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Ep. 5. Kim Stanley Robinson (Part 2): Surviving the 21st Century: Unraveling Utopia
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Ep. 5. Kim Stanley Robinson (Part 2): Surviving the 21st Century: Unraveling Utopia
In Part 2, Molly and Ramanan speak with Kim Stanley Robinson about how to achieve a utopian future and hope in various forms.
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In this episode of Futureverse, Molly Wood and Ramanan Raghavendran continue the conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson, known for his visionary works that explore themes of ecology, politics, and human interaction with the environment.

In Part 2, they discuss utopia (!) with Robinson pointing out that surviving the 21st century without a mass extinction event is the first step toward a utopian future.

The conversation explores how utopia is not a simple solution but rather involves complex and necessary actions, such as bureaucracy and systemic change. Robinson also delves into the idea of hope and how it can manifest in various forms.

Need to catch up on the conversation? Listen to Part 1 here.

Time stamps and the full transcript are below. This episode is also available on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Thanks for listening to Futureverse! Subscribe here for more episodes.

Show Notes

(00:01:28) What is Utopia?

(00:05:50) Path to Improving Late Capitalism

(00:12:01) Capital Can Serve the People

(00:15:11) Come-along Explained

(00:24:12) Individual Actions Can Make a Difference

(00:27:57) Entrepreneurship in the Airship Sphere

Molly (00:00:00): Thanks for tuning in to part two of a two-part series with Kim Stanley Robinson. Please be sure to check out part one, where Stan shares about writing science fiction and his thoughts on his climate-focused novel, The Ministry for the Future.

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:00:15): 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.

Molly (00:00:35): Welcome back to Futureverse, a podcast on climate fiction and how it helps us imagine solutions and survival amid climate catastrophe. Each episode, we interview a different author producing thought-provoking work in the CliFi space. One of the things that I think I have told you already I love about Ministry for the Future is, I think when you think about utopia, it's sort of easy to imagine more simplicity. Like utopia is when you snap your fingers, and everything's fine. Whereas Ministry for the Future, in particular, is hard work. It's many, many threads of action. It is bureaucracy. It's the creation of currency. It's the, it tackles a systemic problem in a systemic way. And maybe that's not how everybody would think about utopia. I wonder how you think about hope coming in the form of so many disparate, complicated, necessary actions. 

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:01:28): Well, I think this is a very good point you make, Molly. Utopia implies a fresh start, a clean slate, and everything going right. And all these are so hypothetical because we're never gonna get a fresh start. So utopia also means the thing that will never happen or the idealism that is unworldly.

And so one of the immediate connotations of utopia is never gonna happen and too optimistic for this world. So if you, when I talk about being a utopian science fiction writer, I'm following Wells, who was constantly saying it's not an end state; it's a process. If things are getting better, that's a utopian future history. And progress is what matters, and there's never an end to it. So it's a dynamic state. It's a relationship to history or a name for a certain kind of history going forward that he called utopia.

Now me, especially writing in whatever it was, 2019 or so, I thought of it this way. What's the best case scenario that you can still believe in? if I'm gonna write a story of the next 30 years and I wanna do the best case scenario? Let's call that utopian fiction, but you still need to believe in it. And also no fresh start. Not gonna go to Mars this time, not gonna go to Antarctica, not gonna kill off all the Europeans in the black death. All the various tricks that I have used to create a fresh start, like many utopian writers do. And from Sir Thomas Moore in the utopian literature, this is called the great trench because utopia was a peninsula. They cut a trench to make it an island so they would have a fresh start. And Le Guin's Anaris is a fresh start on a new planet where they got to do everything they wanted from scratch. So the great trench has been a distancing effect. And what I wanted to do was connect it right to our history.

Let's start in 20.., I didn't put a date on it, but it's sort of 2025, 2024, stupendous heat wave disaster, kills hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, in any case, so many people that the world says, oh my God, we got a problem. How do we solve it? No trenches, no crevasses, no magic, no superheroes. And then you're stuck with bureaucracy, mutual aid, ordinary people, institutions that we're in. You're even stuck with capitalism. And because you can't invent a new political economy quick enough, even though a better political economy is pretty damn easy to imagine because we're in a bad one, but it's what we've got. So how would you tweak the world global late capitalist, the neoliberal capitalist system very quickly to make it actually cope with the catastrophes that are coming down right now and make a best case scenario with all of its violence and reversals and chaos, a lack of a plan.

I've had to look at Ministry for the Future in a way that I never look back at my novels because of these last two and a half years. And I see now that for every good thing that happens, there's a bad thing that happens immediately. For every success, there's a sudden death that you don't see coming. I mean, I did not plan it that way. This is unconscious planning. This is the novelist working below the level of conscious planning and just throwing things at the wall and trying to make a pattern. It's almost like Jackson Pollock's paintings or whatever.

Novels are very spooky, unplanned, messy business. But now that I look back on it, I see that I wanted people to think as they read this book, yeah, that's right. Even if a good thing happened, we would still have terrible trouble. And indeed the last big meeting portrayed in the novel, they spent half that meeting talking about the outstanding problems that I have not solved in the year 2050. And so I wanted to keep it like, can you still believe this while you read about what is in effect, a good result, a good outcome compared to the alternatives? And it must have worked to a certain extent given the response this book has gotten. 

Ramanan (00:05:50): I feel that having touched on it, we would benefit from a more fulsome discussion on capitalism. You know, Molly and I work within that framework. We invest for a living, but we are maybe less blind to the flaws of the system than our brethren and sisterhood. Your views on late capitalism, and is there a path to making it even marginally better? 

Kim Stanley Robinson (06:22): Oh, hell yeah. But that's partly because it's so bad. You know, this is the thing. It's a power relation. I wanna speak as an old leftist, as an anti-capitalist. Capitalism comes from feudalism. The power relation of feudalism, royalty and kings, then their management class, and then a vast number of serfs and peasants and slaves. That still exists in our world today. Income inequality, as people would put it now, as reflected in Gini indexes and all kinds of social science standards, is as bad as the Gilded Age of the late 19th century, when monopoly capitalism went mad for a while. It was back again, and it has defeated the equalizations of the New Deal and of World War II and the immediate post-war period. What they call neoliberalism is the defeat of the New Deal in favor of an unfettered market where nothing matters but quarterly profit and shareholder value. And you can get as rich as you want, and the richer you get, the more power you have, and you can disable the legislatures of the world so that you don't become less powerful. And that's the world we're in.

Okay, bad, simple. I don't wanna belabor it because I think it's incredibly obvious to all, and people might not wanna talk about it in these terms, but I'm happy to talk about it in these terms because I've always talked about it. 

Ramanan (00:07:57): We want you to talk about it in these terms, so thank you.

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:08:00): Yeah, okay. So, but okay, given that, that was 1980 to 2020. The pandemic hit, the biosphere's falling apart, and income inequality means that 20% of the world's population is getting by on less than $3.65 per day. I just read that this morning or I wouldn't have it memorized. But this is the world we all know it exists. What do we do? Well, you can make an emotional utopian statement and say everything has to be different. We need pure equality. We need a horizontalization of power and wealth. We need everybody to be in adequacy and people not immiserated. Fine, these are goals, but how do we get there from where we are now? And that's where I find interesting things happening in the world.

We are in what I call, Antonio Gramsci talked about the interregnum, the between two kingdoms, between two kings. The old world has died. The new world has not yet been born. We're in that state of confusion. And we are in a global capitalist system that cannot be erased and a new system written up instantaneously. So what do you do? Well, I look back to the last time that things were getting more equal rather than less equal. And I take heart from the, what you might call the left liberal economists and the philosophers, social scientists who are talking about what is an essentially a return to John Maynard Keynes, the Keynesianism.

So you have the government running the economy and stimulating it and directing where money gets created and spent first. And we know this is quantitative easing. New money, fiat money. Let's not talk about cryptocurrency, which is basically a kind of scam. Let's talk about real money in the real world, made up by governments, backed by governments, laws and armies and governments having made it up and given it over to what you could call finance to capitalism. They could also control it in the way that Keynes suggested.

Let's spend everything on green projects first. We make up the money. We deliberately direct. And here you hire private capitalist companies. You hire businesses, but that's the government that's hired them, just like the defense industry. As an aspect of national defense, you go green. The government hires businesses to do green work. And then there's what Keynes called the multiplier effect, that money circulates into the general economy and everybody has a job.

So this is kind of the new deal. It is not very revolutionary. It's not anywhere near as leftist as I was when I was young. And it's a system that already worked within capitalism. It's just that it wasn't finance rules. It wasn't the market rules. It wasn't the state as servant to finance. It was the state as the master of finance. And that's hard because finance being finance, they have an enormous amount of power by way of having an enormous amount of money. Well, it's still the laws that matter. There can be massively progressive taxation. So here Tomas Piketty, very interesting, very important. Why not have progressive taxation? Why should there be billionaires? Why couldn't you cap human individual wealth at $10 million? Why couldn't you cap corporate assets at $1 billion? And then everything has to be spread out. Everything has to be equalized or horizontalized.

(00:12:01): In other words, there are legal methods within the already existing admittedly capitalist system where capital begins to serve the people rather than vice versa.

And capital, I wanna say, is a neutral and a good force. It's the useful residue of human labor. And so capital is not a bad thing. Money is not a bad thing. It's who has it and how it's spent that makes the difference between capitalism, which is a power relation of the rich over the poor, or post-capitalism, let's just call it that, or next step or better, where the people are the ultimate shareholders and wealth is capped. And also there's a floor at the bottom so that there isn't immiseration, there isn't fear.

Like here's a term from capitalism and then I'll stop. Wage pressure. Well, the business schools will talk about wage pressure. The economists will talk about wage pressure. What does it mean? It means fear in the heart of the poor. If they have wage pressure, they're scared. They'll take any job. They'll take what Graeber called bullshit jobs in order not to starve and not their family starve. You take a minimum wage that won't keep you alive, but it's better than being on the streets as a homeless person. So wage pressure, which is presented as a neutral term in economics textbooks and standard capitalism in business schools all over the land, it actually means, well, let's strike fear into the heart of the poor and then they'll work for us for less than we're making, and we'll take the profit of the work that they did and they won't be able to say no because they're so scared.

So this is what I say. Let's make all that better just by way of a ratchet, sort of like the Paris Agreement. Every year you make the promises a little better, you do a little bit better. You don't try to leap to heaven as the Chinese say; change everything at once. I just don't think that can happen. But what can happen is legislation, better tax laws, better investment laws, better government stimulus, something like the IRA bill that the Biden administration put out and got passed, an amazing, wonderful achievement.

It's a step on the road to even better things. And that is within a completely capitalist system within the legal regime that we have right now and it even got passed. So a working political majority will back moves like that because it ends up being jobs, it ends up being prosperity. And in the meantime, the jobs are green, and you decarbonize, you get right with the biosphere, and that's all still profitable at a scale that is seemly and adjust. So this is a quick and rough description of how I see things going forward. 

Ramanan (00:15:06): So in a sense, and we'll move on from this, but this is just so interesting and pertinent, kind of a drip feed revolution. 

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:15:11): Yeah, one step at a time, a ratchet. Or like in Maine, I'm working with a come along and hopefully she won't hear this podcast, but my wife asked me like, what's a come along? And I had to laugh, but a come along is leverage where you drag something heavier than you can move by way of small ratcheting of some leverage.

And leverage is amazingly powerful. So you find the places in this society right now in this political economy right now, where you can get some leverage and make a meaningful change within the legal regime that exists right now and get enough political backing to get it through and then see what happens next.

Molly (00:15:55): When you put things in these terms, you can really see why the kind of technocratic, extremely wealthy class that surrounds us in Silicon Valley, in particular, is so hell-bent on libertarianism right now, undermining institutions.

Kim Stanley Robinson (16:10): But not all of them, but not all of them. But not all of them. You know them as well as I do. There's also a Silicon Valley crowd that is saying, look, I'm already rich, how can I make the world better? Sometimes I call them the mini billionaires because they don't have that many billions, but a billion is a lot of money. And they want to do good because they, a lot of them don't have kids, they just want to do good. That's interesting. They're sociologically, Silicon Valley is bizarre, but I would not characterize them as - the libertarian thing. These are older, angrier people. I don't know. I'm seeing all kinds of things in Silicon Valley now. 

Molly (00:16:48): No. It's not a monolith. It's very true, but there are very interesting forces colliding and strongly, I would say.

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:16:57): Yes. Well, you're seeing it better than almost anybody.

Molly (00:17:02): That would, for good or for ill. Well, that does lead me to technology actually. I do want to ask about that because along the lines of utopia, it is easy to invent a widget. It is easy to say there's a silver bullet somewhere, there's air in a can and there's nuclear fusion or whatever it is. I wonder how you resist the urge to Deus Ex Machina but also to explore what technology can do. It's your description of diamond coating around the bottom of submerged buildings that literally brought me to this new career in climate because I started thinking, well, who's working on that? 

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:17:40): Yeah, yeah. Well, there's so much happening on the technological front that no one can keep up with it. It's hard to judge, especially in advance of the fact what will truly be useful and what will scale and what will make somebody a happy living. And what is not a bad idea, but is maybe on an ever-receding horizon of achievability. Fusion, for instance, always 10 years away for the last 60 years. And also if we were to do it, it would be great. One cannot deny that a breakthrough in one of these fundamental technologies, especially clean energy would be spectacularly helpful.

But I guess I've been working, this is an essential kind of imaginative conservatism on my part. Imagine we've only got what we got now, and then how do we fix it from there? And then that leads you back to political economy to that the ultimate technology is finance. How can we pay for things? How can we make sure that humans doing the necessary work of saving the biosphere get paid to do it? And this is why I like the B-Core movement. This is why I like Mark Kearney's COP26 agreement of the $130 trillion of assets devoted to green work. That, too, is a technology. If you expand the definition from widgets to systems, from hardware to software, then you get into an area that I'm more interested in, in that I think our systems are more malleable than the absolute cutting edge widget technologies that we're working on, that some people are working on, that if and when they work, they look promising, a lot of them, it's gonna be really helpful.

But in the meantime, given that we should be doing stuff radically different by the end of the 2020s, my working theory has been let's not wait for the Hail Mary or for the moonshot to work or for this spectacular tech in silver bullet. Let's work on systems that are amenable to immediate legislation.

So like in finance, there's this, I mean, Macron gathered everybody to talk about paying the global south to go to clean energy industry instantly so the global north do its job and pay for the global south's quick decarbonized clean energy revolution. The Bridgetown plan by the woman who's president of Barbados all over the place you're seeing.

Molly (00:20:30): Mia Mottley. I'm obsessed with her.

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:20:32): Well, she's fantastic. And now I'm learning that the new head of the World Trade Organization is a Nigerian woman who was the head of Nigeria's finance minister twice. She's saying justice and sustainability are within our grasp as technologies of system design. And that's where I've gotten super interested because I think we can do it, and we can do it fast with the powers we have now. If we tell the stories right, if we get the political support for it, boom, boom, boom, there's the possibility of what in The Ministry For The Future, I called it the carbon coin, draw down CO2 out of the atmosphere, get paid more than it costs you to do it. Well, I think now this is a symbol for a whole raft of financial instruments and methods.

So when I hear people talk about, for instance, and you must hear this all the time in your field, risk adjusted investment, what's the risk they're talking about? Climate change. It's climate change. So when they say risk adjusted investment, they say, well, if climate crashes, we don't actually make much profit here. And so let's run the numbers on this. And this isn't such a good investment after all. And so the highest rate of return, which has been the God of neoliberalism, what is the highest rate of return once you do the risk adjustment? And this becomes super interesting for channeling the huge amounts of private capital that are out there ready to invest in order to make some money for their investors and for the owners of these businesses.

We are in that kind of a world, and it's not automatically obvious that that's a bad situation. A lot of people ambitious for their own good and for their own children's good. In other words, private business. If it doesn't go to monopoly and everybody get killed, but the winner of the Game of Thrones, if there's lots of business people working hard within a just and sustainable, how can I say it? Development process. Then this becomes more plausible than, oh my gosh, I've got a new political economy, or I've got one from the 19th century, and let's institute it right now worldwide. And the whole world's looking at it, you're going, I mean, this has happened to me before. You poor science fiction writer, so idealistic, so utopian, so out of it, because we're in a world that has laws and has money tilted towards, almost like water going downhill, an intense drive to maximize profits. And so we have to channelize that so that that drive is actually productive for the biosphere and for everybody, not just for the renowned 1%. 

Ramanan (00:23:31): I'm gonna ask one, and so before I ask the question, I'll say, before we were doing this, I asked Mark, can we get like a nine-part episode out of standing with nine hours? But here we're headed towards the end, we have 10 more minutes of your time. And I wanna ask the other end of the question, which is, we've been talking a lot about societal forces, global forces operating at this planetary level or societal level. What about the role of the individual? What responsibility do individuals have to take action in their personal lives? And if you think the answer is at least some, what are the kinds of things we as people should be doing? 

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:24:12): Well, it's a good question. And I have to admit, I came back from COP26 and kind of stunned and reeling, I'd never been to a COP before, and I've never had been consulted as if I were an expert since I'm just a science fiction writer and a novelist.

And I thought, well, what, you know, I went back to the little neighborhood I am in and I joined the board of directors and I tried to save a preschool, that didn't quite work, but maybe we'll bring another preschool back. That local level was so satisfying, so tangible. You could talk to people face to face, you could change things, you would be one vote of five on a board. And in Davis, there's Cool Davis. And what I began to realize is that almost every town on earth has an environmental organization, a climate organization, you don't have to reinvent the wheel. You can put your shoulder to the wheel that's available in your town.

And then many of your listeners will be prosperous Westerners. And you can, as a prosperous Westerner, cut down on your carbon burn quite considerably. I myself would say the easiest ways are to stop eating beef, at least stop eating lots of beef, because I'm not really into purity as a technique or an attitude to life, but amelioration and doing better, I like that. So not eating beef, driving your car less. If you're in a town where you can bike, it's really good for you, for your mental and physical health. And you can reduce your carbon burn by paying attention to details.

And the Dalai Lama said to us in a group in Dharamsala, everybody's gonna burn some carbon, and it's just like eating, you have to live mindfully. So pay attention. So every prosperous Westerner is burning about 30 times as much carbon as a farmer in India. And so reductions by those of us who are prosperous Westerners are proportionately more significant than if you were indeed a farmer in India, because we burn that much more carbon. And there are examples of what to do. There are techniques, and it feels kind of stylish. I garden, I compost our excessive food waste, and it turns back into soil. There's the circular economy, or the biosphere cycle to live within that and be attentive to it. I would suppose that my own individual decarbonization has been a drop in the bucket or a drop in the ocean, but it feels satisfying. It's an interesting project, and you are putting your shoulder to the wheel.

So local organizations, individual actions, and then also life as a citizen, you have to push the party that is environmentalist, that is biosphere-centric in this world. And it's obvious which those parties are in America and everywhere else. You have to go for the planet over the nation state. You have to go for everybody over your own language group. These are difficult, and not always the main part of the story. But that's what I would suggest to individuals. And because I know sort of whom I'm talking to, because I've talked with Molly on stage to certain groups of people, et cetera, I'd say these things are doable, and they not only matter, but they feel right. So a sense of accomplishment is the greatest human high that there is. And so you have to work for that.

Molly (27:57): I'm gonna ask you one last really fun question because a subscriber, Diana Little, sent in several questions for you, and I love this one. She said, what do you think about the current airship renaissance since airships do come up in so many of your books? 

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:28:12): Well, I love it. I wanna take a ride in one, and I hope they prosper. I look at the designs, I see the routes. I imagine sitting in the window seat, or they're like, a lot of them have windows underneath you, which is a little creepy. But airships are great. I'm very happy. I would like to take a sailing ship across an ocean. That's not easy these days. It's funny how carbon neutral travel across this planet, it's slower, but it's obvious that there's a desire for it, a need for it, and it would be beautiful. I'm surprised it isn't going faster than it is, to tell you the truth. Maybe it's an investment opportunity. The sailing crowd, they love my books because of sailing ships, and the airship crowd, all both of them, that's not such a big crowd. You see what I mean.

Ramanan (00:29:10): Believe it or not, there is actually entrepreneurship going on in the airship sphere. 

Kim Stanley Robinson (00:29:14): It makes sense. Sign me up, I would like to be a passenger.

Ramanan (00:29:18): I'll go on that trip and do that nine-part episode that I was thinking about. Stan, thank you for taking the time to talk to us today. You've spoken to Molly many times before, but this is my first time hearing from you and being able to ask questions, and it was everything I expected it to be. Thank you very much. We hope the audience enjoyed our conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson. You can keep up to date with his work on his Facebook page, but a good place to start is Ministry for the Future, which is just an absolutely fabulous book. Thank you for listening, and we'll be back soon. 

Molly (00:29:54): Thank you for listening. Please email us at futureverse@substack.com with any suggestions or ideas, and visit futureverse.earth for the full transcript of this podcast and other information.

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