I traveled east to visit family and had lunch with a group of cousins. They are all bright, well-educated, thoughtful people, the American professional middle class at its best. Most are in their late 60s or early 70s, people who can see the future, but aren't going to live in it. This is important. The old can afford despair. The young can't. (The one young cousin there kept quiet during the discussion. I don't know her opinion.)
One cousin asked me what I was working on. I described the sequel to Ring of Swords, which—among other things—is an attempt to imagine Earth 150 years in the future, struggling with Global Warming and all our other current problems and surviving.
I found myself defending optimistic science fiction and the ways we can deal with Global Warming, given the technology we have now. My brother, who reads the same science magazines I do, kept pointing out the ways that current technology won't work, as I went down the list—seeding the ocean with iron, pumping sulfur into the upper atmosphere, building giant space parasols and practicing serious conservation.
I felt my relatives were despairing too soon and that despair was not useful. The climate scientist James Hansen may be right, and we may be looking at a runaway Greenhouse Effect that will turn Earth into Venus. But we have to assume that change is still possible. Margaret Thatcher's famous TINA—There Is No Alternative—dooms us all.
James Hansen has not given up, though he is pretty gloomy; and so we have the sight of a very distinguished NASA scientist getting arrested for civil disobedience as he tries to stop mountain-top-removal coal mining and the Keystone XL coal tar pipeline. “There is only hope in action,” according to Jean Paul Sartre. James Hansen seems to agree.
I can understand the writers who create future dystopias. We need warnings, just as we needed post-nuclear-war fiction in the 1950s. The government then told us that we could survive nuclear attacks by crouching under grade school desks or in basement fallout shelters. Modern war was no big deal. Science fiction—with its vast, glowing, radioactive wastelands—said otherwise.
But there are limits to dark fiction. We need to face reality, but we also need to imagine ways to change reality. Does contemporary science fiction do this? A friend of mine wrote recently that she was looking for science fiction with hope and not finding it.
When I look at the field, and I admit I am having trouble keeping up, I see Steampunk, YA dystopias, zombie fiction, alternate histories, and the usual fantasies and space operas.
The critic Brian Attebery has suggested that there is science fiction that shows a positive future, but it begins in the past. He cites Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream, which starts in the sixteenth century with the great Italian scientist and then moves into the future. I'm not sure what this might mean: the present is so hopeless, we have to rerun the past to reach a decent future?
In 2312, a more recent novel, Robinson gives us a future that has all kinds of resources and possibility. Humanity has gotten through the twenty-first century and expanded throughout the Solar System, creating amazing societies. In his earlier environmental trilogy—Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting—he gives us a period of transition, when we get to start to get out of our current mess.
I think I turn to Robinson as an example because he thinks about politics and economics and the process of change. As I see it, our problems are largely political and economic, rather than technological. We have unimaginable resources, which are—to a large extent—tied up in the world financial superstructure and in a consumer society. We can (most likely) save the planet and ourselves, but this requires that we free up these resources, and that means changing society.
This is what I'm trying to write about: a society that conserves and shares and makes survival of the community its top priority. It might seem like a cramped society to us, with apartments and row houses instead of suburban McMansions. A person like me might not be able to have a closet full of clothes and shoes.
In an earlier draft of this essay, I tried to explain the financial superstructure and tied myself in knots. The short version is: a huge amount of the world’s money is tied up in finance, insurance, and real estate (known as FIRE). In the US, FIRE—not manufacturing, agriculture, or the service industries—makes up 65% of the national economy. For the most part, this money is used for speculation, not investment. One result is financial bubbles, such as the one that broke in 2008, almost destroying the world economy.
The money tied up in speculation could be used to repair America’s infrastructure and build the new infrastructure—dikes, windmills, solar power—that we need to deal with Global Warming. This would be a huge project, as big as winning World War Two. It would employ millions and bring our economy—currently in a zombie state—back to real life. It could be done. We have models from the past for how to do it, as well as plenty of new ideas.
But none of this will happen as long Wall Street and the rest of FIRE remain as influential as they are, since the big banks are doing just fine, thank you, and want no changes; and none of it will happen as long as politicians and the rest of us believe that change is impossible. Remember the ultimate enemy: There Is No Alternative.
Let's move on to a simpler topic.
People like James Hansen and Bill McKibben tell us that the carbon currently in the ground—in the form of oil, coal, natural gas, oil shale, and tar sands—must be left in the ground, if we are going to prevent disastrous Global Warming. But both the US and Canada are moving to extract as much carbon as they can via coal tar mining in Canada and fracking in the US.
Both coal tar mining and fracking use—and pollute—large amounts of water, at a time when clean water is becoming increasingly rare and valuable. The problem isn't just in processing this gunk, but also moving it. The Keystone XL coal tar pipeline is supposed to run from Canada to the American Gulf Coast, over the rivers and aquifers that provide water to America’s farmland, already suffering from drought. There have already been spills from coal tar pipelines, and they are proving difficult to clean up.
Fracking releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as “poisoning” water (I think the word is fair) with additives which are a trade secret. People living near the fracking cannot find out what exactly they are drinking. However, some people discover there's so much methane in their tap water that they can set it on fire.
American breweries are beginning to worry about fracking, since brewing requires clean water. What do we want, a world of runaway Global Warming and no good beer? Or a world where Global Warming has been controlled, and beer is safe and tasty?
Why are we doing this now, when we should be developing non-carbon energy? Because the legacy energy companies—coal and oil—have a lot of political influence; and because a lot of people, including politicians, cannot imagine a different world.
Solutions to all these problems have been suggested. They won't return us to the world prior to 1970. But they might keep the current world habitable. The most important is conservation of energy, but there are many others, some of them wonderfully science fictional. I really want the space parasols, orbiting between Earth and Sol and cutting down the sunlight that reaches us. There are problems with the parasols. We would have to be sure they don’t block the light frequencies that plants need to grow. But there’s a good chance this could be done.
Right now, the governments of the world, especially the governments of rich industrial nations, are doing too little. I don't think we can rely on politicians to do the right things; and people like the Koch Brothers—whose great wealth gives them great power, along with no sense at all of responsibility—will fight change every step.
Real change, planet-saving change, is going to require political action on the part of many people. But for this to happen, people need to believe that change is possible, and the world really can be better.
Brian Aldiss has said that the dominant tone of science is bracing despair. Much of it is cautionary: “If this goes on,” rather than “What if.” There are more good stories about what might go wrong than good stories about what might go right. But right now there's a need for stories that imagine a decent future—not because it is escapist, but because we need to be jolted out of There Is No Alternative. We need to think of ways to fix this mess; and we need to think about politics and economics.
Note: If you know books I should be reading, post their names in the comments.