Saving the World for Six Cents a Word
“From a tax perspective,
corporations are like the dragon in a Chinese New Year’s parade:
there really is no dragon, just people underneath playing one.”
-Ted Halstead, Unlocking the Climate Puzzle
Science fiction is a
community with different narrative approaches. There's the escapist
strain, with the best
having some social commentary or satire thrown in. There's the
strain, where we debate the eternal
questions of right and wrong, and how new technologies
create endlessly new versions of the same ethical dilemmas. There's
strain, where we run social simulations of wildly varying scope and
sophistication, asking over and over again: What if we did this?
At least one group
in Washington has recently called for more of the futurist kind of
SF, focusing on specific policy questions as a way of cracking open
gridlock and getting some new ideas into the debate. I'll take that a
step further this month, seeing as how it's Earth Day, and point out
one very specific policy proposal that could benefit from extensive
discussion in the SF sphere.
There are examples of
SF authors being involved in policy at a surprisingly high level.
According to this interview
with Karl Schroeder, the Canadian military has been working with
writers off and on for a hundred years. Arthur C. Clarke had a
long-term relationship with NASA
and apparently everyone
else, too. Isaac Asimov told DARPA how
to be creative. There’s a current group called
involving about forty of SF’s heavier hitters. And Ted
America think tank sponsored the Heiroglyph
as well as a column
in Slate and an ongoing series of Washington events
with techies and policy wonks.
is also the main driver behind the Climate
Leadership Council, which this winter released a
series of three position papers, including The Conservative Case
for Carbon Dividends, a four-page argument for a specific set of
four interlinked policies to respond to climate change:
increasing carbon tax, starting at $40 per ton, applied at the
point of extraction, meaning that only the oil driller or the coal
company pays it, and everybody else just deals with higher energy or
feedstock prices. If gasoline costs more, the theory goes, people
will use it more carefully. Studies support
dividends to individuals and households, kind of like what the
state of Alaska
does with oil drilling revenues, except that ALL of the money
collected would go back to the people to offset the higher prices,
encouraging those individuals to conserve energy and profit from the
dividend. The dividends would also increase over time with the tax.
Adjustments, meaning that exporters to countries without similar
regulations would have their carbon taxes refunded (reducing the
dividend pool) and importers would have their carbon taxes
increased. The idea is to punish countries that try to undermine the
carbon tax through lower prices.
Regulatory Feedback, by which they mean weakening the EPA's
authority over carbon as a pollutant and throwing out Obama's Clean
Power Plan. This is the red meat to get conservatives and
libertarians on board.
The rest of the four
pages consists of fluffy storytelling about What Would Happen
if we implemented this policy package. There's some nuance about why
all four pieces are necessary, about weaknesses that would result
from leaving out one piece or another, but the authors—mostly
academic economists and former Cabinet members—are very careful
to stay on message. At one point in the press
conference, James Baker did say that it would be “an
uphill slog” to get it passed, but the document has no written
discussion of the lobbyists who would actually write
this legislation, of the loopholes that would inevitably be inserted,
of the likelihood of carbon companies cheating
on their emissions tests, of “accidental releases,” or of
the drama and misinformation
that would play out in the press as the carbon emitters pushed
back. Not to mention the effects on emerging nanoscale
technologies made of carbon. A good novel could do all
of those things in a responsible and entertaining way. Sage Walker
even made machinations about the krill
I should also point out
that the evidence-based arguments (the red meat for SF authors) are
split into two other documents. Unlocking the Climate Puzzle
lays out the psychological research on behavioral economics and the
previous experiments on carbon pricing by various governments, the
most successful of which was British Columbia’s carbon
dividends program. A Winning Trade summarizes three attempts
to estimate the relative emissions reductions of different programs.
The four-page A Conservative Case, however, is essentially an
I ragged on politicians
for their unscientific and undemocratic habits in November, and this
month I find myself doing it again. I really don't want to go off on
a rant here. Note especially that I am not knocking the policy
recommendations themselves. I personally really like the first three,
and I can at least entertain the possibility of the fourth. I also
recognize that the CLC are at the earliest stages of their public
campaign, and that the members of Congress they most want to convince
are not scientists and don't necessarily care about scientific
evidence. I totally understand the importance of rhetoric.
What I want to
recommend is that policy people such as CLC (or CCL, the Citizens'
Climate Lobby, who came up with the idea first;
or LCC, which I just made up) put some resources into engaging the
broader world through SF, to provide some of the demographic and
ideological diversity that their movement will need to reach people
in a twenty-first century social media ecosystem. Otherwise, it’s
going to be just a bunch of old white guys talking
to themselves on C-SPAN. Authors (like some
politicians) are experts
at illustrating the effects of broad social policies at the personal
level through emotionally evocative examples. There's already a
sub-genre of SF called cli-fi,
although it seems more about the dystopian effects of global
warming than about solutions, whether geoengineering
or financial and political solutions like carbon dividends.
A major difference
between politicians and SF authors is that authors work cheap! SFWA
rates for professional level magazine stories are still only six
cents a word. That's crazy value for a funder, as
long as the funder's goal is to enable honest discussion and not to
shape that discussion to have a particular outcome. SF authors tend
to be non-conformists.
Authors, I hope this
doesn't sound too dirty and entrepreneurial. Most of us have to rely
on patronage of one form or another. The Internet has enabled a bunch
forms, but here's an old one, a classic: Find someone with money who
wants a message spread, and get paid to spread it.
Randall Hayes, PhD,
is one of the 42% of Americans who identifies with neither
dominant political party.
If you happen to be
within driving distance, Greensboro
Science Cafe will be debating the merits of the
CCL and CLC carbon dividends proposals—both pros and cons—with
a panel of local experts at 7 p.m. on
April 27, 2017, at Gibbs' Hundred Brewing on West Lewis Street. If
there’s interest, we might even do a webcast. Leave a message
at the PlotBot
“You Maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”
In addition to this really smart blog, this site has some discussions of the policy world and recommendations for places where readers can find (or writers can sell) policy-relevant SF.
The story he did for the Canucks, “Crisis in Zefra,” is available for free through this link.
Clarke congratulating NASA for the Cassini flyby of Saturn. Good job, NASA!
Eighty-seven cubic feet seems like a lot of letters to me.
“SIGMA is a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the understanding of the future and the long-term consequences of government actions.
As the future is the common ground for science fiction writers, so SIGMA is willing to share its knowledge of this unknown territory for the good of the nation.”
“An international research and advocacy organization whose mission is to mobilize global opinion leaders around the most effective, popular and equitable climate solutions.”
Especially the 2013 paper by Burke & Nishitateno and the public transit paper by Smart (2014). Though there are suggestions of other good effects, too, on physical activity, etc.
“In the case of VW, transparency was the enemy: regulators should have been vaguer about the emissions test to prevent cheating.”
Drama at a shareholders’ meeting! Where else you gonna find that?
Mayer, Jane. 2017. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. Anchor Books, New York.
Get it at your library, or start with the first chapter free at www.jane-mayer.com
My ancestral home is near coal country, and as much as I hate the environmental damage done by the mining industry, I don't see it
going away permanently. Those space elevators are going to be made of something, and it may well be coal or asphalt (scroll down for related articles).
A competing lefty plan for the same general solution package, but leaving out the regulatory red meat and including the blue-tofu population control version, with a cap on the number of kids per
family (two) who can receive the carbon dividends. The group behind this has grassroots chapters around the US, and their site has a lot more background information. They've been working on this since 2007, at least.
Seriously. Scan the crowd starting at 28:56.
Lakoff is right about many things, and I wish more people would use his insights in their fiction.
“If you’re a conservative going into politics, there’s a good chance you’ll study cognitive science, that is, how people really think and how to market things by advertising.”
As opposed to studying Descartes’s Enlightenment reasoning, which—if you go all the way back to column 1—has been fundamentally wrong for 350 years.
Nobody did this better than The West Wing, except for The Wire. And don’t tell me WW is not SF. Those people got stuff done.
The West Wing also inspired or at least reinforced personal decisions, up to the level of career choices. Storytelling matters.
“The Cli-Fi Report (CFR) is a research tool for academics and media professionals to use in gathering information and reporting on the rise of the emerging cli-fi term worldwide.”
Blame Dan Bloom for the punny name.
“My head exploded multiple times trying to come up with interesting novels about this stuff,” Robinson said. Lots more good stuff on this site, including a geoengineering cheat sheet.
Mammoths are not just cool; they might be cooling, as in slowing the cataclysmic thawing of the Arctic permafrost by knocking down trees in favor of faster-growing grasses that store carbon in the soil. Includes a video.
Edited by Neil Clarke, not the ghost of Arthur C., as I had always kind of assumed.
Read more by Randall Hayes