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Venomous Lumpsuckers and Climate Optimism

We here at Switch are suckers for some good science fiction (also some bad science fiction). Somewhere along the way I was told it's now called "speculative" fiction to make it more appealing to a broader audience, but suffice to say we're into it. Personally, my favorite kind of book in this genre is generally near-future work where we're not millennia from where we are now but decades, sometimes even just a handful of years. Cory Doctorow tends to do this better than most, and if you haven't read his book Radicalized I highly recommend starting there.

This year I've read several books that fit this description but two in particular focused on climate, with markedly different points of view. One of those was Ned Beauman's Venomous Lumpsucker, a somewhat maudlin tale of our near future where species have gone extinct on a massive scale and a UN-like body has introduced extinction credits, a means of large corporations being able to put a price on their environmental impact and pay for the damage they do. In practice they behave as they always would have and factor these into the cost of doing business, and the book centers itself around an event artificially engineered in order to rig the market for extinction credits and make themselves incredibly wealthy.

As a premise it's wildly entertaining, however the book itself falls flat with characters you don't particularly come to care for and pages of exposition the author fails to weave into the story. Nevertheless, it paints a depressing view of the future where both the US and UK have retreated from the world and nothing we've tried to stem collapsing food and environmental systems has worked out. In following that premise the author also states upfront that the only deviation they've made in the narrative from "how things will actually unfold" has been to maintain the price of the Euro to spare the reader some mental arithmetic.

At the risk of sounding like I prefer my climate content to be some semblance of a Hans Rosling lecture soundtracked by Bobby McFerrin let me clear: I'm under no illusion that things are going well. But I also don't believe we're going to make the progress we need to make by Eeyore'ing people who don't understand science into submission.

In contrast to this we have Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry For The Future. Where Venomous Lumpsucker opens with an attack by environmental terrorists, Ministry begins with an extraordinary heatwave that kills a million people in India. The heatwave shocks the subcontinent into action, and spurs another UN-like body to create the Ministry For The Future, which is charged with advocating for all lifeforms yet to come. But where Beauman resigns himself to the dystopian, Robinson manages to construct a world view that is neither Pollyanna or pessimist. Things change, not nearly as fast as they need to or in all the ways that they need to, but they do change.

Which brings me to today's entry from the Is That Hope I Feel Dept.: California Governor to Sign Landmark Climate Disclosure Bill. This bill will require companies of a certain size to report on their carbon emissions, the first step in being able to meaningfully manage and reduce them over time. Similar legislation is on the way in the EU, see this excellent primer from Oliver Wyman for more there.

No, these two new laws will not save us from ourselves. But they can be part of a more holistic solution the does, and that's part of the fundamental idea behind Switch. Starting a business is inherently an optimistic pursuit begun in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, so we're biased for sure. But if the alternative is waiting for companies we know won't change to change, and getting more depressed about the future, well, that just doesn't seem like much of an alternative.

We know corporations are not going to like we need them to, and it might be the one part of Venomous Lumpsucker I actually agreed with. So much of getting started is knowing we're not going to be rescued.

So let's get to rescuing ourselves.

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