Remarks on Utopia in the Age of Climate Change

I came to utopia by accident, having painted myself into a corner with an idea for a trilogy: three science fiction novels consisting of an after-the-fall novel, a dystopia and a utopia, all set in the same place, and about the same distance into the future. The idea came to me in 1972, and I didn’t know how to write a novel then, so the plan needed brooding on. Some sixteen years later, the time came for the utopia. I had written the after-the-fall novel, The Wild Shore, and the dystopia, The Gold Coast. The utopia was the only one left.

By that time many aspects of it had been determined by the previous two books. I needed it to be in Orange County, California; I needed it to be fifty years in the future; and I needed to include the old man who had also been a character in the other two stories, so that he would have three lives, each radically different — this was the triptych’s way of illustrating the way our individual lives are greatly influenced by the history we live in.

Through the previous sixteen years I had read all kinds of utopian literature. What emerged as most important for my novel was the utopian non-fiction of the 1970s, books which I think were a manifestation of the hippie generation growing up, beginning to have kids and trying to plan how to live the ideals of the revolutionary sixties. These books made quite a bookshelf: The Integral Urban House, Progress as if Survival Mattered, Small is Beautiful, Muddling Toward Frugality, Appropriate Technology and so on. They are still worth reading, but they were all unaware of the coming Reagan/Thatcher counter-revolution, which would render them largely irrelevant in the following decade. It would be nice to have a publishing series that reprinted them all, for they would still be full of interesting ideas, even if their technologies have been sometimes superseded. They would make a portrait of the hopes of that era similar to the portrait created by the era’s science fiction; the two literatures would be complementary.

These non-fiction utopian writers, plus alternative economists like Hazel Henderson and Herman Daly, were the main influences on my third California volume, Pacific Edge. These influences were not particularly radical politically, but they did outline ideas that I thought could be realistically postulated for a US culture only fifty years off. Despite their help, I found it an extremely uneasy experience to write a utopian novel, and when I was done with it I sent it out into the world with a sigh of relief, thinking, ‘I’ll never do that again’. I couldn’t quite articulate the source of my unease, but it felt like some kind of category error.

Then my friend Terry Bisson was talking to me about the book, and he asked me, ‘How did your utopia come about, Stan? What’s the history that explains it?’ Well, I had made gestures towards an explanation in the book’s italicized sections; I had even written an italicized section in which Tom Barnard suggested ten or twelve different ways his internal utopia could come about, as a way of admitting how hard it was to imagine such a history. I had cut that section, but as I began to rehearse my various historical explanations to Terry, he shook his head. ‘But Stan,’ he said, ‘there are guns under the table’.


At that point the Mars Trilogy began in my head. I was struck by the truth of Terry’s remark, and in fact it makes for one of the better chapter titles in Red Mars. I thought: ‘OK, granted there are guns under the table. Utopia is not going to come easily. We therefore have to try the story again elsewhere, invent a utopian history, maybe give it 200 years to develop rather than fifty, and tell the whole thing explicitly’. So one of the many motivations for the Mars Trilogy was to somehow fix the previous book, which of course is not really possible. And yet I find I often write in order to explain or correct unsatisfactory things in novels I’ve finished.

The Mars novels therefore described three revolutions, because I felt that in Pacific Edge I had dodged the necessity of revolution, however broadly conceived. And yet I was not comfortable with the idea of re-invoking the violent revolutions of theeighteenth and twentieth centuries; they didn’t seem appropriate to Mars, or to our current world either. The classic revolutions had often been failures, in the sense of causing such violent backlashes that they made more problems than they solved, principally by institutionalizing violence. I also felt very uncomfortable about being a first-world person stating that revolutions were necessary in third-world countries, when first-world weapons systems would then be used against them. Revolution itself needed to be reconceptualized, I felt; and indeed in the various velvet revolutions of 1989 I had just seen different models for rapid change in the social order. These new images for revolution became one of the central preoccupations of the Mars novels. We’re still stuck with this problem, of course, because we still need a revolution or two.

While writing the Mars Trilogy, or maybe before, I began to think of science as another name for the utopian way, or what Williams called the long revolution.[i] This was partly because I was married to a scientist and watching science in action, up close, and it was partly from thinking about it. We tend to take science at its own self-evaluation, and we’re not used to thinking that utopia might already be partly here, a process that we struggle for or against. But to me the idea of science as a utopian coming-into-being has seemed both true and useful, suggestive of both further stories and action in the world.

So if science itself was to be my utopian way, and Antarctica was famously called ‘the continent for science’, then maybe that was the place on Earth that was already the most utopian space. It was worth having a look; besides I like wilderness, mountains, glaciers and so on, and Antarctica is nothing but those things. Because of my Mars books, the US National Science Foundation was willing to send me south as part of their Antarctic Artists and Writers’ Program. Thus Antarctica eventually came out as a step along my way: I wanted to show what a continent run by scientists for scientists is actually like. That book was a lot of fun to research. As far as you can tell when you’re there, the continent runs using a non-monetary economic system, where food, clothing, shelter and fuel are all provided by the community; and at the same time you get to do what you want in terms of your project. It was a limited version of utopia, but interesting as a kind of laboratory experiment, a brief experience of how it might feel to live in a different social order. It was not exactly Orwell in Barcelona, but exhilarating in a different way. And it was very useful in my attempt to combine utopian and wilderness thinking, also to bring all these things closer to home than Mars.

Then came The Years of Rice and Salt, which at first I thought of as a break from utopia. But when I was trying to imagine a world history with Europe taken out of the picture by a very fatal Black Death, I quickly discovered what I felt was a problem. I didn’t want to make that alternative world worse than the one we’re in, because that would be racist and unwarranted. I didn’t want to make it better than our world, because that would be reflexively politically correct, and also unwarranted. But I couldn’t make it equal to our world either, because that would be boring — pointless in narrative terms. So my alternative history couldn’t be worse, it couldn’t be better, and it couldn’t be equal. My options seemed kind of limited. But what came to me as my solution was simply the idea of the future, and of utopia again. In the novel, at the equivalent of our year 2002 (the book’s date of publication), my alternative world would be, I decided, roughly equivalent in its goodness to our own, reached by its different history; but it would then continue past our moment some seventy years into the future, and we would then see them finally make a good job of things. This gave the novel a utopian ending that I hoped would exist as a challenge to our world: could we, starting from roughly the same position, do as well as this fictional world without Europe? This late utopian element got me past the better/worse/same conundrum, and added a little sting to the book’s tail.

At this point it felt like I had developed a kind of habit. But it was not the time to try to break it. In the previous years I had spent a fair amount of time at the National Science Foundation in Washington DC, and it seemed to me more than ever that this institution, and science more generally, represented a kind of proto-utopian space. I felt that the scientific method, and scientific institutions in our world, were under-theorized utopian attempts to change the world, made by people who would rather not think about politics, yet would very much like to do some good. These impressions led me to the trilogy I call Science in the Capital. I wanted to imagine the first step toward utopia, starting in our world now. If we could make a bridge across the Great Trench to utopia, what would be the first footing? I wanted to think about how utopia might start from our current conditions; to describe, in effect, the start of a scientific revolution. Not the Scientific Revolution of the early modern period, but rather a new revolution, enacted by scientists in the world we live in now.

I had also come to feel that many people, and especially many of my leftist colleagues, thought of science as merely the instrument of power — as the most active and effective wing of capitalism. This now struck me as wrong. To me it seemed that we actually exist in a situation that can better be described as ‘science versus capitalism’: a world in which smaller progressive concepts such as environmentalism, environmental justice, social justice, democracy itself — all these were going to be defeated together, unless they were aligned with the one great power that might yet still successfully oppose a completely capitalist future, which was science. I was thinking with a very broad brush at this point, almost mythologically you might say, but it struck me as an interesting story to tell, a new story with some possible analytic value. So I wrote the Science in the Capital trilogy with these thoughts in mind.

Having written that book, describing science as a crucial utopian force, I began to ask myself: but what is science? And how did it start? That led me to Galileo, as some kind of ‘first scientist’, and thus eventually to my most recent novel, Galileo’s Dream (2009). It is not a utopian novel, I am relieved to say, but it is a novel about science and history, and their interaction; and it is a science fiction novel.

So that’s my account of this aspect of my career; how, despite my uneasiness concerning utopia as a literary genre, I have nevertheless been writing them for a long time. I am one of the very few serial offenders, you might say, at least in modern times. It has been a source of stress to me, I admit, for there is no doubt in my mind that a ‘utopian novel’ is a strange project, a bastard form — an amalgam of two genres which are in many respects not at all compatible. It’s like saying, ‘Let’s make a new genre — we’ll throw together architectural blueprints and soap operas’. That’s obviously a bad idea. And yet there it is: that absurd hybrid is the utopian novel.

But the problem really is even worse than that. It involves a version of David Hume’s ‘is–ought problem’: there is the world as it is, and the world as it ought to be. It is difficult to see how they connect, which is Hume’s concern; but the novel, it seems at first glance, is about the world as it is. So if you want above all to write good novels, then what is should be the subject matter; it’s a matter of fidelity to the real. So realism becomes the default preferred form for the novel. And it’s the novel that matters to me; I don’t care about utopia per se — it’s literature that I love, and the novel in particular. So for a long time I experienced the utopian imperative that I somehow put on myself as a burden, because I felt the reason we read novels, indeed the reason we love all art, is that it gives us the real. I knew this was philosophically difficult territory, but my love of literature had to do with a sense of recognition — the moment of reading when you say, ‘Yes that’s right; that’s the way the world is; this book has illuminated the real’. To hold a mirror up to nature, as Hamlet says to the players. That’s what art seems to be for.


Instead of this recognition of what is, the utopian novel hopes to create a vision of the way things ought to be. It’s a profound shift of focus, which has often created in me the feeling of working across the grain of my hopes. It has taken a lot of years of worrying about this to pull apart the notion of what realism might be — to understand that there is never a mirror — to see that the moment you start to write sentences, you’re portraying something that ought to be. All novels are utopian in this respect: they propose that life means something. And meaning itself is a utopian wish. So, if the novel is about what life means, and if it concerns itself with individuals in their society, then whether that society is portrayed as better, worse or the same as ours is not the important point. All portrayed societies are stylized and hypothetical, a projection of the writer’s wishes and ideology. Seen in that way, a utopian novel is only a tiny bit less realistic than the most naturalistic realist novel out there. Or put it in reverse: a realistic novel is a kind of utopia in disguise.


Or so I have tried to reassure myself. However, I must say that when I read the part of Fredric Jameson’s Archaeologies of the Future (2005) that speaks of the impossibility of imagining utopia,[ii] I found the notion comforting. ‘Ah ha!’ I cried. ‘I was trying to do something impossible!’ It explained a lot.


Ultimately, however, I think this notion that we cannot imagine utopia is mistaken. We can imagine utopia; it’s as easy as pie. The constraints are very slack, and our imaginations strong. We are quite capable of taking the present situation, and all history too, and ringing every possible physical and logical change in our ideas to make something new; and some of these newly invented systems could be declared viable, even though radically different from the current moment. It’s not quite like imaging a new colour or a tenth dimension. It has more to do with justice, a very archaic primate concept, a concept that predates humanity itself. A better political order, even a truly good political order? No problem!


Of course there is a problem, and that’s the getting from here to there. But let me come back to that later. First let’s briefly contemplate some of the utopian descriptions and blueprints out there today. Take the work of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, for example, their ‘Participatory Economics’, which they also call ‘parecon’ in a neologism worse than any science-fiction writer’s. Despite that tone deafness, it’s an interesting system: a non-capitalist co-operative society in which people band together in small collectives, and then, instead of buying and selling things like a company, they fill out lots of requisition forms, somewhat in the style of a Chinese work unit or even a soviet. You fill out a form for what your group is going to make that year, you fill out a form for what your group is going to need that year to make what it will make, and so on. It resembles the situation Francis Spufford describes in his novel Red Plenty (2010), in which Soviet cyberneticists in the 1950s and ’60s and ’70s desperately attempt to invent computers powerful enough to run the Soviet economy in top-down, non-market fashion, before the system collapses — something they never managed. Now, with much more computing power than it would actually take to run such a non-market society, the idea is there to be contemplated again. Possibly such a society would feel a bit like Antarctica does now under the National Science Foundation. When I tried to imagine the continuous form-filling required, I confess I began to think, ‘Well maybe money isn’t so bad after all’. Possibly it would not be a very appealing utopia to live in, but we don’t know; and in any case it’s fully worked out, an alternative system that with modern supercomputers could very possibly work. Maybe the computers could even fill out the forms. An algorithmic artificial intelligence economy; it’s worth considering.


The problem, however, with this and all other utopian alternatives, is that we can’t imagine how we might get there. We can’t imagine the bridge over the Great Trench, given the world we’re in, and the massively entrenched power of the institutions that shape our lives — and the guns that are still there under the table. Indeed right on the table. The bridge itself is what we can’t imagine — and maybe that’s what Jameson means: but then it’s not utopia we can’t imagine, but history. Future history, the history yet to come. And that makes sense. History has been so implausible that there’s no reason to suspect that we will ever be able to accurately prophesy or describe the history that will come next.


Therefore the main project of all science fiction — that of imagining future histories — is impossible. Imagining a positive history which gets us to a better state is perhaps even more impossible, but in any case very difficult, and now more than ever, now that it’s clear we are entering an era of climate change and population overshoot which will impose radical physical stresses on both human and natural systems. This aspect of things now refuses to be kept out of the picture. Climate change is inevitable — we’re already in it — and because we’re caught in technological and cultural path dependency, we can’t easily get back out of it. The example of the ocean liner that can’t be turned around in less than ten miles is actually a very simple metaphor for the kinds of path dependency we are caught in; the infrastructures we build have lifetimes that last decades, sometimes centuries, and changing them necessarily takes time. We’re probably not going to be able to cap the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere at less than 450 parts per million, and 560 parts per million is quite possible. At that point we will be living on a quite different planet, in a significantly damaged biosphere, with its life-support systems so harmed that human existence will be substantially threatened. It has become a case of utopia or catastrophe, and utopia has gone from being a somewhat minor literary problem to a necessary survival strategy.


Climate Change and the Necessity of the Utopian Project


So let’s shift gears now, and consider utopia not as my literary problem but a shared social vision, with this extra burden laid on it: not just that the present is bad, but that the future will inevitably be worse in environmental terms. In fact it is worth discussing first this question: is it even possible at this point to avoid a catastrophic crash of human and natural systems? Or are we already in a kind of Wile E. Coyote moment, that moment when he’s chasing the roadrunner and goes over the cliff, and looks at the audience, legs spinning, to only then discover he’s out there in space, though gravity has not yet caught him? Are we indulging in a fantasy if we imagine that we could recover from this path we are on, if we were to do something?


Well, this is the kind of question that is worth asking the scientists who study these problems in a quantitative ecological sense, analysing it as a problem in global energy flows. The Socolow wedge diagrams out of Princeton suggest that yes, it is still possible for us to ratchet back from the edge of catastrophe by decarbonizing quite rapidly, which means applying every single method contemplated as soon and as fully as possible. We’re about at the moment where we’re leaving the cliff’s edge, but that’s better than running the numbers and finding you’re already out in space.


There are well-articulated plans to get back to solid ground coming from many places, including Lester Brown and his Worldwatch Institute; their ‘Plan B 3.0’[iii] is a fairly detailed plan of action. Indeed many government agencies and NGOs and institutions around the world are busy articulating these plans, and it’s reassuring to think that we’re not living in an utter fantasy of salvation. Practical plans have been proposed, and there really still are grounds for hope. But we have to act.


So the question of history returns. How do we act on what we know? The time has come when we have to solve this puzzle, because the future, from where we look at it now, is different than past futures. Before we just had to keep on trying to do our best, and we would be OK. Things seemed to slowly get better, for some people in some places anyway; in any case, we would keep trying things, and probably muddle through. This is no longer the case. Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed. So utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity. This is a big change. We need to take action to start history on a path onto the side of the peninsula representing one kind of better future or another; the details of it don’t matter, survival without catastrophe is what matters. In essence the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.


When thinking about this situation, this moment that simply has to change, those of us in the developed world, the privileged world, tend very naturally to ask: even if we do survive — to accomplish that — will it be bad for us? Will we be unhappy? Will we lose our privileges? As Jameson observes at one point in his long essay on utopia, people are anti-utopian not necessarily because they’re political reactionaries, but because utopia might change them utterly.[iv] And such a profound change is a fearful thing, almost like reincarnation: if you come back as someone else you’re not really you, so in fact you haven’t come back at all. Utopia would be as pointless as heaven, if you were no longer you. And you are your habits, or so it usually feels. So what would happen to prosperous first-worlders in a utopia of survival, where everyone had an equal share of the Earth’s ‘natural capital’? For it’s very commonly said, by quite mathematically sophisticated people, that if we tried to spread human and natural wealth equally over the entire seven billion of us, then everyone would be poor.


This too is an interesting question to run the numbers on. The Swiss, being prosperous and practical, have already started to run those numbers: one result of that inquiry is the 2000 Watt Society. Their notion is that if the total amount of energy available to humans right now were equally distributed among the entire seven billion of us, each person would have the use of about 2,000 watts.[v] It isn’t a lot of energy, but it’s not negligible either. Some Swiss have decided to run an experiment living on that much, and now there are people in Basel and Zurich trying it. The Swiss have some local advantages in this experiment: they live in a small country in Europe, a continent with an amazingly rich infrastructure, built partly with the spoils of their colonialist plundering of the rest of the world. You can therefore live on 2,000 watts in Europe and be quite comfortable. There’s public transport, there are efficient small apartments, and so on. While this living experiment doesn’t give all the answers, it is nonetheless suggestive. It looks like a huge amount of our energy burn right now is pure waste in terms of improving the quality of our lives, assuming that quality is conceived in terms of health, happiness and sustainability. Much that is burned is simply wasted. Right now the average Swiss citizen uses 5,000 watts, Europe as a whole averages 6,000 watts, America 12,000, China 1,500, India 1,000 and Bangladesh about 300. You get a sense of the range. And right now we live in an extremely dirty and inefficient technology, a kind of global Stalinist Cheylabinsk-56. What has been invented and designed already to replace this crude old tech would by itself make an immense improvement in energy efficiency and carbon burn, and more could come after that. The realizable goal is a carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative civilization. This swapping out of our energy technology is part of the necessary work of the twenty-first century, but it can also mean full employment, population stabilization, and eventually more watts for everybody equally.


This vision of an overarching social project makes it possible to say more to young people in the first world than, ‘Sorry, we torched the world and now you have to live like saints and suffer’. That’s not a great message to take to the young, and also it’s not correct. We in the hyperconsuming first world are actually experiencing our extra carbon burn as more of a burden than an enhancement. It measurably degrades our physical and mental health; it cocoons us in crap — we’re not fully there in the world. So we need to burn less carbon for ourselves as well as our home; it’s not a matter of puritan renunciation, but rather becoming more clever and healthy. There is a comfortable way forward for all, in other words, if comfort is conceived of as a sense of achievement. There’s a utopian spark in that thought, a spur to action.


I wrote a bit about this notion in the Science in the Capital Trilogy — that a decarbonized life might bring us more alive than we are now in our thick, dirty technoshell. I have sometimes called this utopian vision ‘the Palaeolithic plus good dental care’, hoping to suggest that since we’re still genetically the same creatures we were 100,000 years ago, we could become again those same animals, living fulfilled and complex existences, without capitalist hyperconsumption — but with the best parts of modern technology conserved, to reduce suffering and thus increase happiness. What the human sciences are telling us now is that the closer you live to a Palaeolithic lifestyle — with good dental care — the better off you are. This is another utopian thought, coming straight out of the latest scientific findings: we are happiest when we are healthiest, and we are healthiest when we live a life that engages us in the physical world in a rather low-carbon-burn way. Walking around outdoors a lot, talking, the occasional dash or tumble, making a meal together, and so on. These low-carbon activities are often felt as the best part of the day, and that’s no coincidence.


This description can be given to young people in particular as a possible life project worth doing. Young first-world secular citizens exist in a crisis of meaning: they know life needs to be about more than hyperconsumption, but what that ‘more’ might be is not clear. Meaning has never been priced and thus it is confusing. This existential crisis is very real; we need meaning to go forward, and yet capitalist society doesn’t provide it. Now, at the beginning of the climate-change era, the start of the Anthropocene, that meaning is simply evident in the world — really it’s forced on us by the situation — we have to decarbonize, which means changing everything, which means utopia, all for survival and for our descendants. This is a life project with a sense of accomplishment in it. With the idea that you could do things smarter and thereby have more fun, capitalism as it stands now begins to look not only morally obese, but also unskilful, even a little bit stupid.


The project, for all of us alive today, then breaks down into practical reformist strategies, like supporting social democracy and the various green political movements, while keeping more radical further goals in mind. And when people bring up geo-engineering, one can say, ‘Yes, we’re doing that already by accident, and really the smartest geo-engineering we have is swift de-carbonization’. One can promote a notion Jameson has mentioned once or twice, that of full employment. Full employment would get needed work done, and it is also a paradigm buster for capitalism, which needs unemployment to get ‘wage pressure’, meaning fear in more and more workers. So we have structural unemployment; yet just by asserting that everybody deserves a job as a human right, the system is challenged. Full employment also suggests the idea of a living wage, therefore poverty reduction, which is in itself a powerful climate-change technology. This needs to be insisted on, to make sure that climate change action doesn’t somehow become a merely technological question, with the implication of some kind of silver bullet solution out there that will allow everything else to go on as it’s going now. That’s not going to happen. So changes that dismantle some of the fundamental injustice of capitalism while helping the climate situation are a stranded double good.


Always in this, supporting science is a necessary part of the project. It isn’t the same as supporting capitalism, as some critics seem to assume. We need to de-strand those two, and recognize that science is our ability to increase our ability to understand the world, and then to manipulate it for our collective good.


While I support science as the best name for our species’ life-support system, I also recognize that many scientists are like the character Beaker in The Muppets, geeking their way through life, their education deep but narrow, making them often naively unphilosophical, to the point where they think that what they do is straightforward and non-political. It’s the humanities’ job to disabuse them of that mistaken notion, by way of fully supportive lessons in history, philosophy, political theory, rhetoric and literature. The humanities need to educate the sciences rather than attack them; this education is not an option, if you want to be aware of how the human world works.


The humanities’ stereotypical attack on scientists looks like this: take the Monopoly game figure of the Capitalist, with his top hat and round belly, and imagine that he pays Beaker from The Muppets to invent a gun, and then he seizes the gun and puts it to Beaker’s head and says: ‘Make me more guns and make me more toys’. Beaker’s eyes are round as he complies. Those of us in the humanities, watching this scene and imagining we’re somehow not already implicated, say, ‘Damn it Beaker, I see you’re part of the problem. You even invented the atom bomb!’ And Beaker whispers to us, ‘There’s a gun to my head. And there’s a gun on you, too. Can’t you see it? Why are you blaming me?’


Yet we do; we go on blaming science for something that is not the scientists’ problem but rather our general problem as citizens. Scientists need both our support and our ability to give them a political education, pointing out their own potentiality, their embodiment of a utopian effort that has continued for centuries now. The various components of the scientific method, and the structure of scientific institutions, are simultaneously both a method for discovering nature and a utopian political program. But who knows this; who admits this; who works with this knowledge?


I think it helps to think of this large social project, which we must now accept as ours, in terms of the concept of scaffolding. James Griesemer of Univeristy of California Davis shared with me his notion of the human generations’ efforts as each building a scaffold for further work by descendants, who work at some kind of higher level. It has been about 400 generations since the end of the last Ice Age, so we can put ourselves in that long succession, and imagine that our generation is building a scaffold on the shoulders of the many generations that came before. A coral reef isn’t a bad analogy either: you build your level; you can’t leap to heaven — if you try you will crash back down, maybe even crash a few scaffolding levels below you. So here, facing climate change, proposing utopia as in effect the only solution that will work, we still need to think of the project as a transgenerational thing that will take generations to accomplish. We can’t panic, nor can we give up just because we can’t do it all in our lifetimes. We face an ecological emergency; but even here, all we can do is work on our present reality, and build what we can. I’m aware that I’m arguing conservatively here, but I’m arguing for reforms so numerous and systemic that ultimately they will add up to revolution — to post-capitalism, to utopia — but some generations down the line. We can’t imagine the details of how this will happen, but the general outlines of the project are clear enough from here to make a start. And the necessity is clear. Hopefully, we’ll get there as fast as we can, and meanwhile we can throw ourselves into our moment of the project.


Let me finish by quoting from Voltaire, the somewhat ominous but ultimately practical final sentence of Candide: ‘Keep a garden’.


[i] R. Williams, Towards 2000, London, Chatto and Windus, 1983, pp. 267–9.

[ii] F. Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, London and New York, Verso, 2005, pp. 231–3.

[iii] Plan B 3.0 is available for free as an ebook at <>, accessed 22 March 2011.

[iv] F. Jameson, ‘The Politics of Utopia’, New Left Review, second series, no. 25, 2004, pp. 51–2.

[v] Technical details of the actual numbers are available at <>, accessed 22 March 2011.

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“If tolerance is born of doubt, let us teach everyone to doubt all the models and utopias, to challenge all the prophets of redemption and the heralds of catastrophe.” Raymond Aron 1962 “The
Opium of the Intellectuals”

The greatest danger of utopians is there is no consideration of unintended consequences in their plans – nor an appreciation of the nearly infinite complexity of the system they seek to change.

People have probably been imagining utopia for as long as there have been people, maybe even longer. The trouble is, your utopia and mine differ and certainly many people have a wide range of ideas for their future. For one person it might be a luxury yacht, for another it might be a garden, for third it might be a steady stream of food to stave off starvation. In your world everyone is equal which would require a fundamental change in human nature. What could drive that? Catastrophe? Nah, that has been proven by history to bring out the primitive in us. To create utopia you have to make it desirable and on the face of it your vision doesn’t offer the human race anything other than stagnation and uniformity.

Once you have catered to the basics needs, which is achievable, you need to find something for people to do. Some have a vision of a world where we all tend our garden, being self sufficient and ‘sustainable’. Indeed, many people of the world spend most of their time feeding themselves and are not unhappy to do so. However, while I enjoy gardening I am no more than a fair weather gardener. To produce crops 365 days of the year is boring, hard slog. I could do it if I had to but I wouldn’t be happy. Moreover gardens are part of the unsustainable model for the world. Farms are far more efficient at feeding people and if people are to be truly low carbon they should be living in apartments/flats.

At the moment, many people are employed making stuff for other people. If you want to reduce carbon you have to change that. So what do they do instead? Potentially people could become more cerebral, enjoying learning, reading, writing, etc but is it possible to infuse everyone with that? Or is it as much a part of your DNA, like athletic ability or a good memory. And even if we can engage everyone in low impact pursuits, what does mankind do with its future?

And that brings us to stagnation. We are currently in a golden era of invention and expansion. For some that might be a horror story but it’s actually a rather wonderful chapter in human history. I would not want to live at any earlier time period. I enjoy more freedom, health and entertainment than someone in my position could have dreamt of even 50 years ago. Those riches didn’t come about through utopia, they came about through capitalism. The moment the landowner started giving plots of land to his serfs to keep them from straying, capitalism was born, but the basics were much older. Work hard, and you’ll prosper more than if you don’t. So if we enter an utopian world, what do we work harder for? How do we feed the human need for advancement? We are seeing the effects of that now with poor, bland school systems, churning out unsatisfactory future workers because they have eliminated competition. Craftsmanship, sporting prowess and academic excellence has been ditched in favour of equal opportunities.

Invention and progress are spurred on by reward, even if that reward is the ability to stave off disaster, but there needs to be something to trigger the drive. Something personal and not the remote concept of bettering mankind. We currently feed that spark with consumerism and capitalism. Give everyone the same and what makes someone go that extra mile and invent a new fuel source? What will make them chose genetic medicine rather than poetry? Because while some people are the boffins of your imagination, inventing for the pure pleasure of it, most of them are just like the rest of us, putting the hours in to earn the big paycheque.

You also have to understand the nature of development. Breakthroughs are not linear and not subject to command. Many come about when people are looking for something else. So you shut down an industry that in your utopia is an unnecessary luxury, what if you kill the missing part of the new fuel puzzle? Did you never notice that computer improvements didn’t start accelerating until they had games on them and they became cheap enough to own? Even now, it’s the needs of fancy kids graphics that drives the computer processors, not the office machines running MS Office.

In my utopia we keep moving forward and (if it really is a problem) we solve AGW and maybe learn to be less greedy along the way. In yours, where do we go? What is the future of mankind when there is nothing to strive for but mediocrity?

[…] …from Kim Stanley Robinson. So the question of history returns. How do we act on what we know? The time has come when we have to solve this puzzle, because the future, from where we look at it now, is different than past futures. Before we just had to keep on trying to do our best, and we would be OK. Things seemed to slowly get better, for some people in some places anyway; in any case, we would keep trying things, and probably muddle through. This is no longer the case. Now the future is a kind of attenuating peninsula; as we move out on it, one side drops off to catastrophe; the other side, nowhere near as steep, moves down into various kinds of utopian futures. In other words, we have come to a moment of utopia or catastrophe; there is no middle ground, mediocrity will no longer succeed. So utopia is no longer a nice idea, but a survival necessity. This is a big change. We need to take action to start history on a path onto the side of the peninsula representing one kind of better future or another; the details of it don’t matter, survival without catastrophe is what matters. In essence the seven billion people we have, and the nine to ten billion people we’re likely to have, exist at the tip of an entire improvised complex of prostheses, which is our technology considered as one big system. We live out at the end of this towering complex, and it has to work successfully for us to survive; we are far past the natural carrying capacity of the planet in terms of our numbers. There is something amazing about the human capacity to walk this tightrope over the abyss without paralysing fear. We’re good at ignoring dangers; but now, on the attenuating peninsula, on the crazy tower of prostheses — however you envision it, it is a real historical moment of great danger, and we need to push hard for utopia as survival, because failure now is simply unacceptable to our descendants, if we have any.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Global Warming – A Coolist’s View

The article below was received via email from a person who wishes to remain anonymous but who has degrees in the physical sciences

The global warming concept hinges upon the idea that greenhouse gases cause an increase in mean global temperatures. The basis for this concept is that such gases are better radiators than non greenhouse gases and as a result keep the global mean temperatures higher as a result of feeding back radiation to the Earth’s surface. Let us investigate this hypothesis:

First of all we need a model upon which all can agree is a good approximation to the real thing. The model I have chosen is familiar to most engaged in the debate and in my view lies closest to the hearts of the so-called global warmists. In this model we are concerned only with radiation from the sun which interacts thermally with the Earth’s surface and atmosphere. We are not concerned with radiation that is reflected either specularly or diffusely back into the space from which it came. Neither are we concerned about radiation which is absorbed and re-emitted without intermediate thermal processes. Without such processes there can be no warming of the Earth’s surface and atmosphere so such non thermal interactions can be neglected

Removing such non thermal processes from our model leaves us with this: the Earth’s surface is treated as an approximation to a black-body, it absorbs radiation from the sun, becomes hotter and then re-emits radiation more typically at longer wavelengths. We also have an atmosphere which is composed of two types of gas: greenhouse gases and non greenhouse gases, both of which may or may not absorb and re-emit radiation or receive thermal input via convection and conduction from the Earth’s surface as is their wont. It does not concern us for now as to the nature of these processes.

To further the debate we have the concept propounded by the pro-greenhouse warming lobby that because greenhouse gases are better radiating gases than non greenhouse gases they re-radiate more radiation back to the Earth’s surface than do non greenhouse gases. This leads us to an obvious thought experiment:

We replace all greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere with an equal volume of non greenhouse gases. There are then three logical possibilities:

1) Greenhouse gases are less good radiating gases than non greenhouse gases.

2) Greenhouse gases are equally good radiating gases as non greenhouse gases.

3) Greenhouse gases are better radiating gases than non greenhouse gases.

If (1) or (2) are true then the theory of global warming is falsified. If (3) is true then greenhouse gases produce relative global warming. I believe (3) is true.

We now consider the Earth’s radiation budget.

Integrating over a sufficient time period to average out the effects of night and day and the seasons then at equilibrium the average energy received by the Earth in the form of radiant energy from the Sun must equal the average energy lost by the Earth in the form of radiation. This is the only significant form of energy capable of influencing global mean temperatures. I take a warmist’s view here and do not include such effects as the solar wind, the Sun and Earth’s magnetic field coupling lateral flare currents into the oceans, cosmic rays inducing cloud formation or variations in solar energy output or spectrum.

We then consider the Earth’s outgoing energy budget. It has three components: that from greenhouse gases, that from non greenhouse gases and that from the black body Earth itself. We then perform the same thought experiment we performed above, and replace the greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere with an equal volume of non-greenhouse gases:

As discussed above, we know that if (1) or (2) are true that the hypothesis of global warming is falsified. If (3) is true then greenhouse gases cause absolute global cooling. This is because they contribute significantly to the Earth’s outgoing radiation budget. If they are removed from the Earth’s atmosphere the amount of energy radiated away into the absolute zero of space goes down and in consequence the temperature of the Earth and its atmosphere will rise, I neglect here the 4 degrees Kelvin background radiation left over from the Big Bang. It is thus demonstrated that:

A) Greenhouse gases cause absolute global cooling.

B) In order to believe that greenhouse gases produce relative global warming it is first necessary to believe that greenhouse gases produce absolute global cooling.

At first sight the hypothesis of global warming through feedback radiation is self contradictory. Can we simultaneously have the situation in which greenhouse gases produce both relative warming and absolute cooling of the planet? The answer is yes! This is because the so-called feedback radiation is a negative feedback on the absolute cooling caused by greenhouse gases. This means that the presence of the feedback term in the equation of global cooling reduces the rate at which radiation is lost from the Earth by re-cycling energy back to the Earth’s surface. This amounts simply to an observation that secondary radiators are not 100% efficient. What this means is perhaps better explained with reference to the analogous system of coupled primary and secondary radiators we find under the hood of a typical auto-mobile:

In the Earth model above we treat the Earth’s surface as the primary radiator. We can do this because the amount of radiation fed back to the real primary radiator of the system, the Sun, is negligible. The secondary radiator of our system is the Earth’s atmosphere which is closely thermally coupled to the surface of the Earth by conduction and convection as well as radiation. In our auto-mobile engine analogy the primary radiator is the engine block and head with the secondary radiator being not surprisingly, the radiator! (If you like the engine can be treated as being supplied with both gasoline and air through a pipe so it can be run in vaccuum and thus tighten up the analogy).

We now imagine that our engine and radiator are sitting in an auto-mobile on our collective drive and that the engine has been running for some time and has reached thermal equilibrium with the environment. We lift the hood and examine the engine in operation with reference to a manual: The engine generates heat energy some of which it loses directly to the environment. Most heat energy however is removed from the engine by a water based coolant which is pumped though a series of channels in the block and head then via a radiator hose to the radiator. A second feedback radiator hose returns the cooled water from the radiator to the engine and closes the system loop.

We have just concluded that the engine and cooling system is working satisfactorily when our collective neighbour, a Mr. Gore, drops by and with the skilful use of a thermometer amidst all those moving parts demonstrates that the return hose from the radiator is operating above ambient temperature and is thus maintaining the engine at a higher temperature than it otherwise would be. Mr Gore is completely correct of course; feeding warm water into the auto-mobile engine will maintain it at a higher operating temperature. Mr Gore therefore prevails upon us to disconnect the feedback hose from the radiator to the engine block in order to keep the engine cooler.

Would you take Mr. Gore’s advice? Your answer to this question will not only determine your position in the global warming debate but whether or not you drive to work next week!

The lessons learned above can be reinforced by considering the black-body Earth and atmosphere in a little more detail. Consider a black-body Earth without any atmosphere whatsoever. Without an atmosphere not only will more radiation get through to the Earth’s surface because there are no greenhouse gases to intercept any of this radiation and re-radiate it back out into space without it having first to interact with the Earth’s surface, but there will be no conduction and convection into the non-existent atmosphere to keep the surface cool. The job of re-radiating energy into space will fall squarely on the surface of the black-body Earth itself. Increasing the radiation from a black-body can only be accomplished by increasing its radiative temperature.

If we now add an atmosphere of non-greenhouse gases to our black-body Earth we find that heat energy can leave the surface not just by radiation but by conduction and convection as well. If we also include surface water the latent heat of evaporation of water will contribute to this heat loss mechanism too. The situation is now similar to that of a domestic central heating radiator which loses heat to heat a room mainly by conduction and convection with a small component of radiative loss; the central heating radiator would be better described as a convection heater. Of course if the atmospheric gases did not radiate away any energy into space eventually the Earth’s surface would rise to the temperature it had before we added any atmosphere. However all gases radiate and the non-greenhouse gases do so too. The reason for this is that all accelerating charges radiate and all molecules in the atmosphere accelerate, often negatively, as they constantly collide with each other. The faster the molecules move the more frequent are the collisions, the greater the accelerations and the greater the loss though radiation. The atmosphere can now be seen for what it is, a secondary radiator which by adding to the Earth’s outgoing radiation budget keeps the Earth’s surface cooler. The non-greenhouse gases component of the Earth’s atmosphere are thermally radiating gases. In other words in order to radiate more they must be at a higher temperature, just like the black-body Earth itself.

Finally we add to the Earth’s atmosphere the greenhouse gases. While these gases radiate thermally just like non-greenhouse gases they have a secondary mechanism too based on a form of electronic transition related to quantised states of dipole moments. Greenhouse gases as a result are not only able to radiate much more energy at lower temperature but are also able to pick up thermal energy from both the Earth’s surface and non-greenhouse gases and radiate this energy into space as well. Greenhouse gases thus add very significantly to the Earth’s outgoing energy budget and thus keep the Earth’s surface and atmosphere very much cooler than they would be in the absence of these lower temperature radiating gases.

From consideration of the arguments given above it is very easy to see that the concept of greenhouse gases as a planet warming blanket is completely erroneous. Greenhouse gases are cooling gases, part of a secondary radiator system and in my view the principal mechanism by which the temperatures at the Earth’s surface are kept cool enough for life to exist across the globe.

In the face of such obviousness the real question is why has the concept of greenhouse gas induced global warming has persisted for so long in the face of so much entrenched opposition from global warming sceptics? The answer is perhaps surprising: The global warming debate has three factions which can be loosely described as warmists, luke-warmists and sceptics. These factions however all have one thing in common: they all believe in global warming!

These three groups all believe that warming is produced by greenhouse gases to greater or lesser degrees with the warmists predicting large increases in global mean temperature with increasing man made emissions of carbon dioxide and the sceptics predicting very small increases in global mean temperatures as a result of these same emissions. The global warming debate has been monopolised by these three groups since the inception of the IPCC. It is a one sided debate in which no voices of opposition are heard.

The simple reality is that greenhouse gases cause global cooling and lots of it. It is only by stepping outside the radiative feedback paradigm foisted upon us by warmists and sceptics alike and then viewing the system as a whole using overarching energy arguments

“How did your utopia come about, Stan? What’s the history that explains it?” Those were my questions too, as I read “Pacific edge”; I enjoyed the book, but I found your hints about how that world had come about implausible or at least unsatisfying. The recent repression of the Occupy protests, among other developments, should eliminate any doubt that there are indeed guns not just under but on the table. I’m glad you’ve persevered in trying to imagine paths from the current world to better ones.

“…for a long time I experienced the utopian imperative that I somehow put on myself as a burden, because I felt the reason we read novels, indeed the reason we love all art, is that it gives us the real.” Hmm…I’ve always thought of fiction as giving me not the real but the imagined, made comprehensible and compelling by its resemblances to the real. I’m a biologist (Ph.D. in population biology from UC Davis, where I enjoyed seminars with Jim Griesemer). For the real, I look to science, not fiction. Of course, the two aren’t sharply distinct. As Albert Einstein remarked, “Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. That is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion.” (1918, “Ideas and opinions,” address delivered at a celebration of Max Planck’s sixtieth birthday) The stories I like best, including several of yours, strike me as elaborately fleshed out thought experiments: suppose certain things were changed from the world we know; what would follow? That kind of thinking can be extremely valuable in science – Einstein was an outstanding practitioner of it – and it can lead to great stories too.

A couple of comments:

1. We’re already drifting away from the whole “possession of lots of manufactured goods = status” in the First World, as said countries move more and more towards being Service-Sector Economies. I think it’s very likely that 30 years down the line, when robots are running the factories and we are constantly immersed in augmented reality content, the real manifestation of wealth will be the kind of human services that you can pay for.

2. You can’t really separate technological utilization from the societies (and economies) that create it. The point about “getting away from capitalist hyper-consumption while preserving the best bits of modern technology” is a contradiction in terms – most of the “best bits” of modern technology would not exist without the capitalist infrastructure that promotes and rewards their construction and use.

3. “Full employment” is not a “paradigm buster” for Capitalism – in fact, the term itself only has relevance in a market economy. As for unemployment, some of that always happens in a capitalist system because

A. People are on the move between jobs, and temporarily unemployed between them, and

B. Trying to push the unemployment rate down to zero in most economies leads to inflation. The actual rate beyond which this happens tends to vary between countries, but in the US it was usually considered to be at around 3% unemployment.

4. Promoting a “Living Wage” is not going to get you to full employment, and it’s not exactly a “paradigm buster” for capitalism either. It just drives up the cost of employing people, and encourages employers to hire fewer people and supplement them with machines. It’s also emblematic of the tendency on the Left to focus on the level of wages, when wages are only half of the equation of living standards – Costs of Living are just as important, if not more so.

5. While I like your writing, I usually tend to cringe when I start hearing your authorial voice on economic issues in your books. It’s like you’ve only ever read leftist critiques of capitalism and market economies, without ever reading and understanding the arguments from those supporting market economies.

More on my point #2:

This is a common mistake I tend to see from Marxists. They see the technology and science being used in capitalist economies to produce a ton of economic output, and think that it’s the technology that’s creating it – therefore, we just have to separate the technology from the capitalism, and voila! New economy with happiness for all.

But it doesn’t work that way! The technology isn’t the source of prosperity and output – it’s just another tool. What makes the prosperity and output are the institutions that shape its use and create incentives for utilization. Trying to just keep the technology while putting it with new institutions that don’t optimize its use just gets you the Soviet Union’s economy.

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