Kim Stanley Robinson’s cli-fi novel ''New York 2140'' -- [To Save the City, He Had to Drown It]
I thought of the book eventually as a comedy of coping, and to do that I picked a time, or perhaps 40 years after the disaster itself. If it was set in the midst of the catastrophic flood in 2100, the disaster would have dominated that work. It would not have been the comedy of coping — it would have been the disaster of refugee creation.
I think if you don’t have some kind of radical-/-social-/-financial change in the near future, then you get a New York in the real world that becomes a rich person’s simulacrum, especially Manhattan.
STAN CONFESSES: Yeah, there were two goals going on that forced me to choose the date 2140, and those two goals cut against each other. I needed to put it far enough out in the future that I could claim a little bit of physical probability to the height of the sea-level rise of 50 feet, which is quite extreme. A lot of models have it at 15 feet, though some do say 50 feet. So I did have to go out like a 120 years from now.
It’s a contradiction of goals. Finance can predate on ordinary rent payers because in a battle between liquidity and illiquidity, the way the rules are written now, liquidity always wins. The banks and investments firms that are parasitical on us are actually vulnerable to the promise of us paying our loans as promised, but what if we didn’t? They’ve all over-leveraged themselves; given out in loans or borrowed out to 50 times as much as their own assets at hand. Promises are being treated as money, but when there’s a crash, only money works as money. A lot of paper turns to vapor. Firms crash. The economy crashes. Finance crashes. And the banks run to government, to the federal reserve, to bail them out for their bad gambling, their losing. And then we the people are paying them off.
I did that on purpose. People who succeed by using the currently shifting rules of capitalism are not villainous, nor have they broken the law or cheated. They don’t even really have to push against the boundaries of the law as it exists right now. You can indeed become enormously wealthy and still be a good person just playing the game.
That’s a really good question, because the novel does seem to suggest that, and I don’t think that it is a proper conclusion to make in the world at large — despite what that one book seems to say.
What I wanted to say with that part of the plot is you can’t hack the system, you have to legislate the system. Because hacks are reversible and they are too secret and they’re kind of like a desire for a technical, silver-bullet solution like you might get out of Silicon Valley people but in fact these are laws, global laws. So what you really need is legislation to change them and Piketty-ing the tax code.
That was a lot of fun. Sea-level rise is coming so it’s worth thinking about because we’ve already initiated it. I took a graph of a map of Manhattan and of the greater New York region and U.S. Geological survey’s print then looked at the streets and the contour levels and I simply marked the 50-foot intervals to see what kind of an island was left, what kind of a bay.
It was a lot of fun. I took a boat tour that leaves from the Hudson River up in the 70s. I took one of the boat tours that goes all the way around Manhattan. I walked a whole lot. I went to Hell Gate where the HMS Hussar really did go down in 1780. It’s very fun to think that what would be about $2 billion of gold somewhere under the South Bronx. It’s really there but we can’t find it.