Ep. 4. Kim Stanley Robinson (Part 1): Unveiling Climate Denial and the Power of Community
Molly and Ramanan speak with Kim Stanley Robinson, the author of The Ministry for the Future.
In the latest episode of Futureverse, Molly Wood and Ramanan Raghavendran interview Kim Stanley Robinson, known for his visionary works that explore themes of ecology, politics, and human interaction with the environment.
In this episode, Robinson discusses the persistence of climate denial and skepticism, even after 30 years of scientific research and evidence, and emphasizes the importance of community in addressing climate change and finding solutions.
Thanks for listening to Futureverse! Subscribe here for more episodes.
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:00:00): Climate change is on the table like it never was before. And I know this because all the dates in Ministry for the Future are drastically wrong now. I talked about the 2030s being wasted years. That's not going to happen. Now I see a ferment of activity worldwide.
Molly Wood (00:00:17): Welcome back to Future Verse, a podcast centered on climate fiction and how it helps us imagine our way forward through climate uncertainty.
Ramanan Raghavendran: (00:00:25): I am Ramanan Raghavendran.
Molly Wood (00:00:27): And I'm Molly Wood. In our previous episodes, we've talked with authors about specific books, but in this episode, we're going to do things a little bit differently because the author has written dozens of novels that explore humanity's future, especially regarding climate change. Let's welcome to the show my friend and esteemed author, Kim Stanley Robinson. What a great day.
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:00:46): Well, thank you, Molly. Yeah. And thank you, Ramanan. It's good to see you and talk to you again, Molly.
Molly Wood (00:00:52): Good to see you too. Thanks for coming on. I will start actually, if you don't mind. I am lucky enough to have heard a bit of this story, but I am going to ask you to tell us one more time how climate change became such a topic of interest and passion for you.
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:01:07): Sure. I’m a science fiction writer, so some of my stories are set in the near future. I’ve been very interested in developments and what we used to call nature or the natural surroundings of the biosphere. Let's call it the biosphere now as a topic for science fiction, planetary science fiction, Mars, but also on Earth in the near future. And as part of that and part of my wilderness love, I got a gig to go to Antarctica courtesy of National Science Foundation. Their U.S. Antarctic Artists and Writers Program gave me the privilege of going down there in 1995 for almost two months. And then I returned in the U.S. Antarctic Program's media program as a journalist in 2016. But it was in ‘95 where I was down there and talking to scientists all over the continent.
I had carte blanche. I was a roving reporter. It was spectacularly interesting and fun. And all the scientists were talking about climate change. And this was ’95, and they were focused in on Antarctica as a special problem. It has enough ice piled up on that continent that if it were to melt, one of them told me this was in the dry valleys, then sea level would go up by like 270 feet.
And he was on a phone call with an elementary school class in the Bay Area in California. And he kind of handed the phone over to me and said, You're the science fiction writer. Tell him what that's going to mean because he was a rather straight scientist and didn't want to go into speculation or ramifications. And he just handed me the phone, and I was talking to an elementary school class in somewhere near San Francisco. Bob Wharton, beautiful guy, since passed away.
So I got interested at that point in my Antarctic novel, which came out a couple years later. It was about Antarctica but in a warming world. And I hadn't worked out all the ramifications myself at that point, but I began to get interested, and I began to talk to my scientist friends. And truthfully, my Mars novel, my Mars trilogy, was about the terraforming of Mars, which is kind of like geoengineering, as we call it here on Earth.
I had already thought a lot about these global climate issues. Could humans change the climate on Mars? Well, that's a special case, but I certainly presented it as possible there. And then on Earth, can we cope with the problems that we've created for ourselves by releasing so much carbon into the atmosphere so fast? Well, this is an interesting and now a kind of crucial problem.
So that's how I got interested. And that's a long time ago now. And I don't always write about climate change, and it isn't really dozens of novels, although they're so long, it probably feels like that. But four or five times I've come back to writing about the near future and humans coping with climate change.
And so since climate fiction is kind of a new version of near-future science fiction, in other words, when you do near-future science fiction now, you are inevitably diving into climate fiction. I know that I'm one of the leaders in that subgenre, in that new emerging field of climate fiction. And I'm happy to take on that role.
Ramanan Raghavendran (00:05:07): Before we're done here, we're going to touch briefly on genre fiction and all that goes into it. But I'm going to switch us a little bit to the idea of community. And it relates to the fact that you've been deeply interested in climate for close to 30 years based on the timing of that Antarctica adventure. And here we are 30 years later, and there's still a universe full of climate deniers and climate questioners of various kinds. And I get on my high horse when I say that, but the reality is I came to it late as well. It feels like this should be amazingly obvious and just a love of nature should be an easy way to bring people together. And your latest book, The High Sierra Love Story, sort of touches on love of nature. Why is this not amazingly obvious to people?
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:06:02): I'm going to say that now it is. And that hasn't been true for most of the last 30 years. But the climate deniers who are left are crawling towards the exits. They will no longer say it except in certain sheltered media spaces of their own, echo chambers where no one's challenging them. They won't say that in the open light of day and in another five years, nobody will deny climate change. They will have shifted grounds to, oh, well, it wasn't our fault or there's nothing we can do about it or, oh, of course we have to do something about it. I said that all along. The various escape hatches for people who have been drastically wrong.
But I think the shift in public sentiment, in the general intellect or common sense or the structure of feeling of our time was the pandemic. The pandemic was a slap in the face. And I wrote Ministry for the Future before the pandemic. It came out in the middle of the pandemic. And I thought it would render my book perhaps obsolete instantly or irrelevant.
But no, what really happened was people were struck by the reality that the biosphere can wreck your life, that it can wreck civilization and all your habits and everything you thought was right. And if people had rushed down to the grocery stores instead of stocking up or hoarding toilet paper if they had hoarded food, then civilization would have been wrecked, and we would have been in a mass crisis of frightening dimensions because we rely on social trust, on chains of connections, supply chains that food itself you trust it'll be there when you want it, and you can't hoard it really.
So it's a system of mutual trust that was tested in the pandemic. And we kind of passed. People were afraid for their lives. They did what they were told to do. They sheltered in place. They hoarded a few silly things, but they didn't go crazy over food itself. And we got through it. And even though as soon as it was clear that your life wasn't in immediate danger and then you could begin to whine, complain and obstruct and make claims of complete self-sufficiency that are obviously incorrect in this world of mutual aid and solidarity. I mean, that's the only way humans get along.
The pandemic was a slap in the face. And since then, climate change is on the table like it never was before. And I know this because all the dates in Ministry for the Future are drastically wrong now. I talked about the 2030s being wasted years. That's not going to happen. That was a pessimistic person talking in 2019. I'm not pessimistic, but a moment where it didn't seem like anybody was really paying attention or that it was people – we were not going to change fast enough.
Now I see a ferment of activity worldwide. And so the deniers are either fossil fuel industry defenders who haven't thought things through, or they're rich people who haven't thought things through, or they are ignorant people. And because you can be educated in this world, everybody can educate themselves. The ignorance is on purpose and deliberate who are still trying to stick their head in the sand like an ostrich. Those are shrinking crowds. And what I'm talking to, the people I'm talking to, policymakers, people in Silicon Valley, people Molly talks to all the time, but also diplomats and scientists and what I want to call the technocracy of the world, which includes the bankers. And they are all saying, oh my God, this climate situation, this climate crisis, this biosphere crisis. This imminent mass extinction event – this is bad for business. This is dangerous for humans.
And this is a general sense. I'm not going to go on to say that we have a coherent response yet, but I'm saying the problem is front and center. And that, I hope, is a majority of the people who are going to make a change going forward, who are going to make the decisions going forward. This is an expression of hope here. But I'm seeing a huge change in these last couple of years.
Molly Wood (00:10:52): I wonder, I want to ask you about Ministry for a minute and then imagining these kinds of systems-level solutions, but picking up on what you're saying now, it has been interesting to see a recent uptick in what feels like pretty coordinated misinformation and sort of push back and climate change denial, which I almost weirdly take as a hopeful sign that systems are moving in this direction. And there's the kind of this futile last-ditch effort to maybe stop that.
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:11:22): Well, I'm ignorant on this topic. I am not on the Internet, by and large. I don't do any social media of my own, and I don't pay attention to it either. So I'm missing a lot that's important. I understand that, but I think that the gains are worth the losses in my own personal life and in my intellectual life. So whatever's going on in these various social media campaigns and trying to fool the innocent, trying to fool the ignorant, trying to create a rump party that's big enough to protect their ill-gotten gains until they die, these various futile efforts.
I'm going to say that they are indeed rearguard actions and that we're in a moment of change so serious that they've lost even before they've begun, that they can't possibly gather that kind of a crowd when people are living in – it’s 110 degrees or when their house has been flooded away that you can no longer fool them. They can't stick their head in the sand when the sand is washed away. So I know that that's happening because people tell me about it, but I ignore it. And I think here's the important thing.
The decision-makers on this planet, which I would regard as, you know, the politicians, but also the civil servants, the technocrats, the scientists who are working in governments and trying to make things work and keep civilization going, that is a unified front of we got to cope with climate change. And so the stuff that's happening, I feel like, you know, if you work in media, and I do too, that you are perhaps over worried at media phenomenon that as long as you can keep a working political majority in each nation-state, which is a big question, that these people are not the important people, that the important people are actually working harder than hell. To try to come to grips with the problem. Maybe.
Ramanan Raghavendran (00:13:44): I have to tell you, just having listened to the last three minutes, this is more hope than I have had all year. So thank you for that. You know, so Molly and I started this because we had a spontaneous moment of madness where we realized we both read a lot and like to read a lot. And so I want to ask a question about literature and storytelling, which is-
Ramanan Raghavendran (00:14:10): I have a question that’s straightforward, which is, as you think about your own work – do you have a framework for how you think you're writing your literature? Your storytelling is pointed at talking about the impacts of climate change. Or is it the reverse? You tell a great story, and it happens to be inflected with climate.
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:14:29): Oh, no, it's more the former. I would say that I am an American science fiction writer, and I have been writing utopian science fiction for about 35 years as a deliberate project, as a deliberate political project. Things could be better in the future. If we did certain things, let's write about that. Let's see what the problems would be, what the stories would be. It's an odd project. I've lost a lot of sleep over it. It doesn't conform well with the reality principle. It isn't art for art's sake.
There are many countercurrents to my project, and you don't know. Nobody knows very many utopian science fiction writers in this world or in the whole history of the world. You can name them. You can list them. You wouldn't run out of fingers and toes. But I've been doing that. And so I bring it up for this reason.
Now the utopia is this: we deal with climate change successfully. We scrape through the 21st century without a mass extinction event. After that, the situation opens up to even better possibilities. But at this point, survival of the biosphere is utopian. It's the project of making a better society by making sure that the bio-infrastructure of our society doesn't fall apart under the impacts of all of our actions.
So I've had a project as a writer, as an artist, that has been coherent over the last 35 years. And so climate came to the fore. I mean, when I was much younger, I was thinking, well, we need justice, which we do. We need to have more equality, which we do. But then we need a functioning biosphere to platform all these things. And that is fundamental. You can't get the other things without that. So climate has intruded on my project and made me pay attention to it as, OK, if we don't solve the climate crisis, the biosphere crisis, the poly crisis, then the chances for a better and more just society are wrecked in advance of the fact of working on it. So I've had to… Sometimes I make a joke out of it. I've lowered the bar.
If we survive the 21st century, it's utopian. You know, this is not what I was thinking when I started in 1984. But whatever, it's where we are. And I do feel like I made the right choices aesthetically and politically, which is a kind of a combined thing in science fiction. And I would say in all art, I made the right choices when I was young. And then the ramifications have been crushing. Like, if I want to keep writing these stories, then I have to take on the central problems of our time. Well, you know, all I really want to do is write a good novel. Couldn't I write a good novel about a guy trying to learn to skateboard better or whatever? Maybe. But I'm stuck in the track that I'm in.
Ramanan Raghavendran (00:17:45): I'm going to--because we have this bifurcated audience, I suspect, which is people interested in climate and people interested in literature--you just gave a lot of people, including me, by the way, a lot of hope about how to write for the future. Who are these other utopian authors? And I say that's a leading question because I am a very longtime fan of Iain Banks. And so I presume he'd be one on your list.
Kim Stanley Robinson (00:18:15): Banks is definitely one. And what a beautiful guy. I miss him every day. He was the great Scottish writer until his premature death. And he thought about often space opera set in a post-scarcity future where humans had immense powers and their A.I.s had, in some ways, even more powers. And they were all struggling hard. And this was his ingenuity. His genius was to find the great and often violent stories of defending utopia at the edges and keeping it going, and making it better. And his endless fertile imagination for these situations is just, I mean, I don't think there's any equal to it.
But I would also say the great mama bear that taught us everything Ursula K. Le Guin with The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness and Always Coming Home and all the rest of her novels, a utopian science fiction writer, one of the few repeat offenders. And with Le Guin and Banks gone, I'm, I feel bereft. But I will say this. They taught me a lot. They were great friends, and they aren't the only ones. There's still people. There's first of all, Cory Doctorow, Jonathan Leatham, mostly not a utopian writer, but he wants a better society.
There's a lot of science fiction writers who have tried to imagine things going better like once or twice. They aren't identified as utopian science fiction because that's an odd and harmful name to have in the commercial world. But they're out there and there's a young groups of writers who have hope punk, solar punk. Punk is a ridiculously bad suffix. They ought not to call themselves that. They really are utopians, young utopians, but they're out there. And then you can go back in the tradition.
I particularly love William Morris, Aldous Huxley's Island, Robert Graves, H.G. Wells. Very important utopian writer in a strong strand of his work, at least five or six utopian novels. And Wells wrote those novels between 1905 and 1945. And those are some of the worst 40 years of human history. And he was writing utopias throughout that time. So he's inspirational. And it goes right back to Sir Thomas More and maybe even to Plato. The idea that we can make a better society is beguiling, is fascinating. Sometimes it feels really urgent. A lot of times, it feels super unrealistic, but it keeps coming back.
Ramanan Raghavendran (20:57): That was part one of our interview with Kim Stanley Robinson. Please stay tuned for part two, where we discuss utopia, capitalism and much more about Stan's book, The Ministry for the Future.
Molly Wood (00:21:10): Thank you for listening. Please email us at email@example.com with any suggestions or ideas, and visit futureverse.earth for the full transcript of this podcast and other information.
Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with any suggestions or ideas and visit futureverse.earth for the full transcript of this podcast and other information.