AlterEcos, Imagined

By Christian De Cock, visiting professor to the AlterEcos project

Following on from Sine’s inaugural blog unpacking key AlterEcos concepts, I want to explore a particular way of imagining alternatives to currently dominant forms of economic organizing. I’m looking here to the ‘near-future science fiction’ of Kim Stanley Robinson, which concerns itself with events and modes of organizing in the coming decades and the next century. Donna Haraway recently referred to such science fiction as “a method of tracing, of following a thread in the dark”, creating “the pattern and assembly that solicits response.” Any serious attempt to describe our current historical moment in such a way as to open it up to alternatives, will tend toward near-future science fiction as it organizes our knowledge into plots that suggest how we can make changes in our present world.  Such alternative imaginings of the world inevitably have to touch on the challenge posed by the climate crisis because, as Amitav Ghosh put it, “to imagine other forms of human existence is exactly the challenge that is posed by the climate crisis: for if there is any one thing that global warming has made perfectly clear it is that to think about the world only as it is amounts to a formula for collective suicide.” 


The catastrophic present 

Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy, published over the period 2004-2007, has very much the feel of an alternative history of the past decade. He sketches a world in which the ‘good guys’ suddenly find themselves in charge and take seriously the challenge of climate change. In this narrative Phil Chase, the most environmentally aware senator in the US, becomes US President and gives Science (in the form of the US National Science Foundation) a central place in political decision making, whilst enthusiastically embracing a true internationalist agenda. In the first book Robinson forcefully puts forward his view on our current socio-economic set-up:

It takes no great skill to decode the world system today. A tiny percentage of the population is immensely wealthy, some are well off, a lot are just getting by, a lot more are suffering.  We call it capitalism, but within it lies buried residual patterns of feudalism and older hierarchies, basic injustices framing the way we organize ourselves. Everybody lives in an imaginary relationship to this real situation; and that is our world. We walk with scales on our eyes, and only see what we think. And all the while on a sidewalk over the abyss (2004: 308).

In contrast to much of Climate-Fiction, the trilogy does not indulge in the aesthetics of catastrophe (although there are some memorable scenes of the great Washington flood and freeze). Robinson has an interest in catastrophe-as-event (the subtitles of the first two books are The Forecast is Catastrophic and Catastrophe is in the Air) but the real ‘catastrophe’, he seems to suggest, is actually the system we have created. Now is the moment of the storm:

The system cries: it’s not me! As if it could be anything else, given that human beings are doing it, and capitalism is the way human beings now organize themselves… The system claims…‘I’m the cure!’ And on it goes, and pretty soon we’re left with a devastated world  (2007: 377).

Robinson has a go at the logic of neo-classical economics which seems to ensnare us all, coming up with some memorable phrases such as “Economics is incorrigible. They call it the dismal science but actually it’s the happy religion” (2005:89), and “Free market economics is a plan – it plans to give over all decisions to the blind hand of the market. But the blind hand never picks up the check. And, you know – it’s blind…” (2007: 509).


The serious point Robinson is trying to make is that our current socio-economic set-up simply cannot provide mechanisms for dealing effectively with the challenges of climate chaos: “If the Earth were to suffer a catastrophic extinction event over the next ten years… American business would continue to focus on its quarterly profit and loss” (2004: 109). Furthermore, the plethora of information and sheer amount of organizations involved in dealing with climate change has in itself become a source of paralysis, Robinson proffers:

So much was happening at any one time that any description of the situation had some truth in it, from ‘desperate crisis, extinction event totally ignored’ to ‘minor problems robustly dealt with’. It was therefore necessary to forge on in ignorance of the whole situation (2005: 94).

This brings him to the crux of the organizational predicament, which he repeats over and over again throughout the novels (e.g. 2005: 137, 253; 2007: 105): “This is the real problem: we know but we can’t act”! He also describes this as “a kind of vertigo in time, a loss of balance in one’s sense of movement into the future” (2007: 343). A character in the novel thus wonders whether we have “lost touch with reality, gone mad as a collective” (2005:32; also 2007: 216). Monbiot echoed this imaginative deadlock when commenting on the release of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s latest report: “This is a catastrophe we are capable of foreseeing but incapable of imagining. It’s a catastrophe we are singularly ill-equipped to prevent”. It is precisely on this re-awakening of our imagination that Robinson pins our hope for survival without giving it any actual content. What could we do, he wonders, if we weren’t trapped in our current institutions and imaginaries?

I think for a while we forgot what was possible. Our way of life damaged our ability to imagine anything different. Maybe we are rarely good at imagining that things could be different. Maybe that’s what we mean when we talk about the Enlightenment. For a while there we understood that the ultimate source of power is the imagination… We are going to have to imagine our way out of this one (2007: 507, 509).

Robinson wonders throughout these books what futures are still possible given the conditions of the present, but ultimately fails to come up with an answer. Every time protagonists want to make a change they quickly discover that any given feature entertains a multi­tude of unexpected yet constitutive links with all the other features in the system. All that is ‘achievable’ are some spectacular but probably futile geo-engineering projects, like sinking millions of tons of salt to restart the Gulfstream. Toward the end of the final novel the ‘climate catastrophe’ almost entirely disappears from the narrative and the individual protagonists find some personal resolutions and happiness in a strange temporary and fragile return to ‘normality’. Yet, this imaginative failure of the trilogy – i.e. a change in individual features of our current reality that could make a real difference – perhaps provided Robinson with the motivation to write his latest novel.


Imagining alternative futures

In New York 2140, Robinson presents us with the consequences of our imaginative failure. The picture he paints (and which is beautifully rendered on the front cover of the book) reminds us of Maurice Blanchot’s famous reflection: “The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” By 2140 New York has had to face a 50-foot rise in sea level; yet despite being half-drowned it is still a functioning megalopolis: “Lower Manhattan lies flooded below them like a super-Venice, majestic, watery, superb. Their town” (p. 6).  This is a world where Capitalism has successfully adapted to the challenges of climate change, but also one of an accelerated immiserating of vast swathes of the population (only an American perspective is offered): “Am I saying that the floods… were actually good for capitalism? Yes, I am” (p.118):

All people needed to do to deal with it was to buckle down in their traces and accept the idea of austerity, meaning more poverty for the poor, and accept a police state with lots of free speech and freaky lifestyles velvet-gloving the iron fist, and hey presto! On we go with the show! Humans are so tough! (p.141).

Whilst the Science in the City trilogy from the noughties was about the relation of politics and science with climate change, Robinson’s latest offering is very much about financial capitalism and its societal effects in a climate changed world, and this time round he is determined to develop in some detail an alternative mode of economic organizing. As he suggested in a recent interview: “Extreme climate change is being caused in part by capitalist economics, so we have to change the latter to be able to deal with the former. New York 2140 will tell the story of the first steps we might take in that direction.”


The book is divided into eight parts and most of the titles read like an ironic take on an economics primer: ‘The tyranny of sunk costs’; ‘expert overconfidence’; ‘liquidity trap’; ‘expensive or priceless?’; ‘escalation of commitment’, ‘the comedy of the commons’. Each of these parts is subdivided into chapters, which see the story developing from the perspective of one of the protagonists.  In a clever textual move, Robinson also introduces a character called ‘a/the citizen’ who exists in a metafictional relationship with the rest of the text, thus allowing him to weave a thinly fictionalised socio-political analysis throughout all eight parts (often harking back to the events and (in)actions of the global financial crisis of 2008). At times, the drowned city of New York seems only a stage set, albeit a spectacular one, to provide an analysis of late capitalism and to explore alternative financial ideas.

Robinson explicitly acknowledges the influence of scholars who are active in the Critical Finance Studies (CFS) community: Dick Bryan, Robert Meister, and the late Randy Martin. There is something deeply satisfying about theoretical ideas developed in our wider academic community being put to work by an accomplished novelist in an intricate plot that tries to conceive of our socio-economic totality in new ways, building a ‘small world machine’, as it were. The ‘revolution’, if we can call it that, takes up the latter half of part seven and most of part eight. Of course, it is difficult to do justice to the concatenation of events that take up the last 100 pages of the novel within the confines of this blog, but a few glimpses might tempt potential readers to explore for themselves this alternative future when and where people suddenly effect their solidarity as a political force: “We pretend that democracy is real, and that will make it real (p.527)”:

Strategic defaulting. Class-action suits. Mass rallies. Staying home from work. Staying out of private transport systems. Refusing consumer consumption beyond the necessities. Withdrawing deposits. Denouncing all forms of rent-seeking. Ignoring mass media. Withholding scheduled payments. Fiscal noncompliance. Loud public complaining…. So in the summer of 2142 people started doing all these things. The actors were many, as there was no cohesion or agreement on either means or ends… There was a powerful sense of some underwater current in the global civilization now pulling it out into an unknown sea. History was happening. When that happens you can feel it (p.531-532).

In a way, New York 2140 can be conceived of as a positive response to Ghosh’s accusation that “the climate crisis casts a much smaller shadow on literary fiction than it does on the world.” Robinson’s great achievement is the seamless weaving together of theories and concepts, some of which we aim to explore further in the AlterEcos project (including recent work on non-human actors), into an imaginative plot that offers a genuine affirmative alternative future history. It is therefore only appropriate to have Robinson have the last word in a paragraph where the narrator looks back, somewhat nostalgically, to the events of 2042:

… Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember ease of representation. It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know. That said, people in this era did do it. Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions. So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand. Moving on from this brief excursion into political philosophy before the profundity grows too deep, what remains to be said is this: things happened. History happened. It does not stop happening. Seemingly frozen moments are transient, they break up like the spring ice, and then change occurs. So: individuals, groups, civilization, and the planet itself all did these things, in actor networks of all kinds… there was no guarantee of permanence to anything they did, and the pushback was ferocious as always, because people are crazy and history never ends, and good is accomplished against the immense black-hole gravity of greed and fear. Every moment is a wicked struggle of political forces (p.604).

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