That story had not really been written before. It had been thought of in theory and in very vague ways in the science-fiction community: stories of quick and easy travel around the galaxy where you come upon a planet that’s frozen, and you warm it up. It was super science by cosmic engineers. But it was Sagan’s suggestion that Mars is a place where it’s actually possible to do this with contemporary or near-future human engineering, that Mars is appropriate for it. This is a new idea in history and it doesn’t map well onto any previous idea of human activity. It’s not quite making a civilization – it is, but you also have to make the physical matrix for the civilization itself. It’s not like coming to the New World when the Europeans discovered the Americas and accidently exterminated the local natives, and replaced them with a civilization of their own. There is nobody on Mars, although since I wrote my book it has been suggested that there might still be bacterial life on Mars. It’s not a high probability but it’s not impossible either.
The idea would be that not only do you have a multigenerational project of building a new world, but obviously the human civilization occupying it would also be new. And culturally and politically, it would be an achievement that would have no reason to stick with old forms from the history of Earth. It’s a multigenerational project, somewhat like building these cathedrals in Europe where no generation expects to end the job. By the time the job is near completion, the civilization operating it will be different to the one that began the project.
The whole idea, and the novel, was also a way to discuss what we do all the time on Earth. It is a modelling exercise where you have a miniaturized example of building a world, of building a civilization. But what the Mars scenario gave me – and gives all of humanity – is the idea that the physical substrate of the planet itself is also a part of the project, and it’s something that we are strong enough to influence. Not create, not completely control, not completely engineer because it’s too big and we don´t have that much ability to manipulate the large systems involved, nor the amount of power involved. But we do have enough to mess things up and we do have enough to finesse the system.
This, I think, was a precursor to the idea of the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is precisely the geological moment when humanity becomes a geological force, and it’s a science-fiction exercise to say that 50 million years from now, humanity’s descendants, or some other alien civilization, will be able to look at Earth and say: “This is when humanity began to impact things as much as volcanos or earthquakes.” So it’s a sci-fi story being told in contemporary culture as one way to define what we are doing now. So, that was what my Mars project was doing, and now we are in the Anthropocene as a mental space.
Seven years after the release of Red Mars, in 2000, the term “Anthropocene” started being used and discussed. I am curious to know what you make of its ascendance and centrality in recent years, and what do you think it means in political and social terms today as a lens for understanding the state of the world in the 21st century?
My impression of this Anthropocene notion is that the term itself was coined by scientists first as an attempt to make a political intervention. What they wanted to do was to say that, if humanity’s impact on the Earth is mostly negative in ecological terms, if you mark humanity’s impact as being so significant that we have produced a new geological age, then we have to think differently in our attitudes towards what we are doing with our biophysical substrate. And one of the things I think the Anthropocene brings up is that the Earth is our body, and we can finesse it, we can impact it, we can make ourselves sick.
“Things that would have taken three, four, five million years in the past, or even longer, a 50-million-year process, are being done in fifty years, a million times faster. There’s no way of telling what will happen.”
If we were to trigger some feedback loops in the biophysical system – such that temperatures got very high or parts per million of methane in the atmosphere got very high – we would not have the power to reverse these feedback loops. It’s postulated that Venus had an Earth-like atmosphere in the beginnings of planetary formation, and that Venus is the result of uncontrolled feedback loops into a greenhouse gas situation. Now the surface of Venus is 90 times the pressure of Earth’s. The temperature on the surface melts lead. Presumably it could not get that bad on Earth because we are just so much further way from the sun than Venus. But there is no question that, at times in the past, the Earth has been an ice ball with none of its water melted, and also a jungle planet with all of its water melted, and no ice on the planet whatsoever. And this is just from the natural extremes of planetary orbiting, and feedback loops of the atmosphere that we have naturally. But then what humanity is doing – and the reason you need the term “Anthropocene” – is pushing us into zones that the planet maybe has been in the past, but never with this extraordinary speed. Things that would have taken three, four, five million years in the past, or even longer, a 50-million-year process, are being done in fifty years, a million times faster. There’s no way of telling what will happen.
Quickly the word falls into the university, falls into the world of discourse and of culture, and it gets to be taken up and picked apart and argued over. Everybody has a different conclusion as to what it means, people have replacement names like the “capitalocene” suggesting that it is not just humanity, it’s capitalism that’s making this impact.
I worry that we’ve already swallowed the idea of the Anthropocene and stopped considering the importance of it; the profound shock that it should cause has already been diffused into just one more idea game that we play.
New York 2140 (2017), your first novel published after the Paris Agreement was signed, takes place in a world that is adjusting to the catastrophic effects of climate change, but also that is trying to evolve beyond our current economic model. In the book, the planetary environmental crisis and the crisis of capitalism caused by the financial meltdown of 2008 are presented as two interlocked events. The novel suggests that the history of the following two hundred years will be defined by the entanglement of both of these crises.
In New York 2140, I wanted sea level rise to be significant enough to make Lower Manhattan like a Venice, to be a kind of giant symbol of the current situation with climate change. For that reason I pushed it out to the year 2140, which is 120 years from now. For reasons of plausibility: it takes that long to get that much of a sea level rise, which is what I wanted for telling my story.
The truth is that we are actually already at that moment of climate change and crisis. The political project that my novel discusses really ought to be enacted now, not 120 years from now. In the real world, what we’ve got is a necessity for our economic system to take damage to the ecosystem into account, and pay for that damage.
The way that we create energy and the way that we move around on this planet both have to be de-carbonized. That has to be, if not profitable, affordable. Humans need to be paid for that work because it’s a rather massive project. It’s not that it’s technologically difficult (we already have the solar panels, the electric cars, we have the technical problems more or less solved in prototype) but the mass deployment of those is a huge human project, equivalent of everybody gathering together to fight World War II. Everybody agrees that, yes, this is important enough that people’s careers, lives, be devoted to the swapping out of the infrastructure and the creation of a de-carbonized, sustainable, physical plan for the rest of civilization.
In the real world, what we’ve got is a necessity for our economic system to take damage to the ecosystem into account, and pay for that damage.
Well, this isn’t the way capitalism works, as currently configured; this isn’t profitable. The market doesn’t like it. By the market I mean – what I think everybody means, but doesn’t admit – capital, accumulated capital, and where it wants to put itself next. And where it wants to put itself next is at the highest rate of return, so that if it’s a 7% return to invest in vacation homes on the coast of Spain, and it’s only a 6% rate of return to build a new clean power plant out in the empty highlands of Spain, the available capital of this planet will send that money and investment and human work into vacation homes on the coast of Spain rather than the power plants. It’s just the way it is and there is no control over that except for nation-state governments, each one looking at its own responsibility and power and feeling in competition with others, not wanting to lose its differential advantage. So, If Spain were to do a certain amount for its country, but was sacrificing relative to international capital or to other countries, then it would be losing the battle for competitive advantage in the capitalist system.
Nobody can afford to volunteer to be extra virtuous in a system where the only rule is quarterly profit and shareholder value. Where the market rules, all of us are fighting for the crumbs to get the best investment for the market. And so, this loose money can go anywhere in the planet without penalty. The market can say: “It doesn’t matter what else is going on, it doesn’t matter if the planet crashes in fifty years and everybody dies, what’s more important is that we have quarterly profit and shareholder value and immediate return on our investment, right now.” So, the market is like a blind giant driving us off a cliff into destruction.
This is another way of saying that we need postcapitalism. In New York 2140 I was telling the story of a people’s revolution and a political revolution that creates post-capitalism to solve the ecological problem, because no other solution will do. The market doesn’t have a brain, a conscience, a morality or a sense of history. The market only has one rule and it’s a bad rule, a rule that would only work in a world where there was an infinity of raw materials, what the eco-Marxists are calling the “four cheaps”: cheap food, cheap power, cheap labour, cheap raw material.
There is no new place to go to get cheap resources; there is no way to get cheap food, and so on and so forth. The “four cheaps” are gone, and yet the market is designed to do nothing about that. So this story needs to be told and it’s kind of being told, but it also needs to be shaped, and this is where I feel a bit desperate and a little crazy.
Why should a science-fiction writer from California have to be rallying this into a story that everybody tells? I look to the next generation, to people who are coming into their own intellectual power and into political and economic power, to be the most productive citizens, at the start of their careers, to change the whole story. But, sometimes it just strikes me as astonishing, how early on we are in our comprehension of this system.
You have said that the Anthropocene does not only imply the transformation of ecological systems and our relationship to them, but it also requires a new political economy. Could you please expand on what would be a political economy of the Anthropocene?
We’ve had a moment in human history that has been remarkable for the fact – and maybe it’s new and unprecedented – that we have one global economy. There was a brief moment where late capitalism, neoliberal capitalism… seemed to rule the world, and there was even talk about the “end of history”: the idea that once it became ascendant, it was so much the preferable order of things that it would never go away. The whole planet under one global capitalist system that would go on, you know, a thousand years; that would never end because there is no possible successor to it.
This was a little crazy because it was always a system based on permanent growth within a physical system that had limits and was not infinite in size. So, you can´t have permanent growth. People like Giovanni Arrighi explain it with his idea that capitalism appropriated the local natural and human resources, entrained them to capitalist uses and then expanded out in its powers (usually technical powers, or just human political powers) to achieve a bigger expansion. That went from Genoa to Holland, to Britain, to the USA… each time encompassing a larger field of action that was entrained into capitalist practice and production and accumulation of profit. Once you’ve got the whole planet entrained like that, there is no next step. I think that’s another definition for the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is that moment in which capitalist expansion can no longer expand, and you get a crush of the biophysical system – that’s climate change – and then you get a crush of the political economy because, if you’ve got a system that demands permanent growth, capital accumulation and profit and you can’t do it anymore, you get a crisis that can’t be solved by the next expansion.
If the Anthropocene is a crisis, an end of the road for capitalism, well, what is post-capitalism? This I find painfully under-discussed and under-theorized. As a Sci-Fi writer, an English major, a storyteller – not a theorist nor a political economist – looking for help, looking for theories and speculations as to what will come next and how it will work, and finding a near emptiness. Finding a little town in northern Spain, Mondragon, which is a 170,000-people, a two-billion-dollar economy. It’s big and interesting but it’s one trillionth of the size of the world and very few people know about it anyway.
When you think about what the other post-capitalisms are, you come up with a blank. And here is the aporia, as they call it: the non-seeing that is in human culture today. This is another aspect of the Anthropocene. It’s here but we haven’t found out about it yet, and we haven’t taken it on. This is a fundamentally different situation we are in, and so political economy comes back.
Economics is the quantitative and systematic analysis of capitalism itself. Economics doesn’t do speculative or projective economics; perhaps it should, I mean, I would love it if it did, but it doesn’t. It’s a dangerous moment, as well as a sign of cultural insanity and incapacity. It’s like you’ve got macular degeneration and your vision of reality itself were just a big black spot precisely in the direction you are walking.
Maybe one of the problems to developing an alternative economic model is: how do you develop long-term politics in a short-term-incentive society? The Paris Agreement involves committing to long-term goals, to a scenario of zero carbon emissions in 2100, but we have no actual way of getting politicians to commit to these scenarios beyond their short-term needs. During the development of “After the End of the World” we heavily discussed the idea that all governments should create a “Ministry of the Future” department, which represents the interests of those who have not yet been born, but who will be directly affected by our actions.
I like this idea of the Ministry of the Future very much. The one thing we do have is an international economy, a global capitalist economy. That is not necessarily a bad thing because we are on one planet, and therefore it’s good to acknowledge that it is indeed a global economy.
If the rules of that global economy were good, there could not be bad actors because if the G20, 95% of the economy, were all abiding by good rules, there would be nowhere for greedy actors to escape to, to enact their greed.
The Paris Agreement, amazingly, was signed by everybody that matters, representing 98% of CO2 production from carbon burned on the planet, and everybody agreed to a plan. Even though the goals they set were only halfway there, a few decades into the future we would be halfway to de-carbonizing and getting to a carbon-neutral technical base, after which the concept of the carbon-negative technical base is by no means unachievable. You can certainly theorize it and you can even begin to enact it because a lot of carbon negative activities are not that hard: reforestation, creation of peat bogs… the biological technologies by which one takes carbon out of the atmosphere are not conceptually difficult or beyond us as people.
Enacting it will be a question of the short-term decisions made time after time. While, if you had a minister of the future, or if your environmental ministers were powerful enough to speak for the future in the way that they spoke for the environment… for the non-human actors in the system, which are some of the most crucial actors, in some ways more important than any group of humans or even any generation of humans.
You can see the shapes of a solution. This is very important for anybody that wants to have hope or everybody that is realizing that there will be humans after us, the generations to come. It’s strange because they are absent; they are going to be here, they are going to be our descendants and they are even going to have our DNA in them. They will be versions of us but because they are not here now, it’s very easy to dismiss their concerns.
In fact, capitalist economics discounts their concerns, in the technical term of what is called in economics “the discount rate”. So, a high discount rate in your economic calculations of value — like amortized payments or borrowing from the future – says: “The future isn’t important to us, they will take care of themselves” and a low discount rate says: “We are going to account for the future, we think the future matters, the people yet to come matter.” That choice of a discount rate is entirely an ethical and political decision; it’s not a technical or scientific decision except for, perhaps, the technical suggestion that if you want your children to survive you’d better choose a lower discount rate. But that “if” is kind of a moral, an imaginative statement, and less practical in the long-term view.
So, a minister of the future, great, a UN department that is trying to say: “we speak for the people one hundred years from now”, the way that in Ecuador there are parts of the constitution that say: “The forest has a voice, in this parliament”, that would be great. It’s not utopian, in the sense of highly theoretical and unlikely and a little bit crazy, because in the context of the Paris Agreement it fits as one of the repercussions, one of the automatic derivatives or secondary corollary ideas to: “Okay, we’ve got the Paris Agreement, how do we enact it?” It’s one of the things that you would suggest to enact it, so it’s looking more and more practical.
I have been talking about these issues for about fifteen years and, ten years ago, to suggest that the Paris Agreement would be signed, people would say: “but that will never happen!” As a utopian science-fiction writer, it was a beautiful moment.
We understand that the arts can play a role of fleshing out social scenarios showing that other worlds are possible, and that we are going to be living in them. As a Science-Fiction writer, what is in your view the responsibility that the arts, literature and literary fiction can have in helping to articulate possible futures? It seems that imagining other forms of living is key to producing them, to make them actionable.
It’s been my project my whole life to think that literature in particular, but all the arts, are there to give us visions that try to tell us what human life means. In a world without God and any other kind of immediately provided comprehension of what we are doing in this universe, art is what does that. Literature, for me, creates meaning and tells us how things feel.
The sciences are maybe the dominant cultural voice in finding out what’s going on in the world and how things work, and the technicalities about how and why things work. But how that feels, the emotional impact in it, which is so crucial to the human mind and human life in general, these are what the arts provide. It might be a kind of gestalt; that’s what the arts would want, to look for the gestalt that comes out of all the data.
Maybe nowhere is this as important today in the arts as in the speculative turn that fields like architecture and design have taken, the emergence of spaces like Design Fiction and Speculative Critical Design, or the combination of architecture and fictions about the future…
It’s good that you bring up design, because design is a strange amalgam, like a science-fictional cyborg between art and engineering, planning, building, and doing things in the real world.
What’s nice is bringing in design, architecture and engineering, when they have the speculative element and they go beyond economics. This is what bothers me in economics; its blind adherence to the capitalist moment even when it is so destructive. Enormous amounts of intellectual energy are going into the pseudo-quantitative legal analysis of an already-existing system that’s destructive. Well, this is not good enough anymore because it’s wrecking the biophysical infrastructure, as I spoke of before.
So then what you get is the critique of economics from its own social sciences; anthropology, sociology… and then in design and architecture you have utopian enactments of the sense that comes out in the arts, the gestalt vision: “Oh my gosh, we’re heading for a crash! We need to adjust our course; we need to invent a new way of living.”
What would that new way of living be? The economists are not going to think of it. The artists are often not specific enough in their technical and physical detail, so they can become fantasy novelists rather than science-fiction novelists; there is too much a possibility in the arts, and I know very well myself, of having a fantasy response, a wish fulfilment. But when you’re doing architecture you think: “Well, I need ten million dollars, I need this land, I need to entrain the lives of five hundred people for ten years of their careers in order to make something that then will be good for the future generations to use.”
I meet these people now as part of my working life and it amazes me, the ability they have to entrain other people in reality itself, to do things in the real world. I really do think that what I do, although it has some difficulties, is remarkably easy compared to organizing reality and getting it funded and enacted and complying with the building codes, the laws; making all that work in order to get work done. This is really where the talent is, the inspired careers of people doing this stuff. By and large, especially at this point in my life, it is younger people taking over the world in the most literal sense of: “Ok, now we’re going to do these things, because they are sustainable, because they are just, because they’re necessary for human life to continue on Earth.” I like being an inspiration to these people with my silly stories.
One of the reasons to give the arts a role in our future is that it seems one of the failures we have as a society is failure of the imagination. For instance, why do you think it seems easier or more tempting under neoliberalism to think about escaping the planet to establish colonies on Mars than to transcend our economic and social model, to invent a completely new way of living on Earth? One of the characters of Red Mars, Arkady Bogdanov, says: “We must terraform not only Mars, but ourselves.” How do we get out of this?
You’ve got what looks like an intractable and gigantic problem and then someone gives you a solution that’s more like a toy set. Instead of dealing with this intractable and gigantic problem, you can build a little model of it on the floor and make it go the way you want. The attraction is to go to a zone that is simpler, smaller and more amenable to action and so you think: “We’ll build a little town on Mars.” And then, the fact is that doesn’t work as a solution to the world’s problems, but you try not to think about that for a while, because there is something attractive about being able to achieve things in a world that looks frozen.
“There is still a kind of people’s power available. Individuals, if they were in solidarity with each other and if they had a political plan, could cause global finance to crash in its strangle-hold on the economy by simply going on strike.”
After the 2008 crash of the world economy, the neoliberal regime began to look a bit more fragile and brutal, less massive and immovable. I see things very differently, the world reacting very differently since the 2008 crash to how it did before it. There was this blind faith that capitalism worked, and also even if it didn’t work it wasn’t changeable, it was too massive to change. Now what I am pointing out comes from the radical economists coming out of political economy, anthropology and leftist politics saying that international finance is simply overleveraged and therefore is extremely fragile and open to being taken down. Because it depends on everybody paying their bills and fulfilling their contracts.
In terms of getting out of this, there is still a kind of people’s power available. Individuals, if they were in solidarity with each other and if they had a political plan, could cause global finance to crash in its strangle-hold on the economy by simply going on strike. Strike is a concept that everybody understands, and people would not be unhappy at the idea of gathering together with everybody else and not paying their mortgages or student debts for two or three months in a row and calling it a political movement. It would be interesting to try, if it didn’t put you in jail and there were too many people doing it to be jailed, you can imagine trying it and seeing what happens. In the way that people in America said: “Well, let’s vote for Donald Trump and wreck everything and see what happens, maybe it will get better after we’ve destroyed things.”
In the Anthropocene we seem to find all the spectrum of moral positions, including the extinctionists that are suggesting that we should start saying our goodbyes since humankind is already headed towards extinction.
Human extinction, this is bullshit. Humans will scratch around and find some refuge. You could imagine horrible disasters and reductions of human population but extinction is not the issue for humans, it’s for everybody else. All of our horizontal brothers and sisters, the other big mammals, are in terrible trouble from our behaviour.
I actually am offended at this focus on the human; “Oh, we’ll be in trouble,”: big deal. We deserve to be in trouble, we created the trouble. The extinctions of the other big mammals: the tigers, rhinoceroses, all big mammals that aren’t domestic creatures of our own built in factories, are in terrible trouble. So, the human effort ought to be towards avoiding extinctions of other creatures. Never waste a worry for humanity itself, which, no matter what, won’t become extinct. Ten centuries from now, humanity will be doing something and that something is likely to be more sustainable and interesting than what we are doing now. The question for us is. “How do you get there?” But ten centuries from now, there might not be any tigers.
So, this is to me the crucial danger of our time: extinctions. Avoiding mass extinctions. You become a mongrel planet, you do everything that you can think of to help get through the next two centuries without extinctions. Like in my last book, and this is sort of symbolic, you move polar bears to the Antarctic and you have a weird mongrel situation for a few centuries in order for them to survive. That’s just my symbolic way of saying we do everything in that regard.
You are traditionally considered an optimist, even when it’s very easy to oscillate to very dark positions when writing about the topics you write about. There’s an Antonio Gramsci idea you have used to explain your position: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” Your optimism is a moral and political position, it’s not just hoping for the best. Why do you think we need to defend optimism, in the face of this massive problem that is so scary?
I do think it’s important, but you do have to begin and hold on to the idea that this is a massive problem, that there is going to be suffering and disaster. Then, the optimism involved in there is just a very angry optimism. Slavoj Žižek and other people have talked about cruel optimism: “Oh, things will be alright.” And then you ignore the poor, the disasters, it’s a prosperous person saying “things will be alright.” This simple optimism that they call cruel optimism, of course makes me think, “Maybe I’m part of that. Maybe my positive science-fiction stories are part of a cruel optimism, and we’re heading towards a disaster so black, so bad, that I’m just part of a false consciousness, part of the zombies walking to the edge of the cliff type of thing.”
I’ve had to think about that and I think there is a difference between cruel optimism and angry optimism, where you have the Gramscian pessimism in the intellect but also optimism of the will. Use the optimism as a club, to beat the crap out of people who are saying that we are doomed, who are saying let’s give up now. And this “let’s give up now” can be very elaborated academically. You can say: “Well, I’m just into adaptation rather than mitigation, there’s nothing we can do about climate change, all you can do is adapt to it.” In other words, stick with capitalism, stick with the market, and don’t get freaked out. Just adapt and get your tenure because it is usually academics who say it, and they’re not usually in design or architecture, they aren’t really doing things. They’re usually in philosophy or in theory. They come out of my departments, they’re telling a particular story and I don’t like that story. My story is: the optimism that I’m trying to express is that there won’t be an apocalypse, there will be a disaster. But after the disaster comes the next world on.
But in your version of New York in 2140, life goes on, there is a sense of humour, people still want to move to NY because it’s still exciting and alive, even if it has been decimated by a catastrophe.
One hundred and twenty years from now, everybody alive right now will be dead. An entirely new crop of humans and new generations will be out there operating. For them, whatever the situation is, it’s the natural situation. So, as a science-fiction writer you have to say: “One hundred and fifty years from now? There are going to be people having fun, young people trying to hook up with other young people to have sex and then there are going to be complications, and people trying to make a living and they are going to be having fun.” That militates against the old “I give up.” Because the “I give up” can be the cruel optimism. Here’s a cruel pessimism, and I’m not saying Žižek is necessarily one of them, but in academia and in theory I can see a kind of cruel pessimism: “Although I’m a prosperous person, although I can probably make my child a prosperous person, the world is screwed and therefore I don’t need to worry about it because there is going to be an end.” So, there’s a sort of apocalyptic end-of-the-world “ism” that says that I don’t have to change my behaviour, I don’t have to try because it’s already doomed.
Some of the most prosperous people on the planet are promulgating this view, which obviously I don’t agree with and I feel that it is really dodging the moral imperative. Maybe optimism is a kind of moral imperative, you have to stay optimistic because otherwise you’re just a wanker that’s taken off into your own private Idaho of “Oh well, things are bad.” It’s so easy to be cynical; it’s so easy to be pessimistic. I like to beat on to people a little bit about this.