- Interview by
- Daniel Aldana Cohen
Over his thirty-year career as a science fiction novelist, Kim Stanley Robinson has reimagined the genre as a site of struggle between capitalist exploitation and science’s utopian potential. His earliest books, like the Mars trilogy, emphasize humanity’s role as the inhabitants and protectors of shared ecosystems.
But with the acceleration of climate change over the last thirty years, Robinson’s portrayals of leftist resistance in the face of environmental collapse have become more urgent. They explore real solutions to climate catastrophe, from bioengineering to a planet-centered economics, through science fiction.
In this interview with The Dig’s Daniel Aldana Cohen, Robinson explains how his career as a fiction writer has allowed him to address the pressing threat of climate catastrophe and imagine a robust response from the Left. Skeptical of the “category error” in leftist rhetoric that pits scientists against socialists, he outlines top-down and individual approaches to fighting climate collapse — all of which require that humans recognize our place within the greater biosphere and claim science as a socialist tool of progress.
What is your mood on climate politics in fall 2021? What developments are keeping you up at night? What developments are making you optimistic that we can avoid the worst?
I’m scared by the latest IPCC report, which confirms that we are in terrible trouble — on the edge of catastrophe. And we need to act fast.
I’m encouraged by the discoveries that I’ve made since writing The Ministry for the Future. I wrote that book mostly in 2019. That’s like a previous geological era now, because of the pandemic. Certainly the timeline that I portrayed in Ministry for the Future, which was vague and notional anyway, is shot, because things are happening faster in the mitigation front.
The catastrophes are coming faster than scientists predicted, but within the range of their predictions. The response is picking up, because the pandemic was a slap in the face. I didn’t know about the Network for Greening the Financial System: 89 of the biggest central banks trying to figure out how to tweak finance towards green work.
I didn’t know that there were actual papers in Nature quantifying the possibilities of pumping water out from under the big glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland. I wrote about them in Ministry for the Future, but I wrote about them as if they were not yet in existence — when they already had been for a few years. So I was behind the curve in some ways.
We’re coming into the UN environmental meeting next March in Nairobi. There will be moments for the international community to come together and stare at each other, and admit that not enough is happening fast enough, not enough is getting paid for. It might be a chance to kick up the energy of the responses.
In a lot of ways, your Mars trilogy comes from the context of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the end of the Cold War. But the trilogy also feels like such a fresh tome of climate fiction that virtually all of it could have been written yesterday. What do you think has changed the most in the way that you think about the big questions of politics and ecology, and what has changed the least?
I’m an American leftist. I was then; I still am. What does that mean? Well, I’ve always been of the belief that there’s a false distinction between the environmental and the social. I’ve always wanted there to be a green-red, united-front kind of movement. I never saw a contradiction there, nor the reason why the so-called human-oriented left should be critical of the biocentric-oriented left.
Maybe that’s become more obvious. Neoliberal capitalism has had a thirty-year run and shown that it’s inadequate to the situation, based on false premises and an unjust, stupid system. But it’s also the law of the land. Globalization is real, in the economic sense, and the pandemic brought that home to us.
We’ve had thirty years of incessant history, despite the sense of frozen immobility that has also accompanied the hypnosis of the neoliberal era. We’ve also seen the breakdown of economics as a legitimate discipline, which blew up in 2008 and the years since, and has been shown to be a highly ideological science overpowered by power politics. Quantification has been used to mask injustice, and that’s becoming more obvious, even though the next political economy has yet to be fully exposed or born. That brings us to thinking about the Green New Deal.
The last thirty years have been granular and gradual, and encompassed a huge part of my working life. The work before Red Mars is a precursor, an apprenticeship — figuring out the craft, and freeing myself from the craft truisms of both American science fiction and of American fiction in general. It allowed me to go back to older forms of the novel and invent my own form of the novel. The Mars trilogy was the great discovery for me; the invention of myself as a novelist starts there.
In the Mars trilogy, your characters develop eco-economics, which to me evokes ecological economics: a paradigm that emphasizes that the economy is embedded in nature. Here, the fundamentals of the economy aren’t supply and demand, but the rules of physics, chemistry, and biology.
Ecological economists are much more worried about climate change and much less optimistic about clinical green economic growth. In the Mars trilogy, your account of planetary transformation emphasizes a holistic vision of a planet, where every ounce of nitrogen, of oxygen, of topsoil matters. You link that to eco-economics.
What got you thinking about the eco-economics version of political economy in the eighties and nineties? How did your thinking on political economy end up shaping the way you took on the political economy of climate change?
It’s a leftist tradition in economics to say that standard capitalist economics is effectively a Ponzi scheme. Capitalist economics obscures the extraction of both natural and human resources for purposes of exploitation and accumulation. In the classical analysis of capitalism, these negative externalities are not in the equations at all.
Nancy Fraser writes well on the issue of social reproduction being ignored, but also about the natural world. There’s also John Robinson, Hazel Henderson, Kate Raworth and “donut economics,” and Herman Daly, with his steady-state economics. Left economics already has a tradition of bringing the eco-Marxist tradition into a critique of mainstream American academic capitalist economics, as practiced in think tanks, academies, business schools, in legislation, and in the way the world works through neoliberal, globalized capitalism.
That tradition has a few important precursors for me: Ernest Callenbach, author of Ecotopia, and his working colleague Fritjof Capra, who wrote The Tao of Physics and the Web of Life. This book was important in trying to describe the physics/metaphysics/morality of action. Capra was an important thinker, somewhat neglected now because his books were popular bestsellers.
There is also Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, where you have a world that, in a scarcity situation, becomes democratic socialist and feminist out of necessity. The home planet, Urras, still operates under monopoly capitalism of the late imperial style. That’s the great utopian novel, and it was a huge inspiration to me because it taught me that you can do a novel with characters, with action, with all the pleasures of the novel—while including a political element. It’s analogous to the way that an economic analysis can include the biosphere, other animals, and the planet itself.
In writing Red Mars, I felt that the projective economics — leftist speculative economics — wasn’t robust. I wanted a model. I wanted some examples and abstractions to model what I would do on Mars. While there were Bookchin and Daly, there was also the example of Mondragon and of the Yugoslavian workers’ cooperatives. There was Radical Political Economy, a textbook from that time.
I was beating the bushes for help in imagining a Martian political economy that brought to bear Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift. It’s the idea that you need an exchange of energy going between nature and humans in an open cycle, because we get an incredible influx of energy from the sun. But the cycle cannot be deliberately wasteful in order to make a profit.
Which elements of Marxist thought do you think merit the most emphasis and exploration for today’s socialists and climate leftists? Which elements of Marxist thought do you think are best left behind?
As a working novelist, an American leftist, and a student of Fredric Jameson, I understand Karl Marx through Jameson’s continuous work on Western Marxism. Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Louis Althusser, György Lukács, and Antoni Gramsci, as Western Marxists, have interpreted Marx’s original written material for praxis in the twentieth century.
First, I read Jameson. If he indicates that I need to know more, then I’ll read those people. Often, Jamison’s summaries of their work is cleverer and more useful to me than the original material itself. He ran through the French tradition — Jean-Paul Sartre, Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault — in a recent seminar that I’ve listened to.
What can I say about Marx? It’s like talking about the Bible when I’ve been living a life and reading exegeses. I can scarcely remember the Bible; I can scarcely remember Marx. With that preface, it’s interesting how bad he and Friedrich Engels are on scientism: “It’ll be all right, because we’ll science our way out of it.”
They almost use “science” as a verb in the stupid American way, when science itself is just a human practice that has sharp limits on its powers. Those limits are being pushed out always, but against increasing resistance from the laws of physics.
It’s interesting to watch both the good and the bad in what I remember of Marx. And sometimes I read anthologies of Marx and Engels’s writing about science, in which case the anthologist’s choices might have pushed my responses. But “metabolic rift” is a very useful term: it’s like the crevasses in a glacier. You’re walking along on the ice, thinking, “This is fine. I can walk forever on this.” And then, boom, you drop down a hole.
In Aurora, I wrote about this a lot. What if your supply of nitrogen was insufficient, like it would be on Mars if we tried to Terraform Mars? These metabolic rifts are not solvable by science; they’re facts of the natural world that might be contingent on local conditions. They’re not universal laws, but nevertheless, they constrain what we can do. And sometimes Marx is really good on that.
So why the sense that we can “science” our way out of this? This is a nineteenth-century statement, and there’s a whole lot of Prometheanism in the nineteenth-century discovery that science could be translated into immense power over the natural world. This is where Jason Moore’s work, like The Four Cheaps, is very helpful: it’s no longer easy to quickly exploit the places it was once easy to exploit quickly, because we’re running out of things.
With Marx, there’s a lot of talk about materialism, trying to ground your philosophy in the actual real world of material stuff. That’s always useful, as are his moral underpinnings. “Moral” is a very suspect word, but Marx had an urge toward justice and equality in a world that was very unjust and very unequal, saying, “The world’s going to get better, because this is so bad. It’s got to get better. And when it gets better, there will be justice and equality.”
Marx is permanently useful where he insists that politics and economics are the same thing, and that capitalist power relations developed out of feudalism, where these relations were very obvious. It’s still the same in capitalism, even where these relations aren’t quite as obvious because of supposed social mobility.
Your books do a great job of decoupling the scientific ethos from specific technological projects. Your characters often argue against certain kinds of technological development, whether it’s terraforming or AI, on the basis of a scientific ethos.
On the other hand, some leftist critics of science lump in science and technology with capitalism, racism, and colonialism. Different people have very different ideas of what counts as scientific. And the project of pursuing any new technological thing is often the opposite of a scientific ethos.
How did you develop your own expansive concept of science? Did it have something to do with finding common ground between liberals, socialists, and communists? What gives you the sense that there is a way to decouple science from corporate influence and from the histories of racism and colonialism that it’s connected to?
It’s connected to these things under the umbrella of capitalist exploitation, which wants to harness and think of that word in the most literal sense — controlling and mastering science for its own purposes of profit and power.
Science is a different enterprise. It’s about people trying to understand how the world works. Can humans exert a little more power in that world for their own comfort and for the reduction of suffering? I am pretty Manichaean about this, and I have to take on an Adorno-style negative dialectics that see science as rationality, that goes for quantity over quality, and that removes the idea of projects and purposes and ends for quantification and means along the way.
But I want to go back to my own Manichaeism: science good, capitalism bad? Science has been a proto-utopian project from its very start, which goes back to the Paleolithic. Jameson made a good point just this morning that myth, for the ancients, was an early science attempting to explain the world; rational stories are embedded here. This idea comes out of Claude Lévi-Strauss.
For scientists of the modern period, predominantly Galileo, the universe is written in numbers. One physicist called it a weird and inexplicable relationship between mathematical formulas of great difficulty and subtlety and phenomena in the natural world, which comes in through our eyes and the rest of our bodies. Why should that be mysterious?
And yet the evidence backing it is extensive now, to the point of it being a proven case that we’re trembling on the brink of a theory of everything, with huge discrepancies between gravity and quantum mechanics, et cetera. This world of physics and of science is describing the phenomenal world in ways that are incredibly useful.
Science was a kind of utopian project: let’s understand things, and then we might have better control and less suffering. But capitalism is just the feudalist power project of the few trying to explain things to the many and get away with it without getting decapitated in some kind of revolution.
Science is dangerous for capitalism, and it must immediately be bought. Galileo himself was bought, and worked in the armaments industry for the Venetian Republic, among other projects that were military in origin. Since then, one of science’s projects has been to free itself for the good, and point out that the bad is really bad.
Now, in this moment of climate crisis, a mass extinction event and biosphere breakdown, push has come to shove. Scientists are saying, “We can’t go on the way we’re going on, because it’ll wreck our bio-infrastructure, and we will all suffer accordingly.” Capitalists say that we can always make a profit, but profit itself by definition is unsustainable exploitation. The way that word works in the modern world is simply a Ponzi scheme, always a rip-off of the future generations.
Now I see a Hindu god-type conflict — a visionary sock-puppet read of history and current events, science versus capitalism. These are two giant powers: social forces such that littler ones, like democracy or justice or environmentalism, are scurrying around the two giants, trying to shout in their ears, trying to give them advice like managers in the corner of a giant boxing match.
As a leftist, I am often dismayed by a confusion of constant category error that says science is just the instrumentality of capitalism. This gives up the most powerful force for good that we have invented as human beings, rather than trying to say, “That’s a leftist project to begin with, and we need to listen to it more.”
You have to study the sociology of it — look at the various ways that science is instituted in human institutions. How is it embodied? How is it practiced? How is it legislated, and how is it funded? In each one of those cases, you see a microcosm of the larger battle. As a leftist, you want to say that science could be devoted to the creation of justice, sustainability, and a good balance between humans and the biosphere that can only happen if all humans are living in justice. That’s part of the project.
Science is an ally, rather than a weapon of the foe. My novels are always arguing this.
Your work on science is different from today’s superficial liberal discourse — “Believe science,” “Science is the answer to the questions.” In your books, science works democratically. In Mars, some say the most scientific thing is to transform the planet, but others say the most scientific thing is to leave it alone.
What does it mean to have an expansive view of science, acknowledging that it’s both a good thing and a clearly contested thing that doesn’t automatically give superficial answers?
Well, you can’t say the most scientific thing. What would that be about? Science has a certain modesty. It delimits its project. It’s there to understand how the natural world works. Maybe we can create less suffering. Maybe we can have more control and more comfort, but science is not a philosophy. It’s not a morality. It’s a method of analysis. It’s a method of studying natural world.
When you say, “What do we do with what we learned from science?”, that question shifts to philosophy and politics, and the scientists will say, “Tell us what to do. We’re giving you new information. We’re giving you the capacity to build new powers that reduce suffering, to increase lifetimes and health, and to get into a healthier balance with the environment. Do something with it.”
It’s not about the most scientific thing to do; it’s about the right thing to do. For me, as an American leftist, what’s good is what’s good for the land. This is often seen as anti-human or environmentalist to the max, but it’s circular; and the land is our body. When you say, “Do what’s good for the land,” you’re saying, do what’s good for the future generations, because if the land is healthy, the future generations can live.
This is important. It takes us out of the present. It takes us out of anthropocentrism: “Humans are the only important thing, so I’m going to kill rats.” The anthropocentric viewpoint toward the rest of our own human bodies is foolish, cruel, and shortsighted. It’s so limited and nineteenth-century in its overemphasis on humans as the only important thing.
But even if you take that viewpoint through self-interest, you have to understand that bacteria are more than 50 percent of the DNA in your body. You’re a forest, you’re a swamp, and that swamp has to be healthy. And it extends out, like swamps do, into the estuary, into the ocean, into the atmosphere. All that is part of your body.
The “most scientific thing to do” makes no sense as a statement. What is most just and sustainable for all of the biosphere over the long haul? That is the question to ask. And science would be one of the tools, as well as politics and rhetoric. How can you convince other people to take this point of view? That’s a gnarly question. And you go on from there.
The roots of your political analysis as a leftist develop from Mars to Ministry for the Future. One similarity between the books is the radical left-democratic politics: massive street assemblies, popular revolts, deliberative constitution-writing, communal social living, union organizing, tenant organizing. But there isn’t much of the kind of disciplined Old Left–style political parties in that vision.
In many of your books, deep, transformative change happens slowly. With the radical left-democratic politics of your books, do you see change as a long, iterative process? And what happens to the political party in this process, in the age of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Bernie Sanders, and the Pink Tide? Do we need to make more space for left political parties in the twenty-first century?
You’re exactly right about my fiction. It describes other scenarios without getting into party politics. I want to say that my praxis is my novels, and so it should be there, but it isn’t. So what’s going on with that? I’m not sure. This is not something I’ve considered before.
In America, we’ve got a two-party system. I’ve often believed that anytime you try to institute a third party, it wrecks the party that you’re closest to, rather than creating a viable alternative for voters. Now, every once in a while in American history, that hasn’t been true, but certainly in my working lifetime, it seemed true to me that the Green Party and further left parties would chip enough votes and enthusiasm away from the Democratic Party that the Democrats would lose to a unified right.
I was always in favor of a united front — the project for Americans is to pull the Democratic Party to the left and make sure that our only two viable options aren’t a center-right party and a far-right party, which has been somewhat the case. You don’t want to get too discouraged about the Democratic Party. And the Green New Deal has been a deliberate evocation of the New Deal.
You have to go back to the Depression. You go back to FDR. You look at a coalition of people who decided that things were bad enough, and people were suffering enough, that the Left could pull together and make some progress at the federal level in the American system.
We all know that the New Deal made some deals with the devil and agreed to racism as a way to get the white South on board. The Green New Deal has explicitly said that it’s going to do better than that and needs to be a rainbow coalition, representing everybody. And that’s a deliberate rhetorical stance. The name “Green New Deal” was a deliberate red-green combination. I love the Green New Deal for its boldness in evoking all this history in a positive way, going forward.
Those are my reflections on party politics. The Mars books effectively try to describe two hundred years of history. Naturally things happen slowly, and you have to Terraform the planet as well as politicize it. There are three revolutions ending each one of the volumes; essentially it’s one novel, but it’s a triple decker.
There’s a lot of history there, but that’s not to say that things always happen slowly. There are breakpoints; there are revolutions. Through legislation, could you achieve all of the advantages of a revolution without the disadvantages, by making a Keynesian seizing of the financial system, so that neoliberal capitalism, with its valorization of the market as the only monarch, gets overthrown?
Of course, the Green New Deal is throwing back to the New Deal. That was Keynesian — where the state seizes finance for the purpose of the public’s ownership of the entire business system. We did it in order to fight World War II. That was a horrific reason to have to do it. Can climate change present the same sense of horror in emergency? That’s an open question.
If the revolution were to come, it could happen in the 2020s, in which we simply declare that in order not to torch the earth and destroy the basis of human civilization, we have to seize the economic system and nationalize it. But it would be international, because all of the nations would have to do it. The central banks would have to be unified together.
It’s scary when you put it in those terms, but it’s a scary situation. You have to talk about the tools that we have at hand, which are awkward and inadequate. Can you nevertheless wield them to achieve a successful result?
The political operator is a recurring character in your books: the hard-nosed pragmatist, someone who knows how to get shit done. They’re often very different from the other scientists, in terms of their disposition. Does the fascination with this character come from historical figures, like Robert Moses, Zhou Enlai, and Álvaro García Linera? What inspires this passion for the political operator who is essential to anything interesting happening in politics?
I am interested in that character, and I don’t know why. I’m married to an environmental scientist; she would describe herself as a technocrat, not a bureaucrat, and is very involved with the science of what happens to pesticides after they get into our water — the afterlife of pesticides. That’s extremely technical, chemical work. She is not this kind of character, so that’s not where it comes from, but she is part of a federal agency. And I’ve done a lot of work with the National Science Foundation.
In my reading of history, there are those who try to organize the efforts of others. As a novelist, I think that’s an interesting kind of character to try to describe. I can write about characters who are political operatives, whereas I can’t get a good grip on trying to write about political parties, which are too abstract. I find myself asking, “How would that manifest in real behaviors that I can describe in sentences, in scenes, in actions?”
In the Mars trilogy, there’s Art, the guy trying to connect everybody; Frank is trying to do the same thing, but in a more Machiavellian way. In Ministry for the Future, it becomes about what these people do, because they’re not scientists. I suppose they’re politicians, but often they’re more like civil servants. They’re mediators. What do they do, in terms of organizing efforts? Can their agency be expressed in positive political action?
I think back to Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Mr Tagomi is a very minor functionary in San Francisco. Without wanting to, he is suddenly at a crux in human history: he has to act, or else there’s going to be a nuclear war between Japan and Germany that will be fought in San Francisco. And he acts. That’s always impressed me.
There’s a category error in thinking that science is just part of capitalism. Calling people “elites” is now a way to attack them. The 1 percent, the people in power, are elites, but are scientists elites? Are university professors elites? Kind of, yes. The word masks a divergence of projects between people who are rich, who want to retain power, and therefore hire lawyers and lobbyists in order to keep their power by killing tax laws, but also experts, scientists, and technocrats who work to make things better.
The term “elites” confuses the issue, demonizing the experts who are absolutely necessary to the work of getting to a better place, as well as the reactionary forces, the people who only want to hold on to their riches for one more generation.
We need to talk about expertise. We need to talk about left versus right in the old classic terms of socialism versus capitalism, and admit that there are expert socialists whose work, thoughts, and comprehension of the situation we badly need. Then there are the elites that want to hold onto money. That distinction gets lost with the term “elite.” I bristle at a term that just lumps all educated people together as forces of reaction.
It’s the ultimate mystification category for populists like Tucker Carlson.
Rhetorical analysis is something that English majors can bring to bear, and don’t do so enough. Rhetoric is often regarded as a name, like ideology, meaning something bad. Like you’re just blowing smoke — only rhetoric.
Rhetoric is actually a craft, a human science, an analysis of how people are persuaded politically and culturally. The ancient Greeks were very good at it. English majors could be better political shock troops than they are. They could do a better job of being leftist actors in the world if they were more aware of rhetoric as a necessary craft.
The rhetoric of climate emergency is tough. We have the story of apocalypse and we have the story of peaches and rainbows in Manichaean opposition: solutions good, apocalypse bad.
The mind-blowing achievement of Ministry for the Future and New York 2140 is a scenario that doesn’t fit the easy categories of good or bad; it’s much more complicated. You’ve described ministry as a good-case scenario: it includes geoengineering, terrorism, massive political violence, and a huge amount of death and destruction.
What is your bar for success? What is the power of the novel to communicate an idea of a climate future that is not so simplistic and overwrought as some of the rhetoric would allow?
Thank you for that. It is important to me. We’re in such a bad situation, in terms of our relationship to the earth and the biosphere, that the bar has gotten really low for my definition of utopia in this century. If, at the end of the century, we have dodged a mass extinction event and begun to bend down the curve of CO2 in the atmosphere, that’s a utopian future. We can build from that.
The establishment of justice among humans is a necessary part of that project. It isn’t as if I’m saying, “Let’s have a half-century of green fascism” — so-called green fascism, which I think is just another rhetorical attack on the green project. If we dodged a mass extinction event, that would be good. There will be a lot of failures. There will be a lot of death and destruction along the way; it’s unavoidable. It’s baked in at this point. Even now it’s happening.
The poorer two or three billion people on the planet, the most disadvantaged in this post-colonial, neo-capitalist moment, are already suffering death and destruction, but it will become more and more massive. And even if we manage to succeed in coping with it and getting to a better future, it’s going to be widely reported: “We didn’t meet our Paris agreement goals here, therefore it’s apocalypse. We didn’t decarbonize fast enough. We just hit 430 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere; it’s apocalypse.”
The apocalyptic imagination has it that, as there are losses and disasters in the coming decades, that means we’ve lost the whole thing, and it’s just not true. And the story has to be told in a realistic way.
In Ministry for the Future, a lot of good things happen. I assemble these things in a semi-conscious, instinctual state of tossing together scenes with 106 chapters, ordering information, because you want everything to hit the brain at once, but you have to do it one sentence at a time. I can say that my novels are semi-instinctual things that I look at afterward as a reader and see patterns that I didn’t see while I was writing it.
Now I see that every time something good happens in Ministry for the Future, something bad happens, so that if you’re feeling that things are going to get better, some things still aren’t solved. There’s also lots of death — not just the mass death that starts the novel, which has made it notorious, but also individual deaths of characters. One’s accident, one’s illness, one’s murder. And I had no idea that pattern was there until I read the book afterward.
The novel is good for thinking by way of thick texture, imaginative scenarios where you put yourself in other people’s brains. Telepathy is an amazing power. And then you put people in other times and places — that’s time travel and teleportation. These science fictional powers are exactly what the novel does, but fictional experiences are, in mental space, real experiences. They have the power to change the way you look at things.
There’s a power to the novel that I quite love. It is my way of engagement. When I try to write them, I would like to make it easy to have a Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief. You’re reading my novel, where people are doing good things, and think, “That’s so utopian. People are never like that.” And then you walk down the street and somebody’s kind to you at the corner, or gives you a ride, or sells you a coffee.
The whole world is an eight-billion-person collaboration. That is no reason for it to succeed, even as well as it does. There’s lots of friction, but there’s lots of cooperation. The utopian novel has to walk a narrow tightrope between plausibility and the reality principle, but also project out a positive future that you can believe in. It’s both a nasty proposition and an extremely stimulating way to get yourself a new story. I’ve enjoyed it for that reason.
Climate change is, in large part, an investment problem. We have to invest a lot of real and monetary resources to get it done. A lot of people in the Green New Deal movement and a lot of green Keynesians have been talking about ways to push out money through massive public investment, through conventional public spending, or through green development banks.
You focus on the idea of carbon quantitative easing. What is this idea? This is a central bank-driven operation, beyond the sort of investment politics that are traditional on the Left. Why should people in the movement left think more carefully about the role of central banks and the realm of finance as we go forward in climate politics?
The central banks are crucial and need to be thought about deeply as a potential leftist project. But it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation. There is no single silver-bullet solution to this. Carbon quantitative easing is important and, I think, even crucial, but it’s not going to be the total solution.
I think the Green New Deal is simply carbon quantitative easing. We know now what quantitative easing is: the creation of new money by the central banks without freaking people out and making them distrust money, leading to inflation or deflation. $5 to $10 trillion were created after 2008 and given to the banks to continue their same stupid gambling, but just to keep liquidity going and keep the economy from crashing, it kind of worked.
Then, in 2020, the pandemic caused an instant depression. Then there was instant quantitative easing, again, through a couple of trillion dollars. The creation of new money is like selling bonds, or other various things that central banks can do. The carbon part of it would be for the central banks to create new money dedicated to decarbonization purposes, after which it would circulate out into the economy as ordinary money.
Hopefully we’d have a multiplier effect, as Keynes called it, and do some good there, but the first use of it would be necessarily good, by way of directed, legislated payments. That’s how it crosses over with the Green New Deal.
Private investment, which is actually vastly larger than what a central bank could dare to do in a short term, always goes to the highest rate of return. It’s an algorithm in the technical truth of its algorithmic mathematics, which finds the highest rate of return sifting through the various opportunities for investment. And then it’s a human algorithm in that managers of hedge funds and business schools in general teach that you should invest at the highest rate of return.
That’s like an overriding consideration. It means you don’t have to think about what would be most sustainable. What would be most just? No, what’s the highest rate of return? This is a measure of profit, which is a measure of injustice and non-sustainability. So we’ve got a system of private investment that’s almost exactly backward to what we need now.
The feeling of doom is this whole “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism,” because the highest rate of return looks like an overriding consideration that can’t be changed. Well, what would change that if you had carbon taxes?
Often, at this point, many people in policy roles say, “We can’t pass carbon taxes. People don’t like them.” Yes, you can. You can just reframe it rhetorically and push it legislatively, showing that you pay the true cost, avoiding ripping off the future generations. This is the cost of burning carbon, and we’re not paying it.
This gets incorporated into the Green New Deal, and it’s called the social cost of carbon. We need to seed efforts on that front, but we also need regulation — taxing regulation saying, “You can’t invest in something that is unsustainable and unjust.”
It comes back to a political, semi-Keynesian, semi-leftist project of “seizing the means of production,” you might put it — saying what can and can’t happen, taking over what the society does at the political level. This is either shocking or or it’s the left project, and maybe both at once, but it does seem to me that, in an all-hands-on-deck situation, you can’t just talk about the central banks. They are crucial. They do create the money that we trust and allow things to go forward in the world that we’re in now, so they are important. And I’m very glad that there’s a network for greening the financial system, and that the central banks themselves are trying to suggest to the world, “This is how you could use money as a force for good.”
Yet it has to be added that this is only one project that has to be pursued to get ourselves through the climate crisis.
How do you build the power to force any of these solutions through? In Ministry, you’ve pushed back on the idea that it’s all technocratic power. There is a lot of mass mobilization. It’s just not in the narrative foreground all the time.
What do you find most promising about the American left today? The Black Lives Matter mobilizations and digital, indigenous-led organizing against fossil fuel infrastructure remind me of the bread and butter of your leftist politics; you love these semi-spontaneous but structured, spectacular mass events. On the other hand is DSA, Bernie, AOC, and the rise of the more traditional US electoral left. What is the potential of the strand of mobilization and the more traditional strand of electoral politics? How might they help move us along?
I’m a DSA member, and I love to see its existence; I want it to scale, as they say in economics classes, and become extremely widespread. If it’s lots of young people, that’s good. If it’s lots of baby boomers going into Gray Panther mode, that’s also good.
By mass demonstrations in the street and civil disobedience, you teach the Democratic Party infrastructure, leadership, funding, and the whole complex of institutions that if we want young people on board, we need to shift further left — not just through an ameliorated business plan but a more fundamental leftism.
We need to be instantly for diversity. We need to be instantly for justice and for long-term sustainability, so that the demonstrations help with the work in committees and the boring meetings that you go to. I’m a veteran of meetings, and they are so boring that I’ve had to contemplate the idea that there can be things that are both boring and interesting at the same time; you have to see through the boredom to the interest of it.
Being in a ridiculous small-town meeting about local politics and coming in with a left perspective, although it was boring, was more interesting than watching TV that night by maybe 50 percent, maybe 100 percent. There’s something about human interactions: face-to-face, small-scale crunching through Robert’s Rules, and arguing, and trying to be polite when you’re absolutely furious, or at least indignant. This is interesting stuff. As a novelist, I’ve even tried to represent this in novels, which is harder than hell.
If I think of myself as an American leftist and also as a radical, and then I’m talking all the time about how central banks need to do Keynesian and quantitative easing, I see the criticisms coming up. Here’s the writer of the Mars trilogy, where at the end they’re in a completely different political economy, and here I am now, talking about Keynesian tweaks to the finance system. I’m thinking as a radical still, but we are in a crisis. I want to put our actions on a timeline such that first you oppose austerity and all right-wing efforts, and you do that by way of Keynesianism.
This is the Green New Deal. It makes perfect sense to me. You can call it liberal and use “liberal” as a word that people further to the left will use to disparage the work of leftists that are closer to the center than them. So these are liberal projects, but if you were a radical now, and you’re in the emergency that we’re in — climate change — I want to do a science fiction exercise, running you through the 2020s and saying that it starts with anti-austerity and with environmental awareness and then Keynesianism, and then social democracy, and then democratic socialism. And then we get ourselves through this century without a mass extinction event. And you’ve built democratic socialism in a rapid, stepwise fashion.
If you go out into America today and say, “I’m an anarchist” — I love you. I’m an anarchist, too. In five hundred years, or maybe fifty years, everybody on the planet should have an equal amount of power and comfort and wealth and political power. That’s an obvious goal, and it’s the great anarchist goal. But right now, in the world that we’re in, you’ve got to go campaign for whatever democratic politician opposes the reactionary forces. You can put a timestamp on your political view and say, “Ultimately I would like this; this would be best, but right now I need to support something else, because of the situation we’re in.”
Of course you agitate, of course you push, but you don’t need to cut off people who are on your team, or do the narcissism of small differences and argue intensely with the people that are closest to you because they actually will listen to you, rather than realizing you’re part of a united front and part of a timestamped process of things that can be done right now, and need to be done right now, to get a better result later on.
Maybe this is liberal or anti-revolutionary; if so, so be it. But I want to explain myself. It seems to me that this is an all-hands-on-deck situation; species are going extinct, and biomes are dying. The catastrophes are here and now, so we need to make political coalitions.
We need to have a working majority in places like Congress and in state governments, a working political majority to get the necessary work done. And that means making alliances with people that you don’t see eye to eye with philosophically but who are necessarily your allies in this battle.
Much of the ecoterrorism in your book is premised on the idea that there will be anonymous forms of drone warfare, maybe even widely available forms of robot violence, that would make it impossible to track down the perpetrators of a bombing or some other attack. This concept appears first in 2312 and again in Ministry for the Future, through anonymous, untraceable violence that allows for ecoterrorist guerrilla warfare to thrive.
What research or thinking has convinced you that autonomous, often atomized guerrilla warfare could happen? If it’s possible, how should that change the way we all think about twenty-first-century geopolitics and about the role of violence in politics in the next decades?
Look at the word “ecoterrorism”: What if you call that resistance to capitalist realism? What if you call ecoterrorists “freedom fighters”? The language game comes into play here; you’re making a judgment by calling it ecoterrorism. If the ordinary workings of the world are going to lead to a mass extinction event, future generations of humans will be suffering in a wrecked biosphere, to the point of mass death. What’s your responsibility to resist that?
And if resistance takes violent forms, distinctions can be made between violence against property — like sabotage, or laying down in front of pipelines, or civil resistance — or violence against persons, which happens all the time against the poor. Against the rich and powerful, though, it gets tagged as ecoterrorism or just plain crime. And there are wars of resistance whose warriors are later valorized for doing the necessary work for future generations. You fall into problems of ethics and morality, of means and ends; these are fundamental questions for everybody.
I come at it as a suburban middle-class white American male, almost seventy years old. This is a specific subject position — I would plump for nonviolence, for a pacifist resistance, for mass action. This is why my novels often describe mass movements or demonstrations.
Ministry for the Future does describe acts of violence against people: murder of individuals, bringing down planes. The text itself is often from the perspective of the person doing it, describing it as righteous action. Ministry for the Future is not a good instrument by which to think about these issues, because it’s just as messy as history itself.
When I wrote Ministry for the Future, I was thinking, “People are going to be really angry. The people at the sharp end of the stick are already really angry, but if they get angry enough . . .” You can already do suicide bombing. So it isn’t as if terrorism isn’t already available in the world, or small-scale acts of violence, or murder for political purposes — murder of strangers, just to make a point and to scare people into doing something. That’s what terrorism means: you scare somebody into changing their political and social behaviors because they fear violence.
This novel, I hope, wasn’t making judgments that one thing is good and another bad. My feeling is that violence against other humans creates such anger and resentment that the backlash against it means terrorism doesn’t work. Erica Chenoweth, the author of Why Civil Resistance Works, did a historical study of the sociology of resistance, showing that civil disobedience and pacifist resistance actually get the political goals that motivated the other arms of those same movements to commit violence and murder.
Chenoweth postulates that when you’re angry enough, you do things that are against your own best interest, things that are irrational and counterproductive to your own side — sometimes in grotesque and horrible ways. You’ve got to try to look to the most effective political action. From my own subject position, it keeps coming back to citizenship, mass demonstrations, civil resistance, and maybe sabotage. I looked into that very closely when I was writing in Antarctica.
In the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, Andreas Malm goes into the ethics and the morality of sabotage. What is the responsibility of middle-class citizens in the developed world to a global situation that, because of neoliberal capitalism, is descending into chaos and a mass extinction event? What should we do?
Ministry for the Future is more like the slurry of current events itself. I’m not capable of making good recommendations for other people; my novel steps back from that and puts out fifty fictional eyewitness accounts. I tried to see the situation through other people’s eyes and present it as if I were that other person.
Naturally, there are limits to this approach. But when you try hard enough, you can go into a trance — it’s effective. It works for me, and Ministry for the Future is getting a strong response across the world, including in India. The game of the novel — to try to imagine you’re somebody else — is a very important game. In that, I created a mess. It doesn’t have recommendations. It has case studies that you have to sort out for yourself.
Geoengineering is another big topic in the book, where you depict solar radiation management, draining water from underneath glaciers, and direct air capture. Geoengineering is heresy for much of the climate left. They see that as the ultimate fusion of science and capital — an excuse for fossil fuel companies, a general distraction from action.
How can we have a democratic, scientific debate about geoengineering projects at a time when the influence of corporate money is so great? Can these decisions be made in ways that you would feel good about?
In my book, these decisions are made by a nation-state that has suffered an enormous climate disaster. The state wants the temperatures cooler instantly, no matter the side effects, and no matter what the rest of the world thinks.
I can imagine that happening — obviously, I did imagine it — but I think that could happen in the real world, because we are closing in on temperatures that will cook people who aren’t protected by electricity. And that will be a game changer in the nation-states where it happens.
The word “geoengineering” is too broad, and the knee-jerk reaction on the Left is disturbing to me because it’s too simplistic; it wants heroes and villains. It’s a very 1995-style response. Now that we’re verging on unlivable temperatures and a mass extinction event in an all-hands-on-deck situation, we might want to cool the planet for five years or so by throwing dust up into the atmosphere, which is solar radiation management.
There are obvious problems with that, but it’s no longer a get-out-of-jail-free card for capitalism going on the way it is. Nobody who has proposed it is discussing it that way. And if you think of them as snidely twirling their mustaches, the corporations might say that this will allow them to burn all the rest of our fossil carbon. No, it won’t. First of all, it’s a very minor gesture in the earth system to imitate a Pinatubo — minor enough that we could actually do it as human beings, which shows how small it is.
The “engineering” in “geoengineering” implies that we know enough to do it, which is hubristic and wrong. Some people are calling it climate restoration, to try to get to the ends rather than the means involved. Others think that name is a bit of a lie, because we’re never going to be able to restore the climate that existed in 1800. I’m not so sure about that. I offer climate restoration as a way to rethink this issue.
But the issue is too big for geoengineering to deliberately interfere in the earth system in order to try to mitigate climate change. Is that what it means? Maybe climate change will come down if you pour a whole bunch of iron filings into the ocean; then it has a plankton bloom. Then the plankton die and go to the bottom, so that the carbon is on the bottom of the ocean. Nobody likes that plan because the ocean is already stressed out. And who knows what might really happen in terms of knock-on effects?
We don’t know what the secondary effects would be, and they could be worse than the cure, which is true enough to give one pause. But solar radiation management has come to people’s attention because it actually could be done. It should probably be limestone dust, like calcium carbonate, rather than sulfur dioxide, which is what volcanoes put up in the atmosphere. Sulfur dioxide eats away at the ozone layer, but limestone dust is inert, and it’s there in the atmosphere anyway.
If you put up more, it falls to the ground; it’s problematic if it falls and melts more ice in the Arctic. But in any case, it falls to the ground. Five years later, you’re back to square one. You don’t have to do it permanently forever in order to keep the temperature from increasing. In fact, you would plan to do it just once in a hundred years, to avoid getting caught in that trap, and see what the effects are over five years.
It’s not by any means the most dangerous thing that we’re contemplating. And it’s probably not as dangerous as the generation of nuclear power plants that we built. Nuclear power is another horrific no-go zone for the American left, a capitalist power danger for the future, et cetera. But what if the nuclear power is being generated by thorium rather than uranium, and the by-products are less dangerous for future generations?
In other words, everything has to be on the table. There is no leftist truism that I trust, except that justice and sustainability are the overriding considerations of civilization, and ought to be our lodestone, our guiding star, for everything that we consider. We’re in a mass extinction event that’s just beginning, and we have to dodge it. Everything else needs to be considered, not ruled out.
The resistance to the idea of geoengineering shows the category error of confusing science and capitalism. It’s the assumption that this process would only be done by capitalists trying to retain their power, but what if it were being done by scientists to keep millions of people from dying in the tropics? Then it becomes an argument about means over ends. And we’ve already pumped more than a hundred parts per million of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Every corner of the planet has been geoengineered, accidentally and stupidly as a by-product, or ignorantly. We didn’t know that these side effects were going to happen, and then when we knew, we either changed, or we didn’t. That’s when you become innocent or a criminal.
I’m comforted to see a paper in Nature that describes pumping water out from underneath the glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland to slow the melting process. That’s geoengineering. What could you complain about there? Nothing, because that water pump from the bottom of the glaciers is a trivial amount of water, and then it just freezes on the top. There are no bad side effects that can be predicted with solar radiation management.
It is said that there might be effects on the monsoon in South Asia; if true, that would be bad. The monsoon is variable, but it’s very important. The glaciers are also important; they come out of the Himalayas and provide a water supply to South Asia, and the glaciers are going fast. A climate modeling exercise that postulates damage to the monsoon is maybe not as powerful in an argument as the actual melting of the glaciers that form the water supply for a billion people.
Everything has to be put back on the table — the arguments from ’95 about moral hazard and capitalist power need to be set aside for the current moment of desperate emergency.
In your books, you’re preoccupied with the role of beaches in human civilization. What do you find emotionally compelling about the rise of the sea level? It affects the human domain in big cities and so on, but the way it affects beaches clearly hits a nerve for you.
It sure has. I’m a beach kid. I grew up in Orange County, and the suburbs of the 1950s and 1960s were a crazy, foolish moment in American history and social life; they created an incredibly impoverished social landscape. The beach saved my sanity, because when you go down to the beach and get ten feet off the shore, you’re back in nature and struggling for your life. It’s a reality check, a lesson in what’s real.
My first exposure to the natural world was through beaches. They have a lovely culture worldwide. Beaches are notorious for their sense of ease and the surplus of pleasure that we can have as animals when we’re back in the ocean.
All the beaches are essentially doomed. It only takes a couple of meters of sea level rise to put all of the beaches underwater, even at low tide. That kind of sea level rise is almost baked into the future of climate change. I’m interested in anything that can be done to slow sea level rise.
According to the utopian imaginary, nothing is permanent. Maybe we can lower the sea level. It would be a centuries-long, very difficult process to capture that much ice back on the land. Should we start another ice age? I don’t know. It’s a little too utopian.
It all comes down to mitigation: the more we can slow sea level rise, the more we can stop it from getting bad, the better off the beaches will be. But as you pointed out, all the seaports of the world, at least a tenth of the world’s population and up to a quarter by some estimates, live within thirty or forty miles of the coasts on purpose, because that’s where the world economy is connected. A lot of the great cities of the world would be underwater, as in New York 2140.
It’s a big issue for me, but it also has the personal element of a place that I loved when I was a child and where I have spent far too little time as an adult. It’s almost guaranteed that we’re going to lose the beaches. Now, maybe we can shift sand higher. It’s a peculiar question, related to geoengineering, but it makes me sad.
It’s the same thing with the Sierras and all of the high mountains of the world: the glaciers are melting. All questions of whether the climate is warming up have been completely answered, to the point where the people who are denying that we have to do anything about it are doing so as a way to excuse their inaction.
The glaciers are melting so fast that in places where they were already residual and quite small, like in California and the Sierra Nevada, they’re going to be gone no matter what we do. We can be as virtuous as one could possibly imagine, starting right now, and yet those glaciers will still melt, and they are beautiful. They are part of the ecology.
There will be huge stresses put on the landscapes and wilderness areas where the glaciers are melting. These stresses will also hammer humanity in the Himalayas, and in some other mountain ranges where they formed the basis for river systems that provide water to a billion people.
One can approach this from a middle-class aesthetic position: “My poor Sierra Nevada, my playground, my heart’s home.” But for other people, it’s like, “Wait — that was my daily water source.” There are very different scales of disaster coming down on us.
Throughout your work, you develop the idea that humans’ relationship to animals is a key part of the relationship to nonhuman nature. In your earlier books, physical adventures in the landscape are the dominant ways that your characters engage with the natural world. In your later work, however, the physical adventures are there, but animal reintroductions play a huge role.
A lot of the most emotionally resonant passages in Ministry for the Future involve animals, including a passage in which a white rural community in the United States dissolves itself to make space for wilderness restoration. Your work contains the idea that humans can enjoy a spiritual relationship with animals that can help to drive a form of ecological politics — not just the superficial admiration of charismatic megafauna.
How have you thought about animals and their role in environmental politics through your writing career? How has that changed? What makes you optimistic about our animal-centric environmental politics today?
My thoughts have changed over my life, and the writing reflects it. I’ve become much more aware of the animals that I encounter in the Sierra Nevada. Seeing the Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep for the first time in 2008, after having backpacked in that range for thirty years, was stunning.
That particular subspecies of the bighorn sheep had been down to one hundred animals. The Endangered Species Act came into play as they were declared endangered. Now they’re up to about seven hundred animals because of human interventions to make space for them and help them survive this choke point, which will always be there in their DNA. That was a transformative event for me.
As I began to write, I began to pay more attention to our “horizontal brothers and sisters”: to my pets, to the cats in the house. Temple Grandin teaches us that these animals coexisting with us are wild African cats in their DNA.
We need more awareness of the mass extinction event that is particularly hammering the large mammals, our cousins. The deer are a little bit too ubiquitous in North America because we killed off their predators. We have deer and ticks; we have Lyme disease because we don’t have wolves. According to the ecological circle, the sense that we’re part of a larger body, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot every time we kill a wild animal that we consider a pest.
I think the most beautiful scene in all of my writing is in 2312, where the animals come back. It’s kind of a dream scene, a fantasy scene with a science fictional complement — it’s one of my best for sure. And it came to me as a waking dream, and now I’m living it. And now I’m thinking the Endangered Species Act should be foundational to our behaviors.
That’s why I refer to the Leopoldian “what’s good is what’s good for the land.” He does not mean the soil, although good soil is fundamental. He means the ecosphere — all the other animals that are our fellow citizens. This means giving citizenship to animals: political representation, as in Ministry for the Future, but also as in Ecuador, Wales, certain other European countries, and in Asia, where the natural world now has legal rights and representation in the political system.
All of that strikes me together as a complex: politics begins to take on a religious sensibility. There’s a sense of the sacred in doing something more than just following one’s enlightened self-interest. This has been a big part of my lived life as well as my writing life.
Now, when I’m in the Sierras, I look for animals. The marmots were not there this summer. I don’t know why; they are very common up there, and it was a little disturbing not to see them. The pikas are sky island creatures. They’re teeny little mice; pikas are beautiful, industrious, and smart. If the air temperature gets to 75 degrees for an hour, they die of overheating. So they need to be high and cool. And, of course, they’re having to move higher because temperatures are getting hotter.
We are just like pikas. We’re on a sky island called Earth. If we get driven high enough, we won’t be able to go any higher, and then we’re going to die. This is a great lesson coming from one of our smaller cousins.
On the Marooned on Mars podcast, you said that your favorite book growing up was One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriela García Márquez. The defining tendency of magical realism is that supernatural events are narrated with a straight face — and this works because the style so often describes the dramatic social and political futures of postcolonial Latin American life more convincingly than straight realism.
Is Ministry for the Future a work of magical realism?
I would hope so, but no — let’s say it’s still science fiction. The distinction I would make is that it’s a story set in the future; that makes it science fiction, by my definition. And it tries to stick to the realities of what we see in our typical empirical reality, in a way that magical realism skips from time to time for symbolic purposes.
But you’re probably referring to the whole gestalt of Ministry for the Future as magically positive; it’s kind of a best-case scenario. And since there’s a reversion to the mean, and we’re probably not going to get the best case, it is like a magic trick.
García Márquez is one of the greatest novelists of all time, of the twentieth century, and of the developing world. If you were in Latin America, growing up when García Márquez did, then magical realism is the felt reality. It’s the best realism for Latin America in his time; inexplicable things happened. Rationality comes to your town and wrecks it; it destroys you and takes over. It creates colonialism as the scientifically advanced countries come in, without paying much attention to certain scientific values.
If you take García Márquez’s literary method straight, and you start doing magical realism in Manhattan, it’s just silly. Indeed, if you write science fiction in which magical things happen, which happens all the time, it trends toward silliness because it isn’t true to the emotional situation that García Márquez was specifically describing.
I would stick to the idea that for me, in the developed world, in North America and my time, science fiction is the best realism of my situation, whereas for García Márquez, magical realism was the best realism for his situation. Both of these forms of the novel are capacious and variable. The novel adapts to its time to try to give a representation that readers recognize as the felt reality of their own situation. That’s what I’ve been trying to do, and García Márquez succeeded so gloriously.