"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Kim Stanley Robinson Gets It

Well-known science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson says what I've been saying here, what many of the regulars say, stuff like:
First, we need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness; but now there is some cherry-picking of science going on in the various kinds of resistance to the news about climate change, and this double standard needs to be called out. The so-called climate change skeptics are now simply in denial. All science is skeptical, and the scientific community has looked at this situation and found compelling evidence for anyone with an open mind.
We already have good starter technology for lithium-ion batteries in cars; clean, renewable energy generation; cleaner building methods; and so on. The technical solutions are being improved all the time in research labs.

The main problem is making these changes happen more quickly than they can in the false pricing system that we have created and enforced within our hierarchical power structure. There is conflict over how to pay for decarbonizing, which is deemed “too expensive” to execute quickly. There is both a defense of the destructive carbon burning we are engaged in and a resistance to the most obvious solutions among people who remain frightened of the idea of government-led economic programs. But now we simply must have such programs because the market is not capable of taking action.

Am I saying that capitalism is going to have to change or else we will have an environmental catastrophe? Yes, I am.
The main reason I believe capitalism is not up to the challenge is that it improperly and systemically undervalues the future. I’ll give two illustrations of this. First, our commodities and our carbon burning are almost universally underpriced, so we charge less for them than they cost. When this is done deliberately to kill off an economic competitor, it’s called predatory dumping; you could say that the victims of our predation are the generations to come, which are at a decided disadvantage in any competition with the present.

Second, the promise of capitalism was always that of class mobility—the idea that a working-class family could bootstrap their children into the middle class. With the right policies, over time, the whole world could do the same. There’s a problem with this, though. For everyone on Earth to live at Western levels of consumption, we would need two or three Earths. Looking at it this way, capitalism has become a kind of multigenerational Ponzi scheme, in which future generations are left holding the empty bag.

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible.
All so nicely said that perhaps I'd feature it anyway, though it's nothing especially new to my readers. What's interesting is where this appears, which is on a McKinsey web site. That's amazing. Even a huge corporate consultancy has the nerve to consider these ideas. Only the press and the politicians seem to miss the scope of the problem, the scale of the transition.

Everything needs to be on the table. Everything.


Anonymous said...

If you haven't read his majesterial trilogy on global warming, it's worth it:

Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007).

It is among the most fully realized depictions of cultural response to the kinds of transformative changes we'll have to see, if we are to survive.

Thanks for this reminder of my (painful) pleasure of reading his books.

Anonymous said...


I have read his trilogy. I waited impatiently for books two and three to come out and read them immediately when they did.

Given the quotes from Robinson you provided, you might be interested in the following and where they came from (though it may be old news to you):

"Capitalism as we know it today is incapable of sustaining the environment."


"Basically, the economic system does not work when it comes to protecting environmental resources, and the political system does not work when it comes to correcting the economic system."


"In short, my conclusion, after much searching and considerable reluctance, is that most environmental deterioration is a result of systemic failures of the capitalism that we have today and that long-term solutions must seek transformative change in the key features of this contemporary capitalism."

All these are by James Gustave Speth, Dean of Forestry at Yale and a long time environmentalist who has worked within the system for decades, beginning in the 60's and has, finally, decided that the system is NOT working and comes out and says so in his book, "The Bridge at the End of the World".

He's notable because he's been within the system for so long that many folks who wouldn't listen to folks they consider shrill voiced tree-huggers, will listen to him.

You are probably familar with his book and I'm just talking to myself here. But, if you are not, I'd say give it a look. Not because it says so much that is new - but because of who is saying it and the path he's come by to get to the point where he IS saying it.



Anonymous said...

"First, we need to trust our science. We do this every time we fly in a jet or rush to the doctor in hope of relief from illness;"
No, no, no, no, no... We do NOT trust science when we fly in a jet, (we do somewhat when we see a doctor). Rather, we trust in our technology, and the ability of our engineers and pilots. Sure, we needed science to understand how to engineer and pilot, but conflating the two is a logical fallacy. Robinson is cluey - I'd have thought he'd pick up on that one.

Also, we don't have enough lithium to run a large vehicle fleet - sources are pretty limited. It could be a good stepping-stone technology though.

Agree with Michael - The "Science in the Capital" series was excellent, but it felt unfinished to me.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about the complete package of "western standards of living", but for example just increasing rule of law and some basic education (mainly reading and writing and basics of democracy, in *addition* to the daily life needed knowledge) could give many people in the "third world" a chance for a much better life.

Basically just some stability and ability to self govern. (Reading and writing is important for laws and a justified society above a certain size I imagine.)

The people wouldn't be affluent, but much safer and could lead much happier and dignified lives.

There are so many places for example in Africa that are very very dark.

Anyone can come and rob, maim or kill you at any time. Be it from the government, bandits, or some combatants in some war.

I think those could be important and reachable, if very hard goals for improving the happiness of humanity.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't do other things as well.

In many places wars have started because of lack of resources for everyone to lead a reasonable existence (Rwanda IIRC).

I don't think this is the case everywhere or even in the majority of places - the existence is lousy because of the humans, not because any fundamental lack of resources.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean that the resources are not a problem.

For example East and South Asia - lots of people and even when everyone lives sparingly and there's no war or fighting, they are poor and lack resources.

In Africa, people use somewhat more resources, but there are so much fewer people that there are lots of resources per person. But it's even worse for the people than Asia.
South America is extremely rich compared to the amount of people living there - yet it is quite badly messed up.

So I think increasing "internal efficiency" of societies and trying to improve the population situation (like educating about contraception and improved care of children) really has huge possibilities of increasing the happiness and even material standard of living for many people.

In a sense, even many places in USA are suffering from different internal inefficiency problems - if motor companies can buy and demolish public transport networks to sell a lot of cars, it seems a bit weird.

Over here in my country, there are certain internal ways of doing things which greatly limit happiness, which are very hard to overcome. Basically the problem of people being overly shy, which makes us sometimes very lonely and even fearful of others.

So, all in all, physical resources are an important thing in considering development and material standard of living and even happiness - but there are other less resource intensive ways of doing that too (which might be very hard).

Anonymous said...

KSR's quotes sound good at first glance but, the more I think about them, the less sense they make.

So there's a hierachical power structure that controls "the market" but not the government? That wouldn't much of a power structure. Or maybe it controls both but the people who control everything are too stupid to understand they must use government and not "the market" to fix this?
In any case, prices are wrong. Never mind supply and demand... price-fixing works so well. Prices must have been wrong in the USSR too I guess considering how they managed resources.
Then there's the promise that's been given to the working class... it can't be fulfilled now but hasn't been fulfilled before either for some reason. Maybe that's because you can't have a hierarchical power structure without some kind of working class. Unless of course class merely denotes how much stuff one consumes...
Maybe the rest of KSR's quotes would also make more sense with idiosyncratic definitions.

There is no such thing as "the market". The only problem actual markets are supposed to solve is the balancing of supply and demand. That may not sound like much compared to what some cargo cult might claim "the market" can do but it's quite useful.
There's no price high enough for destroying what can't be replaced. This isn't a pricing problem.
The problem with slavery (a random paralel) isn't the price of slaves and a tax won't fix it.

I think that, in order to find a solution, the first step is to take the stuff that doesn't make sense off the table.

bi -- International Journal of Inactivism said...


"KSR's quotes sound good at first glance but, the more I think about them, the less sense they make."

If so, then your response makes even less sense.

"So there's a hierachical power structure that controls 'the market' but not the government? That wouldn't much of a power structure."

You're saying that since the CEO of Exxon isn't actually at the helm of the US government, therefore the CEO isn't really a CEO.

"There is no such thing as 'the market'. The only problem actual markets are supposed to solve [...]"

You contradict yourself.

"There's no price high enough for destroying what can't be replaced. This isn't a pricing problem. The problem with slavery (a random paralel) isn't the price of slaves and a tax won't fix it."

So are you proposing a blanket ban on oil and coal energy?

What is your main point exactly?

-- bi

Anonymous said...

I don't think the problem can be reduced to "capitalism." The USSR wasn't capitalist, but it managed to ruin its local environment much more thoroughly than the US has. Take a look at Lake Baikal some time -- capitalism didn't do that, communism did.

I do think we need massive government programs to quickly replace our fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable. But not because capitalism is intrinsically worse than socialism. Because there are externalities involved and markets don't handle externalities well. And because we're in a crisis and have to move fast.

Michael Tobis said...

Anonymous, agree. I do not see what you are trying to say, although I have a nagging suspicion it is not nothing.

You seem clear enough on it in your mind. Please try to explain it so others can understand. This may require a more lengthy exposition.

Anonymous said...

In my post above I tried to convey how confused I got when I tried to make sense of KSR's quotes. Apparently I succeeded.
I also have a nagging suspicion that KSR's quotes are supposed to be more than empty rhetoric.

At the bottom of my post, I added a few musings of mine. These were supposed to make sense. I of course didn't expect all readers to get it. Since you're intrigued, I'll try to explain a bit more thoroughly:
I distinguished observable markets (such as the famous stock markets in New York) from the idea KSR calls "the market". One can not observe "the market" because, like Adam Smith's invisible hand, it's just an idea.
I then pointed out the function that markets perform and cautionned against discarding such a useful tool. I'm concerned beliefs, dispointments or political positions about "the market" might lead one to unwarranted conclusions regarding functioning markets.
Finally, I opined that we are not faced with a pricing problem and that fiddling with prices is therefore not a solution.

I didn't explain why this isn't a pricing problem.
Pricing problems are about the matching of supply and demand because that's what a price does.
But KSR apparently thinks that the observed price of commodities is less than some other, more appropriate price he determined would reflect certain costs, presumably externalities. Aside from being so vague that it leaves one guessing as to what is meant, the trouble with KSR's argument is that there's manifestly no objective way to determine what these costs would be. I'm not saying that there are no objective costs. On the contrary, there's too many of them. The question is, which ones are to be taken into account.
If one were to think through the consequences of the consumption of fossil fuels without discounting the effect upon all potential future generations as KSR seems to call for, it would of course be for all intents and purposes infinite. Putting aside climate change, pollution and so on, the opportunity cost alone would have to be multiplied by the millions of generations it would take to renew the fuel. One could make a similar argument regarding how one should value the damages incurred by millions of other species in the here and now.
So it comes down to what one chooses to value. And if what one values is clear, one can make choices without help from abstract prices and costs.
So what's the use of these arbitrary prices then? My take is that they can be used to force other people (the poor mostly) to behave according to one's values, much like laws. But there are differences: laws are more transparent as to their purposes and consequences. I think that's why taxes and such are sometimes preferred. More importantly perhaps, one can argue laws in court.
And it doesn't stop there: laws can have any number of outcomes while prices can only stimulate or suppress supply and demand. A tax on coal would lower consumption while a law on extraction methods (for instance) could get you the same price increase and lower consumption but with cleaner extraction methods to boot. A coal tax would tend to stop the most expensive extraction methods, not the dirtiest.

I am not advocating a blanket ban on anything. While I do believe that a blanket ban would constitute a solution, I don't believe it would be sensible or even workable at this juncture. But sooner or later, one way or the other consumption of fossil fuels will have to drop to negligible levels. So I'd say a blanket ban would be a reasonable long-term goal.