KSR on permaculture

One of the best parts of my Norwescon weekend was hearing Kim Stanley Robinson, author of the Red/Green/Blue Mars trilogy and other fine books, give a talk on climate change and permaculture. His work often plays “what if?” with environmental, social, and political issues, so it was really interesting to hear him talk about the real world ideas side of that.

My notes are a little jumbled, so I’m just going to make a list of the things he covered, and then follow with a short discussion. (I’d use the proper unordered list tags, but I’m tired of fighting Blogger to get the formatting right.)

* Suburbia is the most unhealthy environment we can create and live in, both on a social and environmental level.

* When we talk about technologies to effect change, this should encompass both physical technologies as well as social ones.

* The maximum sustainable human population on Earth is difficult to estimate, and the range of possible answers given is so wide (anywhere from 100,000 to 30 trillion), political issues are clearly a factor. But if we look at the estimates in the middle, that seem to have the best science behind them, the range can be narrowed to 2-30 billion. Still really wide, but probably more accurate.

* It’s important to know if we’ve overshot the sustainable population range (or coming back to climate change, to know whether we’ve put so much carbon into the atmosphere that we can’t fix things before environmental collapse) because people aren’t motivated to work on a problem if we’re all doomed anyhow.

* We should look at ways to have satisfying lifestyles that aren’t at odds with our biology or our environment. So look at the kind of environment and daily life we had in the time period during our brain’s evolution into its current state.

* This leads to a kind of “urban paleolithic” lifestyle where we evaluate quality of life based on: proximity to nature, outdoor activities like walking and running, community (the people you live with, different from one’s network), social activities, eating with a group, staring at the fire together. Simple but fulfilling things.

* Another important element is the experience of the sublime, like when we stare at a looming mountain or off across the sea. We experience the sublime daily through our “techno surround”, the technological environment. This can be overwhelming: too much is like being high or in a shaman-state all the time.

* One key personal and environmental choice we have available is to make things ourselves. Industrialized manufacture is energy-consuming and carbon-polluting. But making things also taps into a need in the core human mind.

* We can frame all of our choices with a few simple questions: Did you pay for it? Is it indoors or outdoors? Are you watching or doing? Is it fun?

There was so, so much more he talked about, but those were the parts I thought were worth writing down at the time. In the question and answer period, two different people asked questions about population density and privacy. KSR said that his “private area” where he writes is a small enclosed outdoor courtyard. Not a lot of room, but it takes care of his needs (and he’s in CA, so presumably he’s able to be outside comfortably more of the year). He also talked about primitive societies having a lot of awareness of what other people were up to, and when you live in close proximity with other people, we get used to the idea that they also sleep, go to the bathroom, have sex, etc. So the current personal separation is unusual, maybe artificial.

Someone also asked about our tendency toward violence, whether this is something to suppress, ignore, or maybe address in a different way. He said he thought there are other things we do, sports and hunting and target practice, and that even getting stuck climbing up the side of the house gives you a certain adrenaline rush. Also, since we’re very isolated from the natural environment and its dangers, there’s a whole industry around thrill-seeking. But maybe it would be better if California still had bears and we had to stick to running in packs for safety.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how all of this ties into my own modern technological lifestyle, but this post is long enough, so I’ll have to follow up with that later.

2 responses to “KSR on permaculture

  1. It was a good talk, and I agreed with almost all of it.

    The connection between the sublime and the ‘technological surround’ started to feel a bit forced and wankery, though. If nothing else, increased communication seems to be a driving force behind the drastic moral changes we have been undergoing since the industrial revolution. Those moral changes are the only thing that can possibly give us sustainability in a world with nuclear weapons (and other such toys). The fight for resources is going to get far, far worse before it gets better. We need as much of humanity as possible to have modern, progressive values, and I think an uncensored, portable wireless internet connection will do that a lot better than free trade. Bring on the techno-shamanism!


  2. The technosurround is both problem and solution. He was, I’ll agree, a bit more focused on the problem side, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

    I still wish I’d had my lighter on me.