Capitalism is the Main Problem

Kinga Kiełczyńska, 'Courtesy of Infinity', 2021-2022, video HD, binaural sound. Courtesy of Exile Gallery | Find out more


Capitalism is the Main Problem

Kim Stanley Robinson on Climate Change and Science Fiction

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of the most important voices globally when it comes to climate change and the ways to fight it. His book “The Ministry for the Future” from 2019 spelled out in stark details what could happen very soon when a heat wave hits India for example – millions of deaths, in a day or two. What made the book such a great success though, was the reflection more about possible solutions to battle the imminent climate crisis. Robinson is a veteran writer of science or speculative fiction, a progressive voice, a proponent of a Green New Deal. He became well-known for his Mars trilogy and writes beautifully about nature, most recently about the Sierra Nevada.

Kim Stanley Robinson, what is hope to you?

Hope is hope! I’ve been trying to define it as a basic attribute of life itself, held in living creatures at the cellular level. Thus hunger is a hope for food, breathing a hope for oxygen, and so on. It scales up from there. It’s a feeling, physical and moral, that wants the future to be better than the past or the present.

What are sources of hope?

Sometimes things have gotten better; examples abound. Right now, some things are getting better. So it’s not unrealistic to imagine that some things in the future could be better, if we work for them now. These are sources of hope. In a specific sense to the climate crisis, sources of hope include the Paris Agreement, the scientific community, the power of our civilization to create new technology, the growing awareness worldwide of the need to dodge a mass extinction event — this is now the main item on the program for global society, outstripping more local and regional concerns. These are sources of hope.

How has your view changed over the course of the years concerning the survival of humanity on this planet?

Survival of humanity is not a good way to put it. We are ingenious social primates and a few of us are likely to survive almost anything that would happen. For instance, around 73,000 years ago, a really big volcanic explosion created the equivalent of a “nuclear winter” that lasted decades, and it looks like at the end of that period there were only around 2,500 humans alive on Earth, almost all of them on the coast of South Africa, where they could eat clams and a tuber that grew near the shore. This kind of survivability means that humans will probably survive almost anything. But civilization? No. That could crash and have to be restarted almost from scratch, if we behaved badly enough.

So it’s maybe best to talk about my changing views of survival of civilization over the years. I’ve always been worried, because of the nuclear threat. This still exists and is not to be ignored; we should disarm all nuclear bombs. We could use them to fuel small safe nuclear reactors for a generation or two, maybe. Anyway, that has been a danger my whole life.

Photo by Sean Curtin

Now climate change. And we know how fast we have to decarbonize, but not everyone agrees, and money is power, and so there is and will be powerful human forces trying to keep burning fossil fuels, and this may shove the biosphere past certain “Breaking Boundaries” (see the book and Netflix film by Johan Rockström of the Potsdam Institute for Climate to understand better the extreme danger of crossing any of these boundaries). So we are in a wicked fight for the biosphere, and the side trying to decarbonize and keep within planetary boundaries and thus dodge the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s long history, could lose to the fossil fuel burners, the ones who don’t believe in the danger.

More than ever I feel we could lose that battle by inertia, the power of capitalist privilege, and so on. On that front, I’m more worried than ever in my life.

This kind of survivability means that humans will probably survive almost anything. But civilization? No.

Is despair an option?

Despair is a feeling that comes from an evaluation of the situation. It’s not just biochemical depression, though it can lead to that. It’s a judgment that can quickly become self-reinforcing by way of selecting what one sees in the world, etc. So it’s real, and we’re seeing a lot of it. It would be better to have hope. But the situation is indeed dire. Once Proust wrote, “To hope without hope would be best, but is impossible.” Gramsci wrote about pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will. This is important — you can will yourself to hope no matter the bad odds. And from some perspective the odds are pretty good, and might get better. In my Ministry novel, Frank has seen the worst that can happen. After that he is damaged, but he says to himself, Do the best you can, no matter how messed up you are. This is one way forward.

Your book “The Ministry for the Future” reads like a novel and presents very real options to tackle climate change. What is the idea and function of this book?

The Ministry for the Future is a novel. Novels are a big historical and social art form. They shouldn’t be confined to the personal problems of bourgeois citizens, they can and should be about individuals’ relations to society and to the planet. Thus the social novel as in Balzac or George Eliot or Gunter Grass. This is the best way to think of the novel — it creates our sense of meaning, better than psychology or religion, because it’s more precise and case-specific, and more entertaining too. It’s the great art form, and science fiction is the great realism of our time — this is my opinion, and I write on that basis. So, Ministry is a near-future science fiction novel (there are far future ones too, these are more like fantasies, but can ponder big questions). I thought I’d start around now and portray the next three decades going as well as I thought readers could still believe possible. A best-case scenario.

You start the book with a stark scene, an event of mass death, millions of Indians dying in a heat wave. What is the role of panic in today’s climate discourse?

Panic suggests a disorganized spasm, a bit of going crazy. No — better to say dread. Huge fear. The current climate discourse — see the latest IPCC report from August. This is the scientific community setting off the alarm bells as loud as they can. A mass heat death from a combination of heat and humidity over “wet-bulb 35” as this index measurement calls it, is all too possible — it could happen now, and each year the possibility gets more likely. So yes, fear and dread. But not panic.

This is the best way to think of the novel — it creates our sense of meaning, better than psychology or religion, because it’s more precise and case-specific, and more entertaining too.

One of the main characters of the book is a bureaucrat working in a UN setting. Do you believe in multilateralism as an answer to climate change?

Yes, of course. We live on one planet in one biosphere. The nation-state system is not well designed to deal with a problem like that, but it has to. So "nation states" have to become "member states” and think of themselves as in solidarity with all the other nation-states in some larger way. Thus the Paris Agreement.

The EU is the process where the move from nation state to member state has been enacted and revealed for its positive features and also the problems it raises. It’s a new thing in history, to a certain extent. But there is a precedent there, and in the UN, etc.

That said, smaller groups could form that would be important. The G20, the G7, the “G2” (China and the US) — these are the big carbon burner countries and agreements between them matter a lot. So, bilateral as well as multilateral. Also — regional, state, province, cities, neighborhoods, individuals — all very important to this process.

Do we need institutional innovation or actually an institutional revolution?

We have to act so quickly here — huge changes in the 2020s — that I think it’s best to think of solutions that use the institutions we already have, at their best.

What would be institutions that would be fit to tackle climate change effectively?

The UN, the G20, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and IMF (these are aspects of postwar American economic empire, but could be used to do better work than enforcing hegemony). The Paris Agreement. City-to-city agreements. The International Bureau of Standards, the World Maritime Organization. All the Central Banks of the world, now organized into the Network for Greening the Financial System (already formed) the G-Feds, etc. World legal groups, and all the scientific organizations and associations, joining together to make mass statements and directives for economic action. Unions and legislatures at all levels. Citizens’ unions, householders’ unions. NGOs. Student groups. Spontaneous groupings.

What would be the role of technology, ideally, in this process?

Cleaner ways of providing adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, health care, education, public health, meaningful work. The most important technology is language and law and justice. These are software parts of civilization’s technology. The machinery itself will get built to order depending on what we want from it.

Can you explain your view on geo-engineering?

If mass deaths begin to happen, we may want to deflect some sunlight to reduce global temperatures for a few years, while decarbonizing faster than ever. That’s solar radiation management, one form of geo-engineering, the most famous and controversial. For emergency use only. There are serious discussions about governance of this process going on now. Whether we ever have to do it, we need to study it now. The other things that get grouped under the term geo-engineering are less studied and often stranger, but every possible method needs to be discussed. Some of the planetary boundaries we are in danger of crossing cannot be remediated or clawed back from by anything humans can do. So discussion tends to focus on some of the things we might be able to do, like deflecting sunlight. It’s worth thinking about, partly to show how dangerous the moment is, and how fast we need to decarbonize.

The most important technology is language and law and justice. These are software parts of civilization’s technology.

Do you see a growing willingness to resort to violence as a means to protest or rather halt the system that produces climate change?

I don’t see that much in the history of our time, no. You have to look at derivative effects. Is the violence in the Middle East the result of climate change making people more desperate or angry? That’s hard to judge because there was so much political anger and mass suffering even before climate change began to bite. So I think this one remains at the level of discussion — people talking about when it might happen and if it would ever be justified. It’s good to talk about it now, because if we don’t deal with climate change well now, the future is bound to be more violent. So we need to deal with the problem. As a new acquaintance said to me in Glasgow — you don’t need to be in a plane crash to realize you don’t want to be in one. So we should work hard now.

How would you describe this system – is capitalism the main problem?

Yes, it is the main problem. It is a power relation in which the few take the work of the many, and also take from future generations and the biosphere, beyond what they can cope with. There will always be capital — it’s the useful residue of human labor, it’s the power to direct human work by way of monetary investment. Capital as such is not the problem. Capitalism is the system, the power relationship between a small percentage of rulers and the mass of humanity which has nothing. That is indeed the main problem. If all humans felt in solidarity and part of the system’s power structure, with adequate lives, things would be vastly different. Please read Thomas Piketty’s Time For Socialism for a good description of the problems of capitalism now, and the solutions that would make things better.

You advocate for a Green New Deal – how would this program be different from other programs addressing climate change?

It wouldn’t be much different. The Green New Deal in the US emphasized social justice as a part of the green solution— this is great idea, part of the red-green healing that needs to happen on the left, and also an acknowledgment that people in the precariat (or immiserated) need relief as much as the biosphere does. Animals too— thus the 30 by 30 land use movements. The EU’s green recovery is much the same. So these are better climate change programs than a purely capitalist focus on swapping out fossil fuel industries and making them clean energy power generators, while keeping the power structure that makes people miserable and cynical.

You do believe that politics can make a difference?

Of course. It’s all politics, it’s only politics. Technology is politically directed. Justice is a political battle. We are fighting over land use, infrastructure, and money— that’s politics! It can’t be avoided, there’s no other way.

What is a next step for you in this fight against climate change?

Every possible step needs to be taken. It’s “all hands on deck,” it’s solidarity all across the left (meaning the political parties for justice and sustainability in any form). This will quickly lead to the COP-27 in Egypt, where the world system will again talk about where we are and where we need to be, and make promises to do better. That’s important, although it is only a conference, a discussion of where we are and where we need to go— but conducted by all nations, with the whole world watching. It’s an important moment every year.

How much has this become part of who you are as a writer?

Good question. I think my Ministry for the Future says what i have to say about this issue, as a writer and novelist. I’ll let it stand for what I have to say for a few years and see how it goes. It’s making an impact— I don’t want to get in its way by adding bits or sequels or distractions of any kind. As a writer, I’ll pursue a few other projects and see what happens. Probably I’ll have to get back to it later on.

Capitalism is the system, the power relationship between a small percentage of rulers and the mass of humanity which has nothing. That is indeed the main problem.

Where is hope after COP26?

See above— it’s everywhere from our cells to the UN, and maybe to some sort of old/new Gaia religion or one-planet philosophy— all humans one family, all species one big articulated supra-organism— the biosphere as our extended body, worthy of care and even devotion as to a sacred cause.

What if hope is not enough?

Then we still have to do the work anyway! Don’t think the psychology of the bourgeois individuals of the developed countries are that important, except insofar that we heedlessly burn carbon that will wreck our descendants’ lives. If the immiserated in this world, and the people in refugee camps, retain hope, then why should the prosperous in the developed countries “lose hope”? Too much time on social media? Go take a walk!

Can you complete this sentence: For me this is personal because –

It’s personal for me because I have children, because I like walking in the Sierra Nevada, because I like the beaches of the world, because I love to see wild animals when I do, because I like the sense that my species is interesting and capable of good actions in solidarity with all life — because I feel Gaia inside me, in my hunger and my sense of awe when I see the world and the night sky. And because I don’t like the selfish jerks to win when I’m in a political battle with them!

Questions by Georg Diez


“Courtesy of Infinity (voices)” Video HD, binaural sound, 10.40 min., 2021-2022

The video takes as its starting point Alan Weisman's book "The World Without Us." It is a non-fiction book published in 2007 that explores what might happen to the natural and built environments if humans suddenly vanished. It is a slow meditation on material durability and the fragile balance of various ecosystems. According to Weisman, radioactive waste, bronze statues, plastics, and Mount Rushmore would be among the most long-lasting evidence of human presence on Earth.

The video responds to it with a visual record of abandoned funfairs and shopping malls, the entrance to the Biosphere 2, a wrecked motorway, abandoned vehicles and a collection of pictures from a failed art project in the Colombian forest.

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