Academia, climate change, and the future: an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

How might the climate crisis unfold?  What should academia do about it?

One year ago our online book club read Kim Stanley Robinson‘s recent novel about one way the next few decades could play out, The Ministry for the Future (2020).  I emailed the author and the owners of that fan site to invite them to participate in our discussion.  The site spread the word, and Stan was kind enough to read along and write back.

When we finished the reading I followed up to interview Robinson, creating questions based on our discussions, picking out topics which especially interested readers and myself. Once more, he was very generous, and answered each very fully, even while heading out to Glasgow for COP26.

Here is our exchange, edited only for formatting and to add some hyperlinks.

Bryan: We were curious about the role of China in this positive narrative. Do you see it basically playing a neoliberal role, akin to the US or European states? Or is there any possibility of it playing an alternative role, both domestically and through Belt and Road partners, like what Mann and Joel Wainwright dubbed “Climate Mao?”

KSR: I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows, including the Chinese. But when working on my novel Red Moon, which is partly about this, I began to think that it is maybe helpful to take them at their word when they talk about “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Also, that there may be something to the idea that the CCP [Communist Party of China] has broad public support from Chinese people, as shown in polls (maybe)— that the Chinese people are proud of China and feel they have proper political representation in the current system. Who knows what they are really saying to each other in their kitchens, certainly not me; and how many hold each view, granting that every possible view is probably held by some.

In the global context going forward, the only thing one can be sure of is that China is important and a big part of the problems and solutions, and maybe their alternative political system to the various Western systems is a useful variant to have, to run a kind of giant historical test of effectiveness in dealing with climate change and dodging the mass extinction event. If it proves to be an anti-human police state dystopia, that would be bad, but I’m not confident we can judge them in those terms yet. Really— ask the Chinese— and watch for results on the world stage— and compare them to India, the US, the EU, Brazil etc.— see what happens and what their people say.

Bryan: Nuclear power (for electricity, not war) was fairly quiet in Ministry. Do you think the world will embrace atomic power as one transition source on the way to renewables, or is popular dread about the technology after Fukushima and Chernobyl etc. too great?

KSR: I don’t know, I have never seen a good analysis of the carbon budget of nuclear power— how much carbon to build a plant, how much carbon saved by running a plant over its lifetime. I do feel that everyone needs to regard the new nuclear (thorium powered) as a viable option— no knee-jerk reactions against nuclear, please— it does have its obvious downsides, known to all, but in the climate emergency we need to decarbonize fast, while people also need electricity— enough for sufficiency for all— after that, people could be put on a budget of electricity, perhaps, by regulation or pricing, but it is a health aid and needed by all (almost a billion people don’t yet have it, etc). So in this quandary we are in an all hands on deck situation, and nuclear may be part of our way forward, a bridge for another century or generation of plants, to an even cleaner way. Although there are some who make good arguments that we can do better faster with solar and wind, so again, I haven’t read an analysis that puts my mind at rest as to how we should regard nuclear. And with these thorium reactors the whole calculation may have to change yet again. The point is to stay mentally flexible and keep in mind the absolute necessity of dodging a mass extinction event and runaway climate change.

Bryan: In the novel violence against property and people plays some shadowy role in helping drive humanity off of fossil fuels. In our world of 2021, do you think we’ll see climate activists destroying or otherwise messing with property, as Andreas Malm encourages? Will it escalate to violence against humans, such as assassinating or kidnapping energy firm CEOs? Or will we generally heed Bill McKibben’s call to stick with nonviolence?

KSR: I don’t know, but your question very usefully describes the options possible going forward.

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My novel is murky on this and if I had read Malm before writing, I might have portrayed things differently, I don’t know. As it is, Ministry is more a description of the chaos of history than an urging of any particular program for action, as I hope is obvious when reading the book. I saw in your book club discussion some people rather arrogantly judging my book as if it were a white paper only, an advocacy piece of some kind, and I invite those kinds of critics to read something else, or write their own novel. I like much better the ordinary generosity of people who read novels understanding what they are. Ministry is an unusual novel in form and content, but not hugely so. There have been others like it before and there will be more like it later.

As to specific suggestions to action, I myself am for non-violent resistance, but Malmian sabotage will certainly look better and better if the fossil fuel industries continue to buy off political representation and sway public opinion in bad ways. Malm’s point, or one of them, is that non-violent resistance has been successful in the past because the powers that be were afraid of much more violent resistance that would happen if they did not give something to the non-violent resistance— as little as possible to get it to stop. This point is good, important to ponder, and needs to be read together with Erica Chenoweth’s book Why Civil Resistance Works, an equally important study suggesting that if you really want specific changes, you are most likely to get them by intelligently targeted civil resistance. So, reading on this matter should include Malm and Cheonweth, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon, etc.

The question is obviously important, and I think Ministry is more an example of the kind of mess that the near future is going to be, a kind of case study, rather than an analysis or call for action. Like all the books above, like all books, it makes a case, I suppose. Examples are chosen out of the mass of events to illustrate a theory, I suppose.

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But as an individual I don’t have much of a theory here. I would say, non-violent mass action and civil resistance is the most effective and morally defensible course of action. Also— voting. If our political representatives legislated good climate action, this would be the best way to get it fast. Thus carbon quantitative easing, as in my book, and certain kinds of geo-engineering too (the glacial slowdown and carbon drawdown—these are not achieved by resistance). If a real revolution leading to a real post-capitalism comes into being by way of the public insisting on it, by demonstrations and votes, then how would that be bad? It wouldn’t be bad. So to hope for it is not naive or stupid.

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You only need to assemble a working majority in the political system you have, and get them to legislate a better system. To say Oh we will never be able to assemble a good working political majority and do things in a stepwise legal manner is a form of capitalism realism, cynical reason, and boo-hoo clutching of pearls— an excuse to do nothing but read the internet and drink. Add Robert Meister’s books to the list here— can we reap the benefits of revolution without the violence and disorder of revolution? Maybe. Try to imagine it.

Bryan: What is the role of academia in addressing the crisis? We enjoyed your depiction of ending student debt immensely! Currently I see several levels: transforming each physical campus to carbon negativity; expanded teaching about the climate crisis (climate change is the new liberal arts); much more research into the topic across the disciplines; local town-gown partnerships on many issues (reducing emissions, changing agriculture, etc); academia taking a more active role on the world stage, from public scholarship to organizing for a new era. Do any of these stand out for you, or are there other paths for colleges and universities to follow?

KSR: These are great suggestions across the board, and I think academia could do all these things. I have a kind of syllabus in my head for a first year course that took a whole year, some kind of orientation to reality, meaning also climate change and our moment. I bet a lot of people have that kind of syllabus in their heads, and maybe they’re on paper and getting taught too, I bet they are. It would be an ideological education that includes an education in what ideology is— that imaginary relationship to the real situation that we all must have to be sane social creatures. A good ideology would be the point— ideology formation— then on to the projects that will help the moment’s crisis.

One extra thing to add, an offshoot of this kind of primary education, —a project for academia that economics departments have not been quick enough to work on— would be the creation of a replacement for profit and shareholder value as indexes of how a company or government agency, or any organization, is doing. Since profit is an index combining many factors, but clearly a kind of Ponzi scheme lie, and GDP and shareholder value likewise, a better index could be made that showed how well the organization was doing if the future was not heavily discounted (another kind of shuffling off of responsibility). It could be a kind of class assignment. Shyam Sunder’s work at Yale would be a great start and guiding spirit for this kind of work.

“Try to imagine it.” Thank you, Stan, for these rich answers and your time.  Good luck in Scotland!

(photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 3.

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5 Responses to Academia, climate change, and the future: an interview with Kim Stanley Robinson

  1. “If it proves to be an anti-human police state dystopia, that would be bad, but I’m not confident we can judge them in those terms yet.”

    That makes me wonder what more it would take for him to view the CCP in those terms.

  2. Thank both of you so very much. Best morning read possible in a sea of increasingly otherwise… and of ideology on the hoof. Following climate on media (from indie and social to mainstream), Ministry for the Future does come to mind frequently, never as a “white paper,” more as idea bank or thought exercise — and whenever something I read reminds me of a particular idea, episode or turn of phrase in the book. One in particular comes to mind: the reference to climate groups (finally) cooperating and coordinating efforts globally. I fancy (and hope) the Indigenous Environmental Network is already working along those lines and hope academia will do the same.

    PS…writing reply while listening to George Monbiot talk about climate change and capitalism,

  3. Glen McGhee says:

    I didn’t realize that Robinson’s doctoral thesis was on The Novels of Philip K. Dick.
    Has anyone seen what he theorizes for transitioning youth into adult roles?

  4. Glen McGhee says:

    Shyam Sunder’s views on higher education (India) are less than sanguine.
    What is Robinson thinking, I wonder.

    “Graduate education — the seed farm of higher education and scholarship — continues in an alarming state of disarray with respect to both quality and quantity. Pressed by budgetary constraints, the government appears to have decided on profit-oriented privatization of higher education as the solution. Political and business classes, with significant overlap between the two, see higher education as a source of lucrative private returns on investment. There is little theoretical or empirical evidence that supports the prospects of success of a for-profit model in building quality higher education. Some recent proposals hold promise of radical reform and renovation, including regulatory restructuring. It remains unclear whether the government has the wisdom, determination, financing, and power to push reforms past the resistance from entrenched faculty and from the political and business classes.”

    Financialization can be a disaster for schools. Just like securitization was for the mortgage industry.
    University of Arizona Online is left holding the bag. Will Purdue be next?

  5. Dahn Shaulis says:

    Great interview. The problem is that leaders can’t handle the truth. Quality of Life indexes have been discussed for decades.

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