Ezra Klein interviews Kim Stanley Robinson, NYTimes, July 15, 2022.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: Maybe I would say that it’s probably crucially important to focus on the one, that the one needs to be adequacy. And so if the person that is at the entry level, or the lowest amount of compensation, is adequately compensated — And so by that I would say food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, education, electricity — had all of those and knew that they were going to last to the end of their life, no matter what happened, that social security of a safety net, well, that’s a one that you can trust.
And if you had it, you could even say I’m happy, because I’ve got my own personal interest and I’ve got adequacy. And once you’ve got the one as a floor of decency — because it’s such a scandalous situation that we’re in, how many humans are emiserated, and the precariat is indeed precariats. And a whole lot of people are precarious. One job loss, one health crisis and they’re screwed forever.
So if the one is solid, then the top one isn’t as important, because adequacy, if you begin to do it like on my fingers here. One, adequacy, and then let’s go one to 10. Two, adequacy, twice as much as you need. Well, that’s a lot. But then another one, three times as much as you need, four times as much as you need. By the time you get up to 10 times adequacy, your brain begins to explode. You’re like, well, that’s just luxurious. You don’t even need that, because adequacy is adequate.
And yet, we’re in the one to 350, at which point it begins to look obscene. So you have adequacy, and then you just set something above it that seems acceptable, and that should be the new structure of feeling. That would be the utopian goal that we could work to from here.
We talk about the one percent, and there is an amazing amount of wealth at the 1 percent, but if you talk about the top 10 percent getting squeezed from the top down, but you talk about a floor of adequacy for all eight billion of us, you’ve got a decent social order that people might therefore be — how can I say it — patriotic towards. They would believe in it. They would work for it, because they would feel they’re part of the team.
EZRA KLEIN: Well, you’re somebody thinks a lot about technology. We think a lot about innovation for the purposes of social progress, and you think a lot about human motivation because your characters need to be motivated. And I think the first place people go when they hear something like this is that, well, we actually need these remarkable rewards, because they are what incentivize the human race to grow and to reach these new heights. It’s what makes Elon Musk create his car company and a space shuttle company and Steve Jobs and —
when you hear that, what do you think? The people say, look, we may not like it, and I agree that this might be a nicer way of structuring society, but what really matters for long term human living conditions is innovation and great effort from our most productive. And this is simply the cost we have to pay for that.
KIM STANLEY ROBINSON: Yeah, I’d say they’re wrong. They’re wrong, wrong, wrong. People don’t do it for that. They don’t do it for these exceptional riches. Musk would have done what he had done and made his car company if it had made him $200,000 a year. Driven people are driven.
I’ve watched my wife work harder than anybody that I’ve ever seen for a federal scientist salary. And many scientists are working like maniacs on their project because they love their project and they think their project has meaning. And sometimes this is a peculiar thing to follow, a scientist that is trying to decide whether turtles came into being 50 million years ago or 100 million years ago, and they are devoting their whole career to making that determination.
You’re like, whoa, I wonder what the significance of that is in the larger scheme of things. But, and this is history, I mean, this is part of a larger project. When I find out this, then we’ll find out more about everything else. We’ll understand the earth better. We’ll understand reality better.
There’s something about that curiosity and drive to understand more that I often pit science versus capitalism in my novels as being two giant mythic forces, and the scientists are at least as hardworking, and also making the innovations that capitalism then profits off of by exploitation and appropriation and also stealing from future generations as a systemic and legal thing to do.
So I think it’s a right to say that people are driven to innovate for project-based reasons that have nothing to do with wealth. And if they have to do with prestige, which I agree is prominent in many people’s minds, you want to be respected and all that, well, you need a National Academy of Science to get into that. It’s like, oh my gosh. Or you get a little plaque from your coworkers from 30 years and it’s like, oh, that’s great. Or maybe there should be an industrialists’ hall of fame, and then you get your Presidential Medal for doing great work.
That’s all you need. And then a decent amount of money to feel safe and able to do what you want to in life. You don’t need more than that. That’s all there is to it.
There's much more in the interview, doing acid in the High Sierra's in KSR's early 20s, Latour's actor networks (ANT), climate change, pandemic response, backpacks, the Dali Lama, rewilding, and more.