Newsletter #3: Imagining Utopia in a Time of Climate Disaster with Kim Stanley Robinson

By William Harris

By now you’ve seen the signs, planted across the liberal meadows of our nation’s lawns with a solemn pledge: “In this house, we believe: science is real.” Framed by this oath, science becomes an apolitical set of facts blindly assented to — which then easily translates into yet more grist for the neverending culture war between rational Democrats and troglodytic Republicans.

How should today’s Left approach science? Few approach this question as thoughtfully as legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hailed by the New Yorkeras perhaps “our greatest political novelist,” author of many books — from the Mars trilogy to 2019’s Ministry for the Future—and our guest on a provocative new episode of The Dighosted by pod-comrade and Berkeley sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen.

For Robinson, science is a utopian project that the Left should claim. A “modest” way of knowing the world, importantly available to specialists but also to all of us, science lives out an always-incomplete story full of dynamic adaptation, democratic debate, and messy engagement with the material world. If science has historically been a project shot through by warring interests — too often colonial and corporate — one of these competing interests has been the idealist, Left-aligned objective of improving the world for all.

Robinson comes to these reflections as a novelist who’s spent his career telling stories that entwine ecology and social justice. We live amid climate disaster; for science, that means that now is a time when, in considering technological fixes to climate change, “it all has to be put on the table.” Controversially, he insists, that means rethinking ecological and political approaches from geo-engineering to nuclear energy to Green New Deal-prompted quantitative easing.

Robinson’s broad-tent openness to a range of scientific possibilities to save our planet also comes from his experience as a novelist. His novels play out possible futures and dramatize a range of leftist and scientific debates, giving narrative shape to our most pressing ecological and political questions. Amid a growing body of criticism indicting contemporary literature for its failure to come to imaginative terms with ecological disaster — from Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book The Great Derangement to Rithika Ramamurthy’s recent takedown of the “Climate Anxiety Novel” — Robinson’s work stands out as compellingly original approaches to possible climate futures. His latest epic Ministry for the Future imagines how a plausible “best-case scenario” under climate change future might come about, raising difficult questions of left ecological politics that he discusses with Cohen.

Listen to The Dig’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson here.

This episode joins an extensive archive of Diginterviews on climate politics. Check out our conversation with Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen on why we need a Green New Deal and how realistic yet imaginative narratives might help us get there, or our interview with Nick Estes on the long history of indigenous resistance to settler-colonial ecological devastation.For further reading on this episode’s themes, check out Jacobin’s ongoing Green New Deal series, a debate in New Left Reviewon the ecological politics of growth versus degrowth summarized by Lola Seaton in “Green Questions,” and two books: Holly Jean Buck’s work on left geo-engineering, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration,and Fredric Jameson’s magisterial Marxist study of science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, which concludes with a chapter on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Marstrilogy.