Imagining a Flooded Planet
Christopher Walker in conversation with science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson about the role of optimism and speculation in ecological writing.
Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of numerous novels, short stories, and essays. His writings explore our most pressing ecological challenges, including climate change, the intersection between economic and environmental justice, and geoengineering.
Christopher Walker: You are well known for your optimism about the future, which features prominently in both the science-fiction worlds you create—worlds of revolution, respect for science, and the possibility of a new commons—and your lectures on science as a utopian endeavor. How do you maintain your own optimism in our contemporary moment of political and environmental crises?
Kim Stanley Robinson: It’s getting harder. To the extent that I manage it, I think it’s mainly due to my mom, Gloria McElroy Robinson, who was a cheerful person. But I also saw very clearly that she regarded cheerfulness as a moral position, which she took even in hard times, no matter how she was feeling internally. It was a performance. I’ve tried to learn from her and behave similarly, partly as a way to honor her memory. Then politically, I always rehearse Antonio Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” which suggests that optimism can be a political position, taken as part of the project of working toward the best political result.
The current situation is really perilous. I think it’s clear that stopping our fossil carbon burn fast enough to avoid climate disaster might not happen, which will leave us scrambling hard to recover, if we can. We can burn 500 more gigatons of fossil carbon before we shoot over the 2 degree Celsius average global temperature rise that is identified as the highest we can go before some really bad consequences might follow. Meanwhile we’ve already identified more than 2,500 gigatons of fossil carbon in the ground, and the extra 2,000 gigatons that we can’t safely burn are already on company books and regarded as national assets by several very powerful countries. So this is a dire situation. People who consider themselves good and responsible persons will be attempting to burn those 2,000 gigatons, at least at first. If sold today at the price of oil, those 2,000 gigatons would be worth around $700 trillion. So people will be thinking, hey, I’ll just sell my trillion before the rest becomes stranded assets. And a lot of money will get spent to justify doing this.
Against that destruction, and for life on Earth, we have science and the scientific community, and everyone who believes in science, and in civilization continuing. We have the Paris Accords, and we have the world’s attention on this issue as the crucial existential issue of our time, even a crux in human history. Fifteen years ago we didn’t have these things, and now we do. So the discursive struggle has been won to that extent, and the battle lines are now clearly drawn. It will be a battle, but it may remain mainly a discursive battle, and a policy battle. And with survival at stake, not of our species but of our civilization, I think it makes sense to hold onto optimism as a weapon in this battle. We can do it, and therefore we should do it, for our descendants’ sake. We have to go into it with that attitude.
This is the line of thought I’ve taken in bolstering my own optimism, which I sometimes call angry optimism, as I often have to force it. Also to distinguish it from Slavoj iek’s cruel optimism, which to me is the thoughtless assertion that everything will be okay.
CW: Elsewhere you have suggested that science-fiction genres utilize different strategies for speculating about the future—specifically that dystopias explore our fears while utopias investigate our hopes. Does the widening political gulf between Left and Right complicate this picture? I can’t help but think of the varied responses to the melting of Arctic sea ice: as a tragic event with frightening repercussions, or as an opportunity for accelerated resource extraction. How might we make sense of late capitalism’s delighted anticipation of what we know to be ecological crisis?
KSR: The political divide between Left and Right is always there. You could say the Right uses fear, the Left hope. At first this makes the Right stronger, because fear is immediate, and easier to feel and to fan the flames of. But hope is persistent, starting as it does at the cellular level. It’s biologically intrinsic to life, in other words, and politically it’s the home of the young and the idealistic, and of all people looking to make the future better than the present. So since the situation is in fact very scary, fear has its followers and can be used as a club by the greedy, who are also fearful—fearful that enough isn’t really enough, so they have to grab more.
But you only need a working political majority to get things done politically. There will never be much more than a working majority, not until there is a shift in the world culture’s “structure of feeling,” after which this set of questions will recede in a new hegemonic structure of feeling in which it’s seen as normal to adjust civilization to the biosphere’s energy flows, and insane not to. Then the fear party will seize on other fears, but the necessary work on this central project will proceed without controversy attending it, as just being the necessary thing.
The real issue here is the need for a new political economy to emerge that will call for and develop a new economics. Right now I think the crux is not politics, where a working political majority is always very close to rallying together to do the necessary things; it’s economic, where current power has been expressed as the neoliberal capitalism we live in, in which the biosphere is ridiculously underpriced, and people also; they are thought of as commodities, as labor power only. This comprehensive global system of laws is backed by powerful people who don’t understand the disastrous ramifications of their policies for their own descendants. But until a viable new economics is invented and legislated, this system will continue to limp along as it is now, wrecking the biosphere and people’s lives.
So where are the economists? Where is the new political economy that not only is adequate to the situation, but can be legislated from within the one we’re in now? This is the better way to portray the problem, rather than some portrayal of Left-Right, even though it’s that, too. Can we figure out a way to pay ourselves to do the necessary things for biosphere health and our civilization’s survival? If we did, it would be a leftist accomplishment, I judge. But it would also quickly become hegemonic, and the Right would learn to live with it, and would help enact it.
CW: Recently there has been research and journalism indicating that scientists are rethinking the use of affect in conveying their findings to the public. Perhaps fear is rather important? Is the choice of genre used to imagine the future an ethical (or perhaps a political) choice, for the scientist or the science-fiction author?
KSR: I think the term “Anthropocene” started from fear. It was an intervention made first by scientists to underline the gravity of the situation, to scare us by pointing out the level of responsibility we now have for the health of the biosphere going forward. But there’s a fine line here, like a tightrope, that I see many scientists trying to balance on as they go forward. To have a voice in the cultural discussion, they are strongest when they “remain scientists.” The usual fear tactics used by right-wing angry politicians won’t be appropriate if you want to remain a scientist and speak as a scientist. On the other hand, the situation is growing even more scary than many people realize. The Right warns of a flood of immigrants, of losing one’s national identity; well, this is bad, maybe, but losing one’s food source and one’s resistance to fatal diseases is even worse. And the immigrants are in fact being created by climate chaos. They are climate refugees, our fellow humans in trouble. So there is a line of argument that I see scientists following that in effect both doubles down on the fear and at the same time points to the real source of fear and what could be done about it.
Meanwhile, other scientists are pointing out that fear often leads to bad decisions. I should think misplaced fears would be especially likely to cause bad decisions. And the work that has to be done now has to be structured within a global political-economic system of huge size and complexity. In essence, global society is a technology that includes language and law and justice as necessary software components. It’s not natural, it’s an artificial human construct, an accidental megastructure, which has evolved over time as earlier generations responded to earlier crises and opportunities.
In that historical matrix, fear is only one component. My impression is that most scientists would prefer to keep the discussion on the level where science is most powerful: paying attention to data, analyzing it, modeling possible futures based on a variety of potential actions, then working collectively toward a perceived best result. This method too is a kind of technology, and it can be inspired by fear, but needs to proceed as a method that is collective and fueled more by hope than fear, I think.
CW: What does “speculation” mean today? It seems one must speculate about the future from some sense of the present moment. This leads me to wonder whether the accelerating pace of dire warnings about our ecological crisis has limited the types of futures that science fiction can imagine. For instance, does the shrinking time horizon for action result in the modification of either the form or the content of the worlds that science fiction can imagine, either requiring a more modest utopia or expanding the time horizon for its achievement?
KSR: I think science-fiction speculation is much like a modeling exercise in the sciences, but run as a thought experiment only, with the trajectory of the speculated future influenced by one’s assumptions about the present, one’s theory of history, and one’s decisions concerning which part of the current situation one wants to track forward. So it’s a very subjective business compared to a computer modeling exercise, but the same logic is being used in both cases. Given where we are now, depending on what we do in the next few decades, we could end up with a mass extinction event causing a dystopian global crash, or we could end up with a prosperous, just, and sustainable civilization that includes a healthy biosphere with all its creatures. This enormous spread of possible futures, from really bad to really good, is the reality of our moment, looking forward. The sheer spread of possibilities is itself mind-boggling and disorienting, and fundamental to the structure of feeling in our moment. Could be great, could be awful. And that being the case (and I think it’s perfectly clear to all that it is the case), then the inevitable conclusion is that right now the stakes are really, really high. What we do in this coming decade is crucially important for the people coming in the next centuries. That in itself is deeply frightening. We’re not that wise. It feels like we’re at one another’s throats. And so on.
So science fiction reflects this feeling in its stories. One strand of science fiction simply blows its circuits and says, Oh my God it’s too much, I’m just an entertainer, I will revert to the genre as it existed in the 1930s and do space opera and ignore the present entirely. This is a kind of nostalgia or comfort food, and we see it all over our culture, so science fiction does it too and is part of that escapism. But science fiction is also the game of imagining possible futures and finding the interesting stories to be told there. And with that, given where we are, the science fiction that engages this present reality becomes a crucial tool of human thought and planning. It’s the imaginative wing, saying, if we do X we get to Y, if we do A we get to B. You can see the logic of the argument creating the story, and you see also the ramifications of our current actions—you live them fictionally, you feel in advance what they would feel like. All that is crucial stuff. So a fair number of science-fiction writers are doing those kinds of stories.
CW: In your novel 2312, published in 2012 and set three hundred years in the future, there is a striking moment when the narrative surveys Manhattan, which has been flooded by sea-level rise. There is the suggestion that New York has become a beautiful “super Venice,” that the city had been improved by the flood. This sentiment makes me wonder whether a tension exists between speculating about adapting to, and thriving in, a climate-changed world and the need to mourn humanity’s responsibility for environmental change, such as species loss?
KSR: Yes, certainly the tension is there, and the danger of glossing over the bad parts, and of suggesting things that are wrong. To say humanity will adapt and thrive in any possible future—no, that’s wrong. It could get bad enough to create a universal disaster killing mass numbers of people, and a subsequent post-traumatic remnant population. That’s one story that can be told.
But for most of the possible futures, including the ones I feel are most likely to come to pass, after the disasters of this century, which could be quite bad, people will be born for whom their world will seem natural to them. It will be a given, and they will be coping with their given. If there hasn’t been a complete collapse, there will be young people looking for fun, for love, for a way to make a positive contribution. They won’t sit on the ground and cast ashes on their heads. They may say, “Our ancestors were selfish idiots,” but this is a pretty common feeling at all times. They’ll be busy coping with what they’ve got. When telling a story set in the future, that particular story has to be told as if it were really being lived. The crimes and stupidities of the past are very often part of the story. The persistence of pain, the way “hurt people hurt people”—or the way that sometimes they don’t. Literature is always “staying with the trouble,” as Donna Haraway puts it—not often coming to conclusions or generalizing, but rather telling a story about individual characters in a single scenario.
In 2312 I had people from space visiting Earth, seeing the devastation, and feeling it like a blow to the heart. They are rich people, in effect, seeing that poor people are still struggling. Earth is called the Planet of Sadness. But also there are people living on after the devastation. One of the main projects in the novel is to describe the return of the wild animals to Earth’s surface, a project shared by rich and poor together. Taken all in all, the novel is an allegory for attending to Earth, treating making things right as the main project of civilization, more important than the various space colonies also described in the book. The comment to the effect that New York flooded is better than ever, which I expanded on in my 2017 novel New York 2140, is just one part of a larger scenario, a bit of bravado meant to shock readers—after all, how would this speaker know whether it was better or not? It was a sentiment associated with Swan, whose judgment is poor, and with New York, traditionally devoted to itself as the best of all possible worlds. The novel brings all of that up. But still, it’s easy to suggest things inadvertently.
Regarding the larger question of how to portray the future: the thing that can never be recouped is extinction. Other than that, we can always keep trying to do better. So our project should be to avoid a mass extinction event. The Endangered Species Act should be our main guide for action, our prime directive in this century. All my recent stories constellate around that perception.
CW: The Guardian has recently updated its style guide to prefer the phrases “climate crisis” and “global heating” to more accurately capture the urgency of our moment. The move is a useful reminder of the power of language and its capacity to mobilize action. Of the phrases and watchwords currently circulating—Gaia, the Anthropocene (and its variations), global “weirding”—are there any that you find especially helpful for thinking and acting?
KSR: I like this question of language getting explicitly discussed. I think it’s important. “The sixth great mass extinction event” is to me the most powerful new phrase. This is what we’re in danger of falling into, that we have to avoid at all cost. Literally at all cost. It’s going to cost a lot, but it has to be done.
Some of these new phrases clarify a phenomenon we saw but didn’t yet understand. “Atmospheric river” and “polar vortex” are two new and useful phrases. Back around 2000 there was another one, “abrupt climate change,” that came after the ice-core data from Greenland showed profound climate change happening in just three years. When they saw this finding, the geologists wanted to wave a new red flag, as their previous notion of “abrupt” was more like 5,000 years.
The word “Anthropocene” has, in less than 20 years, been taken up by academia and chewed into near-uselessness. I worry that now it’s just good for academic hair-splitting. But maybe not—it’s a sign of our times, a name that will always make us think, I hope. It’s an important word. I wonder if the relevant scientific committee of stratigraphy scientists will make it official, but in any case we’re in it, and the word itself always forces some thinking.
“Gaia” is interesting, at least when Bruno Latour uses it to describe the biosphere as a total system, or entity, or—there isn’t a noun for it that is truly fitting, he argues—and so Gaia gets invoked to make us try to think through that totality. The biosphere is alive, we are all part of it, it isn’t conscious and yet it’s coevolving and active as a totality. The work of thinking what this means, the getting balked in that effort, the lack of comprehension of what we’re in—all this is useful. Now I want Gaia Warriors.
“Climate crisis” I like. It’s no doubt better than “climate change,” which might have been introduced as a subterfuge to get us away from “global warming,” which was the previous general term. “Global heating” gets back to that original descriptor with even more force.
“Global weirding” I don’t like. That word “weird” is from my genre community, or my hippie youth. Things were always weird, and weird is often good. And hurricanes, floods, and droughts aren’t weird at all, so the suggestion that they’re weird just because there might be more of them, and some lots stronger, is somehow wrong. It wouldn’t be weird at all.
Although in general I like the term “climate crisis,” when you think the crisis is going to be lasting for a century at least, that’s daunting. Crises are by definition supposed to be short: the crux, the crossroads. But what if we’re in a crisis that doesn’t end? What if this is “the emergency century”? It’s exhausting to contemplate, and so we look away.
Because of that, Haraway’s motto of “staying with the trouble” is nicely persistent and low-key. Maybe too low-key. But taking care of the biosphere is something we always have to do anyway, so why not have a phrase for it, a motto for action. The other motto I like is Aldo Leopold’s “what’s good is what’s good for the land.” This deservedly famous “land ethic” is a kind of all-purpose measuring stick for all our behaviors. What’s good in this process of naming, and will continue to happen, is the creation of lots of new phrases and words (I recently wrote an introduction to An Ecotopian Lexicon, out from University of Minnesota Press this October). All the new phrases and names should be tested in various situations, and questioned for their usefulness. Dr. Johnson once said, speaking of literature: what’s good is what can be put to use.