Newsletter #3: Imagining Utopia in a Time of Climate Disaster with Kim Stanley Robinson
By William Harris
By now you’ve seen the signs, planted across the liberal meadows of our nation’s lawns with a solemn pledge: “In this house, we believe: science is real.” Framed by this oath, science becomes an apolitical set of facts blindly assented to — which then easily translates into yet more grist for the neverending culture war between rational Democrats and troglodytic Republicans.
How should today’s Left approach science? Few approach this question as thoughtfully as legendary science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, hailed by the New Yorker as perhaps “our greatest political novelist,” author of many books — from the Mars trilogy to 2019’s Ministry for the Future — and our guest on a provocative new episode of The Dig hosted by pod-comrade and Berkeley sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen.
For Robinson, science is a utopian project that the Left should claim. A “modest” way of knowing the world, importantly available to specialists but also to all of us, science lives out an always-incomplete story full of dynamic adaptation, democratic debate, and messy engagement with the material world. If science has historically been a project shot through by warring interests — too often colonial and corporate — one of these competing interests has been the idealist, Left-aligned objective of improving the world for all.
Robinson comes to these reflections as a novelist who’s spent his career telling stories that entwine ecology and social justice. We live amid climate disaster; for science, that means that now is a time when, in considering technological fixes to climate change, “it all has to be put on the table.” Controversially, he insists, that means rethinking ecological and political approaches from geo-engineering to nuclear energy to Green New Deal-prompted quantitative easing.
Robinson’s broad-tent openness to a range of scientific possibilities to save our planet also comes from his experience as a novelist. His novels play out possible futures and dramatize a range of leftist and scientific debates, giving narrative shape to our most pressing ecological and political questions. Amid a growing body of criticism indicting contemporary literature for its failure to come to imaginative terms with ecological disaster — from Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book The Great Derangement to Rithika Ramamurthy’s recent takedown of the “Climate Anxiety Novel” — Robinson’s work stands out as compellingly original approaches to possible climate futures. His latest epic Ministry for the Future imagines how a plausible “best-case scenario” under climate change future might come about, raising difficult questions of left ecological politics that he discusses with Cohen.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Kim Stanley Robinson here.
This episode joins an extensive archive of Dig interviews on climate politics. Check out our conversation with Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Aldana Cohen on why we need a Green New Deal and how realistic yet imaginative narratives might help us get there, or our interview with Nick Estes on the long history of indigenous resistance to settler-colonial ecological devastation.For further reading on this episode’s themes, check out Jacobin’s ongoing Green New Deal series, a debate in New Left Review on the ecological politics of growth versus degrowth summarized by Lola Seaton in “Green Questions,” and two books: Holly Jean Buck’s work on left geo-engineering, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration, and Fredric Jameson’s magisterial Marxist study of science fiction, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions, which concludes with a chapter on Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy.
Newsletter #2: Occupy Paved the Way for Today’s Reborn Left
By Mia Schatz
It is hard today to remember the sense of desolation that plagued the American left a decade ago. Demoralized, disempowered, disorganized, the Left seemed to have no answer to the 2008 housing market crash and the Great Recession — until Occupy Wall Street.
Although the movement only lasted two months, Occupy left its mark on American politics, putting the potential for a meaningful left movement back on the map. In the years since, many participants have argued that Occupy failed: its horizontal structures didn’t work; it had no actionable demands; it was too white, too affluent, and unable to put a real dent in finance capital’s power. And yet, as Astra Taylor points out in this week’s episode of The Dig, Occupy reframed American political discourse around class, laying the groundwork for the highly effective messaging of Bernie Sanders’s 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, and compelled both veteran and budding organizers to rethink a problem the Left had struggled with for years: power.
As Occupy faded, hundreds of former occupiers from across the country joined or formed organizations focused on housing, debt, healthcare, and climate change. Today, there is a growing American left energized not only by organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America and Black Lives Matter and stirrings in key parts of the labor movement, but also by left-aligned elected officials at national, state, and local levels who are challenging the power of capital.
Occupy offered critical lessons about how a political movement can build power without losing sight of its core principles. If, as Astra argues in this week’s interview, the Left of a decade ago was allergic to power and electoral politics, today’s Left has found the antidote in strong, well-organized institutions that are increasingly capable of holding its leaders accountable. These are essential questions that are still at the heart of left organizing today — and will only become more urgent as the post-Occupy left keeps growing.
Listen to The Dig’s interview with Astra Taylor here.
Occupy’s recent tenth anniversary inspired a wave of reflections and analyses. During Occupy, media attention focused heavily on the demographic composition of occupiers. As Dan and Astra discuss, labor scholars Ruth Milkman, Penny Lewis, and Stephanie Luce interviewed occupiers on the ground at the New York occupation in Zuccotti Park. Sarah Jaffe, host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast, recently interviewed Ruth Milkman and Nastaran Mohit, an organizer and one of the study’s interviewers, about their reflections on the movement a decade on. For Jacobin, Doug Singsen reminds us of unions’ critical and often underplayed role in various OWS occupations across the country, while Ross Barkan argues the media was too quick to deem Occupy a failure.And questions still linger about Occupy’s most influential political currents. Former occupier and current Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval and Intercept columnist Natasha Lennard recently discussed whether Occupy was more socialist or anarchist in nature in The Nation.
Newsletter #1: The War on Terror Made Our World
We’re pleased to be sending you the first weekly Dig newsletter, which will be written by a number of different writers. Jacobin deputy editor Micah Uetricht will be editing the newsletter, and also occasionally contributing himself. Here’s the first edition. Please send us feedback when you have any to offer.
The War on Terror Made Our World
by Micah Uetricht
Twenty years since September 11, 2001, the War on Terror’s catastrophic effects can’t be overstated. Hundreds of thousands (at least) in the Middle East are dead; trillions have been funneled to the military-industrial complex; our already desiccated democratic institutions have been further weakened; a Pandora’s box of barbarous reactionary currents have been unleashed in the United States and abroad. Our world has been grotesquely deformed by the War on Terror.
Yet somehow, that war receives scant attention these days. Little of the voluminous mainstream discourse on the rise of Donald Trump mentions it. Even Bernie Sanders did not make opposition to the War on Terror central to his presidential campaigns. And when the war does grab headlines, as during Joe Biden’s recent pullout from Afghanistan, the obvious lesson — that the war cannot be won — escapes mainstream pundits. A grinding, decades-long, amorphously defined global military campaign with disastrous consequences and no real end in sight has been largely flushed down the memory hole.
Which makes Spencer Ackerman’s new book Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump (Viking) essential reading. Ackerman, a longtime national security reporter who writes the Substack “Forever Wars” and won a Pulitzer at the Guardian for his reporting on the Edward Snowden revelations, traces the violence and toxicity unleashed by the twenty-year War on Terror: nativism, Islamophobia, erosion of civil liberties, militarization of police powers at home, indefinite detention abroad, torture, expansion of “anti-terrorist” military action far beyond the Middle East, the roles played by a bloodthirsty Republican Party convinced of its ability and right to reshape the world through violence and a Democratic Party that shamefully capitulates to the GOP’s framing of the war, the successful harvesting of the worst of these developments by Donald Trump, and much more. He discusses all of this in a three-part conversation with The Dig.
We’re known for extended conversations on politics, but this Dig series with Spencer Ackerman goes even deeper than usual. That’s because we can’t understand the United States today — its cruelties abroad, the rot it has accelerated at home, its normalization of the illegal and immoral in the name of national security — without understanding the War on Terror.
Ackerman’s book is a crucial starting point, but the twenty-year anniversary of September 11, 2001 has brought numerous retrospectives on the War on Terror. Leftists, of course, have long denounced the war and did so again on the anniversary: Branko Marcetic writes for Jacobin about how 9/11 could have provided an opportunity to reflect on blowback to US imperialism but was squandered, and the Nation’s September 20/27 issue focuses on the spectacular failures of the War on Terror, including the explosion of Islamophobia at home and the hellish experiences of former Guantanamo detainees. Predictably, mainstream outlets were more ambivalent, but some liberal columnists like the New York Times’ Michelle Goldberg denounced the war stridently.
We at The Dig have covered the War on Terror closely over the years. Take a look in our vast archive for similar further coverage, such as our conversation with Nikhil Pal Singh on the connection between war abroad and war at home, our two-part interview on “petro-capitalism” with Timothy Mitchell, or our conversation with historian Andrew Bacevich on our wars that never end.