28 Feb 2018

Angry Optimism and Our Liquid Future

Submitted by Kimon

2017 came to an end, and with it the usual retrospectives looking at the year's best publications -- and Kim Stanley Robinson's latest, New York 2140, was in many "best of" lists! Adam Roberts in his best of SF&F of 2017, Jonathan Strahan & Gary K. Wolfe on their best of350.org climate activist Bill McKibben also mentioned it as an important read for our times.

As of today, New York 2140 is also available in paperback!

Also, as reported by Locus, Kim Stanley Robinson won the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation’s Imagination in Service to Society Award for 2017! He was recognized at a ceremony during the Unleash Imagination – Shape the Future conference in December at George Washington University, Washington DC. The award was presented by Sheldon Brown, visual arts professor at UC San Diego and Clarke Foundation director.

In his visit to Barcelona last March, Stan participated in the exhibition "After the End of the World" by providing the introduction -- this is the video above. The exhibition at CCCB in Barcelona runs 25 October 2017 to 25 April 2018. 

Its curator José Luis de Vicente conducted an excellent interview with Stan: "Angry Optimism in a Drowned World". Stan goes over the ideas spanning his entire career, for instance how terraforming Mars in his Mars trilogy was a precursor to discussing the Anthropocene in the 2010s, and what the Anthropocene implies for how we run our socio-political system on this finite Earth, and the role of the arts in imagining all that. Some selected extracts:

The idea would be that not only do you have a multigenerational project of building a new world, but obviously the human civilization occupying it would also be new. And culturally and politically, it would be an achievement that would have no reason to stick with old forms from the history of Earth. It’s a multigenerational project, somewhat like building these cathedrals in Europe where no generation expects to end the job. By the time the job is near completion, the civilization operating it will be different to the one that began the project. [...] “This [Anthropocene] is when humanity began to impact things as much as volcanos or earthquakes.” So it’s a sci-fi story being told in contemporary culture as one way to define what we are doing now.

[Decarbonizing the economy] Humans need to be paid for that work because it’s a rather massive project. [...] the highest rate of return, so that if it’s a 7% return to invest in vacation homes on the coast of Spain, and it’s only a 6% rate of return to build a new clean power plant out in the empty highlands of Spain, the available capital of this planet will send that money and investment and human work into vacation homes on the coast of Spain rather than the power plants. [...] So, If Spain were to do a certain amount for its country, but was sacrificing relative to international capital or to other countries, then it would be losing the battle for competitive advantage in the capitalist system.

You can´t have permanent growth. [...] The Anthropocene is that moment in which capitalist expansion can no longer expand, and you get a crush of the biophysical system – that’s climate change – and then you get a crush of the political economy because, if you’ve got a system that demands permanent growth, capital accumulation and profit and you can’t do it anymore, you get a crisis that can’t be solved by the next expansion.

This is what bothers me in economics; its blind adherence to the capitalist moment even when it is so destructive. Enormous amounts of intellectual energy are going into the pseudo-quantitative legal analysis of an already-existing system that’s destructive. Well, this is not good enough anymore because it’s wrecking the biophysical infrastructure.

I actually am offended at this focus on the human; “Oh, we’ll be in trouble,”: big deal. We deserve to be in trouble, we created the trouble. The extinctions of the other big mammals: the tigers, rhinoceroses, all big mammals that aren’t domestic creatures of our own built in factories, are in terrible trouble. So, the human effort ought to be towards avoiding extinctions of other creatures.

[NY2140] My story is: the optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.

Maybe optimism is a kind of moral imperative, you have to stay optimistic because otherwise you’re just a wanker that’s taken off into your own private Idaho of “Oh well, things are bad.” It’s so easy to be cynical; it’s so easy to be pessimistic. I like to beat on to people a little bit about this.

This interview is well complemented by the following for Literary Hub: "We Have Come to a Bad Moment, and We Must Change". We find ourselves in a tight situation and must choose our path:

I’m used to thinking about the present as being the first step in a history that will keep on happening.

You can’t really call the next stage of the world economy any name that we’ve ever used before without bringing in all kinds of historical baggage. It should have aspects of socialism because we need to socialize risk. We need to socialize necessities: food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education. All these are things that everybody has a right to

The Paris Agreement was huge. It was a historical moment that will go down in any competent world history, even if it’s written 5,000 years from now. That moment when the United Nation member states said, “We have to put a price on carbon. We have to go beyond capitalism and regulate our entire economy and our technological base in order to keep the planet alive.” There is a worldwide awareness of the situation; this is a great positive. But, against that? Power and money. The superrich need to realize they can’t escape to a mansion island, that their kids are going to be just as screwed as everybody else’s kids. This is the story that has to be told, and this is the battle that we’re in.

there’s the simple utopia-dystopia. [...] These are extremes, but a point halfway between the two doesn’t work. It falls off sharply one direction or the other. There isn’t a middle zone anymore, because if we stumble along like we are now, we’re going to tilt off into dystopia. If we work to fix things we’re going to slide off into a utopia. We have come to a bad moment, and we must change.

LitHub complement: KSR among the writers who talk about "The weirdness of promoting a book in the first year of Trump"

Other than that, however, I ignored the presidency of Donald Trump. He is a blip and an aberration in a process of coming to grips with climate change that has been gathering momentum for about 20 years now.

NY2140 is also covered in audio interviews:

  • a discussion betzeen KSR and Jeff Goodell, journalist/author, his latest being The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities, and the Remaking of the Civilized World : "Our Liquid Future"
  • for Radio Open Source along with journalists, urbanists and history of science specialists: "Adapting to Disaster"
  • for On The Media at WNYC: "Our Future Cities"

Finally, in lieu of a review, NPR wrote a good piece on the importance of KSR as a writer: "Writing On The Terrifying Beauty Of The Human Future" -- written by an astrophysicist, no less!

More soon, with news on KSR's next novel toward the end of this year, "Red Moon"!