Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the greatest living science fiction writers, and one of the few people ever to have developed a credible solution to the climate crisis, which he describes in his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future.
In this interview, we talk about Buddhism in his life and in his work, sci-fi, colonizing Mars, the outdoors as meditation, how to stay optimistic, and the future of climate change solutions.
Kim Stanley Robinson Bio
Kim Stanley Robinson is the author of more than 20 books, including the international bestselling Mars trilogy: Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and the magnificent interplanetary epic Aurora. Stan has won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and World Fantasy awards and the Heinlein Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction. Time Magazine named him a “Hero of the Environment,” and he works with the Sierra Nevada Research Institute, the Clarion Writers’ Workshop, and UC San Diego’s Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination.
In our interview, Stan and I talk about Buddhism in his life and fiction, the outdoors as meditation, whether humans might one day colonize Mars, and other stars. But we focused our conversation on climate change, perhaps our world’s most pressing problem today and a source of great anxiety for billions of people. We hope this interview helps to paint a picture of how we can survive the climate crisis and what each of us can do to help.
We bring this interview to you today in partnership with Science and Wisdom Live, where science and meditation meet. I regularly serve as a host for Science and Wisdom Live’s podcast and events, and you can learn more about their events at sciwizlive.com.
Interview with Kim Stanley Robinson
Thanks for agreeing to do the interview, which I think is going to be a huge benefit to A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment and to the Science and Wisdom Live listeners. We’ve partnered with these two organizations to bring this interview to the biggest audience. So thank you.
[00:02:20] Kim Stanley Robinson: My pleasure, Scott. It’s going to be fun to talk about this stuff.
[00:02:24] Scott Snibbe: Before we get into all the wonderful questions about your writing and politics and social action, I wanted to ask you a little bit about spirituality. This podcast is for skeptics who are curious, particularly about Buddhism and the ideas that it brings to a meaningful and engaged life.
Would you be willing to talk a little bit about your own spirituality and how Buddhism plays any role in that?
Role of Buddhism in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Life
[00:02:49] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. I’m happy to talk about it. I was brought up as a Lutheran and the moment that I left home to go to college, I left the church out of a feeling that it wasn’t right for me. And without making any further judgments, I just felt there was something wrong with Christianity. So it wasn’t just that I wasn’t interested. It was a kind of an active repelled feeling.
And very soon after I got to college, I ran into science fiction and psychedelics and the Sierra Nevada and Gary Snyder, and also the works of Chinese landscape poetry. And Gary came down and gave a reading at UCSD and I read all his works. I read all of Alan Watts. I saw Ram Dass, maybe four times in my life, but two early on, in those days. And I had some transcendental experiences, almost always in nature, having to do with psychedelics, but framed by Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception and by Alan Watts and by DT Suzuki.
And what persisted out of that was Zen, and the idea that daily life is devotional and can be devotional if you treat the world as sacred. I mean, it’s clearly mysterious. You don’t even have to point that out, but as mystical. That sometimes you have a sense of a wholeness. Sometimes you have a sense of the universe that you’re just some kind of quantum foam in some larger universal entanglement. I see no reason not to call that a spiritual feeling.
It’s intellectual, it’s a consciousness, but it’s emotional. When you do the scientific research, you realize that they’ve found that there’s a big area of the temporal lobes in the brain that resonate like a hit gong when you’re having religious feelings or when you’re in a hypergraphic state, which cracks me up and also perhaps in an epileptic fit, which is also funny.
For me personally, though, it had to do with my life in the Sierra Nevada, and also in the ocean. But that quickly shifted to the Sierra Nevada, as a backpacker, became a pilgrimage. And I always felt like I was in sacred space and doing something beyond just having an adventure, although it was a marvelous adventure: Zen as daily life. So washing the dishes is a Zen exercise, the whole chop wood, carrying water; if you turn those activities, the repetitive and tedious, into devotional exercises. And this is the most casual kind of thing. I don’t meditate. I don’t clock my breathing.
I do what I would call running meditation, or my friend and I play a running version of Frisbee golf. And once for one of the Buddhist magazines, I wrote an article on Frisbee golf as a Zen exercise and they rejected it. It was maybe a bridge too far for them, but of course there are those Japanese monks that run around Mount Haya in Japan to go into a kind of trance state. It’s not just that I believe in all that stuff, because belief is a strange word. I practice it. It helps me. I feel a calmness. I feel centered. I feel like I’m productive, that I can focus when I’m writing my books. This sense of mindfulness can resemble mindlessness or, a point of consciousness where you are no longer aware of yourself as an individual, but are aware of your surrounding.
And then for me, I try to channel voices and then that’s why I’m a novelist. So all across the board, I am very happy to think of myself as some kind of Zen Buddhist. What I love about this is that reading the Dalai Lama and looking into Tibetan Buddhism, which I did for my Green Earth project, the Dalai Lama would be fine with my Buddhism and the Buddha would be fine with my Buddhism.
You know, there is no doctrinaire dogmatism that says, Oh, you’re not doing it right. You’re not serious enough. You’re too California hippie new age playful. That doesn’t exist. I don’t feel that kind of a judgment being made on me by anybody, which is great.
[00:07:16] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, almost every public talk I’ve been to where the Dalai Lama spoke, he said, “Don’t become a Buddhist.” I think that’s some of the most powerful marketing for Buddhism I think there is.
[00:07:32] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, it’s very attractive, ecumenical and tolerant, open to other views.
The way the Dalai Lama says, Well, if science shows that something in Buddhism was wrong, then we have to change that aspect of Buddhism. And I mean, this is so funny. You don’t hear other religious leaders say anything even remotely like that.
[00:07:51] Scott Snibbe: Oh, it’s amazing. I’m a big fan of the Dalai Lama. It’s interesting hearing about your own spirituality and especially how that’s rooted in nature. And that obviously makes a lot of sense because most of your career has been writing fiction that either very explicitly or subtly deals with nature or the climate, the human effect on nature.
You were quite on your own for a few decades there, writing speculative fiction centered on climate change. I’m sad to say that you may still be a little bit alone on having an optimistic stance to it. How did you become an activist in this area so early, and how does fiction give you a path to help change society?
Becoming a climate activist
[00:08:30] Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, it’s always good to give thanks to my great teacher, Ursula K. LeGuin, as being a precursor, a leader, the point person in doing green science-fiction and being both an environmentalist and a science fiction writer with no contradiction whatsoever in that, in fact, quite a beautiful and powerful stance. So she was a teacher of mine and a friend for most of my life. And I miss her because you can’t quite imagine what she would say about anything whatsoever. You need her to say her piece.
I wrote my Mars trilogy, which was an attempt to combine utopian wilderness and all kinds of things I was interested in at once: leftist social change, et cetera. But what it did was it gave me the opportunity to apply to the US National Science Foundation to go to Antarctica as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. Well, they sent me down there and I was in Antarctica for a couple of months and all the scientists down there. This was 1995 and they were saying climate change is going to hammer us. It’s going to become the next topic. And we’re standing on a cake of ice that if it were to melt, sea level would be 270 feet higher. And I thought, my Lord, that’s a number. And so my novel Antarctica only partly takes that on, but ever since ’95, I have had this topic etched in my mind as being really what near-future science fiction should be about.
I don’t always write near-future science fiction, but I often do. That’s 25 years ago now. It’s become more on the public’s mind. It’s become more of the central event in human history for this century. I caught that wave a little ahead of the big break.
And I’ve tried to stay ahead the whole way, but I’ll tell you there’s more happening than any one individual can keep track of. So I’m noticing that Ministry For The Future was behind the curve on several events that I thought that I was being ahead of the curve. Only after the book came out, did I learn more and understand that good things that I was writing about, as if I were making them up, are already happening.
[00:10:45] Scott Snibbe: I want to talk about that book in particular, Ministry For The Future. You’re addressing fighting climate change in a very realistic and detailed form. It’s your latest novel for anyone who doesn’t know. And not to be a spoiler, but it’s optimistic. You posit that it’s hard work, but if we put enough resources behind it, the climate crisis can be overcome.
So could you tell us why we should be optimistic about humanity’s ability to deal with climate change? Particularly from your novel’s perspective, especially a novel that begins with millions of people dying from a heat wave in India.
Why can we be optimistic about climate change?
[00:11:18] Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I think the first thing one has to say is that we are in very great danger as a species, as a civilization. We’re on the brink of starting a mass extinction event and breaking various kinds of planetary boundaries, as they’re now called — a useful term — that we can’t undo; that we don’t have the physical power, the technology; there’s nothing we can do about melting permafrost, ocean acidification, ice loss in Antarctica.
We’re trembling on the brink and also the mass extinction itself. If other species go extinct, we can’t bring them back. So that’s the setting. Then how do you segue from that to optimism?
If we were to do everything that we know we should do, in an effect, run the table, all hands on deck manner, we can indeed dodge the mass extinction event, which would hammer us as well. I’m saying this not just as a personal opinion, but as a scientific judgment that comes out of the IPCC, what you might call the integrated scientific general intellect, which takes thousands of working scientists in their disciplines to come out of their wells, their holes in the ground of their own particular research project and talk with each other about what it means, and then come to the general public and say, This is what it means.
We could indeed do it — the best case scenario is pretty great. It’s just that we have to run the table to get there and we have less and less time. The sensibleness of talking about 2030 is not that the world will end in 2030 or turn into a zombie movie in 2030 if we don’t do things right. If we don’t do things right, in 2030, things will superficially look somewhat like now. But enough will be thrown off in the physical biosphere, the biophysical surround, our home, our planet, Gaia, will be deranged to the point where we will have a really hard time clawing back from that, so that it will become desperate. So this is why people talk about the 2020s as being crucial.
Real Solutions to Climate Change
[00:13:37] Scott Snibbe: One of the things that struck me about the novel is you didn’t invent any wild technologies to solve this problem. For the most part, they are pre-existing technologies, maybe a little bit of the genetic engineering we don’t quite understand yet, but it was mostly about economics and politics. Can you talk about the economic incentives that you imagine in your novel and how, through tweaking capitalism, we could create economies that are more in harmony with the Earth’s environment? For example, you talk about a carbon coin which aligns economic and ecological interests by rewarding carbon fixing, right?
[00:14:09] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. And thank you for that. I mean, it is the main technology. That it’s FinTech, financial technology, at the heart of my science fiction utopian novel is a little bizarre, but I decided that it was crucial and worth talking about. And for a long time American leftists who had radical roots in the seventies and the Vietnam war and everything, it feels a little underwhelming to be advocating for Keynesianism.
But after 40 years of neoliberal capitalism and the absolute primacy of the market and the destruction that has followed that, the way that the market is wrong consistently and systemically, that you need to step backwards to a Keynesian mix where government controls and shapes, regulates and pushes the economic actions of the world, resembles earlier Keynesian moments like the Depression or World War II, where government seized the reins and did not allow the market to make market choices based on profitability, but made choices based on what was going to get them out of a terrible situation.
The reason I’ve seized on this is because I feel like we do only have the 2020s and there’s not time to invent a new political economy or to institute it, given the massive legal, political, economical infrastructure that we’re in. We’ve got to use it to get to where we need to go, even if it’s an awkward fit. So I came to the carbon coin, which is really just quantitative easing, similar to what we did in 2008 and 2020 — and I’m not talking about cryptocurrencies here, it’s important to make the distinction and talk about fiat currencies, the US dollar ultimately, but it would have to be more than the dollar, it would have to be backed by all the major currencies.
There wasn’t one country that was sticking their neck too far out, but all of them linking their strengths together so that the central banks will pay you to decarbonize. Anything from a nation state right down to individuals would get a Carboni or a carbon coin, one coin for a ton of CO2 drawn down out of the atmosphere. And then that coin would hopefully be backed by the central banks, by their long-term bonds, by their assets, such that that coin would be held at a level that meant that you would make money from decarbonizing rather than lose money with that flip of the switch, which has been calculated. This again is not my idea, thank God. Otherwise, it would just be another crazy science-fiction idea. I’ll just end by saying you need about $5 trillion a year, every year, newly created and injected into de-carbonization and that would help a huge amount.
[00:16:58] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, $5 trillion a year. the US alone just printed that much money to help fight the pandemic. It’s well within the scale of our government, especially the whole earth coming together.
[00:17:07] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes.
[00:17:08] Scott Snibbe: One of the other things that delighted me about this novel is that the oil companies become one of the biggest allies in countering climate change because they have the scale to work on massive climate shifting projects, like pumping the water out from under the Antarctic ice sheet, so it stops sliding into the ocean. I really like this and I find it a very Buddhist idea too, looking for our commonality rather than dualities and enemies. A lot of climate activists, though, see corporations as the enemy, and you hear this even in speeches from Joe Biden and other politicians.
Can you talk about how corporations can be allies in fighting the human created climate crisis?
Can climate activists and corporate capitalism work together?
[00:17:45] Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I don’t think they would do it on their own. Or let’s think of these people running corporations, operating the capitalist system, as perfectly good people, trying to do their best for themselves, their families, their company, their country, the world. But the system that they’re in is extractive and exploitative, and it creates injustice amongst humans, and it wrecks the biosphere because it undervalues, it under prices it.
So capitalism is systemically a kind of a Ponzi scheme where future generations pay costs that we’re not paying.
And I think everybody now acknowledges that this is the case. And a corporation is built to have limited liability and to have the rights of a person without the responsibility of a person.
And so corporate structures are dangerous as heck. We need the laws to change such that corporations are enmeshed in a larger system of responsibility, possibly owned by their employees, possibly not having shareholder value as something that they’re shooting for, but rather some kind of ecological value.
I have no particular faith in corporations per se. I would say the people running them are just your ordinary well-meaning persons who are doing legal things. And this is the problem, is that the law itself allows for destructive activities.
[00:19:17] Scott Snibbe: There’s a controversial part of your novel where you have a black ops wing of environmental activists that are using the tools of terrorism and covert action to fight some of the climate’s enemies, like using sabotage, assassination. Can you talk about your book’s take on that position?
[00:19:36] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, I can. It’s hard. I myself am a pacifist and an ordinary suburban middle-class American, and I would like to do things by way of law. I think it’s the most effective. We’ve got to change the laws and what changes the laws is an interesting question, but I think mostly votes and legal actions and persuasion.
In my novel, I was trying to present a world that was in such trouble and so desperate, and there would be people suffering to the point of being extremely angry, and I wanted the novel to feel realistic. So, although we can get to a best case scenario ending, it won’t be easy. There’ll be a lot of reversals and disasters along the way, including humans deciding to do violence against other humans. It was sort of a way of saying that if we get to a bad enough state, some people are creating a mass extinction event while others are trying to fight the coming of a mass extinction event. This could be seen as a war for the earth, and some people are going to think of it as a literal war and commit violence.
You can tell when you read the novel that I’m not comfortable with this, that the violence plot, the black ops wing is hidden in the novel. This is effective in making the reader the detective and the decider. It’s ineffective in the sense that the novel is therefore hiding its point. And in hiding its point, it also obscures a little bit the distinctions that you could make, very valid distinctions, between sabotage and murder. For thinking through those issues, my novel is not the most helpful place to go. You need to read my novel as a kind of a case study or a mess that is like history itself. You can’t draw lessons out of Ministry For the Future. You can only have a case study to ponder with your own point of view.
[00:21:28] Scott Snibbe: Neil Stephenson just released his own climate novel that I finished a couple of weeks ago, Termination Shock. And it takes a different approach from yours. Whereas you envision a kind of global cooperation to fight climate change through a new UN agency, Stephenson has a rogue billionaire and the most desperate states banding together to act unilaterally through geoengineering.
And I’d like to ask you about that. Because when I listened to people like Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, they’ve been talking for 20 years that this is inevitable, that we’ll have to engineer the climate as part of the solution to climate change.
But of course, a lot of environmental activists are wholly against it. Can you talk about your take on geoengineering?
[00:22:07] Kim Stanley Robinson: Sure. I’m way more with Stewart Brand. And environmental activists, it’s a question: are they stuck in 1990 or are they in 2022? Because geoengineering in 1990 looked like a get out of jail free card for corporate capitalism and fossil fuel industry. Oh my gosh, we’ll just suck CO2 out of the air or we’ll deflect some sunlight at the top of the atmosphere. Ta-da! We can do whatever we want and we don’t have to decarbonize fast. And that’s a moral hazard.
The moral hazard argument was valid in the nineties, perhaps. Now it’s not because we are at what, something like 415 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. And we’re clearly going to go up before we go down. At a certain point, if we break certain planetary boundaries, we are completely screwed. We will not be able to claw our way back. We don’t have the physical power to do it. There isn’t any geoengineering that could help us if the permafrost melts and we go into a hot house earth state, which has happened in the geological past of earth.
So geoengineering becomes like an emergency: break glass, try this. And you don’t have to do it forever. Here, let me, without going into the details of every geoengineering scheme, let me just say this. We’ve got to probably get back down to, back to 350 parts per million. That’s gigatons, gigatons, billions of tons, in other words, of CO2 drawn out of the atmosphere. And if you name it geoengineering, then suddenly a lot of leftists and environmentalists say, Oh no, can’t do that. But we have to. So you have to get a grip and look at the current situation and say, there are some emergency things we might have to do. You can’t stick with the old stereotype opinions that we formed when we were in an earlier time. We’re in an emergency now.
Can humans travel to the stars?
[00:24:03] Scott Snibbe: Another one of your books that deals with humanity’s relationship to Earth is Aurora, which I think it may be my favorite of your novels. I enjoyed it so much. In this book, people on Earth are sending out starships to other planetary systems trying to find habitable homes. But when they get there, they face these almost insurmountable obstacles to surviving on other planets. So, a thesis of this book seems to be that humanity may be tied to our one planet. Could you talk a little bit about this idea? Whether it might be true that we’re tied to Earth and what that means for humanity?
[00:24:38] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. And thank you for that. I’m very fond of Aurora and it is indeed a polemical novel. It makes a point. We can’t go to the stars. That was a mistake. That was a visionary statement of the late 19th century, early 20th century. It was before Hubble. It was before our understanding of the gut microbiome and the fact that 50% of the DNA in our bodies is not human DNA. As a vision, it didn’t understand that humanity is an expression of Earth, of Earth’s biosphere. So in all of my science fiction since I came to this realization, even the Mars Trilogy, they have to go back to Earth to gather bacteria, to keep themselves healthy.
And I make a distinction, still. The other planets of this solar system can be like Antarctica. Humans can go there. They can live there for a while. Then they have to come back to Earth to stay healthy. While they’re there, they’re going to be having the time of their lives. It’s going to be beautiful and scientifically interesting and useful, in terms of learning more about Earth as a planet.
Planetary management is a real thing, so space science is an Earth science, as NASA so beautifully said. So I make that distinction. The solar system is our neighborhood. We can get there, we can come back. It’s going to be great, fun, adventure and a knowledge gathering science.
The stars, no. Not even Alpha Centauri, which is useless anyway, at four light years away. Tau Ceti, which is where I sent my Aurora crew, that’s 12 light years away. We know of stars that are 480 million light years away. This universe is really big, like incomprehensibly big, except the scientists can run the numbers for us. We’re not going to any of these places. We are creatures of Earth. And that has ramifications. Once you believe in that, then the space cadets as I call them, the people whose religion was humanity is destined for the stars, Earth is humanity’s cradle, but you’re not meant to stay in your cradle forever. That’s all wrong. Earth is not our cradle. It’s our permanent home: cradle, life, and grave. And it’s going to go on like that and we’ll either mess it up and go extinct or else we’ll stay here.
And I will allow one out card. If we have a stable civilization in the solar system that lasts like 10,000 years and we hollow out an asteroid and realize we can live inside them and we send one off to Tau Ceti or some nearby place, it might work. It probably won’t. We’ll never know. But that’s the only conditions in which the stars are on the table for us. By and large it’s a fantasy space.
Is is possible for humans to live on Mars?
[00:27:31] Scott Snibbe: And what about Mars? You wrote three big books about colonizing Mars. Elon Musk is a huge proponent of making our species multiplanetary. Do you believe that anymore? You’ve put a lot of words on paper about a very precise vision of how we’d come to inhabit Mars. Is that even possible?
[00:27:50] Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I love that vision. And I think, is that even possible, as you asked, is an open question. I don’t think it’s completely impossible, the way going to the stars is. But things have come to our attention since I wrote the Mars trilogy that vastly complicate it and I want it to be science fiction rather than fantasy. I want it to be possible. And this tempers my taking in of information in the usual confirmation bias way. But I also want to be realistic.
If you give us 5,000 years, and for most of that time, Mars is a scientific station resembling Antarctica. You go there, you have five years there, you come back home. Eventually you got enough infrastructure there that people are gonna say what about terraforming? And then they’re going to realize the perchlorates in the soil are poisonous to humans. So we’ve got a poisonous surface, really poisonous. The magnetic field is always going to be a problem. There’s not much there on Mars. And so we’ve got this influx of radiation, which only an atmosphere would shield us from.
So you got to pump up an atmosphere, but there’s not much nitrogen. There’s mysteriously little nitrogen, compared to what there ought to be by theories of planetary formation, and life, human life, and earthly life, needs a lot of nitrogen. And then lastly there might be indigenous Martian life, Martian natives, bacterial in nature at the floor of the regolith.
That was not on the table when I wrote the Mars trilogy. I was considering it to be a dead rock. Like the moon, if you could garden the moon, which is stupendously difficult in theory and practice. But on Mars, if they’ve got locals, then this is one of the greatest discoveries in human history, alien life. You don’t want to just go in and bash in on it. So there are planetary protection issues that are quite intense. So this is my Mars story. And what I want to do is just keep reacting to the latest news.
This is sort of like the Dalai Lama says: If science tells us that something’s wrong with Buddhism, we have to change Buddhism. If your Mars narrative is told by new science that it doesn’t work that way, then you have to change your Mars narrative.
Buddhism in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Science Fiction
[00:30:02] Scott Snibbe: I wanted to switch gears a little bit because Buddhist elements infuse several of your novels. The first book of yours I read, The Years of Rice and Salt, where you have characters reborn again and again, from the Bardo into new bodies. And also the Dalai Lama is a character that appears in Green Earth.
So can you talk just personally about the influence of Buddhism on your life and work, your inner life?
[00:30:27] Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I told you about my beginnings as a young person. And then I had this task of wanting to tell the story of world history for about 700 years. And I don’t like multi-generational narratives. In Mars, I had lifetime extension to get through 200 years. And The Years of Rice and Salt uses the idea that all the Europeans died in the Black Death, and that we have world history going on with an Asian-centric and a whole different world history with Europe taken out of the picture around the year 1400.
I thought to myself well, it’s an Asian narrative, I’m interested in Buddhism, I’m living a kind of a California hippie Zen Buddhist life. How about a reincarnation novel? And that got interesting. That got me into a deep dive into Tibetan Buddhism, which had always seemed a little too elaborate and spacey and medieval, and indeed, over-concerned with reincarnation. But for this novel I needed to get into it. It was mostly a literary device.
This is strange to say because Years of Rice and Salt is one of my favorite novels of my own, and it is very much of a Buddhist novel, but the Buddhism in it is not as close to my heart as the stuff that’s in Green Earth. A scientist, who’s very hardheaded, very skeptical, very empirical, very non-spiritual, listens to a lecture by an old Buddhist monk, a Tibetan, and he has that moment of Satori.
“An excess of reason is itself a form of madness.”
And that koan sentence hits him, like ringing a bell. He staggers out of that lecture and he’s never the same. So there, I think I’m onto something much more fundamental to our experience, even though I do love the device of the Bardo. And the reincarnation story that Years of Rice and Salt depends on, that’s a great game to play literarily.
And you can think of reincarnation as a metaphor, like in our own lives. Okay, you wake up every morning. You’ve been reborn from the day before. Or every five years, you’re living a completely different life, different people, you’re in a different place. Have you not, in some senses, reincarnated? Metaphorically, it’s very useful.
Scott Snibbe: This premise that all of Europe was wiped out in the Black Plague, where we see how the world would have evolved without white European dominance with these axes of Chinese, Muslim and Native American civilizations, there were some beautiful things in there, like how the periodic table is a mandala instead of a grid, but then, you know, bad things also happen. So could I ask you just what you learned from running your literary experiment of how different is the world when white people are removed from it?
History without white Europeans
[00:33:25] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. Okay, here, I had this idea, alternative history, Europeans out of the picture. If that world history went better than our history, then it would look like I was saying that white Europeans were somehow bad people. If it went worse, it would look like I was saying that white Europeans were better people in a kind of a standard racist, you know, all these poor people couldn’t have had the scientific revolution without us kind of stance. And if it was exactly the same as our history, then as an alternative history, it’d be more or less pointless. So it couldn’t be better. It couldn’t be worse. It couldn’t be the same. Okay, what do I do?
My solution was this: That it would be much the same because of a materialist interpretation of history, that people would still be working with materials to make life more comfortable and to make better weapons, et cetera. Materialism would say no matter what humans were in control, the undercurrent of scientific progress and social change would be somewhat similar.
But what I did was I shot past the year 2002, which is when the novel was published, The Years of Rice and Salt goes about 70 years past that. At 2002, you’ve got a very similar situation to our own in 2002, really, but by 2070, they’re in a much better space, a best case scenario. Why did they go right? Were Buddhist values part of it? Were utopian values and science part of it? Pacifism? You then confront it like a koan. In terms of theories of history, you can look at Years of Rice and Salt in that last chapter and think, Okay, Stan’s twisting my mind here because things are markedly, they’re looking pretty good in 2070 in the novel, despite having a long war that is like World War One and World War Two with no gap in between which is just devastating. And of course, I made that the shortest chapter because it was so painful to write that.
So that was my solution to the problem, it couldn’t be better, couldn’t be worse, couldn’t be the same. It could be utopian.
[00:35:38] Scott Snibbe: Very nice. So here’s a question. just a personal thing I’ve struggled with internally. And I always wanted to ask someone like you, is about the Fermi Paradox, which asks why we haven’t seen any evidence of alien civilization in the universe, given that there’ve been so many billions of years of life to evolve elsewhere and to potentially travel through the galaxy.
And once I started studying Buddhism for a while, I came to imagine this Buddhist answer to the question, which is that if beings really reincarnate lifetime over lifetime into different bodies, then it might be easier to just die and be reborn in a distant star system than to travel there over thousands of years in a spaceship.
So I just wanted to ask you, have you ever entertained this mashup idea of Buddhist belief and interstellar travel or your thoughts on the Fermi paradox?
Buddhism and the Fermi Paradox
[00:36:26] Kim Stanley Robinson: I have never entertained that one. It’s a good one. It solves a lot of problems about faster than light travel, et cetera. Immediately my mind leaps to a quantum entanglement. So let’s imagine like somewhere in the universe, there were two aliens that are having effectively this same conversation. But they are so distant from us. But quantum entanglement is non located. It’s not spatial. It could be that their conversation is guiding ours or the two are the same because they’re entangled. All these things are so possible that I wouldn’t rule out anything.
For the Fermi paradox, I think it’s very funny to look at the Drake Equation, which has seven elements in it and realize that at least four of them are not only unknown, but can never be known. So the Drake equation is a way of structuring our inevitable ignorance. And yet I think the answer is blazingly obvious. The universe is too big.
And so the physicists are saying, Oh, but wait a second, speed of light. We got 13 billion years. So life maybe began, who the hell knows, but five to 10 billion years ago. In that time, you should have been able to rocket around this galaxy, like a billiard ball on a billiard table.
No. The biology. This is where Aurora comes in again. You can’t get from here to there. And so radio messages, I bet you anything they’re out there, but we’ve only been looking for less than a hundred years. And we’re talking about a 5 billion year span of time. And it isn’t obvious that they’ll be talking on the same radio frequencies that we use now.
If there are 10 dimensions, like some string theory say, they could be working on a dimension that we barely– all of their communications might happen in terms of dark energy, manipulations of dark energy or dark matter, which we only are aware of as their after-effects on gravity and on the expansion of the universe.
So there are so many easy answers to the Fermi paradox that I’m surprised that more people aren’t saying that it isn’t a mystery at all. It isn’t a paradox. You have to frame it like Fermi did before you get anything approaching a paradox. It’s just as obvious as a hell, it’s that the universe is so big that we haven’t heard from anybody yet.
History has not yet begun for humanity until we live up to basic human rights
[00:38:52] Scott Snibbe: There’s a beautiful quote of yours from The Years of Rice and Salt that I wrote down immediately when I read it and it stuck with me over the years. You said,
“Until we treat all beings equally and all have the same opportunities for health, happiness, and security, perhaps history has not yet really begun for humanity. We have not yet lived up to basic universal human rights.”
Can you talk about what a vision of the world is where we do live up to basic universal human rights and is there a path to get there?
[00:39:23] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes, it’s funny. I remember that quote, there was some historian in Years of Rice and Salt. I think the quote goes on that history hasn’t even begun yet. We’re just in somehow some horrible prehistory.
[00:39:36] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, exactly.
[00:39:37] Kim Stanley Robinson: Sure. Again, I think it’s so obvious: Food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, these depend on electricity, some energy source for everybody equally at a level of adequacy, this is a utopia for humans. Then you just extend that out to all sentient beings and realize that the bacteria have to be doing well because they are actually part of you. That Gaia has to be doing well, or else you also are sick, at least your children, if not you.
When the planet is sick, we are sick and you can actually track that. There are other health improvements that mean that we live longer, but ultimately to the extent we damage our biosphere, we’re damaging our own bodies. So this vision of justice for all creatures, it has a moral element, but it also has a use value.
Some people object to that: Oh, you’re just being utilitarian. This is just an enlightened self-interest, you’re just looking out for yourself. And you only care about the planet because you yourself want to be healthy. Maybe that’s right. Maybe altruism is always enlightened self-interest.
But sometimes people throw themselves under a bus for other people. These are questions of value. The reason I write novels is because you can explore these questions at the level of individual actions and individual characters, and often you can’t generalize from them very well.
At that point, you get into religion or psychology. These are story systems that are very important to us, but they’re also not granular and specific case studies like literature. This is why I love literature as the greatest meaning system.
What can we each do for the climate crisis?
[00:41:19] Scott Snibbe: To end this out, I would love– I think that a lot of people who’ve listened this far may be feeling slightly more optimistic about the state of the world, but to end it out concretely, what can we do? What could an individual person listening to this do to concretely help the environment, to concretely move the world towards more social justice and equality and the place that you envision it.
[00:41:45] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yes. Well, Thank you for that. And again, some of this strikes me as really obvious, but it’s worth saying. When I went to COP 26, the first COP I’ve been to, I was in Glasgow and it knocked me for a loop. It was overwhelming and it scared me because COP is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s admirable, but it’s systematically too slow, by the way it was constructed, on the consensus model. It won’t get us there by itself. So when I came home, I was thinking our only hope is international agreement amongst all the nations to decarbonize fast. And if it isn’t working at COP, maybe it isn’t going to work at all. And I’ve been quite confused and upset since I had that experience.
I came home and then there’s a little organization in Davis called Cool Davis. It’s trying to do everything it can at the town level, it’s a town of about 70,000 people, very rich because of the University of California that’s located here, compared to most towns. But what I’m finding is that the little town that we summer on in Maine, my wife’s family place, it also has a climate change organization.
Every town in Scotland, maybe almost everywhere that your listeners will be, has a local organization that already has things that you can do and plug into, useful things for decarbonizing fast. So you put your shoulder to the wheel, but you don’t have to invent the wheel. The wheels are there. And then you put your shoulder to the nearest wheel and push for a while, and then you vote left because it’s the government led solutions that are going to save us.
The market won’t save us. So you need to create a working political majority and convince as many fellow citizens as you can — in America, you vote for the Democratic Party because we have no other option, but to pull that party further leftwards and more environmentalist, more green. In Europe, you maybe vote for a Green Party. I mean, it’s very complicated in these parliamentary systems. In America, it’s simple but complicated. So vote left and be a good citizen on that regard, in getting votes out there and winning a working political majority for the legislators.
And then lastly, reduce your own carbon burn, even though this is not a matter of guilt or putting the burden on you when corporations and laws have to do it, governments have to do it also, but it’s an all hands-on deck moment. The ordinary American citizen burns 30 times more carbon than your subsistence farmer in India. And a lot of that is wasted. Even in our own personal lives we’re prosperous enough, the middle-class, even though we’re precarious, we’re prosperous enough that most of the people listening to this podcast are not economically stressed and burn a bit of carbon that they don’t have to burn and actually can afford to decarbonize a little by making the extra expense.
Now you should be getting paid a carbon coin when you do that, you shouldn’t have to pay, you should get paid, but until we make that flip, that jujitsu reversal, you can decarbonize also by your personal habits and your attitudes. You should know your carbon burn the way that you know, your weight on a scale.
[00:44:58] Scott Snibbe: Stan, is there anything else you’d like to add before we sign off?
[00:45:03] Kim Stanley Robinson: This is a Buddhist thing: spend more time outdoors than you usually do, because it’s great for you and it’s fun.
So this is the fun of Zen: go outside.
People who own dogs, they own them in order to get outside twice a day. Being outside is a virtue that we’ve lost in American middle-class culture and where you work inside you, you sleep inside, you play inside, it’s all indoors in these boxes and the world is astonishing. So get outside.
And then as an example of this, I can say that I’m just finishing a nonfiction book about backpacking in the Sierra Nevada. And it’s been a joyful experience. So part of that outdoors-ness is not virtue, it’s not exercise, it’s play. Very childlike. I know the Dalai Lama would love this. Just play for awhile. And that is very low carbon burn activity.
[00:45:56] Scott Snibbe: And what about optimism? You’re such a joyful, optimistic being. And, you’re one of the world experts on the world’s problems, probably more than almost anybody on the planet. Maybe that’s a great last question: How do we stay optimistic?
[00:46:12] Kim Stanley Robinson: Well, I’m very scared myself. So think of compound emotions. There’s a beautiful novel by one of my favorite novelists named Joyce Carey who wrote The Horse’s Mouth. One of his novels is called A Fearful Joy, and that I think is life. There can’t help but be fear and dread.
My optimism is partly biochemical and comes from my mom. It’s as clear to me as can be. My dad was a lovely person, but a much darker temperament. My mom was the cheerful one.
My mom taught me that cheerfulness is not just biochemical, but is a habit and a virtue that you hold to, even when times are hard, as a way of encouraging other people.
So she taught me that. Optimism has that element of a will. And this can be political too, Antonio Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” You will yourself optimistic as a political position to beat on your enemies with, so there’s a certain Zen, the master pounding you with a stick to get you in the right frame of mind. You take optimism and that’s the stick. And you go around and lay out on people with your optimism and say, No, things could be better. Things could go better than they are. And that’s true. And therefore, we’re going to act on that basis. And so that’s a kind of a working optimism or a willed optimism.
[00:47:42] Scott Snibbe: That’s certainly the Buddhist perspective, the ultimate potential of all beings to be infinitely happy and beneficial. So thank you.
[00:47:51] Kim Stanley Robinson: Yeah, my pleasure.
[00:47:53] Scott Snibbe: Stan, thanks a lot for joining us for this conversation with Skeptics Path to Enlightenment and Science and Wisdom Live. I really appreciate your time and everything you shared is so inspiring. So thank you.
[00:48:04] Kim Stanley Robinson: Thank you, Scott.
[00:48:07] Scott Snibbe: Thanks for joining us for our conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson. Stan’s books, including the climate solution epic The Ministry for the Future, are available everywhere, and links to buy them can be found on the website for this podcast episode.
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