Kim Stanley Robinson on nature, architecture, and society

Geoff Manaugh recently interviewed ecological science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson about ecology, architecture and socieities on BLDGBLOG.  Manaugh writes:

Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but they are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

Robinson responds to a question about the idea that catastrophe can allow new forms of social organization to emerge:

It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.

4 thoughts on “Kim Stanley Robinson on nature, architecture, and society”

  1. It’s almost haunting how many principles of resilience science emerge in Robinson’s statement. Or in Jane Jacob’s work, or David Orr’s, etc…

    And it seems a straigtforward response to other ‘post-modern’ themes described by Manaugh, about how society’s most ‘progressive’ or ‘modern’ elements consider climate change as entertainment.

  2. As great admirer of Kim Robinson as I am, I’d rather “play a powerful god” with my.. cellphone.. than wait another 10-20 millions of years for the natural flow of the evolutionary process to kick in. It is my strong belief that technological and scientific advances, such as the very same Internet, is the only way for humanity to “outsmart” the nature and reach at least some sort of maturity in any foreseeable future.

  3. Incognito, did you even take in what KSR said at all? We don’t have that option. It’s far too expensive — and it’s like thinking we’re due the keys to the Ferrari because we’ve recently learned to walk. The maturity has to come first, or we’re not going to be here to experience, let alone enjoy, anything at all.

    There is no way to “outsmart” nature. You’re anthropromorphising something that can’t be. So to put it in similar terms: it’s like thinking, when you’re 5, that your parents don’t know you’re lying when you claim that a giant green monster drew on your walls with the crayons, and left the room a mess.

    Like it or not, we simply aren’t those gods. We are these primates. We don’t have a choice in that. It’s time we grew up a little and understood that, and dealt with it appropriately, rather than sticking our figers in our ears going “LALALALALA I can’t hear you!” because that’s futile. Infantile. More to the point: it doesn’t work.

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