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Picturing a Way Forward

Climate change, science fiction, and our collective failure of imagination

By Diego Arguedas Ortiz

What do a policy report, a street demonstration, and a fictional story share in common? For science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, they could help our imagination picture a way forward to address climate change. In his novels, such as the acclaimed Mars trilogy or the aquatic New York 2140, Robinson invites his readers to challenge their own assumptions. If someone puts forward a seemingly wild yet necessary vision for a better future, why wouldn’t we believe that such a world is possible? I spoke with the 67-year-old American writer; this is a condensed version of that interview. 

Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible—is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?

In 2019 we seem to have plenty of technological, fiscal, and legal instruments to deal with climate change, yet picturing a way forward is as challenging as ever. Are we facing a failure of imagination?

I would agree with that. I’ve been trying hard to imagine a plausible, positive scenario going forward, and I’m aware that it’s not easy. This is not because people haven’t been trying; it’s because the problem is big and intractable to a certain extent. We run the world economy by and large as a capitalist profit-making enterprise, and the mitigation of climate change is not a profit-making enterprise. It’s not the highest rate of return—and the market directs all capital
to the highest rate of return.


And with this conundrum, what does science fiction provide?

You can’t talk about every possible future in one work of science fiction—that would be crazy. But what you could do is tell a bunch of stories that are relatively plausible, that are set in the near future, and that describe a course of action that readers can imagine in a kind of “thick” texture. Where you really feel like you’re there. There’ll be some contingent events and some characters that are representative, but they are also individual characters with their own quirks. There’ll be a story, and yet the reader will also say: “Well, yeah—this could be one way forward.” This way, you have the utopian strand of describing things going right. Do we have a sense that things could go right? Even if it’s physically possible, the question is: Is it politically possible, and is it humanly possible?


I guess your writing deals more with the politics of possibility more than the politics of probability? 

Well, that’s for sure. I have a bad feeling—that I think is widely shared—that we are not responding fast enough. I think that the Paris Accords are real achievements in human history; nevertheless, we are not achieving what we set out to do. Everybody’s overshooting, and there’s more carbon being burned every year. So I’m worried, like everyone else. Some stories maybe need to be set in dystopias and show how bad it’ll be if things go wrong. I’m not saying that dystopias are not useful, because I think they are useful, but I’m more interested in writing the positive futures.


Showing us this possible future, however unlikely it might be, can make readers think: “Okay, we can actually get there if we put some measures in place in 2019, 2020.”

When you said that, it reminded me of something that Bertolt Brecht once said about plausibility when people read such stories. Even if the story isn’t likely, it can still be possible. Something happens when people read along. What Brecht said was that, if you think a story is utopian (and he meant very unlikely to happen), you should also consider why you think that. Consider what’s possible, and allow space for that. I fear this is going to be an issue with my new novel, and I’m struggling mightily to write it. People are going to be reading it and at certain points are going to say: “Well, that’s pretty optimistic.” Or: “Well, it wouldn’t happen that way; that’s not likely.” I think that at those points it becomes important for the readers, andI’m going to try to provide prompts in the text, to think: “Well, why? Why am I making that assumption? What’s happening today that makes that positive future seem so unlikely?” Then maybe we might work on that.


In your books, characters generally team up in the end and create collective solutions. Yet so many solutions offered now—diet changes, electric vehicles, light bulbs—are on the individual front. Can we recuperate and empower that collective identity and collective means to go forward?

There are two directions to positive change. There are bottom-up changes, where individuals, small groups, and local collectives make changes at the individual, household, and local levels; and then there are the top-down ones, the stuff that happens in nation-states and in international treaties, often decided amongst the technocrats and diplomats and experts. There’s no reason to privilege one over the other—the important thing is to keep both of them in mind simultaneously. 

Take a look at the Green New Deal. You can say it’s been demanded by the left wing of the Democratic Party in the United States. On the other hand, you could also say that it’s a top-down document that has been concocted by a committee of a few. Well, both are true—and that’s one of the reasons why the Green New Deal is important and significant and needs to be supported.


In the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing the Green New Deal as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision.

In a way, I guess, the Green New Deal shares a trait with science fiction in that it shows a way forward. It doesn’t put all the dots on the i’s, but it shows a way to actually reach 1.5 or 2 degrees and transform society into something that’s better.

I would invite everybody to think of the Green New Deal as it currently exists (a document which is quite impressive in its amount of detail and substance) as a science-fiction story. It’s a utopian science-fiction story written in the form of a proclamation or a blueprint for action. In my short-story collection, The Martians, I experimented with all kinds of formats, including a short story in the form of the Martian Constitution and a short story in the form of an abstract in a scientific journal. In the case of the Green New Deal, and in the best possible way, I want to suggest that seeing it as a kind of science-fiction story is what we need. We need that kind of vision. 


There’s a line in New York 2140 that says, “People are scared for the kids. That’s a moment things can tip.” Now it seems as if it’s actually children themselves who are more worried and who are pushing things from the bottom up.

Maybe I assumed that parents have enough control over their situation to worry about doing things for their kids politically. With the best will in the world, the generation that you might call parents is sort of swamped with their own problems—by debt, by job precariousness, and so on. It’s really been the teenagers and children who are speaking up and saying: “Wait—now that I’ve learned of this situation, this is bad. Something has to be done now.” And that has surprised me. Because of the science-fiction novel I’m writing right now, I’m very interested in the climate-change lawsuits being brought by children as well as in their legal standing in courts worldwide. You can extrapolate from there—of course, that’s what science fiction does—to questions about the rights of the unborn. What about someone who is going to be born in the year 2050? Can they sue us now for what we’re doing? And what’s their legal standing?


A common feeling seems to be: “I’m alone in this.” I can imagine only a few occupations that might generate that thought as bluntly as writing daily about future climate worlds and their political implications does. How do you manage?

Well, I think that’s a cognitive error. For me personally, I can say this: it felt lonely in 2004. That’s when I published Forty Signs of Rain—ten years after a trip to Antarctica and a decade of a growing education about climate change. I felt like nobody was listening, at least not to me. Maybe they were listening to Al Gore; but I felt as though I were being treated like a science-fiction writer who was portraying a weird science-fiction-ish feature, like aliens landing or something. Climate change was just as unlikely as aliens coming down. That’s so different now—I don’t feel lonely at all. I feel like this is the world’s topic, and I don’t think anybody needs to feel lonely anymore. 


Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a science and climate-change reporter from
Costa Rica. He’s @arguedasortiz on Twitter.


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