This story appears in HIGHTech, A Magazine by Highsnobiety. Our new issue, presented by Samsung, includes exclusive pages of interviews, shoots, merch, gadgets, technical gear and more. Order a copy here.
Kim Stanley Robinson is probably the greatest living science fiction writer, though it’s unlikely he’d want to compare himself with his peers. In his Mars trilogy of novels, published in the 1990s, he introduced popular culture to the idea of terraforming: transforming other planets to make them habitable. Science fiction, although often set in the future, is generally a reflection on the present, and this is especially true in Robinson’s work. Because while terraforming Mars may be a long way off, we as a society are now urgently considering planetary transformation on Earth via climate change.
Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, confronts this topic even more directly. It opens with India suffering a massive heat wave in which millions die. As a result, the country decides to ignore coordinated, international action and deploys a dangerous, solar radiation management technology in a bid to save itself from the lethal heat. It works – but now a new ministry must advocate on behalf of future generations to stop further risky, mega-tech interventions to bring Earth’s temperature under control.
Robinson is often praised for the well-researched, “hard” science in his novels, but also for the depth and believability of his characters. Many writers can do one. Not so many can do both. A lifelong leftist, nature-lover, and California hippy whose visionary works tear a hole through the boring dystopias that dominate Hollywood, Robinson recently responded to our Rorschach test of subjects to pontificate on: from Ancient Greek mythology to cryptocurrency to hiking tips.
Utopia is a minor literary genre and also now a necessary concept for guiding us into a good future. It should be understood not as an end-point perfect society and end of history, but rather the name for a good future for human history and Earth’s biosphere. It will never be secured but is to be thought of as a receding horizon that we always approach and never get to. Also, to the extent that we make a good society, it will be under attack by people who don’t like it for one reason or another, and so it will need defending.
So, it is best understood as a name for one particular course for history, one where we are making progress toward a better world for all. That could happen, and hopefully it will; but if it is to happen, we have to have some kind of plan to orient our efforts. Actually, lots of plans are fine — they can all be discussed and debated, and add their influence to the progress of real history itself. This is what literary utopias can do: they give us visions to contemplate and judge for their attractiveness and their potential problems.
We need the other animals, and it’s our moral duty to create space for them on this planet, as has always existed. We’re on the brink of creating the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history, which will hammer humanity as well. To avoid that we have to focus on creating space for other animals, and this is sometimes called rewilding.
Right now about 97 percent of all the meat on the planet is humans and their domestic animals, so the danger is severe. To rewild the biosphere, we need to give room to wild animals, meaning habitats where they can pursue their own lives without interference and prosper. This also implies creating habitat corridors between the areas we reserve for animals, so they can move around in the ways they need to survive over the long haul. All this needs to be arranged and paid for in the human economy and ecology, and indeed the whole point of civilization should be to create a situation in which all the wild animals are doing well.
My home state is a strange place. It’s some kind of culmination to American history, in that many people kept moving west until they had to stop. And where they stopped was a very unusual landscape with a great amount and variety of terrains and climates. A biological hot spot, even though it doesn’t have much water compared to places with more rainfall and what would be needed to supply the needs of its almost 40 million people. Its water is distributed around the state by way of a system, so you could say it’s a terraformed space.
Add to that a very strange history, including the original gold rush, Hollywood’s movie industry, and Silicon Valley’s computer industry — these combine to make for a freakish place, a magical name and idea in world history. Possibly all these blessings add up to a curse, but at least California will always have its Sierra Nevada, one of the great mountain ranges of the world and one of my favorite places to be.
For hiking, you need good shoes. For backpacking over multiple days, you need a light backpack, and in it a tent (really a tarp), sleeping bag, ground pad, clothing, and food. Walking poles help with walking and can be used as tent poles at night. All these items have been made in lighter and lighter forms for the sake of people walking from Mexico to Canada in a single summer, so an ordinary backpacker can take advantage of these technological innovations and hike with no more than 20 pounds of gear and food on their back for a week’s trip. This is a great thing for aging backpackers.
This has become a word for things we don’t like to think about doing. By definition, geoengineering has become bad. So, maybe we need another word now for deliberate interventions in the Earth system to dodge the mass extinction event that we are now starting. It won’t be just solar radiation management, which is what people usually think of when the word is used, but also anything done on a large scale to make a significant difference in the atmosphere, ocean, or land surfaces, with the intent to decarbonize the atmosphere and reduce the damage of our current civilization.
So, this means actions somewhat similar to what we usually think of when this word is used, up to and including solar radiation management, but also biological interventions like reforestation, biochar, kelp farming, regenerative agriculture, and so on; then also, technological innovations like direct air capture (DAC) of CO2 from the atmosphere, and the removal of water from underneath the accelerating glaciers in Antarctica and Greenland.
And to these we should also add social innovations such as women’s rights, which reduces the birth rate and thus the human impact on the biosphere, or sharply progressive taxation and a strong social safety net, which reduces the excessive impacts of the richest and poorest humans. All these strategies need to be pursued concurrently and to the fullest extent in order to give us the best chance possible of avoiding biospheric catastrophe.
Gaia was an Earth goddess in ancient Greek mythology, or an image of Earth itself as a kind of divine figure. In the original Greek she was not just a mother figure providing all the necessities of life, but a capricious and dangerous character, prone to fits of anger and a divinity not to be ignored or disrespected. When we use her in the modern world as an image for Earth as some kind of larger symbiotic life form, a supra-organism of which we are a small part, this is somewhat abstract and hypothetical. If all the creatures living on Earth are seen as combining to make up some larger life form, with the individual lives serving as something like cells or organs in a larger body, then Gaia is maybe real, by that definition, but too large and amorphous to tell us much that is useful.
What we need to do to make the idea of Gaia useful now is to acknowledge that there are some collective creatures that are real but not conscious, and need our imaginative life to make it real and to provide its agency. When we have that image of Gaia, we’ll have the basis for a religion based on reverence for the planet we live on. It will be a kind of Earth religion, but with a connection to our present moment that hopefully will make the idea powerful to us again.
The Ministry for the Future
This is the name of my most recent novel. It tells the fictional story of the next 30 years of history, in which the danger of a mass extinction event and human catastrophe is dodged by way of a complete effort on the part of many parts of civilization. One aspect of this effort is an organization created under the auspices of the Paris Agreement to represent the interests of the people of the future, also all the people who can’t represent or speak for themselves in the world’s legal systems, which is to say, all the wild animals and ecospheres. This is, of course, a problematic project and entails a lot of efforts by a lot of people, working against a lot of resistance. The story, like the ministry, is based in Zürich, Switzerland, and it uses a lot of literary forms to tell the story, including many fictional eyewitness accounts from participants in events of all kinds.
This is an idea being advanced by some economists that complements the idea of a carbon tax being levied against all burning of carbon into the atmosphere. The carbon coin would be paid out to all methods of sequestering carbon in the atmosphere back into the ground. It would be convertible with other currencies and provide a kind of carrot to the stick of carbon taxes.
Paying for the work of carbon sequestration is crucial to sustain the massive amount of work and sheer human time it will take to get the job done fast enough. Much of this effort won’t make a profit in the capitalist system, and so a kind of quantitative easing, or directed government payments for doing the necessary things, is desperately needed. We can’t just declare the end of the world because we can’t afford to save it. We need to find ways to pay for this necessary work. The carbon coin is part of that.
Green New Deals
The Green New Deals being put on the table around the world are associated with the carbon coin — they refer to government plans to invest in sustainability itself. The pandemic of 2020 has caused an economic depression that has been responded to by various governmental interventions, including quantitative easing, which is to say the creation of money by the central banks of many countries.
More and more these infusions of new money by governments have been targeted to particular purposes rather than just given to private banks. When the original spending of this new money is targeted to environmental causes and the fight against climate change, these are called Green New Deals in part to remind people of the New Deal of the 1930s and its success in coping with the Great Depression. In the EU, the recovery from the pandemic is being coordinated with this necessary environmental work, and one wing of the American Democratic Party has proposed the same kind of thing be done in the US. It’s a good idea.