Thursday, May 19

How will humanity endure the climate crisis? I asked an acclaimed science fiction writer | Daniel Aldana Cohen


TTo truly grasp the present, we need to imagine the future and then look back to better see the now. Angry weather kids do this naturally. The rest of us need to read good science fiction. A great place to start is Kim Stanley Robinson.

Robinson is one of the genre’s most brilliant writers. During the Covid quarantine, I read 11 of his books, culminating in his instant classic The Ministry for the Future, which envisions several decades of climate policy starting this decade.

The first lesson of his books is obvious: the weather is the history. Compared to the scale of the crisis, this year’s United Nations climate summit, Cop26, was a poorly planned pool party where half the guests were sweating in jeans, having forgotten their bathing suits. If you’re reading this, you probably know what climate science portends, and that nothing that was discussed in Glasgow was within the proper scope. What ministry and other Robinson books make us slow down the featured apocalyptic reel, letting the story unfold in human time over years, decades, centuries. The screen does not turn black; Instead, we see how people continue to die, cope, and struggle to shape a future, often gloriously.

I spoke to Robinson recently for an episode of The Dig podcast. He told me that he wants leftists to put aside their differences and put a “timestamp on [their] political vision ”that recognizes the urgency of things. Looking back from 2050 leaves little room for abstract idealism. Progressives need to form “a united front,” he told me. “It is a hands-on situation; species are going extinct and biomes are dying. Disasters are here and now, so we need to build political coalitions. “

The point of Robinson’s decades of science fiction is not simply to advise “vote blue no matter who.” He told me that he remains a proud and veteran member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But he wants leftists, and everyone else, to take the climate emergency more seriously. He thinks each The big decision, every technological choice, every political opportunity, warrants climate-oriented scientific scrutiny. Global justice demands nothing less.

Robinson’s call for “hands-free” is even more challenging in technology and economics than it is in election campaigns. He wants to legitimize geoengineering, even in such radical ways as throwing limestone dust into the atmosphere for a few years to temporarily dampen the sun’s heat. As a ministry it dramatizes, and as it reminded me, there is a good chance that a country devastated by climate collapse will try this, whether it is authorized by the international community or not.

More broadly, Robinson seems to urge all of us to address all possible technological interventions, from expanding nuclear power to pumping meltwater under glaciers and dumping iron filings into the ocean, from a perspective strictly scientific: reject dogma, evaluate evidence, ignore profit motive.

It is an admirable sight. And Robinson is not a blind techno-optimist: some of the most attractive characters in his novels use science to to refuse fringes of technological development. You don’t necessarily want to follow all the forms of geoengineering that we investigate, but you want us to discuss them.

As he told me: “good science, bad capitalism.” He considers the development of the scientific method as a phenomenon as universal to the human condition as art. In his ice age novel Shaman, one character invents a new type of anklet while another invents a new type of rock painting.

This vision attracts me. But I am not convinced that the science versus capitalism binary is as clear-cut in practice as Robinson claims. We live in a world where capitalist states and giant corporations largely control science. (Just consider the moral insanity and capitalist logic of global vaccine apartheid.) Some of the biggest backers of technology to capture carbon and store it underground are oil companies like Exxon. Yes, we must consider technologies with an open mind. That includes a frank assessment of how the interests of the powerful will shape the development of technologies. Robinson could learn from the positions of activists of color, especially indigenous and environmental justice groups, who fight against “false solutions” based on centuries of exploitation and sacrifice.

Robinson’s imagined future suggests a short-term solution that fits his dreams of scientific and democratic politics: planning, both for the economy and for the planet. It’s a great imperative, but the underlying idea is solid and borrowed from Robinson’s reading of green economics. The premise of this field is that the economy is embedded in nature, that its fundamental rules are not supply and demand, but the laws of physics, chemistry and biology. The result of Robinson’s science fiction is to understand that great ecologies and human economies are always interdependent.

Robinson believes that once progressives internalize the idea that the economy is a social construct like anything else, they can determine, based on the contemporary balance of political forces, ecological needs, and available tools, the most efficient methods of carrying carbon and capital to closest alignment. Success will grow like a snowball; We will increasingly democratically plan the eco-economy.

Seen from Mars, the problem of the climate economy of the 21st century is to align the social system of capital and the ecological system of carbon. Robinson’s elegant solution, as featured at Ministry, is quantitative carbon easing. The idea is that central banks invent a new currency; To earn carbon coins, institutions must show that they are sucking excess carbon out of the sky. In his novel, this happens thanks to a series of encounters between United Nations technocrats and central bankers. But the technocrats only win the arguments because there is enough anger, protest and organization in the streets to force the hand of the bankers.

Robinson thus understands that climate policy is fundamentally investment policy: extremely large investments. As you told me, quantitative carbon easing does not the “Miracle solution”, just one of several green investment mechanisms that we have to experiment with.

Robinson shares the great anarchist dream. “Everyone on the planet has the same amount of power, comfort and wealth,” he said. “It’s an obvious goal” but there are no shortcuts. Moving in that direction, he argues, requires radical pragmatism: preventing ecological collapse and, at the same time, increasing public control of investment. We simply cannot know in advance what works best.

In his political economy, like his imaginary settlement on Mars, Robinson tries to think like a bench scientist: an experimentalist, distrustful of unifying theories, eager for many groups to prove many things.

And there is something liberating about Robinson’s commitment to the scientific method: Reasonable people can shed their biases, consider all options, and act strategically. This confusion between science and politics is what draws me to his work, even when I (often) disagree with his conclusions. Like the great socialist filmmaker Ken Loach, Robinson is a leftist who describes debate as one of the most important activities in organized social life. It is in that sense that Robinson’s optimistic opposition between science and capitalism is most compelling: not beakers against banks, but social action based on a thoughtful discussion of social and ecological needs rather than the murderous supremacy of profit.

Of course, there are limits to people’s good sense. Robinson understands it too. The years to come will be brutal. At the Ministry, tens of millions of people die in disasters, and that’s in a scenario that Robinson describes as relatively optimistic. And when things get this bad, people take up arms. In the Ministry’s imagined future, the rise of armed drones allows shady environmentalists to attack and kill fossil capitalists. Many, including myself, have used the phrase “ecoterrorism” to describe this violence. Robinson backed away when we spoke. “What if you call that resistance to capitalism realism?” I ask. “What if you call that, well, ‘freedom fighters’?”

To be clear, Robinson insists that he does not tolerate the violence described in his book; You just can’t imagine a realistic account of 21st century climate politics where it doesn’t happen. He has spoken approvingly of Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which calls for sabotage against the fossil fuel industry. Malm writes that it is shocking how little So far there has been political violence around climate change, given the brutality with which the damage will be felt in communities of color, especially in the global south, who bear no responsibility for the cataclysm, and where political violence has been historically effective in anti-colonial struggles.

In the Ministry, there is a lot of violence, but especially off stage. We see enough to appreciate Robinson’s constant view of most people as basically thoughtful: the armed struggle is cruel, but its leaders are reasonable, strategic. And the implications are clear: there will be an escalation of violence, an escalation of state repression, and growing political instability. We must plan that too.

And perhaps that’s the tension that is ultimately the Ministry’s biggest lesson for current climate policy. No document that can achieve consensus at a UN climate summit will be close enough to prevent catastrophic warming. We can only keep up with history and see clearly what needs to be done, taking our minds out of the present and imagining future points of view. If millions of people around the world can do that, in an increasingly violent world of climate disasters, quite a few good projects can add up to something like a rational plan, and buy us enough time to stabilize the climate and seize power from the population. 1%.

Robinson’s optimistic view is that human nature is fundamentally reflective and that it will save us, that the social process of arguing and politicizing, with as open minds as we can, is a project older than capitalism and that it will eventually outlive it. . It is a perspective worth thinking about, as long as we are also organizing.

  • Daniel Aldana Cohen is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative. He is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.


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