in temperatures, then there is no international sheriff, no space where this could be properly critiqued. Just following the thought experiment of The Ministry for the Future, if it was a nation like India from the Global South, the developed countries are the ones that have burned that carbon into the atmosphere by a huge percentage. The developing nations of the Global South are the first ones to suffer the damage, so we have no moral case and no political or military mechanism over them. What would we say to them if they were doing this to save their own citizens from being killed by heat waves? We have nothing to say. It could play out this way. I doubt any international agreement could ever come to pass, because some countries might fear that the damage in weather terms to their country would be bad for some reason or another. It’s one of those situations where—with the Anthropocene—we’re in a new territory. It’s unprecedented, it’s hard to know what would happen.
MP: Going back to the Ministry, I really love the discussion about how India can do this and not honor the agreement, when prior to this all the other terms of the agreement—reductions and other climate mitigation stuff—have been dishonored by others. What I also love is the fact that at the same time that these wet-bulb temperatures wreck human bodies, they also seem to destroy the machines that we rely on to keep our homes fresh. This destruction of the air conditioning machines would preemptively kill the whole billionaire bunker fantasy, like buying bunkers in New Zealand etc. So just to be sure about this: Would they survive if this were to happen? Would billionaires die too?
KSR: I think that’s a fantasy and probably a comforting one if you are that rich and that disconnected from history and understanding how the world really works. You could, indeed, build a bunker and you could have generators, you could have electricity and security in terms of guards, and maybe you could stock a few years worth of food although that gets more and more questionable. But these are billionaire fantasies. They’re mostly men and so maybe it’s easier for them to get it. Their sperm counts are one-third of their grandfather’s sperm counts. They cannot protect themselves from the world. We are like jellyfish in the ocean. We are breathing in the world with every breath and drinking it with every drink of water. We’re interpolated and intermeshed with the biosphere and it’s a biospheric crash that we’re talking about. No bunker will work and this is something that they ought to take on board. It’s a question whether they are being stupid in the sense of deliberately ignorant or whether they are just hoping. Or whether they’re just angry and it’s a kind of a Götterdämmerung response. Some of them are very well meaning. In the starship world, it’s been estimated that to keep modern civilization going, you need a minimum of a hundred million people. This includes the building of everything, the health industry, education, agriculture, machining, the technologies, all the necessities of life. There is no escape, it doesn’t matter how rich you are. Everybody on the planet is connected in one project.
MP: I hope Elon Musk is listening to us today. [Laughter] I am particularly fond of this idea that we are earthbound because we ourselves are colonies of viruses and bacteria and cannot really move to another planet and start again. Could you explain this lovely concept and how did you get there?
KSR: It was mind-boggling to me. About five or ten years ago I began to read this, and so did everybody else. A new fact was put into the world that people now think of as always-already, “Oh, we always knew that”, but 20 years ago we didn’t. Approximately 50 percent of the DNA inside your body is not human DNA. Think about that for a while and you realize you’re a collaboration like a forest or any other biome, any ecological space like a swamp because we are kind of swampy, being 90 percent water. The collaboration of all those bacteria, all those viruses, all those small creatures inside you and your gut, in particular, that create your mood and help you with your cognition. What we define as our self, which is kind of your stream of consciousness, is the thinking tip of a pyramid of biological activities. The Earth thing gets deranged if you stay too clean. You need to get your hands in the dirt every once in a while and be a gardener etc. to get connected with Earth’s bacteria and refresh your load so your gut microbiome benefits from some contact with the rest of the world. It starts from birth with your mom. With that in mind, the whole fantasy of leaving Earth and going off into space, just in evolutionary terms, falls apart. In my science fiction, where I postulate a Solar System-wide civilization, the humans go back to Earth every seven years for a sabbatical to renew their bacterial load because then they simply live longer. None of this will be well quantified for centuries to come but to me it was one of those facts that came about in my adult lifetime and really changed everything about how we think of our relationship to the Earth.
MP: We’ve been reclusive for quite a long time, this is something we think a lot about now with the pandemic. There’s been children born without touching anything or anyone, everything being extremely clean. How is that going to affect us when this strange period has passed? I heard that you experienced this very concept while going to Antarctica, which is a place where a lot of viruses and bacteria cannot really exist so people cannot live there.
KSR: That’s maybe true. Antarctica is an interesting experiment and I’ve been there twice, I love it very much. It’s like easy travel to other planets but it’s Earth, so you realize this planet is an astonishing big ball spinning in space and when the Sun doesn’t hit it, it turns into an ice place. The human stations there are like space stations, except a lot easier. The difficulties in Antarctica are maybe one or five percent of the difficulties of living in space, and yet it’s quite difficult to live there, nobody’s spending their entire lives down there. It’s structured as a space in which people go down there, do their work and then call it a go, coming back to the world, to go north somewhere and get replenished. Now as for the bacteria load, because it’s been such a short time that people have even tried to live down there and because they come and they go, it hasn’t been run as an experiment in sterility. It’s actually some urban cultures—you might say developed worlds, maybe the United States but also Japan—cleanliness, sterility cultures that have this “Oh, germs are bad” idea. This mid-twentieth-century conception that things are bad for you and you need to be detached from the world with cleansers. The pandemic, of course, has given us an extra charge of that. There are diseases of sterility, of being a little too clean. So now there are working scientists I know, who are always very experimental even on themselves, that are eating a little tiny spoon of dirt once a week or even in some cases giving themselves small doses of parasites that they think will increase their immunity strength. I wouldn’t endorse those, but I’m convinced that we are part of our biosphere to the point where if we detach from it, we begin to get sick.
MP: Let’s not do that right now. [Laughter] This concept is somehow the opposite of the famous or notorious Stewart Brand statement that we are as gods and we need to get good at it. We are actually nature and we definitely need to get better at it. In The Ministry you talk about ideology and how everybody has one. You cannot not have one because it’s embedded and you’re relating to the world. How much of all the trouble we’re in has to do with this ideology of being other than nature, of not wanting to be animals?
KSR: That’s a good question and it gets into depths of philosophy where I quickly drown. But I do want to say that Stewart Brand is a friend of mine and a force for good in the world. What you have to look at in that statement, which he’s modified a few times through his life, is that we are “as” gods. He didn’t say we “are” gods. If you think of the Greek gods, the Pantheon, they’re all screw-ups and petty, jealous, foolish characters. I think what Brand was trying to indicate was that our technological powers and our numbers in combination mean we are a geoengineering force whether we want to be or not. That’s what he meant by we are “as” gods, and the “as” is very important. We have immense powers, but we don’t know how to use them. We’re using them in ignorance already in advance of knowing how to use them, so that’s why he said we might as well get good at it. Recently, he’s modified that we “have” to get good at it and he’s right about that. The philosophical notion of the Enlightenment or of the Judeo-Christian monotheistic kind, the notion that humanity is separate from nature, from the rest of the biosphere, is wrong. We are, in fact, creatures of the Earth, we’re expressions of the Earth’s biosphere, we co-evolved with it and we rely on it completely. There’s no escape from that. That’s what the Anthropocene should mean. This is the era in which we are a geological force by accident and we have to get good at it. Stewart is not the problem because he’s open to any solutions. For many years he’s been in favour of the all-hands-on-deck approach, let’s do anything that might help, and he’s very open-minded. From my point of view, his ideology is maybe even too broad-minded, like anything that works, like if capitalism were suddenly to get sane, then that would be fine. I’m not sure that’s right, my ideology is not quite the same as his. It’s more leftist, more socially organized towards the public over the private in a way that I think he would just shrug and say, “We’re in a situation where anything that works is a good thing.” For me it seems obvious that the stuff that is most socially just is going to work the best because people are going to believe in it the most. So we’re not in total agreement, but we are allies in the same cause. Everybody’s got their own ideology, but there’s a broad coalition of people working for justice and sustainability that have their own opinions about what’s most important. You shouldn’t start fighting the people on your own side just because they don’t have the same emphasis that you have. They are still your allies and you have real enemies, human enemies. There ought to be a united front against the real enemies who are still advocating the burning of fossil fuels, who are still advocating the power of the one percent. Not just advocating, enacting it. In that big battle that we’re in, which is really a wicked battle, the story of our century, you’ve got to hang with the united front even if you’re not in total agreement with them.
MP: I agree. Though I also think that these fantasies—like the fantasy of dropping this planet that we already wasted and jumping to Planet B—also make us very vulnerable to opportunistic enterprises. Right now space is being fought over by the two richest men in the world, Jeff Bezos of Amazon and Elon Musk of SpaceX. I have to tell you that if you tell me that they are very good friends of yours, I’m going to cry. [Laughter]
KSR: No, they’re not, not in the sense of Stewart Brand. I’ve met Musk, I know about Bezos, I know about Gates. These are perfectly fine individual people. I think there should be no such thing as billionaires, that space is a commons and a place for the public good where the civilization at large does its work through its governments to try to protect Earth’s biosphere. I think that space science is an Earth science and that, except for communications, there’s almost no other reason to go up into space. It doesn’t work to make a profit in space, except maybe in the communications industry, if you structure the economy the way we are now. But when I say there should be no such thing as billionaires, I mean that the ways in which we organize our economic lives should simply be cooperatives where everybody benefits from the work that everybody does. I point to the tax laws in the United States right after World War II. This is a time of a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, and a Republican Congress. The maximum tax rate for individuals above a certain small limit like four hundred thousand dollars a year was ninety percent. Now it’s twenty percent and dodged at that. It should be ninety percent with prejudice in that even from the get-go you shouldn’t be making enough money that you need to be taxed that much. In other words, wage parity, the cooperative values, these things are out there in the literature. They’re a kind of a reformist or liberation theology capitalism where if you organize things around the employees as the powers rather than the owners, then you shift power in classical terms from capital to labour and you go on as a more just civilization forward from that. When you criticize individuals like Bezos and Musk … Musk is doing great spaceships, he’s doing great cars, he’s actually decarbonizing the planet faster than any other billionaire. His personal quirks, his weird hobbies, so what, this is all irrelevant to the larger systemic problem of the way that we organize economic life and the communal existence of humanity on this planet. These billionaires would not be hurt if they only had 10 million dollars rather than 50 billion dollars, their lives wouldn’t change even in the slightest. It might take a big burden off of their heads. That’s another strand of The Ministry for the Future, but it’s also a political project from the left that needs to come back. Neoliberal capital has ruled for 40 years now, since Reagan–Thatcher, and people have come to take its axioms as normality itself. They are just axioms and they’re wrecking people’s lives and the biosphere. All that needs to be restructured in a most radical way.
MP: I have to confess when you were saying before that one individual could throw particles into the air unilaterally, it was these two people that I immediately thought of just because they could. When you talk about the market you have often said that it systemically devalues human life and the environment. In your novels you have consistently chosen to think about the end of capitalism instead of the end of the world. I was going to ask you about carbon quantitative easing, the new kind of cryptocurrency that you thought could create a carbon-negative society at a planetary scale. I’d also like to talk about Mondragon, which people on Twitter have kept on asking you to do because “Hi, I’m Spanish and we are so proud every time you talk about this cooperative”.
KSR: I want to make it really clear that I’m not talking about cryptocurrency in the sense of Bitcoin or any of the rest of them, Ethereum etc. I’m talking about fiat currency, the currencies that are put forth and backed by the central banks of the world. It’s those central banks that drive the plot of The Ministry for the Future because they make the money that everybody trusts. Ultimately, the backstop currency in this world right now is the US dollar and everything else trades against it. If it were to crash, there would be no security in this world. Quantitative easing has been done by central banks after the 2008 crash and at the start of the pandemic. Money was injected into the system that did not exist before and it didn’t destabilize people’s trust in money itself, there was no inflation or deflation. That proved that quantitative easing, which is the central banks making up new money, can be done in quite significant amounts, not huge but significant. If that first creation of money by the central banks was devoted to decarbonizing work, it was never going to be the highest rate of return and in ordinary market capitalism will never be paid for to be done quickly enough to save us from disaster. Quantitative easing—you can call it carbon quantitative easing but, really, it is biospheric health quantitative easing if you look at it in its largest perspective—is money created and spent on good causes, which could create something like full employment. Because an enormous amount of human work needs to be done for this rapid decarbonization. So you begin to slip out of the market system and acknowledge the importance of government as opposed to business, of public as opposed to private, in getting us out of this fix by simply creating money and paying ourselves to do the right thing rather than the wrong thing. Some mechanisms are in that paper by Delton Chen which is now being discussed. I’m really encouraged by the fact that when I wrote The Ministry for the Future just two years ago, this stuff was speculative. In the months since then, the World Bank, the European Central Bank, the Federal Reserve of the United States and the Chinese government, which is in control of its central bank, have all declared that there needs to be various versions of carbon quantitative easing. The think tanks are trying to provide the armatures of what kind of laws you would pass etc. It’s a happening thing because it’s obvious, if we don’t do it, we’re doomed.
MP: At the beginning of the pandemic all the newspapers, the experts and politicians were talking about how after this health crisis, a massive economical one was coming. It’s interesting that in the first crisis we were dealing with a virus that we didn’t know before and we didn’t know how to handle and didn’t have the tools yet to actually contain. And yet money is just an agreement, it’s databases updating simultaneously, it doesn’t really have a connection with reality anymore. This crisis should be much easier to resolve than the sanitary one.
KSR: And yet, we organize civilization by way of money and we’re in a capitalist system that says that it’s okay for the richest ten percent of people on the planet to benefit from the work of all 100 percent of people. That’s a mindset also. That’s normality itself as if it’s physics, and it’s not physics. I take your point, this should be easier to change than our relationship to viruses that are invisible and that we breathe on each other and then make each other sick and die. It ought to be easier to manipulate the money. But the point is that the hegemonic thinking of our time, our sense of what’s normal in the way that we organize ourselves as human beings, what people are calling capitalist realism, this is reality itself. Since it’s crashing people’s lives and crashing the biosphere system, we have to rethink that. That’s why one looks to Mondragon where the employees own the companies and whatever profit is made in the larger economy is split up three ways between the employees, infrastructure improvements and charities that the employees choose. That’s one step, the co-op model. Then you have to realize that the market systemically devalues things and prices everything wrong in biosphere terms and human health terms. You have to get into very scary territory of thinking, well, all these things should actually be public goods that maybe you pay a fee for but that nobody makes a profit for. They’re governmental nonprofits, food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education and electricity, these are all things that people create for people and not for profit. This is radical reform and whether it can be done fast enough and in an orderly fashion is the question for our time. This is the project that we are thrust into. Even if we didn’t want to be, we’re thrust into it by the biosphere emergency that we’re in. I guess as a science fiction writer and as an ex-Marxian it’s easier for me to see that people are proposing future plans. Everybody now is a science fiction writer saying, “Well, we’re doomed,” they’re dystopian science fiction writers. Other people are saying, “Well, everything’s going to be fine in capitalist reality, we’ll just price things right.” This is what Žižek calls cruel optimism, the idea that it’ll be okay and we don’t have to change that much. You have to cut a line between unnecessary pessimism, because we’re not doomed yet, and cruel optimism that everything’s going to be okay no matter what we do. Neither of those is true. In between them there’s a practical line of “Oh, my gosh, we have to make big changes fast, we’re not good at that, let’s see if we can organize it and do it”.
MP: One of the important investments that we need to think of right now is infrastructure. I think of your second-to-last novel New York 2140, where you literally turn a New York flood into a romantic comedy, “a comedy of coping”, as you call it. People just go about their lives, go to work, fall in and out of love. It’s so cheerful it makes you want to live there. It made me think a lot of Madrid, where I live, or actual New York, why I feel they are particularly livable right now. On the other hand, it also made me think of Fairbourne, which is this town on the coast of North Wales that has been literally decommissioned by the government. I think it’s the first town to be decommissioned by a government precisely because of a predicted sea level rise of 0.5 meters. Not 15 meters like in your novel, but 0.5 meters in the next 30 years. While writing this novel, what strategies and coping mechanisms have you learnt that can turn many cities and towns in the world into a flourishing Venice? What could you tell us that could help us prepare?
KSR: In New York 2140 I wanted to do a kind of a thought experiment. I had a couple of points to it. One of them was: whether we do well or poorly in the 21st century in dealing with the biosphere crisis, there are going to be human beings alive in the 22nd century and in the 23rd century. They’re going to be born into it and they’re going to grow up into it. However it’s working then, they’re going to be coping with it and there’s going to be the comedy of coping, there’s going to be young people falling in love, trying to create families and trying to do good work. One thing that this culture gets into is the idea that if we do poorly in coping, it’s the end of the world, humanity will go extinct and after that there’s nothing. There’s a kind of doomism, it’s easier to be cynical and pretend that you’re smart than it is to be hopeful and expose yourself to the accusation that you’re not being very realistic. But the truth is that it is possible that humanity—there’s eight billion of us—could crash civilization to the point where billions die and then the population replacement rate crashes, not so many are born and we end up with a much much smaller human population 100 or 200 years from now. I mean that would be bad, that’s really the dark scenario. Yet you still have billions of humans alive on the planet in the wreckage of our civilization, building a new one and trying to cope with the situation given to them. They will curse us, they will be amazed at us, but they won’t be sitting on the ground throwing ashes on their head and saying, “It’s all over, woe is me.” They’ll be coping. Another point I wanted to make is that capitalism will not go down easily, it will always be trying to find the margin and spread the bets, go short and long on any given economic situation and try to make money out of it. Unless we legislate it into something better, it will continue to try to do its predations on people. We live in a predatory, parasitic system and so changing that, I wanted to point out, might be an ongoing project. Enlightenment is not going to go off in people’s heads all over the world and change to a better system all at once. It’s going to be a struggle. And I want to point out that I’m talking about the discursive battle. It could get physically violent, but at this point, like what we’re doing right now and what we often do, it’s the discursive battle, the battle of ideas. If the right ideas were to win, you could legislate your way to a better system without having to have the dangers and the disasters of a physical revolution. All these things came into my vision of New York, which I have to say has a really strongly built infrastructure right now. Coastal cities that have been thrown up ad hoc in the last 20 years by massive population influxes won’t be so strong to sea level rise and there will be decommissioning like that little town in Wales. There are parts of Staten Island in New York City itself where after hurricane Sandy the government simply bought up the houses and began to remove them, because that’s the new shoreline. A lot of that kind of accommodating to a higher sea level is going to have to happen and it’ll have to be treated as an opportunity to do good ecological work. A return of wetlands, we need those, that will be part of the carbon drawdown effort. In coping with the biosphere emergency all kinds of things are going to happen. They’re all going to be on the table and they ought not to be labeled in advance by our older ideologies. It’s a time of flux and I have to think, well, maybe there are market mechanisms that we will need. For me as an old leftist this is a shocking thought, but if I’m going to go with my own prescription that everything’s on the table, then even what I would call reactionary, retrograde or regressive thoughts like that have to be entertained to see if there’s any use value in them.
MP: People tend to imagine that the end of the world will be a thing that happens in one day. Like in the movies when an asteroid hits the Earth very hard unless Bruce Willis is there to stop it, or when we are saved from the flood, which is our favourite metaphor for every catastrophe, at the last minute, all of us, by one technology and one Elon Musk of the day. But in your book you split reality into many different futures and solutions that interlace into an extremely optimistic end. It’s the most optimistic book about the future I have read in a very long time, which is one of the reasons why it was so important for us to have you here opening this (re)programming series, being the guiding light for the rest of the season.
Lučka Kajfež Bogataj: As a climatologist I’m against geoengineering, you’ve probably guessed that. I think it’s not regulated enough and the atmosphere is in motion. If India puts something in the air, this can end up in Pakistan or in China. With the world leaders like we are having right now—okay, we’ve got rid of Trump, but can you imagine Trump being in charge of geoengineering processes? It’s scary. If I wrote science fiction, I would probably mention geoengineering too, but what we’ll be doing in the next ten years will be crucial to catch the 1.5 degrees of warming. If we miss this, then the warming will probably increase to three or five degrees. As a writer, as an artist, what are your plans? What will you write next to boost the movement right now? Because in 2050 it will be too late. How to write about these practical things? How to write science fiction about carbon tax, which is a very good mechanism? How to write science fiction about the externalization of expenses? Because we now know what nature is worth in dollars or in bitcoins. How to write about these things?
KSR: I want to say that The Ministry for the Future is my attempt to write about those very things. When you say geoengineering, what you mean by the rest of your sentence is solar radiation management. In other words, you’re defining geoengineering as only that one technique, which is the main, the most discussed and the most studied one, as some kind of emergency gesture with dangers that you pointed out. But if women’s education is geoengineering also, then you have to reorient your thinking about geoengineering and change the vocabulary so that you’re talking about solar radiation management when you’re talking about solar radiation management. It has its dangers, climatologists are only studying it because they think it might be an emergency, a necessity. If we get that four or five degree Celsius average rise, we are going to be dying by the millions, so that’s what they’re looking at. There are other methods and I’m thinking about direct air capture that could also be called geoengineering. Indeed, it’s rather speculative, drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere is technically possible but logistically stupendous and expensive. And yet, if we could begin to draw down CO2 at some significant fraction of the speed with which we were burning it, that too is geoengineering. There isn’t any obvious downside except for the industrial costs of making that much machinery. It would be like the auto industry or like iPhones, where you would instantaneously need literally millions of these machines drawing carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That isn’t in The Ministry for the Future as much as it ought to be because I’ve been learning about it since I wrote the book in 2019. So I’m going to say that, for writers, I’m kind of done. The Ministry for the Future is my contribution, but the feedback I’ve been getting in the year since it’s out is twofold. One: people like this story, they wanted an optimistic story of us dodging the mass extinction event. Two: I’m wrong at a, b, c, d, I didn’t bring up e, I should consider f, I’m wrong about g and h. This is true, I’m just a science fiction writer trying a story. It’s not a world, it’s a novel, and one novel can only cover so much. The Ministry for the Future in many ways tries to cover too much. The novel is a capacious form and it can play games like this every once in a while. You roll a lot of dice and then you trust your readers to pick it all up and make it coherent. I have a readership that is willing to follow me into strange territory. In fact, I wanted to thank Marta because when she brings in New York 2140 and Aurora, what she’s pointing out indirectly is that I’ve been working on this as a continuous process for my last six or ten books for the last 30 years. So I pass on the torch. I’ll continue to write, but it needs to be a generational effort. There needs to be a whole crowd of young writers and young people in their activism that are enacting these things.
Luka Omladič: I’m an environmental philosopher and I’m also involved with the eco-socialist party here in Slovenia, so my question will be political. You tackle the question of eco-radicalism or even eco-terrorism in your book. Environmental community as a whole tends to use words like “war”, “war against”, “war for the climate”. For example, Michael E. Mann’s new book is entitled The New Climate War. In your presentation you used the word “battle” and emphasized it’s a discursive battle. When Mann speaks about the war, he also means the discursive wars against climate denial, but can you envisage a world where this will not play out that well? Where we will indeed have climate wars, or where the struggle will not only be a discursive one but also a concrete class struggle?
KSR: I’m a middle-class white American man, really one of the most privileged people on the Earth today and in history itself, so I don’t want to advocate violence. That would be wrong from my subject position because I myself won’t do it and wouldn’t want to. But I’m afraid that there are going to be people that suffer horrendously, the immiserated of the Earth. There are two billion people on the planet right now living in misery and they have the right to be extremely angry, enough to take matters into their own hands and perhaps do violence against whom they consider the guilty. But since the system itself is guilty, this is a strategy that’s never going to do much except maybe scare people in power, and maybe people in power need to be scared. You will probably know of Andreas Malm, a Swedish philosopher who recently published the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline. He brings up the interesting question of violence against machinery, sabotage as opposed to terrorism. Would that be appropriate? Should you be going down and breaking carbon fossil fuel machinery? We all use electricity, so this is problematic in itself. I come back to what you identified: eco-socialism. That’s how in the broadest terms I would define myself, and the reason is that socialism, as a nineteenth-century thing, was very often—something that Marta brought up—about humans and then nature. Humans manipulate nature to make a good world for themselves and nature is just the raw material to be made into a good human future and to reduce misery. That was an earlier view and, as powerful and important as socialism was, you see the results in Eastern Europe where socialist governments devastated their landscapes. The same thing is still going on in China, which is socialism with Chinese characteristics, wrecking their landscape and their long-term prospects for the short-term improvement of immiserated lives. You can see the importance of trying, you can see that it was wrong. I mean wrong in this: you need the eco, you need eco-socialism where the biosphere itself is one of the socialist citizens that needs to be brought out of misery and made as healthy as the rest of it in one larger, integrated system. My hope is that we could win the discursive battle by explaining this and try to avoid the violence against other people, which will usually rebound against the cause. In other words, it will cause more damage over the long haul than good. And yet certain people in this world need to be scared, scared for themselves or scared for their children. From my point of view, I write a scene so scary that I can’t even read it myself, but other people are going to be more like, “No, I’m going to blow up your house.” So we’ll see what happens.
LO: You’re more optimistic than Margaret Atwood. [Laughter]
KSR: [Laughter] Not hard to do.
MP: In your last novel there is this conversation about what constitutes violence. Sometimes slow violence is not considered violence until it turns into fast violence, which is the case with the heat wave that kills 20 million people in one go. Odo Marquard talked a lot about what constitutes genocide in terms of numbers and what is a catastrophe in terms of volume. In this case it’s about speed, it’s like the same number of deaths, just condensed in one moment.
Ida Hiršenfelder: Apart from systemic critiques that I love reading in your novels, I really enjoy the characters and how you present people with all their petty and sometimes very altruistic desires. It shows how diverse people are and also how difficult it is to rein us in, to control us. On the other hand, there is always the global perspective that you’re trying to address. You’ve mentioned that you’re interested in raising awareness about the global, about us being a part of this system in a very biological, interconnected way. I’ve studied some degrowth perspectives recently and they suggest that we would need to be much more frugal, to have a different kind of ethics that would not strive for more but for less. Also, we shouldn’t try to be global, but try to be local. I would be really curious to see how you see this interplay between global and local in your novels as well as in your philosophy.
KSR: I appreciate your comment on my novels being about characters because I’ve really pushed the novels in ways that make them into experiments in form, but I fully believe that novels are about characters. The reader of a novel has the right to think that they’re going to get to experience an act of telepathy and be inside other people’s heads, which is mostly unavailable to us. It’s a fictional experience only but quite vivid when you’re a reader that loves to read novels. I need to always emphasize that what I want to do most is write good novels. But in this world it means writing about the whole biosphere because that’s the context, that’s the setting that is inescapable. The local is also the character, the characters are always dealing with their local situation. Chapter 85 in The Ministry for the Future is just a list of local organizations around this world that already exist and are doing landscape restoration and wildlife protection. This is an important chapter, it takes about 10 or 15 minutes for the audiobook to read it and it’s just a list of local organizations that are doing this good work. Of course, it’s only representative, there must be hundreds of times more. When the global is crucial, the central banks, the international organizations, the Paris Agreement are our representatives organizing things at the international level. You as an individual citizen can really only do what’s in your neighbourhood, your community and your watershed, your bio-region. It needs to be top-down because otherwise these local efforts get eaten by capitalist realism and they don’t change the system in which they exist to the point where they can really thrive. They become like rescue operations and they cope, but they don’t transform. Recently, I’ve also realized that side-to-side between the local and the global is the level of the city and the region. In the United States, there are a hundred million people living in cities that have made city-to-city agreements to reduce their carbon burn. That’s like one third of all Americans or close to it. It’s worked at the regional level, so it isn’t really bottom-up, it isn’t just you and your neighbours, it isn’t international top-down. We think in these dichotomies, these binaries, you think there’s top-down, there’s bottom-up, but no, there’s also side-to-side, this flux in the middle, and these efforts are also crucially important. But returning to a character in a novel: it is a type, it stands for the ordinary, the reader living their citizen lives as one out of eight billion people. What can you do as one out of eight billion people? It’s not nothing, it’s an actual, real effect in the world, the one eight billionth effect. As a novelist this is how I’m always coming at it, to try to tell that story too.
MP: I was laughing before because in The Ministry you have many narrators and many characters telling the story from different perspectives, including history with a capital H and also the Sun. Or one of my favourites: the pilots that are distributing sulfur dioxide into the air and the collective narration of this event that changes everything for everybody so profoundly. I found this extremely moving. It’s a book you just cannot put down.
James Bridle: I was very struck by the “black ops” unit in The Ministry for the Future, and Andreas Malm has also written on similar ideas in How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Do you see this possibility as a return of organizations like The Monkey Wrench Gang and Earth First!, the further radicalization of groups like Greenpeace or Extinction Rebellion, or something newer and possibly more evenly distributed?
KSR: I took a close and personal interest in Earth First!, an organization in the United States led by Dave Foreman and inspired by Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang. In my novel Antarctica and to a very small research-level degree in my own life, I looked into what it would take to slow down the unnecessary profit-driven destruction of the forests of the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada without hurting people. This is what Malm is talking about too, sabotage, ecotage, not violence against people but against capitalism. Because the profit margins are small when you’re destroying a biosphere that in certain economic calculations is worth far more than your profit. I like Extinction Rebellion and I like Greenpeace very much. The National Science Foundation, when they were establishing the bases for the United States in Antarctica, were just trashing the environment down there. Two things happened: the Environmental Defense Fund sued them in Washington DC in Federal Court, and Greenpeace went down there, took all the trash from their garbage pile and threw it on the office floor in the middle of a meeting and yelled at people. It was those two actions together that convinced the National Science Foundation that McMurdo ought to be an exercise in cleanliness. I take this as a modeling exercise, it’s about laws, about what stimulates people to change the laws and to obey the good laws that already exist. Sometimes it’s direct action, especially if you think of it as non-violent action against people, so that it’s civil disobedience, or it’s the kind of things that you see Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace already thinking about. If you put your little boat in front of a Japanese whaler, this is heroic because the whaler isn’t endangered, in fact, you’re endangered, radically sometimes, but the whales get away. You see this charismatic megafauna of direct action resistance that’s been successful and hasn’t hurt any humans except financially, where they need to be hurt. Many people are hurt worse in their pocketbook than if you would slap them in the face. Without wanting to encourage actions I wouldn’t do myself, which I feel is immoral, I would say that there’s going to be a lot of young people coming up who are going to be thinking about these matters in very active terms.
pinchito: Geoengineering does not need to be complex, just painting all ceilings in the world white might reduce global temperatures by around one degree Celsius. Is there any other particular bizarre scheme such as this one that you love?
KSR: [Laughter] That would be a great idea and why not, right? This is the aspect of geoengineering that I like. In The Ministry for the Future I have one for you that is relatively new. The glaciers that are sliding off of Antarctica and Greenland into the ocean, it’s not that they’re melting from the heat of the air, they are sliding faster than they used to into the ocean where they melt. Like with dust in the atmosphere, it would be relatively easy to suck out—and this is a pumping method we already have—the meltwater that slipped down through cracks from underneath the glaciers, and slow them back down to the speed that they were before. This would cost less than a billion dollars for sure. Even in a warmer world, if the glaciers are thumped back down onto the base rock rather than sliding down like in a water slide, sea level will be that much less prone to rising fast. But what I like in your question is that there are hundreds of methodologies because there’s so many people on Earth. Hundreds of small actions can add up to good geoengineering or climate mitigation. They can be true mitigation without degrowth. Degrowth is a weird word because it implies suffering or renunciation, things that humans aren’t particularly good at. It’s asking the young to be saints because we’ve been sinners. Although it’s right that there should be fewer people and less impact on the biosphere, I think it needs to be reconceptualized for the discursive battle as something more like sophistication or stylishness.
Navine: In The Ministry for the Future, the character Badim talks about the need for a new global religion in this time of a global ecological crisis. Can you talk more about what this religion might be like and how it would bring people together, given that the existing religions continue to separate communities all over the world?
KSR: I didn’t do a particularly good job in The Ministry for the Future in taking this new or old religion very seriously. I had so many balls in the air like a juggler, I didn’t want to deal with that one, which is like a chainsaw thrown into a juggler’s mix. So I made a bit of a joke out of it although I gestured that way through Badim. The thing is the new religion would be the oldest religion: the Earth is our mother. This is genderizing, but you see what I mean, it gives birth to us and then sustains us. When human beings left Africa 120,000 years ago or so to occupy the rest of the world as a quickly dominant force, they already had a religion that spread everywhere on Earth. Sometimes it’s called shamanism, sometimes it’s called Gaia, the word is obviously from a European tradition, but an Earth religion is at the basis of all the religions. So the ones that have come up since the post-agricultural period, they often were class based, they were part of a power relation. I don’t like them, they have aspects of good in them, for sure, but they need to think about the larger picture of the Sun as a god, the Earth as a god or goddess. What I’m saying is that the whole business is a sacred business, that it has to do with a spiritual attitude, that humanity has an urge to want things to mean something and that’s what religion is all about. We choose it, we make it up. My religion is literature for that very reason. But there is a bigger religion that hits you that literature just tries to express when you go outdoors. I would say this—and this is a peculiar way to come at it: there’s a huge part of our brain in the temporal lobe that lights up like a light bulb anytime you have religious thoughts. We evolved with religious feelings. In this so-called secular world or Enlightenment world, rational, reasonable, scientific world it’s nevertheless a spiritual and even mystical business that we have, an urge towards meaning. That needs to come into play here. So one planet—it’s not a village, global village isn’t the right phrase—all people being brothers and sisters together, us being part of one larger family, including our bacteria, this is a religious statement too. It is important, and I invite others to pursue it in a way that would be more comprehensive. In fact, I would say that my novel Green Earth and my novel Shaman are stronger on this particular aspect of the project than The Ministry for the Future.
Sinan: Why is it important to write utopian fiction?
KSR: [Laughter] Because I am a utopian science fiction writer and there aren’t that many of them. The canon of that particular kind of literature is rather small, and my greatest utopian contemporaries Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain Banks have both passed away. But also, everybody does it. In other words, we all tell utopian science fiction stories to ourselves about our own lives, about our communities’ lives. What I’m seeing now is that with The Ministry for the Future there’s an empty ecological niche in our culture, which is precisely utopia. People want stories like this. My novel is a mess, but people like it anyway because they don’t have anything better yet to fill that niche in their desires. Utopia will always keep happening, it’s a way of organizing your thoughts as to how we might get to a better place. It’s not a perfect instate, it is a name for one kind of history. It’s important to stick with it so that we can organize our efforts towards making that better history come true. Just as a personal note: writing utopian science fiction is felt to be quite crazy, and I just read a good book on Soviet socialist realism by Katerina Clark [The Soviet Novel: History as Ritual], in which she says that to write utopian fiction or to write socialist realism was to be schizophrenic. In the novel, you want to talk about what is, but you also want to talk about what ought to be. I began to laugh because I realized that I spent my entire artistic career as an ineffective schizophrenic in terms of modes. But this is just representative of all of us, really. We all recognize what is, we all have a feeling of what ought to be, they are not well correlated right now, and so we have to keep working on utopia.