March 3, 2022

Kim Stanley Robinson and the Long Now

Kim Stanley Robinson and the Long Now

I've long been a fan of the mission of the Long Now Foundation, headed by the amazing Stewart Brand, long famous for his Whole Earth Catalog back in the seventies and many other imaginative and forward-looking projects. To say Long Now is forward-looking is an understatement, as its mission is to foster long term thinking to the extent that their projects include the building of a 10,000 year clock under a mountain in Nevada, and the Rosetta Project, an effort to preserve an abundance of rapidly disappearing human languages.

I've been wanting to attend one of their talks, and last night finally got my wish when they hosted my favorite sci fi writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, for a talk entitled Climate Futures: Beyond 02022 (Long Now always includes a leading zero before the year to keep us in the right mindset). Robinson - known as KSR to many and "Stan" to his friends, is the author a lot of classic contemporary novels like the Mars Trilogy, New York 2140, 2312, Galileo's Dream, and many others. I've read the Mars Trilogy three times and am just about ready for another go. It's set a few decades forward and covers the first few centuries of a highly realistic Mars colonization effort including terraforming the planet, a successful war of independence, and some amazing characters.

KSR's most recent book is The Ministry for the Future, in which he lays out a vision for how the next few decades go here on Earth. It starts out absolutely horrific, with a first person account of a brutal heat wave in India that kills several million people from the perspective of the lone survivor in one village, then goes on to show how the world responds to the tragedy. Surprisingly enough, it is ultimately a pretty optimistic vision in the long run, as humans laboriously do make the necessary moves to get a hold of climate change and begin to reverse it and heal the biosphere. I highly recommend it to every thinking person on this fragile planet.

Robinson packed a lot into a 90 minute talk, including commentary on the recent novel, a first person account of the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow, and some fascinating insight into geopolitical aspects of the battle to preserve our species in the coming decades including thoughts on Russia among other "petro-states." One of the most intriguing ideas involved the distinction between sovereign states and member states, and the importance of the latter in waging a successful battle for our future on this planet. Essentially, member states share a common vision – like defeating climate change – and are willing to prioritize the common welfare of all humans over their own country's parochial interests. Things like COP26 are a great example of countries behaving like member states, while the current conflict in Ukraine is an excellent counter-example. Stan points out that it's still incredibly hard to make sufficient progress even if everyone is behaving well, and that there is almost always a sense of freakout and desperation, but that we have to do it anyway. We can't yield to despair and inactivity when the stakes are so high.

Stan has a great sense of humor even when discussing simply awful things, so I encourage everyone to watch the video recording of the talk. There were some excellent and entertaining anecdotes, like the time he almost decapitated himself in Switzerland by walking into some spinning helicopter blades.

I also had the pleasure of meeting another of my heroes, Stewart Brand himself. He asked me if I knew about their bar, and when I said no, he directed me to it on the next wharf over at Fort Mason, where the talk was held. He was obviously quite proud of it, so I decided to check it out on my way home. While walking out I struck up a conversation with a couple named Stephen and Kayla heading the same way and mentioned my podcast and what it was about. It turned out that both of them were currently reading the books and enjoying them immensely. Stephen told me he also loved the TV show and that his father was a great fan of the books as well. When he asked me what the podcast was called I proudly removed my outer shirt to reveal the Seldon Crisis t-shirt I was wearing beneath it. We had just reached The Interval – the heart and soul of the Long Now – and Stephen took me inside to show me around.

He led me to a bookshelf that was one of many throughout the place, and told me that this was the Long Now's equivalent of the Encyclopedia Galactica. It's a collection of what they call the Manual for Civilization - a record of humanity and technology for our descendants. There is also information about other Long Now projects and a well-stocked bar. The place was packed and most people weren't masked up, so I didn't stay long, but will definitely be returning. It's pretty cool that there's a little Foundation in my home town. Maybe SF should be renamed Terminus City?

Here's the video of the talk. Would love to hear what some Seldon Crisis listeners think of it.

Oh yeah - almost forgot the best part. I chatted with Stan before the talk and asked him to appear as a guest on the podcast. He said he'd be glad to, but it probably won't be until late in the year at the earliest. I really look forward to that episode!