Aengus Anderson: You're listening to the conversation. I'm Aengus Anderson.

Micah Saul: I'm Micah Saul.

Neil Prendergast: And I'm Neil Prendergast. And if you're just tuning into the series you may want to check out an earlier episode where we lay out the whole premise of The Conversation.

Saul: Yeah, these are our final episodes. They were all recorded in 2013, and we've just been horrifically lazy about getting them packaged up for you. But, they are now ready and here they are.


Anderson: So, if you're a fan of science fiction, an introduction to Kim Stanley Robinson is probably unnecessary. But if you're not, we'll keep things short, and let's just say that he's one of the biggest names in current science fiction. We were really excited to get a chance to talk to him. I mean, he sells lots and lots of books. And he wins lots and lots of awards. Because in addition to writing books that are narratively engaging, he does a tremendously good job of exploring ideas about alternate political, environmental, and economic scenarios in the relatively near future.

Saul: Yeah. If you haven't read Robinson before, I would suggest checking out the Mars Trilogy. The first book is called Red Mars. It's a near-future scenario, and it's the first…really…plausible investigation of what it might be like if we were to attempt to colonize Mars.

Additionally, the Three Californias Trilogy is fantastic. It's three different near-future versions of the same small town in Orange County. Three different potential worlds after three different potential crises. They're both fantastic trilogies, highly recommend checking them out.

Prendergast: And I think one thing that's important to mention before listening to the interview is that his work touches on nearly every element that we've incorporated into the project. Because of that, we reference throughout a great variety of previous interviews as well. And the interview was very long, nearly three hours. But of course, as always we've edited down to a size that well, we'd want to listen to.


Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, okay the prob­lem is a…can be described as eco­log­i­cal. That we are now sev­en bil­lion peo­ple on the plan­et, and that pure num­ber is already a ques­tion. It looks like we’re ask­ing for more than the plan­et can give on a steady basis so we’re draw­ing down as with say, the aquifers of fos­sil water, using fos­sil fuels. And then also we’re cre­at­ing wastes of var­i­ous kind faster than the plan­et can recy­cle them. So there’s two prob­lems of input and out­put, both over­tax­ing the sys­tem in eco­log­i­cal terms.

Some of these prob­lems are becom­ing acute. And peo­ple are focus­ing in on the car­bon prob­lem, and I think that may be a good way to look at it. But it’s always I think impor­tant to remem­ber that that’s just a kind of metonymy stand­ing for all the rest of the prob­lems that we’re cre­at­ing. Because A, it seems the biggest, and B it also looks like it could be amenable to cor­rec­tion, as in a ther­mo­stat in a room. Like we could turn down the tem­per­a­ture again, hav­ing turned it up. So there’s this per­haps false idea that not only is this a real­ly big and imme­di­ate prob­lem, but we also could do some­thing about it.

I still think that Paul Ehrlich’s for­mu­la­tion of impact on the envi­ron­ment is a mul­ti­plica­tive thing, with pop­u­la­tion times our desires as indi­vid­u­als, our appetites (he called that A), mul­ti­plied by tech­nol­o­gy. So that there are dirt­i­er or clean­er tech­nolo­gies. And one could pos­tu­late it might be pos­si­ble to cre­ate a tech­nol­o­gy so clean that a rather high pop­u­la­tion with a mod­er­ate set of desires could live in a sus­tain­able bal­ance with the bios­phere.

So we’ve got the imme­di­ate prob­lem, and then we’ve got the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a solu­tion. And they sit there togeth­er. And dif­fer­ent people—I’m sure you’re find­ing this in who you talk to—have dif­fer­ent assess­ments of how big and imme­di­ate the dan­gers are, and how pow­er­ful we might become in solv­ing them. And I vary in both these assess­ments as I do my read­ing, as I lis­ten to oth­er peo­ple. I’m in a some­what sim­i­lar posi­tion to your­self in that I do a lot of lis­ten­ing and pro­cess­ing, and then write my books based on what I hear from oth­ers and try to judge as clean­ly as I can. And since my judg­ment changes from time to time, I write dif­fer­ent nov­els based on how I feel at the moment.

And there are some things that are so scary that you think well, the worst poll is almost inevitable. Then, look­ing at oth­er sources, lis­ten­ing to oth­er peo­ple, I began to think that the rapid shift to clean ener­gy pro­duc­tion and trans­port fuel­ing is not at all impos­si­ble, it is just a eco­nom­ic problem—a prob­lem with cap­i­tal­ism and its own badly-formatted algo­rithms that are imposed upon us.

And so I vac­il­late there, between think­ing that we’re doomed because we have giv­en our­selves over to a stu­pid sys­tem that’s now backed up by guns. And then a much more utopi­an view that we’ve always lived in stu­pid sys­tems and that we’re always mak­ing them bet­ter. And that in this case, the pow­er that the sci­ence, tech­nol­o­gy, engi­neer­ing, math­e­mat­i­cal com­plex is giv­ing us— And then you have to add the social tech­nolo­gies, or the social sciences—the human­i­ties and the arts, the increas­ing ana­lyt­i­cal pow­er that we have and increas­ing philo­soph­i­cal power…might com­bine togeth­er to sim­ply force a rapid change and get things going in a bet­ter direc­tion, a clean­er tech­nol­o­gy, insti­tut­ed faster than ordi­nary neo­clas­si­cal eco­nom­ics would allow it to hap­pen.

Anderson: So I kind of want to explore both of those sce­nar­ios,—

Robinson: Yes.

Anderson: —kind our worst-case and our…very con­ser­v­a­tive­ly best-case sce­nario. In the worst-case one, where the train is already off the rails eco­log­i­cal­ly?, is that sort of what we’re look­ing at? Like, so there’d be no way to turn the ther­mo­stat back down regard­less of what changes you made, regard­less of how clean your tech­nol­o­gy got?

Robinson: I don’t think we’re there yet. I don’t think that’s right. I think we have legit­i­mate rea­sons to hope that we can avoid that kind of eco­log­i­cal crash. Life is robust. We’re going to have extinc­tions, there’s no doubt about it. But with some major atten­tion giv­en to avoid­ing extinc­tions, espe­cial­ly of the mam­mals, and then also the amphib­ians, we could go through a cou­ple cen­turies of kind of res­cue work, sav­ing every­thing we can, and delib­er­ate­ly and on pur­pose like zookeep­ers, acknowl­edg­ing that we’re now man­agers of a sys­tem big­ger than we tru­ly under­stand and yet we still have to man­age. And we could go for­ward on that basis.

So I guess what I’m say­ing is the things that would mean that we were already irrev­o­ca­bly cast into a dif­fer­ent plan­et would be the ocean acid­i­fi­ca­tion being sharply high­er than it was. Or the parts per mil­lion CO2 in the atmos­phere being already up about 500, now. If those two things were worse than they are, I think it’ll be tru­ly fright­en­ing. It’d be inter­est­ing at that point to see if peo­ple will then try to react. It’ll be hard­er. Have to do things even more quick­ly. But I don’t think peo­ple will just throw up their hands and say, Oh we’re doomed.” I think there will be a civilization-wide effort to recov­er.

And when I say recov­ery, what do I mean by that? What I’m think­ing is that you can draw CO2 down from the atmos­phere, turn it into frozen dry ice, and sequester it on the sea floor or under­ground. And this is a huge indus­tri­al project but it’s no huger than the civ­i­liza­tion we’ve already put in place. So if it became a neces­si­ty, in oth­er words, we could say that every wind­mill as it gen­er­ates elec­tric­i­ty would also con­tain a lit­tle vac­u­um clean­er that was vac­u­um­ing CO2 out of the atmos­phere and drain­ing it into a stor­age sys­tem that then would have to be tak­en to anoth­er place and it would be part of a huge indus­tri­al civ­i­liza­tion that was suck­ing CO2 out of the atmos­phere.

This is a geo­engi­neer­ing pro­pos­al that is tech­no­log­i­cal­ly pos­si­ble, and there’s no par­tic­u­lar side-effect dam­age involved in it. It’s just that it’s mas­sive. So that becomes inter­est­ing, I think.

Anderson: In your esti­ma­tion, we have agency. Do you think that we can pre­emp­tive­ly act? Or do you think we have to react?

Robinson: I think we’re at that gal­va­niz­ing moment. Really this is a multi-decade project either way, but now we’re talk­ing about it in a way that we’ve nev­er talked about it before. And I’ve noticed a cou­ple of shifts along the way, because I’ve been talk­ing about it now for about fif­teen years, fol­low­ing the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty that was inter­est­ed in cli­mate. And my work on Mars, my work in Antarctica, they all were mak­ing me aware this ear­ly on. And I’ve seen a big shift in how much this has become a major top­ic of our civilization’s con­ver­sa­tion in these last ten years.

And then I’ve also seen a major shift in people’s atti­tudes towards cap­i­tal­ism since 2008. Which was kind of an emper­or has no clothes” moment, where sud­den­ly gov­ern­ment stepped in and had to estab­lish val­ue,” as the econ­o­mists put it, so that this free mar­ket mentality—which was a kind of reli­gious sen­si­bil­i­ty, a fun­da­men­tal­ism, and what I’ve been call­ing mono­cau­so­tax­ophil­ia, which is a Karl Popper word, love of sin­gle caus­es that explain every­thing.” And that we all have this love. But when we give into it, we become fun­da­men­tal­ists. And there was this one idea that sup­pos­ed­ly explained every­thing, which is the free mar­ket, which is like a ver­sion of God, an invis­i­ble hand, and things were going to be alright.

Well that all shat­tered in 2008, and there’s hard­ly any­body that seri­ous­ly believes it or tries to defend it any­more. So now cap­i­tal­ism itself is up for ques­tion­ing in a way that was not true before 2008. And I know this because I have been ques­tion­ing it since the late 80s. And I’m not alone in that, but the push for a post-capitalist eco­nom­ics that is more eco­log­i­cal has been in exis­tence for a few decades now.

But it’s nev­er been as strong as it is now because of these var­i­ous forces bear­ing down on us that’re say­ing A, cap­i­tal­ism is a kind of multi-generational Ponzi scheme that will even­tu­al­ly crash. And B, the crash we may be in the begin­ning with, because we’re not pay­ing the true costs of burn­ing car­bon. Part of the Ponzi scheme is that we’re con­sis­tent­ly sell­ing car­bon for less than it costs to pro­duce it in the first place, and that under­pric­ing is that we don’t pay the cost for the wastage. We’re not putting the CO2 cap­ture devices on our pro­duc­tion plants, which peo­ple just imme­di­ate­ly freak and say, Oh, that would make ener­gy twice as expen­sive.” Well, ener­gy should be twice as expen­sive.

So, you can use eco­nom­ic terms to describe what we’re doing, but we don’t yet have a sys­tem of laws that would enforce the true costs of things being charged.

Anderson: So I’m think­ing about that in kind of the pop­u­lar mind­set. It takes an open­ness to a cer­tain type of knowl­edge to acknowl­edge that there is that waste that we’re going to have to deal with lat­er. And because we’re part of a demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­torate, we have to have a con­ver­sa­tion with a lot of peo­ple who don’t believe in the sci­ence at all. So in that case, how do we begin to address the eco­nom­ic side of that?

Robinson: I don’t believe that these peo­ple don’t believe it. I think they are pre­tend­ing. I think they’re lying. I think they know, but they don’t want to admit that they know because that would mean more gov­ern­ment. That would mean that peo­ple they’ve been polit­i­cal­ly against were right and they were wrong, and nobody likes that. Nobody likes to admit they were wrong. So I think they ignore the data and pre­tend to be against sci­ence, but here’s where I think they’re pre­tend­ing. When they are sick they run to a doc­tor, and hope that that doc­tor will cure them.

That doc­tor is a sci­en­tist. And that doc­tor could say to them, Well, you’re asymp­to­matic now; you don’t feel a thing. But I’m gonna have to poi­son you with­in an inch of your life or else you’re going to be dead with­in five years.” And they believe it and take the poi­sons.

So these are peo­ple who believe pro­found­ly in sci­ence. When their life’s on the line, when they’re scared for their life—for their kids’ lives—they believe in sci­en­tists and in sci­ence. They might be lying to them­selves, too, and not quite real­ize the inco­heren­cy of their thought. Because they don’t real­ize all the sci­ences are con­silient with each oth­er. And there are areas where they get very prob­lem­at­ic, like study­ing human beings, but they are still sci­ences that are con­silient that every­body in the mod­ern world believes in.

Anderson: Though I think of…if there’s one thing sci­ence seems to be reveal­ing more and more it’s that we’re not…rational—

Robinson: Right.

Anderson: —…nec­es­sar­i­ly, right, so we might not see that.

Robinson: Sure. Well, we often hold two ideas—contradictory ideas—in our head at once. And we’re not ratio­nal. But, even in the emo­tion­al part of our­selves, when we’re scared, we run to a sci­en­tist. There were very few peo­ple who don’t go to the doc­tor, and a lot of peo­ple who go to the doc­tor right­ly think this is a scary thing to do, because we know that we’re more com­pli­cat­ed than sci­ence has ful­ly man­aged to under­stand but it’s a bet­ter bet than any­thing else.

So, I think the anal­o­gy is impor­tant and this is what I’m doing in my pub­lic speak­ing. I’m often talk­ing about how med­i­cine is a sci­ence, and tells us off and things that are invis­i­ble to us that we nev­er­the­less act on. So I think the fig­ure is this, that we can burn 500 more giga­tons of car­bon before we’ve real­ly cooked our­selves and cast our­selves over the edge into what James Hansen calls game over.” Although he’s a very politi­cized char­ac­ter at this point, he still is hard to refute. And yet we’ve iden­ti­fied 2,500 giga­tons of car­bon already acces­si­ble to us—

Anderson: Well, actu­al­ly that jumps right to mind with the con­ver­sa­tion I had with a guy named John Fullerton who was the head of JP Morgan. The con­ver­sa­tion we had was…very dis­turb­ing because you know, he comes to this from a high finance per­spec­tive. And he was say­ing that if you look at the amount of car­bon that’s in the ground and think well, all of that has val­ue to a lot of com­pa­nies on Wall Street. And that if you say, pre­emp­tive­ly we’re just not gonna burn that because the cost of burn­ing that is pos­si­bly the envi­ron­ment. Then you right off that val­ue, and you end up with…a mar­ket cat­a­stro­phe.

And if you don’t write off that val­ue you do end up with an envi­ron­men­tal prob­lem which down the road leads to a dif­fer­ent type of mar­ket cat­a­stro­phe. You know, the ques­tion is of course, how do you write off that amount of val­ue from the mar­ket with­out implod­ing this real­ly tan­gled eco­nom­ic sys­tem now?

Robinson: Well but that’s future val­ue, because that’s not a val­ue until they’ve got it out of the ground and sold it and burned it. If that future val­ue can be account­ed, then you also ought to be able to cal­cu­late the future val­ue of func­tion­ing foods. And then you would have much more than $160 tril­lion. Nature pub­lished a paper, Constanza, et al., about the $33 tril­lion a year of val­ue out of the envi­ron­ment that isn’t usu­al­ly cost­ed or priced or val­ued, and yet it gives us that as just nat­ur­al process­es.

And what I’m say­ing is there’s no eco­nom­ics that does a decent job at this point because cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ics is used to hav­ing its exter­nal­i­ties. And when you begin to count the exter­nal­i­ties as costs…well yes, it crush­es all of their val­ue. But that doesn’t mean that that’s not still true. It means that they’re just that far out of whack.

The cru­cial miss­ing piece in this is an active­ly eco­log­i­cal eco­nom­ics, a post-capitalist eco­nom­ics, or a reformed cap­i­tal­ism. I believe in cap­i­tal, which is you know, the use­ful residue of human labor and we need it bad; it’s anoth­er name for tech­nol­o­gy and com­fort. Capital in oth­er words is great. And the mar­ket is prob­a­bly some­thing that we can­not escape in a mod­ern, com­pli­cat­ed civ­i­liza­tion where everybody’s doing dif­fer­ent things and there needs to be some way to trade and share the work that we do.

So when I speak against cap­i­tal­ism, I’m not speak­ing against cap­i­tal, or even against the mar­ket, as a large thing. What I’m say­ing is that the rules that’re manip­u­lat­ing mar­ket and cap­i­tal right now are hier­ar­chi­cal, unjust, inef­fi­cient…

Anderson: So think­ing about the mas­sive com­plex­i­ty of the eco­log­i­cal sys­tem and how we need a mar­ket sys­tem that can sort of start to deal with that—

Robinson: Mm hm.

Anderson: And it’s mak­ing me think of my con­ver­sa­tion with George Lakoff last week. And some­thing Lakoff talk­ing about was, metaphor orig­i­nates in the body. When it comes to sys­temic things, whether it’s eco­nom­ic or eco­log­i­cal, we don’t have the metaphor­i­cal lan­guage to deal with that. Like, the brain doesn’t have metaphors to work with abstrac­tions in the same way that we work with sim­ple tasks.

Robinson: Well…Lakoff is fan­tas­tic, and he’s taught all of us a lot. I’ve used his books my whole career, or his con­cepts to under­stand the world bet­ter. So I’m in total agree­ment with him on all but this final state­ment, because I think we have the metaphor sets, which are again as he said, the body, but also the for­est. Everything is metaphor­i­cal to nat­ur­al things around us. So it’s not just your body but also you’re com­par­ing things to trees, to ver­ti­cal­i­ty, to land­scapes. Then you can begin to use metaphors out of the for­est and the body. Capitalism is like some inva­sive biol­o­gy, like kudzu, that is a neat lit­tle plant until it takes over every­thing and stran­gles it.

So, I think he’s right in gen­er­al but wrong in this par­tic­u­lar. And what would be inter­est­ing is to start play­ing the game of mak­ing metaphors, of describ­ing our civ­i­liza­tion as some­thing that can be com­pre­hend­ed by us by way of metaphor, and then worked on effec­tive­ly after that. It would be a grand chal­lenge for all sto­ry­tellers. I think of it as part of what I do as a sci­ence fic­tion writer. We need every­body doing it, real­ly. I mean, Fritjof Capra has been talk­ing about this for a long time, say­ing we’ve got to go from the world as a machine to the world as an organ­ism.

So I think all that’s right, but I would like to also get spe­cif­ic about eco­nom­ics. I’d like there to be a sto­ry that is math­e­mati­cized and quan­tized and turned into a set of prospec­tive laws that would rec­ti­fy eco­nom­ics as we’re run­ning it right now. And what I’m see­ing is that eco­nom­ics as a field of dis­ci­pline is bereft of that, and is very chicken-hearted about doing pro­jec­tive eco­nom­ics, spec­u­la­tive eco­nom­ics, utopi­an eco­nom­ics. They mere­ly describe it is. They ana­lyze what is, and then say, things can’t be oth­er,” as if what is were the rules of nature rather than laws. So they do legal analy­sis and claim they’re doing physics, in a way.

When I do these spec­u­la­tions as a sci­ence fic­tion writer, I’m think­ing why isn’t there some­body out there doing quan­ti­ta­tive work on this and propos­ing the actu­al laws so that you can get from here to there. Because very often the weak­ness of utopi­an think­ing is you set up a system—it looks grand. Well that’s fine. But we live in this world that we’re in right now, and it’s mas­sive­ly entrenched. A lot of laws, a lot of trade orga­ni­za­tions, a lot of treaties, a lot of guns back­ing it all up. And so you need to reform it by way of per­sua­sive sto­ries, legal reforms, and then demo­c­ra­t­ic action. Maybe the sto­ry­telling becomes cru­cial to this but it would be real­ly nice to then be able to back it up with a com­plete legal pack­age. And that’s I think a miss­ing ele­ment right now.

One sto­ry that I try to tell, and when you talk about his­to­ry it comes to my mind imme­di­ate­ly, is that sci­ence and cap­i­tal­ism began togeth­er as kind of con­joined twins that’ve been sup­port­ive of each oth­er through­out, but that they are actu­al­ly very very dif­fer­ent in their goals and their meth­ods. And that sci­ence has been a under­ground or proto-utopian force all along, try­ing to make things bet­ter but always under the con­trol of cap­i­tal­ist mon­ey and guns. So that it’s only been par­tial­ly effec­tive and yet it’s the most effec­tive coun­ter­force to cap­i­tal­ism in world his­to­ry.

So what I’ve been say­ing in this sto­ry of the giant like, Hindu myth­ic bat­tle between sci­ence and cap­i­tal­ism, that every time sci­ence gets a lit­tle clear­age to do its own thing and pur­sue how nature real­ly works and then also find out what we can do to manip­u­late nature (which are two slight­ly dif­fer­ent ques­tions), it has been work­ing for human good.

And what’s inter­est­ing is to take a sci­en­tif­ic view of well, what do humans real­ly want. So then you get soci­ol­o­gy, psy­chol­o­gy, socio­bi­ol­o­gy. Science says, Well, look. Everybody seems to be hap­pi­est when they make about $80,000 a year.” And you say well, oh, there’s a lev­el beyond which wealth equals obe­si­ty and wor­ry and ill health and unhap­pi­ness. Whereas if you stay at the mean, the kind of Goldilocks—not too lit­tle, not too much—you end up being hap­pi­er, and health and hap­pi­ness begin to look like syn­onyms. When you study the two sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly, togeth­er, they’re almost just two ways of talk­ing about the same thing in human terms.

Well at that point, eco­nom­ics, espe­cial­ly cap­i­tal­ist eco­nom­ics where more is always bet­ter and growth is always good, is actu­al­ly sim­ply wrong. In human terms. And it’s wrong in eco­log­i­cal terms, too, because the sys­tem can’t actu­al­ly pro­vide goods.

So then you look at human civ­i­liza­tion, you say well look, what about if every­body had a suf­fi­cien­cy? Adequate food, water, shel­ter, cloth­ing, health­care and education…and employ­ment, that work as a right, also—to to have some kind of work—

Anderson: And mean­ing, through work, right?

Robinson: Well, exact­ly. Because that’s what I’m think­ing, is that mean­ing comes out of your project, and you need mean­ing as much as the rest of these things. So this is the utopi­an vision that I see that seems to me to be sort of sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly based. And there, my dichoto­my between cap­i­tal­ism and sci­ence is some­what rein­forced, say­ing if we just stud­ied our­selves sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly as pri­mates that would like to live as long and as healthy and as hap­py a life­time as pos­si­ble, how would that look? Then it begins to look like this vision that I’ve been con­struct­ing.

Anderson: That’s also real­ly inter­est­ing because it runs into anoth­er enor­mous myth, right, which is I think our sense of the indi­vid­ual. And I think here we’re talk­ing about two very dif­fer­ent types of free­dom. One in that utopi­an myth, and one in this myth of indi­vid­u­al­ism in which when you say, have a wealth cap or a wealth floor, you’re denied the free­dom to achieve above and beyond, pre­sum­ably to reach your full poten­tial. And you’re also denied the risk of falling low. In a way, in that myth your agency is reduced by being con­strained into this band of what some­one else has told you is kind of the ide­al. And in this case there’s a huge author­i­ty ques­tion in that well, sci­ence may say this, sci­ence may have empir­i­cal data, but shouldn’t I ulti­mate­ly make this choice for myself.

Robinson: Well, I’ve thought about that, and that is a good ques­tion. And I’m just won­der­ing if we demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly decid­ed that this was the kind of sit­u­a­tion that we’ve set. If that isn’t in fact the human band, and below that you get a kind of sub­hu­man mis­ery that not many peo­ple are going to vol­un­tar­i­ly choose. But if they do, they prob­a­bly could because that’s going down­ward.

And then what if there was the pos­si­bil­i­ty for a kind of spike of peo­ple for whom their self-actualization just requires mak­ing bil­lions? This part of free­dom, of indulging the indi­vid­ual at the expense of every­body else and of the plan­et actu­al­ly ends up with a lot of sick, crazy peo­ple as an end result, not with hap­py, ful­filled super­men who we look at and think, oh god I wish I could be like that.

Anderson: Right.

Robinson: They’re actu­al­ly dys­func­tion­als, and not any­where near as self-actualized as your ordi­nary work­ing sci­en­tist. There you see the hap­pi­est peo­ple on this plan­et, not amongst the rich and famous. Relatively undra­mat­ic activ­i­ties are more sat­is­fy­ing than these big mys­ter­ies that we tell each oth­er of what would be sat­is­fy­ing. And that’s the prob­lem with addic­tions. You do some­thing that’s sup­posed to be sat­is­fy­ing. It doesn’t sat­is­fy you. Then you do more of it, because maybe more of it will actu­al­ly make it work. And in a way, Western con­sumer soci­ety is addict­ed to con­sump­tion. Because it’s not actu­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing, and so what we’re try­ing right now—some of us—is doing more of it, because then maybe that would be sat­is­fy­ing.

Anderson: And is that ulti­mate­ly what sci­ence is doing, as an insti­tu­tion? Is it not an addic­tion itself?

Robinson: Well that’s a good ques­tion, but sci­ence is such a pow­er­ful tool that we can kind of aim it in what direc­tion we want. And I think where sci­ence as it plunges for­ward under its own momen­tum is most impres­sive is in health, in med­i­cine. And part of that is under­stand­ing what we are. So you get into behav­iors, you get into these ques­tions, you even get into eco­nom­ics as just sim­ply a health ques­tion.

So the project is uncom­plete, and it will maybe nev­er be com­plet­ed, but what sci­ence does is what it’s paid to do, in part. And then it’s a very pow­er­ful instru­ment. So if you say to sci­ence well, You know, we need to go to Mars. That’s absolute­ly the sal­va­tion of human­i­ty.” Well, we could pay for that. We could do that. And then we would find oh, oops, it’s like Antarctica. It’s not the sal­va­tion of human­i­ty at all.

But if you said to sci­ence, Let’s make up a viable eco­nom­ic sys­tem that we’ll all agree to live by that will max­i­mize the health and hap­pi­ness of the entire pop­u­la­tion,” and sci­ence when after that with its same inten­si­ty of study and of innovation…its pow­ers are real­ly quite fan­tas­ti­cal at this point, as I think we all know. Then that too could be accom­plished, I think. I don’t think we’ve ful­ly explored this ques­tion of what we do in a tru­ly civ­i­lized civ­i­liza­tion, in a true high-tech that’s in bal­ance with the plan­et and actu­al­ly makes the human ani­mal hap­py? We’re not real­ly close yet.

So, I stab around in my guess­work on this. But I think I’m on to some­thing here. I real­ly think that the sci­ences are telling us that we are pri­mates that evolved to do cer­tain activ­i­ties. And when we do them we’re healthy and hap­py. And when we don’t do them, think­ing we’ve found some­thing bet­ter, we fall away from health and hap­pi­ness.

Anderson: In a way, there is a… You build this mas­sive sci­en­tif­ic insti­tu­tion that gets you to the point of hav­ing a sci­en­tif­ic under­stand­ing of what you were before you built the insti­tu­tion.

Robinson: Yes, and then onward to longevi­ty, onward to kind of the glob­al vil­lage. I have to admit that it would be very cool to jump in a com­plete­ly clean tech, maybe some­thing like a diri­gi­ble that kind of floats across to go see Venice, with­out feel­ing like you’re burn­ing an inap­pro­pri­ate amount of car­bon and pol­lut­ing the plan­et to do so. I’d love to talk with peo­ple all around the world. So the high-tech includes a lot of stuff that would neces­si­tate min­ing, and stu­pen­dous mate­r­i­al base. So there­fore fac­to­ries and pro­duc­tion plants. Now, how that com­bines with the dai­ly life of the sort of pale­olith­ic is to me an open ques­tion. And maybe they don’t match up very well, but maybe they do.

Anderson: What if you just can’t have it with­out that pol­lu­tion? I mean, what if the price of cre­at­ing some of that new tech­nol­o­gy is always hav­ing a mine? What if you just can’t get it clean beyond a cer­tain point? It’s always doing some sort of envi­ron­men­tal dam­age…

Robinson: Well…

Anderson: Is it worth it?

Robinson: Some things would be and some things wouldn’t. You know, an extra decade of life on aver­age for the human pop­u­la­tion would be worth it. Extra amount of fideli­ty in your iPod head­phones would not be worth it. And so you go on like that mak­ing these kinds of dis­tinc­tions, I think.

But also I’m won­der­ing, if the tech is clean enough that the plan­et can recy­cle the waste prod­ucts. That you get a full-cycle, birth to grave, and then back-into-the-Earth type cycles for these things. There’s always going to be room for improve­ments. And so the whole project of civ­i­liza­tion could be clean­er and clean­er tech, bet­ter and bet­ter pri­or­i­ties, which is a phi­los­o­phy ques­tion as you’re point­ing out. What do we want out of our­selves?

But then also bal­anc­ing with the bios­phere. Because I real­ly think that the bulk of the sto­ry will always be here on Earth. That the rest of the solar sys­tem is all that’s with­in human reach. And the rest of the solar sys­tem is a lit­tle bit pal­try in terms of resources that we’re going to need. So it keeps com­ing back to Earth.

Anderson: Is that tak­ing into account oth­er crea­tures as… Like, what is their philo­soph­i­cal place in this? What rights do they have? One of the most provoca­tive con­ver­sa­tions in the series was with Gary Francione, who’s a law pro­fes­sor at Rutgers and a real­ly elo­quent spokesman of veg­an­ism. For him that’s part of a much larg­er plat­form of non-violence towards oth­er liv­ing things. One of his cri­tiques of cap­i­tal­ism is that there’s just real­ly no way to have this much growth and devel­op­ment. And even if you make it clean­er, you still have a big envi­ron­men­tal foot­print. You’re still destroy­ing habi­tat. Your forms of tran­sit still kill birds and ani­mals on the roads. And that they mat­ter, and that you need to not do that.

Robinson: Well, I think there should be no extinc­tions. That this is what we don’t have the right to do, is to take up so much of the plan­et that the oth­er ani­mals, our fel­low crea­tures on the plan­et, go extinct because of us. That this is the moral wrong that I would object to. That we need to run the plan­et such that there is a cap on the num­ber of humans and their impact on the plan­et so that we’re shar­ing it with all the rest of the bios­phere. And that actu­al­ly is for our own good. It’s not clear that we can live suc­cess­ful­ly with­out the rest of the bios­phere. But the way the mam­mals are going, the way they amphib­ians are going, it’s a sign that we’re doing things wrong, and that we should not have extinc­tions.

Now, I would dis­agree with this per­son although I admire the impuls­es behind it. I think that humans have been omni­vores. That we kill things and eat them. That this has been part of our species from its very begin­ning. You don’t have an either/or ques­tion, you have part of our self-actualization is the hap­pi­ness of the rest of the mam­mals. I feel this very strong­ly.

At the same time if you had cer­tain ani­mals being treat­ed as kind of crop that we killed as pain­less­ly as pos­si­ble then ate, I per­son­al­ly don’t see that as much of a prob­lem as oth­er prob­lems we’re fac­ing. It’s almost step­wise, a mat­ter of scaf­fold­ing. If we got our­selves to a cer­tain lev­el of pros­per­i­ty and health, then we could think again about these things and maybe many peo­ple would then say, Look, we might soon have vat-grown meat, where there was nev­er any ani­mal grown, suf­fered, and killed.” And then you know, what’s the prob­lem? At that point you have reduced a moral prob­lem, and by way of tech­nol­o­gy.

Anderson: Which is a real­ly fas­ci­nat­ing thing.

Robinson: I don’t believe we have had many chances to think about that philo­soph­i­cal­ly, what that means.

Anderson: There’s a guy want to bring in here who I think is inter­est­ing­ly ger­mane. His name’s John Zerzan. He’s a neo­prim­i­tivist, he’s an antitech­nol­o­gist. He threw out a cou­ple of things that have stayed with me through­out this project, one of which is, is there a bias towards tech­nol­o­gy itself? Does it essen­tial­ly lead you down this rat race where with every tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment you are one step behind, try­ing to ame­lio­rate for its ram­i­fi­ca­tions or reper­cus­sions? Each new tech­nol­o­gy, each atom bomb, each genet­ic engi­neer­ing, each thing that heats the atmos­phere. And you’re always try­ing to catch up to fix that. And his feel­ing is, why are you doing that?

Robinson: Mm hm. Well, I have a lot of sym­pa­thy for that view, except in the end I don’t agree. I think it’s a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual choic­es as to what’s appro­pri­ate tech­nol­o­gy. So I think the word appro­pri­ate tech­nol­o­gy is impor­tant here as well as clean tech. There is this Jevon’s para­dox, the idea that the bet­ter that we get at things, the more effi­cient our tech­nolo­gies get, the more bad we do with them. And so there’s nev­er been an improve­ment in tech­nol­o­gy that hasn’t actu­al­ly cre­at­ed more harm in the end. Does that mean that we don’t do med­i­cine? Do we not do pub­lic health? Because those are tech­nolo­gies, too. And yet, I don’t think we would want to be in a world where an infec­tious dis­ease could catch your six-year-old and then he’s dead two weeks lat­er.

Anderson: And do you think there’s any going back, for some­one like him who’s says you know, what’s real­ly essen­tial here is just an unmedi­at­ed expe­ri­ence of the world, and all of the tech­nol­o­gy is a dis­trac­tion?

Robinson: Well, that’s not right for human­i­ty. That would be say­ing can I live like a chim­panzee? Because human­i­ty has been high-tech from the very begin­ning. We’ve coe­volved with our tech. Take this. This piece of tech­nol­o­gy was sta­ble for about a half-million years. This is an Acheulean hand-axe that I’m hold­ing here. Well, this is a rock, an oval rock, it’s been knocked in places until it’s sharp on one end and maybe sharp­er on the edges. There’s lit­er­al­ly hun­dreds of thou­sands of them scat­tered around the Old World. And they know that they were pret­ty much like this from 500 thou­sand years ago to about 150 thou­sand years ago when they began to sharp­en up and change and get more sym­met­ri­cal and dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed. It’s a mys­tery. But it’s also a piece of tech­nol­o­gy. And it was exact­ly when we’re evolv­ing from them pre-human to homo sapi­ens that we were using techs. And as the techs got bet­ter we got more human.

So, what I think, though, is that it’s pos­si­ble to say there are techs that real­ly help me become more human, and there are oth­er techs that dis­tract me by being this pseudo-superhuman.

Anderson: And how do we dif­fer­en­ti­ate those things?

Robinson: I guess you try them out, and see how they feel. It’s an emo­tion­al reac­tion. And you have to live them for awhile.

Anderson: Many peo­ple in this project have questioned…what are we going to unlock? And one of the ways that peo­ple have looked at that are between the proac­tionary prin­ci­ple and the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple. Should there be a bias on demon­strat­ing safe­ty before­hand, in terms of pre­serv­ing the sta­tus quo? Or should there be a bias towards always the explo­ration because it will get us somewhere…better?

Robinson: I think that we need to have close col­lab­o­ra­tion between the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ties that are work­ing on some of these trans­for­ma­tive tech­nolo­gies (par­tic­u­lar­ly I’m think­ing of genet­ic engi­neer­ing), and with the legal bod­ies that are estab­lish­ing the rules so that we know ful­ly, as a civ­i­liza­tion, what the risks real­ly are, not as sen­sa­tion­al­ism, but as true risk assess­ment as to how these things can spread, or go wrong, and then try to guard against that. So I believe in the pre­cau­tion­ary prin­ci­ple, that there ought to be test­ed tri­als that are very lim­it­ed and con­trolled before we do any­thing that we might lat­er regret. But I’m also won­der­ing if there is any­thing we can do in those regards that we are going to regret lat­er.

I also think it’s real­ly impor­tant to de-strand our wor­ries about the tech­nol­o­gy with our wor­ries about the own­er­ship of the tech­nol­o­gy. And here again—

Anderson: That’s huge.

Robinson: —I’m think­ing of genet­ic engi­neer­ing.

Anderson: Mm hm.

Robinson: Because all of these objec­tions to say, Monsanto’s seeds, these seeds often­times rep­re­sent exact­ly what human beings have been doing all along with hybridiza­tion and mak­ing of new and more effec­tive food seeds for our­selves. But what hasn’t been hap­pen­ing is for some com­pa­ny to claim that they own them and won’t give them to the rest of the pop­u­lace with­out tak­ing a mas­sive cut of them. In oth­er words, ordi­nary cap­i­tal­ist prof­it motive. Then that’s ugly. That’s Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks. That’s the begin­ning of spe­ci­a­tion, where a cer­tain part of the pop­u­la­tion gets to become a dif­fer­ent species, more tech­no­log­i­cal­ly boost­ed into cer­tain abil­i­ties that might indeed be use­ful, like longevi­ty or robust­ness or bet­ter health, where­as the rest are being con­signed to some less­er fate. And this is not a sci­en­tif­ic dis­tinc­tion being made. This is an eco­nom­ic dis­tinc­tion.

Anderson: Though what’s inter­est­ing there, and I think for a lot of peo­ple as they maybe con­flate sci­ence and cap­i­tal­ism…

Robinson: Sure.

Anderson: …there’s a ques­tion of the inevitabil­i­ty of human nature. I mean, if you look at the his­tor­i­cal record there’ve always been peo­ple who’ve grabbed pow­er and have used tech, but at no point have we had the tech to split the species? And so maybe that’s part of where it becomes a fear of sci­ence, because they assume that there’s always going to be that human force for bad­ness in the world, and that as progress goes for­ward that is ampli­fied in a way that’s greater than the force for good­ness.

Robinson: Well, but here’s where you have to have some kind of belief in democ­ra­cy, and the sense that the self-management of the species by itself. If we gov­ern our­selves of the peo­ple, by the peo­ple, and for the peo­ple, you put a damper on that kind of self­ish profit-taking and exclu­siv­i­ty of the [good­ness?] that we’re mak­ing for our­selves. And also the choice of which direc­tions to go in terms of what gets researched and what gets worked on.

People can get very cyn­i­cal about that, but at that point they are screw­ing us in terms of his­tor­i­cal pos­si­bil­i­ty. Because the more you say well, peo­ple will always be bad and that self­ish­ness is inher­ent to the human char­ac­ter and there’s no way of stop­ping the pow­er­ful from being pow­er­ful, the more you enable that to be true. The less you believe in democ­ra­cy and equal­i­ty as being a thing that has risen over time, if you want­ed things to go right you would do a Gramscian pes­simism of the intel­lect but opti­mism of the will” and you would will that peo­ple be bet­ter.

And you would also look to sci­ence again to say what are human beings? We evolved in a sit­u­a­tion that was rel­a­tive­ly egal­i­tar­i­an, and we suc­ceed­ed in the world by being quite coop­er­a­tive. I mean, there’s sev­en bil­lion of us on this plan­et and very often I’m in crowds of thou­sands of peo­ple with­out a sin­gle police­man in sight. And not only is there no vio­lence but there’s real­ly very lit­tle in the way of pub­lic drunk­en­ness or dis­or­der­li­ness of any kind. I mean, it’s quite an achieve­ment what a peace­ful and coop­er­a­tive species we are.

Anderson: Do we risk run­ning into the lim­its of what we are at some point? A lot of peo­ple will say in this project, Don’t wor­ry about the bio­log­i­cal lim­its, we can solve this stuff as what we are.” Other peo­ple have said, No, there are bio­log­i­cal lim­its to what we can know and that’s part of the chal­lenge that we have. Now, we need to sim­pli­fy.” There are oth­er peo­ple who’ve said, The prob­lems we face are so big we have to reengi­neer our­selves bio­log­i­cal­ly to move for­ward.

So there’s sort of three cours­es of action that I’ve seen through­out the series in terms of mov­ing for­ward and kind of the lim­its of the mind. What do you think about issues like that?

Robinson: Well, I think that it is hubris and actu­al­ly a bad mis­take to think that we can engi­neer the mind. We don’t under­stand the mind well enough to describe it, much less engi­neer it. So this is a ter­ri­ble sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry; it’s basi­cal­ly a fan­ta­sy. And here’s why. The brain can be stud­ied when it’s dead, with elec­tron micro­scopes, right down to the cel­lu­lar lev­el. That’s fine. But it only does its thing in liv­ing bod­ies. And when the brain is liv­ing and act­ing, we can only study it indi­rect­ly by way of scans that show blood lev­els or elec­tri­cal activ­i­ties. Or maybe in cer­tain brains a probe in there that is find­ing things a a lit­tle more local lev­el.

The action of our thought is hap­pen­ing at a lev­el that is mag­ni­tudes tinier than what we can study, than what we can ever study as a liv­ing sys­tem. And this is what all the brain engi­neers, tran­shu­man­ists, [Singularitarians], etc. etc. are ignor­ing. The idea that we’re going to be able to study the brain at a more and more detailed lev­el just because we have been mak­ing progress so far ignores asymp­tot­ic lim­its and phys­i­cal lim­its of all kinds.

We don’t under­stand how the brain works on lev­els that are so pro­found. We don’t know what con­scious­ness is. We don’t know what will is. We know a lot more than we used to?, but we’re going to run into cer­tain lim­its that means that we’re nev­er going to engi­neer it to be bet­ter. So that’s a kind of fan­ta­sy that is told, and a part of the sci­ence fic­tion field that I’m not sym­pa­thet­ic to because they are doing futur­ol­o­gy. They’re claim­ing, This will come,” and so it becomes like Scientology or sci­en­tism more gen­er­al­ly. It’s some­what of a scam. They’re either delud­ed or they’re active­ly scam­ming peo­ple.

Anderson: If we make an anal­o­gy there, and if we can’t under­stand the brain, if there’s some things that we can’t get to, why is there any hope that we can under­stand the envi­ron­ment with some­thing like clean tech, you know, which is some­thing that must be just as com­pli­cat­ed, with so many vari­ables. There’s been a big argu­ment in this project about what we can know in an envi­ron­men­tal sense, you know, with some peo­ple assert­ing…Robert Zubrin?…assert­ing that human cre­ativ­i­ty is lim­it­less, and there­fore there’s a lot of stuff that we can do envi­ron­men­tal­ly because we can know it.

And kind of the inter­view imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing upon the heels of his was with Wes Jackson from the Land Institute, who said This is absurd. There’s no way you can know any of this,” you know. Recognize the lim­its and work with­in them.

Robinson: Yeah.

Anderson: But those two episodes were like this…distilled point/counterpoint of what’s been hap­pen­ing in the whole series.

Robinson: I don’t mean to make any per­son­al asper­sions here, but I real­ly think it’s Jackson who is right. We’re not lim­it­less at all; that’s absurd. And yet the brain is much more com­pli­cat­ed than many an envi­ron­ment on Earth. But the brain is also secret­ed away, so that it can’t be ripped apart and stud­ied while it’s still work­ing. Whereas an envi­ron­ment can be jumped into you know, with your Wellingtons on, and you can begin to take mea­sure­ments and you can bend to study it. And you can also begin to go into the lab and look at what these bac­te­ria do with­out, under­stand­ing every­thing at all about such com­plex sys­tems. You might be able to get good enough to kind of coex­ist with it in a clean way, which I…

You know, this is kind of a Wes Jackson project. He’s doing high tech. He’s doing clean tech. But he’s say­ing, in such a com­plex sys­tem we need to pay clos­er atten­tion and we need to think about us as expres­sions of the land. That we human beings are bub­bles of Earth, and that the ecol­o­gy throws us up and there’s this brain, which is evolved to the point where we can have abstract con­ver­sa­tions like we’re hav­ing right now. But that it belongs to a mam­mal that has rela­tion­ships with the rest of the bios­phere and coex­ists with the 80% of DNA in our bod­ies that is bac­te­r­i­al. And that this ecol­o­gy, this bio­me that we are as indi­vid­u­als, is com­pli­cat­ed enough that all you can do is hope to get along and maybe extend your life a lit­tle bit fur­ther. So you’re not going to be immor­tal.

So I guess what I’d like to do is kind of be the per­son that bridges the gap between these views and speaks for high tech, clean tech, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a sophis­ti­cat­ed utopi­an civ­i­liza­tion that is still work­ing with­in phys­i­cal real­i­ty and lim­its, and nev­er goes tran­scen­dent. And maybe has no need to want to go to tran­scen­dence, because we’re already in such a good space, you know. We have this ani­mal real­i­ty that when you’re in good health, when you’re not in pain, it’s all you real­ly need.

Anderson: And that kind of brings us to the good. You know, there’ve been lots of dif­fer­ent goods advanced in this project, and it feels like if there’s any­thing you see from them you see the role of emo­tion in decid­ing how to apply rea­son.

Robinson: The two are just ways of nam­ing parts of brain func­tions that coa­lesce into a whole being, a whole con­scious­ness. It’s real­ly whole thought that in the end we need to be con­cerned with. And that has aspects of rea­son­abil­i­ty and aspects of emo­tion. And so sci­en­tif­ic study of emo­tion is great. We’re learn­ing all kinds of good things, and things that will help us and will con­tribute to the human good.

I was think­ing about what you were say­ing there about how var­i­ous peo­ple define the good, and I was won­der­ing if I…if being a utopi­an sci­ence fic­tion writer, that my work has been an attempt to define a good state. Individually, you’re not in a good state if you’re in a pock­et utopia. In oth­er words if it’s good for you, but oth­er peo­ple are suf­fer­ing, it’s not good any­more. And so then you have to get to this notion of every­body. And that’s why you come back to utopia, from my way of think­ing. You say look, if every­body alive, and all the species, are doing a well, then you can enjoy your doing well in a way that you couldn’t if there’s suf­fer­ing to cre­ate your doing well.

And that can be pushed in all kinds of dif­fer­ent ways. Maybe that does make you a veg­e­tar­i­an or what­not, but in human terms—just stick­ing with human beings—it means that you need a just soci­ety, where everybody’s got ade­qua­cy. When you get to that space, then what you want is that for every­body to have the good and then you can enjoy your good.

Anderson: And that’s what’s tricky, right? How do you have…like, a utopi­an vision…but still kind of acknowl­edge plu­ral­ism?

Robinson: Utopia is not an end state but a name for a par­tic­u­lar kind of his­to­ry. So that it’s a dynam­ic state. You’re nev­er going to get to per­fec­tion. That’s not human­ly, bio­log­i­cal­ly, or in this uni­verse pos­si­ble.

Anderson: Does it become mean­ing­less, then, because it’s so big?

Robinson: But we’re not there. It’s just glob­al. All it is is talk­ing about sus­tain­abil­i­ty and about a civ­i­liza­tion that can get by and give on to the next gen­er­a­tion what it was giv­en, and a not trash the plan­et or cause a mass extinc­tion event. It’s big, but it’s not too big. It’s not phys­i­cal­ly impos­si­ble to cre­ate a decent life for every­body and for all the species on the plan­et, it’s just very dif­fi­cult. It’s an engi­neer­ing prob­lem and a dis­tri­b­u­tion prob­lem and a eco­nom­ic prob­lem.

I would be inter­est­ed to see some­body who would dis­agree to the notion that every­body ought to have an ade­qua­cy or be able to live their own life freely and max­i­mize their own abil­i­ty to be them­selves, what­ev­er that might be. I mean, what’s the objec­tion to that? And if that’s my def­i­n­i­tion of utopia, isn’t that big enough to encom­pass all these var­i­ous objec­tions?

Anderson: And there’s a big fun­da­men­tal ques­tion beneath that, which makes me think of a con­ver­sa­tion I had with a moral philoso­pher named Lawrence Torcello. And we talked about sort of the ten­sion between plu­ral­ism, which you want; but not rel­a­tivism, because some things are still bad. To what extent can you weld all of these dif­fer­ent peo­ple and dif­fer­ent desires into some­thing that is…anything, any­thing utopi­an? And can you do that vol­un­tar­i­ly?

Robinson: I think you can. It’s the glob­al civ­i­liza­tion. It’s democ­ra­cy in action. There are cer­tain cul­tures that are heav­i­ly unjust for cer­tain of their mem­bers. There’s old patri­archies that are wicked­ly cru­el to their women. But the inter­est­ing ques­tion is if they were demo­c­ra­t­ic, and the oppressed second-class cit­i­zens were vot­ing, and so then is democ­ra­cy then just a trans val­ue or is that just one cul­ture try­ing to impose its val­ues on oth­ers [crosstalk] and you get into those—

Anderson: Right. Does it have some sta­tus as the good?

Robinson: Yes, exact­ly. And I think to myself, is there any human being that you can jus­ti­fy hav­ing less rep­re­sen­ta­tion over their own affairs than oth­ers? And I keep think­ing no, there isn’t, so this is a trans val­ue. And maybe it goes back to the Paleolithic, where in a group every­body had their role; there was not this hier­ar­chy of pow­er of one group over anoth­er.

Anderson: So that coul be one of your ara­tional assump­tions.

Robinson: Yes, although I would like to sci­en­tize it. I would like to say that it is more than that. But on the oth­er hand, maybe not. Maybe this is just a mat­ter of phi­los­o­phy that’s emo­tion­al. But emo­tion— Um, emo­tions are cru­cial any­way. Meaning is a result of a cer­tain feel­ing.

So this my ulti­mate gut feel­ing is that every­body is equal to me. This is a kind of novelist’s feel­ing, is that there’s not a sin­gle per­son any­where that has more or less rights than me. Well, this does go very deeply, and that’s a sort of indi­vid­u­al­ism, and yet I believe in the col­lec­tive, also. So there are bal­ances all over the place.

Anderson: Do you think that con­ver­sa­tion is pos­si­ble? You know, because we do exist in a plu­ral­is­tic world where we’re going to have peo­ple who will always say, I don’t believe you.” Is there con­ver­sa­tion there, or is there sort of a bat­tle royale in pol­i­tics, and cul­ture and media, that sort of has to…hash it out?

Robinson: Well I think it’s a lit­tle more the lat­ter, espe­cial­ly at the crux points where cul­tur­al change hap­pens. I think what you do is you try to make your sto­ries plau­si­ble to the 51% or the 55% or the 60% that you need to con­vince in order to take polit­i­cal action, depend­ing on your polit­i­cal set­up. And then what hap­pens is, if you can gath­er that many peo­ple togeth­er and you make polit­i­cal deci­sions and you just a over­ride the minor­i­ty that doesn’t believe you and say, Look, this is for the greater good. We’re vot­ing these into place,” to try to make a response, it also could hap­pen that quick­ly the cul­ture will change to where sud­den­ly every­body believes that to be true.

And so, I guess the sto­ry that I tell is that we’re doing real­ly well when we pay atten­tion to sci­ence and use it, and yet keep it in its place and con­tin­ue to tell our sto­ries with more and more data to back them. And so I think of sci­ence as being the utopi­an effort. That back in the 1600s we began to try to make a bet­ter world and a more just world and a less-suffering…simply a more com­fort­able and less-suffering world for humans, and that that’s been a step­wise process with lots of set­backs and lots of suc­cess­es that cre­at­ed worse prob­lems. And moments of hubris where sci­ence tried to go too far and say, What should be done?” and at that point it had to get slapped down and revise itself. And that that whole process has been so inter­est­ing and so pow­er­ful, so sug­ges­tive of fur­ther progress.

So I tell a sci­ence fic­tion. It makes my project cohere, so that I’m not just writ­ing one book after anoth­er or telling sto­ries ran­dom­ly but try­ing to tell a big­ger sto­ry that is the sto­ry of sci­ence and soci­ety togeth­er.


Aengus Anderson: So as Neil mentioned up front, this is an interview that does connect to everything. And that's really exciting but it's also a little bit daunting to talk about when you're at the end of the conversation. Before we record these things we always make our little bullet point lists of like, "well what are the things we want to talk about here," knowing full well that we don't really want to take more than a few minutes of your time. And with Kim Stanley Robinson that's really hard, because we kind of want to talk about all of this. This is a conversation you could talk about all day.

Micah Saul: Because it connects with everything, this…like, I'm really happy that this came so late in the project. You're able to get this like amazing synthesis of the project as a whole through this one conversation.

I'm just going to jump in and say like, what I enjoyed most about this conversation was that here's somebody willing to go to bat for utopia.

Anderson: [laughs] Yeah! I think between Kim and Claire Evans, those are our people. But it's not utopia…in the sense that other people in the project have dismissed offhand. I mean, he's redefining what utopia is into something that's not the island off the coast of nowhere…but it's something else.

Neil Prendergast: Right, and it doesn't have to be this perfect world. It's something that you work toward, it seems.

Anderson: And it's got this iterative quality.

Actually that made me think of Jason Kelly Johnson a little bit, with his sort of…his amazing architecture. And all of these architectural projects are iterative. And Kim Stanley Robinson is doing that with science fiction and all of society. He's just playing out these scenarios and tweaking stuff and it's like he runs the experiment again. And I think that's…really cool.

Prendergast: Yeah, one thing I want to mention too is, following on Micah's observation there about you know, the timing of this interview, that it's later in the project. And for me there's kind of a turn and it happens right around Charles Hugh Smith where…we're really kind of I think thinking a little bit more about well what's the action? What's the next step following the insight from whoever Aengus interviewed.

And there's something here that dovetails with Smith. Robinson's not so much concerned with some sort of like, grassroots like, everybody involved, everybody in agreement kind of change. You know, he's really talking about democracy being something where it's that majority that counts. And he has something in there where he says, oftentimes once a majority that's interested in the greater good establishes something, that it then becomes sort of an unquestioned truths following that. And so I think there's a real hope there? for change. Because the barrier is a little bit less high.

Anderson: Yeah, I can think of a couple people earlier in the project who touched on that, but it's cool to see this coming up again, and it's really cool to see it coming up in the context of a science fiction author. I think a lot of people think oh, science fiction you know. He's exploring scenarios that are so far beyond conception…what could be pragmatic about this? But it's deeply pragmatic.

Saul: As someone who's read a decent amount of Robinson that's something that's always…really jumped out at me about his writing. He's not writing space operas. He's not writing far future. In fact, his books sometimes read as like…I don't know, narrative histories of a future that's you know, happening next year. Pragmatic is exactly the way to to word it. His science fiction is pragmatic, and it seems like his philosophy is pragmatic. There's a really interesting sort of…pragmatic approach to that conflict between pessimism and optimism, I found here as well. Would you agree with me on that?

Anderson: Well that's kind of interesting because as I was thinking about pragmatism there, and I think pessimism and optimism, I think, can you be pragmatic and utopian?

Prendergast: I think he suggests you can.

Anderson: You probably hear this in my voice in the interview like, this is something that I went after a lot. Because instinctually, I have a hard time feeling like…someone who's really talking about utopia in a serious way can really be that pragmatic? He is…but, I want to pull that apart more. Because I feel like maybe if we were to put it on poles—like we've got tech utopian thinking on one end and we've got a belief in limits on the other end. And like, those are both poles of Kim's thought in this thing. And there aren't a lot of people in this project who've had both of those, right. We've had utopian thinkers; we've had Robert Zubrin. We've had people who are really interested in limits, like immediately after Robert Zubrin we get Wes Jackson, who talks about limits eloquently. And yet Kim has both of these things in his conversation. And I think I was having a hard time squaring them. And I think I still am. Like, I see were he's walking a line, but I also feel like I'm not really convinced that you can.

Prendergast: I think key to all that is a sense of humility, as the two of you discussed. And that comes right out of Wes Jackson's following in the tradition of a land ethic. Comes out of environmental thinking, United States. But that sense of I think humility says, "Yeah, I can be pragmatic things. I can use science. But I understand that there are other species that matter, too." And that's whre the limits to growth come.

Anderson: If I can really spell out the thing that like, didn't quite ring right for me, it was sort of…Kim's description of the fulfilled life. He talks about a lot of things that sound really good to me? and might sound really good to you guys and to our listeners. You know, a life which is not necessarily full of electronic doodads, but maybe is living in a world with a phenomenally advanced healthcare system, and a world but also gives you time and space to go play in nature. Which lets you be the most of what you are as an animal. There's actually a little reference there that takes us back to Rebecca Costa.

But, I keep thinking like, well yeah that does speak to me but I need to ask hard questions. What about the people for whom that doesn't work? What about the people who are like, "I want my own F-16 and I really wanna—I mean, I just want to bomb other countries with it? Like, that's my utopia." It's hard for me to ask the question from that guy's perspective? But I feel that that guy…is out there. In any utopia it's like, how do you really deal with that guy? And we talk a little bit about that. And we talked more about it in stuff that didn't make the final cut, but I don't think it settled the question, you know. And so what do you guys think about some of those things?

Saul: In many ways that comes back to the same sort of questions and problems we had with Torcello, right? It's what happens when there's that one person in the room that's just dedicated to throwing chairs. That is of course the major…failing…? (if you want to call it a failing) of talking about pluralism. One has to assume there's an answer?

Prendergast: Well maybe I'll try to bring us a little bit full circle, at least in my own thoughts. I think this is where you know, he does relying on social organization of democracy. Yeah, you're gonna have that one guy with the F-16s, right? Or wanting the F-16s. And what're you going to do about that guy?

Well, hopefully there are enough people in the democracy who are interested in a greater good, and they can form a majority, and they can use the power of government to make certain that that person doesn't get to have the F-16.

Saul: I think that's a great ending point? But I kind of feel like I need to just throw this out there for personal reasons? This might be my favorite conversation in the project. Because…I am a recovering tech utopianist. There's a— [Aengus laughs] I mean, you guys know this.

Anderson: [still laughing] It's like suddenly we stumbled into the AA meeting. [all laugh]

Saul: You know, but there our listeners, if we have any listeners left, years ago Aengus and I sat in my living room in San Francisco— Or actually I guess it was our living room in San Francisco at the time. And he interviewed me about what I was most excited about or something…I think that that was the prompt. And I started talking about tech, and started talking about the transformative power of technology and the Internet, in a way that now…after…growing? and after this project, I look back at and just sort of hang my head in shame. I sound…like a lot of the people that I…maybe beat up a little bit in this project.

But still, I work in tech. I now work for the government, in tech, trying to make things better for people. So I obviously still believe that tech has the power to make the world a better place. And Robinson finally gave me somebody in the project I can point to that feels like he's answering some of the questions that I have on a daily basis. And he's giving me a new way to think about how to balance my more recently-found distrust of scientism and tech, with my continued belief that these tools have the possibility of really helping.

So…yeah. Little personal note aside, I really really appreciated this.

Anderson: Well, if Neil gave us a good place to end I think that's an even better place to end, because that's a pretty [crosstalk] cool anecdote.

Prendergast: Agreed. Much agreed that's great.

Anderson: This is The Conversation, and that was Kim Stanley Robinson, recorded June 17th, 2013 in Davis, California.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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