Have We Accepted Rising Oceans as Inevitable?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, March 16, 2017

I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest science fiction novel, New York 2140. The story depicts a future New York City through the eyes of a wide cast of characters, reminding me somewhat of Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner. Robinson’s characters are survivors of a massive rise in sea levels. And even though they face horrible problems, their problems don’t seem any worse than those we face. The message is we always have problems, and we always solve them in a muddling way.

New York 2140

I’ve felt until now that climate change fiction warned us to avoid environmental doom. Have we already given up the battle? Are we now accepting rising seas and mass extinctions as inevitable? Donald Trump’s budget came out today, and it’s all too obvious he’s not going to fight climate change. Has everyone else given up too, including science fiction writers, of returning CO2 levels to below 350 ppm?

It is quite clear that conservatives have chosen lower taxes over action to stop global warming. Their greed knows no bounds, just look at their health care proposal. They prefer a tax cut for the rich over any Sermon on the Mount compassion. They pretend to believe climate change is not real, but I can’t believe they’re that stupid. I wonder if they haven’t psychologically accepted rising oceans in exchanged for lowering taxes and deregulation windfalls?

New York 2140 is a very entertaining novel, but I’m wondering if Robinson isn’t taking a Pollyanna view of the future. His New York City of 2140 is vibrant and alive, even after the oceans have turned it into a new world Venice. If I wrote science fiction my 2140 NYC would look a hundred times worse than New Orleans right after Katrina. My novel of a doomed city would be closer to Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren. Robinson makes 2140 NYC horrible but exciting, even attractive.

New York 2140 cover

KSM is considered a very realistic science fiction writer, but isn’t he also overly optimistic? Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and 2312 reveal a lot of hope for the future. Is Robinson being too hopeful? We have to ask ourselves if civilization can survive runaway climate change? Robinson’s book suggests we’ll adapt and survive like our species always has in the past. But can we really bank on that trend? I’m not so sure.

I don’t think humanity will become extinct if we don’t reverse rising CO2 levels. We are adaptable. I do think we risk devastating billions of lives, and jeopardizing civilization as we know it. Our current successful civilization depends on relentless economic growth. I don’t think that’s sustainable. The real challenge of climate change is mutating our current civilization from free market capitalism to steady-state capitalism. The neo-nationalism we’re experiencing today suggests humans aren’t adaptable to such a change.

In that sense, I’m not sure Kim Stanley Robinson is right in thinking we’ll continue to succeed like we’ve had in the past. I worry we’re approaching a breaking point. That might happen yet in his novel, I haven’t finished it yet.

I’m listening to the audio version of New York 2140, but I admire it so much, I’ve decided to get the book version and read it too. I don’t think one reading will be enough.


17 thoughts on “Have We Accepted Rising Oceans as Inevitable?”

  1. I love KSR’s work because it is hopeful yet not blindly optimistic. There’s enough doom-n-gloom dystopias around to levitate a star destroyer. 😀

    … even if we’d started changing our destroy-all-life behaviors several decades ago we’d still be up the proverbial creek by now anyway. We are way too late for the ‘let’s stop climate change’ party, but we can adapt, (we already are) and survive, even thrive. It won’t be easy, or pretty, and a great many humans will suffer horribly before we get there.

    But, what other choice do we have? The path of the oligarchs is the path of true madness.

  2. James, i agree with you. the KSR book is entertaining fun but yes too POLLYANNAish. You make a very good point that no other reviewers have mentioned yet. Btw, the character in the book called Octaviasdottir is I think a homage and shout out of respect to American sci fi pioneer Octavia Butler, yes? Since in Iceland naming traditions, people are often named dottir (daughter) to mean So and So is the dottir of So and So. See Wiki for Icelandic naming traditions. This is cool.

    1. I didn’t think that about Octaviadottir, but you might be right. I recently saw a documentary on CrossFit competitions, where many women from Iceland had dottir added to their name. I wondered what that meant. It’s a shame Butler died young because it would have been great to see the kind of books she would have written as she got older.

      I do like the Robinson book. I haven’t been sucked into a science fiction story like this since Aurora. I just don’t think NYC will survive the disaster.

      1. Typical Icelandic naming…re WIKI PAGE:

        In Iceland naming traditions, a man named Jón Einarsson has a son named Ólafur. Ólafur’s last name will not be Einarsson like his father’s; it will become Jónsson, literally indicating that Ólafur is the son of Jón (Jóns + son). The same practice is used for daughters. Jón Einarsson’s daughter Sigríður’s last name would not be Einarsson but Jónsdóttir. Again, the name literally means “Jón’s daughter” (Jóns + dóttir).

  3. Hmm. I haven’t read that so I can’t begin to to speak to it. Regardless of the source, I still wonder if we know just what we are in for. Should the worst case scenario occur, NYC is only one of several American cities that will see change thrust upon them; and I do mean Thrust. As in an unexpected (outside of scientific circles) sudden increase in tides and inland drowning. All the coasts will receive the same effect, although not necessarily at the same time.

    Orange County in SoCal might be thrilled to have so much new beach front property. Everret Washington will be the new north coastline, unless the big mountain decides to correct that. Santa Monica will get to sell their property for a short while, until it is permanently under water.

    1. Kim Stanley Robinson suggests that New York City can survive the rising seas, and even build larger skyscrapers on the water. When the seas rise, will people stay in New York City, or will they leave? Ditto for Miami. That’s why I keep remembering Dhalgren by Delany. Some people always stay. Robinson imagines that not only will people stay, but even more will come, and the city will continue to grow. Will there be huge cities built over water in the future? I suppose that’s technically possible, but why don’t we have cities built over water now?

      1. There are always people who stay. I’m sure some stay for the challenge or because they refuse to be uprooted, but judging from past events, hurricanes, volcano eruptions, most stay because they have no place to go and/or no money to leave and start a new life. The more I read of Robinson’s work, the more I see that he has a blind side. Most of his characters are well-off and educated, and they depend on and have access to various technologies that make their lives easier and more pleasant.

  4. I recently read Robinson’s Green Earth (The Science in the Capitol) and enjoyed it. But from the reviews of 2140, I’d say he’s over-optimistic about the future. Thriving in a drowned New York is going to take new technologies, and the question is whether the resources will still be available. A more realistic view of a drowned city is George Turner’s Drowning Towers. I get the impression that Robinson’s livable New York is limited to those with wealth (probably inherited) and education. DT is a picture of what it’s like to be poor and inundated. DT was published in 1987, and is still relevant.

    As for whether we are just going to accept what seems inevitable, yes. Lots of yattering about what we should be doing, what we can do, but it’s increasingly clear that we won’t until it’s too little, too late (if then, even). If you follow environmental news with any regularity, critical patterns are developing that aren’t going to be halted by turning back CO2 levels. We’re reaching, or have already reached, tipping points.

    1. Catana, I’m thinking that writers and some environmentalists have accepted massive climate change is inevitable. The question now is how bad will we make things worse. Even though I really like the novel New York 2140 I’m worried that readers will think we’ll easily adapt, and thus not have to worry about changing our current lifestyle.

      I’ll look up Drowning Towers.

  5. I’ve not read this one yet. But I will say based upon your post that the difference between rising oceans and Katrina is that it will not happen over night. If the dreaded drama of the oceans rising comes to pass I think we should have enough time to deal with it, particularly in those areas/countries that have the money and resources to adapt to it. Others in less fortunately places will need help for sure. It won’t be easy but in the end we as a species will survive even though survival of the fittest may come into play.

    I agree that we will survive as will post of the life on earth. This certainly would not be the first time major climate change has happened. How much we humans are responsible will be argued forever. But change has happened and will happen whether wer are here or not. That we are the dominate life form on the planet and we have an impact should not be too surprising to anyone.

  6. I like Stan very much but fear this gives my home town too much credit. New York has been slowly falling apart again since Sandy, as there is still so much to repair. We live uptown, but because the subways run the length of the island the ones farther down, flooded during Sandy, and at best as I recall prevented the ones uptown from running their full length for over a week. The brand new South Ferry Station, just finished and completely flooded, is out of commission to this day. In short, a situation such as another, bigger Sandy would cause far more long-term, near-irrecoverable infrastructure damage to occur, though that doesn’t mean NYC real estate will ever go down, in price. But it will be in far worse shape very quickly, and unlivable. Nothing presently being built anywhere along the water appears to be going up with long-term thoughts of Venice in mind.

    I’ve just seen New York City up close, in action, for too many years.

  7. The Great Barrier Reef seems to be dying because of global warming. I don’t see any effort to reverse this trend. And, the current Administration in the U.S. doesn’t believe in climate change anyway. Cutting the EPA by 33% won’t help, either.

  8. No one on any part of the political spectrum is willing to address or even acknowledge the fundamental driver of all this, which is population increase. And “steady-state capitalism” is an oxymoron. Capitalism is about the accumulation of various sorts of rent. No expansion equals no more accumulation. If you could implement something different, it wouldn’t be capitalism anymore.

  9. I’m about 2/3rds of the way through the book. I don’t think this is meant to be an “end times” climate change book. It’s somewhere some time about 125 years from now when New York is not completely submerged but it’s going – etc. People keep trying to save capitalism – and think that between it and ingenuity a way will be found to preserve as much of “life as we know it” to continue. That part is kind of tragic but it’s hugely realistic for people to put bandaids on where amputation is required.

  10. General warming of the atmosphere will continue given the contribution of human activity, and the current trends that we are able to measure with more accuracy than ever before. The only question is at what rate and if we really can influence the current trend in any practical way. We do have a remarkable ability to adapt as long as the rate of change is somewhat gradual. It’s when change occurs in ‘unmanageable’ time frames that the risk of disruption to the social order, and in turn our ability to cope, becomes a threat to survival.

    I’m an optimist, after all any significant change in sea level (according to current trends) is not forecast to occur until later this century. Any one over 15 years old today will not be here to deal with it.

  11. If there is one trait that human beings have shown throughout our history, it is that we adapt well, regardless of the cost to our so-called civilization. We don’t adapt well within that so-called civilization. Wars, famines, invasions, all that shit that ruins our daily lives makes us angry and nasty. And that’s when we do what we do best – screw everyone else and take care of our own. Some folks will act early and try to make sure that there are opportunities to take care of others.

    Others will wait to the last minute and then go charging into the remaining areas of safety and conquer them through force of arms and desperation. Then we will see what our human brethren are really like.

    Unless of course our loosely tied together government acts in time to prevent that. And that will depend on just how much we trust our government to act in our favor/belief system/best interests.


    1. Oh yes, we are the species that adapts to any environment. It would be great if we were smart enough to choose how things turn out, but that’s not likely to happen.

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