Hugo and Nebula Award winning author Kim Stanley Robinson is an American science fiction writer best known for his Mars trilogy. His novels delve into ecological and sociological themes regularly. In his latest novel, 2312 (reviewed here), Robinson takes us across the Solar System to investigate the destruction of a habitation on Mercury and its unfolding consequences that ripple through human occupied space (hollowed asteroids working as spaceships-cum-biospheres included) from the neighborhoods of the Sun to Saturn. As always, but most pointedly since the Mars Trilogy, Robinson does a masterful job describing the ecosystems and all the massive work required to build them – and keep working.
One of the most important SF writers of the world, and one of the most interested in investigating the impact of ecological changes in our world and beyond, he was kind enough to take a quick break from his vacation to answer a few questions, not about his books (even though there are many literary questions we wanted to ask), but about ecology and climate, two pivotal subjects not only for worldbuilding, but for surviving, here and in other planets.
Fabio Fernandes: Did you follow the discussions of the Rio+20 conference? What are your impressions on it? (If not particularly Rio+20, what conferences on environment have you followed via the press – or even participated personally?)
Kim Stanley Robinson: My impression is that there is a fading media interest in environment and climate change, that these crucial issues have been normalized in a sense and are now not considered as important to report, even as they become more important to our lives. They are also not something politicians want to talk about, as the money controlling politics does not want them discussed.
There are big advances being made in materials sciences and design based on ecological principles that suggest we can successfully deal with the huge problems we have created, so the actual project of decarbonizing and dealing with our environmental impacts more generally are ongoing and worth celebrating and intensifying, but we live in a stupidified media and political culture that insists on focusing on trivial matters, and regarding this big question with a mixture of ignorance and apocalyptic thinking. In parts of the culture this has created a Gotterdamerung mentality that has given up even trying, and indeed wants to increase the destruction as part of its denial of reality, which is profound and at the base of their philosophy. There are also big financial interests at stake, and when shareholder value is the only value, general destruction (including of shareholder value itself) is the result. Also, the carbon industry is well-funded and in its own interest will impede any progress on this front. So it is a very confused moment, with much to celebrate in terms of real progress in the sciences and humanities, but much to worry about in the world of economics and politics. It sets up a kind of race or struggle between different human groups, and the scientific-ecological group must win, for the sake of future generations.
FF: In the recent NYT article We’re All Climate-Change Idiots, Beth Gardiner sustains that, according to psychology studies, “We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.” Do you think we’re sort of hardwired to ignore oncoming problems that might become tragedies in the future?
KSR: This kind of pseudo-sociobiology or evolutionary psychology can be much exaggerated. In fact, to survive the ice ages and their radical climate changes, our species had to be very adaptable, cooperative, and future-oriented. Every year they had to get through the hunger months of late winter/early spring by thinking ahead in the summers and falls, planning for group welfare, etc. So no, we are not “hard-wired” for anything as bad as what this writer says. We are precisely soft-wired: the brain is labile, and culture is quick-changing and adaptable to circumstances. However, we are in a rigid and destructive economy right now, and the material means of our existence (the base) does indeed have a lot to say in determining our beliefs and habits (the superstructure), so what this writer Beth Gardiner is pointing out, is quite true in many respects, as a description of our current culture in the USA, or at least in the dominant media culture. “We” are behaving as if her descriptions were true of us, at least on some levels. But science is precisely slow-paced, delayed-gratification, reality-responsive, etc., and we live in a culture largely devised and constructed by scientific means. So it is a much more mixed picture than any newspaper editorial can capture with a bunch of generalizations about “we,” in their usual style. Our infrastructure will decarbonize, just as a matter of improvements normal in technology, so all this panicked talk may ride on top of a wave of good work. Meanwhile, I suppose articles like Gardiner’s serve to point out the stupidity of some of our current practices; her mistake is to call them “human nature” which does have an evolutionary, biological and genetic component, but those components actually have made us very adaptive to deal with problems, even long-term problems. We are smart social creatures with good imaginations. Her article is one proof of this, maybe.
FF: In an interview right after the Second Mars Society convention held in Boulder, Colorado in August 1999, you said, regarding the Martian Trilogy, that “We are already terraforming the Earth, but in ignorance and before we are prepared to do it, and all while the human population is dangerously testing the limits of the planet’s carrying capacity.” Do you still believe it’s possible to terraform Earth itself? Or: do you believe it’s still possible to do it? Do we have the technology and there is any time left for us?
KSR: In the quote I meant climate change, landscape alteration and so forth, put under the term “terraforming” as a kind of joke, a way of pointing out how many changes we are making. The word should not have to be used when referring to Earth, as “terraforming” should be referring to human work on some other planet to make that other planet more human-friendly, more like Earth.
As for us terraforming Earth, yes, we are doing it. We move the surface more than earthquakes and volcanoes, in terms of speed of movement; we are changing the atmosphere by several parts per million of carbon dioxide a year, among other changes (methane).
As for “positive terraforming” of Earth, which would be better termed homeostasis or something like that (some call it “geo-engineering,” which is a name that makes many blanch), it’s a mixed picture. We have the technological ability to decarbonize the air (at huge expense), but not the oceans. We could add sulphur dioxide to the atmosphere and deflect some small percentage of the sunlight that strikes the Earth. These are big projects, and some are within human powers, some not. In general we have no ability to alter the oceans (chemical composition or temperature or currents) in ways we want, so the damage we do in the atmosphere affects the oceans, and we can’t fix that, even if we can alter the atmosphere, which we can.
Ecological work on Earth itself is similarly complex. We can’t reverse extinctions. We can restore landscapes, to a limited extent. We can stop destroying landscapes. And so on.
“Is there any time left for us?” There is all the rest of history to work on this. We have not done anything apocalyptic yet, that we can’t work on now, and from now on. We are not like Wile E. Coyote, spinning in space without noticing the ground has gone from under him.
However, the sooner we recognize the danger to humanity and all life on Earth, the better we’ll do with what remains after a damaging few centuries. It’s important to act as fast as we can on the decarbonization problem, and all ecological problems that we can’t fix later, like the extinctions.
“Do we have the technology?” Yes. But let’s remember language is a technology, writing is a technology, culture is a technology, and crucially, in this situation, justice is a technology. Justice is very ancient in species terms, and it keeps us alive even though there are more of us on the planet than the biosphere can support over the long haul. So there is mechanical technology which may shoot sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere (the proverbial “silver bullet”) and then there is social justice, which includes women’s rights in their fullest forms, which wherever they exist reduce the speed of population increase in a single generation from many children per mom to two children per mom or even a little under that: this has been proven: this therefore is an environmental technology, since we need to keep our numbers to their current level, maybe even think about reducing them as the centuries go by. So: we have the technologies, we need to think of technology in its largest definition (including software and systems, basically) and we need to enact the ones that have proved they can help. That justice is a moral good on its own is also important of course, but now it’s not just a good, it’s a necessity.
FF: Do you consider a 2312 an ecologically oriented science fiction novel? Why? (or why not?)
KSR: Yes, of course. All these issues are foregrounded and discussed in a realist-fantasty scenario, as in any science fiction novel. These questions you are asking are answered by me at much more length in 2312 and other novels, not directly but in thought experiment form, in which I suggest that if we do x, y, and z, we are going to then have to be dealing with a, b, and c, three hundred years down the line. There are many ecological questions the novel itself asks, in narrative form. If you read the book you will see what I mean.
FF: What are the differences, ecologically thinking, of the Kim Stanley Robinson who wrote the Martian Trilogy and the KSR who wrote 2312?
KSR: It’s been a progression. It’s a hard question to answer because every year I learn more and my ideas change, but my underlying principles have not changed. I am still opposed to capitalism, as a destructive unjust technology, and I still believe we can create a sustainable just civilization in balance with the planet. The means for doing these things, the means for talking about them, those I keep working on, and I am often surprised, sometimes in good ways, sometimes in bad. One change I can say for sure, since the writing of the Mars trilogy: I need always to say very clearly that Earth is and always will be the center of the human story, that Mars and the rest of the solar system can be helpful and interesting (even just as thought experiment setting) but Earth has to be our focus for the next two centuries for sure, and really, for all history to come. We all should remember that and act on that.