To really grasp the present, we need to imagine the future – then look back from it to better see the now. The angry climate kids do this naturally. The rest of us need to read good science fiction. A great place to start is Kim Stanley Robinson.
Robinson is one of the most brilliant writers of the genre. During Covid quarantine, I read 11 of his books, culminating in his instant classic The Ministry for the Future, which imagines several decades of climate politics starting this decade.
The first lesson of his books is obvious: climate is the story. Compared with the magnitude of the crisis, this year’s United Nations climate summit, Cop26, was a poorly planned pool party where half the guests were sweating in jeans, having forgotten their swimming suits. If you’re reading this, you probably know what climate science portends – and that nothing discussed in Glasgow was within rocket range of adequate. What Ministry and other Robinson books do is make us slow down the apocalyptic highlight reel, letting the story play in human time for years, decades, centuries. The screen doesn’t fade to black; instead we watch people keep dying, and coping, and struggling to shape a future – often gloriously.
I spoke to Robinson recently for an episode of the podcast The Dig. He told me that he wants leftists to set aside their differences, and put a “time stamp on [their] political view” that recognizes how urgent things are. Looking back from 2050 leaves little room for abstract idealism. Progressives need to form “a united front,” he told me. “It’s 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.”
The point of Robinson’s decades of sci-fi isn’t to simply counsel “vote blue no matter who.” He told me he remains a proud and longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). But he does want leftists – and everyone else – to take the climate emergency more seriously. He thinks every big decision, every technological option, every political opportunity, warrants climate-oriented scientific scrutiny. Global justice demands nothing less.
Robinson’s “all-hands” call is even more challenging on technology and economics than on electoral campaigns. He wants to legitimize geoengineering, even in forms as radical as blasting limestone dust into the atmosphere for a few years to temporarily dim the heat of the sun. As Ministry dramatizes, and as he reminded me, there’s a good chance that a country being devastated by climate breakdown will try this, whether it’s authorized by the international community or not.
More broadly, Robinson seems to be urging all of us to treat every possible technological intervention – from expanding nuclear energy, to pumping meltwater out from under glaciers, to dumping iron filings in the ocean – from a strictly scientific perspective: reject dogma, evaluate the evidence, ignore the profit motive.
It’s an admirable view. And Robinson is no blinkered techno-optimist: some of the most compelling characters in his novels use science to reject swaths of technological development. He doesn’t necessarily want to pursue every form of geoengineering that we investigate, but he wants us to debate them.
As he put it to me: “science good, capitalism bad”. He sees the development of the scientific method as a phenomenon as universal to the human condition as art. In his ice age novel Shaman, one character invents a new kind of ankle brace while another invents a new kind of cave painting.
I’m attracted to this vision. But I’m not convinced that the science v capitalism binary is as clear in practice as Robinson asserts. We live in a world where capitalist states and giant companies largely control science. (Just consider the moral insanity and capitalist logic of global vaccine apartheid.) Some of the biggest backers of technology to capture carbon and store it underground are oil companies like Exxon. Yes, we need to consider technologies with an open mind. That includes a frank assessment of how the interests of the powerful will shape how technologies develop. Robinson could learn from the positions of activists of color, especially Indigenous and environmental justice groups, who fight against “false solutions” based on centuries of exploitation and sacrifice.
Robinson’s imagined future suggests a short-term solution that fits his dreams of a democratic, scientific politics: planning, of both the economy and planet. It’s a grandiose imperative, but the underlying insight is sound, and it’s borrowed from Robinson’s reading of ecological economics. That field’s premise is that the economy is embedded in nature – that its fundamental rules aren’t supply and demand, but the laws of physics, chemistry, biology. The upshot of Robinson’s science fiction is understanding that grand ecologies and human economies are always interdependent.
Robinson believes that once progressives internalize the insight that the economy is a social construct just like anything else, they can determine – based on the contemporary balance of political forces, ecological needs, and available tools – the most efficient methods for bringing carbon and capital into closer alignment. Success will snowball; we’ll democratically plan more and more of the eco-economy.
Seen from Mars, the problem of 21st-century climate economics is to align the social system of capital and the ecological system of carbon. Robinson’s elegant solution, as rendered in Ministry, is carbon quantitative easing. The idea is that central banks invent a new currency; to earn the carbon coins, institutions must show that they’re sucking excess carbon down from the sky. In his novel, this happens thanks to a series of meetings between United Nations technocrats and central bankers. But the technocrats only win the arguments because there’s enough rage, protest and organizing in the streets to force the bankers’ hand.
Robinson thus gets that climate politics are fundamentally the politics of investment – extremely big investments. As he put it to me, carbon quantitative easing isn’t the “silver bullet solution,” just one of several green investment mechanisms we need to experiment with.
Robinson shares the great anarchist dream. “Everybody on the planet has an equal amount of power, and comfort, and wealth,” he said. “It’s an obvious goal” but there’s no shortcut. Moving in that direction, he argues, requires radical pragmatism – preventing ecological collapse, while ratcheting up public control of investment. We just can’t know in advance what works best.
In his political economy, like his imagined settling of Mars, Robinson tries to think like a bench scientist – an experimentalist, wary of unifying theories, eager for many groups to try many things.
And there’s something liberating about Robinson’s commitment to the scientific method: reasonable people can shed their prejudices, consider all the options and act strategically. This blurring of science and politics is what draws me to his work, even when I (often) disagree with his conclusions. Like the great socialist film-maker Ken Loach, Robinson is a leftist who portrays debate as one of the greatest activities in organized social life. It’s in that sense that Robinson’s optimistic opposition between science and capitalism is most compelling: not beakers versus banks, but social action based on thoughtful discussion of social and ecological needs instead of the murderous supremacy of profit.
Of course, there are limits to people’s good sense. Robinson gets that too. The years ahead will be brutal. In Ministry, tens of millions of people die in disasters – and that’s in a scenario that Robinson portrays as relatively optimistic. And when things get that bad, people take up arms. In Ministry’s imagined future, the rise of weaponized drones allows shadowy environmentalists to attack and kill fossil capitalists. Many – including myself – have used the phrase “eco-terrorism” to describe that violence. Robinson pushed back when we talked. “What if you call that resistance to capitalism realism?” he asked. “What if you call that, well, ‘Freedom fighters’?”
To be clear, Robinson insists that he doesn’t condone the violence depicted in his book; he simply can’t imagine a realistic account of 21st century climate politics in which it doesn’t occur. He has spoken approvingly of Andreas Malm’s book How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which urges sabotage against the fossil fuel industry. Malm writes that it’s shocking how little political violence there has been around climate change so far, given how brutally the harms will be felt in communities of color, especially in the global south, who bear no responsibility for the cataclysm, and where political violence has been historically effective in anticolonial struggles.
In Ministry, there’s a lot of violence, but mostly off-stage. We see enough to appreciate Robinson’s consistent vision of most people as basically thoughtful: the armed struggle is vicious, but its leaders are reasonable, strategic. And the implications are straightforward: there will be escalating violence, escalating state repression and increasing political instability. We must plan for that too.
And maybe that’s the tension that is ultimately Ministry’s greatest lesson for climate politics today. No document that could win consensus at a UN climate summit will be anywhere near enough to prevent catastrophic warming. We can only keep up with history, and clearly see what needs to be done, by tearing our minds out of the present and imagining future vantage points. If millions of people around the world can do that, in an increasingly violent world of climate disasters, enough good projects may just add up to something like a rational plan – and buy us enough time to stabilize the climate, and wrest power away from the 1%.
Robinson’s optimistic view is that human nature is fundamentally thoughtful, and that it will save us – that the social process of arguing and politicking, with minds as open as we can manage, is a project older than capitalism, and one that will eventually outlive it. It’s a perspective worth thinking about – so long as we’re also organizing.
Daniel Aldana Cohen is assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative. He is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal