Building our Climate Futures Through Storytelling (Part 1), feat. Eric Holthaus and Kim Stanley Robinson
In the first episode of our two-part finale of our season on climate data, we’re going to focus on fiction, not facts: specifically, on the world-building, future-crafting writers who tell stories to warn us, teach us, inspire us, and motivate us to work for the future of our choosing. In speaking with authors Eric Holthaus and Kim Stanley Robinson, they discuss how hope, empathy, and, of course, climate science and climate data, informed their most recent work, Eric’s The Future Earth and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.
You can follow Eric Holthaus on Twitter.
You can read more about and purchase his book, The Future Earth, here.
Finally, you can subscribe to Eric’s newsletter, The Phoenix.
You can read more about and purchase Kim Stanley Robinson’s book, The Ministry for the Future, here.
You can also visit this comprehensive, though unofficial, website dedicated to Stan’s work.
On the power of speculative and science fiction:
On climate fiction:
Amy Brady’s Burning Worlds column for the Chicago Review of Books:
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A full transcript of this episode can be found below.
Jacquelyn Gill: Long before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, before climate models or even computers, writers have been in the business of imagining our future.
Decades before humans left Earth’s atmosphere — before we even left the ground — science fiction put us on faraway planets. Many of these stories were reactions to the social problems and technological advancements of their time and, by projecting far into the future, they created worlds for us to explore and get lost in. From the comfort of my own home, I’ve spent dozens of hours on Mars and explored the galaxy from the bridge of the Enterprise, the Rocinante, and the Normandy. And I’ve picked through the ruins of a post-apocalyptic North America, fighting zombies and scavenging old grocery stores for supplies — which I have enjoyed far more than I ever would the real thing, by the way.
But speculative fiction is more than just escapism, though let me be clear that I am a firm believer in the value of having fictional worlds as refuges when reality lets us down. It’s also, by its nature, an exercise in futurology, which is the study of the development of social and technological advancements with the explicit goal of predicting what life will be like in the future. Futurists draw on everything from physics to evolutionary biology to climate science, projecting historic trends outwards to predict where we could be headed. Science fiction (as a sub-genre of speculative fiction) basically does the same thing. It creates imagined futures that are often deeply connected to (and reflect on) our present.
In fact, science fiction has inspired many real-world technologies, including submarines, atomic power, and cell phones; and still others, like television, the internet, credit cards, and mass surveillance were anticipated by science fiction long before they became a reality. And while we still don’t have flying cars, replicators, teleportation, or warp drives, all of those things are all being actively researched right now, in some form or another.
But importantly, science fiction doesn’t just present us with a societal wishlist of technological gadgets, and it’s more than a menu of options for societal collapse. “Would you choose climate change, pandemics, a nuclear holocaust, or a zombie apocalypse?” These fictional worlds, even when set on other planets — or other realities entirely — can be a powerful lens on our own reality. They often grapple with tough questions about what it means to be humans on Earth together right now. Feminist science fiction, Indigenous futurisms, Afrofutrism and Africanfuturism all explicitly grapple with themes of inequality, identity, and technology — linking the future with the past to shed light on the present.
This makes works of speculative fiction not just entertaining or meaningful on a personal level, but also powerful oracles. Such stories can warn us about where we’re headed, like the ecological and social dystopias in Marget Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, or Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. And importantly, science fiction can also imagine new pathways — exploring communities or ways of life that (instead of extrapolating our current moment to its darkest extremes) create new possibilities outside the bounds of our current reality. Books like The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk or Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson imagine more sustainable lifeways, in the near aftermath of ecological or economic collapse.
Many of these books fall under the umbrella of what’s often called “climate fiction,” yet another circle in the Venn diagrams of literary genres. Not all works of climate fiction are set in the future. Many, like Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior, are set in the present — reflecting our current climate reality. Still others are set in the far distant future, like NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy.
Throughout this season, we keep coming back to the power of storytelling to humanize the climate crisis, to raise awareness, and inspire action. So when it comes to climate change fiction, how are we doing? The answer is: we don’t really know yet. There’s been little research about the impact of science or climate fiction on attitudes and beliefs about climate change. One study by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson found that readers of climate fiction tend to be younger, more liberal, and more concerned about climate change than average. So while such novels may not necessarily change beliefs about climate change, the study suggested they may be inspiring people to act on those beliefs.
But there’s a double-edged sword here. The study also found that reading climate fiction was associated with more negative emotions about climate change, which the author warns could lead to negative outcomes like despair or disengagement. While there’s been little research on this when it comes to fiction, we can draw on research in psychology and communication science, which has found that fear-based appeals can often backfire unless people are given a sense of agency. It may not be enough to convince people that climate change is a problem; we need a roadmap toward solutions
In other words, the power of speculative fiction isn’t just in helping us imagine possible futures; it can also help us to make those futures a reality. The Smithsonian Institution is putting together an exhibit called “Futures” for its 175th anniversary, and in a recent interview the Director of the Arts and Industries Museum, Rachel Goslins, talked about why this kind of visioning is so important. “We have so much help imagining what could go wrong” she says, “and we don’t have as much help imagining what could go right. If we don’t know where we want to get to, we’re not going to be able to figure out how to get there.” And that study by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson reinforces the power of storytelling to lead the way: many of the readers he interviewed reported that the novels they read helped make the future more accessible and less nebulous.
And that’s why, for the last two episodes of our season about climate data, we’re going to focus on fiction, not facts — specifically on the world-building, future-crafting writers who tell stories to warn us, teach us, inspire us, and motivate us to work for the future of our choosing.
Welcome to Warm Regards. I’m Jacquelyn Gill.
Ramesh Laungani: And I’m Ramesh Laungani. For the first episode in our two-part finale, Jacquelyn and I sat down with two writers who have been drawing roadmaps towards a sustainable climate future. And if you’re a long-time listener of our show, you’ll hear a familiar voice:
Eric Holthaus: I’m Eric Holthaus and I am a writer, a journalist, a meteorologist, and recently finished writing the book, The Future Earth.
Ramesh: For this conversation, we decided to pair Eric with someone who’s well-known for grappling with climate change in his novels.
Kim Stanley Robinson: Hi, I’m Kim Stanley Robinson, Stan. I am an American science fiction writer and I live in Davis, California.
Ramesh: Like The Future Earth, Stan’s most recent book, The Ministry for the Future, outlines a roadmap towards a climate future that’s more utopian than most climate fiction. Both books envision a world where we actually addressed climate change. We talked with Stan and Eric about their work and the power of storytelling to drive climate action.
Jacquelyn: Thank you both for joining us today, and for joining us for a conversation together. In honor of Eric as the founder of this podcast back in 2016, I’d like to start off with a quote from your book, The Future Earth:
Radical change needs to focus on not only preventing apocalypse, but also building up a picture of a future that’s worth fighting for. Imagining a world as a burning hellscape, is for some reason much easier than imagining a world where we come together and build a new version of human society that works for every person and every species.
So to start us off, why is it harder to write or imagine futures in this way? Why is it easier to write an apocalypse than something more utopian? Eric, why don’t you go first.
Eric: I think . . . thank you, first of all, for having us here. This is such a huge honor to be back on the podcast.
I don’t know. I mean, at least for me personally it’s more fascinating to watch a train wreck than watching like the train tracks be built, if that makes sense. I feel like we’re just drawn to those like red gaping wounds — like drama, personal tragedy, that kind of stuff. As people, as humans we’re sort of like hardwired to show up for each other in those cases. In the base of our brain is this desire to help each other in emergencies, to sort of drop what we’re doing and to attend to chaos. I feel like we are equally built to help each other construct societies that work for everyone, but it just takes a lot longer. It sort of like uses different brain chemicals to do that work. It may be really more difficult to draw attention quickly to that sort of a story than it would be the other way around. At least that’s kind of what I’ve experienced as a climate scientist and a climate journalist, that telling the story of disaster is really an easy story to tell and so that’s the first story that a lot of people tell. The much more difficult and much more meaningful and important stories to tell: the idea, the facts about the future, the facts about where the possibilities that are still available to us, and sort of leave that up for debate or for choice. Too often I feel like we get pigeonholed into this inevitable chaos or inevitable disaster narrative about climate change because that’s just the easiest story to tell, and that’s the story that sort of gets people riled up the easiest.
But yeah, I feel like we are not at a place in human history where that story really is as important as it once was, so it’s really nice to see this sort of growth of alternative futures. Those stories clearly have always been around for hundreds of years we’ve been telling aspirational stories of our futures and there’s lots of traditions of that sort of storytelling, but it’s nice to sort of see those stories be emphasized in a world where we are clearly living at a moment where what’s worked for people (what’s worked for some people) is no longer possible, where we were sort of being forced with a choice with COVID, with climate emergency, with racial injustice; we’re being forced to turn quickly now and it’s just sort of still up for grabs what might happen.
Jacquelyn: That’s interesting. It sounds like it’s both a matter of psychology (how we’re wired on some fundamental level), but it’s also the way that we’re drawn to these narratives or the way they grip us as a species of storytellers. Stan, I’m really curious to hear what you have to say as a fiction author about this idea that we’d rather watch a train crash than watch a train being built.
Stan: Yeah, well, I would agree with Eric. I mean, it occurred to me several years ago that a novel’s plot begins when something goes wrong, so stories are initiated not by ordinary daily life but by something going wrong in that daily life; and then you’ve got your plot. So the daily life part of it (what you might call the anthropology part of the novel) is exposed. Something goes wrong in that system, you follow the disaster (the thing going wrong) and then you understand how things were when they went right. That’s how most detective stories work. So there’s that.
And then you’ve got the idea that you want to describe something better happening. Well, if you think of the ordinary story as being like soap operas and then the plan for something better being like architectural blueprints, you’ve got utopian fiction where it’s supposed to be the combination of soap opera and blueprints. It’s hard. And then also we live in a global capitalist system that is global; it’s how the world is run. Some people call it capitalist realism, and then in certain traditions you’d call it hegemonic thinking, and hegemony is very powerful. It imitates normality itself, like the laws of physics. You think, “Well, this is the way the world works.” The same way you think of gravity or the sun coming up, you think capitalist realism.
So if you want to present a better system, you have this standing . . . especially in the novel, you’ve got this problem. The novel’s there to describe how things are, the utopian plan is trying to describe how things ought to be, and those two are a standing conflict that you can’t reconcile. You can blink back and forth really fast between the two, but you can’t amalgamate them into one thing. Science fiction is great at solving this dilemma by being set in the future. You can go from what is to what ought to be and you can present it as a problem, as a plot; things have gone wrong, gotta make them right. That then becomes a story in itself, so that’s been my solution very often.
Ramesh: So Stan, I want to follow up on that a bit. You said that fiction often starts with a problem, but starting with a problem could have the story go in two ways: a dystopian narrative or one that is more hopeful. What were some other strategies that you used to build your hopeful narrative?
Stan: Well, I let it take place over a thirty year period. This was to try to give readers . . . say that my project was to give us a kind of a best case scenario that if we did things right (we kind of ran the table on doing things right), we could get to a good future. But I wanted the reader to believe that it was possible, so giving it thirty years allowed me the time for good things to occur. Then I had a big cast and a lot of formal games. In other words: different points of view, different forms, dialogues, meeting notes, eye witness accounts, the ordinary dramatized scene, a couple of main characters you could follow, but a lot of other stuff including little mini essays on various parts of the problem. For me, the eyewitness accounts were the crucial discovery. I didn’t understand before that that’s really a genre in itself that’s different from novels per se. Because an eye witness is telling you (often years later) what happened to them at a crucial moment, like when slow violence turns into fast violence or something dynamic happens. The eyewitness was there and is later on being interviewed, so they tell it fast (it’s very compressed) and they judge it; what it meant to them, what it meant to the world. These are the characteristics of the eyewitness account. So when I discovered that, I started making up eye witness accounts over the next thirty years to give it a kind of a global feeling and a sense of a world story rather than just your ordinary novels — you know, a half a dozen characters in a single setting. It was a juggling act, but it was the right form for that particular project.
Jacquelyn: One thing that’s struck me about both of your works is that they present a roadmap for the future. Eric, even though your book is nonfiction, it’s really creative in that way. Do you use any of these same strategies or literary devices in your book?
Eric: You know, I referred to it in my head as I was writing as speculative non-fiction. It’s sort of like saying my training is as a meteorologist and as a climate scientist, so sort of thinking of how would the models of the next thirty years from now until 2050 (what’s the uncertainty range in the models, how quickly could Antarctica melt, or how fast could we be experiencing record floods on a different level than we currently are) and sort of also meshing that with how quickly democracy works in the US and around the world, how quickly social movements work, in modeling what’s been the 20th century history of nonviolent social movements. Where can change happen? What would that look like if all of that plays out over the next thirty years in kind of like what Stan said: a best case scenario, but also a realistic best case scenario.
You’re not going to have sort of technological magic bullet that’s invented overnight. It’s going to be a process where over the rest of our lifetimes, the effects of climate change will continue to get worse no matter what we do (that’s baked into the climate system) but it’s sort of thinking about like if we had a Green New Deal or if you had some sort of socially justice centered response at an emergency scale that sort of pays attention to the voices of people who’ve been marginalized for centuries, how quickly could things change? It seems like it could happen really quickly. You know, I wrote this book in 2019 (most of it) and I’m really astonished as 2020 was happening, all of this. I have this sort of literary device of like, “There has to be some major disaster that happens in 2020 that gets people to thinking on an emergency timescale about climate change,” and it happened. I’m still sort of in shock that it happened. In 2021, I have a new president being inaugurated with climate as the top of his agenda, and that happened. It’s just still shocking to me that even what I thought was sort of like a marginally extreme best-case scenario ended up being in some ways a little bit conservative. That’s kind of in what you see when you look over the past 150 years of social movements, that’s kind of how it happens. Once it happens, it happens quickly or it can happen quickly.
Ramesh: In your work, both of you converged on this optimistic vision of the future, and so I’m curious to know: how did you both arrive at that vision? What was your process to get there?
Stan: For me it’s been a project for a little over thirty years to write utopian fiction on purpose, most of the time. By that I wanted to reshape the conception of utopia from being a perfect end point to a name for a kind of history, a good progressing dynamic history where things are getting better. That would be my definition of utopian fiction, coming out of Ursula Le Guin. I feel like it’s a somewhat empty niche in the cultural ecology that there aren’t enough stories like that, and so if you do one in an interesting way, you find that people wanted stories like that because everybody we’d like to have a stronger sense that if we did the right things, the future could be good — or better. This was just the end of . . . I mean, my book, the Ministry for the Future was just the end of a process of taking different angles on the problem. I would have to say that at last I decided, “Well, let’s just go right at the center of the problem and see instead of telling it through metaphorical means or on Mars or in the deep past or on the moon,: various angles I had taken, Antarctica, et cetera, et cetera, “to just go straight at it this time.”
Ramesh: How did you come to that vision Eric?
Eric: It’s a great question. I think that like many people who’ve been working in climate change for a couple of decades, I feel like at some point it just sort of hit me that this is a choice. Your choice of how you think about the future affects the actions that you will take today. I mean, that’s the whole point of imagination and planning and thinking ahead, to think about what sort of path you might take. But I realize that also sort of eats away at you. My last few decades sort of manifested in like this sort of escalating sense of climate anxiety.
Or at one point about five or six years ago right before my first child was born, I had really just sort of like mentally written it off; saying like, “We’re f’ed, we’re not going to do this. We’re not gonna fix what we need to fix in time; the problem is just too big.” It was such an incredibly dark period of time for me (three or four months, that lasted), and it ended with the birth of my oldest son. That sparked for me this new way of thinking about the world and it’s extremely cliche, but that’s how it happened (for me, at least) to sort of think about, “I’m not doing this work for me. I’m not even doing this work for the people that are alive today. I’m doing this work of trying to think about what we need to do (what we what’s possible for us to do) in sort of a context of all of the life that exists on earth, and sort of thinking about — very quickly once I got into that mindset — sort of realizing, again, this is work that’s been done over hundreds of years by non-Western or marginalized writers in a way where . . . I have that quote in the book from Ursula Le Guin that “capitalism feels inevitable just like the divine right of kings felt inevitable”, and that’s just not true. So once you kind of break out of that (allow yourself to think of alternative systems that currently exist that are just being intentionally marginalized by folks in power right now), it feels a lot more possible; the change that’s necessary feels a lot more possible. I just chose to live in that world instead of in the sort of world of dark climate despair. It just ended up being a choice for me.
Jacquelyn: Both of you have mentioned the importance of Ursula Le Guin, who I also love. It makes me wonder, who else are you reading? Who’s inspiring you as you’ve been envisioning your own climate futures?
Eric: Well, I mean, Stan’s books have been very helpful for me. [Laughs] It’s been really amazing to sort of watch someone imagine that world in multiple different ways, and sort of figure out how a society might act as you’re in the process of this transformational change over decades of time. I’m just thinking about . . . especially over the last year I’ve been rereading and rereading and visiting different parts of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and watching The Expanse, as well — trying to again imagine the politics as it’s playing out. There’s always going to be a contested future; there’s always going to be a struggle. A revolution is never complete. So sort of breaking away from this sort of idealistic naive view that I had probably fifteen or twenty years ago about this like techno utopian future where all we need is solar panels and wind farms, and we’ll fix the problem. You know, the problem is hundreds of years in the making — very, very deep ingrained society; and all of that is going to have to be rewritten and repaired in order to get to the place where we need to go. So this is a lot deeper problem than a lot of people think of, but it’s also more accessible — I think — to each one of us than most people are aware of.
Stan: I appreciate what you said, Eric, and thanks for reading my books. Ursula Le Guin was a teacher and then a friend of mine and a kind of an elder sister figure in my life, very beloved, and she taught me a lot. One thing is just the idea of literature as a kind of religion that you make meaning out of the stories that you tell yourself. You can say that they’re backed up by divine right of kings or something, but in fact it’s the stories themselves that make up the religion.
In my own books, sometimes I’ve said, “Let’s make this one a comedy and just show that, after climate disasters happen, young people aren’t going to be sitting on the ground casting ashes on their head and weeping. They’re going to be trying to make the best they can out of the situation.” So I do a book like New York 2140 or another kind of coping in Green Earth, and just keep telling the story from different angles and realized that there’s not just one story. You can’t . . . not only one writer can’t exhaust all the stories, but the whole community of writers can’t exhaust all the stories; they’re more or less infinite.
Because I’ve been writing my own stories, I haven’t read as much as I ought to have recently. But I’ve seen something going on about people writing about disaster striking a small community, where that small community (and this is partly because of narrative convenience of keeping to a normal novel) that small community becomes the only space of this story. Indeed, it’s the story of getting cut off from the rest of the world. But I keep thinking to myself, “Well that’s interesting, but I wonder what’s going on in the rest of the world. And I wonder what emergency services is doing. And I wonder what the UN climate emergency forces are doing.” In other words, my mind keeps going global and I think this is somewhat me, but also somewhat science fiction. The science fiction response is to look at the larger systems within which your major characters live, and try to tell the story of the system as well as the characters. I persist in thinking that the global story is . . . and this is sort of at the level of the scientists, right? I mean, you got some of your climate scientists / paleoecologists. You use the local (like a core in some lake in Ohio) to tell you about the global — what was happening in the whole Northern hemisphere. But say you kept it at the level of, “We cored this lake bottom in Ohio,” and you found these strata and you didn’t go to the global, well, what kind of a story would that be? I mean, in a way you’d be cut off from its meaning. This is the thing that has been driving my methodology as a storyteller.
Jacquelyn: Wow. That’s really powerful. I don’t know if you saw my CV, Stan, but I have literally have cored a lake in Ohio.
Stan: Yeah, you cored the lake! I did see your CV.
Jacquelyn: This is great. You’re absolutely speaking my love language.
Justin Schell: Producer Justin Schell here, with another data story. Dr. Joe Mascaro (who you might remember from an earlier Warm Regards episode) sent us this story about his work as an ecologist and remote sensing scientist. Given the global nature of his work, we thought it fit nicely with the themes discussed by Eric and Stan.
Joe Mascaro: Hi, I’m Dr Joe Mascaro. I’m a tropical ecologist and a remote sensing scientist. I use a series of different types of data to study the whole earth system, including satellite data — also LIDAR data, which is essentially data layers created from an active sensor which emits laser light pulses. We can use LIDAR to understand the structure and volume and the carbon storage within the vegetation on different types of ecosystems on the earth.
Scientists like me that study the whole earth system use satellite data from a lot of different sources. One of the most common is Landsat and it’s been collecting data over the entire Earth (basically uninterrupted), although we’ve now seen a huge explosion in the number of satellites that are producing data. So scientists have accumulated hundreds of billions of square kilometers of data. Through this long time stack of data, we can see the patterns of change in terms of the loss of ecosystems and human modifications of our environment (the growth of cities, changes in reservoirs, deforestation and forest degradation), and these data sources lead to a much better understanding of the whole earth system and the human impacts on it.
Justin: If you’d like to share a data story with us, you can leave us a voicemail by calling 586–930–5286, or record yourself and email it to us at OurWarmRegards@gmail.com.
Jacquelyn: One of the powers of science fiction is its ability to help us envision possible futures — not only to warn us about where we could be headed if we continue on our current path, but also what the alternatives could look like if we choose a different one. Given all of the challenges of our current moment, do you think writers have a responsibility to write less apocalyptic futures, or to be our guides to something better?
Stan: I absolutely refuse to advocate or preach of what other writers should write about. Everybody’s got their own project. And in fact, I get annoyed that people like Amitav Ghosh; I just think, “Go away. Write your own book. Do it by showing. Quit telling us what to do.”
There is a point to doing dystopia; it’s to try to scare people. You don’t want to go down that road. It has its use value. Maybe it can be overindulgent and maybe you need more of the positive stories. I believe that too, but every writer has to . . . to a certain extent, the stories choose them — their temperament, their experiences. They don’t get to just (in a kind of free abstract sense) say, “I’m going to tell this kind of a story.” They’re forced into it by life itself. To tell other other writers what to write, I find it offensive.
Ramesh: What are your thoughts on that idea, Eric?
Eric: He was definitely more gracious, of course [laughs] then my gut instinct was to the question. I feel like I have done some of that, as I have been being scared . . . I’m going to say it. There is a genre of my age or a little bit younger, sort of like well-educated white male climate writer that writes his scary climate book, and I feel like that is sort of like a thing that people do now. I feel like I get the mail from readers of those books writing to me and say like, “What the hell is happening? Is it actually,” like, “Is it worse?” I see people on Twitter that are like, “I’ve checked out.” There are people that are going through really profound mental distress from reading this.
In some cases, there is like a kind of a quality of a narrative license with the facts. I’m not saying that that any of these books are factually inaccurate. They’ve done their fact checks; they know what they’re saying; they know what they’re doing. But written and read in context, I feel like at times it feels irresponsible. But at the same time (like Stan said) that works for some people. There are more people that know about climate change now than before The Uninhabitable Earth was written, for example. It changed things in a really important way, and who am I to say whether that was bad or good. It happened, and a lot more people are paying attention to climate now because of it.
Ramesh: Both of you mentioned the idea of choice when putting your writing together, but you came at it from different perspectives. Stan said the story chooses you and Eric said that you (the author) make the choice to tell a particular story. So how have your personal histories and experiences influenced your choices in your writing?
Stan: Well, I’m an American leftist. That means the Democratic Party, the Democratic Socialists of America, the IWW, the whole left tradition in the United States and then also the world. So that political program is a utopian science fiction story attempting to insert itself in the real world and make the story come true by direct action in the world, and the stories are in a feedback loop. First you get the French Commune, then you get Edward Bellamy writing, Looking Backward from the year 2000. Then you get the Bellamy clubs, then you get the progressive movement, then you get the Senate elected by the people rather than by the legislatures; in this constant feedback loop of hopeful, positive stories of, “This could happen if we were to do these things.” Then people doing these things and then they go wrong and you have plots and you have reversals and you have sometimes quite disastrous unintended consequences (or pushback from the right), and on it goes and that’s history.
For me, my stories, it’s partly — okay — it’s biochemical, it’s my biochemistry. It’s my temperament. That comes from my mom. My mom taught me that you be cheerful, no matter what’s going on. This was a moral point from my mom that was very important to her and she taught me that it could be lived in quite tough circumstances. So at that point, I’m more or less obliged or — let’s put it this way — I’m on the hunt for good stories and trying to make them sound realistic enough to be persuasive in terms of how people behave.
Eric: I think that early on sort of when I was learning about climate and weather and the system that sustains life on earth (literally), I feel like I saw it as this global story where a lot of people were focused on predicting exactly the temperature to the degree in three days time or exactly when the tornado would form and hit a certain town. That’s extremely useful, but it just wasn’t really where my abilities were or where I sort of like felt I could meaningfully contribute. I think that almost really by accident I kind of got interested in climate change as a manifestation of this sort of like global ethical system, where science is overlaid on top of that. I wanted to work in service of my neighbors and my community. At the same time I wanted to like nerd out on science. And at the same time, I thought, “But climate change is probably something that we’re going to solve.” You know, this is me being twenty years old in the early 2000s, again thinking in a techno utopia sort of way (like we’re going to fix it) without understanding exactly how deep the problem went.
I think that in that sense, the story sort of found me but I was drawn to climate and weather because that’s what I’m sort of passionate and obsessed about every day. I wake up in the morning trying to hope that today’s going to be the day that we get the the signal from another planet or that we get the Mars landing or that we get — you know — that grand picture of humanity’s place in the universe; is sort of like what drives me every day to wake up and I think that, sort of, you can see that playing out right now. With climate on Earth, there’s these civilizational-scale choices that we’re making right now. I always think of it on that deep-time framework and a global framework in a ways that feel inescapable to me, like I can’t really think of the story in any other way.
Jacquelyn: Eric, you’re a meteorologist-turned-climate-journalist and, Stan, you weave a lot of different scientific elements into your novels — from Martian geology to sea level rise. I’m wondering how each of you uses climate data or climate research more broadly, as part of this work of world-building that you’ve both engaged in.
Stan: Well, I am an English major. I’m married to an environmental chemist, and that teaches me a lot in my daily life of just watching the life, the methods, the mindset, the collegiality of the way science works in the world today through people, the institutions (my wife’s at US Geological Survey). I did a lot with National Science Foundation’s Antarctic program, watched the institutions and went to Antarctica; that’s was a climate experience. So all these things, and then my reading, my acquaintances, acquaintances at NASA Ames. A planetologist Chris McKay has been a thirty year tech resource for me and connects me up with the rest of that community. The glaciology community is really small and because I went to Antarctica twice I’m well connected there. For Ministry for the Future, the main thing I guess I focused on was CO2 in the atmosphere; how much will we put up there and, you know, of course in the ocean as well that has to be added because it’s significant. Because we imagine (and it might be true) that we can turn down the thermostat and suck carbon dioxide back out of the atmosphere, but in the ocean it’s not so simple and the acidification is severe.
But what I did was I used that as one index, and there were other things going on on earth that contribute to that. That’s the reason it’s an index; a lot of different factors and processes come crashing together, and then we can talk about parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere. I thought, well, bending the Keeling curve downward or actually beginning to suck some CO2 out of the atmosphere by decarbonization methods, and then also dropping the rate of the population of humanity by women’s education beginning to bring that curve down so that maybe we get to a worldwide human replacement rate of 1.5 — another index of what you might call biosphere health, very powerful. And all these things done by what you could call positive means. In other words, you don’t need a police state. You don’t need draconian guns-in-your-face coercion. Widespread better living, better agriculture, that begins to drop the CO2, maybe direct air capture. In other words, the sciences are almost the complete driver of my stories because I wanted to try to make them plausible and persuasive. I don’t want your magic ray gun or the super leader or the various silver bullet techno fixes that you hear — not just in Silicon Valley, but also in the science fiction tradition, right?
That’s been the game that I play because I find it really entertaining. I would say it keeps coming back to being married to a scientist and watching her work, and being amused by that as an English major. You know, scientists are funny people and you know that very well. I mean, this in the sense that like Mr Spock in Star Trek is hilarious and we only understood that years later (watching the reruns) that he’s deeply funny. But he’s the great image out of science fiction of the scientist as a character. So, okay, he’s Vulcan, right? He’s rational, he’s reasonable. He has no emotions. But in fact, Spock’s mom was human, and so he’s a combination of rational/reasonable (essentially the scientist) and then emotional and unbalanced and unstable (from his mom). He’s very emotional, but he represses that. Well, this is like the perfect hilarious image of the scientist in our culture, and it’s driven much of my career really.
Jacquelyn: Since you brought up Star Trek, one of the things that makes the Star Trek universe such an interesting model is that it’s a vision of a post-scarcity world; it’s one where everyone’s needs are met, at least among the United Federation of Planets. But I’m always finding myself wanting to know how we got there from here — all of the steps along the way sort of got glossed over in the shows; we jump into a future with replicators and warp speed. It’s nice to have that vision, but I also feel like it’s actually the pathway to that future that would be really useful to us right now. And one of the things I love about your book, Eric, is that it’s very much rooted in the present but it also uses storytelling to give us this really nice roadmap to this better future. So, Eric, while Stan is a fiction writer using science to build his futures, you’re coming from the other direction — as a scientist using the power of storytelling to basically write us this road map towards a better future. You’re even using climate data as the signposts along the way.
Eric: Yeah, exactly. The Future Earth is kind of built around this idea that by 2050 we are in a zero carbon global economy, and then what would it take to get there. That’s sort of like what is needed to reach the 1.5°C target. I just said, “Well, that has to happen; how is it going to happen?”, and then sort of worked backwards from there a little bit to see. I have this whole map. This book actually started as a Choose Your Own Adventure book, and how people could like choose their path along the way to see if it was the “right” path. There were about one third of the future is where we ended up doing it and about two thirds of the future is where we ended up not doing it, cuz I felt like that’s kind of what the odds are right now. But I just sort of had this whole list of possible actions that we could do in the 2020s, possible actions we could do in the 2030s, and sort of how long would it take to sort of transform agriculture into regenerative agriculture nationwide? How long would it take to retrofit and build out high-speed rail? That’s going to take a lot longer than it would be to just sort of switch to electric cars, but is it better to have cars at all in the world that we’re going for? Maybe we should like reclaim some of that urban space (that is currently used for pavement) for housing and other things that we need right now. Just sort of saying, “If we were going to try to do this and be strategic about it, what’s the first things that we would do?”
In the book, I have the first things that we do is we need to restructure the US democracy so that it’s more fair. We need to get rid of the filibuster, we need to admit new states, we need to do all this stuff; and that’s not the kind of the first things that you think of in a climate book. You would think that, “Oh, well, let’s build as many solar panels as we can,” but that’s not really gonna help if we’re just using that electricity to like mine Bitcoin or something. There are moral and technological choices along the way and all of those play off on each other, so that’s kind of what I tried to do and then the end product ended up being just one of those possible threads in the original book. It ended up being . . . my editor said, “You need to choose the hopeful one,” because that’s what people need right now.
Jacquelyn: We’ve talked a lot this season about how the climate crisis is disproportionately impacting those who have contributed the least to it — particularly Black, Indigenous and other communities of color. I’d like to hear a bit about how each of you approach this work of envisioning climate futures, but from your own identities or positions in the world?
Stan: I’m a suburban white male baby boomer house husband. It’s gotta be one of the most privileged positions in world history, so I try to keep learning and paying attention. I follow my wife’s lead and so we’re working with the homeless here in Davis, California, and it’s very shocking to me. If you have mental illness in America, you are screwed and hammered by the elements — of course — because you’re homeless. So try to do some work.
And then, I’m very impressed by the writers of the Paris Agreement. When they put that agreement together, they insisted on climate equity being part of the deal. It was not going to be (even though they’re a international organization and UN-based), it wasn’t going to be a top-down solution but be aware of the uneven impacts and the fact that the people who have burned the least carbon are getting hammered first and most. Climate equity is written into that agreement in ways that I find (as a writer) really impressive and they fought over it word-by-word. There’s Schedule One countries and Scheduled Two countries, and there are shared but differentiated responsibilities. These diplomatic terms, what they mean is the rich countries need to do more and are obliged to do more. And when they signed the agreement, they agreed to do more than the developing countries where (often in the tropics) often people who have less of an infrastructure to cope, less wealth to cope. And so the Paris Agreement was signed, and talk about a utopian document. It did keep its eye on this aspect of the problem of climate justice. I noticed that the Green New Deal did the same right from the start in the writing of a House Resolution 109; that also kept its eye on the severe problem of climate injustice and tried to make it better by the way they wrote that resolution.
Eric: It’s a really great question, and it’s always a work in progress. I ask a lot of questions and I try whenever possible to give my platform to marginalized folks, in a way that doesn’t co-op their story but lets them tell their own story in their own terms. I’m doing that now with The Phoenix newsletter, trying to do some storytelling or hosting storytelling from other people, realizing that I’m always just like a product of my own experiences in history and cultural context as well. There’s nothing really special about me or what I’m doing, and I think that is really important to sort of say clearly there are other narratives that are especially sort of useful right now to everyone — that are not only not being told but are being actively suppressed; and then just want to work against that thrust as much as possible.
Ramesh: As you both mentioned, telling human stories about climate change can come from a diverse set of viewpoints and this leads me to think about how crucial empathy is in building a more just future. As we wrap up our conversation today, I’m curious to know how both of you approach the idea of empathy in your own work?
Eric: I mean, I just . . . I can’t read or write news articles about individual disasters anymore without wondering how those people are going to be doing months and years in the future, once the news media have moved on. That’s kind of ideally the character that I had; the first version of the Choose Your Own Adventure was really a lot more character-driven. It was a lot more like a real novel (a work of fiction) where the main character was affected by Hurricane Maria, and I was just following that character’s next thirty years through their life and what choices they made along the way.
So yeah, I feel really deep empathy with people who have that sort of like classic injustice of climate change, where the people who are bearing the brunt are the people who didn’t cause the problems. That is really what drives a lot of my work.
Stan: Yeah, that’s so very true. I’m lucky because the novel is an empathy machine. It’s designed to do two science fictionally impossible things: time travel (you go to other times and places) and then telepathy (which is the crucial one when you’re suddenly inside someone else’s head). The characters in novels to the extent that you relate to them and live their experiences in a kind of dream state or hypnotized state, well, then you’ve lived ten thousand lives if you’ve read a thousand books. This is very useful for reminding you of your ordinary empathy that you experience every day with the people around you, and it extends outward to everybody else.
Jacquelyn: Stan, I just want to take a moment to say that the Mars Trilogy was really formative for me. I read it in graduate school and there’s this powerful moment in Red Mars that I still think about all the time; in all sorts of different moments in my life, in my career. It’s when Ann (the geologist) is expressing her concern about the rush to terraform the planet and she says,
I think you value consciousness to high and rock too little. We’re not the lords of the universe, we’re only one small part of it. We may be its consciousness, but being the consciousness of the universe does not mean turning it all into a mirror image of us. It means fitting into it as it is and worshiping it with our attention.
And then there’s this moment when she chastises the other scientist with a line, “You’ve never even seen Mars.” I just want you to know that moment and that character of Ann has just been really important to me as a scientist.
Stan: Well, thank you. I must say that book was impossible without the presence of my wife and the example of all of her colleagues but, you know, Nadia and the women characters, Charlotte, the women characters in the Mars Trilogy — I made serious effort to make sure that there were equal number of point of view chapters and a gender balance. Well, there’s a lot of women scientists in the world today and it wasn’t because of the Mars Trilogy. It was because of women getting into the sciences and showing that there was no problem there and, in fact, it’s kind of beautiful the way your generation of women scientists have just been kicking ass. It’s fun to watch.
Ramesh: We hope you enjoyed our first of two episodes on telling the stories of climate futures. In our next episode, we’ll be talking with Black writers about Afrofuturist and Africanfuturist perspectives on climate futures.
Warm Regards is produced by Justin Schell. Jo Stormer creates our transcripts, and Katherine Peinhardt is our social media maven. Music for this episode comes from Blue Dot Sessions.
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