I’m Ezra Klein. This is “The Ezra Klein Show.”
There is no way around it. This has been a heavy show lately. So it’s nice today to be able to have had, and to be able to give you, a conversation that’s a little bit more joyful, that makes you remember, this is a dazzling world to get to live in, that we’re lucky to have a chance to experience it, and that there is a politics that can be built around that kind of awe and that kind of gratitude. Kim Stanley Robinson is one of our great living science fiction writers. And one thing that makes him great book after book is the way geology is a character and a context in his work, whether that is the terrain of Mars, the coastal structure of New York, or the glittering mountains of California. And Robinson’s attention to land in his fiction turns out to be rooted in his attention to land in his life.
He has this new book, an unusual foray into nonfiction for him, which is about his lifelong relationship — and I mean that in the more human sense of the term — with the Sierra Nevadas. And it’s right there in the title, “The High Sierra, a Love Story.” This is his love story, but it’s also a lot more than that. It’s an exploration of what he calls psychogeology, the way the places were in shape the ways we think. And this conversation, too, is an exercise in psychogeology, in his, in mine, maybe, when you listen to it, we’re going to see some of yours. And hopefully, through here, one day, all of ours. What would a politics that was more attentive to the place we lived in, the place we get to experience, look and feel like? As always, my email, email@example.com.
Kim Stanley Robinson, welcome to the show.
Thanks, Ezra. It’s good to be back.
You all can’t see us, but we’re across each other, across a somewhat long table, and it looks like I’m giving Stan a quarterly performance evaluation.
I hope I pass the audition.
It’s looking good, I think.
What led you to move your writing setup outdoors? It’s a bit of an unusual decision.
Yeah. Well, I do live in California in the Central Valley, so it’s physically possible most days. But I was feeling burnt out, and feeling like my writing life was coming to an end somehow. I had struggled with my Washington, D.C. trilogy that was a two or three or four year struggle, and I felt mired in the swamp, in the classic Washington sense, but also as a writer. And I was thinking, well, gosh, it’s been, I don’t know, 30 years, maybe. I’ve just come to the end. And then I moved outdoors into my front courtyard, which has got a fence around it and is filled with plants and a patio, a cafe table, a comfortable chair now, started tapping on the laptop out there and realized immediately that I needed shade to be able to see the laptop screen. Even through dappled tree leaf light, it was messing me up.
So I slung a tarp, as I would in the mountains, over me, got the shade, and then, when it rained, which in Davis is pretty rare, the rain ran off the sides of the tarp and I was still working rather stubbornly out there and realized I liked it. The rain fell off the tarp like a bead curtain. I was typing away, the laptop’s hot, and it kind of steams off any raindrops that fall on it. My wife was highly amused and was taking photos of me stubbornly staying out there, but I realized, my writing day was an adventure day, an outdoor day like as if I was in a meadow in the Sierra, but I was getting my work done. And I realized, I quite enjoy writing. I love it, making a novel. It’s what I do. And it’s a peculiar, monastic life. A same day, by myself, same seat. And not many people do that, and it is weird, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
So now, in the winter I wear my backpacking gear, a down hood, down booties, a little electric pad perhaps, because your feet go first. And even 50 degrees, if you’re just sitting there, you’re going to chill out. But you can wear warm clothes and just type away. Even a laptop is a little heater. In the summer, it’s much worse. You roast, slow roasting over 100 degrees, and you — and even with a fan on you, you begin to heat up and your brain overheats. You can’t write very well. So in the summer, I work in the mornings, or I don’t work at all. And I try to work spring, winter, fall. But in any case, heat is the real challenge for an outdoor worker in the Central Valley.
So let me then go back early, early before even the career, really where the High Sierra book begins. Tell me about dropping acid in the Sierras that first time.
OK. It was fun. We were hippies. It was ‘73, very long here, and very anti-Vietnam War. All of our draft numbers were under 100, and we were staying in college. And it was kind of crazy, and I think recapturing the feel of the early ‘70s now would be a remarkable act of creative psycho-archeological excavation. It really felt different.
In that structure of feeling well, we had started taking acid along with many others at U.C. San Diego, and we didn’t know what we were taking, really, and little eating little pieces of construction paper. God knows what was in them, but something was going on in that culture, some kind of bizarre honor system in that the effects were consistent.
You could tell that, most of the time, you had taken some number of micrograms of lysergic acid, and it would derange your senses a little bit. Your visuals were blurry. It wasn’t flat out hallucinations. You wouldn’t have a pink elephant staring at you, but the wall would crawl a little bit, wallpaper would kind of creep and crawl on you. And this was interesting, but insignificant.
So what was more important and especially up there in the Sierras with the mountains kind of bouncing a little bit and seeming gigantic, because I’d never been in them before, was that there was a significance factor. Things meant something. I was walking in a world of meaning. And that is the best way I can put it, because it was a little more mystical at the time. In retrospect, I would just say I was walking around going, oh my God, the world is real, or it’s more than real.
And that extended through that whole day. And then that night, I couldn’t sleep, and I was just listening to a stream, looking at a stream. It was in the moonlight. There were rocks. There were little trees. It was High Sierra at its finest.
Although, for me, it was more dropping into some — I don’t know, some fantasy novel, some space I didn’t know existed on the planet at the time. The Southern California mountains are scrubby, dry, chaparral, and sandstone and dust, and the High Sierras are clean and chiseled and filled with bonsai plants and are stupendously beautiful compared to what I had expected.
So I joke that I just never came down from that day. And now they’re talking — these brain scientists and people studying LSD are saying, well, it actually does change you. How could that be? 25 micrograms of a strange chemical, and your brain has that brain blood barrier anyway. I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on. And I, myself, am long retired. I’m not the slightest bit interested. I would be scared. I’m surprised people are so bold as to take it now, but I was whatever, 21 years old, and it changed me.
I have a lot of thoughts on that.
I want to go back to the way you described that first experience, because it reminds me of this quote from William James on the noetic qualities of mystical experiences where he writes, “Mystical states seem to those who experience them to be also states of knowledge. They are states of insight into depths of truth unplumbed by the discursive intellect. They are illuminations, revelations, full of significance and importance, all inarticulate though they remain. And as a rule, they carry with them a curious sense of authority for after time.”
And I thought of that last line when I read the way that moment imbued the Sierras with deep meaning for you. It seems forever.
Yes. And James is so good on these things.
That’s a great quote. Now I’ll just tell you a story, because it happened last week. I was walking in a Swiss village. I had had a tremendous day hike high above the village on a north slope in the Alps. It was like a temperate rainforest, very unlike the Sierra, very beautiful, extremely beautiful, and came down into this village.
And there was an old barn or tool shed and an old bicycle had been tacked to it. And to the left and right of it were two words that were in wrought iron on this side of this barn, “einmal” and then “immer.” So that means, I think, once and then always.
Well, I had that same kind of James-ian mystical moment of, this is, I take to be a religious statement that everything that happens is somehow also caught in an eternity. And I like the fact the German seams to give it a poetical quality or a romantic quality, like Schiller or Novalis. Einmal, immer.
And I walked back down to where my wife was on a Zoom that she had to be on or else she would have been with me, and I described it to her and she was laughing at me again, but in an affectionate way. It had a reminder, and it was similar to that early Sierra experience. And I think the mountains are a space where you are taken outside of your ordinary urban mind and are thinking a little deeper — or, no, that might not be the right way to put it. Things are coming together in your head in a different way.
Let me ask you one more question on psychedelics before I leave the topic, because it relates to some other things I’m going to ask you about. I’ve thought, since our first conversation, about a term you turned me on to, which is cognitive estrangement. And the term is from science fiction, the way science fiction can let us see our world, but not see it as our world. It estranges us from it. It makes it feel different.
And so when I was reading “The High Sierra” and I realized you’d actually had a quite serious when you were younger period where you were using psychedelics. I wondered if that had a role in your fiction, because it occurred to me that the fundamental thing that taking a few micrograms of a chemical, which completely upends your unconsciousness does, is it cognitively estranges you from seeing your world as asfixed as it is. Right? That’s what I’ve noticed from it. I think what a lot of people appreciate about it that it loosens your grip on your own certainties. Do you think there’s been any relationship between your career as a writer and that period of your life?
For sure, yes. And cognitive estrangement is one way to put it. It’s good. It comes out of Brecht. And Darko Subban applied it to science fiction as an aesthetic effect.
And Brecht liked in the theater to do what I think he called the “Verfremdung ffect,” the “estrangement effect.” It’s what you take to be normal, like in what a play would be like in the theater, and then suddenly the actor is talking to you directly about the aspects of the play that you need to think about. Well, that estranges you from the willing suspension of disbelief that you go into when you enter a work of art and the artist then kind of slaps you in the face.
Well, now we know this is fairly common in theater and in art life, partly because of Brecht. But in life, itself, with this psychedelic experience of my youth, it was impossible to believe that American reality, as understood in the 1960s or 1950s, was the whole story. If you could take just a 25 micrograms of a chemical and then suddenly everything was changed, what was reality?
It, obviously, is a relationship between our biochemistry and the outside world. So then you’re into, oh my gosh, epistemology and ontology and deep philosophy, mystical feelings. And of course, we were young at the time. And I was reading Ram Dass and Aldous Huxley to try to understand the psychedelic experience, but also Gary Snyder, the great California poet, who was teaching me —
How can I say it? There’s a kind of California, new age, hippie, Zen Buddhism. Buddhism in America came first to California. And I was reading also DT Suzuki, who was a Japanese Zen master writing for the American audience, also Alan Watts. And that whole stream of California culture and thought was doing its best to make an intellectual construct, a way of both understanding and then putting to use in life these lessons out of these experiences.
So for me, I mean, when I look back on it, I see I was kind of formed, or forged in a fire, that had to do with psychedelics, also Buddhism, also the Sierras, also science fiction, which I discovered late in the game. I was like a freshman in college when I ran into Asimov and Simak and then the new wave generation of science fiction writers who were on fire.
And if you think of all those things hitting one young man at once and how I thought of myself as a poet even before that, writing Shakespearean sonnets in high school and then in understanding that actually free verse had come along, it coalesced and it launched me. And I’ve been unwinding it since then.
But what any good psychedelic guide will tell you is that it’s all about the integration. It’s all about whether or not you change your life after. Many people were in that milieu, and they went on and they work on Wall Street or they do marketing for snacks or something.
You really reordered your life to be near the Sierras. You estimate that you’ve camped a total of about two years in the Sierras. You’re 70 years old. That’s actually a not insignificant portion of your life. How has that much time in the mountains changed the way you see the world?
So when I was writing, I always thought my original perceptions of reality might be coming out of these mountain trips, so let’s try to find ways to write the mountain experiences into my novels. Not always easy, not always even appropriate, but I did it.
And beyond that, I wouldn’t want to claim too much. I’ve loved it. I’ve gotten it as much as I can given the rest of my obligations in life, and it’s been good and lovely. I feel like it’s kind of a privileged, suburban, even maybe a white male experience. Although, luckily, you see lots of women up there and now more and more people of color.
I don’t want to tell you your business, but as a reader, a Kim Stanley Robinson reader, I wonder if you make a little too little of that. And I wonder that, in this sense, one thing that has always felt unusual to me about your work is that the geography is often the main character.
Now, it’s not written from the point of view of the geography — although, occasionally, you’ll get a chapter from the perspective of an atom or something, but nevertheless, you seem to think in terrain in a way that is unusual among even science fiction writers I’m aware of.
Well, I’m into it for sure, but I would say that actually science fiction is an urban literature, and a literature of ideas, and hasn’t been good on what I would call settings — so characters, plot, themes, style, setting. These days people talk about world building. I think that’s a little ancillary or not a derivative effect of a novel working well, and that one ought in a novel not to be world building, but in fact, following characters through a plot.
So for me, it’s about characters in a plot. But why are you moved by your characters in their plot? That’s an interesting question. And one answer is, well, I believed it. While I was reading it, I was there. And being there implies that the setting matters, and the characters in a plot are moving through some kind of a landscape or situation, you might say, that is particularized. And the more particularized it is, the more the reader is well reading or like, I believe this. I’m living it.
And I thought science fiction, when I came into it, had a problem that I called the “cardboard sets.” And I’m thinking of Star Trek, 1967 where you could see that the bridge of the Starship Enterprise was made of cardboard and plywood. And a lot of science fiction was written as if the sets were just unimportant and were cardboard and plywood, and then you got into your exciting adventure with whatever.
And I thought what I can bring to it is the reality of a planet, and of other places, and of landscapes, and that will help the novel be a better novel.
I want to talk about an idea you bring up a few times in “The High Sierra,” which is Actor Network Theory. Can we just start with, what is it?
Yes. And thank you for that. And it’s funny, too, because Bruno Latour, a French social scientist who’s become a philosopher and is very important, and he revolutionized science studies. They talk about the Latourization of science studies, which went from philosophy of science and history of science to science studies precisely because of the Latour’s innovations.
And the main one was Actor Network Theory, so that if you were, say, Louis Pasteur, then amongst his collaborators were the bacteria he was working on. And then, if you were doing John Muir’s Sierra work, or The Sierra Club as an actor network, the Sierra is an actor.
And now, Actor Network Theory comes maybe out of the 1980s and many critics have come up to say it’s not right because some actors have agency, and others don’t have agency. So when you take straight Actor Network Theory, you are obscuring who decides and who acts in this actor network, because agency is important.
But I think Luther’s point still holds that we are in collaborations with the bacteria inside our body that are part of our self and our mind and our consciousness. This is revolutionary, and Latour created a framework of understanding by which, when we were told 50 percent of the DNA of your body is not human DNA, well, that’s mind boggling. You have to think about that for quite a while, and it’s a little terrifying, because everything has to go right in this collaboration that you’re not in control of.
Yeah, I don’t thinking about my microbiome.
No. Your microbiome is the alien within you, or you’re in an actor network with a whole bunch of little creatures who have their own program. And it all has to go well, and eventually it doesn’t, and you fall apart and die.
But the actor network is a useful way, I think, of including the things that aren’t humans in human laws and human decisions that get them the rest of the Earth’s biosphere our intense interpenetration with the rest of the biosphere such that it’s our extended body and we rely on it to stay healthy. We pay better attention by way of Actor Network Theory.
Well, let me key on that pay better attention, because I want to push you down a level of profundity, because I can imagine somebody hearing this and saying, oh, so the theory is that when I write, I’m in collaboration with my pen and the paper. Yeah, OK, I’m in — Yes, there’s a pen in the paper when I write. What is it that it is saying to you that is not obvious?
When you embrace it as a way of thinking about it, you write in the book that you need an actor network to make real change in the world. What is the saying beyond their connections between you and whatever you’re working with, whoever you’re working with, whatever you’re working on?
Well, there might not be much more to it than that, but that’s important to remember if, say, you’re a writer and you’re thinking you can change the world by your sentences. And that’s not really true. And having tried it a couple of times and seen it fail, or maybe my whole life trying it and seeing it fail.
You need other people to be teaching you things. You need language, itself. But also, need the laws to change, and that’s collaborative. That’s working with a whole bunch of people in a network. That real change comes not from just the idea being expressed. You can’t express an idea eloquently enough that everybody is going to say, oh, wow, I never thought of it that way before so now I’m going to change. Everything else has to come into play, and then you have to do politics in effect.
I like the line about paying attention in part because one of the things that I think it encourages us to pay attention to is that even if you take the corrective, that a lot of the actors in these theories don’t have agency in the sense that maybe they are inanimate, maybe they cannot choose, maybe they don’t have free will, maybe they’re subjugated, you know, like if you’re experimenting on animals in a scientific situation.
On the other hand, we often miss that we are being changed by things, even if the things are not intending to change us. And I was thinking earlier when you were talking about California culture in the ‘70s, it has only been something I’ve realized in the last five or 10 years how influenced I am by that, as somebody who grew up in California and basically holds all of those interests and thought they were my own and realized later, and since moving back to California a couple of years ago, they are much more present in my work, even though I have not intended to make them more present in my work.
And so paying attention, maybe, to the ways that the things we are working with, working in the context of change us seems to me to be a worthwhile pursuit. And it, I think, offers an entry into something that you spend quite a lot of time writing about in the book, which is psychogeology. Tell me a bit about what is psychogeology to you.
Yeah. It follows very naturally because it’s kind of an expression of Actor Network Theory. But back to psychogeology and actor network, with these rocks, I feel a distinct difference, for instance, if I’m hiking on granite or if I’m hiking on metamorphic rock, which the Sierras has both. And it’s a different plant communities, different breaking patterns, different safety underfoot. Granite is very safe, metamorphic rock, not so much.
And then also the effects of verticality and fractalness. These are special effects on the human mind. You have to pay attention. You can’t tell how tall things are or how steep they are, both. Foreshortening is a psychogeological effect where, the human eye, even if you know you’re being fooled in an optical illusion, you can’t overcome it just by knowing that.
So you wander up there in an intense relationship that you know is somewhat deceptive and particularized, super particularized. And once again, you’re paying attention. So I talk about psychogeology as the trying to understand why, for instance, the Sierras feel so different than the Swiss Alps or the trans-Anarctics or the Himalayas. These are the other mountain ranges that I’ve spent some time in walking around.
And they have their characters. And I say this even about the Sierra — basins have characters. Why should that be? It’s just rock and empty space in particular patterns. And yet, at least to my mind, they coalesce into a particular feeling. Like in the Ionian Basin, you’re going to feel scared and oppressed and like something’s wrong. You can try to explain it, but it’s more of a gestalt. And that’s psychogeology.
I found that idea very generative, and it made me think about a lot of places I’ve been. And I’ll offer a couple of them here. So we’re speaking in downtown San Francisco. The buildings here are bigger than we are. I spent a fair amount of time in Manhattan. The buildings there are much bigger than I am. But I wouldn’t say either environment changes my own psychic sense of centrality, that I and human beings are the protagonists of the story.
I went backpacking last year in Old Growth Redwoods. Completely different feeling, right? You feel like you’re here. You will die. You’re meaningless. That there’s a lot more going on, right? That’s in many ways, the point of Richard Powers’ “The Overstory.”
Being in big mountains, right? I’ve spent a fair amount of time out in the Ansel Adams wilderness, which I love. You just feel small. And I don’t know anybody, really, who goes to these places and doesn’t have that feeling of smallness. And there’s something there that’s more than size, because big buildings don’t do that to you in the same way. Why do you think that is?
I wonder, I know what you’re talking about, and I’m thinking about the cultures that we grow up in shape our perceptions, even of the natural world. And Western culture — this is somewhat of an old story, but they thought of mountains — you can see it in Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” and in “Wordsworth.” The important thing was the stimulus these places gave to metaphysical thoughts. And again, the human is big in that story and those poems.
And then in Chinese landscape poetry, it’s like Chinese landscape art. These teeny, little humans are standing in these vast floating mountains with clouds and then forest and then clouds and then forest. And the human element is specifically pointed out to be minute and insignificant compared to the whole.
I mean, the fact that the Sierras are 14,000 feet tall, that’s pretty unusually tall. And you can see it. And go to the East side of the Sierra, you’re looking at a 10,000 foot high wall. And remember that the skyscrapers in Manhattan, even at their tallest, are like 1,000 feet — or maybe now, I guess, 1,500 feet. So then you’ve got a mountain range that you can’t quite grasp its full size because of the foreshortening problem, but in your mind that it’s six times taller than the tallest skyscrapers, and it isn’t even one of the major mountains. It scales you.
And then there’s a feeling of sublimity, which is like beauty and terror combined. This is a very specific and important emotion. And then there’s a technological sublime. Like this morning, I was flying over the bay at — it should have been 60 miles an hour. It was five miles an hour. But I was listening to Astor Piazzolla, who’s been dead 30 years, and also my iPhone was talking to me.
And all this stuff is the technological sublime. You have powers. You are like a god. Godlike things are happening to you. But you know it was concocted by technology. So that sublime is different than the natural one, which is, oh my gosh, I’m just a little tiny primate. I’m only alive a few years. The universe, in the Scottish Highlands, the rock around you is 500 million years old. And you learn enough and the psychogeology can begin to ping you, because you can see the differences maybe.
And so these feelings, as they sort out this reminder that we are small creatures on a big planet and that, nevertheless, we are changing it by our technologies in a bad way, all this can squish together into one train of thought as you’re walking. I mean, I talk about this, that we think at a kind of walking pace. And when we’re walking, we think maybe better than we do if we’re just sitting. It’s at least we’re testing.
There’s a dimension here, too, of not just space, but time, which is interesting to me. So you have this lovely line that to be in the Sierras is to have, quote, the touch of deep time. And I think that’s important to this feeling.
I think one of the reasons that skyscrapers don’t have the feeling of Old-Growth Redwoods upon you is that Old-Growth Redwoods have this feeling of time. Like they are these batteries of time. You recognize they were there long before you, they’ll be there long after you. Well, actually, the way humans act, maybe not. But nevertheless —
whereas the skyscrapers, you can feel the human time, right? You can feel that they are part of our cycle. Can you talk a bit about that experience of deep time and why it is easier, you think, to have in places like the Sierras?
Well, I think it’s probably fairly obvious, but I do want to start by saying that Manhattan is superb. And what it is is a testament to human abilities, of cooperation and mutual aid and amazing creativity. So I walk in Manhattan and the technological sublime is just blowing me away. I quite love it.
But also, speaking of time, I’m often thinking about something that you wrote about quite recently. OK, they built the Empire State Building in a year. That’s amazing. But when you look at all of Manhattan, you’re thinking, it should have taken more human work hours than the whole lifetime of the universe to build this place. And so what it means is a whole lot of people are working every day to build something like that.
To be fair, we cut a lot of corners.
The reason I ask this is not just to kind of trip out on the idea of time, although I do enjoy that, too, but because I think of time and the experience of it as being a central political challenge. And you have a line where you’ve said, quote, “The coming century will bring, to one degree or another, a global ecological crisis, but it will be playing out at planetary scales of space and time, and it’s possible that, except in big storms or food shortages, things won’t happen at the right scales to be subjectively experienced as crisis.”
I think there’s some real wisdom in that. Something when we look at climate models — there are time compression device we experience, even if only in summary, a lot of calamities all as one calamity. But because they’ll play out in time, they won’t be experienced that way, which is also one reason we may not respond the way we should. Could you talk a bit about that insight you have that it may not happen at the right scale to feel like crisis?
Yes, although I probably should have said the right speed of, the right pace of an event. But the day before yesterday, I was up at the home of Gary Snyder, the poet and a real friend and mentor to me, and his son Kai said something really interesting.
Kai Snyder said — there’s a disruption ecology has a notion of speed of crisis that if it’s happening too fast, like, say, Russia’s war on Ukraine — so brutal and crazy — the Ukrainians are not worrying about climate change right now because they’re being blown up. And so when things are happening, like maybe mid-storm, even, a natural event, you don’t have time to do anything but try to survive.
On the other hand, if it’s happening too slowly, then you don’t think you have to deal with it because it’s happening on a scale of thousands of years and you have more present concerns. And what I think might be happening, in an encouraging way, is that the climate crisis is now beginning to hammer us. Human harm and extinctions of other creatures and build up poisons, they’re all happening at a pace that is both hitting us and yet we can deal with. So we might be actually in a zone of potential possible good actions.
And you see this across the board of governments and then private capital wanting to invest greenly because they would like the world to survive so they can continue to stay in business. And on it goes like that. So we might have fallen into a good pace of change, which partly means the emergency has begun, but it hasn’t yet overwhelmed us, and so we could still do something about it.
And then I want to repeat something that was said to me by another teacher, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian who I met at COP26 and taught me what COP was about as much as any —
Can you say what COP is?
Oh, yes. The Congress of the Parties, that was in Glasgow, the meeting for the Paris Agreement improvements, the annual meeting. So Zeid said, you know, you don’t have to be in a plane crash to know that it would be bad to be in a plane crash. And that’s so obviously true. And so we make sure to try to make sure that planes don’t crash. And they rarely do because of our intense attention to that, because the ramifications of it would be so bad, like fatal.
So now climate change, we know that arise in temperatures high enough would be a kind of a civilizational plane crash. We don’t want it to happen. We have some time to try to avoid it.
So, in some ways, I will say this. I am more encouraged now than I was when I wrote “Ministry for the Future” in 2019. What I’ve seen, what I’ve learned, and what everybody’s learned because of the pandemic, these are lessons learned that have accelerated our responses to this emergency. And it’s by no means a done deal, but more people are talking about it, more money’s being invested in it. It’s a different world than it was in 2019.
I’ve been trying to think about — well, let me say two things. So one, I think your insight there, that maybe we’re entering a pace of crisis that is actually more aligned to human action, not so fast that it feels like you can’t act, but not so slow that it feels like you can’t see it, I think it’s really interesting. I’ll have to sit with that, but I think it’s a very, very interesting insight.
One of the fundamental questions, I think, in politics is what kinds of crises do we experience? The way you mentioned airplane crashes and the effort we put into making them not happen, then somebody might say, on the other hand, and look how little we do about air particulates in many places, right? It kills about 10 million people a year.
How do you think about the experience we continue to go through — and I know you just got Covid — with the pandemic? And there’s still both a lot of death happening, but also a lot of risk, right? Another variant could come anytime. We know there’s a seasonality and a cyclicality. There’s many things we could do that we’re not doing.
And it’s just amazing to me how quickly we move from a period where it’s like we would stop everything to a period where we will kind of stop nothing, right? The acculturation process to the pandemic threat was sort of remarkable on both sides. And so remarkable on both sides that I almost don’t know what lessons to draw from it, right?
It simultaneously shows how much can change and how little can. And that’s coexisting, to me, at least. And I’m curious, as somebody who thinks about this kind of large scale adaptation in crisis, what you took from it as a moment of watching all this play out.
Yeah. Well, I’m still stunned. I never got over being stunned by how quickly things changed in spring of 2020. And since then, I’ve never felt caught up. But I think it is explicable that right at the start of the pandemic, it looked like it could kill many, many millions. And also for ordinary citizens, it looked like they, themselves, could die.
On the other hand, a lot of people followed instructions because, I think, out of fear, and but a sense of solidarity. OK, everybody’s responding. Let’s respond together. That’s what we do. But we’re such social primates that the order to stop socializing is impossible to hold to for long.
And then some risk assessment is going on. OK, how likely am I to get Covid? Pretty likely. How bad will it be? Well, I probably will just get sick and survive. And that explains, I think, the slacking off on everybody’s part.
It’s worth adding that risk assessment, you say how likely is it to happen? And then, how bad would it be if it did happen? So likelihood of a plane crash, we’ve made that really minimal, because how bad would it be if it did happen is fatally bad.
Now, with climate change, how likely is it to happen? One hundred percent. We already started it. It’s going to happen to some level or another. And then how bad is it going to be? It could be really bad. We break some of these planetary boundaries that Johan Rockstrom has defined and the whole work of the sciences is to try to find out what kind of physical boundaries, if we crash through them, we cannot claw back from, no matter whether we decided to or not. It would be irreparable. And we’re hitting those boundaries now. So, OK, and that would be bad.
So in other words, doing this risk assessment, likelihood? Extremely high. How bad would it be? Extremely bad. We need to respond to climate change in a rapid way. And that’s the story of the 2020s. And what I’m seeing is a lot of people have come to that same conclusions, and action is beginning to happen at the level of finance and law. And that’s where it has to happen. And then individual cognition and responsible action by developed countries’ citizens reduce your carbon burn, you see that also.
So I’m going to ask you to read something from the book now that it’s going to sound a little off topic, but I really don’t think it is. In fact, for me, it’s come to be almost like a bit of a skeleton key to some of how you think about this. So have a chapter in the book about gear, what literally you should bring up to the High Sierras. And as somebody planning a backpacking trip, I’ve been thinking a lot about that chapter.
But you have a paragraph at the end that struck me as very revealing. So it’s a paragraph that begins with, it’s the younger hikers. And I wondered if you could read it.
“It’s the younger hikers who have simply gone into the adventure stores and bought whatever is offered that I find depressing. I wonder about them as consumers and as critical thinkers. I suppose they’re strong enough to carry the extra stuff most of the time, so it doesn’t really matter to them, and they get the joy of doing something hard.
But it could be more fun for them if they distrusted American commerce and thought it through. There they are on the mere trail, staggering under enormous backpacks, hustling along to keep to a timetable, having somehow managed to turn backpacking into a job.
They are the equivalent of commuters in SUVs on the highways of America, a national weakness for overkill, even for conspicuous consumption. That they suffer for it when hiking uphill on their first day is often very evident when you pass them on the trail. sweaty, red-faced, dismayed, getting desperate, about to cry, even actually crying, we’ve seen it all. But they haven’t twigged that there’s a better way.”
So let’s do this at two levels. Give me a little bit of context for what you’re saying there about ultralight hiking and these systematic mistakes you think people make. But then I’d like to hear about what it seemed to me you’re really talking about, the way our preferences, and our society, then, are formed by the social and consumer society around us, and the way they might be fundamentally wrong, that we might have the wrong preferences for the lives we actually want to lead.
Well, advertising, capitalism, and the culture of commerce sell things, and the more and bigger they are, more complicated, the more you have to pay for them, a whole national culture. And maybe it’s a global culture, but it’s definitely American, because I just got back from Europe and all the cars are about one third the size of your average American car and they get around just fine.
So this is something in our national psyche, that bigger is better. And people are generally urban or suburban. The percentage of people that are farmers is tiny.
So you go out into the outdoors on an outdoors adventure, you’re still part of American culture, and you go into one of the big adventure stores. Here it would be REI. And you’re being presented with equipment that has been designed to cost a lot and feel comfortable inside the store. It’s ridiculous. It’s too heavy. It doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do.
Now there’s some people in the world have decided they want to walk from Mexico to Canada in a single season. That’s 2,650 miles. And I would never do that. That’s not on my list. But for some people, it is. And so they’re doing like a marathon that they walk every day for four months about a marathon’s distance, and up and down on trails.
So they have become obsessed with weight. If you used to think of backpackers as worrying about ounces, these people are worrying about grams. And a whole cottage industry has developed where people start making their own gear, and then little companies looking at these designs for ultra light equipment have started small cottage industries to make it and sell it online.
So you see a culture developing, and they call it ultralight. And there will be arguments amongst them. And people being people, you can go too far with that and lose your comfort, or cut corners in ways that are counterproductive. And there’s another line from my book, “We always carry our houses on our back.” And this is sort of a reference to Thoreau’s line that “All I need is a railroad box to live in. I wouldn’t be in as bad a box as many a middle class citizen is already.”
What struck me about that part of the book is the idea that we are wrong about what we think we want. You make the point in that chapter that people desperately want to get away and go into nature, but then, when they do, they’ve weighed themselves down with so much gear, with so much stuff, that they’ve actually not done the thing they were hoping to do. Instead of feeling free and unencumbered, to the extent at least possible, they’re — me, specifically I, am weighed down under a 75 pound pack.
Well, I don’t know if I ever had the 75 pound one, but nevertheless, big packs. The first day is tough. And it struck me reading that that a lot of your work actually seems to be about this idea at a broader level that the solutions, the ideas, the ways of living that we can come up with, and thus the problems we can think to solve or the ways we can think to solve problems, are very much bounded by the assumptions of the society in which we live. And the difficulty is thinking things through from first principles.
That, to me, what was striking about that line that it could be more fun for them if they distrusted American commerce and thought it through. And it’d be easy to read this as taking an anti-technological stance, right? That, oh, just modernity is bad. But you say that actually backpacking this way, it is a very high tech game, but it’s high tech to try to be more immersed in nature. It’s technology in the direction of harmony, as opposed to in the direction of disharmony.
Can you talk a bit about those different views of technology, and the relationship that it could forge with us for the world in which we live?
Yes. And I do think it’s important. And it is applicable to our lives in general, not just backpacking, that they’re both technological. We are technological creatures. There’s no going back to some supposedly pre-technological state for human beings because we actually co-evolved with stone tools and fire. So we’ve been technological as long as we’ve been human. It’s a species thing.
But “Appropriate Technology,” which is a very good book by Victor Pananek from the 1970s, appropriate technology is an interesting question. And because it becomes philosophical, what are you doing it for? And say you’re doing it for comfort, safety, and fun. Then you often can get by with less, and it becomes a matter of becoming more sophisticated in your technologies.
So you don’t have big, clunky, poisonous technologies — what I call Chelyabinsk 65 of a world, referring to the old Soviet poisonous industrial city, which really, in more disguised ways, describes a lot of what we’ve done. You clean it up and use as little as needed to get the experience that you want, which is maybe more of a contact with the world out in the wind, sleeping outdoors.
This is the wilderness part of it. But in general, less between you and the planet that we’re on can be a heightener of experiences so that, in aesthetic and even religious terms, you’re having a better time by using less in a smarter way.
So this is one solution to the problem of what do you say to the younger generation about we need to use less. We need degrowth, all these things. I don’t think degrowth is a good term at all for human beings. We need growth of sophistication. We need a matter of figuring out what we want, and then actually doing things that suit it.
How do you figure out what you want, though? Because that’s so much more complex a question than I think we give it credit for, because we think we have a lot of agency over what we want, but the insight here is that we don’t. Our wants are socially constructed. You know, the mid-century economists thought a lot about advertising. For some reason, that’s fallen out of fashion among economists. Now you have people on the right really like to talk about René Girard and mimetic theory, which, I don’t know, I know it’s like the hot new thing, but the idea that our wants are socially constructed by other people has not struck me as transformative as people seem to think.
But it does often seem to me that one of the difficulties of just being alive, but also politics, is being able to actually figure out what it is you want, what it is your society wants. And so we’ve outsourced that, in many ways, simply to the market. Whatever the market kind of ends up showing one as what we want, and then we accelerate that want through algorithms and advertising and other things.
But it’s something that, it does seem to me, you’ve thought about in some of your books, and is kind of thrumming through some of your work here. How do you think about the politics of wanting?
Well, it’s worth looking inside and thinking it over and realizing that there are pressures on what you want that come out of a commercial society, out of capitalism and advertising that aren’t what you really want. They’ve been blown up, and you’ve been told that you want those things.
So there is that social aspect, but I’d say this. We are animals. We’re mammals. We’re social primates, and what we want you can track back to that. You want to be fed. You want to be warm. You want to not get eaten by a lion that night. You want love. You want to dance. You want to have sex. You want to look at fire. You want to throw things at other things.
These are the wants. I made the Paleolithic list. I’ve written about it before. And then you can mess with those wants because of the technological sublime. No, you actually want a helicopter to the top of a peak in the Canadian Rockies and ski down a 70 degree slope. That’s what you want. Well, no. You wanted a thrill. Well, a thrill could be throwing a rock in a bottle on a post and hitting it and breaking it.
So thrills are susceptible to fine-tuning by paying attention to what’s really thrilling, which is usually a sense of accomplishment. So it’s something that you did yourself, or you did in a team with other people like you. And this shared accomplishment of a team is a huge buzz.
And so it’s not that hard, really. It’s a matter of putting a hand up and holding off the in rush of crap that comes out of commercial advertising society that wants you to buy a bunch of stuff to prove that you’re having fun.
I’m laughing to myself because my older son, who is three and some months, and putting on a list of the seven things human beings want to throw things at other things I think feels a lot truer to me right now than I might have at another point. It is so deep, right? I mean, just half of my life is trying to get him not to throw anything he can find down the stairs.
And he’s right, because it’s awesome to throw things down the stairs. It really is very fun, and to throw things at other things and see if they fall down. I mean, there is something very, very deep to it.
The human brain blew up like a balloon over the last two million years. What did that? And look at the lifestyle they were living then, and that lifestyle was blowing their brains up generation by generation. It had to be good, or human.
And then you look at those activities and you can go back to them. None of them are forbidden to you now. Although, it’s very hard to get as much looking at fire as people used to get. We’ve hidden most fires.
I’m always fascinated by the ways in which we substitute kind of ancient wants for modern versions. And I’ll give two that come to mind sometimes. One, I’ve heard people who are evolutionary anthropologists or historians make the argument that it’s quite deep to — when the night falls — to surround yourself with fire and tell stories — that if you look at virtually all societies you can think of, I mean, that’s what human beings did for a very long time.
So the idea that at night, we get in front of something that gives off light and tells us stories, it’s really — I mean, it’s poignant in that way, but it’s not really the thing we were looking for. I mean, it’s a simulacrum of it. We don’t really have the community when that happens, the connection. Watching TV at home alone, watching Netflix on autoplay is not the same as being in front of the fire. And I don’t want to suggest that everything was better when you could die because you scratched your toe. There are no antibiotics. But there is something to that.
And then similarly, the degree to which we have wants for community, for love, for status, for acceptance and living pretty atomized lifestyles, we end up going online to social media or to distraction, right?
The ways in which one want gets replaced by another, or a palliative for it, is, I think, a pretty fundamental experience of our world that is very, very hard to see happening in real time or even talk about it, because it sounds like you’re questioning the choices people are making, which we don’t love doing. But nevertheless, I think there’s something to that.
Yeah, for sure. It’s so disembodied, the world through the screens. And I mean embodiment as being important. I mean, my friend Terry Baier said this is why people liked going to movie theaters, was that experience of it in the dark and a flickering in front of you and a story being told — this was all very ancient. And watching your laptop isn’t the same as the communal experience of being in a movie theater, which is semi gone away, although I wonder if it will.
But the basic emotions are still back down there being felt by us as social primates. It’s worth thinking about, as a sorting mechanism, what in modern life is worth my time and effort, and what is perhaps a distraction, and is actually making me less happy rather than more happy.
I was listening to a talk you gave recently at a conference with the Dalai Lama on building a better Anthropocene, and I wanted to set it up with some of these ideas and quotes, because I feel like that was really at the center of that. You really were sort of estranging from the world we have, and suggesting that we could build a world that better reflects what we want. So before we get into some of the ideas of that talk, I’d just like to hear quickly about that conference. I mean, that’s an unusual life experience, going and doing a conference with the Dalai Lama. What was that like?
Well, it was amazing and strange. And got the invitation. It was the International Campaign for Tibet and the Tibet Policy Institute and they were gathering a dialogue about the climate change. And the Dalai Lama said, oh, the Buddha would be a green. And he said, I love socialism, but you have to keep both eyes open. And he made a squeezing motion. You can’t squeeze too hard.
So all of these things watching him were quite beautiful. But I felt peculiar going to the other side of the earth. And this is kind of a pandemic thing that, having stopped flying, flying now seems really strange. Talk about the technological sublime.
And I did it because I wanted to meet the Dalai Lama, who I had seen give a talk once in Washington, D.C. long ago, but this was going to be an audience with a small group of people talking to him in that format, and I wanted it. So I paid carbon credits for almost the first time, and pondered that as an action, and went. And it was fantastic.
So a group of maybe 30 or 40 people with a really excellent virtual presence online of people all over the world who were well connected with what we were saying in the room talked about these issues for a few days. And on the day of I was going to leave, I got a positive test for Covid and I apologized to everybody. They all just said, oh, no problem. They didn’t get it. They left. I stayed.
My Tibetan hotel hosts took care of me. They were beautiful. I had an extra a few days to watch life in India, and from a Tibetan context. I’m really glad I did it.
So you gave this talk there about how to build a better age of the human. And there are a couple of ideas in it that I wanted to talk about, because they do speak to some of these underlying ideas. I want to talk about your thoughts on having a one to 10 wage limit.
Sure. And thank you for that. Look, our culture and structures of feeling, as Raymond Williams way of describing it, we’re in a structure of feeling right now that is kind of stupid. Why should there be billionaires? Remember after World War II when rich people were in disrepute because it felt like many people had this feeling — and again, it’s a structure of feeling — that the rich had semi-caused World War II and also that they had profited from it.
And in 1953, the tax rate, once you got past $400,000, which would have been maybe $4 million today, you were taxed at 93 percent. And so progressive taxation was a real thing. And we got the glorious ‘30, as the French call it. ‘45 to ‘73 wasn’t that glorious, but there was more equality then.
And then since the Reagan-Thatcher counterrevolution, inequality has just ballooned to the point we’re in another Gilded Age. And you don’t need billions to be happy. It’s too much money. It doesn’t do the person who has it any good. And then for everybody else, it makes them think, I’m not even really part of this system.
I will just say, if you don’t believe this, you should meet some billionaires.
Or just watch them on Twitter for a day, because that’s very available to everybody. Like, watch Elon Musk and some of the people around him on Twitter and see if it looks to you like having billions of dollars really makes people happy.
No, and I like Elon Musk. He’s an interesting guy. I don’t like his Mars fantasy, but I like his car company and his rocket company. But it’s true. And I call it the Midas Touch. If you’ve got that much money, when somebody comes up to talk to you, you always are not trusting them. Are they talking to you because they’re interested in you and your ideas, or are they talking to you because you’ve got a big number in the bank? And they can never tell.
So it’s the Midas Touch. It wrecks their lives, and doesn’t do anybody else any good, either. It’s ridiculous to fetishize them or to villainize them. It’s the system that’s creating them, and they’re ordinary people who have been in the right place at the right time and succeeded.
But a progressive tax rate — here Thomas Piketty really important. If I was creating a shadow cabinet for world government, he would be the finance minister, Piketty. And I don’t know if you’ve talked to him —
An episode with him just came out, when we release this, probably a month ago.
Oh, I am looking forward to that. He is teaching me things. And I wish I had had him to read 30 years ago. My books would be better, because Piketty is finally doing political economy rather than just economics, which is to say he’s not just analyzing capitalism. He’s proposing a way to make it more equal and better.
And one of his books, one of his most recent books, called “Time for Socialism”— well, between that and the Dalai Lama saying I love socialism, I was kind of startled, but in a good way. And I don’t think we need to use that word in America. You could just say public utility districts, or you could say government over business. We need to control the economy to save our ass. There are ways to put it that aren’t inflammatory in our culture.
But Piketty says progressive taxation on assets as well as income, on companies as well as individuals, and on inheritance as well as your living wealth could do a lot to make people feel, well, one, employed, and then two, a meaning to their life because they’re in the same boat as everyone else.
And you might have brought this up because in my book, “Ministry for the Future,” I have a long chapter about the U.S. Navy where the wage ratio, so-called, is one to eight. So the able seaman gets $25,000 a year, but also room, board,and education. And the top paid admiral gets $200,000 a year. And there’s a real esprit de corps in the U.S. Navy, and it has to do with them all being on the same page, economically.
Like, if it’s one to eight for the Navy, and they work pretty well, but in American corporate life, it’s one to 350 on average between the worker and the C.E.O. That means the C.E.O makes as much every day as the worker makes an entire year. And so what do you get? You get cynicism, defeatism, a feeling of alienation from the whole project of civilization.
Like, I’m just a wage. I’m a wage labor person. I can barely scrape by and nobody cares about me, certainly not the society or the government. And then you get all the toxic repercussions of despair and cynicism. And so the wage ratio is amenable to taxation. You can actually adjust it by choosing to do so.
So a few thoughts here. So one thing that is interesting to me about this, you’re mentioning Thomas Piketty’s work. I’ve always been very influenced by the economist Robert Frank and his work on what he calls consumption cascades. And basically his argument is that a lot of being rich is a positional competition with other rich people. There’s actually a story like this about George Washington, where he either didn’t want — this is actually the British who are employing him at this time. He either didn’t want them to pay him — so he was volunteering to lead this regiment — or he wanted to be paid a lot more than they were willing to pay him. But he want to be paid at this kind of middling level that he felt was undignified.
And, you know, Frank’s point is that a lot of competitive pressure waterfalls down through society, that when you have the deca-billionaires, they put pressure on the billionaires, and the billionaires put pressure on the 100 millionaires, and the 100 millionaires put pressure on the deca-millionaires, and so on. And that if things were capped — I mean, he thinks about at the progressive consumption taxes, the more you spend, the more you get taxed.
But if things were capped, that one of the reasons it would make people happier is that they wouldn’t be in these endless positional competitions. They wouldn’t have to worry about not would they have enough, because at these levels we’re not talking about that. The issue is really, are you valued by society as much as society values that guy over there, or that woman over there? Right? I mean, these are points on a scoreboard at a certain point, not anything you’re doing to spend money.
And also it’s a very interesting way of thinking about it, to understand society, actually, going back to our whole conversation about socially constructed want, to understand us all as in a lot of competitions with each other that make us unhappy. They keep us running very, very fast on a treadmill where the only real endpoint is trying to show that we had outplayed the other people.
And so when you talk about things like a one to 10 wage ratio, or you can imagine one to 25, or one to 50. One to 100 would be very different than what we have now. That’s some of what, it seems to me, you’re talking about in how society would structure itself is actually trying to say we could be a little bit freed from some of the competitive pressures with each other, that again, go all the way down through society from the rich that drive a lot of people are pretty crazy right now.
Maybe I would say that it’s probably crucially important to focus on the one, that the one needs to be adequacy. And so if the person that is at the entry level, or the lowest amount of compensation, is adequately compensated — And so by that I would say food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, education, electricity — had all of those and knew that they were going to last to the end of their life, no matter what happened, that social security of a safety net, well, that’s a one that you can trust.
And if you had it, you could even say I’m happy, because I’ve got my own personal interest and I’ve got adequacy. And once you’ve got the one as a floor of decency — because it’s such a scandalous situation that we’re in, how many humans are emiserated, and the precariat is indeed precariats. And a whole lot of people are precarious. One job loss, one health crisis and they’re screwed forever.
So if the one is solid, then the top one isn’t as important, because adequacy, if you begin to do it like on my fingers here. One, adequacy, and then let’s go one to 10. Two, adequacy, twice as much as you need. Well, that’s a lot. But then another one, three times as much as you need, four times as much as you need. By the time you get up to 10 times adequacy, your brain begins to explode. You’re like, well, that’s just luxurious. You don’t even need that, because adequacy is adequate.
And yet, we’re in the one to 350, at which point it begins to look obscene. So you have adequacy, and then you just set something above it that seems acceptable, and that should be the new structure of feeling. That would be the utopian goal that we could work to from here.
We talk about the one percent, and there is an amazing amount of wealth at the 1 percent, but if you talk about the top 10 percent getting squeezed from the top down, but you talk about a floor of adequacy for all eight billion of us, you’ve got a decent social order that people might therefore be — how can I say it — patriotic towards. They would believe in it. They would work for it, because they would feel they’re part of the team.
Well, you’re somebody thinks a lot about technology. We think a lot about innovation for the purposes of social progress, and you think a lot about human motivation because your characters need to be motivated. And I think the first place people go when they hear something like this is that, well, we actually need these remarkable rewards, because they are what incentivize the human race to grow and to reach these new heights. It’s what makes Elon Musk create his car company and a space shuttle company and Steve Jobs and —
when you hear that, what do you think? The people say, look, we may not like it, and I agree that this might be a nicer way of structuring society, but what really matters for long term human living conditions is innovation and great effort from our most productive. And this is simply the cost we have to pay for that.
Yeah, I’d say they’re wrong. They’re wrong, wrong, wrong. People don’t do it for that. They don’t do it for these exceptional riches. Musk would have done what he had done and made his car company if it had made him $200,000 a year. Driven people are driven.
I’ve watched my wife work harder than anybody that I’ve ever seen for a federal scientist salary. And many scientists are working like maniacs on their project because they love their project and they think their project has meaning. And sometimes this is a peculiar thing to follow, a scientist that is trying to decide whether turtles came into being 50 million years ago or 100 million years ago, and they are devoting their whole career to making that determination.
You’re like, whoa, I wonder what the significance of that is in the larger scheme of things. But, and this is history, I mean, this is part of a larger project. When I find out this, then we’ll find out more about everything else. We’ll understand the earth better. We’ll understand reality better.
There’s something about that curiosity and drive to understand more that I often pit science versus capitalism in my novels as being two giant mythic forces, and the scientists are at least as hardworking, and also making the innovations that capitalism then profits off of by exploitation and appropriation and also stealing from future generations as a systemic and legal thing to do.
So I think it’s a right to say that people are driven to innovate for project-based reasons that have nothing to do with wealth. And if they have to do with prestige, which I agree is prominent in many people’s minds, you want to be respected and all that, well, you need a National Academy of Science to get into that. It’s like, oh my gosh. Or you get a little plaque from your coworkers from 30 years and it’s like, oh, that’s great. Or maybe there should be an industrialists’ hall of fame, and then you get your Presidential Medal for doing great work.
That’s all you need. And then a decent amount of money to feel safe and able to do what you want to in life. You don’t need more than that. That’s all there is to it.
I recently read a book that if you haven’t read it, I think you’d really like it, called “The Knowledge Machine” by Michael Stevens, and it’s all about how do we get scientists to do what they do? He takes this essential question. It’s fun just making fun arguments. I know that better than anybody. It’s literally my job.
And yet, we’ve had to somehow incentivize scientists to not sit around saying, well, if you assume that everything in the world matches the fundamental metaphysics of harmony — and so it must be most like a triangle, right? Like the way sort of old science worked, and instead it’s people processing tons of pig brains to try to understand the basic fundamental makeup of this one molecular mechanism in them, or doing the geological evidence taking to slightly better estimate when something happened.
How do you get them to do such painstaking, boring work as opposed to just coming up with fun theories all the time? And his answer, functionally, is that we’ve created a set of rules. He calls it The Iron Rule. You need to bring evidence to an argument. And the way to advance, not in money, really — I mean, a little bit of money, but fundamentally, in prestige and your status in science, is to bring the evidence to arguments that people end up believing.
And through that simple, fundamental rule, like you need evidence and evidence is what will help you advance in the argument, and the argument is what gives you status in your profession, we’ve created all of science. And you can argue with him this is one theory among how science works, but I think it’s largely true, actually, and it’s very inspiring, in a way.
Yeah, it sounds to me — I think that’s, right. And it goes back to Galileo, and to the birth of science as a method. So the scientific method is to run a demonstration such that if you, yourself, were to run that same demonstration, you would come to the same conclusion.
And there’s Actor Network Theory in this that instead of trying to make a point in argument by simply debating technique and rhetoric — which Galileo was very good, by the way — you run a demonstration where the other person has to agree, because they’ve seen the same thing you have. You set up an experiment, a model, a theory that gets proved by what everybody sees together.
That’s the scientific method in a nutshell. And it has been spectacularly effective in the world. I often describe it as a utopian political effort that’s trying to work under the radar of politics as normally conceived. And scientists are just saying, well, just let me do things and convince my fellow scientists who understand the game and, if I manage that, then we can let the rest of society decide what to do with it. But I’ve managed to play my game.
And they are doing it. I mean a game in the sense of joy, like a project that they’re taking joy in, because they’ve figured out how old those turtles are or how a piece of metal works when it’s pressured.
The scientific project is huge, and it’s worth supporting and saying this is a good human project. It has done a lot. There are unexpected bad side effects that can come. You keep people from dying from diseases and a child in their first year, and suddenly you’ve got a population boom. You find a fuel that makes civilization go like anything, and it turns out that the waste product is cooking the planet now.
So scientific achievements are not cure-alls. They’re not magic. You don’t want to fall prey to scientism. But it is a good method for entangling and trying to cope with the biosphere that we’re in. I’m a big science fan.
Speaking of the biosphere we in, you talk in that talk about E.O Wilson and rewilding and something I didn’t really know about, which is the rise of these 30 by 30 plans, which California actually has. And I find that very inspiring. Can you run through that a little?
Yes, I can. And I thank you, because I love it. It’s so encouraging. E.O Wilson proposed, as a biologist, that we leave half of the earth’s surface and the oceans to the wild creatures and congregate ourselves on the other half, and then the world would come out OK in biodiversity terms, and we would dodge the mass extinction event. I thought, beautiful idea. It’ll never happen. People aren’t like that.
We’ve got these 30 by 30 government policies in California, the Biden Administration made a statement in favor of it also, where 30 percent of the land surface is given over to wild creatures most of the time. It doesn’t have to be pure. In some cases, a place like a cattle ranch, the cattle are replacing the elk that are gone and doing the elk’s work in the ecosphere.
So the way that these land use attributions are being made are quite flexible. But 30 percent of the land by the year 2030. California is at 24 percent. The head of the program is named Jennifer Norris, and she was appointed by Governor Newsom, who is totally behind it. It’s something to be proud of.
And it’s also a hope for the future, because young people are going to the cities, and the countryside is emptying out. The middle of Spain, the middle of Poland, the upper American West, big patches of the American West. Villages are going away as the young people head off to the cities. And they’re doing it for jobs and for fun — the social primate thing again.
Well, that empty land, if it’s managed right, then people could become keepers of the land, stewards of the animals. It’s another kind of job. And the wild creatures won’t go extinct under the lash of our bad work on the planet. And that would be amazing. That would represent a success so huge that it equals the Carbon Reduction Project.
And the two of them are two parts of a bigger project, and both of them, we’re seeing really substantial progress. And that’s what has surprised me. Since “Ministry for the Future” came out, I’m actually both more scared, but more encouraged at the same time.
I think there’s more reason for optimism than a lot of the public conversation has caught up to at this point.
Well, that’s good, because you’re seeing more than most people.
It’s always tricky to even talk about this, because I think there’s a real pressure not to seem like you are either understating the scale of the problems we face —
Or overstating the pace of the progress. And all of us, I mean, maybe the 30 by 30 plans fall apart or they’re too flexible and — I mean, things can go wrong in a million different ways. But I would say that, compared to what I understood of the path we were on five, 10 years ago — and I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to climate scientists about this — there are people who disagree with this, but I think it was very plausible 10 years ago that we were on a path of four-ish degrees of warming. I think a lot of people who I trusted believe that. And a couple of things have happened. One is that much better policy has been passed. Another is that the technological advances in solar and wind and battery storage and in all these different things have gotten much, much, much, much quicker than anybody hoped. The price falls have been remarkable.
And to your point about structure of feeling, just politics of climate is different. It’s not even that it has led to less of the transformative legislation that people hoped, but the fact that on almost every level of society this is something constantly in people’s heads is changing decision making at every level of society in ways that are big and in ways that are small, and cumulatively, it’s all having an impact.
And if you look at young people and how concerned they are as they rise into positions of power, I’m watching that change institutions. Like, the Biden White House is a different White House because of how many young people formed by climate crisis are in it.
And staffing really matters.
And so, you know, I wouldn’t say that we’re in the safety zone, or that we’ve averted terrible things potentially happening, but it really looks better to me across a lot of different dimensions than it did 10 years ago. I mean, I moved from a place of being almost hopeless about the politics of this, to a place of being pretty hopeful. Again, not that we’re going to get it all right, but that we’re going to get some things much more right than I thought we would.
Yeah, I’m seeing that, too. And I’ve learned so much since “Ministry” came out, and I saw it in Glasgow, private capital, which is really trillions of dollars of assets, is interested and concerned in a way that I didn’t know about, and I think it’s new. And also, you mentioned four degrees. That would cook humanity and would be a plane crash.
Yeah. I mean, it’s cataclysmic.
Yeah. And even the difference between 1.5 and two is significant, at least the scientists are estimating that now. So we need to work really fast, but that sense of necessity is getting so widespread that I think something’s happening. And I want to mention that this notion of being optimistic, it has become a truism about me. I am science fiction’s or this culture’s great optimist.
Well, this is a coded critique. It’s a way of saying, the poor man is delusional and maybe a little bit obtuse or even stupid. Why would you be optimistic in this world? Or maybe he’s just biochemically permanently got what Michael Blumenschein called the happy gene, which I think is true. I got it from my mom.
But the situation is such that in our culture, to say you’re optimistic is maybe not the right thing. But hope, optimism, this attitude is necessary political stance to take, because we are in a position of privilege, and the situation can be saved. And given those two, it’s dereliction of duty to be pessimistic, to be cynical. It’s just a chicken thing to do.
We need to be strong in a moment of crisis by saying, yes, it can be done. And if we’re in a race between bad catastrophe and some kind of beginning prosperity for all — when you’re in a race that intense, you don’t want to sit down on the ground and start crying. Oh, we’ve lost already. That would be a bad thing to do, because you’re in a race.
You actually need to run as hard as you can. If you lose the race, well, that is a dystopian novel. And I don’t really want to go there. If we lose the race, we’re in terrible trouble, and we’ll be in emergency mode for years. But if we win the race, it’s a big win for the biosphere, for the other creatures, for humanity. So it’s worth pretending to be optimistic, or using optimism as a club, and beating it with people. Yes, we can succeed. Bang, bang, bang.
I don’t follow this myself, so pick it with a grain of salt. It’s given. But I’ve thought before that our public conversation about everything would be better if we just simply retired the words optimism and pessimism.
Because I don’t think of — I mean, probably I have a relatively similar view on trends here as you do. I don’t think of myself as an optimist on this, or frankly, a pessimist. I think that I can chart for you that solar has come down really fast, and we didn’t expect it. I can chart for you that wind has come down in pricing really fast and we didn’t expect it. I can chart for you the progress in battery storage. I can chart for you — if
you look at climate projections, current policy climate projections, they’ve gone from something well over three being very much in the middle of that probability spectrum, to something that looks more like 2.6 is in the middle now. And if you actually think we’re going to follow the commitments made in the Paris Climate Accords and what has happened subsequently, and I don’t know that I do, but that would put us at about two.
And if maybe you think we’re not going to do that, but you actually think the technology is going to keep getting better faster than people have feared, then that’s another way of saying, maybe we’ll be at about two. And I say this in this piece I just did on climate and children. I don’t think, even if you thought we would get to two degrees by 2100, that would still be a kind of horror, right? I mean, that would not have been success, it would have been a kind of failure. We could have done much better. We shouldn’t have done that to the world. But I don’t want apocalypticism to become an aesthetic.
Right? Because like you’re saying, among other things, I don’t think it’s a politically useful view. Like, the fact that we have made progress is a proof point that progress is possible to make. And that’s exciting. That means you can do it. Whether or not you’re optimistic or pessimistic is beside the point. The point is that it’s possible.
Yeah. And if we did get to the end of the century and the global rise was only two degrees, that would be better than the alternatives to the point of you would have to say, well, not bad, and now we need to work harder than ever to bring it back down.
So there’s going to be a lot of CO2 withdrawal drawdowns. That will be a giant civilizational project, to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere by natural and mechanical means, big industry, but also a way of doing agriculture, a way of doing aqua farming. You can draw down carbon in all kinds of ways, and all of them will become super valuable because we’ll be a little bit too hot, but hopefully, not catastrophically where we reel off over some tipping points into breaking planetary boundaries.
I will say that there’s something really interesting about that point, because it’s something I’ve noticed, and it’s what I mean a little bit when I say I worry about apocalypticism becoming an aesthetic.
You would think that the more — I’m about to do it, pessimistic — that the less possible you think progress is, the more intense you would be about carbon removal, that the people who are the most pessimistic would be the people who are just banging the table all day every day on putting everything into carbon removal, because then you really need net negative technologies.
And it’s kind of not. It’s the people, in my experience, anyway, it’s actually the people who think we’re making progress who also want to put a lot of energy there, because they think we’re going to need that, too. There’s something about the attitude that you can do this that seems to be to open people up to a lot of solutions, where the attitude that it’s done seems to close them off from a lot of them. It’s in the observation.
Yeah. And there’s an old argument from the early ‘90s that says that if we think we can draw carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, that’s a moral hazard. Then we will go ahead and just burn it like we have been this last 30 years.
So it isn’t as if this thought has changed anything, or maybe it has, but in any case, that argument’s defunct now because we’re in an emergency, and we might simply have to draw CO2 out of the atmosphere. You could well imagine us semi-magically doing everything right from right now, and still want to draw down quite a bit of CO2 out of the atmosphere.
And it’s not us supporting the fossil fuel industries, and it’s not their idea, even if they see a business opportunity there. That’s good. We need an exit ramp for them. We need good work for them to do. And they’ve got a lot of money and expertise.
So if the fossil fuel industry was actually put to the work of drawing carbon down, and we paid them to do it, that too would be nothing to sneer at. We need all hands on deck, and every possible idea has to be considered as being something that might help enough that we may have to try some of it and see what works and what doesn’t.
As we sort of come to the close here, one of the threads in “High Sierra” that I didn’t expect going into the book is aging. And you turned 70 this year. What would you tell yourself at 30 that, not as a piece of life advice, but that is true about the world that you believe now that you wouldn’t have realized is true then.
Oh, God. This is like that line from “Peggy Sue Got Married,” you know, take better care of your teeth. I don’t know. You know, 70 is really quite old. It’s a big number. I feel good, but I also feel like I haven’t got that many years left just by the nature of life on Earth and how long humans live.
But on the other hand, medicine has saved me twice. I shouldn’t really be here. That’s true of so many people my age. And so I’m appreciating it more than ever. And I think that might be the sign of things going well in one’s life. And they report this often for people in their old age that there’s a sense of appreciation in the daily things that is heightened to the point where a lot else falls away. If you’ve got your health and if you’re lucky and have your partner’s health, also, then, well, you’re rich and things are good.
It’s too bad — of course, too bad that that wouldn’t just extend out. Very often I’ve written about lifetime extension as a science fiction device, in my Mars trilogy in particular, and I’m thinking, you know, damn, I wish they were a little faster on that. It’d be great that humans were living to 200 and 300. Not going to happen in my lifetime, although maybe some days.
But meanwhile, I just have my fingers crossed. My health is good, and I hope to keep hiking in the Sierras. I have a couple more banger hikes that I want to do before — while my legs are still working well. So I sort of pitch my ambitions rather short these days compared to the old days.
Let me ask the reverse of that question, because I rarely hear it asked, which is, what did you know or feel at 30, or what do 30-year-olds know and feel that gets forgotten or lost at 70?
Well, maybe the sense that anything can happen, a sense of potentiality. I no longer think that at all. But at 30 — it can be such a powerful feeling at 30 that it’s like a disorientation or a fear. Anything could happen, oh my God. But that’s an opportunity to be seized, and there’s a richness in that open field.
That goes away. You’re like a wedge in a crack and that life keeps hammering you deeper into that crack. At least it seems that way to me. No, I’ve been lucky.
I like that as a place to end. So always our final question, what are three books you’d recommend to the audience?
OK, so three books, that’s hard. I’ve been reading a lot lately and it’s all been good. I would say Thomas Piketty’s latest, “A Brief History of Equality,” and then I think it’s interesting to read this last book by David Graeber with David Wengrow called “The Dawn of Everything.”
It’s thought-provoking and it’s also a form of archaeological science fiction. There’s so much guesswork and hope and speculative history going on in there, but it does break the stories that we’ve had about the past that are also deterministic and depressing, and by showing that new evidence complicates that game.
And then lastly, I’m going to say that Richard Powers, one of our greatest novelists. I recently reread one of his old novels, “The Echo Maker,” and as much as “The Overstory” has blown up the world, actually, that’s a big audience. I’d say to them, go back and read “The Echo Maker.” It’s a beautiful novel.
I have to read “The Echo Maker.” I’ll say I did a similar thing and I read “Orfeo” by him, and I don’t think anyone has written better about music in the English language ever. It’s insane.
Powers is great. He is one of our very best novelists. I know him. I like him. Rick Powers is a friend, and we talk novel talk from the angle of being novelists, which is a rare opportunity.
Kim Stanley Robinson, thank you very much.
Yes, thank you, Ezra.
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin and Rogé Karma. It is fact checked by Michelle Harris, Mary Marge Locker and Kate Sinclair. Original music by Isaac Jones, mixing by Isaac Jones and Sonia Herrero. Audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Special thanks to Kristin Lin, Kristina Samulewski and Gerry Canavan.