Last week, on Earth Day, during my university’s day-long thingie on “social development” and environmental concerns, SF author Kim Stanley Robinson spoke for a bit on social responsibility for humanity’s future. He said some great things, I took notes, he signed a book of mine and we had a very brief conversation. Here’s a summary of what he said, mostly paraphrased quotes, and a lot I’ve forgotten. I’ll try not to digress too much.
KSR is an award winning Utopian author (with a PhD) who’s written, among many other critically acclaimed works, the Mars trilogy and the “Science in the Capital” trilogy. The former is about terraforming Mars and “Utopian” society that develops there, and the latter is about the effects of global warming. In his regular life, KSR is an “American-leftist” and works for social change and climate change awareness. (He made interesting comment that when he started writing, “utopian fiction” meant writing about perfect society, nowadays it means simply society surviving. Kind of indicative of some significant social change.) His talk was in dedication to Dr. Bill Burling who he collaborated with and edited a book of critical essays about KSR. (Dr. Burling was my professor and mentor who I recently mentioned passed away.)
Alright, so, what he said:
(Yikes, I got pretty busy and sick the last week, so this has been delayed; sorry. Hope my notes still make sense to me….)
So, KSR started off by telling us he comes from an American-leftist perspective, and that he sees the world though a particular ideology. But, the point is, we all experience the world through various ideologies–and it’s not something to be avoided, even if you could. He remarked that when people use the term “ideology” it’s usually as a negative: “I see things the way they are, but he sees things through ideology!” It is through ideology that we translate our experiences and make sense of the world we live in, whether it’s a leftist or conservative, humanist or religious, or any other ideology. The point it so identity the ways in which we make sense of the world, find the overlaps with other people and cooperate where we can to make things better.
He then talked about something that has always intrigued me about we as people and society: he observed that at each stage of our cultural development we as a culture believe we’re at the top of the ladder, the best we can be. After all, if there’s more we can do to be better and more advanced as a people, wouldn’t we be doing it already? Yet every ten or twenty years we look back and are amazed at how ridiculous we were as a culture–whether it’s something like clothing and music trends or the way we act in general. We must always strive to “become more sophisticated than your own cultural moment.” If we know that in a couple of decades we’re going to look back on what we are today, what we’re doing and how we’re behaving, and be amused or aghast or ashamed–let’s go ahead and start moving toward that better moment around the corner.
Our brains as hominids have grown larger and more capable over time. Our brains, as homo sapiens, are about as big as they can be and still more often than not pass through the birth canal; evolution caused our brains to advance faster than the rest of our bodies. Why? What was going on in our relatively stable environment millennia ago to cause our brains to advance so drastically? (Uhm, I don’t remember the exact point he got to from there, but he went on to say) we used to live in a world in which we experienced what we call the sublime on rare, amazing instances….
The sublime is the combination of natural beauty and terror. It’s a kind of experience that fundamentally shakes our sense of reality. To the paleolithic human, the sublime was experienced when a lightning strike would explode yards away. Or when you run for your life from a wildcat and make it to the tribe alive. These are experiences of the sublime. Amazing and wonderful and terrifying.
But in our modern world, we still have the brains we maxed out on as paleolithic humans, but experience what our brains interpret as sublime on a constant basis! Riding in a car at amazing speeds whizzing past other zooming hunks of metal–that’s fundamentally sublime. Flying, easy to get food, ability to stay warm or cool without effort, constant shelter, these are mundane modern experiences that our brains evolved to find as unusual and awesome, but we’ve sublimated the experiences into white noise, and so our still in many ways anciently-wired minds strive to experience that heart-racing and hormone pumping reaction to the sublime experience that we should be having to this constant “technological sublime.” With the help of computers, games, drugs, television, we perform virtual rock throwing to strike down a charging enemy–in the form of watching sports or playing a first-person shooter game. Virtual travel, virtual sex, we use our cultural production to try to fulfill the experiences our brains evolved to experience, and feel the sense of accomplishment and success they were wired to feel–and we don’t quite get it. We earn 100,000 points at Game X, yea, yippie…but it’s an empty accomplishment. Hmm, maybe if I earn 200,000 points I’ll fill fulfilled. Easy food, no accomplishment. Maybe if I eat more I’ll feel like I caught my hunt. Easy clothing, comfort, everything. But we don’t feel truly happy much less the results of experiencing the sublime–so we consume more and more and more in constant search for fulfillment and happiness. And of course, a billion and a half corporations are more than happy to take advantage of our spiraling and recursive need/non-fulfillment by producing and selling us more and more and more.
The result: addiction to consumption.
The result: Global ecological impact = appetite x population x technology.
KSR then talked about the GINI figures and wealth distribution. During feudal period, power came from land ownership. In capitalism, power comes from money ownership. However, between the two periods, the power structure didn’t really change all that much. The powerful land owners became rich land owners.
What we have in capitalism wealth distribution is a pyramid where at the very top is 1% of the world’s population owning 99% of the world’s wealth. (In the US, the top 5% own 95% of the nation’s wealth. Go us.) The most damage to the ecosystem actually comes from the top and th bottoms of the pyramid. The top engages in hyper-consumerism. The bottom (and population-wise, the largest world group) is poverty stricken, they have to feed their children tonight, so the thought of sustainable natural resources don’t (can’t) factor in what they need to do to earn enough to feed their family.
The best wealth-to-population “shape” that we can have would be a flattened oval, where the majority of the population have the majority of the wealth reasonably equally distributed. This paradigm would be best not just because it’d be “nice,” but because it’s vital for the survival of our species.
Social justice, just like language and law, is a technology. It’s a development that changes and improves over time and to social conditions. We can change our concepts of social justice for the better for more people. Interestingly, the places on the world where women enjoy full legal rights and social justice, the “replacement rates” (childbirth rates) is low and sustainable. Where childbirth rates are high (and potentially socially and ecologically damaging) are where social justice is rare. (On a personal note, I find it interesting in the middle of the US where in general social justice is moderate (not near as good as many northern European countries) there are pockets of social injustice and high birth rates among the evangelical religious Christians. For example, “Quiverfull Families,” where women are expected to be baby-making machines and are considered second-class and second-rate people. “Helpmeets” at best!)
Back to consumption without happiness, by every statistical measurement of happiness over the last 50 years, we in the US aren’t any happier than people in other countries despite our increased ability to consume and 5x the consumption rate as [notes illegible here. I believe compared to comparable Western nations].
We as individuals conform to the norms of our culture. If we truly want to be happier people and/or less consuming people, we need to make big group decisions to change culture what equals happiness. In a manner of speaking, the impending climate change, though dangerous, is an opportunity to make massive social change across the board, including improvements to social justice and global living conditions!
(KSR advocated a resurgence of awareness for Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.)
At this point KSR started taking questions from the audience. In response to a question regarding his view on healthcare, he very much believes healthcare is a right for all. As was the saying among Italian workers: “health is not for sale!”
Something we have to remember as we desire change, is the government is us. He’s always found it amazing when people curse the government because the government if “for the people, of the people, and by the people.” When you curse the government, simply replace the word “government” with “us” and see what kind of sense that makes.
(Here’s where I diverge from KSR’s opinions, and when I had a moment with him I asked him about how I, and many of us, do not see the government any longer as by, of, and for us. The government is a corporatocracy, run by, for, and of corporations. People may still have some influence over government at local levels, which is vital and often ignored! People forget that change can start at home as all focus is on state and federal levels. But it’s at those levels where corporate interests hold sway. KSR’s response was basically that we still have the right of the vote, who we vote for. Yeah, well, that’s a great symbolism but it’s pretty much meaningless as the only people that are allowed by the corporate run campaign and election machines are corporate lackey X and a nearly identical corporate lackey Y. Their only differences are in superficial “wedge issue” topics that create a conflict between the voters that cause them to ignore the more important, fundamental issues rotting the core of society.)
He mentioned the site http://www.350.org and the data than can be found on it regarding how to sustain human and most current life on the planet, the CO2 in the atmosphere can’t be (on a long-term level) more than 350 parts per million. We’re currently at 389 and climbing rapidly.
There are a lot of great ideas that are floating around about geoengineering, but the bottom line is we need to get CO2 out of the atmosphere (and not into the oceans where it’s currently being soaked up and screwing up the food chain.) The best option is reforestation. And it’s possible that just a little effort and improvement can result in huge chain-reaction of thriving greenery. We can’t assume the problem is too big and out of control to deal with–then crisis is assured. We can’t stand around paralyzed, waiting for the next gee-whiz technology to get invented that will save us all. It might not come in time.
We need to promote “mindful consumption,” increase wind-powered technology, and absolutely 100% not burn coal. And “clean coal” is non-existent. It’s a marketing term that’s essentially meaningless.
Smart consumption. Interestingly, junking your current car for a hybrid may be more ecologically damaging as the increase in hybrid car production causes more of a carbon footprint than what’s saved by the hybrid cars.
“Sustainable development,” one of the buzzwords found on the printed materials for this day’s events and printed on a 50-foot wall banner in the theater, is also a marketing term that’s simply code for “capitalism”. We need to become post-capitalists. One thing we have to get past is this idea that capitalism is the end-all be-all of socio-political developments. There are better alternatives, and it doesn’t mean embracing Ludditeism. Low tech is not necessary to become post-capitalist.
We have to face that because of our ability to affect the world, we have stewardship over it. It’s a scary thought because we’re pretty ignorant as a species when it comes to world-building. We don’t even know how to make soil–we have to grow soil. We have to realize as we make change to save the eco-system (and human society) that we’re not giving up comfortable lifestyle, we have to give up a neurotic lifestyle!
(For the Facebook users: This is a post from my blog getting auto-noted to Facebook, which cuts off any images or videos in the transfer and removes much text formatting like bold and italics.)