Sunday, May 25, 2014

Sixty Days and Counting - Kim Stanley Robinson

Sixty Days and Counting is the final novel in Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy, a work that focuses on the impact of rapid climate change on a near future (when he wrote it, the novel is set right about now) earth. It is one of Robinson's most political books, not so much because of the ideas in it, he's discussed quite a few alternative economies in the Mars trilogy for instance, but because of how close to home it is. This novel is so left leaning by American standards that it will have many a conservative frothing at the mouth within a few chapters. For me it is not as radical as it may seem to others but I have a hard time seeing anything like this happening in the current US political climate.

Democrat Phil Chase, Charlie's boss, has been elected US president and a global response to climate change is high on his agenda. To show how urgent he thinks change is, he launches a slew of initiatives in the first sixty days of his presidency and keeps pushing on long after they have passed. Charlie, Frank and Anna are swept up in various parts of this campaign. The environmental crisis is not waiting for the world to get its act together however, evidence of irreversible changes and imminent system collapsed keep surfacing. A global approach is needed to keep the planet inhabitable in the long run.

Robinson is certainly not afraid to include some very controversial ideas in this novel. In the opening chapters Frank in particular is looking at alternative energy to replace the carbon based systems that currently power the US. The debate focuses on whether alternative sources like wind, time or solar energy are ready to take over, or whether additional nuclear plants will have to be built to cover the transition. He even points out the good (public) record of the US military when it comes to nuclear power. Personally I'm not convinced by this argument. There simply is no good solution for nuclear waste and the idea that we can keep it safe and controlled for the tens of thousands of years some of it needs to degrade doesn't strike me as very convincing. The events in Fukushima has recently made a lot of people jittery about nuclear power plants again but Robinson could no have known that. Interestingly enough, Frank does reach the conclusion that somehow harnessing the power of the sun is the only source that could possibly meet demand and still be sustainable.

Another interesting idea that some will fight tooth and nail, is the connection Chase makes between social justice and environmental degradation. Women's rights in particular, he points out, are linked to birth rate. With women in control over reproduction, the birthrate drops to about the replacement rate. Something that needs to happen to keep humanity from further overshooting the planet's carrying capacity. And this is but many of the social feedback loops that are related to environmental issues. Thus, Chase pursues a policy of technological and social change. In fact, he uses one as leverage to achieve the other. It is at the same time good to see the realization that a technical fix is not enough to solve the problem (Fifty Degrees Below is more focuses on technological fixes than this book) and vexing to see how Chase goes about it.

There is a sense in the novel that once the US has identified something as a problem that needs immediate action, things will get done. In fact they go so far as to strongarm various parties into compliance. It is an unbelievably arrogant position when you take into account that more progressive parties tried to make a start with the reduction of greenhouse gas emission in the early 1990s through the Kyoto protocol. Their targets were of course laughably modest but it was a beginning. The US never had the intention of actually ratifying it. It wasn't alone in this position but to suddenly put yourself forward as environmental champion is not very likely to be taken seriously by the rest of the world. In fact, without the string of natural disasters that Robinson puts in the book, I very much doubt even the strongarm tactics of the US would have been successful. It is probably an accurate portrayal of the attitude in the US political system but annoying nonetheless.

A third interesting aspect of the situation Robinson describes is the fact that permanent change is considered inevitable. The situation at the South Pole in particular is considered to have passed the point of no return. Interestingly enough, reports have recently started appearing that saome scientists consider a collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet inevitable. Robinson portrays this event in a bit more dramatic way but some of it may come to pass in the not too distant future.

Chase has developed a strategy of adaptation and mitigation to deal with it and to he does not shy away from huge projects to weather the crisis. The restarting for the oceanic conveyor belt described in the previous book is small compared to what is proposed in this novel. The uncontrolled release of genetically modified lichen (a Russian project out of Chase's control), filling up desert basins to create huge salt water lakes and pumping water from the ocean back up the Antarctic plateau are the most eye-catching ones. It's terraforming on the scale described in the Mars novels only this time applied to earth. The sheer magnitude of the changes and the impossibility of predicting their effect with any kind of accuracy made me even more sympathetic to Ann Clayborne's Red position in those novels. Of course, on Earth we may not have the luxury of a choice. It makes you wonder what a world in which decisive action was taken earlier would look like.

Change is obvious in the lives of the main characters too. Frank reaches the conclusion that a blow to the head in the previous book has impaired the workings of his brain and he decides to have an operation to have it fixed. In the mean time he also has to deal with the relationship he started with Caroline and his desire to go back to California. He has quite a bit on his plate in this novel, it is a miracle he has time left for work. His alternative lifestyle has moved to the background a bit in favour of the spy storyline. Robinson seems to get the timing right for this one. The absurd tangle of US intelligence agencies is starting to unravel in this novel, when the president realizes how much of a mess it is. Where Chase's election has a lot in common with the election of Obama in 2008, the latter seems much more reluctant to do something about the gross abuse of power and lack of democratic control over these agencies.

Charlie in the mean time, is faced with another tough decision. With his boss in the White House, he is forced to choose between giving up his job or going back into the office and put his son Joe in daycare. He would rather wrok from home until Joe is old enough to go to school but when the president insists, he agrees to try. He can't stop worrying about Joe though. His wife Anna is faced with another dilemma. She is offered a position in the advisory team of the president. She prefers to stay at NSF however, taking pure science over a mix of science and politics. With a stay at home dad and a mother with a head for numbers and math, Joe's parents make a statement about the traditional role pattern between men and women. It is in fact the same one that returns over and over again in the novel. We can change things if we want to.

Sixty Days and Counting is the most optimistic of the three in a way, but reading it didn't make me share Robinson's optimism. In the book things get done. Despite my annoyance with the way the American political system believing the universe revolves around them (really, in that respect they can teach Wall Street a lesson) you get the sense that the characters in this novel will not let the world cook itself. We have now arrived more or less at the point in time where this novel is set, and if I look around, I still see an outrageous level of denial about the state of the planet and how much trouble we are really in. Robinson is right, we can change things if we want to. But apparently we don't. There is a good chance we'll see another El Niño event this year and some predictions indicate it will be a strong one. Let's hope it won't be the hyperniño described in Forty Signs of Rain. I'm beginning to wonder if in the end, that is what it will take to wake people up. I'd much prefer it if people read these books, thought about it, and not let it come to that.

Book Details
Title: Sixty Days and Counting
Author: Kim Stanley Robinson
Publisher: Bantam Books
Pages: 388
Year: 2007
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-553-80313-6
First published: 2007


  1. You make an interesting point about Robinson's optimism regarding America's chance of ignoring what's economically good to focus on the environment and other social/political problems. On one hand Robinson could have taken the series' narrative down the catastrophic/apocalyptic road - a fictional wake up call. Instead he chose to go the exact opposite: create an ideal scenario wherein said changes are effected. The result, as you correctly point out, is a KSR dream - an unrealistic vision. Regardless, it's intriguing, at least to me, that he goes the positive (i.e. fairy tale) route, rather than the negative (apocalyptic) one. I say intriguing because, it requires a certain amount of energy to identify a problem, but certainly more to propose a solution.

    1. It's not so much economy versus environment really. Charlie makes some very good points about that in this book. The current way of running our economy rewards those who manage to shift the largest part of their costs to common goods like clean air, water and soil. As long as you don't factor those costs in, our economy is unsustainable. Economics needs a paradigm shift in that respect. It's not so much the necessity as the will to actually change that is what I think is unrealistic about the book. Or I guess I should say has proven unrealistic since we are living in the years Robinson is covering now.

      Robinson has said on more than one occasion writing a utopia is harder than a dystopia. Robinson is one of the few authors who has the imagination to pull it off using ideas that are already floating around. In that sense there is a bit of the golden age left in his writing. In those stories technology was only limited by the human imagination, in his books society is.