In his latest book, New York 2140 (Orbit Books, 2017), the acclaimed novelist Kim Stanley Robinson presents a dark-but-hopeful vision for humanity a dozen decades from now, on an Earth radically altered by climate change. Robinson deftly constructs a sprawling, soaring story from eight interwoven narratives all sourced to a single building on the island of Manhattan—which, despite being half-drowned under rising seas, still sustains a thriving megalopolis.
In less optimistic and capable hands such a book might be little more than a grim catalogue of the devastating migrations, famines, wars, depressions and extinctions that would inevitably accompany the inundation of coastlines worldwide. These woes are mostly rearview considerations for Robinson, who instead marshals a wealth of evidence from economics, politics and science to explore the new normal that would gradually, inevitably emerge in a post-deluge world. The result is at once familiar yet alien. Robinson’s Gothamites are indistinguishable from the New Yorkers living and working in the city today. But they inhabit a post-carbon super-Venice of canals, water taxis and airships moored to 300-story skyscrapers and verdant vertical farms. Beneath the surging waves and gleaming solar panels, the city’s antediluvian foundations still lurk—and occasionally resurface to profoundly change both individual lives and the course of history.
Scientific American spoke to Robinson about this possible future, his research process, how this latest novel fits with the rest of his work and why there are rational reasons for optimism in a warmer, wetter world.
[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]
What would you say this book is really about?
It’s about climate change and sea level rise, but it’s also about the way that our economic system doesn’t allow us to afford a decent future. As one of the characters says early in the book, “We’ve got good tech, we’ve got a nice planet, but we’re fucking it up by way of stupid laws.”
Finance, globalization—this current moment of capitalism—has a stranglehold on the world by way of all our treaties and laws, but it adds up to a multigenerational Ponzi scheme, an agreement on the part of everybody to screw the future generations for the sake of present profits. By the logic of our current system we have to mess up the Earth, and that is crazy. My new novel explores this problem and how we might get out of it.
So you set the novel in New York City because it’s a global hub of finance, then?
Yes. An analysis of late-stage capitalism is pretty abstract, and as a novelist what you need are characters in a situation. So when I was running these ideas by my wonderful editor, Tim Holman, he reminded me of a chapter in my book, 2312, where Manhattan is flooded and become something like Venice. Tim suggested that might be the best physical space to explore my financial ideas. It was a great idea.
If Manhattan is inundated by 50 feet—an amount unlikely but not impossible—you can look at topographic maps from the U.S. Geological Survey and see what would be underwater and what would still be dry. Lower Manhattan would be underwater, upper Manhattan mostly above water. Tides would make Midtown a problem zone, the “intertidal,” where a swathe several blocks wide would be above water at low tide but underwater at high tide.
New York Bay is an ecological region that’s still very lively despite all the infrastructure, so you can also imagine a lot of wildlife coming back into the drowned parts of the city. At the same time, it’s hard to imagine people giving up on Manhattan, and all the time and money it represents—it’s an example of what economists call the tyranny of sunk costs. People will want to stay.
All that struck me as a great setting for a story about a plausible collision between economics and climate change.
Have you ever lived in New York?
Wow. I ask because the book is overflowing with references to geography, architecture and the daily flow of life in the city that make it clear you’ve spent a lot of time here…. Can you tell me a bit more about your research process?
It was tremendous fun, although it was also a challenge, because I’m a Californian. I was kind of intimidated to write about New York—in fact I felt more comfortable writing about Mars than about New York. So I looked at maps and read books, and then I went to New York and walked the streets and thought it over. One of the more useful books I read was Mannahatta, by the ecologist Eric Sanderson. It’s an ecological guide to the city, describing what this place was like before people did what they did to it.
I’ve walked in Manhattan many times throughout my life, and for this book I focused on my “intertidal.” When I went to the city I was on the hunt. One of my good friends lives in New York, so I would visit her and say, “I need to see the Cloisters,” or “I need to go to Hell Gate.” These were places I thought would become distinctly different if there was a 50-foot rise in sea level. Some would stay well above that rise, like the Cloisters. Other places, like Coney Island, would be drowned.
Did you learn anything surprising during your visits?
There was one thing I learned that proved crucial for my story: the old MetLife Tower on Madison Square is an imitation of the Campanile in Saint Marcos Plaza in Venice. That made a good joke, so I placed my characters there, and that’s where a lot of the story unfolds.
And, as you explain in your book, the 50-foot rise in sea level that turns Manhattan into Venice takes place in two stages—a “First Pulse,” when the sea rises 10 feet in scarcely a decade in the mid-21st century, followed by a catastrophic “Second Pulse” a few decades later that increases sea levels by 40 more feet. What led you to envision that scenario?
Well, it wasn’t exactly an attempt at real prediction. I began by figuring out how much of a sea level rise my story needed. It wasn’t that much compared to the maximum that would occur if all the ice on the planet melted, which is something like 210 or 270 feet—I’ve read both. How fast would that happen? Not fast at all, because most of the world’s ice is stacked on the eastern half of Antarctica, where it will always be dark and cold half of every year. But because I wanted to portray lower Manhattan as being underwater, I wanted a substantial rise that was still scientifically defensible. What I chose is at the extreme edge of what’s possible, but that said, sea level rise really is going to happen, we’ve started it already and it’s going to be a serious problem.
I was already well along in my book when a paper came out in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics from James Hansen and 18 co-authors. They suggested that the 1-degree Centigrade temperature rise that we’ve already created could be enough to generate a 10-meter sea level rise within a century. They suggested this based on paleoclimate data from the Eemian period, when one degree of warming seems to have done just that. Hansen and his group explained this dramatic and inexplicable rise by pointing out that lots of Antarctic ice is perched above and behind ice buttresses resting on land under sea level, so that they stop ice further inland from sliding down at speed.
If you decouple that ice from where it’s grounded—something that currents of warming water, already circulating around the Antarctic coast, could do—then water could flow beneath the inland ice and lubricate its slide into the ocean. That could drastically increase the rate of ice release and the speed of sea-level rise. If the rate of release doubles every 10 years, you quickly get massive rises. This is the thesis of the Hansen paper, and I ran with that, as it gave me the scientific rationale for what I was portraying.
The two pulses I described are definitely science fiction, in that they’re speculation on my part. They are derived from the idea that if the ice buttress for one of these big basins in East Antarctica were to go, you might get lots of ice sliding into the ocean very quickly, then sea level stabilizing after that most unbalanced ice is released. Then it might start sliding fast again when other buttresses float away, then again stabilizing, and like that.
Hansen is one of the more controversial experts in his field, and even to say where sea level was more than 100,000 years ago is really hard, because of various obscuring effects—lithostatic rebounds, etcetera. I would say his paper is a really artful cobbling together of multiple lines of evidence from many different fields. But everyone agrees that sea levels will rise, and every time they update estimates for the size and speed of that rise, they predict it happening faster and higher. That’s the reality we’re in, so I feel confident I was describing a realistic future, even if I wanted to portray rapid sea level rise also for its metaphorical financial aspects.
Outside of Earth science, there is another pillar of the story in New York 2140: global finance, and how markets and economies might react to climate change. Without giving too much away, the book’s last act describes a sort of utopian solution to things, an eco-motivated populist uprising that results in nation-states wresting control of the global financial system away from transnational banks and corporations. Did you consult experts for that, too? And do you think this scenario is as plausible as your speculations on rising seas?
My previous books get me invited to what you might call radical or utopian economic conferences. These are often academic meetings critiquing economics from the viewpoint of sociology or anthropology, and in essence reintroducing political economy into the world of discourse. Some of these academics also used to be traders on Wall Street or in finance in some other way. The U.C. Santa Cruz group, Rethinking Capitalism, was an important one for me. Its leader, Robert Meister, introduced me to Dick Bryan from the University of Sydney and Randy Martin from New York University, who has sadly since died. I also have friends here at U.C. Davis doing similar kinds of work at the Center for Science and Innovation Studies, studying economics as a political power system rather than an immutable truth.
You might call these studies the latest stage of leftist theory in the post-2008 world. And they definitely inform the events near my novel’s end, when citizens first cause the banks to crash by various acts of fiscal noncompliance, then support the nationalization of the banks following that crash. In a way it’s a variation on what happened in 2009, when our federal government nationalized General Motors but let the banks get away. Essentially we paid 100 cents on the dollar for the banks’ terribly stupid gambling, an absurd response concocted mainly by Goldman Sachs executives who had become public officials. People panicked and we got stuck with the bill.
So my novel’s plot is not my personal invention. It emerges from recent history, and from groups like the ones I mentioned. I’ve articulated it as a science fiction story, and I don’t think anyone else has written that particular story yet, so for me it’s new and interesting because it is plausible—and if we enacted it successfully, we could solve some terrible problems we’re facing.
There is a common tendency among readers to project all of the events and ideas that are contained in a work of fiction upon its author. I just want to be sure: You said this isn’t your plan, that you’re just examining a scenario that might unfold in a possible future. But it also sounds like you’re very passionate about this. How many of these ideas are just plot devices for you?
I’m an American leftist. When people were trying to place Bernie Sanders in an intellectual tradition, I saw my name mentioned in some articles—that’s how desperate for American democratic socialists reporters were. I’m happy to be included in that list. My books have a utopian slant to them that is best explained by a coherent political view. And I have no problem with art being political—art is always political, so you might as well be coherent. So I’m happy with that identification, and it’s sort of inevitable at this point. Whatever people might call me, I think I’m much like almost everybody else—I’m surprised at the fearfulness and the stupidity of global finance, the greed involved. I think there’s reason to be angry at what happened in 2008 and at the system that still exists, and to want a better system.
Getting back to the populist uprising at the end of the book…. It seems the only way to do that would be through some kind of upheaval that delivers a shock to the system. In New York 2140 you’ve focused on the potentially catastrophic flooding of coasts around the world due to global warming. Do you think it has to be a major environmental or financial disaster that shakes things up? Or might there be similar potentials for profound change in the moment we’re having now, with the presidency of Donald Trump and the ascendancy of right-wing ideology?
I think it would be very bad to wait for an ecological catastrophe as a trigger. Naomi Klein argues in her book The Shock Doctrine that whenever we get an eco-catastrophe, capitalism actually tightens the noose around our neck. The fact that they built prisons faster than they built aid centers after Hurricane Katrina is a sign of the fear involved in catastrophe. If you tried to stage a revolt after a catastrophe, you would be justifying the prisons, the oppression, etcetera.
So what you want is for things to be going along pretty well when the change occurs, and that it just be simply political. Many people are distraught and shocked at the reality of a Trump administration, but I think it’s clear that a certain portion of the population felt so disenfranchised that they freaked out and decided to destroy the system and see what happens. But we are actually still in a moment where things are limping along. So, in a moment that is as weird as this one—being an ideological crisis caused by us facing (or not) the reality of a coming ecological crisis—many people are thinking we’ve got to do better. That’s when new ideas might have their best chance.
In my book there develops a large organization called the Householders’ Union, which plays on the idea that we’re all householders. We all want stability, which in financial terms means illiquidity [Editor’s Note: “Illiquidity” refers to assets not easily transferred to currency, a property that can protect against” volatility”—rapid, radical swings in value]. This desire for stability allows global finance to prey upon us, because finance prefers liquidity, even volatility—and as the rules are set now, liquidity always beats illiquidity at the game of maximizing profit. So we’ve got this parasitic mechanism and class that is eating our lives, and we want to throw them off and re-exert the tenet “of the people, by the people and for the people.” How do we do that? Well, because they’re so greedy they have become overleveraged, thus brittle and fragile. So even though they look like they’re in control, all that is needed is for this hypothetical Householders’ Union to conduct a general strike—but only after electing a particular political order into Congress, one willing to back the people. Then a major change can happen, like nationalizing the banks and making money a kind of public utility, a tool for the people.
I know this plan is overly simplistic and that there is no single solution, but I am looking for a story to tell that allows us to think the totality in new ways—and because it’s modeled on actual events and in fact almost happened, it could happen again in this way. So to get back to your basic question, no, we don’t want to wait for an eco-catastrophe to stimulate economic change. We want change to happen at a moment of relative stability. We want to cause the change deliberately and proactively.
It seems like New York 2140 is a marked departure from your most popular previous books, where your “utopian slant” played out in stories about human beings leaving Earth and all its baggage behind—or at least trying to. You’ve explored this in novels about terraforming Mars, colonizing the solar system and even traveling to other stars. That idea of escaping to somewhere else entirely seems very appealing to many people today who are seeking revolutionary shifts in how society works. Do you think that’s a realistic plan?
No, not at all.
I think my body of work makes the case that we can visit and explore the worlds of our solar system in the same way that we now visit and explore Antarctica. People go there, they do good work, they have exciting times, it’s interesting and beautiful—but then they must return to “the world,” as Antarcticans say when they head north.
Recent discoveries concerning the microbiome have made me think that because we coevolved with this planet we can never really be healthy without it. We are expressions of it and depend on it. Then Antarctica as a model becomes even more powerful. You go to these alien places to study them and then come home. You don’t want to spend your whole life on Mars, because it significantly compromises your health. Spending too much time in a low-g environment might wreck your health. Fetuses might not properly develop in low gravity—that could be a real showstopper. And as for interstellar travel, all we have learned in the last century suggests that getting human beings to other stars is a fantasy. The cosmos as a story space is like Middle Earth, a great way to tell epic stories that can be interesting but are never going to happen. Or, let’s say we need hundreds or thousands of years of experience before we could even try it, and even then it might not be possible.
So, I’m trying now in my stories and my public comments to make these distinctions. It’s important to emphasize we have no Planet B available. Mars as an escape hatch is a fantasy. It would be way easier to restore Earth and make it healthy than it would be to terraform Mars. Our environmental emergency will hit hard in the next 200 years, so a thousand-year project to terraform Mars is no solution. I have to admit that my Mars trilogy squeezed that terraforming Mars timeline to its minimum at around 200 years, and has thus created some of this conceptual problem. But even if that timeline were possible, it would still rely on Earth being healthy to be sustainable over the long haul.
I do research to try to make my stories plausible, so that when you read one and it takes a utopian turn, you might think, “yeah, that could really happen.” Because the possibilities for positive futures are there. We don’t have to be rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. We could actually patch the leaks, and restore a great ship that smoothly cruises along, with no end in sight. And if you then mention that moment when the sun expands and burns up the Earth, sure; in five billion years we’ve got a problem. Meanwhile the planet is robust. Life is robust. Everything is robust—except the current economic system. So let’s reform that, revise it to something more intelligent and generous. That’s my hope—and it doesn’t hurt that it lets me tell a lot of fun and interesting stories.