Kim Stanley Robinson: utopia and how to get there

According to writer Kim Stanley Robinson, we must abandon the 'middle way' of coping with crisis, and understand that utopia is possible. But how?

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Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson speaking at MoMA PS1
Science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson speaking at MoMA PS1 (Photo: MoMA PS1)

As part of the MoMA PS1’s series of talks called “Speculations: The Future is _,”
science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson presented a keynote lecture entitled “What is the Future for?”  Robinson was asked to fill in the blank in response to the statement: “The future is __.” [Video embeds below.]

Robinson argued that there are three ways of thinking about climate change and its implications for the world’s future: a world headed towards environmental catastrophe, a world headed towards utopia, or a world that straddles elements of both catastrophe and utopia. By this logic, this straddle world, or the “middle way,” is not a sustainable solution to approach climate change. Rather, Robinson argued that we must abandon the middle way and understand that utopia is possible. But how?

Robinson voiced a pragmatic approach in answer to the prompt, arguing that the future is for “cognitive mapping.” For Robinson, this project of cognitive mapping involves learning from past environmental mistakes and better planning for the future. The linchpin of planning for this cognitively-mapped future, Robinson argued, is to think of our options for the future in terms of innovation versus waste, or science versus capitalism:      

I have often framed this problem as science versus capitalism…For me, science is the effort to try to reduce suffering, the effort to try to make life more comfortable for human beings, to understand the world better and to manipulate it for various human goods…I think of science as a utopian good that can make things better.

Green and renewable technologies such as solar power and alternative energy sources that do not rely on carbon-burning make attaining a utopia, which Robinson defined as a world in which “all humans and a biosphere that support it are well,” possible. Avoiding environmental catastrophe therefore rests on better planning and cleaner technologies. Unsustainable capitalist practices that encourage consumerism and waste, then, hamper progress in creating greener technologies.

Cities also provide the possibility of creating a more environmentally balanced “utopia” in that
they encourage less need for burning carbon. Robinson referred to this set of behaviors as “paleolithic activities.” In dense city centers, paleolithic activities such as walking, urban gardening or using public transit work hand-in-hand with green technologies.

In a brief interview with City Atlas, Kim Stanley Robinson addressed cities’ role in participating in a better planned, more sustainable future:

City Atlas: In what ways can cities participate, or even encourage, these paleolithic activities you mentioned?

I think cities are important because they are so densely populated…and I think that a lot of city life is fairly paleolithic in a strange way because it gets away from the automobile. Cities encourage face-to-face interactions with other individuals, so I like it for that. And I think that rooftops need to be used for urban gardens and that cities need to be greened, less for the auto and more for people and public transit.

On the other end of the spectrum of green technology and paleolithic activities, Robinson argued, rest the “bad economies” of capitalist models that have created a “multi-generational Ponzi scheme.” Throughout the lecture, Robinson employed this “multi-generational Ponzi scheme” as a metaphor for the way that we have treated future generations by living in an environmentally irresponsible way. For example, much as we have stripped the Earth of resources for fuel, the predatory dumping tactics of big businesses, concerned more with immediate profit rather than long-term, sustainable solutions, often prioritize the here and now over the implications for the future.

In classical economics, if you sell something for less than it costs to make it, they call it dumping. And if you do that to drive your competitors out of business, after which point you raise the prices so you have a monopoly, it’s called predatory dumping…But what we have with this systemic predatory dumping, you have to ask is, well, who are we putting out of business, if that is the metaphor that we are using?…It would be the future generations. We are predating on the future generations, as if the competition were with them.

These two competing poles – science versus capitalism – lay bare a few of our approaches towards dealing with the future in environmental terms. Will we return to paleolithic activities, as Robinson encourages, or will we fast forward to beyond our current Holocene Epoch?

We thank MoMA PS1 and Triple Canopy for organizing these talks. 

[Update 3/19/17: Because the original video of Robinson’s talk has been taken offline, here instead is a talk from May 4, 2016, to the Bartlett School of Architecture, on designing cities for rising seas]