Kim Stanley Robinson spoke yesterday at PS1 as part of Triple Canopy’s series “The Future is _______”. Robinson’s clear-eyed and sensible speculation about the future was the sort of reasoning one might wish to hear coming from the president and Congress. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely we will see our state begin the kind of Utopian planning Robinson calls for before we “cook ourselves” burning 2,000 gigatons of available carbon over the next thirty to fifty years. Robinson’s description of “the long emergency” is part of the catastrophe narrative of climate change, population growth, and predatory dumping by capitalist markets. In a moment of bleak humor, Robinson said the reality of the catastrophe narrative “won’t even be as fun as The Road.” The conditions of a catastrophic rise in water levels for example would be like a thousand Katrinas and that he wouldn’t be worried about the survival of democratic government, he’s more worried about the survival of the species. In short, the long emergency isn’t about changing quality of life, but a possible extinction event.
In the face of the gloom and doom, Robinson’s ideas about Utopia are based in reasonable consumption of resources and a notion of adequacy. This is the “how much is enough?” question, or a matter of degree. Robinson highlighted the efforts of the 2,000 watt society in Switzerland as an example of a model of adequacy in modern life. The city of Zurich has voted to adopt the policies of the 2,000 watt society by 2030 countrywide. It’s a compelling counter-narrative to the ‘grey jumpsuit’ fear mongering about equitable distribution of energy. So, when Robinson talks about Utopia, he’s not talking about a place of our dreams, but a world the provides food, housing, healthcare, education; the foundations of happiness.
To this end, the root of the long emergency lies in the “bad economics we live in and the market.” Robinson describes the fallacy of ‘free-markets’ talking specifically about predatory dumping, the practice of pumping products into the market at artificially low-rates. He expanded on the economic definition to suggest that our economy systematically under-prices commodities by shifting things like environmental costs to the future. This creates what Robinson calls an inter-generational ponzi scheme, which requires in response multi-generational Utopian projects to plan for the necessary correction when the ponzi scheme goes bust. To do this, Robinson believes we need to use science against Capitalism, just as science brought about the Enlightenment, it can be used to lift us out of the residual feudalism of Capitalism and our new aristocracy of inequality. Robinson reasons that capitalism is a bad social technology or economic technology making it a bad model for dealing with the long emergency. He specifically talked about the financial cost of not burning that 2,000 gigatons of carbon in the earth, it’s worth $1,600 trillion. What capitalist is going to leave that much money in the earth? This is why, Robinson argues, that we need new economic models other than capitalism to contend with the consequences of our consumer lifestyles.
In a light moment, Robinson says it’s a matter of style. “Do you want good style or bad style? Do you want to be a fat rich person in a gated community?” The alternative being a fuller, richer social life in the company of friends and family with less material luxury. This requires us to consider what are necessities, and what we can live adequately without. Ultimately, someone in the audience asked “why are you drinking out of a plastic water bottle?” Robinson, a little chagrined, describe his low-carbon footprint lifestyle back in Davis, California, a very bike-friendly community, but the moment captured Robinson’s closing remarks that the way forward is messy, and there is no single solution. He referenced philosopher Karl Popper’s term monocausotaxophilia, wherein people believe in a single solution like God or Freedom to all of the manifold, interrelated problems of our increasingly complex society. But, Robinson warns, there is no magic bullet and maintaining the status quo is now part of the catastrophe narrative.
Robinson’s keynote lecture was an excellent rejoinder to Slavo Zizek’s assertion that the looming threat of ecological is one the major social antagonisms that require us to imagine society after capitalism.