89. The Ministry for the Future with Kim Stanley Robinson
On Friday, The United States will officially be back in the Paris Climate Agreement!
*cue appropriate volume of fanfare*
And while in a week where Dallas, Texas is colder than Anchorage, Alaska – our co-host Paul Dickinson takes us on a short list of topics discussing the social cost of carbon recently updated by Joseph Stiglitz and Lord Nicholas Stern to match the severity of the climate crisis, as well as a listener question regarding the unregulated growth and steadily growing emissions of bitcoin and cryptocurrencies.
But all of this in context, with the US “still in” as it’s being promoted – We anxiously await the United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution which should be announced anytime between now and late April. Once that number comes through, the race to COP 26 will be at full speed where the very first 5 year check in of global accountability and ambition towards a net-zero 2050 and beyond will happen.
So with the world’s largest economy on track to boost the global coalition of nations dedicated to this collective goal, will we be able to achieve emission reductions fast enough to avoid catastrophe? This week our guest is legendary science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, whose prolific career includes the international bestselling Mars trilogy, and more recently Red Moon, New York 2140, Aurora, Shaman, Green Earth, and 2312. Stan joins us for an exclusive look into the themes of his latest book: The Ministry for the Future, which offers an unflinching look at what our future may hold even in 2025 if we do not address runaway climate change. Optimistically he says, “We are all living in a science fiction novel we are coauthoring together.”
So, what future will we write?
Sci-Fi Pop Music this week from French duo, Toukan Toukän!
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:12] This is it. The U.S. is back in the Paris Agreement. Universal agreement, all nations in the world. Here we go!
Christiana Figueres: [00:00:19] The U.S. is back.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:34] Hello and welcome to Outrage + Optimism. I’m Tom Rivett-Carnac.
Christiana Figueres: [00:00:37] I’m happy Christiana Figueres,
Paul Dickinson: [00:00:39] I’m a joyous Paul Dickinson.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:00:41] This week we discuss the re-entry of the U.S. Into the Paris Agreement. We talk about many issues that Paul Dickinson has researched at infinitum, we speak to the brilliant Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the recent book ‘Ministry for the Future’. And we have music from French duo Toukan Toukan. Thanks for being here.
[00:01:07] This is such an exciting week, I have to say, you guys are going to have to carry it. I don’t know if you know this, but in the U.K., it’s half term. You have to squint to see the difference these days between homeschooling and half term. But that means that I’m getting even less done than usual. I’ve got my kids around. We’re running around and going to the beach. So what’s happening? Is anything big going on in the world at the moment?
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:26] Well, actually, half term means that you are on vacation. That’s what it means, that you can go and frolic outside. No homeschooling for you. Tomorrow, the United States formally rejoins the Paris Agreement. Hallelujah.
Paul Dickinson: [00:01:43] What are they calling the campaign, Tom? Doesn’t it have a particular name?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:01:45] Yes, that’s right. America’s all in. Which is perfect.
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:50] Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
Paul Dickinson: [00:01:51] You find that problematic. Explain. What is the problem with that?
Christiana Figueres: [00:01:57] I shall like to explain what the problem is with that. There are many of us who live on the continent of America that extends all the way from Alaska to Chile and Argentina. And therefore that is a whole continent. In fact, some would argue it’s two continents or three continents, but it is certainly not one country. So one day when the United States grows up, it will realize that it is the United States of America, not America.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:02:29] We’re approaching 10 years now in which Christiana has been trying to get me to remember the difference. I remember first walking into my office in the UN and maps had been pinned up with clear instructions to learn the difference between the Americas and America. But I don’t know. I appreciate your one woman crusade. I know it’s not a one woman crusade.
Christiana Figueres: [00:02:44] No, everyone who lives on this continent, south of the northern Mexican border is very much knowledgeable about this. It’s just a lobotomy happens when you cross the border from Mexico into the U.S.
Clay Carnill: [00:03:01] I am also in on this, too. I’m also now part of this.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:03:06] Thank you Clay.
Christiana Figueres: [00:03:07] Which side, Clay?
Clay Carnill: [00:03:09] On your side. The right side.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:03:11] This is a fascinating conversation. It is possible that we’re not talking about the key issue, which is that the U.S. is rejoining the Paris Agreement.
Paul Dickinson: [00:03:17] But also the other key issue is what the possible third continent in the Americas, Christiana?
Christiana Figueres: [00:03:22] Well, there is North America, there’s South America and those of us who live in the tiny little sliver in between, Central America. There you are.
Paul Dickinson: [00:03:29] What do you think you are your own continent? That’s even worse than the United States is north of you. Just saying.
Christiana Figueres: [00:03:34] Can we please get back.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:03:38] Good use of United States in there, I liked it. We’ve talked about this a lot, right? We’ve talked about the fact that the U.S. was the only country to pull out. We were terrified others were going to do it. It didn’t happen. Everyone else stayed in, re-election of Biden, U.S. back in, nationally determined contributions coming between now and the big summit on April 22nd when all heads of state are going to go to Washington and convene with Biden. So exciting for this year and amazing. This is really the starting gun in a way, for the U.S. re-entry into international negotiations. Obviously, it’s going to be night and day different teams negotiating. John Kerry, as we’ve talked about, is the chief diplomat focusing on this issue. Very exciting for our friends in the UNFCCC, very exciting for the road to Glasgow and lots more to come.
Christiana Figueres: [00:04:19] But it’s not a re-election of Biden. It’s an election of Biden.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:04:23] Oh, yeah, that’s true. That’s a premonition for the fact that he will be reelected.
Christiana Figueres: [00:04:27] Ok, right.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:04:28] I’m afraid listeners, because I’ve been on holiday this week we’re sort of in Paul Dickinson’s hands.
Paul Dickinson: [00:04:36] Yes. So I’ve been preparing because I’ve received fantastic notes on key issues, one of them this week. Did you know that the distinguished economist Joseph Stiglitz and Lord Nicholas Stern have recommended that the social cost of carbon is wrong? Did you know that under the Trump administration, it was eight dollars, which those distinguished economists, Stiglitz said they just made that up. Under Obama it was sixty dollars a ton, but they think it should be one hundred dollars a ton. Now, do you know what the social cost of carbon really means?
Christiana Figueres: [00:05:05] You explain.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:05:07] The amount of damage caused by emitting one ton of carbon.
Paul Dickinson: [00:05:10] How much risk you want to expose your children to? If you really don’t care about them at all, then you might say, well my children could be exposed to any amount of risk. I’ll make up a figure of eight dollars a ton and my children will have to face the consequences and their children. And I don’t really care. Or if you were extremely worried about your children and their children having trouble with climate change, you might say a thousand dollars a ton. And there’s everything in between. But Stern and Stiglitz have come up with a distinguished and thoughtful report saying a hundred dollars a ton. Now, consider this for a minute. If we have 100 dollars a ton greenhouse gas emissions, that will cause massive changes in our economy. Lots of jobs, lots of new industries, very exciting. So well done those two, for rescuing the economist’s profession from its possibly dismal fate as analysts rather than activists.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:01] And a hundred dollars a ton, not wanting to crack open the lid too far on what I’m sure is encyclopaedic economic knowledge that you’re holding here, Paul, is that to do with the discount rates applied or why did they come up with that?
Paul Dickinson: [00:06:12] Discount rate? Interesting. Well discount rates themselves are very complicated, this is the idea that money now is worth more to you than money in the future, which makes absolutely no sense if you believe there is the future and it matters. So exposing yourself to huge risk later because you think some kind of magic machine is going to come along that you can fix the problem with is ridiculous. So discount rates are very, very dangerous. I think it’s much more about how quickly you want to change things. Let’s just consider a flight from, for example, London to New York. Currently there’s essentially no cost whatsoever for the carbon. If the carbon cost you, ten dollars a tonne, that would be forty dollars on the price of the ticket. If it was 100 dollars a tonne, that would probably be for 400 dollars on the price of the ticket. You see the difference.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:06:56] I see. OK, very interesting. Thank you. What else has been happening this week?
Paul Dickinson: [00:07:00] Well, one of our listeners, Peter Hope, has asked about the growing greenhouse gas emissions from Bitcoin and block chain and asked if we’d get somebody on the program to talk about it. I thought I knew something about that. But I’m doing a bit more research. It is a real problem. And one of the things is that because this isn’t really governed, there’s not actually anybody who can really do anything about it. It’s quite interesting to think that there’s something in the world that’s evolving, unregulated and can’t really very easily be stopped.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:07:30] It is fascinating. And there’s all these incredible stories around it. That all these Bitcoin mines are being positioned near to hydroelectric plants, to get cheap electricity because the amount of power that’s consumed is just unbelievable, isn’t it?
Paul Dickinson: [00:07:44] It’s a very long story. And even though I understand it, I don’t quite understand it. Bitcoin is so weird, by the way. I’ll tell you my theory about it in just a second. But essentially the process of administering the Bitcoin system does have growing greenhouse gas emissions and the price of Bitcoin decides how much people are willing to spend on the energy to continue to process the Bitcoin system.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:08:10] Because they’re now so expensive that actually it’s worth spending the money on the computing power and the energy associated with it.
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:16] I’m afraid so. And this is beyond any government to regulate. So should I tell you my theory and this story for the week and then I’ll release you? No one knows who invented Bitcoin.
Christiana Figueres: [00:08:27] It’s like the Internet.
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:29] I know where the Internet comes from. It’s an American nuclear defense system.
Christiana Figueres: [00:08:33] It’s a what?
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:38] Well, the Internet was designed to operate nuclear weapons even when half of it was blown up. It works even if you blow it up.
Christiana Figueres: [00:08:51] Where was this?
Paul Dickinson: [00:08:53] Across the United States. Now, because we don’t know where Bitcoin and Blockchain come from. And because we don’t really know where QAnon comes from, I want to prepare our listeners for the idea that the Internet may have become conscious and is beginning to play with us. I think Bitcoin and QAnon might conceivably be the overmind, the vast electronic system that is all the computers connected together beginning to experiment with humans. Now, I’m probably wrong, but it’s not a bad idea just to think about it, just in case. You know, when the robots take over I don’t think they’re going to come for us with guns. I think they’re going to meddle with us through Bitcoin and QAnon and whatever’s next. So keep an eye out for some kind of overarching machine intelligence to start to emerge in our lives. By the way and also, having said this, because obviously they’ll be listening to me, if I’m hit by an autonomous car or in a suspicious plane crash, be assured that I’m onto something. OK, end of speech.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:09:51] So that’s basically like a conspiracy theory. It’s like the mother of conspiracy theories. And I think what the last two years have shown us is it’s entirely irresponsible to just come up with conspiracy theories and put them out there on the Internet and think nothing bad is going to happen. So good on you for adding another one.
Paul Dickinson: [00:10:04] Fair enough. Tom, I am chided and chastised. Christiana has shown succinctness. Tom has shown the irresponsibility of my ranting. I feel contained, which is really the kind of therapy that I look for in Outrage + Optimism. Thank you both.
Christiana Figueres: [00:10:18] You’re welcome. So I also wanted to share something that we got feedback from The Sargassum Podcast. Hello to a fellow podcast. And I am so delighted to hear of yet another lover of oceans and ocean solutions. Actually, I must admit, quite a new love for me. But after Cocos Island, who wouldn’t fall in love with the ocean? So the request is to talk more about the oceans and how they help us with climate change. And a very interesting point said there, what do we do? You know, I keep on talking about these wonderful places in Costa Rica, some of them online, some of them away from land, quite a bit away from land. And what do we do about our CO2 emissions from traveling there? So you will be happy to know that the CO2 emissions were offset tenfold for the trip that we took. And and we have now had the company that has these boats that go to the Cocos Island commit to always doing that and including it in the price of the trip. So that is a good thing. But honestly, it is not even about the CO2 emissions. It is absolutely about that amazing marine fauna. And Sharon, our producer, has promised that we are going to have some kind of a videocast or something with some of the ten million photographs that we brought back from the trip. If I ever get to go through them and send her my favorites.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:12:01] Now I can just make a prediction that we’re going to get a bit of mail about the idea that you just need to offset stuff and then you can fly around the world, which I know is not what you’re saying. But I wonder whether we should dig into that issue in a future episode and unpack it with a few conversations about where we stand on that issue.
Christiana Figueres: [00:12:15] We certainly have to do that. But I actually thought we had done that in this podcast, have we not? But it is such an important topic. We should do it again.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:12:25] Let’s ask Paul. Have we done it, Paul?
Paul Dickinson: [00:12:27] I don’t think we’re going to quite ever finish with doing it because it’s a huge issue. Somebody made an inappropriate joke. What was it? You can buy things made by elderly people and it offsets that that was made by children. It’s a silly idea. But the point I’m trying to make is that there are deeply complex philosophical issues here about how we conduct ourselves rightly and properly. But clearly, it’s going to be a growing issue, excuse the pun, as Nature Based Solutions become an ever more significant part of offsetting the emissions that we can’t avoid between now and 2050, when hopefully renewably powered electric aeroplanes solve the problem.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:13:08] You’re right, we can’t shirk away from it. There’s been a part of the climate movement, I think in particular, that sort of said it’s just bad, we just don’t do it at all. And I think we’ve agreed we need to engage in this and get it right because of the situation we’ve come to. But we’re now cracking the lid on a whole broad issue, which maybe we won’t go into but just letting you know listeners, because I’m sure there’s people who had that thought. We see this and we understand it and we will dig into this on a future episode. OK, shall we pivot to our interview? We have a very exciting guest today. In fact, there are two additional voices on the podcast, one who is an old friend of ours and one that will be new. So starting with the new voice this week, we have Kim Stanley Robinson on the podcast. Now, Kim Stanley Robinson or Stan or Stanley, as he likes to be known, is one of the best known U.S. science fiction writers working today with over 20 published titles. He came up with the Mars trilogy in 1995, and he came to see climate as a kind of determining, unavoidable future. And it kind of became a point of address in many of his subsequent novels. His latest novel is called ‘The Ministry for the Future’. And in it, the Paris Agreement was a central theme around which the novel is organized as a source of optimism in the struggle that humanity faces to deal with unmitigated climate change. It is a brilliant book. We’ve all read it and we were all blown away by it, I think it’s fair to say, reading this book in preparation for this interview.
Paul Dickinson: [00:14:39] So would you say you have a lot of respect for Kim Stanley Robinson?
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:14:42] I would, absolutely. Yeah.
Paul Dickinson: [00:14:44] So you would sit through the whole interview and not leave a great artist? Just checking that one.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:00] Listeners, I had to leave in the middle of this interview, which was very embarrassing. I had to leave. It was very important. I would just let the listener know that it was almost at the time when they when the interview was supposed to end. Of course, my co-host was so interesting that they kept talking to Stan for another half an hour or something. So I was very sad.
Paul Dickinson: [00:15:19] I’m just making fun Tom and I know that it was breaking your heart to break off, but it was just a bit of a surprise because Kim Stanley Robinson is a kind of super person floating above us, doing the most amazing stuff.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:15:33] Now the other voice you are going to hear is Nigel Topping those who are attentive listeners will, of course, remember Nigel, close friend of ours, High Level Champion for Climate Action for the COP26 process from the UK government and the UN. And Nigel, we’ve known for many years and he has been a fan of science fiction and a fan of Kim Stanley Robinson since he was a boy. So he joins us as a fourth interviewer. So I hope you enjoy this. And we’ll be back afterwards for a bit more conversation.
Christiana Figueres: [00:16:05] Stan, thank you so much for joining us on Outrage + Optimism. And thank you for your very latest book ‘The Ministry for the Future’. I have to say, Stan, I have seldom been through such a roller coaster of emotions. You had me crying already on page one and I didn’t stop until I don’t know how many pages later. And then you had me jumping, frankly. I mean, all of this in one book. And I actually have to tell you, I listened to it on Audible, so I was out in my garden doing things. And the neighbors thought I was completely crazy because one time I was bawling and the other time I was jumping up and down. And of course they couldn’t hear anything because I had my little air pods on. So thank you. Thank you for an absolutely brilliant, brilliant work of art, I would say. And we all have a thousand questions that we want to ask you. But my first question is you chose to start the book with a very powerfully written, compelling description of absolute torture. The pain that you describe in that Indian heat wave is just heart wrenching. And I’m wondering, why did you choose that? Why, given the fact that this is science fiction or speculative fiction, as Nigel likes to think about it, what is the purpose of starting us with such a dramatic and painful and compelling – because it’s very well put out there – description of a future that we might sleepwalk ourselves into?
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:18:04] Well, thank you for that, first of all, and thank you for having me and for your work. I am a science fiction writer. I’m very proud of that appellation and that genre. And so my whole career, I’ve been trying to think out trajectories forward from the moments that we’re in to something interesting in the future and very often something positive. Some might call it a best case scenario or sometimes the utopian tradition. And that’s been my work all along. And climate change became kind of an orbiter determining an unavoidable future that if you were going to write any kind of realistic science fiction, it had to be taken into account. That happened for me about twenty five years ago, somewhere between finishing the Mars trilogy or working on the Mars trilogy in the early 90s and then going to Antarctica in 1995 and talking to the scientists in Antarctica. So recently I’ve been running into in the last 10 years or so, mainly in the environmental humanities, maybe amongst political scientists, economists, never climate scientists, but people who are the commentariat, you might say. In the larger discursive battle of what we were to do, they would say, adaptation, humans always adapt. We have shot past the point where we can really hold the temperature down on Earth. And so instead of all this fuss and expense and bother, we just have to adapt to the higher temperatures, whatever they may be.
[00:19:41] 3C global average rise 4C, 5C, we’ll just adapt. We’re adaptable creatures. And then I ran into this wet bulb 35 notion brought up by climate scientists that in fact, heat and humidity in combination is fatal at very close to temperatures that were already reaching and we’ll soon reach them more. Such that the adaptationists, very often economists or philosophy majors, very often academics, were proposing that we do something essentially impossible. So that first chapter was an attempt to kind of slap in the face or a punch on the nose and say we can’t just adapt. If things get hot enough, you will need a power grid, a working power grid to live. And other than that, you will simply die of hyperthermia. So that combined with the Paris Agreement as being, for me, a perpetual shock and a delightful surprise that the Paris Agreement even exists. I say to people, if I had written it in the year 2000 as a science fiction scenario, like when I was doing my Green Earth, Washington, DC trilogy, people would have just laughed. They would have said, well, Stan Robinson, what a utopian. You know, it’s so nice to be optimistic by that. But that will never happen. And then it did happen.
[00:21:06] And that’s a sign of seriousness in that part of the world. Technocracy and the world diplomatic corps in combination. In other words, what you might call government, listening to science and actually responding. And so I was already a huge fan of the Paris Agreement. And it seemed to me that this was the way I could organize a global story covering about 30 years. There’s a novelist’s technical problem of how do you organize a story that is that big and various. And the focal point of the Paris Agreement was very obvious to me. And then I have to say, one of those lucky coincidences, I was at a conference back when there were such things, before the pandemic. It was maybe 2017, 2018 in San Francisco. Jason Moore and his eco Marxist group is a very great group of theorists trying to think their way through what you might call ecological leftism that combines the politics, the history and the ecology of science and politics in a good way. And at that at that conference, I ran into a man named Tom Athanasiou, and Tom had worked on the Paris Agreement and he had talked to me intensely about it at the conference, cheerfully but intensely, to make sure that I got certain things right. I sent him the manuscript of the book. And at that point he got back to me with a very useful critique of suggestions and telling me, be sure that you read the Paris Agreement. Be sure that you understand climate equity and be sure that you understand that it is argued over word by word and phrase by phrase.
Christiana Figueres: [00:22:55] Yes. Comma by comma.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:22:58] Yes. And so I’m a writer and this was a beautiful observation and you might say suggestion by Tom, because then I began to pour into my novel a level of detail that I wouldn’t have understood was important if I hadn’t run into him. Now, I have to say, this happens to me all the time. At the back of all my novels, you’ll see a list of people who’ve helped me. And so I am like my novels no more because I’m just the telephone operator in the 1940s movie. I plug in the knobs, people speak, I pull it out, I plug in a number and people speak, they speak the characters. But what those characters say I have learned from other people and that’s one of my methods that I think gives my novels an extra effect of the real because they are set in the future. They are speculations they’re thought experiments, they’re fantasies. And yet I want them as novels to have the effect of the real so that when you’re reading them or when you’re listening to them in the audio book, you have that willing suspension of disbelief where you’re thinking, this is really happening. Or, it could really happen this way. I totally believe this. Well, that’s a literary effect that has to be worked up.
Christiana Figueres: [00:24:24] Well, beautifully worked out because, as you say, you obviously have learned from many people, you delve into so many different professions, their economics, finance, geo engineering, human psychology, climate justice, physics. I mean, on and on. There’s barely a topic that you do not go into, but you do not limit yourself to where we are today. You take it, one step in or two steps extended into your imagination, your very well researched imagination. And that is honestly what is unnerving about this book that you think that you are there and this is really happening. But then you double take and go wait a minute, is this real or is this Stan’s imagination taking me someplace? And that space between reality and your extension, your imagination, is a very fertile space in which readers or listeners can actually reach very different conclusions to where we were before we read the book.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:25:35] Well, thank you for that. What you say reminds me of an image that I’ve been using lately to describe how science fiction in general works. You remember those glasses you used to put on at 3-D movies? I don’t know if that’s a genre that will survive, but you remember that effectively these 3-D glasses work by way of the two lenses showing you slightly different things. Science fiction is like those glasses in this sense. On the one hand, through one lens, you really are trying to predict a plausible future. You’re trying to do prophecy and saying this could happen. Through the other lens, you’re making a metaphor for the way things feel right now. It’s entirely symbolic and metaphorical. I feel like a robot or a time is speeding up or we’re all stuck inside a giant spaceship. These science fiction images are metaphors for the feel of our current moment. Now, when you double up and when you look through both lenses by reading a science fiction text, because I’m a print person, a novelist. Well, what happens is what you were describing a kind of a false three dimensional pop, which is history itself, but history cast into a trajectory into the future.
[00:26:49] So you see that past history is leading through our moment and it’s going to lead into this particular fictionalised future. You believe it while you’re reading and it seems tangible, seems inevitable, although in fact, no one ever gets it right. There is no science fiction novel that predicts what really is going to happen because it’s too multivariate, too unpredictable in a most literal sense. So it’s a fictional effect state, but very powerful, as you say. If it’s done right, you’re suddenly you’re thinking, oh my God, I’m a historical actor and we are in a civilization that’s in another crux in history. And so we need to do X in order to get to Y and we need to avoid Z, et cetera, et cetera. So this is the use of value as a tool of human thought that science fiction,as an art form, as a literary genre. That’s what science fiction is up to.
Paul Dickinson: [00:27:45] I consumed it all through my youth Stan. But thank you so much for this extraordinary book and all your work. It’s funny, you call yourself a telephone operator. We spoke to Jane Fonda and she spoke about how the artist can be a repeater. In her case, it’s really using her fame and position. But when I was reading the book, you had geoengineering, and I’ve spent 20 years in climate change. I’m like, yes, they’re going to do that, they’re going to put the aerosols up there. And then I’ve been totally in love with cooperative’s for 32 years. I’ve been obsessed with cooperatives and then personal digital identities is something I’ve toyed with. But I realized you didn’t write a novel just for me. What you’ve managed to do somehow.
Christiana Figueres: [00:28:23] Really? Are you sure about that?
Paul Dickinson: [00:28:25] Well, I was wondering at times I was thinking, he’s watching me. But seriously, you’ve managed to find a way to connect with, literally millions of people to bring together those visions of the future that interconnect. And I was wondering what you thought was the role of fiction or drama or science fiction in terms of uniting, understanding and creating a narrative of possibility? Because a lot of what we want to do with the podcast and why it’s such a privilege to speak to you is we do want to build a community to unify a whole bunch of people across the world in all kinds of different positions who recognize they have a shared purpose.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:29:02] Well, I’m thinking that this is sort of what the novel is for, has been for all along, is to create a shared sense that we’re in the same social space and the same historical process and that the novel can be made smaller by focusing only on a single tiny group of subjectivities, the individual consciousness and their fate as a domestic person, their affairs, their life, a kind of pocket biography or even a few years in time. And that’s a perfectly valid use of the novel, but that it has a larger potential that comes out of its beginnings in the 18th century, but in particular the 19th century with writers like Balzac or George Eliot or Dickens, that people go to it to get a sense of the social totality. Where science fiction brings in its extra charge and something new to the game is not just the future, although that’s important, too, but also the planet. So you see science fiction very often you arrive at a new planet and it’s entirely an ice ball or it’s entirely a jungle. There be monsters. And the planetary romance is a powerful form. But what it does is it gives you the habit of thinking that the planet is also a character in your narrative that can have an impact on the smaller narratives of the individual.
[00:30:35] So not only do you have your love story of your fellow traveler in this world, but also you have the world. There’s an impact that might help or hinder the smaller dramas of the individual consciousness. So, OK, right now, literary fiction very much wrapped up in the kind of modernist or bourgeois project of the middle class Westerners in the developed world. And the problems of their lives in a kind of a fossil fuel cocoon or bubble that protects them from planetary impacts. I mean, usually in ordinary literary fiction, you aren’t worried about starvation or pandemics or a storm that might destroy your whole existence, your infrastructure of your existence. Well, that’s off the table as a topic. But in science fiction, it was always there. And now with climate change, what we’re realizing, and this is why I have made this slogan up, that we are now all living in a science fiction novel, that we are coauthoring together.
Paul Dickinson: [00:31:38] That’s brilliant. We are all living in a science fiction novel we are coauthoring together. How is it going to end up?
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:31:45] Well, what somebody just recently pointed out to me that is absolutely undeniable is that it isn’t just one novel. We are in overlapping multiple science fiction novels that are in competition for how it’s going to end up. And so we’re in a mess. That history as a Gordian knot or as a tangled mess is an image that you can’t quite avoid. But it does help to think that it’s a science fiction thing because technology and the biosphere of this planet are both crucial actors in what can happen for human civilization, that we are not Promethean gods that can do exactly what we want. And we can’t also rescue ourselves from certain disastrous courses that we are sort of on a trajectory for right now because of fossil fuels and habitat loss and all the things that you people are already working on. Well, that could lead to a very dark place where human powers are simply overwhelmed and incapable of coming back to the planet that we knew. So, the stakes are high. And it’s an interesting project to try to write novels. And I guess what I’d finish for this strand saying is that it’s becoming obvious to me that ‘Ministry for the Future’ is essentially a novel that people wanted without knowing it, that there aren’t many novels like it.
Christiana Figueres: [00:33:13] So nicely put.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:33:15] It fills a need in the cultural imaginary. There’s an ecological niche there, a big one like how can we get out of this alive and give a decent world to our children? And then you look to culture to find the answers. And even though there are answers everywhere at the level of individual policies, there’s not one narrative that puts them together into a coherent future history. So that’s a somewhat empty ecological niche. And ‘The Ministry for the Future’, I did my best. It’s a novel. A novel is a long narrative with a problem is a famous definition, usually many problems. So I make no great claims for it, except that it’s filling a need, that there was a bit of an absence before.
Nigel Topping: [00:33:58] Maybe now I could pick up from that, because I’m first of all, I’ve been a fan for a long time since I came across the Mars trilogy a long, long time ago. I’ve become really intrigued by this idea of future histories as you call them, and the ability as you describe it, to shock us into thinking differently about what might be possible. And I’ve made ‘Ministry for the Future’ mandatory reading for my team, because in a way, we think we’re trying to build something like it sets it together. And I love this idea of –
Paul Dickinson: [00:34:28] Life imitating art.
Nigel Topping: [00:34:30] – A book the people want and they didn’t know. You talk a lot about the idea of the structure of feeling.
Christiana Figueres: [00:34:38] Nigel, are your team doing this with or without drones?
Nigel Topping: [00:34:43] With or without drugs?
Christiana Figueres: [00:34:44] Drones!
Nigel Topping: [00:34:48] Well, I think it’s a bit more in the future we’ve got to build up to the drones. But I’m just intrigued by this idea of what is it that makes us shift in the structure of feeling in the way that in one way is a shocking event, like a wet bulb event. But how might we with 10 months to go to the next important COP, which is really the five year anniversary, the first real test of the Paris Agreement, what might be the kind of use of the imagination in the next 10 months, which could shift the structure of feeling, which could create a space which people didn’t know they wanted, is not a novel, which is a policy change or a new collaboration or a new movement?
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:35:40] Yeah, good question. And my mind is spinning with the possibilities of, as you put it, a new structure of feeling. I find this a very useful concept from Raymond Williams, British literary critic, that we’re human beings, we’re social primates, we’re animals, and we have an emotional life that predates humanity, hope and fear and all the rest of the emotions. And these are basic and biological. But then we’re cultural and linguistic and these physically based hormonal and adrenaline fight or flight, these are placed into linguistic categories and hierarchies, some more important than others in individual cultures. So they’re historical and they’re cultural, these structures of feeling. So that if you feel a burst of anger, you can turn that into a political self-righteousness or you can turn that into some kind of a revengeful tit for tat culture. And I feel that we are on the brink of a new global structure of feeling that has to do with the tipping point in people’s awareness that climate change is real, that it’s hitting us, that we have to cope with, that something needs to be done and also something can be done. And that’s important. And indeed, I did a programme with the climate scientist Michael E Mann, who has written a new book called ‘The New Climate Wars’, where he identifies a slippage on the right going from denying that climate change is happening to admitting it, but saying there’s nothing we can do about it, a kind of doomism.
[00:37:17] And you can easily be on the political left or the political right, and you can definitely be a young person. And you see the powerful political forces of our time and say, A: people don’t get along and we’re too stupid to cope. And B, the physical processes are too far advanced for us to stop them. And so C, therefore we are doomed. And then D there’s no reason to do anything. You might as well not act anymore. So Mann calls this the new defeatism, a new turn of the screw for those who are opposed to fighting hard to deal with climate change. So that’s part of the new structure of feeling is doomism. But then you have to counter that, I suppose, with a new sense of hope. Everybody’s aware of it, the changes necessary and it’s very important to emphasize this to young people, do not involve renunciation, putting on a hairshirt, acting like a saint and having a worse standard of living than the generation that came right before you.
[00:38:20] That’s by no means inevitable. And what baby boomers can point out is a lot of their life was a rat and a wheel chasing crap by performing crap and that you strip away the fossil fuel cocoon from that and you are more alive, more stylish, more exposed to the real world and the biosphere and that you can actually concoct, and this is very important to the structure of feeling the utopian strand, that out of necessity and out of the opportunities of technology and solidarity together you can concoct a new structure of feeling, a new political economy on which, of course, it’s based and kind of based superstructure way, Williams would insist on that, and I think he’s right, a new political economy that can cope with this issue, that we can get to a best case scenario future. And so Michael Mann sees us as being on the cusp of a new kind of one planet global sensibility, having the Biden administration coming into power. And for us right now, it’s in three days or something like that. Maybe two days.
Paul Dickinson: [00:39:30] This will be broadcast after he’s in. So President Biden.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:39:33] I’ve been listening to climate scientist groups talking to each other, and I’m a kind of honorary court jester figure in many of these scenarios, in many of these communities. And they saying that Biden’s appointments have exceeded all of their expectations, that maybe Michael Mann is right. Maybe we were on the cusp of a bit of a tip into a new structure of feeling where climate change is acknowledged as the big global problem of our time. And also it is understood that solutions are there if we develop a new political economy. So I’d say that’s what’s going on. And it’s very exciting as to what to do for it to collect? Well, I noticed lots of groups think of themselves as being a ministry for the future already. And so they’ve contacted me like you and it’s good. And in general, even if there aren’t specific alliances, there is a general awareness that it’s a broad front and a lot of people are doing things.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:40:37] And so, unfortunately, I have to leave in just a minute. I’m really apologize for that. But I just wanted to jump in with a quick question. What you just said really resonated with me and that sort of requirement for the sense that something needs to be done and it can be done and that there’s an opportunity for us to face this with a degree of a positive outcome can be there. I remember early in my career someone explaining that people don’t get inspired by something that’s really needy. They get inspired by something that’s powerful and can lead to a positive outcome. And I think there’s a lot in that narrative. What we talk about there, we call it Stubborn Optimism, and we credit the creation of the Paris Agreement with this realisation that actually things don’t necessarily have to be going very well for you to make a decision that you’re going to dig deep and do everything you can at that moment to create a positive outcome in that future. And that changes everything. Because then you can precipitate a momentum.
[00:41:29] It becomes exciting for people to get on board with that. That generates momentum. And quite seriously, we would credit the turnaround from impossible to unstoppable on the journey to the Paris Agreement, the seed of that was an attitude change. That then manifested in this wave that crashed over us and solved many of these intractable problems that seemed impossible to overcome in a better way than we could have managed. So that sense of possibility, I suppose what I’d love to hear you answer is just to unpack how do we kind of help people grasp that narrative and grasp the reality of this moment? We’re in the most consequential decade in human history and we can choose to face it with that kind of stubborn, determined optimism and be part of that change. Or we can just decide it’s all too difficult and then we know where the future’s going. So what sorts of narratives do you think can get people inspired and excited to be that person who shows up with that attitude that can change the future?
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:42:27] Well, it’s a good question, and I think we’re all grappling with it. And I like this phrase Stubborn Optimism because it counters the phrase cruel optimism. And I’m thinking about the social media culture and youth culture, that the hopelessness comes from the lock that neoliberal capitalism seems to have on the world order and our lives. And that lock has a very simple rubric. Nothing matters but profit. And everything is devoted to the highest rate of return and human lives and the biosphere sacrificed to the highest rate of return. It creates cynicism. It creates hopelessness and a kind of fashionable pessimism. And one game I see young people playing and the social media playing is, I can be more cynical than you. I’m so cynical that I’m a nihilist and this is an easy way out of taking on harder subject positions. And it’s easy to defend because it looks like the Paris Agreement is a weak read in a world of neoliberal capitalism where nothing matters but the highest rate of return and really the one percent have us in a headlock that we can’t get out of. So how does hope and Stubborn Optimism count that? One thing would be to insist on the possibility of a stepwise non-magical move out of neoliberal capitalism that one can imagine happening without everything changing and without 10 years of destructive worldwide civil war as opposed to 10 years of constructive work, that political economy and proposal, stepwise proposal that is possible, rational, believable and is out there for young people to work on somewhat like Bernie Sanders’ campaign with which it has some similarities to another words offer the policies that are based in the present and yet lead to a post capitalist future.
[00:44:40] For me, imagining a believable post capitalism and a transition to post capitalism has been the order of the day for more than 20 years. And I think that’s an uncompleted project that most economists are just analysts of capitalism. That’s what economics is, that most people who do political economy are marginalized in political science departments. And the more theoretical and you might say impractical of the diplomacy crowd. And that’s why the Paris Agreement is so important, by the way. I mean, I’ve been calling it a major event in world history that if humanity survives and three thousand years from now, they’re writing a history that is a world history. Well, the Paris Agreement will get a page or a chapter as being a major turning point.
[00:45:30] And what I notice is that the cynicism is to say, it’s just the UN or it isn’t strong enough. In other words, the tendency to put out a tweet that is negative, cynical, knowing, and therefore wise has to be countered. And then you have to go into the tedious work of providing the facts and showing the good side of saying, if it’s only half of what we need, then maybe the first half is more important than the second half or harder to achieve than the second half. Or maybe we need to make it better, but where else are you going to platform that discussion but in the Paris Agreement? And then in terms of the political economy project, I’ve been saying anti-austerity. So anti neoliberalism, a return to Keynesianism and that comes into carbon coin in my book and to the modern monetary theory. It’s kind of a neo Keynesian and then maybe a social democracy, as in the Scandinavian countries, as a government directing the work of society and rewarding and giving people a social safety net. If young people had that social safety net, they would be much more cheerful and optimistic than they are.
[00:46:42] And then lastly, maybe democratic socialism. Or maybe the reason I call it post capitalism is I think it will be an improvisation like they all have been. And putting one name on it is maybe a distortion. And I am a member of Democratic Socialist in America, and I love these mostly young people for their emphasis on the importance of the collective and solidarity and public over private. So I’m perfectly willing as an American leftist to support all these causes. But what I think is you need to propose and people haven’t done it yet. This is where policy groups, think tanks need to have a set of policies that are obvious. Tax structures actually called out. And I’ve been associated with academic groups and they just get lost in the weeds. They get lost in, we’ll talk about this for five more years and get some more grant money and then we’ll talk another five years and then the decade is up. But there has to be the kind of think tanks that are more practical and policy advice groups like yours and just say, look, this is what can be done and this is what will solve the problem using the scaffolding of the Paris Agreement to orchestrate it all.
Nigel Topping: [00:47:52] Stan one of the things that intrigues me in this conversation about, I wouldn’t perhaps call it post capitalism, part of what I’m always trying to do is work with incumbent power as a tool to changing the system. So there’s a risk of being seduced and being trapped there. But one thing we know is that the voice of leading businesses who are committing to transform to zero carbon across their full value chain, is really powerful. It opens up political space. It makes it easier for bolder politics because politicians won’t move way faster than markets will allow them to. They need both citizen empowerment. So the kind of grassroots that the school strikers are giving them that. But then also businesses and investors. So how do you think about workers? Because, in the Mars trilogy, you have some very interesting big corporations and you imagine different roles. How do you think about the role of incumbent power? Which I don’t mean incumbent power, as in those who are desperately hanging onto existing structures, but those who are really, really grappling with the complexity and trying to play an honest broker role and understand the science, know there’s got to be transformation, that making these commitments are investing in the future, but are also part of a structure of feeling and a structure of policy and a structure of consumerism which they can’t single handedly break out of. So how do you think about the way to engage with them as actors who can be part of the shift? Because it seems that when we get that right, we can accelerate.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:49:30] I am afraid that my own personal predilections are not useful. I’d like to scare them. And in ‘The Ministry for the Future’. I have a young US Navy veteran talking about her experience in the US Navy and talking about wage parity, which is a co-operative principle. Young people are cynical and beaten down and defeatist now because of the wage disparity and also the wealth disparity in capitalism. And I want to say that capitalism is a system of power relations. It’s not an economic system. It’s a power system in which the few exploit and over determine the lives of the many who often are in the precariat and suffering, where a small minority of people are garnering the huge majority of the profits made by the system. So capital exists. The useful product of human labor technology exists and it needs to be developed and innovated and all these things, capital bulks of money that get paid out to pay people for their livelihood, to put their work and their time into these things. All that exists. But the system of power in which 1 percent control 80 percent of human wealth and then the lower 10 percent controls 90 percent of human wealth. And the poorest half of the people on this planet have effectively nothing.
[00:50:56] That’s capitalism. And so I talk of post capitalism. I speak of Eisenhower and the Republican Congress of 1953 that had a tax structure such that once you made more than four hundred thousand dollars a year as an individual, then 90 percent of that above that was taxed. 91 percent. This progressive taxation and corporate taxes that are progressive also so that the bigger the corporation, the bigger the tax. The lawyers would quickly advise you to break those big corporations into smaller corporations in order to pay less tax. In other words, a horizontalization of economic power and of adequacy for all. I’m seeing the outlines of a political economy that would be more horizontal, that more humans would be on board with. There would be more just and more sustainable at the same time because there’s lots of biosphere work to be done. So it’s the payment structure. It’s shifting from profit to people. And all these slogans I think are right. It’s what’s interesting is to get to the particulars and also win the discursive battle at the level of a working majority. And also, as you said, getting the ownership class on board with that like it’ll be better for their kids to
Nigel Topping: [00:52:06] Great over to you Christiana.
Christiana Figueres: [00:52:09] Well, that shift from boundless consumption to adequacy is as you put forward in the book with your fifty million limit on wealth is definitely a mental and a practical shift. Now Stan we could go on forever talking to you. Thank you so much for being so generous with your time. We usually ask our guests a closing question, and I think we can all guess where you’re going to come out on this. But we still have to ask you. So the name of our podcast is Outrage + Optimism, because we feel that both are necessary forces in the change that we must affect. But we realize that there is a spectrum between outrage and optimism and that people place themselves at different points in that spectrum. And so the question to you is, where on that spectrum do you place yourself in at the very beginning of 2021?
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:53:16] Well, it’s funny that you ask because for years I’ve been defining myself as an angry optimist, or that optimism needs to be used as a club to beat your opponents and convince people that you’re right in the discursive battle. So I like your name. And to me it’s one of those dialectical dualisms where both of them are necessary and important so that you don’t get the cool optimism that Zisac was critiquing and just say, things are going to be all right inevitably, that’s definitely not true. We’re going to have to fight for it. So I have a feeling of fear and urgency. Michael Mann talks a lot about urgency, that the time is now and we need to push hard. And the optimism part is a moral imperative that in other words, it’s too late for pessimism is another slogan. One has to also ignore one’s personal feelings as a prosperous person in the developed world, your feelings have to be bracketed as irrelevant. The project is necessary for the children, and the people to come, the generations to come. It’s just work that has to be done to get that working majority. A political battle wicked and ugly and often boring and tedious and stupid and yet necessary. So I guess I would enjambe those two parts of your structure of feeling and make it just one thing, that there is a sense of urgent, positive work. Whether you’re feeling hopeless and nihilistic or filled with optimism for the incredible possible possibilities of a good future. Big deal. You’re still going to do the grinding work. So that’s where we are. That’s how I would put it.
Christiana Figueres: [00:55:21] Well, nice summary. We still have to do the grinding work. Well, we will be definitely keeping our nose on to that grind and we welcome that you are helping out with that. And we look forward to welcoming you at COP26. Stan, thank you so much. Thank you for twenty novels. Thank you for this one in particular that is just uncomfortable enough to move us toward doing more work. Thanks very, very much.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:55:55] Well, thank you all for having me and thank you for your work. And I’m putting it on my radar. If we can meet in a physically distanced and safe Glaswegian setting.
Paul Dickinson: [00:56:08] Come to Glasgow for the COP, it will be great Stan you’re welcome.
Kim Stanley Robinson: [00:56:14] I would love it. Thank you very much.
Christiana Figueres: [00:56:21] Thank you. Bye.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:56:30] So great to sit and chat with Stan about his books. How amazing to have the opportunity after having read ‘Ministry for the Future’. And I of course enjoy the bit that I missed, which I’ve now listened to. What did you guys leave that conversation with?
Christiana Figueres: [00:56:45] Several things. I was so impressed about how he understands the climate negotiation process. It’s not an easy process to understand. And he definitely put his time into understanding that and went into very many details about it, proving that he did. But I was equally impressed with the incredible diversity of topics that he has really researched and goes into incredible detail. I actually wondered how does he do that? Does he research a topic and then write a whole chapter on it and then drop them in here and there. Does he have a whole team of people doing research for him? How does he cover so much ground in one book and make it coherent? It’s not like he has all of these topics and they’re disjointed. They’re standalone to a certain extent. Each of them are standalones in their detail, in their treatment, but they also hang together so beautifully. I’m so impressed. This is my first book of his, I will admit, but I’m very enticed to do further reading of his.
Paul Dickinson: [00:58:06] Christiana that’s beautifully put and building on it, he was talking about the way great writers can give a sense of the social totality he said. All those different components of society brought together so you can envisage them. And then the extra part of science fiction is showing that there’s even an actor in there that could be the planet.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:58:31] I loved when he said that he thought that this was a book the world needed without knowing it needed it.
Christiana Figueres: [00:58:36] It’s such a beautiful explanation.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [00:58:38] It’s so beautiful, isn’t it? Because it shows the humility that he doesn’t say, I knew that there was this great thing. And then I went off, constructed it. That kind of genius narrative. You kind of understand the book meeting the world and then what happened. And that power of the imagination to help you go through something and therefore understand it from a different perspective is something that just helps us so much as we try and put our arms around such a complicated, long term, all-enveloping topic. I think it’s a huge service that he’s provided to humanity in writing that book.
Christiana Figueres: [00:59:15] Yes, that’s really what really touches me so deeply that he is such a deep believer in who we are or who we can be. Who can we grow up and stand up to be? We as the human race. His faith in what we can do. His recognition that there is this good in us and that we can touch it when it is absolutely critical that we do. So it’s not you know, it’s not a book about the marvels of technology and technology is going to solve this or the marvels of financial instruments and pricing carbon or a carbon coin. It is about how we as humans actually go into our ingenuity and come up with a whole host of different tools to meet the climate challenge. And that faith in humanity, his love of humanity is so touching to me. Honestly, it’s brilliant.
Paul Dickinson: [01:00:27] It’s the strongest book review I’ve ever heard apart from ‘The Future We Choose’ by Christiana and Tom, which is the best book in the world. This is clearly the second best book in the world. Buy it, read it, enjoy it. It’ll do you a lot of good and give you a great picture of how we can get this done.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [01:00:39] It does. And he says in it, which is one of my favorite quotes, he says the optimism part is a moral imperative. Which is fantastic.
[01:00:46] Now, as ever, we turn to music and it is fantastic this week. You are really going to enjoy this. This week, we have a musical piece for you from Toukan Toukan. It’s called Konowoulen. Toukan Toukan is a duo comprised of Laure, the singer songwriter and a composer, and Etienne, the drummer, record producer and sound designer,
Paul Dickinson: [01:01:07] Great French pop duo. Think Daft Punk. This should be really good.
Tom Rivett-Carnac: [01:01:13] So we will leave you with them. They will describe the song and why this is a song with a purpose and we think you’re going to love it. Thank you for joining us this week. This has been a great conversation. So fun to have Stan here and we will see you next week.
Paul Dickinson: [01:01:27] Bye.
Christiana Figueres: [01:01:28] Bye.
Laure: Our inspiration comes from a traditional Malinke rhythm called Konowoulen with djembe, dumdum and metal percussion. We slowed down the tempo and it created a heavy atmosphere which was a kind of tension. This has inspired us a painful subject that worries us. In this song, I talk about the not so unrealistic idea of the colonization of planets with no regard for nature, use the resources of the planet and then throw it away for a new one. In our opinion, it’s important that artists fit in with their time. And even if in our case, this is not our first goal, we want to discuss our daily life with our audience.
Etienne: Lately, we read Ian Urbina’s book, ‘The Outlaw Ocean’ for a music and journalism project. We discovered a new face of the exploitation of Mother Nature and of mind by man, and it revolts me to see how we contribute to this end. I also sometimes host migrants and their joy of living, their hope makes me want to believe in our ability to change things. When we talk more and more about the problems it can be depressing sometimes to bathe in this news, but it is by putting the problems on the table that we will find solutions.
Laure: My neighbours have become my friends. Many of us want to go back to simple things in life, starting with nature. I think we will get tired of pretending, pretending that everything is always fine, and I believe in solidarity, love to give us the energy necessary to overcome everything.