The Great American Sci-Fi: Utopia or Dystopia?

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As a science fiction author, Kim Stanley Robinson is an expert in imagining new ways the world could work. These possibilities are more important now than ever as global society reaches the brink of collapse, but we’ve reached a crossroads on our path toward dystopia.

In this speech, Robinson discusses the urgency to take collective action. By using our technical capacity, social skills and knowledge, we have the ability to create a sustainable and just civilization for all life. We have the inherent power to address poverty and injustice. So why hasn’t this happened yet? Robinson says we’ve yet to rethink the multi-generational Ponzi scheme on which the world economy operates, which borrows from future generations at an unforgivable cost: the planet itself.

The sustainable and just civilization that we all hope to create cannot be built using a capitalist economy. That’s good news and bad news. It’s a little terrifying, because capitalism is not just the law of the land but the global order, and we’re in it: it’s massively entrenched and backed by laws and armies. So, if you agree with what I’ve said, then it’s right to be a little terrified.

Economics as a study of the capitalist system, which is mainly what it is, is very proud of our economy’s supposed “cumulative equilibrium,” which is basically the grand total of all the supply-and-demand questions being made in the market and decided by the market. But if you examine it more closely it’s a deal between buyers and sellers in which everything is always underpriced. The buyers are in a bind because they are generally poor and need to pay the least they can to get what they need. The sellers are in a bind because they are competing with all the other sellers and need to hit the lowest price. So they price things as low as they can so that they don’t go out of business, and in the end, they price things lower than the things actually cost to make.

This looks like a recipe for bankruptcy, and many businesses do go bankrupt, but they get away with it by ignoring some of the costs that they’ve incurred, and by shoving other costs onto the future. So, because labor, which really means people, can also be bought at the cheapest amount available in the world market, the result is that sellers are selling things for less than it costs to make them, buyers are buying them for less than they cost to make, and in a sense there’s a collusion between buyers and sellers to make sure the hidden costs, the deferred costs, the denied costs, the “externalities,” will be shoved onto future generations.

Normally what that would be called is a Ponzi scheme, and it’s a little bit funny to think that the world economy would be illegal if it was run this year in the state of California, but it’s not that funny because we’re in it and it’s the law everywhere. So we are stealing from the future by way of a multi-generational Ponzi scheme, and every year we overuse the natural resources of the planet in terms of what can be replenished by the biosphere’s natural actions, by about August of every year. As that goes on, the whole biosphere gets degraded, and yet there is no cost associated with that in the marketplace. People who are fooled by a Ponzi scheme do not get their money back, and the people who are fooled by this Ponzi scheme, many of whom are not even born yet, are not going to get their planet back.

Kim Stanley Robinson

So, this is serious because it’s not just a loss of our finances, it’s a loss of our bio-infrastructure. If everybody on the planet were to live at Western levels of consumption, which many are aspiring to do, we would need two or three planets to support it, so we’re already in a crash, and it’s taking the form of a mass extinction event. There’s violent climate change and ocean acidification that could kill the life in the oceans, and sea level could rise very rapidly. The last time we were in these climatic conditions in the Eocene, sea level rose some 15 feet in a single century, and it isn’t quite clear why that happened, but it’s pretty obvious that melting ice masses in Antarctica and Greenland were involved.

We can burn about 500 more gigatons of carbon before we have in essence cooked the planet and tipped it over into such a degraded state that it will be very difficult for human communities to live. And yet we have already located and identified 2,500 gigatons of fossil carbon that’s in the ground of the world. Now, fossil fuel companies have listed all 2500 gigatons of that carbon as assets, and nations have listed them as national resources, offshore or onshore, so there will be corporate leaders and political leaders who will be trying to burn that carbon before the unburned carbon becomes what they would call in economic terms “stranded assets.” And the monetary value of the 2,000 gigatons of carbon that we can’t burn, I recently calculated to be at current prices about $160 trillion. This is of course a completely artificial number, because it’s like trying to calculate the monetary value of a poison. I mean, you do have to pay money to buy a poison if you need it, but as the poison is administered to the patient and it begins to die, naturally the monetary value of the substance will change over time.

But $160 trillion is a lot of money. And there are going to be people, well-meaning people, who, out of fiduciary responsibility (if they’re executives) or out of some sense of duty to their constituents (if they’re politicians), are going to be trying to burn their trillion or two of that carbon and then hope that other people can cope with the problems that are created later on as a result. So, there are going to be well-meaning people trying to burn all that carbon for the entirety of this century, and what that implies is an absolutely huge and ongoing political battle. We will be fighting for control of governments, in hope that by controlling governments we can escape the oncoming disaster.

Now, having described this rather terrifying situation, I think it’s very important to point out that we also have the technical capacity, the social skills and the knowledge to create a sustainable and just civilization for all eight billion people on the planet, and all the rest of the biosphere’s living creatures, including the large mammals that are most endangered. It’s not fantasy to say that; it’s an extrapolation of already existing things that we know. The technology is not the hard part. It’s already invented, but we have to pay ourselves to install it fast. So, again, that’s an economic question, and it doesn’t work in capitalism. We have the means right now to arrange for everybody alive today to have adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education, and healthcare, within the biosphere’s carrying capacity. One of the oldest maxims in the English language is “enough is as good as a feast.” In fact enough is even better than a feast, because feasting makes you sick.  We can create enough for every living creature.

Even within the context of our existing capitalist system, the UN has done an incredible job with its Millennium Development Goals in raising the well-being of many of the poorest people on the planet. About a billion of them have gotten to at least the next step up in the last 10 or 15 years, but this was not a capitalist accomplishment. This was in fact charity. It was using the surplus and doing work that is not paid for in the usual profit system. But what’s interesting is that this success is a proof of concept that it could be done.

So, again, it’s an economic problem, meaning it’s above all a political problem. For example, many people worry that there are too many people on the planet, and this is an open question, but one thing’s for sure, wherever women have their full set of legal rights and equal opportunities, the population growth rate immediately stabilizes, flattens and sometimes even drops below the replacement rate. Social justice is in fact good environmental policy, it is a kind of technology, in that it is a political software, critical to human survival. And the hyper-consumption of the rich and the deep poverty of the poor are among the worst environmental impacts of any human activities, so solving inequality is not just the right thing to do; it’s the optimally survivable thing to do.

Next spring, E.O. Wilson will publish a book in which he suggests that we humans should occupy only half of the Earth’s surface. It’s called Half Earth. Rapid urbanization is already collecting people into rather tight knots around the planet, so in a sense the process has already begun. If half of the land surface of the Earth was given back to wilderness or parks, or at least unoccupied or non-human spaces, habitat corridors could be built and the rest of the mammals and living things on the planet could prosper. Life is robust, and if we were to create this sort of system in an orderly fashion as quickly as possible, it could be part of the solution. This plan of Wilson’s could make a sustainable world for all living creatures. This is a utopian vision, and I’m very happy to think of E.O. Wilson becoming a utopian science fiction writer. He has often dismissed science fiction in his writings, but now he’s writing it himself, and I’m happy to welcome him. It’s a very good crowd that he’s joining.

So we can describe a utopian vision that addresses poverty and biodiversity and injustice which is realistic given our technology, our social skills, and the physical resources of the whole biological community of Earth. But we’re also at a very peculiar moment in history in which a disastrous future, a dystopia, is also quite possible, and we’re in many ways on a course toward that bad future. If we continue to do what we’re doing now, we’re headed that way. The possibility for utopia is still here: we are powerful thinkers, and we can think our way out of this crisis by using such technologies as language, the rule of law, the scientific method, and justice.  Because technologies don’t just involve machinery. Technology is the full spectrum of ways we organize our relationship to the physical world. We’ve been technological since before we were even human. Pre-humans were using stones and fire to get along in this world, and probably clothing. So there’s no problem with technology as such, as long as it’s used as a force for good. The concept of technology has to be expanded to include all our systems for coping in the world.

But what do we do with a vision of a distant utopia when we see the situation that we’re in right now? What can we do right now to bridge that vision with our current reality? What steps can we take in the present that get us to this positive future we can imagine? Well, first we have to keep in mind that the solution is going to take decades, generations, and we can’t let that discourage us. We have to take the steps that are necessary now. It’s a scaffolding theory, like a coral reef. You build the scaffold you can in this current situation, and then hope the next generations can keep building on that scaffold and raising the level of discourse and activity to achieve a higher level of interaction with the planet.

So what do we do right now? First we have to fight austerity policies. Austerity measures merely increase the power of the oligarchy on this planet to continue their destructive ways. Actively opposing austerity has to take place within the battleground where we’re fighting over these ideas—in government, and democratic control of government. We have to reclaim government as a representative of the people rather than the oligarchs. Ever since the 2008 crash, it has been revealed that the neoliberal privatization of everything that was the rage since the 1980s was a disaster. So a first step is just a return to a Keynesian understanding that government needs to regulate business, rather than the opposite, and as governments create money, to create and spend money appropriately to meet human needs. 

What that would mean now, among other things, is a carbon tax, of course, one that rises over time on a regular rate. It’s obvious and necessary. Secondly, there should be a high-frequency trading tax so that every time there are a million trades per second, if a small percentage of that is going into the public coffers, then even though there is a basic stupidity to finance, at least it would be funding the public good. A living wage for all could be financed by (those sorts of taxes), and a living wage for all would help create sustainability and wellbeing, so this is another obvious idea. The full employment that will result from a governmental job guarantee is the best way to distribute a living wage for all; there’s lots of good work to be done. And then lastly, and I think very powerfully, not only should we return to the type of progressive taxation that was enacted by the New Deal into the Post-War period, but as (the French economist) Thomas Piketty advocates, we should tax capital assets as well. Taxing capital assets intelligently would be one of the greatest “horizontalizations” of wealth, and as positive for the public good as FDR’s GI bill, and it might be even more transformative than that, because what all these things together would lead to is in effect a kind of social democracy, such as what we see in Scandinavia, but ideally even more equitable and sustainable than the currently existing Scandinavian model.

Fortunately, since 2008 the window of acceptable discourse, meaning what people can talk about in America without being immediately disregarded as, say, a science fiction writer from Mars, has shifted markedly to the left. We even have a socialist running for president and polling quite well. So, if we could pull all these strands I’ve described together into a new form of social democracy, we could move on to something we could call “post-capitalism.” A market of some sort may always exist, because we need to trade, but it could be so sharply regulated that it could exist on what economists call the margin, suitable for the toys, but not for the necessities of life, which should all be public utilities and part of a job guarantee and a living wage. A market would still be there for people who want to play that game, like playing rugby or tackle football or anything testosterone-fueled and exciting for those who like that sort of thing. That’s what capitalism should be in a post-capitalist world: a marginal thrill.

It’s also important to point out that this new system needs to be global. We shouldn’t be fighting the concept of government, because government should really be the people’s company; and we shouldn’t be fighting the concept of globalization, because unless this whole better system is global and enforced by international treaty, then bad actors can simply move their capital assets elsewhere. And although America is still by far the largest agglomeration of capital on this planet, and if things happen in the United States it will lead the way, just the way that California tends to lead the United States, there would still be tax havens and flags of convenience that capital could flee to; so if we only made these reforms at the national level, they wouldn’t succeed. A global system is good if the rules are good, and a global system is bad if the rules are bad. Right now the rules are bad, but they can be changed, because they are based on laws and treaties, and laws and treaties can be changed, and are changed all the time.

It’s true that it’s easier to fight to change laws on the local and national levels, because that’s where we the people have at least some leverage over laws and politicians, and it’s really at the international level where the Davos-style stateless elite technocrats have taken over; but they too are ultimately responsive to people power. And so we can work on it at all three levels, but we should never demonize the global level as such, because post-capitalism needs to be a world system.

So this is above all a political fight that will last the entirety of this century. All of us alive here are going to be involved in this fight for the entirety of our lives, so we have to pace ourselves for the long haul. We have to have a lot of faith that young people will come in and devote mega hours to the battle. We have to wage wave attacks: wave after wave has to go out there and sacrifice countless hours to things like stupid small meetings in order to make change, because that’s how change happens.

The greatest American utopian science fiction story is this one: That government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from this Earth. That story contains a future tense, and an imperative. It’s a science fiction story. It’s a utopian story. What Lincoln was saying to us was an injunction, and even a command. Democracy only exists when people go out and make it happen, especially when there are very powerful forces with a lot of money trying to buy up that very same government that we call democratic.

So, in this battle, we have to settle in for the long haul, do what can be done in the day to day, while also keeping in sight the long-term vision of a planet where we actually are in balance with the natural forces and can work with them to everyone’s benefit. Since it’s possible, then we need to do it. It’s a matter of responsibility to the children and the people not yet born.

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