the dead hand of the past

Nope, it's not a horror flick to kick off the month of Halloween. It's a line from The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, a book I mentioned finishing recently in last week's newsletter. It's an example of climate fiction (or "cli-fi") set in the not-so-distant future. So many of the fictional events in the book—heat waves, flooding, etc.—have happened in the last couple of years this past summer as extreme weather events, made worse by climate change, break records that were themselves records only a year or two prior. There is a glimmer of utopian fiction in there, too, though pretty late in the book, in my opinion, and as will likely happen in our reality, things get pretty bad before they begin to get better.

I wanted to highlight a few moments and quotes in the book in keeping with my "mostly vegan" category of posts on this blog. But first, a local reference, as some of the book takes place in California, like the chapter that opens with a character visiting the Bay Model, "a giant model of the California bay area and delta, a 3D map with active water flows sloshing around it." I've been to the Bay Model only once, and relatively recently (August 2018) given I've lived in the Bay Area for most of the past 26 years. 

Photo of the Bay Model by Neal Grigsby

Otherwise, there are a handful of quotes that are so poignant, so relevant to our current moment, sadly validating for folks like me, frustrated by the lack of urgency around these issues as I observe things around me, even in so-called progressive Bay Area. 

"Of course there is always resistance, always a drag on movement toward better things. The dead hand of the past clutches us by way of living people who are too frightened to accept change. So we don't change, and one hard thing now is to go through a time like that, like ours during Paris, two hundred days of a different life, a different world, and then live on past that time in the still bourgeoisified state of things, without feeling defeated."

Or this one, about the cult of growth above all else: "This was the world's current reigning religion, it had to be admitted: growth. It was a kind of existential assumption, as if civilization were a kind of cancer and them all therefore committed to growth as their particularly deadly form of life." Man, do I feel this one lately. Grow, grow, grow, when really, we should be way more focused on maintenance and stewardship of what already exists around us. The relentless pursuit of growth so often prevents us from doing the right thing on all levels: personal, political, commercial.

So what is plan B? Where do we go from here? "Big parts of it have been there all along; it's called socialism. Or, for those who freak out at that word, like Americans or international capitalist success stories reacting allergically to that word, call it public utility districts. They are almost the same thing. Public ownership of the necessities, so that these are provided as human rights and as public goods, in a not-for-profit way. The necessities are food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, health care, and education. All these are human rights, all are public goods, all are never to be subjected to appropriation, exploitation, and profit. It's as simple as that."

As simple as that. Later in the book, Robinson goes beyond the basics to write about dignity: "This is what I think everyone needs. After the basics of food and shelter that we need just as animals, first thing after that: dignity. Everyone needs and deserves this, just as part of being human. And yet this is a very undignified world. And so we struggle. You see how it is. And yes, dignity is something you get from other people, it's in their eyes, it's a kind of regard. If you don't get it, the anger rises in you."

A still from the 1964 film adaption of 'The Masque of the Red Death' directed by Roger Corman and starring Vincent Price

Perhaps one of the most chilling references, though, is to Edgar Allen Poe's The Masque of the Red Death, the syndrome/avoidance being one pathological reaction to "news of biosphere collapse." Robinson writes, "the syndrome is thus an assertion that the end being imminent and inevitable, there is nothing left to do except party while you can." A "bourgeoisified state of things," indeed. We saw this in the early days of the pandemic lockdown, when we abandoned earlier efforts to reduce single-use plastics, for example, in favor of supporting take-out operations at our favorite restaurants whose survival was suddenly threatened by folks staying home. And I get it, and I was happy to do it, but it's beyond time to return with urgency to tackling the greatest existential threat to humanity. (Or how rich folks escape to their lake cabins when air quality in the Bay Area from wildfires reaches unhealthy levels.)

It's a dark read at times, especially if you actually care about this kind of stuff. But I was urged along with the promise of a glimmer of hope by the end. And it does turn toward optimism, eventually. Regarding the Paris Agreement: "weak though it might have been at its start, it was perhaps like the moment the tide turns: first barely perceptible, then unstoppable. The greatest turning point in human history, what some called the first big spark of planetary mind. The birth of a good Anthropocene." Let's hope.

P.S. just for fun, I, a fan of being on time, love what Robinson writes about punctuality in one of the final chapters: "What is it but a regard for the other person? You are saying to the other person, your time is as valuable as mine, so I will not waste yours by being late. Let us agree we are all equally important and so everyone has to be on time, in order to respect each other." If I was a college professor, I would share this quote with my students at the start of every semester.

P.P.S. another sort of out of context gem, on playing music, he writes: "music was adults at play." Love this.

P.P.P.S. Finally, a bonus pic of me and my daughter at the Bay Model. We were there for an event that also included, apparently, face painting. Imagine prioritizing her generation's future over our present day desires. Imagine that.

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