Episode #104 Ministry for the Future: exploring the ways through that work with Kim Stanley Robinson
How can we get from the current edge-of-catastrophe to a world where we have addressed the huge issues of the climate and ecological emergency? Only in fiction can we bring the answers together in a vision of a better world. Author Kim Stanley Robinson talks about his ‘The Ministry for the Future’ – One of Barack Obama’s favourite books of last year.
Stan is one of our foremost visionary writers. Author of 19 novels, numerous short stories, blogs and essays, his Ministry for the Future was one of Barack Obama’s ‘must-read’ books of 2020. This is one of the few genuine ‘Thrutopian’ novels which aims to take us from squarely where we are, through a clearly defined route (with all its pitfalls, prat-falls and fights back by the Status Quo) to a place where we have a decent chance of survival.
In today’s podcast, we explore the book, the author’s experience of being invited to COP26 in Glasgow, and where we might go next.
‘If I could get policymakers and citizens everywhere to read just one book this year, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future‘ Ezra Klein, Vox
‘A novel that presents a rousing vision of how we might unite to overcome the greatest challenge of our time‘ TED.com
‘A breathtaking look at the challenges that face our planet in all their sprawling magnitude and also in their intimate, individual moments of humanity‘ Booklist (starred review)
‘Gutsy, humane . . . a must-read for anyone worried about the future of the planet‘ Publishers Weekly (starred review)
‘A sweeping epic about climate change and humanity’s efforts to try and turn the tide before it’s too late‘ Polygon (Best of the Year)
Manda: My guest this week has one of the best worked out ways of getting to that flourishing future that I have ever read. Kim Stanley Robinson is an American writer of science fiction. He’s published 19 novels, including The Mars Trilogy and Shaman. But the reason I wanted to speak to him was for his 2020 book The Ministry for the Future. Which was said by Barack Obama to be one of the best books of last year. And certainly, if you were only planning to read one novel in the next wee while, definitely make it this one. Because this is a novel exactly as it says on the tin of how we can move our political system, our social system, our economic system, all of us towards a future that could actually work.
It’s frustrating in places because politics is frustrating and it’s not a political novel, I don’t want to give you that idea. It starts with a wet bulb event in India in which billions die and the multiple first person views are really compelling. And in the end, really inspiring. So I wanted to go behind the scenes, to find out how the author of Ministry for the Future had written, what he’d written, how he got invited to be the only fiction writer at COP26 or indeed, I think at any COP. And to look a little bit more deeply into some of the ideas that he presents in the book. So people of the podcast please welcome Kim Stanley Robinson.
So Kim, Stanley Robinson or Stan, Thank you so much for calling in from Davis at this ungodly hour in the morning. How are things there with you? Your fires are all over and you’re not having a wet bulb event, I’m guessing, or floods?
Kim: Well, thank you. Good to be with you, Manda and actually right from 40 days away and Scotland in the East Coast, and I think things are looking pretty good. It’s a rather subdued autumn always here. It’s a Mediterranean climate. But there was an atmospheric river that dumped about five inches of rain while I was gone in a single day. And so the landscape is looking nicely damp compared to what I left, which was looking to be another super drought and was quite frighteningly desiccated. So things are looking good.
Manda: Yeah, and it does seem even over here in the west of England and nearly Wales, where basically it rains all the time that we’re either getting astonishing amounts of rain in quite short periods of time or very long periods without. And you were in Scotland, which is my own home nation where I grew up. You were in fact in Glasgow, where I grew up, although I’m not there anymore. So let’s in a moment, head for how COP was for you. But for people who are newly coming to you, and there will be some listening to the podcast, could you give us a brief overview of what brought you to being the person who wrote Ministry for the future and particularly the person who was then invited, as far as I know, the only fiction writer in the history of COPS who has ever been invited there. What were your origins and what was it that has brought you for so much of your writing life to writing the way things could be rather than the way things are?
Kim: Well, that’s a good question, and I’ll try to be brief. I was brought up in Southern California, in Orange County when Orange County was actually orange groves and lemon groves and avocado with big eucalyptus windbreaks to stop the Santa Ana winds from knocking over these trees. It was orchard monoculture. There were blights. It was problematic, but it was quite beautiful and it was definitely agricultural in that sense of orchards. So that was my childhood. And then it got torn out through my teenage years at a rate of five acres a day every day. And then it was a part of Los Angeles, very much of an urban agglomeration. Autopia I called it in one novel; made for cars, not for people. A lot of concrete. The landscape had been blasted into a different kind of thing. So when I ran into science fiction at college, I mean, I was late to it compared to a lot of science fiction community people; it struck a chord immediately of recognition. That it was about what I had had happened to me. It was literature of the future. It was a description of things right now, in strong metaphorical terms=. It was the right literature for me, the right genre. All literature I love, but science fiction struck that chord. So I’ve been writing science fiction ever since, and I’ve spent a lot of my life in Northern California, in the Central Valley, again, industrial agriculture, a very flat valley that is 400 miles long and about 50 miles wide. As flat as a table and like a big open factory floor for industrial ag of the most intense kind, all the wild animals have been killed, et cetera, et cetera.
Kim: It’s a shocking place when you think about it and and boring, but a good place to get a lot of work done. A small college town, Davis. And I go to the Sierra Nevada. This is maybe the crucial thing. Also, when I was in college, it was Buddhism, poetry, psychedelic drugs and the Sierra Nevada of California going up into the mountains for the first time. I never really came down, and I’ve just finished a book about the Sierra Nevada and my first non-fiction book about the experience of being up there. It’s wilderness, which is a contested notion now that I’m willing to discuss as a contested idea. I love it up there, and that has informed all my science fiction that the future’s got to include your planet, your biosphere. This is the extended body of human beings. We can’t live in a spaceship. These are all feelings that I have, let’s say, that have shaped the kind of science fiction and the stories that I’ve chosen to write.
Manda: Magic. Thank you. I’d love to go back and discuss quite a lot of that. What were you studying at college? Just from my own interest?
Kim: Yes, I was an English and American literature major, and I still am today. I have never stopped intensely following that pursuit.
Manda: Yeah, I was listening earlier to you, discussing the nature of plot within a novel, which is something I would like to get to later. But before we get there, let’s head straight to… You wrote Ministry for the Future two or three years ago, I’m guessing, publishing cycles being what they are. It came out this time last year. Just come out in paperback. And the world is a slightly different place now. We have a different president in the U.S., although a lot of the dynamics seem to me harsher on both sides of the Atlantic. And you’ve just been to COP and you, I’m guessing, were privy to some of the conversations that were happening there. And Ministry for the future seems to be predicated quite a lot on the the very obvious understanding that a lot of the people in power just don’t ‘get it’, until it’s quite a long way too late. The bankers, in particular in ministry for the future, keep being presented with ideas that could work now, and they just ‘know actually, we’ve got to keep going with the pension system the way it is because otherwise the world falls over’. And I heard on Christiana Figueres podcast, the CEO of HSBC, which is one of the big banks, saying that he was now going to go back and he was going to look at every company that they funded and look through their transition protocols for transitioning to zero carbon. Which, if he meant it and if their transition protocols were valid, struck me as quite a big step in the right direction. And I’m wondering whether for you, COP seemed to be moving in the right direction or whether it was the disaster that quite a lot of other people have said that it was?
Kim: That’s a hard one because it was really a mixed experience. Parenthetically, Christiana Figueres, she’s a real force in all of this, a force for good. Organiser of these efforts and really the person that orchestrated the Paris Agreement getting written in 2015, which needs to be understood and acknowledged. A Hero of our time. And as for this COP26, I’m still sorting it out. I just got back and it was 12 very intense days. I was invited by the organiser, a good friend of Christiana Figueres, Nigel Topping, and he gave me a red badge such that I could go anywhere I wanted. So I was indeed a party to the Congress. This was a Congress of parties, and I was a party. Of course, it would have been inappropriate to speak in the technical meetings of the negotiations over what statement they were going to put out at the end of this process. But I could go anywhere and watch anything unless it was specifically a closed meeting. And that was really an education in how this great document, the Paris Agreement, is being revised. I think everybody should read it. It’s only about 18 pages long, and it’s in a language much clearer than legal language. It’s like a science fiction short story written as a kind of a constitution or a to do list. These things shall happen. It’s imperative, like Lincoln at the end of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. We shall do this. We shall do that. There isn’t any legal force behind it, and there are some structural problems that were baked in from the beginning. And one of the ones that is commented on by diplomats there and was explained to me more than once is it runs by consensus.
Kim: So there’s 190 nations have signed on to it. And when they come out with these statements, all 190 nations have to have signed off on it. If even one were to disagree, they’d have to go back to the drawing board and accommodate that one nation. Well, this is unusual. The General Assembly of the U.N. doesn’t work like that. The U.N. charter in organising how the U.N. should work, doesn’t work like that. There it’s more often majority vote, with exceptions. But what it does is it means that the Paris Agreement negotiations have to be extraordinarily slow, meticulous and consensual to get everybody on board. A big example of this that I think people may even have heard about was that there was going to be a statement in this COP26 document saying that we were going to phase out coal. And that got shifted at the last minute because of objections from maybe China and India to phase down coal. And so these little changes, in words, were all up and down the document. And I sat in one session where for a full hour, 30 very serious people were slowly, methodically, politely and really meticulously figuring out whether their tables should be…the data should be run in rows or in columns. And because my wife works as a water chemist in plotting data in that way, I’ve heard her make similar discussions with her fellow scientists. And it actually matters. And so in some senses, as a language person interested in writing, it was fascinating and beautiful to see people editing, revising, rewriting sentences with such care, communal sentences. And I kind of love that because these are sentences with heft, they’re going to become laws or they’re going to become the guidances for laws.
Kim: They’re going to become promises, promises amongst nations. So these are unusual sentences, to say the least. So. The feeling of dread or the feeling of disappointment out of what happened at COP26 has to do with a kind of meta level. If we had 100 years, the process would grind along and we would get to a good place. And also, I want to point out something that’s been encouraging to me, is there is no good alternative to this process. In other words, it’s a nation state system. It’s global capitalism. It’s the way the world runs right now. It’s not well designed to deal with this biosphere crisis that we’re in. And so the Paris Agreement stands in for a missing process and it’s the best we have and it’s going pretty well if we had more time than we have. And say we only have 10 years, just as a notional thing. Let’s put it this way: the next decade is crucial. So at the end of 10 years, the world is not going to end. We are not going to be in some horrid dystopia. In many ways, it will somewhat resemble now, but the die will have been cast in directions good or bad that will be very hard to claw back from if we go in a bad direction. So OK, this decade, I would agree with anybody who says this decade is crucial and the COP process is simply too slow and weak to cope with the speed of the emergency coming on us.
Manda: To what extent did the people there understand that fact?
Kim: Oh, everybody understood that fact. One of the things that has to be dispelled with is that there are disconnected elites. And we need to maybe have a little sidebar here to talk about elite. This is a bad word. Everybody should stop using it. There are experts. There are rich, powerful people who want to keep their money. If you use one word to describe them both together, you have muddied the waters in a fatal way. Because some of the experts are scientists, diplomats and aid workers. A whole class of people in this world who are doing their damnedest to avoid the mass extinction event. Then you’ve got people working for the fossil fuel industries, deliberately creating and spreading disinformation, misinformation. And they’re generally defending wealth. It’s hard to actually to imagine their motivations, but obviously wealth and power are the first explanations. You can’t have a word that combines those two groups of people without screwing things up badly. So do not talk about elites. But let’s put it this way… Let me go back. The people who are working on the COP26 process have often given their lives to trying to make a better world, and they know more about it than I do, that’s for damn sure. And here’s one thing I found quite disturbing. The more they knew about the COP process and the world at large, the more worried they were, the more depressed. And a rising sense of desperation that with the best will in the world, the tools that they had were bringing to bear are not adequate to this situation.
Manda: Ok. All righty. So I’ve heard a lot of talk in the last 10 days since it ended with people talking about the only possible hope now is emergent properties from complex systems that we we end up with a momentum and a shift, a social and cultural shift that is faster because it strikes me this may be the only system currently available. But humanity is nothing, if not creative.
Manda: And it wouldn’t be impossible to imagine a system that worked better than that and bringing it in to being, it would just require the inertia of the political system. I’m deliberately not using, I don’t ever use the word ‘elite’, but is that I’m guessing that’s the thing that happens in the U.S.?
Manda: You know, we have politicians who are in hock to the fossil fuel industry and we need not to have those. However, let’s go back to the book a little bit because I found…everybody, if you only read one book, guys, this is the one to read. So the book starts with a wet bulb event in India, and we will leave you to describe that. Although it seemed to me that Canada looked like it was getting, well, wet bulb events or at least very close to this summer, which was a kind of surprising. And then the Indian government, in the fictional terms, decides that it’s going to manage stuff and it’s basically going to scatter dust in the upper atmosphere and in that way reflect the Sun. And one of the things that struck me about the book is that you’ve worked very carefully. You’ve woven together political change, with economic change, with the kinds of emergency technologies that Bill Gates seems to like. And yet I have also heard you discussing regenerative agriculture, which sits at the opposite end of what seems to be quite a big spectrum of how people view the possible changes in the way we do things as being ways of mitigating both the climate and the ecological disaster. One of the arguments I’ve heard against the solar radiation is that… Mitigation is that once you start, if you don’t keep going, then when you stop, everything gets worse. Faster. And you strike me as someone who’s done huge amounts of research and talked to the people who actually know about this stuff. Is that the case? Or is it the case that it is a viable technology that you think we may end up using?
Kim: Well, it’s definitely the latter. And I guess I want to frame this as being part of an all hands on deck mentality. Every possible mitigation and adaptation technique that has been proposed to deal with the coming mass extinction event that we’re sliding into has to be put on the table and discussed as a political and technological option. And we may be in a gigantic, multivariate experiment where we kind of try all of them out of desperation to keep the disaster from being too bad. And there’s two aspects to it. Wet bulb is a heat index. It’s a combination of temperature and humidity. So Canada was not close because it was very dry that heat. That extraordinary multi magnitudes off the charts weather event that they had last summer of heat hotter than Las Vegas up in British Columbia, that was dry heat. So wet bulb has to do with humid heat like in the Persian Gulf, like in the tropics. Generally, although one of the highest wet bulb temperatures ever recorded was outside Chicago. So the American Midwest and the American Southeast are very much in play as being humid heat places and a lot of the Earth’s surface is susceptible to this. You get to wet bulb 35 and human beings will die in it within hours. Only air conditioning would save them. You could be naked in the shade with a fan on you and still die of hypothermia because sweating doesn’t work when it’s that humid and the heat will get you.
Kim: When I read that, that was the inspiration for Ministry for the future. We’re ever so close to heat and humidity combinations that will simply kill people outright, and we’re talking about billions of people at risk. It seems to me that that’s one of those everything changes moment where after that you have to put all possible mitigations on the table. Now, I would say one of the least important, but most spectacular and troubling is this solar radiation management. An emergency gesture. And to get to your final question, no, it is not something that once done, you have to do forever. We know this because it imitates the volcanic eruption of Pinatubo in the Philippines in the early nineties that lowered temperatures worldwide for about five years, maybe a full degree Celsius. Maybe even two. People argue about that. But what you would be doing is casting dust, and it wouldn’t be sulphur dioxide like came out of that volcano because that damages the ozone layer. It would be more like limestone dust, which is already up there in some amounts. And indeed, the dust that humanity generates by its fossil fuel burn is lowering temperatures slightly because of the bounce of sunlight off the atmosphere from that pollution. We get rid of that pollution we’ll actually raise temperatures briefly.
Kim: But to get to my point: five years later, that dust will have fallen to the ground. You will indeed be back to your initial conditions, but but maybe you don’t care. Maybe it was an emergency gesture. You could make the decision on an ongoing basis, and there isn’t any such thing as a requirement to keep doing it, to keep from disaster, from happening. It will have been done, if it’s done at all, to keep disaster from happening right then on the spot. And then hopefully a really serious decarbonisation effort will have been initiated along with that in the following five years and maybe mass deaths will have been averted. So but this is somewhat of a diversion from other decarbonisation and mitigation factors that you mentioned before, like regenerative agriculture or stopping deforestation, reforestation, the various methods that probably your listeners already know about for capturing carbon out of the atmosphere and sequestering it or putting it to use. And these methods all across the board, that really is the all hands on deck situation where those are the crucial ones, those are the ones that are all good. There’s no downside to most of those. There might not be enough land on Earth to reforest to the point we need, but there’s nothing wrong with reforesting where we can and it goes on and on like that.
Manda: Let’s have a look at that. Partly because regenerative agriculture is one of my fixations, partly because I listened to Dr David Johnson of the University of New Mexico, who said that if all of the agricultural land area currently being intensively farmed was to be moved to regenerative agriculture, we’d be at pre-industrial levels of CO2 within 10 years. I would like to see somebody replicate his data, but even if it’s half true, so it takes 20 years or we get to half pre-industrial levels within 10 years. That strikes me as an exceptionally good way to go. But as far as I understand it, it isn’t part of the current thinking at the levels that were happening at COP. And so I’m wondering what your feeling is on that and whether it is actually being considered on a wider scale. And if not, how would we get there?
Kim: Good questions. I’m interested to hear about this calculation and I wonder, it seems to me awfully fast drawdown of an awful lot of CO2. It would be great, but the people that I talked to in regenerative agriculture here at UC Davis, which is one of the great agricultural universities on Earth and and the home of the Green Revolution, for good and for ill. And the ill being that it’s intensely a fossil fuel based, nitrogen based, pesticide based. And I have no qualms about genetic manipulation. We’ve been doing that as a species, our entire species lifetime. And I like that aspect of our project to make foods healthier and more productive and more resilient. All those things. But the thing is to get back to my point, once you start drawing carbon back down into the soil, at first, when you have depleted soils, the uptake is quite quick and big, and then it’s an asymptotic curve off. Yes, you begin to max out on what that soil can take. Nevertheless, as you pointed out, it would be good no matter how much it did, because we are in that all hands on deck situation. We need to grow food for eight billion people. And you can’t just fish out the oceans and then you have to take care of the oceans. You have to do everything, but for sure you have to have a lot of agricultural land. Now, George Monbiot has been talking about these vats of algae where you essentially for really smaller land use footprints, you could actually create extraordinary amounts of food for humans that would be healthy food. So there’s a technological transition going on there in agriculture that is fascinating, and if it could be brought in to bear and up to scale in a timely manner, it might be part of the solution.
Kim: In the meantime, regenerative agriculture? Yes. Yes. Yes. I guess the thing that’s slowing it down…it was discussed at Cop 26. The thing that’s keeping it from being taken up by everyone, is we are path dependent on a system of industrial agriculture that uses robots in the form of tractors, vast monocultural tracts of land. Agriculture has been treated as a factory. And so when you go back to treating it as a farm, you need more labour power, you need less carbon burn through the fossil fuels. In short, it becomes less profitable in the current profit and loss system. You can’t maximise profits by scaling up into industrial levels, as if living creatures were just the same as widgets on the floor of a factory. So it takes a mindset and it takes financing. You would need to pay for carbon sequestration as a crop. You would need to pay for carbon as a crop, and that would require an evaluation industry that would have to rate how much carbon you drew down and then pay you appropriately. The payment would have to be for the Commons from the Commons. It would have to be, in other words, the government seizing the economy in ways that I think are absolutely necessary now. It would be one feature of that. It’s part of what in my novel I call ‘the carbon coin’. That name the carbon coin is perhaps symbolic of a suite of actions. But in any case, it stands in and makes clear what the idea is about.
Manda: Let’s please go there because every conversation I’ve had in the last 18 months, we end up getting to the point of unless we change the economy, we won’t change the system. And yours was the first really well worked out route that I saw that didn’t just say this is where we need to get to. It said, this is how we get there. And I’m guessing you probably refined it a bit since the book, but how would you design the world economy if you were given the power to do so?
Kim: I would have a consortium of the big central banks, so say the G20. Although happily, since I wrote this book, I discovered that there is a network for greening the financial system. You can find that name at their website. They are a consortium of eighty nine of the biggest central banks on Earth, so why not have them all on board? And then they issue a fiat currency. So this is not a cryptocurrency. This is not private distributed cryptocurrencies as are being invented. This is good old government backed money and the most powerful one. You could just say U.S. dollars. That the central banks will pay anybody who sequesters carbon from the atmosphere into the ground or in any other way keeps carbon from being burned up into the atmosphere. So a carbon coin, one coin one for 100 tonnes of carbon brought down out of the air into the ground and you get paid in the equivalent of U.S. dollars. It would float on the currency markets. It would have to be backed by all the central banks to keep the speculators from ruining it and to make sure that people trust it. The problem with cryptocurrencies is that money is along with being a medium of exchange and a storage of value, it is also a sign of social trust. And without social trust, money is just a bunch of private contracts that might be broken.
Kim: So money is money. Everybody recognises it. If you got paid for drawing down carbon, you would get a coin and be part of your income. I also in my own book and in my own life, think that taking care of wild animals ought to be paid for just as if you were raising hogs or chickens or other food crops that if you were taking care of wild animals on your land or on the Commons, that that too is a job that should be paid for in something like the carbon coin. The D, the dodging extinction coin. I just made that up. That’s not the greatest title, but you see what I mean. That we would get paid by our governments for doing the good work, not the bad work and the exploitation and destruction work. The one, a couple of elaborations here. People have called this carbon quantitative easing with the idea that, OK, the carbon coin is you do something good, you get rewarded for it, you get paid for it. Carbon quantitative easing is a little more proactive. Governments make up a trillion dollars not dissimilar to the Biden bill that hopefully will pass the Senate here. A trillion dollars a year. And it’s not just given to the private banks, it is specifically targeted to decarbonisation work. A public works administration that goes out there and spends a trillion dollars a year on decarbonisation work.
Kim: That’s people’s jobs. It could really come close to a full employment programme and this carbon quantitative easing, that money would then be a Keynesian stimulus that would have a multiplier effect. It would go out into the general economy after its first spending because there would be all the people supporting the people doing the decarbonisation work. This is all standard economics. And then you might have enough push, enough financial support, for the good projects that we need desperately. Clean energy, regenerative ag, protecting wildlife. There are… Everybody knows the list is really quite long. But you need to get paid for it. In this world, if you say, OK, I want to save the world, therefore I’m going to do regenerative agriculture. I will therefore go into the red. I’m going to go into the bank and explain I’m doing something really virtuous. The bank is going to tell me, sorry, we cannot give you a loan for someone going into the red. You can’t afford to be good. You can’t afford to do good things in the current economy. And that’s why people talk about needing a new one. Well, inventing a new economic system in this world in the next ten years is difficult to impossible. It’s utopian in the bad sense, and it would be nice, but it ain’t going to happen. So given where we are now, this carbon coin, this carbon quantitative easing, it’s getting discussed by the central banks, by the people at COP.
Kim: And then I want to take it one more turn of the screw into very difficult territory. Might as well do it since we are talking economics right now. What if you just said I’m keeping the carbon in the ground that I could have burned? Should you get paid for that? Because 80 percent of the fossil fuels in this world are owned by national governments, and these petro states are powerful, they’re fragile. They’re dependent on the income stream from burning their fossil fuels. They’re not going to want to adhere to COP, they’re not going to care about the 1.5 C degree limit they need to stay solvent in the current economy. So I was suggesting at COP and I tell you this got some raised eyebrows and some interesting discussions, and the people who invented the carbon coin, Delton Chin and other economists are alarmed at this logical extension of the idea: that we’ve got to pay the Petro states to not burn their fossil fuels. They have to be kept solvent. They can take a haircut, they can have it paid out over a hundred years like they would get paid if they burned it, it would take 100 years. But I don’t see any alternative. Because if we don’t, if they can’t be guaranteed an income stream for doing the virtuous thing and keeping that carbon in the ground, maybe getting paid to take carbon out of the air, maybe there could be an entailment could be put on those payouts that would interfere with sovereignty, but nevertheless it would be money and money talks. And say, Look, we will give you your $100 billion a year that you’re getting from selling your fossil fuels.
Kim: It’s just that you’ve got to spend that $100 billion on your people and on decarbonisation efforts. And then please, you also cannot burn, sell or burn the fossil fuels that you’re sitting on that you own. There’s about 20 countries in this world that would save their butt, and it would make them more amenable to complying with the Paris Agreement because they’re going to drag their heels and torch the world because they can’t afford not to. So when I said this in Glasgow, it was immediately pointed out that there are many in the world who would cry out in dismay at this, that it’s like paying off blackmailers, that it’s their extortionist, blah blah. I’m saying ‘A’ We live on fossil fuel burn ourselves, every person on Earth. B it’s that or a mass extinction event. And so what are you going to choose? Are you going to be right and moralistic and self-righteous or are you going to save the world?
Manda: I was wondering what their problem with it was, and I was wondering if it was that this will finally blow off the lid of how economics works. I think it was Henry Ford way back in the last century, who said if the general public ever discovered how money was created there would be a revolution. And if we make the carbon coin and particularly if we then give, you know, billions of it to Russia, then people are going to go, “Where did you get that? You just made it and then you gave it to them. And it still has value and you’ve not been doing that to us for the last hundred years while you’ve been ranking up?”. I think it could create quite an interesting social and cultural shift of what money is. Because you’re right, it has to be a fiat currency. It has to be controlled and…I recently reread David Graeber’s book Debt the first 5000 Years, which is.
Kim: Great book. powerful.
Manda: Money and debt has always been imposed by power, by military power. So the guy who stamped his face on a little tiny bit of silver. And when you see this bit silver with my face on, this is now worth 100 times than the bit of silver that you happen to have that doesn’t have my face on it. And no, you can’t stamp my face on it or I’ll kill you. And that’s how money starts. I need this to be worth 100 times more than it was yesterday because I have to pay the army that’s otherwise going to roll over you if you don’t do what I tell you.
Manda: So who has the military force that they will use, to maintain the fiat nature of this currency to stop Russia just going, Oh, you just made up a carbon coin? ‘Ok, we made up our carbon coin: our carbon rubles worth lots more than your carbon dollars’. How do you maintain the monetary system such that these have value and don’t simply become a number in air? So one answer I have is that you take them as taxes, obviously. So within your own economy: we, the U.S. government, are issuing these carbon coins. You can pay your taxes in these carbon coins, therefore they have value. That doesn’t apply to Russia unless it has a lot of U.S. debt.
Kim: Well, this is all very good. I love David Graeber, and your questions are immediately to the point. And the truth is, the more you think about money, what it is, the scarier it becomes because it’s almost like all of civilisation is in a mass hallucination. They know they’re in it. They agree they have to stay in it because otherwise there will be chaos and mass death. So we’re like balancing on a tightrope and agreeing that the balance beam that keeps us there is working, even though it doesn’t exist at all, except by us imagining it. Yes, it is frightening, but OK, I think people have a general intuition of this reality. And to your point, Russia is extraordinarily fragile as well as huge and powerful, but it depends on its fossil fuel burn, and its ruble is very weak compared to the other currencies. The currency that is the benchmark is the US dollar. This is because there are 800 American military bases scattered around this Earth. 800, and they are all expressions of power where if push were to come to shove in a violent, warlike way, then the U.S. could exert that power. And all Russia could do is blow up the world with their nuclear fleet they couldn’t oppose it.
Manda: That would be pretty bad, mind you.
Kim: That would be bad and Russia likes to imagine itself, especially Putin, as a superpower that is the equal of any of the others.
Kim: But China and U.S. are sometimes called the G2. They are in a dynamic relationship with each other. As producer consumer, they own a lot of each other’s debt. They are even though they’re antagonistic. And China is clearly a rising superpower, which the American zeitgeist and old American notions, the American empire, vestigial let’s say, staggering long in its old age, as it is, doesn’t like the idea of a new superpower out there and is constantly dissing China. The U.S. dollar is the one that you can trust, the one that you want to have huge reserves in. I’ve heard that 70 percent of the capital reserves on Earth are owned by U.S. citizens, and that’s only five percent of the world’s population. So the empire from the post-World War Two period, it still exists. And so what I’m going to say is that if the United States, China and the European Union were to say, we’re going to back a carbon coin, a lot of the other central banks would immediately jump on board and say us too. None of them can quantitatively ease. Like, say, you’re from… I talked to a wonderful man from Jordan who explained a lot to me at COP26. And you know, Jordan was in debt to the World Bank. I asked, could they quantitatively ease some Jordan dinars or whatever the unit is there? And he said no way. All it would do would be like Zimbabwe. You print more and more money, you get it caught in an inflationary trap because nobody believes in your money. And it’s exactly like you were saying. That silver coin without the right face on it. It’s just a lump of metal in your hands. It doesn’t do anything. You need that exchange value in the world currency. So I’ll say we’re going to be in an unconstrained and horrifically high stakes experiment. How much new money can be generated per year specifically for decarbonisation without wrecking people’s trust in money, per say? Which would be what massive inflation or or even deflation or some kind of destabilisation? Well, I’m hoping that it, the estimates are that it should be perhaps three to four trillion dollars a year, generated every year, year in, year out, out of whole cloth and spend on decarbonisation first and then out it goes. And to put this in context, the world economy is rated as being running at a value of about seventy five trillion dollars per year per year. So it is a pretty significant jump in the money. And your standard monetarist economists would shudder at this and think this is clearly going to lead to inflation. And then money becomes… Inflation is a sign of loss of trust in money and things are going to go haywire.
Kim: There would be a delinking between people’s real work and money, and it’s just like printing paper. But I would say, you know what? We’ve been running this experiment since 2008, maybe forever. But 2008 was clearly a sign of let’s make up five to 13 trillion dollars and see if staunches the flow or it keeps things like liquid. Maybe is the better way to put it. It happened again with the pandemic.
Manda: Yeah, exactly.
Kim: And so we have no choice but to continue this experiment. And if people think it through, if it’s not an incoherent experiment of stopgap measures like the Biden thing or the European Green Recovery Plan, where you kind of invent something on when you rock back on your heels. Like, OK, we’re doomed here, let’s make up some money real fast and throw it in like a finger into the dyke. If it’s done proactively as a necessity that you see going forward and plans are made internationally. And I’ll say this, the network for greening the financial system, the G-feds that Mark Carney has started, which is to say the Federal Reserve banks of the G20, or maybe it’s the G7, an organisation discussing things at that level. The financial people in the public sphere are super interested in these ideas.
Manda: Okay, that sounds really helpful. Thank you. And I found the network for greening the financial system, and I have put it into the show notes. So anyone who’s interested, you can find it there because this seems to me if the banks are interested, it was one of the really interesting points in your book was the turning point where the banks finally realised they couldn’t keep carrying on, carrying on.
Kim: Well, Manda, let me let me add to that. In my book, the timelines are completely off. I wrote it in 2019. I didn’t know about the network. The pandemic had not happened. The acceleration of the post-pandemic hadn’t happened. So I myself am stunned at how quickly these ideas; the 30 by 30 idea was after I wrote my book. The Speed with which these good ideas are being taken up, you know, I did not invent them. I just went out there and beat the bushes looking for good ideas and did research like any other person, a reporter, more of a reporter. These ideas are not my ideas. So when they’re taken up in the general culture, it’s because other people have also recognised them as good ideas.
Manda: But there is something about them being in a fictional setting where it’s not just ‘I find this idea, and over here I find another idea and I have to fit them together in my head’. What you’ve done is knitted them together into a coherent and plausible whole that shows us a route forward. And if the timescale is compressed, that’s great, because your book stretches over 30 years. If we can compress that to the next 18 months, that would be extremely good.
Manda: So. Questions arising from this and coming back to the book. One of the fascinating things in the book was the extent to which you combine what Joanna Macy would call ‘holding patterns’, things that we do as an emergency now. So I love the technology of basically grounding the glaciers. And I’m guessing that somebody said to you what they say to the character in the book, which is, “I’m, you know, I work in the Antarctic, I live here. It’s my job. I can see that this could happen. But if I go and say that out in the world, I will have my head caved in for being a geoengineer and I don’t want that. So why don’t you do this? Please go and do it because it would work. And it’s, you know, it’s not going to change the overall scale of things, but it might stop the sea levels rising for a few years while we get on top of everything else”.
Manda: So just first of all, point one I want to know, did that actually happen? But point two; if we just do a whole series of little independent emergency measures we’re not changing the system, and this is clearly a systemic problem. So we’ve sorted out the economics in a way that works. It seems to me that we exist in a deeply fractured political environment and it’s becoming more so. Social media is accelerating that. The whole of the social dilemma and everything that Tristan Harris is doing to try and obviate that, but with limited success. Have you thought how we can create the political change that we need to be able to get the economic measures to actually do what they need to do? We need a lot of people who currently don’t believe in climate change to believe it. I was astonished that the numbers coming out of Canada and the west coast of the U.S. with the wildfires and the heat dome. The people who didn’t believe in climate change before, 78 percent of them still didn’t believe in climate change after. And I’m wondering, what does it take then to change that? So have you thoughts of how we can move our culture and our politics to a point where this is everybody’s single most important long term goal.
Kim: Well, I don’t think that’s possible. Not for everybody. But what I would say is we’re going to have to establish working political majorities, such that our political representatives legislate the right moves going forward. That this is a political process and we’re never going to get anything like consensus, because we have such a fractured social landscape and people are holding to beliefs that are almost like cheering for your baseball team or your soccer team. Ultimately, it’s a matter of This is my side. I’m sticking with it no matter what. But I would say this when the pandemic hit, you saw who people really trusted, because when people were in fear of their lives, they ran to their doctors and their doctors are scientists. And when the doctors, the scientists, advised the governments that we needed certain actions to keep from mass death, people complied. Compliance was very high. So when push comes to shove and you’re scared for your life, you actually trust science. Even the people who would say, I don’t believe in climate change, they’ll run to the doctor when they’ve got a fever of one hundred and five. We’re all capable of incoherent ideologies. And this is one of them and we all have them. But that one can always be pushed like a button. Look, we’re in an emergency here. And if you can establish a working political majority to acknowledge that and get the political representatives to vote in your interest to legislate in the interests of the Commons rather than the fossil fuel industries, then that’s the best you can hope for. We are in the system we’re in. You cannot imagine world governance going any other way in the next decade. So again, the Paris Agreement becomes important, international treaties, private, technocratic meetings like G20 and G7. These are all these are all the tools that we have.
Manda: Ok, I might still keep writing the revolution, but we’ll see where we get to.
Kim: Well, actually, the revolution, since the political representatives are very often bought, are representing people other than the ones that they’ve contracted to represent. The revolution would be a mass social movement to stick their feet on the fire and make them do what they promised to do. And I do think that there’s a place for stupendous amount of demonstrations by young people and by everybody who cares that this actually still frightens politicians and changes behaviours.
Manda: Ok, thank you. That that felt good. All right. Final question. You’ve mentioned a couple of times 30 by 30. And it’s not a concept that was in the book as far as I remember, but it’s something that you’ve written about since, and I will put the paper in the show notes. But for people who don’t go and ferret in the notes, can you explain a little bit about the vision behind the 30 by 30 and how you see it playing out?
Kim: Sure. And it really it is in my novel; there’s a big chapter near the end where habitat corridors are being introduced into parts of North America where they didn’t exist. The, you know, the Y to Y Corridor (Yukon to Yellowstone) is a wildlife habitat corridor easy to establish because it’s the Rocky Mountains, and they were pretty wild to begin with. And then E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth idea and the book of that title, Half Earth is very important to read. E.o. Wilson is a crucial political public figure, a public intellectual of enormous importance. At first people took his idea to be almost utopian. And yet, 10 years later, 30 by 30 is a stated government objective in the U.S. and the European Union and worldwide it’s being agreed to. This is the idea that by 2030, 30 percent of the land is devoted to the wild animals as the priority. And so this cannot mean removal of humans from the landscape entirely, particularly indigenous peoples. Otherwise, you get to a bad definition of wilderness that’s being heavily discussed and criticised here in the United States. If wilderness means no humans, then that’s a bad definition. But if wilderness means the wild animals have priority and humans are visitors and maintainers, are stewards of these corridors and areas for the wildlife. And if that’s 30 percent of the Earth’s surface to that, we dodge the mass extinction event. And I want to emphasise that 100 years from now, we might be able to recover ever so much from our various human errors in ways that are heartening to think about. But if we create an extinction event in between now and then, the extinctions are not recoverable from. We are stuck with them forever for the rest of history as a kind of crime against the biosphere.
Kim: And so prioritising dodging extinction is not a luxury item that you tack on to an Anthropocene project of protecting only humans. It’s a necessary and fundamental part of the larger project of getting this biosphere through in a way that still sustains us. So I’ve been very much intent to emphasise that indigenous peoples are our spiritual guides as to how to relate to wild creatures into the biosphere at large. They’re not the technical guides because there’s eight billion of us and we need science. Indigenous peoples got by well in the world because there were vanishingly small numbers of them compared to what we got now. So people who are saying, Well, let’s just do like indigenous people, they aren’t paying attention to the scale change of our civilisation and the fact that many of us are city dwellers and that being a city dweller is actually a pretty green option compared to some other options. And a lot of humans love it dearly. So there’s a lot of factors in play here. But if people are collapsing into cities as they are out of their own desires for a more exciting and productive life, then the Land that’s left behind, if it were structured as a set of legal regimes over that Land; land use regulations, that some of it is kind of a commons there to protect the wild creatures and that the humans are the stewards of that process and get paid for it. This is part of the larger accommodation or solution, I think.
Manda: And it seemed also reading the paper that at the same time, cities become less spiritually numbing places to be. Not every city is spiritually numbing, but it always seemed to me, certainly from my own spiritual perspective, that I am alive when I’m away from human habitation, when I’m in what we might loosely call wilderness. Or at least in in the natural world where the web of life is alive around me; in cities I am, I feel very constrained. And that if we are to have a spiritually whole population in our cities, then our cities also need to become places of healing and wholeness and not simply concrete jungles. And it seemed to me from your paper that you had the idea that greening the cities wasn’t just about creating short distances and people walking and cycling and and not taking cars everywhere, but it was also going to be a bringing of the natural world into the city. Did I read that right? Or was that something that you were thinking about?
Kim: Yes, indeed. Maybe there were two different sorts of pleasure humans experience. You could call one the sublime. That combination of beauty and terror when you’re out in the natural world and unmediated by humans, a beautiful feeling much to be desired and sought out. But then there’s also what people have called the technological sublime. The buzz that you get when you’re walking down a Manhattan street and you see the 500 people who are in your view at every moment. The built infrastructure is stupendous beyond belief. You can’t believe there’s been that many hours in all of time adequate to build such a place and you get a buzz from that. And clearly, a lot of humans are very happy with just the technological sublime. And if they get two weeks out in the natural world to kind of refresh themselves and see what nature does, just to put it in the simplest terms, they’re satisfied and they go back to the city regenerated and they don’t hurt to get out of the city. On the other hand, there are people who are the opposite where they’re in nature, they’re comfortable, they’re calm at peace and happy. They’re going to the city and they’re jangled. And it’s like, Oh my God, get me out of here. All these combinations of desires need to be acknowledged and and space needs to be made for them on the planet.
Kim: For people with different kinds of urges to be able to fulfil those urges in a productive way. A little sorting out would be helpful. Like, why do I feel bad here? Why do I feel good there? The stories haven’t really been well told. We’re still sorting it out as a species who we are and how we should get along with each other. And there’s what people call the great acceleration. Between the end of World War Two and now, things have blown up in an almost exponential way, but certainly fast enough to be completely disorienting. There was maybe two billion people in 1960, and now there’s eight billion people. How did that happen? What do we do with that? How do we maybe glide back down into a better number of humans, et cetera, et cetera? And how do we cope? These are all brand new questions that are causing all kinds of confusion in all of us. So, you know, sorting it out and telling the stories, and that’s also politics. Once you’ve got a story in your head as to how things work and why, then you’ve got to try to band together with other people who think the same as you and see if you can get laws passed.
Manda: Ok, that sounds like an imperative to action. Find the other people who think like you and see if you can get the laws passed. Yeah, you got to. Yeah, get those people elected into office first. All right. Is there anything else that you haven’t said that you think people listening would be useful? And if not, I have one final question, which is what are you writing next? But go with your idea.
Kim: Yeah, I’m going to pick up a strand, and maybe you can retroject the question. You asked about the the Antarctic geoengineering of sucking the water out from under the glaciers. And you may have excised that question, but it was exactly as you speculated. A single glaciologist came up to me and told me his plan. I put it past other glaciologists, and they said, “Oh, you must have been talking to Slovec”. You know, it was a known plan and they all said, Yeah, that could work. We have the tech. It would it would slow the glaciers down. It might buy us some years and and get us back to where we were before they speed it up. And of course, the sooner started, the better, because otherwise it’s an irrevocable, irreversible type slide of ice into the sea and the coastlines are doomed. But one thing I’ll add to this I found since I finished Ministry for the Future, a paper in Nature magazine where a different glaciologist and indeed this is one of those papers written by six people, proposes the same plan, runs the numbers on it, Quantitative analysis shows that it could work. This is like twenty seventeen. I’ll bet you my slovic didn’t even know that paper existed, or if it did, it was by associates of his or he’d given them the idea to, and they had studied it and got a paper in Nature.
Kim: So maybe he’s spreading the seed of his idea in different realms of discourse, which is great. But I was vastly encouraged to see that paper, because it’s actually oil industry technology. The oil industry, if they are told to not do it anymore, they could do something else, and the navies of the world would have to be called into play because Antarctica is a hard place to work logistically, to pull that water out from underneath the big glaciers and slow them down. And if that could work in Greenland, where it’s a chance here, but not impossible. Because Greenland is going, and that will already be a rise in sea level that is simply stunning to contemplate. But so these methods need to be on the table, too, and talked about as something more than just this big portmanteau word or this blanket word or umbrella word geoengineering. Oh, that must be bad. Well, we need to take each one of the little methods underneath there. They’re not little, but the methods underneath the label geoengineering, and evaluate them each in turn for their utility and their danger.
Manda: Yay. All righty. I think that’s a very good place to stop. I have dozens of other questions, but we could just go for hours. Yeah, so yes, yes. And everyone can read the book and then they can evaluate it for themselves. So, Stan, Kim Stanley Robinson, thank you so much for coming on to the Accidental Gods podcast.
Kim: Well, I thank you Manda, and good luck to your projects.
Manda: And that’s it for another week with enormous thanks to Stan for engaging with what were quite complicated questions in places and for taking his ideas into the areas that fascinate me and I hope were intriguing to you. Genuinely, if you’re only going to read one fiction book in the next couple of months, absolutely make it Ministry for the Future. And then, as he says, as it always seems to come down to at the end of these podcasts: we need to make the political change happen. We need to make the political weather. So however you can do that. However, you can organise. However, you can put your weight on the scales to tip things in a generative direction. Please go out and do it.
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