Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning, New York Times bestselling author. A science- and climate-fiction novelist, Robinson has written more than 20 books, including the bestselling Mars trilogy and the critically acclaimed Forty Signs of Rain, The Years of Rice and Salt and 2312. In 2008, he was named a “Hero of the Environment” by Time magazine, and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute.
In this interview, Truthout talks with Robinson about his books Green Earth and New York 2140. Set in the present or near future, Green Earth portrays struggles over climate science in the US capital, whereas New York 2140 depicts life in a 22nd century metropolis that has been inundated by the melted polar regions.
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Javier Sethness: Stan, thank you kindly for being open to participating in this interview. First, Ursula K. Le Guin passed away recently. Her influence on your own creative writing is marked. Do you have any reflections on Le Guin’s life and work that you wish to share?
Kim Stanley Robinson: I wrote a memorial statement after her death for Scientific American. What I can add to that now as I continue to feel the loss of her living presence, is that in listening to the science fiction community talk about her, I’m struck by how beloved she was, both her and her work, and I’m thinking now that this was a very unusual quality in her work and her person. Also, less crucially, her work always had a quick sureness about it; she didn’t waste words or pile on details. She cut a clean line, as surfers would say. That’s the mark of a good style: distinctive and clear. Her prose has a poetry to it.
One major theme in Green Earth and New York 2140 is democracy versus capitalism. New York 2140 begins with a statement of Proudhonian or Marxian value analysis: The coders Mutt and Jeff (as workers) create the surplus-value (profit) that drives the capitalist monster which persists even in the year 2140, after it has melted Greenland and parts of Antarctica, raising sea levels by 50 feet and devastating coastal and low-lying regions. You clarify that it is capitalism which is responsible for such ecological catastrophe, in parallel to the grossly unequal wealth and power distribution it engenders. Capital’s class divisions are symbolized in New York 2140 in the struggle between flooded lower Manhattan and the intertidal region versus uptown, where the superscrapers of the rich stand on higher ground. Ultimately, you envision mass popular resistance building up from a rent strike toward a global general strike to overturn this oppressive system. Is this how we should wield revolutionary democracy and organize?
A fiscal strike is one possible way to exert people power. Finance is systemically over-leveraged — and therefore in a precarious position — if something like the 2008 crash were to occur again. Such a crash will happen anytime there is a crisis of confidence in the markets and in the value of money, and the various money-surrogates. People could all together and at once refuse regularly scheduled payments, or less radically, they could together remove their money from banks and put them in credit unions. Done as a mass-action, this would crash the system. After that, there would have to be a plan to rescue the banks by nationalizing them, as we did to [General Motors] in 2009. This is just one tactic and just one step on the road to post-capitalism, but it does point out the power people have as the ultimate source of value, including financial value. Finance is parasitical on ordinary people, so some modes of detoxification are available. The parasites can’t live on their own.
Your exploration of the exercise of autonomy and egalitarian cooperation at the MetLife Tower, transformed into a cooperative living residence, and via the Lower Manhattan Mutual Aid Society in New York 2140 recalls the anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin’s analysis in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902). Indeed, your Mr. Hexter advises his youthful counterparts that “[h]elping animals or helping people” would be just ways of being in the world. May I ask to what degree libertarian socialism inspires you?
I have never read a definition of the word “libertarian” that makes any sense to me, nor sounds attractive as a principle, so I avoid that word as much as I can. Maybe “democratic socialism” is the better term for me — the idea being that people in democracies would elect representatives that would then pass laws based on socialist principles. That is a story I’m often interested in telling, as something that could and should happen in our near future. It’s my form of utopian science fiction. The social democracies of north Europe and the name “social democrat” also resonate for me, although these political parties, when in power in Europe, have had to make alliances and compromises with capitalism that make them far from satisfactory. But from the viewpoint of the United States, they look like at least a step along the path to more justice. There would be more steps later. I usually favor stepwise reform, but I have to admit we need the steps to come really fast, one after the next, now that climate change is about to overwhelm us.
In both Green Earth and New York 2140, you raise many imaginative possibilities in terms of collective responses to climate catastrophe that we might want to consider: redirecting excess sea-level rise into East Antarctica and inland deserts; introducing Arctic polar bears to Antarctica to avoid extinction; designing floating cities; rebuilding beaches and shorelines; and infusing the Arctic Ocean with vast quantities of salt transported in container fleets in order to restart the thermohaline circulation, or Gulf Stream, threatened by global warming. The emphasis on cooperatives and the commons in New York 2140, in parallel to Green Earth’s examination of simple living, “freeganism,” and the transition to wind, water and solar energy gives us a lot to think about.
Some of these ideas have been explored by research institutes since I wrote about them in my novels. I don’t think the researchers involved read my novels; I think they are ideas that emerge naturally given the problems we are facing. So, pumping seawater up onto the Antarctic ice cap could be done, but would require something like 7 percent of all the energy humanity creates. Even so, it might be considered a good idea compared to losing all sea level infrastructure and beaches and ecologies. Assisted migration is being planned and even tried experimentally, and this will continue, but polar bears to Antarctica was my idea of a joke. It has been taken up and studied, however. Salting the Gulf Stream would probably not work, and yet it might be tried if the Gulf Stream stalled, just to see.
Still, you have caught the drift of my fiction — I’m interested in describing actions like these. Some are geoengineering, some are political economy and involve return of the commons, socialism, clean energy, etc.
Over the course of Green Earth, we see “gradualist-progressive” elements within the State evermore placing science center-stage in the struggle to curb capitalism’s contributions to climate change. We encounter Charlie Quibler, the young aide to Sen. Phil Chase, drafting a bill to legislate the implementation of recommendations made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), only to have the law inevitably watered down by legislators, including Chase himself. Then, Washington, DC, is struck by a massive storm, and it is on the flooded Mall that Quibler confronts Chase, imploring him to finally do something about climate change. Subsequently, Chase announces his Democratic presidential candidacy at the North Pole — or what’s left of it — and upon being elected as the “first scientific presidential candidate,” he launches an emergency climate mobilization in the “first 60 days” of his administration. In New York 2140, similarly, there is a revolutionary, popular upsurge which follows a massive hurricane that sweeps through the city; yet here, too, the revolt “lives on” through the State. In light of these social-democratic models you present for evidence-based policy-making and your view that scientific inquiry is linked to justice and fairness, what do you make of the status of science now one year into the Trump regime?
It’s been a year of continuous assault on science and justice by the Trump administration, and it’s been shocking to see how many people there are willing to implement such a … wicked vision…. But all of these poor people will immediately run to a scientist the moment they feel sick — that’s their doctors. They believe in science when they’re scared for their lives. What this reveals is their hypocrisy … and greed, but also, the strength of the system they’re attacking, which enfolds them completely. We live in a world that is a scientific achievement, and we can’t live without the scientific achievements, and even though some of the scientific achievements have definitely led us to our current crisis — public health and agriculture leading to quick population rise, and carbon-burning energy leading to climate change — still, it’s science in action that will be involved in all the solutions, along with politics aiming our scientific work.
I think the science is robust and will survive this attack from Trump, his supporters, the Republican Party in the US and capitalism worldwide. There will be damage, and the political battles will never end, but over the long arc of history…. You know the rest.
In New York 2140, you cite John Dos Passos recalling a meeting with Emma Goldman at which “everybody [gathered] was for peace and the cooperative commonwealth and the Russian Revolution.” It is clear that your work features several anarchistic characters and themes, yet you also often invoke Lincoln’s vision of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as an ideal. So, 100-plus years since the Russian Revolution, do you consider the state necessary for the transition to an egalitarian, ecological post-capitalist world?
Yes, I do. This is not an easy thing to say, given how much that is bad has accrued around what we call “the state” in world history. But the term is probably too broad and philosophical. If you want to use it, and speak at that level of broad generality, I’ll join briefly and say, we need the state itself to become just and scientific, and the expression of everyone alive agreeing how to live together. That agreement formalized as laws becomes the state…. Best to focus on creating a good state based on just laws. For getting through the climate change emergency, I think it’s the only way that will work.
In closing, do you have any thoughts for the ongoing struggle of promoting “compassion for all sentient beings” (Green Earth) within the context of the sixth mass extinction?
Time is running short in terms of dodging a really bad sixth mass extinction that would result if we create a much, much warmer world by our burning of carbon into the atmosphere. If we can quickly reduce our carbon burn, which is really what powers our culture now, that would be a huge change and would allow all sorts of other good potentialities to come to pass. We have to keep emphasizing the need to decarbonize fast. Fortunately, the technologies to do this include women’s rights (this stabilizes population) and economic equality (this reduces impacts of poverty and over-consumption). Justice is a climate-change technology of great power, so there is no need to set up false dichotomies as to which good cause we support. The good causes reinforce each other and we need them all at once. This is why capitalism has to give way to an ecologically-based post-capitalism, which, in some features, will be aspects of socialism chosen democratically. We have to figure out a way to pay ourselves to do the work of survival.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.