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It’s been a long, hot trip on our journey through the desert, investigating lithium’s potential as a solution to the climate crisis. This week, we’re cooling things down. Sort of. Instead of hitting the road, we’re hitting the books and diving into the world of science fiction.
Science fiction and a sub-genre, climate fiction (or cli-fi), can often depict the scariest, bleakest scenarios of our future. Sometimes that can be kind of fun and dramatic, but the best cli-fi out there tries to dream up solutions.
Which is why we called up cli-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson, or Stan. Stan is the author of about 18 science fiction novels, with stories ranging from life on Mars to New York City’s demise. His latest work, “The Ministry for the Future,” is about all of the tiny, sometimes tedious ways we will have to take action to preserve life on Earth. This is something that our team has started referring to as the “optimism of hard work.”
In real life, as in the book, Stan says, we’ll need an effort from everyone on the planet. That is why he spends so much time writing about bureaucracy and the best way to run things in the future. “One thing that the pandemic did, was it … taught you that there is no self-sufficiency.” Instead, Stan says, we’re more like bees in a hive. “And bees that say they don’t need a hive are short-lived bees … we depend on everybody else just to have food on our table or to be able to get anywhere we’re going. [It’s] a massive collaboration.”
The first season of “How We Survive” is about the messy business of finding climate solutions. New episodes are out every Wednesday. Be sure to follow us on your favorite podcast app and tell a friend if you’re enjoying the show.
How We Survive episode 6, “Sci-Fi Intermission” transcript
Note: Marketplace podcasts are meant to be heard, with emphasis, tone and audio elements a transcript can’t capture. Transcripts are generated using a combination of automated software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting it.
Molly Wood: So I’ve warned you several times this season that I am a pretty big sci-fi nerd.
Books, comics, movies, TV shows…the bigger and more dramatic and more imaginative, the better. And sometimes yes, total stupid eye candy.
But actually, sci-fi is what got me thinking about climate solutions in the first place.
Now, a lot of people think that sci-fi is about predicting – catastrophizing – about the future.
And you know, sometimes it is. Especially when it takes on the topic of climate.
“Day After Tomorrow” clip: You recall what you said , about how polar melting might disrupt the north Atlantic current? Yes…Well I think it’s happening.
Molly Wood: Cli-fi, as it’s sometimes known, can get a little bleak…
“Day After Tomorrow” clip: What can we do?…Save as many as you can
Molly Wood: In “Day After Tomorrow,” abrupt change basically destroys the northern hemisphere.
“Geostorm” clip: We can control our weather.
Molly Wood: In “Snowpiercer” and “GeoStorm,” humanity’s attempts to manipulate the weather in order to survive backfire spectacularly…
“Geostorm” clip: Potential for catastrophic weather events on a global scale. A geostorm!
Molly Wood: “Dune” – both in the original books, movie and the most recent version – imagines a world that used to be lush and full of life and now is a desert
Dune clip: Our planet Arrakis is so beautiful when the sun is low, rolling over the sands.
Molly Wood: Where technology helps people recycle even the little bit of moisture that comes out of their own bodies. And in “Interstellar,” people give up on Earth altogether
“Interstellar” clip: We’re not meant to save the world. We’re meant to leave it.
Molly Wood: and start looking to the stars for our way out of the climate crisis.
But while it’s helpful – or fun, in a horrible way – to imagine and even portray the worst and how we can survive it, the best sci-fi also imagines the work and opportunity that we still have left on this planet.
“Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia Butler, was inspired by “Dune” in some ways. The book imagines creating a new type of society to survive ecological and economic collapse.
Which is why I think some of the best sci-fi out there is hopeful, and allows us to dream up solutions that don’t necessarily involve billionaires, rockets or climate changing satellite stations.
I mean look, sometimes you just need a big stupid Gerard Butler movie. But for the serious business of imagining the present and future of dealing with the climate crisis…
You call up Kim Stanley Robinson.
He’s written something like 18 novels with the climate crisis or ecological issues at their core. A trilogy that imagines the hard reality and hard science of climate collapse; a book called “New York 2140,” where New York has been drowned by sea level rise twice; his Mars trilogy takes on the ethics of terraforming Mars and his latest book, “Ministry for the Future,” almost reads like a blueprint for saving the planet.
I’m Molly Wood. This is How We Survive, a podcast from Marketplace about how finding solutions to the climate crisis is a messy business.
And this is episode six: our sci-fi intermission.
I’ve talked to Stan several times. His book, “New York 2140,” was the one that inspired me to start thinking about tech solutions and adaptations to the climate crisis.
But “Ministry for the Future” came out just as we were planning this podcast, and it became a sort of muse for the whole team. The book deals with all of the tiny details we don’t like to think about when we discuss the future of climate change action. Bureaucracy, farming, finance, the importance of hard work and coming together — even a dash of eco-terrorism.
So I called up Kim Stanley Robinson to see where he thinks we are on the timeline of the climate crisis that he has imagined so many times before.
Molly Wood: Kim Stanley Robinson. Nice to talk with you again.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Good to talk with you, Molly.
Molly Wood: Tell us how… I actually just want to start with how you must be feeling right now when so many elements of even just your most recent two books, New York 2140 and Ministry for the Future, seem to be literally happening?
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, um, first it was an easy call to make. All this has been coming down on us for many years. So I don’t feel particularly prophetic. Um, I am, uh, pretty surprised even maybe stunned at how much faster things are happening than I ever wrote in my books. “Ministry for the Future,” I wrote in 2019, which was like the previous geological age it seems like now. Before, you know, before Biden, before, uh COVID et cetera, it was a darker time.
Uh, and um, the timelines in “Ministry for the Future” are all completely wrong. Everything’s happening in a vastly accelerated manner. So that what I was thinking of as taking decades is more like taking years, which is in many ways a good thing. Cause not just the disasters, which as I said, its an easy call, but the response and the awareness, the feeling that we’re actually going to do something, that’s all happening way faster than it would have happened. If it were not for the pandemic, I believe.
Molly Wood: Stan got really interested in cli-fi after this trip to Antarctica he told me about, in 1995. He said he was sitting around listening to scientists talk about 270 foot sea level rise if all the Antarctic ice melted. And he thought that was intriguing but didn’t seem like it would happen anytime soon.
But then scientists started finding evidence of what they now call “abrupt climate change”; and Stan was inspired to write three books that are now packaged into one big story called “Green Earth,” getting deep into the science of a fast-changing climate and what to do.
And eventually, Stan started including more and more about how our economy works – and doesn’t – and how financial tools have to be part of the kit.
Kim Stanley Robinson: I was interested always in utopia as the science fiction theme of, uh, society could be better. And that was a big topic in my Mars trilogy and my earlier, “Pacific Edge.” Well, it seems that that requires some kind of successor system to global capitalism. Capitalism leads to injustice among people and a destruction of the biosphere.
These I think are now, uh, well understood and not controversial to say that. It’s just an, it’s not a matter of people being evil or gaming the system, the system itself does that stuff. So. If we are to avoid a biosphere crash, a mass extinction event, and also the incredible inequality amongst humans, which is maybe the highest it’s ever been in history, like higher than the medieval period, higher than the warrior priest caste system of the early civilizations, it’s worse now than ever. Well, a fix there is a new political economy. When you say that as a science fiction writer, well, you can make up a new political economy out of whole cloth. Many people do, and they often look pretty good, but they’re not the world that we live in now.
And then what becomes interesting is if there is a better way, which I think is pretty obviously true, like even worker co-ops or anything we do now to ameliorate, um, straightforward neoliberal capitalism is better, but how do you get from here to there? And this became the question. And then I thought, well, you have to start with what you’ve got.
So then you look at the central banks, you look at how we value things. So you look at how we pay people, what we pay people to do, and begin to try to jigger that system to get to a better one. So this is what has been my project. And you know, it’s, it’s something to write about.
Molly Wood: It is. And what I like about it and appreciate about it is that in some ways, problems are easy and solutions are hard. And you are doing the hard work of proposing layers of solutions that take time and they’re complex and you need a lot of them. And some of them are not all pretty
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, that’s right. I think that’s very true. Quickly one’s mind runs to the, could we fix this with a technical solution? You know, a Silicon Valley silver bullet, well fusion power, or who knows what…an internet that’s smarter than us, these kinds of fantasies of a single solution that would allow us to keep on doing what we’re doing and get away with it, so to speak.
How do we pay for it? When the only thing we really pay for is profit. And, uh, short-term, uh, extractive taking a value out of the system as it is. You have to invent a different way of paying for it. And luckily, quantitative easing, which is the central banks making up money from scratch and throwing it into the system – we are now in a, I would say an improvisation or just a free form experiment, how much new money can be made up per year without, um, destroying people’s faith in money itself.
And can it be targeted? So you don’t just give it to the banks to do their usual stupid stuff, uh, in the usual way of extraction and making rich people richer, et cetera. You, you make that new money carbon quantitative easing, that it’s made up and it’s spent for decarbonisation right projects of all kinds.
And there’s a ton of them, as you know. And that financial fix is crucial to the rest of it because taking billions of tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere is not a profit making enterprise. Therefore, our current economic system won’t do it. Therefore we’re doomed. Therefore we need a new economic system that will do it kind of like a gigantic sewage treatment project.
That is so massive that, um, it’s rather stunning, but it’s not impossible to accomplish.
Molly Wood: I mean yes, Stan is the kind of guy who’s dug into a so-far obscure global economic theory called carbon quantitative easing, where all the central banks collaborate on a global system of carbon rewards and incentives by creating an all new international currency.
And Stan acknowledges that these layers of solutions he’s imagining range from carbon quantitative easing to international policy, to changing how we live and consume, and maybe even some eco-terrorism.
That’s after the break.
Molly Wood: Talk about resistance. Like one of the solutions you imagine is that resistance includes, you know, potentially violence, but not a total lifestyle change that takes people back to the stone age. And I’ve recently been talking with some protesters reporting for this series who actually are advocating for a world that returns to much simpler, subsistence times, even sort of pro extinction.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Oh, well, no, I hate that stuff. Um, to me, it’s not, it’s not gonna fly with ordinary people, uh, which I am an ordinary person and I don’t want that. But here’s what I’ve been saying for many years, “enough is as good as a feast”. So this is an ancient Anglo-Saxon saying.There’s over-consumption, there’s hyper consumption just to feel good, feel safe, have fun, whatever, not necessary for health or for happiness.
So I think what these people are arguing for is get off the flywheel of hyper consumption just for the sake of doing it, as if that were smarter, as if that were fun cause it isn’t. Get back to adequacy and then you’re still having a great time and healthy life, a happy life. And then there’s enough in the biosphere to supply out all 8 billion of us with that adequacy.
I’ll go with that. I think that’s beautiful. And then it’s still a high-tech world. Feeding 8 billion people is a stupendous high-tech achievement. You can’t go back on science.
You brought up this question of violence and yes, in my book, I was scared. In 2019, I figured there’s going to be people so angry that they will blow us up because we have not taken their needs and rights into consideration and we’ve trampled on them and therefore they’re going to blow us up.
I’m interested in this book by Andreas Malm, “How to Blow Up A Pipeline,” which is not a technical manual on how to blow up a pipeline. It’s more about when does the middle-class begin to actively and physically resist the destruction of the biosphere and how do they do it? And he’s very good on making a distinction between violence against property and violence against people.
It’s de-stranded and you can begin to think, yeah, I wouldn’t mind pulling the pipeline apart, but I don’t want to harm any person. And this distinction is very important for creating support for civil disobedience and for a physical resistance to the destruction of the earth.
Molly Wood: Now lots of Stan’s writing has involved interstellar travel, so I asked him whether we should just abandon Earth and going to space, or move all our polluting activities to space like Jeff Bezos suggested after one of his recent Blue Origin rocket rides.
Jeff Bezos: We have to build a road to space so that our kids and their kids can build the future. We live on this beautiful planet, we saw this. I mean, you can’t imagine how thin the atmosphere is when you see it from space. We live in it, and it looks so big and it feels like this atmosphere is huge and you can disregard it and treat it poorly. When you get up there and you see it, you see how tiny it is and how fragile it is. We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space. We need to keep Earth as this beautiful gem of a planet that it is. Now ,that’s gonna take decades and decades to achieve, but you have to start. And big things start with small steps.
Molly Wood: I mean, I thought of you immediately when I heard this because of the Mars trilogy and your having introduced the concept that we do not have an absolute right to do whatever we want to a planet.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah. I’ve heard this idea before. Um, uh, it is an old science fiction idea and it’s not to be scoffed at. I think that a lot of our very rich space cadets are underestimating the difficulties of space work and communication between earth and space. The gravity well is inescapable and stupendous. So it’s not very practical. It would be better, I think, to admit that a lot of heavy industry is still going to be on earth and therefore has to be cleaned up, it has to be cradle to grave clean, and that space is remarkably useless. Uh, unfortunately that… a lot of the raw materials of life are not there.
I mean, there could be much stupider things for them to be interested in as their hobbies. You’ve got the economic freedom to be interested in anything. These are good topics to be interested in. The hobby, like, “okay we’re, I’m going to go to Mars and live on Mars”? As one of the chief living Martians today, I’m going to say that’s beside the point. That’s some reward you give yourself in the 23rd century if you’ve gotten civilization in balance with Earth, our one and only home.
So the accommodation with this biosphere is the main chore of this century and, um, utopian dreams set further in the future? Well, I do that too. And so I don’t want to put it down. I kind of love the impulse, but, but let’s be practical about this century and try to get a grip on making an accommodation between human civilization and the biosphere that we’re in, that’s our one and only home.
Molly Wood: One thing I really like about the work that you do is that you don’t shy away from the hard work. And you can hear someone like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk talk about going to Mars or just, you know, putting manufacturing in space like its an easy fix. And I want to talk about the optimism of hard work.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, thank you for that, and I would love to, I. Uh, I have to admit that it, it’s felt a little crazy and run into a little resistance to write science fiction about bureaucrats and working scientists in labs and diplomats and doing the work of getting along and organizing ourselves in terms of governance.
That’s never been the sexiest or most thrilling topic to take on as a fiction writer. So I’m happy that you’ve asked about it because ultimately it’s kind of interesting to contemplate. How do 8 billion people get along on a planet that, you know, maybe it’s only natural support of the biosphere, would be better off supporting, you know, 3 or 4 billion people?
But we have to deal with what we’ve got. So we’re in a technological solution tight spot and writing about that naturally leads towards governance, because I don’t believe in zombies or in magic fixes or in a genius that’s going to come along and solve everything. Or any of the typical kind of hero stories, I think are irrelevant to our actual situation, which is much more complicated and interwoven with each other.
One thing that pandemic did, was if you were paying attention, it taught you that there is no self-sufficiency. To talk to talk in libertarian terms of, oh, I’m going to do it all on my own is like a bee flying around saying, ‘well, I don’t need the hive’. And bees that say they don’t need the hive are short-lived bees. We are like bees, we’re a hive creature, we’re social primates. And we depend on everybody else just to have food on our table or to be able to you know, get anywhere we’re going is a massive collaboration.
Molly Wood: So the optimism of hard work and collaboration.
I know that right now, in a time of hyper-polarized politics and headlines, it doesn’t always seem like any of that is possible, or even happening.
But trust me, below the headlines, it is. Like Stan, I believe we can do this in lots of ways. Technology isn’t the only way, but it’s a big part of it.
So next week, we return to the series with a look at some of the other ideas for trying to accomplish a transition away from fossil fuels for energy and cars.
Because what Stan’s writing really shows me, is that you can’t only focus on one thing. What if lithium could be replaced in batteries?
What if batteries aren’t the only way to store energy at all?
What if the science in science fiction is already happening?
That’s next week, on How We Survive.
And we’re still taking your questions and comments. Want to talk about sand storage, or iron batteries or hydrogen or Dune? Email us: email@example.com.
How We Survive was created and hosted by me, Molly Wood.
Marque Greene and Hayley Hershman produced this episode, with help from Grace Rubin.
Marque and I wrote it.
Caitlin Esch is our senior producer.
Scoring and sound design by Chris Julin.
Mixing by Brian Alison.
Sitara Nieves is our Executive Producer
Donna Tam is our interim director of on-demand.
Our theme music is by Wonderly
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