Imagining the End of Capitalism
November 3, 2020 6:12 AM   Subscribe

Derrick O’Keefe interviews Kim Stanley Robinson (Jacobin) on his latest book, The Ministry for the Future (Bookshop), climate change, geoengineering, capitalism, co-operatives, politics, space exploration, and science fiction. Gerry Canavan’s review (LARB).

Related by kliuless on Metafilter:
posted by adrianhon (29 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
 
(kliuless has included some of these links in other very good megaposts but I thought they were interesting enough to deserve their own dedicated post!)
posted by adrianhon at 6:13 AM on November 3, 2020


From the LARB review:
Somehow we have become collectively convinced that massive world-historical changes are something that cannot happen in the short term, even as the last five years alone have seen the coronavirus pandemic; the emergence of CRISPR gene editing; too many droughts, hurricanes, and wildfires to count; the legalization of gay marriage in many countries, including the United States; mass shooting after mass shooting after mass shooting; the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements; the emergence of self-driving cars; Brexit; and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States.
Most of these don't seem very massive or world-historical to me, being either more or less continuous with what has gone before or unlikely to result in large, durable societal change or both. I don't think it's possible for people hip deep in changes to pick out what's really important or not; that's the job of future history. Of course this militates against my own comment, too, but c'est la vie.
posted by The Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger at 6:22 AM on November 3, 2020 [4 favorites]


I just finished reading Aurora, and quite liked it, so this is going on my to read list.

One thing that the LARB piece went into was an imagined rise in eco-terrorism and that left me wondering that isn't already happening, given the stakes. Especially in a world where eco-terrorism could take the form of a cyber-attack where nothing explodes and nobody dies but industrial control systems are crippled (or something). I mean that's a real thing that's happened but we blame it on the Russians not Greenpeace.

Not that I'm advocating for eco-terrorism, just that the world often doesn't follow the obvious narrative.
posted by selenized at 7:50 AM on November 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


A crucial collapse in 'The Ministry for the Future': "it's worth saying, if we succeed in inventing and installing a global post-capitalist world order focused on justice and long-term sustainability, results could be really good, really exciting."

New Zealand's Ardern forms government with Greens :P
posted by kliuless at 8:26 AM on November 3, 2020 [3 favorites]


I've always found Robinson's boosterism of engineering solutions to climate change a bit misguided. Nice to see, from the beginning of that Jacobin interview, that he's about more than just geoengineering. The part about needing to not just envision a "utopian" future, but also how we get there from here, is particularly key. And his critiques of "homo economicus" are spot on.

He, like most other white guys from middle or upper middle class background I know who have come to anti-capitalism as young adults or later, still seems a bit out of touch with a lot of the working class, feminist (some versions, at least), indigenous, or non-white (and, in sometimes overlapping/sometimes different ways, queer or differently abled/living with chronic illness) activism and thinking in that area. His mentor's quote that “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism” is certainly true for middle class and higher white people in the Western world. But for the majority of other folks around the world, this is not an exercise in imagination, it's simply observation of cultural traditions (and technologies, in the more general, not necessarily engineering sense) that are still around that predate capitalism, and of many of the practices that their communities have developed in order to survive capitalism.
posted by eviemath at 8:39 AM on November 3, 2020 [6 favorites]


Robinson has never really emphasized engineering solutions to problems like climate change. The closest he has come to that is the Mars trilogy, I guess, but even those are big on the anarchism, leftist economics and anti-capitalism. My big criticism is that he made the deliberate choice to move away from people and stories to systems and structures. I do like a lot of how he presents people in his work, but the Three Californias triptych are beautiful novels and not just utopian manifestos.

I have a copy of The Ministry of the Future but I haven't started it yet. I am very excited to, but I am also a bit taken aback by reviews indicating that KSR has finally hit a point of at least not advocating against ecoterrorism. Taken aback not because of disagreement but because KSR was the last writer I could turn to for utopian visions of the future that weren't nonsense, and even he feels the desperation of the cthulucene leaning in on the anthropocene. There is a loss of innocence that I find sad, if necessary.
posted by Lonnrot at 9:43 AM on November 3, 2020 [5 favorites]


The "X days of Y" books have a lot of geoengineering in them, like restarting the gulf stream by dumping salt or something like that
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:46 AM on November 3, 2020


100% agree about the "easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism" thing being of limited applicability, also. Speak for yourselves, nerds. My imagination has roots that wind deeper and boughs that stretch farther than the tiny speck of overexcited nothing that the era of industrial civilization looks like from a good vantage point in Deep Time.
posted by Lonnrot at 9:46 AM on November 3, 2020


Hi last book, about flooded Manhattan, pivoted a lot more on people and relationships, I thought, than on technology.

Yes, there was some hand-waving about "skyscraper basements reinforced with diamond" or whatever, but the real estate guy is able to leverage a bunch of capital for good only after he has his heart changed.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:53 AM on November 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


When Fisher quoted that line about it being easier, etc., he was criticizing that mindset as part of the whole Capitalist Realism thing, not endorsing it.
posted by The Absolute Victory Unlosing Ranger at 10:58 AM on November 3, 2020 [8 favorites]


I don’t believe that KSR is at all fond of geoengineering solutions to the climate shitshow we’re currently in; in his books, they tend to get adopted out of desperation or even ignorance, and he spends a bit of time exploring how and why countries pursue them. It is definitely true that he’s very interested in the mechanics of geoengineering though and I can see how that might look like an endorsement.
posted by adrianhon at 11:05 AM on November 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


Good interview and review. Thank you, adrianhon.

I'm looking forward to reading the book, possibly through my online book club, and possibly teaching it.
So, without having actually read it, a few thoughts:

-fascinating to think of including social and cultural change under "geoengineering" - like "women’s rights are a geoengineering technology."
-when Gerry Canavan compares Robinson's style in this book to Dos Passos', I think he is missing the crucial intermediary of John Brunner. Brunner openly imitated Dos Passos and did so for very important novels on... the medium term future and environmentalism.
-I am curious to the extent this Ministry is a step towards Climate Leviathan (my intro).
posted by doctornemo at 12:12 PM on November 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


One thing that the LARB piece went into was an imagined rise in eco-terrorism and that left me wondering that isn't already happening, given the stakes.

There is quite a bit of ecoterrorism going on. The problem is, it's on the side against the ecology. Assymetrical warfare works about as well no matter what the ideology.
posted by happyroach at 12:29 PM on November 3, 2020 [5 favorites]


Great timing with this post, because I just finished The Ministry for the Future a few hours ago. It's a fascinating mix of narrative and (at least for the first half) basically non-fiction articles on economic and environmental issues. The narrative is the future playing out over the next 30 years or so from now: a big heat wave in India that kills millions starts this UN ministry that is given powers to enact change. Not immediate, but slow and gradual change. The protagonist is Mary Murphy, head of the ministry, and we follow her and other characters to the (spoiler alert) more or less successful completion of their goals.

It's a long book that probably could've used a haircut or two, but ultimately it's a hopeful one, showing how we could possibly shift from capitalism to something genuinely equitable. The research that KSR did was nothing less than impressive, truly impressive. It's Atlas Shrugged for leftists.
posted by zardoz at 1:35 PM on November 3, 2020 [2 favorites]


...the Three Californias triptych are beautiful novels and not just utopian manifestos.

Agreed.

It's Atlas Shrugged for leftists.

Well, that's a ringing endorsement.
posted by y2karl at 3:26 PM on November 3, 2020 [1 favorite]


It's Atlas Shrugged for leftists.

Yes, you had me going in that comment, zardoz, until the last line.
posted by doctornemo at 4:23 PM on November 3, 2020


It's a long book that probably could've used a haircut or two, but ultimately it's a hopeful one, showing how we could possibly shift from capitalism to something genuinely equitable. The research that KSR did was nothing less than impressive, truly impressive. It's Atlas Shrugged for leftists.

That's...quite a recommend. I went and bought it (from an actual independent bookstore!) the moment I read that. Though, in fairness, I'd been interested already based on a previous thread. But, let's see!

(I've not read Atlas Shrugged but I am of course aware of its rep.)
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:54 PM on November 3, 2020


I am 2/3rds of the way through the book. I would recommended. It does have geoengineering, and eco terrorism, and socialist economics.
It jumps around across a lot of different threads, but provides a lot of interesting visions of future action.

I ordered my copy from the Avid Reader in Davis, CA which is KSRs local shop, as I dont have a local shop that is open. It would have felt wrong to order from Amazon, even though they have the whole climate. Powells didn't have it in stock when I ordered.

Better yet for the anti capitalists, look for a library that has eBook check outside.
posted by CostcoCultist at 6:33 PM on November 3, 2020


Yes, you had me going in that comment, zardoz, until the last line.

lol, I said that in the most complimentary sense. Atlas Shrugged is a garbage novel with garbage ideas, but the Ministry for the Future is a grounded, very human story in ways that the former can't hope to achieve. Though there's several points in both books in which mountain hideouts play a role in the plot, and I wonder if that's just a coincidence or if KSR did that as an intentional raspberry to Ayn Rand.
posted by zardoz at 9:51 PM on November 3, 2020


I read a lot of Science Fiction, and this sounds really interesting, but I can't figure out why KSR's Goodreads scores are so relatively low, because it sounds like smart, humanistic science fiction, the kind of thing I normally love.
posted by mecran01 at 8:28 AM on November 4, 2020


The "X days of Y" books have a lot of geoengineering in them, like restarting the gulf stream by dumping salt or something like that

I think the main arguments against geoengineering are

1) moral, in that many of us think that the only sustainable path involves a change in behavior and not a magical technological fix that lets us keep treating the planet as an infinite resource for both energy and waste, and
2) "unintended consequences", in that geoengineering is likely to be mucking with systems we don't fully understand and which we could destroy or make worse through our meddling.

In the referenced series, it is too late to change our behavior and a deep crisis is already on us. Geoengineering is the only possibility to turn things around on non-geological scales.

But KSR has a direct response to geoengineering in the Jacobin interview. I'd encourage you to read that, but here's an excerpt: "We need to decarbonize. Anything we do at scale to achieve that is a form of geoengineering."
posted by Slothrup at 8:44 AM on November 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


Longtime fan of KSR. Kind of scared to read this one. As others have said, he has always argued for radical but incrementalist solutions in his stories. This one sounds a little too real and too close to home.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:08 AM on November 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


the main arguments against geoengineering

I’d add distribution - most actual political/economic support for geoengineering is going to come from the cases in which the funders expect to be better off in their lifetimes, which is less often "total atmospheric CO2" and more "rain for us, please, never mind who gets less ". (Though as climate weirding continues predictability is going to go down too.)
posted by clew at 9:59 AM on November 4, 2020


I just finished reading "Red Moon" (I wanted to warm up a bit before I jumped into "maybe ecoterrorism") and I get the feeling that his take on geoengineering will be pretty similar to his take on moon colonization. That is, there's some faint possibility for techno-utopianism there, but the nuts and bolts of it is that authoritarian governments will do authoritarian things with it, and other governments will do extractive and short-sighted things with it. The nature of Moon colonization, in his telling, depends directly on the nature of the people doing it. I can't imagine he'd apply a different framework to geoengineering.

Science fiction is exactly the place to push the horizon of human ingenuity, and hash out bad ideas.

All that aside, my favorite ecoterrorism fantasy is planting mines in the Straits of Hormuz, where (it used to be that) something like 80% of the world's oil has to transit. There was some article I read ten years ago that talked about this as something Iran might do if a war got hot, I guess to hurt the Saudis? But a smallish paramilitary group could maybe do it too. In my imagination, anyway. Imagine the chaos.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 10:54 AM on November 4, 2020


I somehow missed this entirely and am now looking forward to reading it. The first article is really interesting. (The rest may be too.) Thanks!
And genre disregard for the subject matter has been to Robinson’s gain.
I genuinely can't figure out what this means. Sales figures? Being able to treat obvious ideas as novelty? Becoming famous? Avoiding literary criticism? Avoiding the burdens of "serious literature"? I'm confused.
posted by eotvos at 12:41 PM on November 4, 2020


Would this be a good antidote to pessimism induced by Gibson's The Peripheral? I've never quite got the idea of the inevitability of the Jackpot out of my head...
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 2:20 PM on November 4, 2020 [1 favorite]


Very much appreciate the thread.

I started on this book this week thinking I wanted to read something ultimately optimistic. The first chapter is brutal. "Heat wave in India kills millions" is, as Stalin would say, a statistic. But we don't get the death of millions dramatized. We get one neighborhood.

I will say as someone who loved Red Mars but have bounced off some KSR's other stuff, this one is gripping me hard.

I thought he kind of dodged the geoengineering question in the interview, and reading the book--yeah. Sulfate aerosols make an early appearance.




I think the main arguments against geoengineering are

1) moral, in that many of us think that the only sustainable path involves a change in behavior and not a magical technological fix that lets us keep treating the planet as an infinite resource for both energy and waste, and
2) "unintended consequences", in that geoengineering is likely to be mucking with systems we don't fully understand and which we could destroy or make worse through our meddling.


As a rare geoengineering curious left-liberal, I will say that I see many arguments against it like this that seem totally unaware what serious geoengineering proposals look like. People are basically arguing against Exxon hacks or the Freakonomics guys instead of actual researchers and honest advocates.

First and fundamentally it can't be "instead of" but "possibly necessary in addition to" rapid decarbonization. Like do everything as fast as possible and still supplement. No knowledgeable person thinks it's magical or means we need not mend our ways. And if you a ccept that, the unintended consequences question becomes not just a question about geoengineering, but about global warming: Which has more unintended consequences: a 2 degree rise in temperature + geoengineering, or a 3 degree rise in temperature? (Oliver Morton's The Planet Remade does a good job describing the state of research and knowledge five years ago. It's advanced a bit, but not much. Not enough.)

KSR in the interview, and in dramaticized in the book, is making the "all hands on deck" argument for considering this. I totally agree. Don't rule things out because someone used it as a decoy 10 years ago. (Also don't let it distract us from massive rapid decarbonization.)
posted by mark k at 10:20 PM on November 8, 2020


I made a Fanfare talk thread to see if there's interest in a Fanfare post for the book. I'd love, love, love discussion about the text of the book itself and not just its publicity. But I'm not sure what the rules or traditions are for book Fanfares.
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:49 AM on November 20, 2020


Fanfare thread made for discussion of the book: https://fanfare.metafilter.com/17120/The-Ministry-for-the-Future
posted by Rainbo Vagrant at 11:06 PM on November 30, 2020


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