As the pandemic presses on, our democracy is challenged, and unprecedented fires and floods devastate communities around the world, it is clear that we won’t be returning to “normal” life. So much of what we hold dear is threatened—a livable planet, our health, hard-fought progress toward social and environmental justice. There is a lot to mourn in the unfolding wake of the pandemic, yet there are also great opportunities and choices.
Arundhati Roy thinks about this time as a portal. She writes:
Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.
We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it. (Financial Times, April 3, 2020)
As the world reconfigures, we invited visionary thinkers to imagine the world anew. Starting in January 2021, Spring Creek Project hosted a nine-week lecture series, Pandemic as Portal: Creating a Just Future on Earth, in partnership with the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative at Oregon State University.
The speakers in the series come from many perspectives, from writing, philosophy, and history to architecture, music, and filmmaking. Each speaker explores their highest vision of environmental and social justice, think about the crucial steps we can take as individuals and communities to bring that vision to life, and share stories of how this new paradigm is already taking shape.
The series explores questions like: If the pandemic is a portal between two worlds, what ideas do we need to carry over the threshold to build a just society? How can we seize this moment, even as we grieve, to re-image a world that is deeply rooted in environmental and social justice? What principles and stories will guide us? How might the natural world be a source of courage and inspiration for the long journey ahead?
Renowned science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson explores connections between two of today’s overlapping crises in his talk “Some Lessons from the Pandemic for Dealing with Climate Change.”
Robinson is a New York Times bestselling author who has written more than 20 books including the international-bestselling Mars trilogy, New York 2140, Aurora, Shaman, Green Earth, and 2312, which was nominated for all seven of the major science fiction awards—a first for any book. His work explores many ecological themes, and in 2008 he was named one of Time magazine’s “Heroes of the Environment.” His most recent book is The Ministry for the Future (Orbit Books, 2020). After an in-depth interview with Robinson about his recent work, journalist Ezra Klein called The Ministry for the Future the most important book of 2020, saying if he could get policymakers and citizens everywhere to read just one book, it would be this one.
This lecture was presented on January 12, 2021. It is part of “Pandemic as Portal: Creating a Just Future on Earth,” a series hosted by the Spring Creek Project and the Environmental Arts and Humanities Initiative at Oregon State University. Robinson’s talk was co-sponsored by the Anarres Project for Alternative Futures, the Corvallis Public Library, and Grass Roots Books & Music. The talk is followed by a Q&A, moderated by Spring Creek Project Program Manager Carly Lettero.
Learn more about the Pandemic as Portal series on Spring Creek Project’s website: https://bit.ly/3pC64za
Carly Lettero, Kim Stanley Robinson
Kim Stanley Robinson
So, pandemic as portal, the series title, and then my own talk. It comes out of this essay written very early on in the pandemic by the great novelist, Arundhati Roy, Portal to a New World, which is worth looking up, particularly since she’s from India and a major public intellectual in India, that a, at very necessary time for India to have public intellectuals and negotiating a complex and difficult situation there like everywhere else in the world. So, I think she probably meant portal in the way that one normally would. But when you talk to Americans about a portal, certainly a fair number of us, especially younger people, like maybe students at Oregon State, although maybe it’s too old of a game to be remembered or played anymore, but the great video game Portal, you had to find ways to defeat a system that was boxed in and from within the system, find portals to a room that would get you further along. And the video game players very much love this aspect of the game, which was that you had to win by beating the system itself and, of course, the makers of the game, were cleverly giving you that possibility and there are memes in our culture that, those of us who were older, were mystified for a long time until some canny younger person taught us to play them. Games, phrases, like “there will be cake.” Well, that only makes sense within that game. But I think in a way what that that silly phrase was a way of the system promising you a reward, if you stuck with the system itself, there will be cake. And then you if you deployed your portals cleverly enough in the game, and you found that using them in ways that hadn’t even been described to you, and the rules of the game got you into new rooms, you would get into rooms where people would say “the cake is a lie.” And that was also a meme in the culture, that cake is a lie that’s promised reward from the system. And I often think now that cake as such, these rewards were all those rewards that are engendered by the burning of fossil fuels. And then the cake is a lie is really quite a statement. And lastly, in that game, there was the Weighted Companion Cube. And this is sort of like the companion animals that you might take on airplane rides in the past when people took airplane rides, and they would have companion animals, companion snakes, companion spiders, many of them now banned. But in this case, part of the humor of that game Portal was you had nothing but a Weighted Companion Cube. And you were told that to progress in the game, you had to sacrifice that cube and drop it into a kiln where it would burn. And despite the fact that it was just an inanimate, box shaped cube with no sentience, whatsoever, people got attached enough that being required to make that sacrifice was irritating. And then one of the points of the game was to win the game while holding on to the Weighted Companion Cube. So I think again, this was a symbolic gesture that the Weighted Companion Cube is like, maybe it was standing for your values for your morals for your way of life that it doesn’t seem to be sentient, and yet you carry it with you. You’re told to sacrifice it in order to get by the world, irrationally, but in the deepest part of you, you don’t want to sacrifice it, and you do what you can to bring it along with you.
Now, Roy’s essay suggests that the pandemic, pandemics through history have always served as portals to a new world. Partly true, partly not. And I know because I myself was asked to write an essay early on in the pandemic that you can find in the New Yorker. And I know from experience that headlines are generally written by editors at periodicals not the writers themselves. So this might not even be what Roy’s emphasis was just like, I’m not so sure that the pandemic is going to rewire our imaginations, but it’s a good hook and that’s what headlines are for. In this world, we’re still gonna be in this world when we solve the pandemic problem. And if it’s a portal to a new world where we’ve left some bad things behind, maybe what Roy was saying suggesting was not just bad habits or bad values, but also fossil fuels themselves are going to get left behind. And this is how I want to leverage the rest of my talk, to shift over to considering climate change. What have we learned from this last year of dealing with a pandemic, that then can be applied to going forward and dealing with climate change? What did it show about us?
Well, first, it showed us that we are in a scientific world. And this is should be no surprise. And yet we are in a culture that is beginning to have a fair amount of the population fall away from a belief in science, at least that’s expressed as such, our opposition to the results of science. And it’s not a process that just began recently. Max Weber is very good on this when he talks about the shift from sacralized to a secularized world. That is the process of science taking over the rules of society and norming the society by way of scientific findings that began to creep through everything, and in particular government. So that rather than people talking about a shift from nepotism to law, and they talk about a shift in from the kind of control of individuals to scientific results, gathering power in making decisions. So you get the word secularization or professionalization, it’s sometimes called bureaucratization. And very often, it’s forgotten that the various efforts of public health are part of the process of science, intruding itself on how we live our public lives in and how we govern ourselves. So I would say this, that even the people who are now saying that they don’t believe in science, or that it has too much power are that there are other values that trump it, they believe it when they get sick. And that’s another thing that pandemic shows, is that when your life is on the line, when you’re scared by illness, and you might die of it, then you run to a scientist, because your doctors are scientists. And indeed, it’s the entire effort of the scientific community, this world, and extending back in time, for two or 300 years, that has brought us to the place where we can understand things like the virus that spread in the pandemic and killed us and also have developed some amelioration send some cures.
So, since doctors are scientists since, in many ways, farmers are now scientists, in other words, our food is produced enough to feed 8 billion people at the technological feat. It’s not a natural feat and science has been heavily involved with that. And indeed, many successes of science have been so successful that they’ve created derivative problems, in that if you have a success, that that suddenly pops the human population from 2 billion to 8 billion over a period of mere 70 years, to the highest number of humans that it’s ever been. That’s a scientific success, that then creates gigantic problems in its wake. But, the only way out is by more scientific solutions based on fundamental philosophical axioms, because science in its underlying philosophy is relatively modest. It says we’ll try to understand the world we’ll even try to invent some technologies that would create some human power over the world that didn’t exist before. We are not in the business of deciding what we should do with those new powers. That’s up to people to ethics, philosophy, worldview, and, and paradigm. And so the scientific institutions of this world are very willing to advise very hopeful that we make healthy choices for civilization, but in general, are not out to take over the world. That’s the job of government.
So one thing that pandemic did is our understanding of viruses and our ability to create vaccines fast has been hugely accelerated, as if and the great accelerations that happen in war and the acceleration in our development of weaponry. In this case, although war is not quite the right metaphor for what we’re doing here, and I think it’s important to emphasize that, it’s at least similar in this, in some kind of existential threat of big percentage of humans dying. First understanding why and then developing the vaccines have been indeed, usually accelerated in this last year. And that’s going to be useful going forward, because as climate change hits us, some old diseases like cholera are going to come back. There are many environmental diseases where the rising, the changes and damages of climate change are going to introduce more diseases into the human world. So, a more powerful medical science is going to be important.
So, but okay, we’ve had this year. We’ve had the pandemic. We’ve seen some things work. We’ve seen some things that didn’t work. So what didn’t work or what has been revealed as being only, not quite adequate to the task of what of the climate change problem? Well, one thing that is revealed as a weakness is the nation state system itself. Each nation formed a different response to the pandemic and that was part of what impeded our first responses to the pandemic. The results were like a multi-variant experience and experiment. And indeed, sometimes it was almost brutally revealing and looked like it was an explicit move, as if humans were in a petri dish and people up above were saying, well, this society will try this solution to the pandemic and the other society will try another one. We’ll see who does better. Countries that in many ways are highly comparable, such as Sweden and Norway had vastly different results, depending on the different practices that they took. And it has to be said that it was an experiment and that people didn’t know what the best responses would be. There were countries with governments that took the advice of their scientists, and also had citizens that trusted their governments enough and had an ethic of social solidarity as part of their national style, you might say, that did pretty well. And of course, islands did well, if they because an island is naturally defended, and visitors could be proscribed. It’s said that countries with women leaders did better than countries with men leaders. And that is interesting and worth paying attention to for the “why” of it beyond just gender, per se. And then the countries that were more prosperous, that had stronger medical and science infrastructure and populations that were used to strong medical and scientific infrastructures. Some of them did well and some of them did poorly. And there, the studies can go on to see what worked and what didn’t work, because there are likely to be new, viral pandemics striking the world, and hopefully lessons will be learned so we’ll be doing a better at it getting going forward.
But the weakness of the nation state system is that, first of all, nations are often artificial constructs that are whipped up by ideological statements by the by the drastic reduction of dialects into a national language. The process of a nation state formation is often a kind of ugly for the ethnic minorities within that nation. And patriotism, per se, is for one’s nation is a kind of whipped up fervor that is often in contradiction to our lived realities. And it’s also goes back to older tribal habits, that for humanity are almost as deep as the species. Your band, your family, your band, your tribe, and then your city or your small regional group and then they coalesce into nations. It’s often us versus them, and the “us”, you your tribe, you can trust, they’re human. The people who aren’t in the tribe, your tribe, are an “other”.
They can easily be characterized as not human. And then, we have the recent history of the Cold War. A big other, a binary thinking, which is another human habit to divide into two. There’s us and them. There’s a good guy, and of course, that’s always your side. And then there’s a bad guy being the other side. And although the Cold War of the 20th century ended, you could say in 1989, in 1990, and since then, we’ve been in a new international situation that has been variously described, certainly not the end of history, but it might have been a brief era of a single superpower, the United States, and in many ways, the United States still has the most military bases, the biggest military budget by far. I mean by a lot, 800 military bases around the world and I a military budget of larger than all of the rest of the military budgets put together. But nevertheless, we, that that American Century, which some people call 1945 to 1973, sometimes 1989 to 2001. That was a brief moment.
And now we’re in a world that is, that has various large loci of power in an unstable arrangement that is still, nevertheless, organized by international treaties and an agreement that nation states should not go to war with each other. And if a nation state were to unilaterally start a war against another nation state, this would be a shocking breaking of norms. And of course, the one of the most recent to do that was indeed the United States against Iraq. But in any case, the nation state system is often seen as a zero sum game. All us in them situations are played as if they were a zero sum game, if you win, I lose. And yet, and, and what you can see is the “us-and-them-ism”, when there’s stress on a system, and there is stress on their system right now, then there are going to be leaders in countries all over the world that says it’s the nation that is important. That’s the only thing you can trust. That’s the only thing you can help. And it the rest of the world is maybe a danger to you. So you’re drawing into a tighter vision of what’s going on. That is very much “us and them”, and you sometimes these countries where political parties playing that line of one, and taking over control of the government and then tried to extend it forever, sometimes called populist sometimes called nativist.
You can see this all over the world Bolsonaro and Brazil, Modi and India, Iran and Turkey, Orbán in Hungary, Putin in Russia, the Tusk brothers and the others that are trying to hold on to power in Poland. To a certain extent, it’s complicated, Xi in China, and are soon to be gone, President Trump in America. And the reason that I was ambivalent about Xi, and despite the really bad things that the Chinese Communist Party is doing in China, against their ethnic minorities in the West, that are inexcusable, a kind of lack of trust in their own people, and again, and “us versus them”. And if the us is the Han, and then them are the tiny, relatively tiny populations that are also within China’s borders, then that can be really dangerous for those small groups. But I’ll say this, President Xi has committed China to decarbonize fast. And that’s new in world history. And I’m going to get back to that, because it’s so important.
The pandemic is biological and social in its origins, it’s viral, and it’s therefore very hard to deal with. We’re not, we’re, the pandemic made us better at dealing with viruses. But on the other hand, they’re difficult to live with or live without, they’re complicated. But maybe they’re too simple. But in any case, the pandemic is a hard thing to deal with. Climate change, I would argue, is technological and social. It has to do with our machinery, our infrastructure basis, the way we get around the way we make things, the way we power ourselves electrically. And to that extent, and that very limited extent, a bigger problem, in many ways, but I think perhaps easier over the long haul to deal with. Have some hope that we can deal with climate change in ways that dealing with viruses is perhaps a bridge too far.
Now, the thing is nation state system, what almost 200 nations, but we’re on one planet, and we’re in one biosphere. And so, climate change resembles the pandemic in this way, and that the whole world is affected. And true success requires international cooperation. And this again, is where science comes in. So much of what we are learning about is not only the power of science, but how much we rely on it. Because one thing science claims is to be beyond nationalism, per se. You don’t do your science for your country. They do your science, for science, for humanity. It’s a, it’s an internationalism in its design and in its infrastructures, and in its motivation in the individual scientists. And even in the midst of the Cold War, there was the International Geophysical Year 1956 1957. That was an instance of Soviet and American scientists explicitly planning an international scientific conference to cooperate. And there’s also, I’ve looked over to my bookshelf, Foundations of Space, Biology, and Medicine. A gigantic set of papers put into a big big three coffee table books. Soviet and American scientists cooperating on a book to discuss the situation of space biology and medicine, what it means, and, and a claim, not only by the Soviets, but also by the Americans to be equivalent in their power and ability as scientists and their willingness to work together, right through the heart of the so called Cold War, when presumably, it was actually dangerous for Americans to associate with Soviets and vice versa.
Now, aspects of that one planet and that scientific cooperation persist, we’re in one biosphere, and we are one species. So the nation state system, and it’s a zero sum game actually makes no sense as a game in the context. So, we’re in a situation that, kind of, if you were, if it were to be gamified, and called a game, it’s where, if all work on it together, we can perhaps succeed. If we fight each other over it, we are all going to lose. And now this is one of those dangerous situations, it’s captured perfectly by Ben Franklin long ago, either we all hang together, or we will all hang separately. And it’s an enforced solidarity in order to succeed in something that endangers everyone. And it has to be said that in that game, you could actually play a game where, yes, we all have to win together. But we’re individual nations on a team that is international. At the end of the game, even winning it, some players might have a differential advantage over other players by playing the game better, by playing it smarter. And so competition is fairly natural and inevitable human habit set, could at least be pitched at the level of differential advantage, that when we come out of climate change into a better world, if we were to, that some nations might have done it so much better that their people will be in an advantageous situation going forward, comparison to those who do worse. So there will still be some competition involved in this. Even when we’re all on the same team and can’t possibly defeat each other.
Let me briefly describe the nature of the problem going forward and why we have to cooperate. We can burn about 500 gigatons more carbon, fossil fuel carbon, into the atmosphere before we irrevocably probably pass the two degrees Celsius global average temperature level that the scientists have said is about as high as we can raise it without endangering the biosphere in some really drastic ways. In other words, a mass extinction event. Well, we’ve already burned enough that we’ve gotten to like 1.2 degrees of that two degree Celsius rise. And the 1.5 degrees Celsius rise that scientists have recalibrated and said would be safer yet is we’re closing in on very fast. So we can burn 500 Giga tons a year for about 10 to 20 years, and then we have passed that limit. But here’s the thing, that we have identified 3500 gigatons of fossil carbon in the ground already. And about 80% of that is owned by the nation states involved. In other words, the big private fossil fuel companies like Exxon Mobil, or BP or Royal Dutch Shell, etc. They only own and supposedly control about 20% of the fossil fuels. And the other 80% are owned by the big petronations, they’re called. And that’s a list that everybody knows, it almost doesn’t need repeating. Canada, United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Australia, China itself.
So there’s two impulses that will happen here. Political leaders and business leaders with a responsibility to their nation and to their shareholders will be saying we need to burn as much as we can while we can and monetize it, and so burn, now and fast. And we’ll just make our last trillion or two dollars and then we’ll get out of the game. Because 3000 gigatons of fossil fuels are stranded assets, if we have any kind of future going forward and are going to probably be declared as stranded assets, which is a stupendous drag on the financial fates of the companies and nations involved. So there will be one impulse, which is to burn it now and as fast as you can, sell it and burn it, and there’ll be another impulse, which is to say this: the countries that decarbonize fast enough, fastest in their industrial base, in their infrastructure, their energy systems, their transport systems, and their food production systems, the countries that decarbonize most quickly, will be the ones that have a differential advantage in the competitive world of nation states that fall.
So in these two, what you might call contrary impulses, for the, for the benefit of the generations of humans to come. For the other species, the wild animals, and fishes, all the wild animals and plants on this planet left, for their good too, we need the decarb. The race to decarbonize needs to be the dominant race rather than the race to burn. That, if there are many people in power on this planet, is a simply a financial choice. And therefore, it becomes really important to understand that profit is an index. In other words, it takes many multiple factors and runs them together through a pricing system. A price is one kind of index, set by a process that is really complicated. And then profit is another index that shows that essentially, the prices have been set, such that in Ponzi scheme, fashion, future generations are having their lives destroyed for the sake of the profit sheet showing a positive in our time. That’s why I compare it to a Ponzi scheme. Because it has exactly the same structure. Future people are being burned. So that present people can illicitly get away with something. And that’s the world economy that we’re in, which is a dreadful thought. It’s the law of the land. It’s massively entrenched. It’s, it’s set by international treaties, as well as national laws. You can call it anything you like, and neoliberal capitalism or whatnot. But in fact, it’s also the law of the land. It’s the way that all of the legislature’s of all the countries have agreed to organize human efforts.
Well, this is a rather terrifying situation. But the same financial ties that knit us together into this dysfunctional and destructive order can be altered into an international system of cooperation, in which everybody is working together to save the biosphere for future generations, and ordinary financial structures of taxation, of investment of what counts as value. All of these are subject to legislation and decisions. They are not natural facts, they are social facts that can be changed.
So I get back to the idea of China being on board with decarbonisation. And in other words, when scientists first pointed out the carbon burning problem, and the first accommodations were made on an acknowledgement was made that the developed world, the first world as they used to call it, the rich nations, the imperialist nations of past, the colonialist nations of past, had accrued enough capital and power together, that they were responsible for the bulk of the carbon burn both technologically and by way of their power politics and therefore should take the burden of the decarbonisation effort. And naturally China and India were in agreement with this idea that they were developing nations It was 1990 their combined gross national product or gross domestic product was smaller together than Japan’s. And so it made sense at that time, and they’ve stuck with it since as a form of differential advantage for their country and the great international scramble for resources for their people.
But now everything is completely different. China as the largest carbon emitter on Earth, as a nation state goes, United States second, European Union is third. If these three were to rapidly decarbonize in a cooperative manner, agreeing it’s in the best interest of everybody to go at it in an almost competitive way, if you want to keep it on those terms, that would be enough to lead the way. And then if the BRIC countries were to follow, that’s Brazil, Russia, India, and well, China’s in both, but this is a, this is a antique acronym, the BRIC countries, they would join or get left behind in the modernization effort, which is a very common in modern society, you modernize. It’s, it’s what we do, it makes more business, it makes more livelihood. It’s not an unnatural thing for us to shift out our infrastructural base, technologically, like every generation or so. And really, the pressure point here, is that we need to do it, perhaps five or six times faster than it would happen naturally. And there’s the rub, we need to pay for it and pay each other for it.
There needs to be what people are now calling carbon quantitative easing. The big governments of the world, their central banks create money from scratch, and everybody agrees to go along with it and treats that money as real. So I’m not talking about a new magic cryptocurrency or a scam like Bitcoin. I’m talking about fiat currency made by the big central banks that everybody trusts, including the most trusted of all, whether it deserves it or not, the US dollar. If that new trenches of money were quantitatively eased into existence, as happened in 2008, and has happened into 2020. As a reiteration of the lesson that quantitative easing is possible, then carbon quantitative easing would say this, that the central banks of the world will create new money and pay you to do decarbonizing work. And then decarbonizing instead of becoming a cost that cuts into your profits, it becomes the source of livelihood itself and a way to make a living rather than to lose profit. So, carbon quantitative easing is an idea that’s time has not only come, but it is a kind of an necessity to us all.
Now, the organization of this effort, is the Paris Agreement. And I want to end briefly by talking about how important the Paris Agreement was. Signed in 2015, a major event in world history. It’s true that it could become like the League of Nations in the late 1920s. In other words, a good idea that failed, and then they had World War Two, that could happen in the Paris Agreement fall apart. But now that the stakes are, if possible, even higher than in the 20th century, because of the immanent possibility of a mass extinction event, then an international gathering, to successfully say all the nations of the world, and they all signed on to it, with the idea that climate equity mattered. So that even the developed nations agreed to do a larger part because they were a larger part of the problem, and there was an explicit division made between Schedule A and Schedule B, I think it is, between countries that are rich enough to help more and also have been historically a bigger part of the problem.
Well, that agreement needs to succeed if we’re going to have a good Anthropocene and the fact that the agreement exists, and that the structure is there for all the nations of the world to get together and talk it over is amazing and important. And even though there is no international sheriff that will come along and punish people for wrongdoing, there will be a mutual eyeing and an understanding that again, we have to all hang together or all hang separately. I would say the Paris Agreement is the, a scientific success, in that the scientists convinced the diplomats, technocrats, and governments of the world that it was a crucial matter. And then the diplomats and governments of the world got together, wrote this thing up in workable detail, and signed it. It’s amazing. It’s a reason for hope, in these dark times. It’s a sign that the One World that we’re in one, on one planet, in one biosphere. It’s an acknowledgement of that by the nation state system, saying that, well, we’re not going to give up on the nation states not immediately, not yet. Even though you can imagine a utopian world down the line of much further time horizon when your region matters more. I mean, and it was always true that the region mattered more than these big nation states that were intense and heavy handed ideological units. Your Valley, your bioregion, your language group, including dialects, these were always perhaps more important than these big nation states. So you can imagine them lessening in their import. But right now, it’s what we’ve got. And that’s why the Paris Agreement is so important.
So I, my novel, The Ministry For the Future, it talks about this in more detail. And so I refer you to that book. But here’s what I’m going to say is, we are soon going to heat up the planet to the point where big swathes of the world will be subject to wet bulb 35 events, which is another index, heat humidity index, which like you get on the weather station, that humans cannot live through; that will kill humans. And then we have touched on that combination of heat and humidity already a few times around the world. And the time is coming, when it’s going to happen more. And at that point, all hell will break loose, and the pandemic of 2020 will look like just a kind of kids dress rehearsal. It’ll teach us some things that we will need to remember in the more severe troubles that could come. And so, all decarbonizing efforts of any kind need to be put on the table for discussion. There can be no knee jerk responses by virtuous people saying, immediately, well, I know that will be bad. I know geoengineering would be bad. I know nuclear power would be bad. No, you don’t. You, what would be bad, is a wet bulb 35 temperature killing 20 million people in a week. And that’s not at all impossible going forward. Because when we get hot enough on this planet, climate disasters will proliferate. And so all of the various possible methods, and presumably there are better methods than nuclear power, better methods than geoengineering. These are like emergency stopgap things. Regenerative agriculture and climate justice movements and changing of technologies, clean energy, that would solve a lot. Massive, quick output of clean energy sources would be a big part of the solution. But in any case, it’s all hands on deck now. And let’s have a honest and scientifically based discussion that recognizes all of the issues involved, and comes to terms. So with that, I’m gonna bring this to a somewhat incoherent close, with apologies for trying to summarize a 560 page novel in two minutes. I’m a better novelist than summarizer. Carly, save me.
Thank you so much, Stan. And yes, the novel goes into so much of what you just touched on in, through story, which is a way that I think that’s how we connect to these things. And I think that’s a lot of the questions that are coming up is like, some of these more specifics. And so, I’m going to do my best to filter through some of these questions and, and ask you and combine a couple of them as we’re going through. So thank you so much for your talk and your thinking on this. I’ll start with a question, there’re, as you were talking about carbon quantitative easing, there were a couple questions around that. One is if you could give a couple examples of what that might look like. And maybe a related question is, someone was inviting you to discuss the carbon coin economy, which is the basis for the economic revolution in Ministry For the Future. Is that fair for me to ask you to…?
Kim Stanley Robinson
Hold up together. Great!
Kim Stanley Robinson
Yeah. Now, the carbon coin, there’s a paper by Delton Chen that you can find online, and also our Secretary of the Treasury under Clinton, I think it was Lawrence Summers as part of a think tank. So it, this illustrates the the spread of interest in this from academic theorists to people who have been in policy and in finance at the level of say, Goldman Sachs. The idea being that central banks can indeed do quantitative easing. They they create new money by a mechanism that is unnecessarily convoluted to describe. Essentially, it’s it’s not exactly printing money, but it’s close enough. New money gets injected in the system and then, the quantitative easing of 2008 and 2020, it was simply given to the banks, to keep the banks liquid, and they could do anything they wanted with it. Many banks kept doing the same stupid stuff they were doing before, which, by which I mean gambling, and speculating and, and funding, fossil fuel, exploration and burning. So that money was poorly spent, although it kept saving us from a depression, so whatever.
But carbon quantitative easing is the idea that in the initial creation of the coin, maybe called the carbon coin, you save, you sequester 100 tons of carbon. This is all just notional. And having done that, either by not burning it when you own it, or else dragging it out of the atmosphere by way of your farm or your or your vacuum cleaner, whatever, you are given a carbon coin from the central banks that your work has generated that coin, and then it’s tradable on the ordinary currency exchanges, and the central banks of Florida it so that it can’t be speculated down or ruined. It will have a permanent floor value that all the central, many big central banks, would have to agree to cover, because speculators could easily thrash an isolated new currency.
So with that floor in mind, that money would become an investment. I mean, at that point, you have problems of a liquidity trap. It’s such a good investment that every everything would go there, and then that might create liquidity problems. Financers will deal with all this. And if everybody’s rushing to save carbon in order to get carbon coins, well, this is exactly what they’re trying to stimulate by that process. So central banks don’t want to do this. No way. They’re in charge of stabilizing interest rates and keeping inflation or deflation from happening. And if that, if if doing that can lower the unemployment rate, that is a secondary goal of theirs. And that’s it, that’s their one and only job. And they defend the idea that that’s a one and only job because they consider it so important. And that’s why they’re semi independent of the national legislators that convene them. So it will take legislators it’ll take, I mean, if the bankers are agreeable, they can kind of stimulate legislators to write the right kind of legislative, legislation to allow them to do that. But so it’s not a silver bullet. And it’s not something that a few individuals can just decide to do and lay on the world. It’s just a mechanism, a financial mechanism that is different than profit. Because money is going to go capital in this world goes to the highest rate of return. Saving the biosphere is not the highest rate of return. You therefore get a very simple equation that comes out with: we’re doomed. So, you’ve got to break that equation and make the highest rate of return actually be the saving of the biosphere.
Thank you, beautifully summarized. I, it’s very generous of you to to offer to respond to people’s questions and emails. And so I think people are sending you a lot of them. And so I’m trying to just put a few of them together as we’re going here and one of them is, there are a few questions around this, which I think is coming down from this, the the large scale, like the massive worldwide, almost too big to imagine international cooperation and financial, you know, moves that need to be made to address climate change. So there’s some questions around how you see the role of localized, close knit, small scale, resilient communities, you know, bio regionalism? What’s the role of that? And and then I have some more specific questions around, like, what can people do? Are there specific organizations that they can support?
Kim Stanley Robinson
Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you for that. It’s a very important question. I have been focusing on the top down. I do it even in my novel Ministry For the Future, but I refer you to chapter 85 of my Ministry For the Future, which is simply a five page list of bioregional efforts that already exist around the world right now. Where all over the world people are doing what they can for their space. And I recently I was on a Zoom with the mayor of Orlando, Florida, of all places, making intense efforts to make his city more resilient and greener. And he said that 100 million Americans live in cities that have made commitments to regional zero carbon emission futures in the near future. And that is close to one third of all Americans. And that’s coming from the regional effort. The bottom up effort is crucial because you can do it, you can contribute as a person individual. Your leverage over your own central bank is so indirect that it’s ridiculous and that’s somewhat on purpose. And it comes through your political representatives that that’s how you influence central bank’s. Well, we all know what that’s like, we’re doing it already. And it’s intensely frustrating.
But the local efforts, you can go down and plant 100 trees, and you end up with a sore back and with blisters, and with 100 trees in the ground. And it matters. So yes. Every area on it’s not just the United States thing. It’s not just a leftist thing. It’s not just a ageing, California hippie thing, which is really my own perspective on it. It is everywhere, people defending their land and helping their land. And it’s a phrase from I’ll end this with a phrase from Aldo Leopold, that I often am using now, because it’s such a great axiom for behavior. “What’s good is what’s good for the land.” So you can rate almost everything you do by this notion of, well, is it good for my for the surrounding landscape? And this is farming, transportation life in general. So it’s it’s it, I mean, what is it think globally, act locally? That, I mean, you can flip that too. It’s one of those bumper stickers that is of limited use at this time. I prefer the bumper sticker now that just says “all hands on deck.” And so you have to do more than just vote every two years, you have to find what you can do with your with your gift economy, with your time as well as with your money. Yeah.
Thank you. It is true that Aldo Leopold quote remains relevant, and with us always. We, we have a number of questions, of course, about last week in relation to your work, and people, I think, looking to you to help to contextualize and think about what to do, and how all of this fits in. So one question is putting your wonderful talk into the context of the riot happening last week, and and now it seems that toxic racist white masculinity, which is hostile to the climate justice movements and the Paris Agreement, is a huge obstacle to decarbonisation. How do you think this obstacle can be dismantled or confronted?
Kim Stanley Robinson
Um, I, it’s an obstacle to so many things but decarbonisation might not be the first one on the list, except as a derivative effect of the body politic not being very functional or responsive to reality. As a novelist, I’m always trying to understand and not to “other” others. And so, I think that as reprehensible as the behaviors were last week, and indeed, this is playing with fire, because one of the things that United States had was the peaceful transition of power. Countries that haven’t had it, that have been in a civil war for the last 100 years with 1000s of civilian deaths, of people murdered in the night for political causes. We have been mostly freed of that, not entirely. And we, of course, are hyper vigilant to the times in American history where that’s broken down but by and large, the peaceful transition of power has been an American achievement. And to mess with that is, is really a bad thing to do.
What, what causes this white nationalist toxic rage? Some of it is a matter of wounded dignity. Some of it is a matter of economic desperation. And some of it is the idea that there’s no American major political party, and there’s only really the two of them that has any interest in that group, and that group’s welfare. It should be the Democratic Party’s interest, and that’s my party. The Republicans don’t even pretend to help that group, by and large except through faked notions of patriotism. But in terms of economic interests, jobs were outsourced. The world the economy of the world was globalized, and the working class of the world moved to China and to countries like Vietnam, where people can get paid 10 cents an hour, and make a living at it. And they’re in direct competition with American workers who have a much higher cost of living and had work that would give them dignity, respect, and an income that has now gone away to some other country. And if they were to get jobs like that, they would be competing with people getting paid 10 cents an hour, and they too would get paid 10 cents an hour.
The anger at that dispossession has a big, is a big part of this. And so, I think that the democratic party can do better in representing all the working people in the United States, including the precariat. And that that’s the natural space for the Democratic Party. For the Republican Party, if they are, I’m thinking of Eisenhower Republicans, I mean, Eisenhower made the maximum progressive tax level so that if you made more than $400,000, you paid 90% of it in taxes that would, Eisenhower doing that as a world war two vet, and a spectacularly good Republican president, you. No one’s perfect, but he was awfully good, compared to those who followed him in particular. You can imagine a republicanism that says, well, look, we want rule of law. We want self reliance. We want people to earn what they get. We don’t want people, and we want in the nation properly run and properly defended.
So there’s still a role for an improvement in the Republican Party. There’s still a role for improvement in the Democratic Party. There’s still a role for unions to come back and a union of all householders. That’s one of the ideas that I like. A union of all students, and the attempt to call student debt odious debt and make education closer to the image that it was before of the public universities. All these things will help for the people who were, and this is a La Guin phrase, the dispossessed. The dispossessed of the American working class has caused a backlash. Now, I’ve, I must admit, in this description, I’ve tiptoed past the sheer problem of racism and systemic racism. And we’ve all learned an awful lot in this last year about systemic racism in the United States history. And it’s ugly. And so the chance to do better there all across society is really evident. And as for racists themselves, they need to look in the mirror. The other is always scary. The other, your twin brother is an other just as scary as some stranger on the street, that is a different color than you. So being scared of the other is a losing game for all humans. And it’d be better to try to understand the other.
Thank you. Let’s, let’s have one more question to end the night. And maybe it’s one that’s relevant, as people are heading off into the evening either to do bedtime with their little ones or to do Zoom bedtime with their grandchildren. Someone asked if you were tucking in your 10 year old grandson into bed some night. What would you tell him when he asked you, “Grandpa? What do you think is going to happen to us? Are we going to be okay?”
Kim Stanley Robinson
Well, yes, I would say to that grandchild. It’s a dangerous situation. But yes, we’re going to be okay. We’re all trying. Your life will be spent doing important work. Because it doesn’t even matter what field people get into There’s going to be so much good work to be done that the prospects for someone 10 years old right now, let’s suss it out. They’ll be alive in the year 2090, or even 2100. They’d be alive in the next century, if they’re lucky. Well, this century is going to see a big shift to a better relationship to the biosphere. And I think that that will happen as opposed to the disaster, the the breakdown, the internet sign warfare, the civil war of all against all. I think it’s going to happen, because there’s so many people that want it and because people are better at cooperation than they usually realize when they’re in the midst of an argument or a fight. That Indeed, we couldn’t even have these fights people couldn’t even go to Washington, DC and do something stupid stuff, break into the Capitol and then take selfies of themselves because they didn’t even have a plan. That couldn’t be done without a massive amount of cooperation from hundreds and even 1000s of individuals who built the planes, got them on the planes, took them into their place built the infrastructure. In other words, underneath the soap opera of our media lives, rolling underneath it like a tide, is a massive amount of human cooperation that maybe you could call science or you could call it solidarity. Depends if you want to be technical or or political about it. You could also, well, you could call it religious as well. I mean, you don’t want to leave the realm of the moral and religious, it’s very, very important. This sense of solidarity with others is a is a religious feeling as well. So they all combined together to the point where I think you can reassure any 10 year old now that as exciting as their lives going to be this Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times” well, they’ve been cursed. They’re going to live in interesting times. But the possibility for getting to a good space where they say things to their grandchildren, that will be quite amazingly positive. So I guess that’s what I would try. I, I hope to have grandchildren to tell that too. So one thing I’d say to all of you if you’re tucking in your 10 year old grandchild, Well, congratulations, good for you. That’s a lucky situation, and on will go together.
Thank you so much. It reminds me of you ended one of your recent essays with the the line, meaningful, “Meaningful work is cool.” And we are so grateful that this is your work, because we think it’s really cool to read and really appreciate you. You have a lot of questions to answer. And so we are going to coordinate with those of you who are still with us to somehow get those responses to you. And Shelley, if you want if there’s anything that you want to say about that. You can chime in and do that. If not, we will just broadcast answers to the emails that we have. I just put a link to Grassroots Books in the, in the chat and you can order Ministry For the Future there and also, of course, from your local bookstores, wherever you are. We are just so honored to have started this series with you, Stan, and we look forward to seeing you in person maybe five years from now again in Corvallis. And, thank you. And thanks to all of you for joining us this evening. We hope that you stay well and healthy in mind and body in the year ahead. Thank you.