Imagining New York’s underwater future: this week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the most renowned science fiction writers alive. The author of nineteen novels, he describes his newest, New York 2140, as both a “post-disaster novel” and a “comedy of coping,” set in a New York City several decades after sea levels have risen and stabilized. They discuss the city’s history, its natural and manmade spaces, and its inevitable future due to climate change: how the watery city will adapt, and who will make a profit.
Paul Ford [Music ramps down] Hi! This is Paul Ford.
Rich Ziade And this is Rich Ziade.
PF And you’re listening to Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight, a digital products studio at 101 5th Avenue in New York City. We have a great show for you today. Kim Stanley Robinson, the incredibly noted and well awarded science fiction author is on the show and he’s written a big novel about global warming and its economic effects . . . which actually has a kind of weird technology hook. Um—
RZ Without a doubt.
PF—because technology’s in everything, man! I’ve been reading Kim Stanley Robinson books for . . . ever. Ever.
PF Uh so we call you Stan, correct?
Kim Stanley Robinson Yeah, call me Stan.
PF Stan, thank you for coming onto our podcast.
KSR My pleasure. 33 years is kinda like forever.
PF Is that how long you’ve been writing?
KSR Uh that’s how long I’ve been published. It’s longer for writing.
PF Of course, of course.
PF So you have written here in my hand, a very dogeared copy of your new book which is New York 2140 . . . which is actually set roughly in the neighborhood where we’re recording.
KSR Yeah, that’s right.
PF We’re very close to the Flatiron building.
PF Is this the longest, biggest book you’ve written?
KSR No, no, but it is one of the long ones.
PF It’s a big book.
KSR It’s a fatty.
PF And it is um it is about the effect of climate change on New York City.
PF An extreme climate change.
KSR Well especially sea level rise. So—
PF Right, so we go up 50 feet.
KSR 50 feet of sea level rise, yes.
PF So I get off the express bus everyday right by the Metlife tower.
KSR I love that tower.
PF And I’ve been, I’ve been reading this book assiduously over the last couple of weeks and just truly enjoying it and also enjoying . . . thinking about being under water . . . for most of the time I’m at work.
RZ You’re enjoying that?
PF Ah it’s a—a serious thing has happened. We’re underwater.
PF We’re 50 feet down. It’s 2140. And it’s been bad for the economy and for life.
RZ But you know what threw me off? When you say ‘50’ it makes me anxious because you’re not saying ‘500’, it’s just 50 and everything’s different.
KSR It’s a lot of sea level rise. Um really right now the projections from the scientists and from the IPCC, they’re being as conservative as possible and they have this estimate of the highest it would be in around 2140 is more like 15 feet [RZ ok]. But uh 15 feet higher sea level rise all around the world, that’s a heck of a lot of water. And—but in scientific terms: 15 feet, 50 feet, they’re both equally possible. It’s just 50’s pretty radical and pretty unlikely. And the only thing I should add is that if all the ice on the planet were to melt, sea level would be about 270 feet higher [RZ ooh! And that’s that]. You know we’re up on the twelfth floor here, so 50 feet would be, at this part of town, as I pointed out in my book, it would be up to about the third floor [PF right]. So you could imagine this building still functioning.
PF Right. We would—we’d need to get here by boat.
KSR You’d boat on in and the ground floor would be the fourth floor, and there’s tides which actually really complicated my story. It’s about a ten foot tide in this estuary.
PF So the uh the subways are out of the picture.
KSR Right. Yeah.
PF So we’re getting around by boat. The—basically the entire, I’m about to say underground economy but being literal of New York City gone [RZ chuckles].
KSR Yeah, I wonder, I mean, playing the game of ‘What Would They Do?’ Those tubes might be useful for, you know, robotic submarines like utilidors [PF right] or—cuz sewage corridors, even right now are under water.
PF Still good tunnels.
KSR Still good tunnels. Right. Yeah.
PF One thing that really caught me uh so I know that you live in Davis, California, correct?
KSR I do.
PF Ok, I know Davis very well. My wife is from there [KSR oh!] and if there is an anti-New York City, it might be Davis.
KSR Yeah, that’s so true.
PF It is—there is a—
KSR The most boring town on the face of the earth.
RZ Yeah, when you say ‘anti-New York City’, you don’t mean they dislike New York City?
PF No, no!
KSR No, I mean it’s the opposite of New York: it’s boring [RZ laughs].
PF There is a tunnel under the road for frogs [KSR chuckles] to safely get across the street.
KSR Yeah, that’s true.
RZ No [chuckling], that’s not true!
PF No, it’s real thing. There’s a small frog tunnel.
RZ Are we back in the book?
KSR We’re gettin’ there.
RZ No, this is actually Davis.
PF No, this is really Davis [RZ laughs]. It is one of the pride’s of the town is the small frog tunnel [KSR yeah] and you can bicycle everywhere. It’s actually just a completely lovely, pleasant place to be.
KSR It is a bicycle heaven, it’s flat as a table, and it’s boring in several different ways. So—[RZ chuckles] especially landscape-wise and others. But that makes it a good place to work, I get a lot of work done, and there’s no traffic problem.
PF Right. And it’s just—it’s just—it’s pleasant. At the same time—so I’m reading this and you nailed New York City.
KSR Oh thank you!
PF So where—how did you prep? What’d you do?
KSR I came to New York. I walked the streets. I had a little tourist map where I had crayoned in this higher sea level line to see where it was.
PF So you started with topography?
KSR Yup, yeah and uh it made it wonderful, strange things like on um The Empire State Building looking south, I was really aware that it kind of—there’s a little bit of a hill there [PF mm hmm]. All the avenues: uh 6th to 5th uh even to Park, they shoot down to lower Manhattan.
RZ 5th kind of shows that, right?
KSR Yes! Yes.
RZ Nice and wide corridor. You can see it.
KSR You can see it and as you walk it you’re thinking, “Oh good, at least I’m slightly walking downhill,” if you’re hoofin’ it around cuz I do walk a lot in Manhattan [PF sure]. It’s the home of publishing. I’ve been coming here now for 30 years on brief visits and it’s always extremely exciting cuz after Davis, it’s like uh [RZ chuckles] it’s mind boggling.
PF You know and its proximity to publishing culture is a good—it’s a good proxy for New York City overall.
KSR I wouldn’t know cuz it’s almost all I know.
PF It is. It truly—it’s, you know, you’ve got that and you’ve got finance and you’ve got a couple other things that—that sort of define the hierarchies in the city and then there’s everything else that sort of falls out from there [KSR yup]. We’re in tech so we’re sort of—by not being in San Francisco and being here, we’re kind of redheaded stepchildren of the city.
KSR Yes, I could see that. Um—
RZ They’re trying to adopt us. They’ve been trying to adopt us for years. Not “us”: Postlight [chuckles].
PF No, it’s true. Literally, the mayor—the former mayor, Bloomberg, a big chunk of Roosevelt Island is being given over to a new tech college which is a Cornell University—
RZ Cornell Tech.
PF Cornell Tech and Technion of Israel have come together to build a huge campus because dammit it is inexcusable that New York City doesn’t have that Bay area engine.
KSR Sure and being New York you’ve got a whole bunch of capital. You’ve got a city that everybody loves to come to. You know you can see how—the logic of it.
PF It’s unbearable to us not to win though.
RZ If I may ask, in Stan’s world, how’s that college doing? What happens to Roosevelt Island?
KSR It’s underwater.
RZ Oh dear! [Laughs] ok.
PF It’s actually—
RZ Maybe [laughing] we should send them a copy!
KSR But, once again, it’s an interesting thing to contemplate as an exercise and also, sea level rise is going to happen. So it’s a bit more than an exercise but what you’ve got is um uh Roosevelt Island’s perfect for this: those brick buildings, how well set are they . . . in bedrock? Is that island infill, landfill, or is it bedrock? It makes a huge difference. If you can secure these big skyscrapers in bedrock, like they are, they’re gonna survive sea level rise and be adaptable.
PF But Lower Manhattan and parts of Battery Park, there’s a lot of landfill.
KSR And that part is gonna melt [PF sure] uh and building buildings it’s like that biblical saying, “A house built on sand cannot stand,” or whatever the saying is. Buildings built on infill [RZ inevitable] yeah they sink. And—
RZ Are we seeing a little bit of this? Like uh I saw something recently about Miami. Miami is sort of a glimpse into this. They’re literally pumping water off the streets back into the ocean.
KSR Miami’s in big trouble.
RZ Miami’s really—and they’re still selling multi million dollar fancy penthouses. Everybody just wants to look the other way and keep—
KSR Pretty much.
PF You can still buy a house in the Rockaways here too.
KSR Most people alive aren’t gonna be facing this directly. It’s really people’s children and grandchildren cuz I put it out in 2140 to give things time to get pretty drastic [PF mm hmm] um and so we are not going to be looking at significant sea level rise in our lifetime but what the recent scientific work has been saying is that there’s a speed of sea level rise where if it doubles the rate of rise every ten years, which is a guess, we are quickly in big trouble. Whereas if the doubling rate is every 20 years, the power of doubling is strong enough.
PF So it’s like grains on the chessboard kind of problem—
KSR Yes, I use the grains on the chessboard story as a perfect example of—I mean I put it in the book [PF mm hmm] umm we don’t know what will happen but you look at the curves on the charts and one way or another, in other words, at a certain point in the next few hundred years we’ve got serious sea level rise everywhere and every coastal city has a different story. Some of them, like San Francisco’s so hilly that it’ll lose it’s shoreline, like everyone will lose their shoreline but some people’s shoreline are flat spots are relatively minimal. Other cities, like Miami, they’re flat all the way up to Georgia. I mean all of Florida goes under in some of these scenarios, since Florida’s weirdly flat.
PF Florida was asking for it.
KSR [Laughs] yeah.
PF We just have to acknowledge that.
KSR Nobody’s too heartbroken [RZ laughs].
PF Um you know we were here during Sandy, the superstorm [KSR wow], and there was a real awareness—first of all, that was one of the first times when we were uh aware of living in a zone. You know we got a map with what zone are you in.
RZ Yeah there’s shades. There are like different color shades.
PF Rich and I both live pretty well above ground. We’re in a very safe place. Did you lose power? Do you remember?
RZ I did not lose power.
PF I lost power for ten seconds. Like just very insulated. But uh two miles south of us was a genuine disaster zone and uh nobody could do anything and I live in a condo with lots of young parents [KSR oh] and everyone just started cooking and—my wife had had the forethought to um gas our car up and so we had gas. There were two-mile long gas lines all through the city. So we would just run mac n’ cheese down to churches in—closer to the waterline and we did it for a week. We must’ve made—“we”, I mean I watched and sort of held the kids while she did everything but that gave me the willys . . . because the subways were out, the city was down. That line of where there was no electricity is very similar to the line in your book, you know, it’s [KSR right] that—New York City is very, very vulnerable.
KSR It is and yet it has one of the better built infrastructures in the world . . . and already because of Sandy, the New York State legislature has passed laws saying, “Now, you have to harden the infrastructure. You have to take climate change into account when you build new stuff and retrofit when you’re fixing things.” So now New York is ahead of the curve compared to most societies.
PF I think culturally we have good infrastructure, too.
KSR Yes! Oh yeah!
PF There’s a scene in the book that really stuck with me where um—I won’t give anything away but there’s been a pretty serious event and people are lining up and kinda getting food, it’s towards the end of the book and no one’s—people are in line and no one’s really talking to each other and that’s a relief to the main character that you don’t have to interact. You’re just in line. There’s been a disaster. But it’s just New Yorkers like, “Alright, we gotta get through this.” [KSR yeah] no one tries to put like put a positive spin or talk about Jesus or anything. It’s just [yeah laughs] and uh and so I think culturally like we are, we’re pretty good at bumping into each other and not leading it lead to like a gun fight [KSR yes] in the next few minutes but, yeah, it’s pickle. The book is filled with pickles.
KSR It’s a hard book to explain because um being set in 2140 means that there’s been some absolutely devastating decades that are, in the book’s perspective, like 40 years in the past [PF sure]. Like us looking back at the Great Depression or World War II or something like that. And yet by 2140 there hasn’t been significant sea level rise for about 40 years. So they’ve been able to adjust [PF mm hmm]. So the book is kind of a comedy of coping that the people of that time are going to take the situation as natural. And the fact that Lower Manhattan, as a kind of super Venice, is just the way it is and they—so they’re coping because they don’t know any different and so it’s not a disaster novel. It’s a post-disaster novel because people now tend to equate disaster with apocalypse, with armageddon, with the end, but what this book is trying to say is things don’t end, they go on after the disaster, and then people are just coping with what they’ve got.
RZ And New Yorkers take pride in their ability to adapt and cope and you know I think back—9/11 is actually this moment when there’s shock . . . there’s obviously everyone’s real sad but, “We’re gonna show you how resilient we are. Uh [KSR yes] we’re going to the Yankee game, that Friday.” [yeah] there is that characteristic.
PF The real standard is how quickly can we return to complaining [RZ chuckles right yeah]. It’s usually about like an eight-day period [RZ yeah yeah]. You know the thing I remember from September 11th? Is very quickly everyone you—I was out of the country, I came back, you talk to the guy, this’ll age me but like, in the video store, and he’d be like, “How’d you do in that thing?” [RZ yeah] and we didn’t name it. And it already had a name but it became like “that thing” [yeah] and it started to kind of get boxed off like, “You’re ok.” “You’re ok.” “Alright well —”
RZ It became—there was a defiance to the tone too which is like New Yorkers, we’ve been through it all, we’re gonna figure it out.
PF And that’s—everyone in the book has at least some kind of hustle [KSR yes, yes] you know? And it’s still the regular hustling New York City, everyone is just like, “Well, it’s underwater, here we go. I’ve lived with this my whole life.”
KSR “My whole life and also there’s still finance.” [PF Right] And that’s one of the things that I did in this book was I wanted to bring it as close to the present as possible, so that it was basically the same economic slash political situation as now because I wanted to talk about that and how New Yorkers, and everybody else, cuz this needs to be a global revolution of taking back finance for the people but New York being Wallstreet it’s a perfect place to center it. It’s not quite the Occupy Movement but it’s following the strands of the 2008 crash, the Occupy Movement, the emphasis on how, well, income inequality, as we call it now, is an important um component of the disaster that we’re in. And so this was the perfect place to have all that because New Yorkers do like New York in an unsentimental way. So that, as an outsider, when I come in, I’m thinking, “Why do people live here? It’s kind of a crazy thing to do. It’s a fun place to visit but it must be crazy to live here,” but what you see, what I see clearly from the outside, is that it’s an extraordinarily beautiful place and it’s part combination of the bay, the natural part, and then a combination of the built infrastructure which is semi-accidental of generation after generation building these skyscrapers. You can’t quite believe it . . . but it ends up looking like some kind of Andy Goldsworthy artwork [PF mm hmm]—it’s just. It’s beautiful. And charismatic. So there’s a high tolerance for hassle and without being sentimental about it—cuz you can’t go around everyday—an outsider can come in and go, “Oh my god! It’s amazing! It’s beautiful!” If you’re living in it everyday day, you don’t end up saying that everyday, but you are experiencing it. It’s always there.
PF I think, for us, we both have young children and so that—we’ve started to re-experience it. Like when I took—I have five-year-old twins. We took ‘em on the Staten Island ferry, right? And they just found it epic [laughter]. I hadn’t been on for six or seven years [KSR right right] and then we got to Staten Island, had to figure out like what to do in Staten Island. So that’s always tricky. Um there’s a thing you did in this book that I wanna point out too which is that—so going back to finance: there’s a character, Franklin, throughout the book [yes]. You named his—his investment firm in such a way that it’s so accurate in name for an investment firm that I literally like my spine would just retract cuz it’s called Water Price. Which is just like the most perfect like [boisterous laughter]—uh god, yeah, of course it would be called that!
KSR Yup, yup. Well it fits several names that are like it and [PF oh, of course]—yeah yeah. That was an easy one.
PF They love names with uh anything nautical is good too, any part of sailing ship [yes yes] [RZ laughs]. You know Mizzen Match or whatever.
KSR The Spar! [Laughs] Well and also Franklin has his IPPI, the Intertidal Property Pricing Index [RZ chuckles] and so I worked hard, I mean really hard on making sure that the IPPI, his instrument, his financial derivative [PF mm hmm], is plausible and correct to what would happen with a new intertitle where, essentially, you get good property but it’s on land that is now under water or intertidal so at high tide it’s underwater, at low tide it’s not. That’s a legally ambiguous zone because we go by Roman law and in Roman law you can’t own the zone between high tide and low tide. So in New York, in Manhattan, after my purported flood, you’ve got a zone where you can’t tell if owning a building on that land is an asset or a liability, a debt or something to loan on. And that’s unusual in finance but what it is, it illustrates the way finance works and the way it wants to monetize and then make a profit out of any situation—volatility itself is a profitable moment and so there’s nothing more volatile than uh then the intertidal zone cuz at high tide it’s a mess at a certain block, say 34th or 35th and at low tide the mess is down at 25th. And so that zone in between, those ten blocks, are an investment opportunity—or a place where you can bet.
PF Well that—that comes in very early in the book and it really set the book up for me because it was like of course New York City would be obsessed with, you know, tide-linked investment [yeah] um analytics.
KSR Yeah, yeah. Real estate. Yeah.
PF Yeah, that’s right! The book does sort of all come back down to real estate which—now with twenty years and you’ve been here, Rich knows, natively, in your bones, that real estate is how you have a good solid existence in New York City. [RZ yeah] You own something.
RZ You own something because 70 percent, I don’t even know what the number is, of its inhabitants don’t. Uh, right? They rent. [KSR Ah! Ah!]—so it’s like, “Woah! I just got ahead of the curve here if I can pull this off.”
PF There’s roughly a trillion dollars in value in the stock. No, I mean, that’s the number and so like 30 percent of that—30 percent of the population owns that trillion.
RZ What this brings to mind, we actually had a client, a prospect that spoke to us um and what they were trying to do was make sense of the zoning laws in New York, and the zoning laws are a collection of statutes, case precedent, and literally just sort of these . . . signed off sort of analysis that these auditors do, and it’s incredibly [PF even more specific—] complex between the [even more specifically—]share rights and all this stuff.
KSR Uh I read just enough to understand a little bit more than I did before about these zoning laws, these setback laws that were—they undid them in 1985 but from like 1910 to 1985, setback laws just to create, what? Sunlight zones? Or?
PF That’s right!
PF Which is why you have from that period all those sort of ziggurat style buildings. That’s right.
KSR Yes, yes, and that creates a habitat for Peregrine Falcons.
PF Oh that’s why we have Peregrines!
KSR Yeah cuz they like—they need nesting space up high [RZ laughs] so you have weird effects, side effects [RZ oh sure!] of zoning laws—of things like that that certainly they don’t consider beforehand. They’re just accidents.
RZ Of course.
PF You just answered a question which is my wife and I have not been able to figure out why the hell our children have come back from kindergarten talking at length about Peregrine Falcons, like no other birds, just Peregrine Falcons [KSR yeah]. So they’ve been learning about Peregrine Falcons in New York City—probably not—they probably haven’t gotten to that as a side effect of zoning law yet but still. Alright so, vast amount of research on this work.
KSR Sure. But and you know it—when you talk about it, what’s research? It’s targeted reading about a subject that for me while I’m working on a book is everything [PF ok]. It’s like the most interesting topic in the world, I cannot read enough about it. And New York uh I only touched the tip of the iceberg, there’s tons more that I never looked into but I found some really good books and they were always really interesting. New York anecdote collections or an entire book on Madison Square [PF sure sure], history of Madison Square, a book called Capital by Kenneth Goldsmith that is all the good, funny quotes and stories about New York all collected into one massive thing—
PF Well the place loves itself, right?
PF Like it’s a self-obsessed city.
RZ All the songs go on and on.
KSR Yes and but also an ecology text, Mannahatta by an Eric Sanderson [PF mm hmm mm hmm] it was about what the island was like before Europeans arrived, and how it’s changed since as an ecozone and so from one source and another and combine that with my visits here, I felt like I was on the hunt [PF right], and when you’re on the hunt um in your mind you’ve got a project, you’ve got an orientation, it’s not just random information coming in. It’s—you’re on the hunt for something. So it’s a beautiful experience and I never—although it is research—that’s—research sounds a little dry and library-bound or a little diffuse. And that’s not really what it feels like to me. It more feels like being obsessed [PF mm hmm]. So you’re a little bit of an obsessive-compulsive and what you’re compulsed [sic] to do or compelled to do is write this novel. And then when I finished the book, what’s interesting to test, and I’m testing it out this week, the obsession’s gone. It’s like having an affair, the affair’s over, is New York still interesting? [RZ chuckles] And in fact it is still interesting. I’m enjoying it. I regard Madison Square as my square [PF sure]—the old Met Life tower is my building. I had dinner in it last night [that’s great] and it was pretty good.
PF Did they know you were working on this book when you were—
KSR They did! Well, “they” being their customer relations person, a woman named Leigh Upshire who was hugely helpful. She was tickled to death that somebody was doing this [RZ and PF chuckle] and she took me right to the very top, the little gold thing, you have to take a spiral staircase cuz there’s no room for anything but the spiral staircase.
PF That’s why I wonder, that’s a very specific detail, and I was like, “They let him in!”
PF Yeah, ok.
KSR And I spent the night there, in an absurdly expensive hotel. I blew an entire honorarium for a speaking gig there [RZ and PF laugh].
RZ What’s the name of the hotel? Do you recall?
KSR The Edition.
RZ The Edition.
PF Inside the tower?
KSR Yeah, yeah, I was up there for one night cuz it—
RZ It’s a pretty fancy place.
KSR—you know what I had to include? As nice as it was, is you can’t possibly—it’s like the first class in an airplane, they can’t possibly make it nice enough to be worth that much extra money.
RZ Oh no! It’s—
KSR It’s a business rip.
RZ It’s location too and—
KSR But it’s also a business ostentatiousness [RZ oh it’s totally that]. “We can blow money because we’re big business.” It’s a little stupid. I will never stay there again [others laugh] but it was—but I have been in the building.
RZ There’s the plug for The Edition!
PF Um how—
KSR It’s a great hotel but it’s too expensive!
PF So this is very—this is a broad book. How does getting ready for this or writing one of these differ from—to me like the Mars trilogy is very focused on Mars [KSR yeah], right, like and as New York has an unbelievable amount of information about it, Mars has a relatively—has a huge, there’s a vast trove but relatively small compared to New York City.
KSR Very much so. I would say ten books about Mars and you know everything that humans know about Mars. Um New York it’s more—it’s not infinity because I did The Years of Rice and Salt, a book about world history. That one was infinity [PF mm hmm]. Um New York is more like there’s probably . . . a thousand good books about New York and of course I’m not only gonna read—well ten pretty much maxes out and also especially how much can you put in a novel before you’ve sunk it? [PF Sure] And I—you can tell that I’m always testing the limits cuz people are always coming out of my books going, “Oh my god, you know, I just had to swim, you know, pulling a tugboat behind me, across the Atlantic.”
PF I never thought about that but that’s true The Years of Rice and Salt which is about—it’s an alternative history, for people who haven’t read it, about um the Black Plague is very, very fatal [KSR yes]. Essentially most of Europe dies in the Black Plague and sort of what would happen to culture if that happened and European culture wouldn’t take over? And Middle Eastern [RZ right] culture would [KSR yeah]. And that is—you’re right: it’s just infinite. You could’ve never ended writing that book.
KSR Right. I—I had the idea in my head for that one for maybe ten or 20 years before I figured out how to do it but that meant I had an entire bookshelf of potential books. Anytime I went into a used bookstore it would be like, “Oh here’s a—the Chinese were in East Africa in the year 1200,” and, “You’re kidding me!” So I’d have to buy that book and it went on and on and on and on.
PF I remember that as a sort of real tonal shift too. Like it just—it didn’t read as sci-fi in maybe some of the way that the Mars stuff did. It wasn’t in the genre as much.
KSR No, that one is a reincarnation novel [PF mm hmm] and it’s a strange piece of work. I could—that’s—I can say that . . . with uh certainty [chuckles]. This New York novel is more normal but it’s sort of like Trollope. It’s like one of these nineteenth century novels where a bunch of characters are banging around in their own plots but they begin to make one bigger plot. So that’s an interesting structure in it’s own uh right and was a fun thing to follow. And that’s what made it kind of a fatty [PF mm hmm!] is that there’s eight plot lines and you’d like all eight of them to be interesting in their own way. But also combined with each other. So eight times eight is 64, suddenly you’ve got 64 possible relationships that you gotta describe and it quickly got crazy [PF mm hmm] and I had to trim it on down but—
RZ Based on your research, I mean obviously you dug into a lot of science here to write this book. Is there a way out?
KSR Um . . . yes? If I understand you uh the situation will never stop and we have what you might call a two-century emergency and the quicker we act now, the less desperate people are going to be a hundred years from now in coping with all this stuff. But there are technologies that you could begin to imagine—carbon negative technology. So carbon positive is you’re putting carbon in the atmosphere and the ocean by burning it, carbon neutral is that you end up not doing much one of the other [RZ calm down chuckles], carbon negative you poke carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and you use it to replace cement. Uh graphinated composites. So that this is rather cool conceptually. The same CO2 that is cooking us right now as a greenhouse gas could actually replace cement itself as it’s drug out of the atmosphere. So you have less in the atmosphere and you’re not making carbon dioxide by making cement which is one of the big CO2 creating activities that we do. So it’s a double-win and this organization that Bill McKibben started called 350 Dot Org [350.org]. I love that name because it’s a science fiction name. It’s implying that we get back to 350 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere when we’re already at 400, and it’s not obvious how to do that yet but it’s not conceptually impossible either [RZ right] and getting back to 350 is a smart goal because if we could do it, we would substantially have our way out that you asked about—
RZ Sure. Most of the thinking today is, “How do we slow it down?”
KSR Right. But then you could maybe stop it and reverse it and—but, that said, there’s a lot of heat already baked into the ocean itself. So people imagine like climate change is like a thermostat and you change air temperatures [RZ chuckles], you know, you turn it on the wall, your thermostat, you turn it up, you turn it down, you think you can do the same thing with the air . . . of the Earth and since we did cook up the air in the Earth a little bit, you can imagine the opposite happening and people tend to conceptualize it as a thermostat. But the heat that’s in the ocean, and the acidity that’s in the ocean, we can’t do anything about it. And some of it is already baked in there and things are warmer than we thought they were.
PF So there are consequences for our actions.
KSR Yeah and there were always [RZ exhales sharply]. That’s true. Yup.
PF And then—I mean also there’s—the market isn’t really well incentivizing people who want to pull carbon out of the air right now, right? I mean it doesn’t—we haven’t created a structure whereby businesses will get built—like the regular incentive structures that get things done aren’t aligned to us lowering the temperature.
KSR Well it’s—what I would say is that the market is always wrong and because [PF chuckles] and because the market rules it’s the—that’s one way of saying that the economic system that we’re in right now, rewards bad activity [PF mm hmm], uh short-term profit but long-term damage that really is the equivalent of a Ponzi scheme . . . a multi-generational Ponzi scheme. And so incentivize usually means government intervention that makes people do stuff that isn’t the most obvious profit [PF mm hmm] and that indeed would be the solution to our problem is to incentivize extremely actively and essentially have market interventions that the people on Wall Street just freak out at . . . cuz it would be like what the Chinese do [PF sure] and the—Wall Street hates China . . . because that’s state controlling the market. And the rule in Wall Street is the market runs all of us and that’s the best way. So these are fundamental philosophies of how to run an economy that are in collision and they tend to dis each other and especially Wall Street likes to say that everybody else is stupid compared to the market which is mindless but accurate. And that just—
PF Well they’re rich, right?
KSR I mean exactly. It works for them.
RZ This is a gross generalization but we kinda tend to put the traffic light after the accident, at the intersection.
PF It’s gonna be a big accident.
RZ I mean, agreed! I’m just thinking about somehow we just keep doing the same thing.
PF Well, it’s a multi-continent pile-up.
RZ No fair!
KSR Well we’re in the midst of it, what you could say is that um . . . what you asked is . . . there’s a question that’s a wrong way to put it because there’s no good answer. “Is it too late?” is kind of a version of this question, where if you answer um, “No, it’s not too late.” Then there’s this tendency to think, “Well, good. I don’t have to do anything.” But if you answer, “Yes, it’s too late.” Then you say, “Oh good, I don’t have to do anything.” So the question, “Is it too late?” doesn’t have a good answer, as a question that gives you—either answer that you give is an excuse to not to anything [PF right]. So you have to say, “Wait. That’s not the question. The question is how much are we gonna lose? Are we gonna lose more or are we gonna lose less?” And then it’s—and then you talk about extinctions because almost everything is recoverable, life being so robust, people being so resilient, uh and you can build things. You can—building infrastructure or repairing infrastructure is simply work. That’s what people do, so it’s not so bad. But extinctions are bad. You can’t come back from them.
PF Well and accommodating a mass migration of humans is also like it’s very fraught.
KSR Oh no doubt. And—
PF Getting people off the coasts and—
KSR I calculated that a 50 foot sea level rise would be, in terms of refugees, would be the equivalent of 10,000 Hurricane Katrinas.
RZ Oh my goodness!
PF [Deeply sighs] So you think about that—I mean you look at where we’re going on with our current almost non-existent refugee problem being turned into a massive political football . . . conjoined with anti-global warming—
KSR Well, that’s right.
PF And then you multiply that—how many Katrinas?
PF Alright so 10,000 Katrinas—
RZ That’s a terrible calculation.
PF The concern [KSR mm hmm mm hmm] I have is just human beings, at scale, are so irrational . . .
KSR Well . . . this is . . . testable. Um Rebecca Solnit has a book, A Paradise Built in Hell, [PF mm hmm] where she points out that the government built prisons before they built aid facilities after Katrina, that the first thing they did was build mobile prisons cuz they assumed riots were gonna happen [PF sure]. But that the people’s response was almost unfailingly to help first and there was very little looting and so it’s a—it’s a question in how people react in crises. Because there are many crises in human history. You look back and then people responded magnificently [PF right]. And so . . . sea level rise will be mostly a creeping problem and if you get surges like the ones I described in my book, you would—ten percent of the world’s population lives right on coastlines. So ten percent of the world’s population as a refugee population. That’s how I get the 10,000 Katrinas. It’s stupendously bad. But um there might be time for a lot of people to move inland or to make these New York adaptations and say, “Look, I’m a water rat now. I live on a houseboat.” [RZ Right] Uh so it’s a—in slow motion we don’t know what humans will do.
PF So you’ve written a very deep, very serious book about climate change, that’s also kind of a comic novel about how people react.
KSR Yeah [chuckles], that’s right.
PF And it’s coming out at exactly the moment in which the entire country—or at least half the country seems to have stuck its head in the sand . . . like an ostridge, about climate change. How—how are you taking that . . . when you read the news?
KSR I’m amazed um that’s pretty much the best way to put it: I am amazed. Cuz you would think that people would consider the fate of their children and grandchildren and take that into account and react accordingly but . . . people believe what they want to. You can tell that that’s true. And it just means that I’m coming from a different position than they are and, as a novelist, what I try to do is understand [PF mm hmm] uh what—what—what’s the logic behind this thinking and action? And that gets interesting for plots, for stories, and for characters of different kinds in my books [PF sure]. But I personally I think, “Uh c’mon. Don’t put your head in the sand. It’s a completely useless response.” Cuz actually reacting and dealing is uh interesting and it’s a job creator and it’s a more, what you might call an adult—I mean you guys have got young kids and young kids are often very sensible but what you want out of adults is to look—have some foresight.
PF Or even cynically there’s a tremendous opportunity for corruption in graft that’s being untapped.
KSR Well, also investment! [PF yeah] of plain old market opportunities. So—
RZ And synchronization, right? Like it’s—there’s so many. Like it’s a swarm of motivations and interests that—
PF There is a very brilliant computer scientist named Brett Victor and one of the more recent things he did was write a very long explanation of how the technology industry can integrate and deal with global warming. Down to things like software for thermostats to turn them off and on more intelligently [KSR mm hmm] and it’s a beautiful and brilliant essay and it got a lot of attention because he’s pretty well-known but it should have stopped everyone in their tracks. It stopped me in my tracks. But I can’t go out and manifest the work for organization in order to do that kind of work. I would love to have a global warming track [RZ yeah] where we’re building the apps and building the tools but it’s just not there not. Or at least we’re not connected. But that opportunity just has to exist.
KSR It’s coming [PF yeah]. But I know—the coordination of effort would be cool. That’s what government is intent to—was built to do [RZ right]. And I think it will happen. I started writing about this stuff in my Washington, D.C. trilogy back about 2004, the difference between 2004 and now is stupendous, in terms of awareness and even action but it has been politicized because uh at the turn of this century um climate change, global warming, was a bipartisan issue where everybody agreed on it and then, unfortunately, as a kind of an allergic response to Al Gore and his Inconvenient Truth, it began to look like—and also Democrats being sort of in favor of government and Republicans being against government, climate change insists on government involvement and government intervention in the economy. So it begins to look like uh climate change is a Democrat—votes Democrat. And that was uh exacerbated by Al Gore being the spokesperson of this movie [PF sure] and we end up now with it being a political football when actually it’s just the real future that’s coming and it’s forced a lot of Republicans to say ridiculous things and behave in ridiculous ways when they didn’t have to in the first place cuz you can profit out of infrastructure replacement [RZ sure]. So um we’re in a weird moment. There’s no doubt about it.
PF I mean and I will say—I mean this book is actually quite optimistic.
PF The D.C. trilogy and actually Aurora, right before that, was not an optimistic book.
PF That was about tough times on a deep space mission.
KSR That’s right.
PF And uh this I would say is overall very optimistic about the human condition, in all of its ridiculousness.
KSR Well you’ve put your finger on it for me personally, Aurora was like a jail novel and when I was done, I was thinking, “I need some fun. My readers need some fun.” [PF Mm hmm] So it isn’t obvious that sea level rise leads to fun but um [RZ exhales through nose as if to laugh] I wanted and people will want it. So 50 years after sea level rise, the young people of that time are gonna be having fun [PF true]. So I wanted to write about that and do a—and to say to people, “Yeah, I’ve got a romantic comedy uh about sea level rise.” It sounds incoherent or even callous but I think if you read the book what you see is that there’s reasons to construct it this way, it’s against apocalyptic thinking. It’s towards constructivism and so it is an optimistic book, in that sense [PF mm hmm]. People will cope. That’s the message: people will cope. What will that look like? It’ll be kinda funny.
PF So this has been a tremendous privilege. Thank you so much.
KSR Oh thank you, Paul. Thank you, Rich.
PF People should know that it is New York 2140, it is from Orbit Books and it’s available everywhere books are sold. You should read it. It’s good.
KSR Thanks for having me! It’s really—it’s really been a pleasure.
PF I appreciate it, thank you . . . That was intense!
PF We’re gonna be underwater!
RZ But we’ll figure it out!
PF Well, you know, um I’ll harkon back: remember when we did the show about 101 5th Avenue and its history?
PF We’re just passengers, man. We’re just sitting here in New York City.
RZ We’re coming through!
PF It was—before us, our building was what? It was clothing makers and publishers—
RZ Before that.
PF And now it’s tech and, you know, maybe the next step will be people working on, you know, neg— negative carbon atmospheric extraction technologies.
PF Anyway [music fades in], let’s get outta here!
RZ Paul, have a lovely week.
PF Thank you. Everyone—
RZ Keep your head above water.
PF I will. Everyone who needs us, you can drop a line to [email protected], we love questions and we like to answer them. Uh if you wanna rate us five stars on iTunes, do it! Make sure to get a nice boat because sea level is rising and we will talk to you soon.
RZ Buh bye.
PF Bye [music ramps up, then fades to end].