Kim Stanley Robinson on Post-Capitalism

In the consulting company McKinsey’s magazine What Matters, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson writes about climate change and post-capitalism in an article Time to end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme:

Capitalism evolved out of feudalism. Although the basis of power has changed from land to money and the system has become more mobile, the distribution of power and wealth has not changed that much. It’s still a hierarchical power structure, it was not designed with ecological sustainability in mind, and it won’t achieve that as it is currently constituted.

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

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

You could say we are that moment now. Half of the world’s people live on less than $2 a day, and yet the depletion of resources and environmental degradation mean they can never hope to rise to the level of affluent Westerners, who consume about 30 times as much in resources as they do. So this is now a false promise. The poorest three billion on Earth are being cheated if we pretend that the promise is still possible. The global population therefore exists in a kind of pyramid structure, with a horizontal line marking an adequate standard of living that is set about halfway down the pyramid.

The goal of world civilization should be the creation of something more like an oval on its side, resting on the line of adequacy. This may seem to be veering the discussion away from questions of climate to questions of social justice, but it is not; the two are intimately related. It turns out that the top and bottom ends of our global social pyramid are the two sectors that are by far the most carbon intensive and environmentally destructive, the poorest by way of deforestation and topsoil loss, the richest by way of hyperconsumption. The oval resting sideways on the line of adequacy is the best social shape for the climate.

This doubling of benefits when justice and sustainability are both considered is not unique. Another example: world population growth, which stands at about 75 million people a year, needs to slow down. What stabilizes population growth best? The full exercise of women’s rights. There is a direct correlation between population stabilization in nations and the degree to which women enjoy full human rights. So here is another area in which justice becomes a kind of climate change technology. Whenever we discuss climate change, these social and economic paradigm shifts must be part of the discussion.

Given this analysis, what are my suggestions?

  • Believe in science.
  • Believe in government, remembering always that it is of the people, by the people, and for the people, and crucial in the current situation.
  • Support a really strong follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol.
  • Institute carbon cap-and-trade systems.
  • Impose a carbon tax designed to charge for the real costs of burning carbon.
  • Follow the full “Green New Deal” program now coming together in discussions by the Obama administration.
  • Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.
  • Support the full slate of human rights everywhere, even in countries that claim such justice is not part of their tradition.
  • Support global universal education as part of human-rights advocacy.
  • Dispense with all magical, talismanic phrases such as “free markets” and promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases.
  • Encourage all business schools to include foundational classes in ecology, environmental economics, biology, and history.
  • Start programs at these same schools in postcapitalist studies.

Does the word postcapitalism look odd to you? It should, because you hardly ever see it. We have a blank spot in our vision of the future. Perhaps we think that history has somehow gone away. In fact, history is with us now more than ever, because we are at a crux in the human story. Choosing not to study a successor system to capitalism is an example of another kind of denial, an ostrich failure on the part of the field of economics and of business schools, I think, but it’s really all of us together, a social aporia or fear. We have persistently ignored and devalued the future—as if our actions are not creating that future for our children, as if things never change. But everything evolves. With a catastrophe bearing down on us, we need to evolve at nearly revolutionary speed. So some study of what could improve and replace our society’s current structure and systems is in order. If we don’t take such steps, the consequences will be intolerable. On the other hand, successfully dealing with this situation could lead to a sustainable civilization that would be truly exciting in its human potential.

15 thoughts on “Kim Stanley Robinson on Post-Capitalism”

  1. Excellent article. I have been struggling with this myself – none of our existing models of governance work, and in my current series, I want to show a fourth model working. Would love to see / help think about what the details look and feel like here. I think we need more change than just highly regulated capitalism, although that’s got to be part of it (note that many of your suggestions require laws/treaties we have been unwilling to pass, and some form of world governance – not government, but governance – that works better than what we have now).

  2. Not sure the problem is capitalism and the market mechanism underlying it, but the exclusion of externalities, pushing true social and environmental costs off the balance sheet, which climate change is leading us to address. social externalities are showing as the human cost of climate change as well. that said i like the phrase post capitalism.

  3. Capitalism is only flawed because of the government’s intervention in favoring both large corporations and special interests. Without capitalism, you cannot have freedom and liberty. The United States has not seen the true color of capitalism since the industrial revolution. What is to blame is quasi-capitalism the results from a seriously corrupt congress and white house. This we have seen accelerate dramatically over the past few decades.

  4. This is very thoughtful. I have no problems with capitalism as way to link resources and human ingenuity to produce good and services. Consider the expansion of knowledge and technology that has led to great advances in medicine. The reason we are in deep trouble today is because of the way we choose to measure outcomes of good and services. We should depart from GDP and consider using Net Domestic Product(NDP). So this way we account for the deterioration of ecosystem services such as clean air, fertile soils, clean water, biodiversity. We must now begin to grapple with measuring the real demand of domestic growth and expansion of the so called wellbeing on national and global ecological resources. We must get the accounting right or we will destroy irretrievably, the production base.

  5. A really helpful article. Many people are beginning to talk about the steps we need to take to move toward a sustainable and just economy. David Korten, who wrote, “When Corporations Rule the World,” calls the process we must go through “the great turning.” Many people are developing models for a sustainable economy, and Korten as well as Bill McKibben and Juliet Shor, all have doen work that makes the case that an environmentally sustainable and just world will involved a massive shift from high consumption society, dominated by corporations invested inthe old fossil fuel economy, to a new economy of lower levels of consumption, but higher levels of personal satisfaction.

    Two things that I think are missing form much of this conversation is how do we get there, and what the alternatives are that involve prosperity and democracy. To begin to answer those questions I have written a book called “Getting Past Capitalism: History, Strategy, Hope.” Would love to have any comments… it is on my web page.

  6. There are many problems with Kim Robinson’s ideas. To begin with, feudalism is socialism. So, if capitalism goes, we just return to a surf and ruler state complete with a bureaucratic priesthood. A real answer is end the growth of government and the corporate state thus freeing people to find real solutions instead of restricting growth and wasting resources upon bureaucrat defined solutions.

    If you want to live in feudal society follow Kim’s path. If you want Liberty and better life for everyone, take the risk of trusting your fellow humans to find solutions. Bureaucrats have never produced a better world. At best they have slowed the decay and death of the societies they control. Free people gave us the most advanced and free society in history. Now it is being turned into another loser state. Capitalism means Liberty.

  7. Presumably the article and the recommendations are for Americans (and “Westerners”) only. Given that the future of “post-capitalism” likely belongs to China and other Asian nation the article seems rather parochial.

    “Believe in science.” Why? Because scientists are deemed to be apolitical and altruistic? Anyone who knows some scientists is well aware that this is naive thinking and simply not true. Science has been wrong about some many things in recent history that to blindly “believe in science” can only lead to disaster.

    ‘Believe in government.” Not exactly good advice for people in China or anyone else living in a non-democratic country.

    “Structure global economic policy to reward rapid transitions from carbon-burning to carbon-neutral technologies.” Given that every evening in India hundreds of millions of people cook their dinners outdoors and that these cooking fires are the largest source of particulate pollution in the Arctic , “rapid transition” to carbon neutral technology will involve a little more effort than simply plugging in a Prius.

    “promote a larger systems analysis that is more empirical, without fundamentalist biases”. How? Biases are fundamental to any system of analysis or beliefs. Or is the author of the type that believes Fox News is biased but the NY Times is not.

  8. Fine article! We are most guilty of pushing the enviro-costs into the future. But we need to change one thing right now, and you can do it.
    Our [western] homes are using 40% ish of our carbon impact. If you today, stopped everything and built yourself this Net-Positive Home [link below] , and millions of 1st world westerners did the same, our global footprint would dramatically decline. This good Co. retained me to put my 25 years in residential / green design into one home that everyone can build. It is a small footprint, high-tech, self-sustaining beauty. I urge you to pop over and check it out, and remember that you, right now, can build yourself this Net -Positive Home to make a real impact. Cheers, Bill

  9. I cannot understand people who simply state that freedom and liberty cannot exist without capitalism… especially when they don’t explain why they think that. They come off as brainwashed people with no answers. Not that I have any, but I am at least open minded about the future.

  10. I’m seeing most “postcapitalist” speech saying the same thing as today’s liberal college students: ‘greener technology, more benefits to the poor, and globalism.’ In other words, liberal capitalism circa 2025. But this is not what postcapitalism is.

    “Postcapitalism”= point where the productivity of machines (i.e. robots) matches that of humans, rendering humans less profitable than machines in more than 60% of jobs.
    At this point, human workers cannot earn an income if they cannot buy said machines to earn said income and the only ethical solution would be to offer welfare.
    Capitalism makes this all but inevitable as a system, and the only way to stop it would be through socialism or communism- which is what postcapitalism leads to regardless- or fascism- what postcapitalism could become if we automatically expect miracles. Unless you fancy nuking the planet. When it actually comes about is unknown and it may not be for a century or two- but the nature of capitalism makes it inevitable.

    Postcapitalism is invariable a system that is only possible through the rise of a machine proletariat and the collapse of the producer/consumer balance. Otherwise, we’d simply be recycling Industral Revolution-era laissez-faire capitalism or modern corporatism. Without some new form of worker (i.e., capable droids), there will be no ‘postcapitalism’- only old-school capitalism, socialism, communism, fascism, aka, the usual suspects.
    “Believe in science”= if you mean blindly, then *absolutely not.* Science can be a fantastic thing- it’s technically what makes postcapitalism possible- but it can also be quite destructive. We can’t move towards a postcapitalist order by saying “SCIENCE MAKES IT ALL BETTER ALL THE TIME!”

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