Hope: Are We Really Doomed?

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Original Air Date: 
May 04, 2019

Hope means believing there’s a future. But can hope co-exist with cataclysmic realities like climate change, or disruptive technological advances like artificial intelligence? What’s ahead for future generations?

Barren wastes

Journalist and essayist Roy Scranton has been called "our Jeremiah of the Anthropocene." His book "We’re Doomed. Now What?" is a hard-headed — often terrifying — look at how climate change could transform our planet, and how that impact might shape our daily thoughts and experiences.

Life springs eternal
Sonic Sidebar

Even facing the bleakest outcomes that climate change might inflict on our planet, we have to have faith in a new future. That’s something writer Anne Lamott has been struggling with too.

AI hand from space

Futurist Amy Webb tells us we can have a utopian future — if we are vigilant.

AI robots and dragons

Victor LaValle is the editor of a collection of short stories where — even in dire situations and terrifying futures — everyone has a place, and a chance at being the hero.

man on mars

Fear about the future of the planet keeping you up at night? Aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin has a solution: it’s time to settle Mars. 


Show Details 📻
May 04, 2019
February 01, 2020
February 06, 2021
February 12, 2022
March 18, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge. Here's the question of the day. Are we doomed? Seriously, it's possible that climate change is already irreversible. I think, everybody, at some level, is scared about it, and also sad. I am.

Roy Scranton (00:16):

I cried twice when my daughter was born, the first time for joy, as any father would, and the second time for sorrow.

Reporter (00:37):

Good evening. The world has never been spoken to quite this way about climate change.

Anne Strainchamps (00:41):

This is writer Roy Scranton. His baby daughter is now almost two years old.

Reporter (00:47):

Here is the takeaway. Unless the world changes course quickly and dramatically, the fundamental systems that support human civilization are at risk. Linking in tonight with our chief environmental correspondent.

Roy Scranton (00:58):

It was 10 or 15 minutes after she'd been born, and I was holding her. This brand new life, looking out the window of our hospital room, over the parking lot.

Reporter (01:17):

Quarter a mile away, and today's UN report....

Roy Scranton (01:21):

All the concrete, and thinking about how all this land around us, the world that she'd been born into, had once been this vibrant place full of wild animals and clean water and clean air. It had all been changed and was only going to get worse throughout her life. Thinking about the effects of catastrophic climate change, two to three degrees Celsius warming by the middle of the century, thinking about the death of the oceans, thinking about the massive extinction event going on right now, and just the way that we've despoiled and poisoned the world that we live in.

Reporter (02:23):

It's not just on land. The oceans are absorbing more carbon dioxide.

Roy Scranton (02:28):

I didn't know what to say to her. I'd brought her into this world and not fully grasped what that would mean for her life, so all I could do was cry and apologize. Eventually, come to make a promise to do my best to teach her how to live in this world, this damaged, doomed world, with some kind of grace and faith that she can still have a rich and meaningful life.

Reporter (03:11):

The scientists say no one and no place will be immune.

Listener (03:23):

Hope means the ability to still be here fighting.

Listener (03:26):

Our best futures [crosstalk 00:03:27].

Listener (03:27):

Hope right there in your face is the moon.

Listener (03:28):

Hope, optimism, happiness.

Listener (03:30):

Hope, worth.

Listener (03:30):

Hope is essential.

Anne Strainchamps (03:31):

Hope rises. She always does.

Anne Strainchamps (03:36):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. Welcome to Hope, the three-part series from To The Best Of Our Knowledge, Episode Three, our final episode, Are We Doomed?

Listener (03:47):

Hope is connected with faith.

Listener (03:49):

[crosstalk 00:03:49].

Listener (03:49):

What use is love if the situation is hopeless?

Listener (03:52):

Let's do hope.

Anne Strainchamps (03:55):

It's hard to do hope with the specter of climate change looming. The future today feels uncertain in a way I don't ever remember. If my neighbors, colleagues, Twitter, Facebook, and my kids are any evidence, I'm not alone. Add Roy Scranton to that list. That experience with his daughter turned into a book with an ominous title, We're Doomed. Now What? Steve Paulson sat down with Scranton to find out. I want to give you a heads up. This is going to touch on some ethical issues that some of you might find troubling, including suicide.

Steve Paulson (04:32):

I want to quote something that you wrote a few years ago, and here's what you said. "When I look into the future, I see water rising up to wash out Lower Manhattan. I see food riots, hurricanes, and climate refugees. I see the 82nd airborne soldiers shooting looters. I see grid failure, wrecked harbors, Fukushima waste in plagues." This is a really bleak view of the future. You're saying to really think about it, to confront it, we will change our lives because of this. We will think about what it means to lead a meaningful life in a different way.

Roy Scranton (05:10):

Absolutely, absolutely. I think this is not only a possibility. I think this kind of reflection and re-evaluation of what it means to live a human life is absolutely necessary precisely because the effects of climate change on life as we know it are going to be so severe. It's not just rising seas and droughts and famines, right? Our whole value system, our whole conception of what it means to live a meaningful life in America is in crisis right now, and that crisis is only going to grow worse.

Steve Paulson (05:51):

Explain that. What's wrong with our value system.

Roy Scranton (05:54):

What do we consider to be the good life in America? What's the American dream? You maybe own your own home, a couple cars. You're married and you have maybe a couple kids and some TVs. You look forward to a blissful retirement when you get to travel the world on a cruise ship and go to Italy. That's simply not sustainable into the future. That's all built on two centuries of carbon exploitation of coal and oil that we've turned into human wealth.

Steve Paulson (06:33):

You talk about some of the choices ahead for you as a parent and how you should raise your daughter. You say the question is, should you save for your daughter's college education or should you teach her to shoot, hunt, and live off the land?

Roy Scranton (06:50):

That question and framing it in that kind of dilemma is very much an attempt to try to get my head around this crisis and in values.

Steve Paulson (07:02):

What about those teenagers are listening to us right now who are probably more focused on driver's ed or the prom or studying for the SATs? What do you say to them?

Roy Scranton (07:15):

That the world is changing. This is what we need to be thinking about, because we're all in that situation focused on making our way in the world as it is, but that world is evaporating around us. What we're talking about is radical transformation of the entire environment that we live in in the next 30 years. If we're looking at two to three degrees Celsius warming by 2050, which is the path we're on now, that's what the IPCC says, that's a radically swift and cataclysmic transformation.

Steve Paulson (08:00):

Is it still possible to hope about the future?

Roy Scranton (08:05):

It depends on what you want to hope for. For me, hope is always connected to faith, because you don't hope that you'll go to work in the morning. I don't hope I'll change my daughter's diaper. I just do those things. You hope for things that you don't have any control over. The question there is then what do you have faith in? Because that's where you can put your hope. Do I have faith that the economic elites and ruling classes and politicians and oil company executives and Silicon Valley investors who run the world that we live in now, do I have faith in them, in their wisdom and their ability to come together and put climate change center stage and to rebuild the global economy? No. I think such faith would be misplaced, given their track record. I do have a faith in human resilience and the human ability to adapt to difficult situations and still find ways to lead meaningful and rich lives.

Steve Paulson (09:25):

This is so complicated. I have two kids. They're both in their early twenties. They are saying that some of their friends are already making the decision not to have any children because of climate change. I have a couple of reactions to that. One is, it just makes me sad, that is how they see the future of the planet. The other is, maybe this is also grounded in some really hard-headed realism.

Roy Scranton (09:51):

Yeah, absolutely. The choices we face, the world that we face is going to challenge us in every way. Not just physically, not just politically, but ethically. We're not well equipped to know how to make this change.

Steve Paulson (10:08):

As you say in your book, if you take this thinking to its logical conclusion, if you really want to save the planet, you should die. That would be the most earth-friendly choice to make. That is the essence of nihilism, of not believing in any future. Collectively we as a species stop having children, which is not going to happen, but that's basically saying we don't believe in the future. We're doomed.

Roy Scranton (10:33):

You're right that the reductio ad absurdum of this belief that we're individually responsible in our consumer choices and in our lifestyle choices for climate change. The only way to follow that out to its fullest extent is to commit suicide, because that's the best way to decrease your carbon footprint, full stop. I can't talk about that without mentioning David Buckle, the New York attorney who did just that. He lit himself on fire in Prospect Park as a act of protest to bring attention to climate change. The memory of that act should stay with us. That might be as well what some people decide when they decide not to have children. I don't know. I can't necessarily speak to that, because as you know, I didn't make that decision. I decided to have a kid, even though having a child is one of the, in carbon footprint terms, it's one of the absolute worst things you can do.

Steve Paulson (11:41):

I have to ask, why did you and your wife decide to go ahead and have a kid?

Roy Scranton (11:46):

For a lot of reasons. For us, it felt like that this was the way to live the fullest possible human life was to have another human to continue the species. It's in effect, making a commitment to the future. To have a child is to commit oneself to a deep, emotional, and psychological investment in what happens over the next 50 years. It grounds you in a way that not having a child doesn't.

Steve Paulson (12:21):

Because you're talking about how do we change from seeing more humans in the world as a blight on the planet, to something that is hopeful and actually productive in some way.

Roy Scranton (12:38):

We inhabit these contradictions. We live within these contradictions. There's still no sense in which adding more humans to the planet is a good idea, and yet if we're committed to human existence at all, we have to keep making humans. It's this conundrum. It's a contradiction that we just have to live with it, but we're obligated nonetheless, to commit to some radically different human future.

Steve Paulson (13:12):

Maybe that's where that word faith comes in again.

Roy Scranton (13:16):

That's right.

Anne Strainchamps (13:23):

Roy Scranton is the author of We're Doomed. Now What? Steve Paulson talked with him. I've listened to that interview four or five times now. I have to confess, the first time, the day it was recorded, it made me so angry. I wound up having a huge argument with Steve. I said, "It paints an almost irresponsibly, deliberately bleak vision of the future." Steve said, "Are you kidding? It's one of the most realistic formulations of hope I've ever heard." I said, "Hope? Where the is the hope?" One of the good things about editing is it forces you to listen to things over and over again. It took me awhile, but I did finally hear and begin to understand the hope. I think it's that, yes, we are facing the almost certain end of life as we know it now and simultaneously the real possibility of creating a new way of living on a changed planet, so that faith, it's in life itself and its endless cycle of becoming and being. That's something writer Anne Lamott has been struggling with too.

Anne Lamott (14:51):

Life is way wilder than I am comfortable with, way farther out, as we used to say, more magnificent, more deserving of all, and I would add more benevolent, well-meaning, and kindly. Waves and particles, redwoods, poetry, this world of wonders and suffering, great crowds of helpers and humanitarians. Here we are alive right now together. I worry myself sick about the melting ice caps, the escalating arms race, and the polluted air, as I look forward with hope to the cleansing rains, the colors of autumn, the coming spring, the warmth of summer, the student marches. John Lennon said, "Everything will be okay in the end. If it's not okay, it's not the end." This has always been true before. We can hope it will be again. We have all we need to come through. Against all odds, no matter what we've lost, no matter what messes we've made over time, no matter how dark the night, we offer and are offered kindness, soul, light, and food, which create breath and spaciousness, which create hope, sufficient unto the day.

Anne Strainchamps (16:57):

That's Anne Lamott from her most recent book, Almost Everything: Notes On Hope. That's the good news. Now for the bad news. Robots have taken over your popcorn.

Microwave (17:23):


Amy Webb (17:27):

Amazon has recently debuted a microwave that you can talk to. It's got Alexa enabled.

Microwave (17:37):

Your device is ready.

Amy Webb (17:41):

You may be wondering to yourself, why would I need to talk to my microwave? How hard is it to push a few buttons? Once you buy your box of popcorn or whatever it is from Amazon, every time you cook that thing and you're using your voice, Amazon is capable of collecting that data. Amazon has a health initiative with JP Morgan Chase and Berkshire Hathaway. To me, it seems entirely plausible that I could get to my Amazon-connected refrigerator, decide that I want to drink a beer, because I've had a long day of work, and the refrigerator won't open up. It knows that I've hit my caloric intake for the day.

Anne Strainchamps (18:36):

That's futurist Amy Webb. Coming up, we'll hear more from her about the promise and perils of artificial intelligence. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin, Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (18:59):

Artificial intelligence is not yet on most people's list of things to worry about. It seems way too far off in the future, but actually, that future's already here. The spam filter in your email box, AI, the auto-complete on your iPhone, AI, the antilock braking system in your car, AI. AI tracks shipments and postal deliveries. It schedules flights. Artificial intelligence is making decisions for us all day long. We like the convenience. You use Google maps, right? Futurist Amy Webb says we are living through a slow-motion explosion of AI and we're ceding control to it, not to the technology itself, but to the companies developing it.

Amy Webb (19:45):

Walmart has filed a patent for a new kind of shopping cart. The first time a customer places their hands on it, it creates a baseline. It's looking for your temperature, your heart rate, and other biometric indicators. As you move throughout the store, the shopping cart is constantly surveilling you to see if you are feeling stressed out. Your shopping cart is collecting your data. If this entire system decides that you're stressed out because you can't find potato chips or whatever it is that you're looking for, it will tell a store associate, who will come over and find you. It sounds creepy.

Anne Strainchamps (20:18):

It sounds very creepy.

Amy Webb (20:20):

From a retailer's point of view, all they're really trying to do is to anticipate our future needs and to solve problems for us before they arise. Now in practical terms, let's say that we're in Walmart, pushing that shopping cart around, and I'm starting to feel really frustrated. It may have nothing at all to do with my store experience. Maybe I've just seen an email from a coworker and it's upset me, or maybe I've seen something on a shelf that makes me sad because it reminds me of a loved one that I've lost. The challenge is that AI is still fairly rigid, and there's a small group of people with a limited worldview making these systems and tools and decisions, that don't take into account the capricious nature of humans and how we think and go about our daily activities.

Anne Strainchamps (21:04):

To make it a little worse, we should talk about the Chinese model, because right now the two main superpowers developing AI are the U.S. and China. Some people I think were shocked to read recently that China is using DNA and other digital data to track ethnic minority populations. That's the tip of the iceberg.

Amy Webb (21:27):

There are nine companies that control the future of artificial intelligence. Six are in the United States. Three are in China. The six that are in the United States, I like to call the GMAFIA. That's Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Apple, and Facebook. And In China, they're called the BAT, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent. In the United States the GMAFIA operate under very little scrutiny and regulation outside of normal business practices. They have an antagonistic relationship, or transactional on good days, with Washington D.C. Because we live in a market economy where publicly traded companies have responsibilities to their shareholders, these companies are working on commercializing AI. That is a focus. That is not the case in China. In China, the BAT, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are technically independent companies, but because it's China, they very much operate under the thumb of Beijing. That has allowed China to use AI in service of social programs and big national strategies. One that I'm sure people are familiar with is called the social credit score.

Anne Strainchamps (22:39):

What is it? What's the social credit score.

Amy Webb (22:42):

Basically citizens in China now get awarded points or demoted points depending on certain behaviors. If you perform meritorious work like a good deed, and a neighbor or a coworker reports you, points might be awarded.

Anne Strainchamps (22:59):

I get points for shoveling my neighbor's sidewalk?

Amy Webb (23:02):

If they report it, yes. However, if you jaywalk in some of the Southern provinces right now, smart cameras are on the street. They recognize who you are. Your face is put on a digital billboard and you are publicly shamed. All of that is computed in real time, where a score is levied, not unlike our credit scoring system, financial system in the U.S. It has real world ramifications. In the past year or so, 17 million Chinese people were prevented from buying airplane tickets. They didn't qualify because their scores were too low.

Anne Strainchamps (23:39):

Whoa. You jaywalk too often, and you're not allowed to buy airplane tickets?

Amy Webb (23:43):

I think it was probably more than just that, but 17 million people restricted. 5.5 million people were not able to buy train tickets. 300,000 people qualified for job promotions. However, because their social credit scores were lower, they weren't able to move up. Now you could be sitting wherever you're sitting in the country and saying to yourself, "That sounds terrifying. Luckily for me, I don't live in China. Therefore none of this has anything to do with me." I would argue that the opposite is true. I believe that the world is being reshaped at this moment in time. China sees artificial intelligence as a route to creating a new world order, one in which the United States effectively, and our allies, become locked out of doing business with countries that are aligned with China, and our democratic ideals, which I happen to believe very strongly in, we could start seeing restricted or tampered with in new ways. We have a lot to be concerned about. I think it's really incumbent on each person individually to think very pragmatically about the decisions that we're making and how those decisions could have broader implications in the future.

Anne Strainchamps (24:58):

Running through all of these things. How much hope do you have for the future?

Amy Webb (25:02):

I actually have quite a bit of hope for the future. I do not believe that these big nine companies are the villains. I believe that if they change some of the developmental track and they make some decisions and some tweaks, that they are the heroes of this story, that they are the heroes of our future, and they can play a positive role. I believe that all of the promises that we've made about AI, promises that paint a picture of healthier lives and better opportunity, I believe those are possible, but our best futures never show up fully formed and they don't happen automatically.

Anne Strainchamps (25:42):

Yeah. I keep thinking about the analogy to climate change. I think one of the things that makes thinking about the future right now so difficult for so many of us is the sense of climate despair and the sense of helplessness. At this point, there is nothing any individual can do to make a real dent in climate change [crosstalk 00:26:03].

Amy Webb (26:03):

I completely disagree with that, because for work, I'm constantly covering different technologies across different industry areas because they all interconnect and relate. I've seen a tremendous amount of research in green tech that ranges from different types of geoengineering to terraforming in new ways. There's a ton of opportunity. The individual actions that each one of us can take, I think have to do with communication. At the moment there's a lot of individual protests where people have decided they're not going to use straws anymore, and somehow that's going to make a dent. What would make a much bigger dent is if consumers have more meaningful conversations with their elected officials, those elected officials are willing to look at actual science and evidence and make smarter decisions. Companies who are stalwarts, they have plenty of opportunity. The petroleum industry can recalibrate a lot of what it's doing and still be a hero to its shareholders while also being a hero to the environment. It's just a matter of thinking through different possibilities and running out risk and opportunities, scenarios in advance. Similarly with artificial intelligence, every single one of us, me, you, my dad, my nextdoor neighbor, my kid's teacher, all of us have a stake in what's coming, and all of us can play a role in making ourselves a better future.

Amy Webb (27:27):

I will tell you what gives me hope. What gives me hope is that we are not robots living out somebody else's legacy source code somewhere, which means that we all have agency. Even when I see dire consequences and catastrophic scenarios ahead, I know that we still have an opportunity to make different decisions. I am full of hope. Hope is what gets me through my day. It really does. I'm always hopeful. I have confidence in that hope, that people will choose a better path. They just have to be armed with the right information and they have to feel a sense of urgency.

Anne Strainchamps (28:05):

Amy Webb is a futurist and author of The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans and Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity. Note the could.

Listener (28:33):

Hope for me comes from my faith in other people, a faith in those that I've chosen to surround myself with, that those people will do the right thing.

Listener (28:46):

In order for life on her to survive, it'll have to become life from earth. Colonizing Mars would be one more step along that way.

Listener (29:02):

Hope didn't come easy to me. I found it, funnily enough, in a book. I was going through divorce and I was reading Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. Whenever I feel that my hope levels are going down, I take passages from the book, rethink them, and hope is restored, at least for the day.

Anne Strainchamps (29:30):

What about you? What gives you hope? We'd love to know. We made it super easy to record your voice by clicking a button on our website. You'll find it at ttbook.org/hope. Share your thoughts, and they just might wind up on the air. Still to come, an astronautical engineer argues there is only one hope for humanity, and it's on Mars. I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin, Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (30:12):

This hour, we've been talking about hope and asking, are we doomed? If you watch or read much science fiction, you would think absolutely. How many times have I seen scenes of children living in bunkers while clouds of virus wipe out everybody else, or highways cracked and covered in vines while hordes of the undead chase down survivors? That was just last season. Dystopian science fiction has been part of my entire life. Star Wars, the Matrix, the Hunger Games, hell, the War of the Worlds. Here's a thought. What if science fiction writers imagined a better future? Victor LaValle is the editor of a collection of short stories that do just that. It's called A People's Future of the United States. They told Steve Paulson they are bad-ass stories filled with hope.

Steve Paulson (31:00):

Tell us about, I'm not sure if I'm saying the name right, A. Merc Rustad, Our Aim Is Not To Die.

Victor LaValle (31:08):

That's a story about a nonbinary human being who lives in a world where you're forced to choose a gender or you are erased, and our protagonist can't, and won't make that choice, and therefore spends a large portion of the story in deep fear that when it comes time for the test, the time when they are forced to make their choice, they either lie about who they are or they face destruction. Thankfully in that one, the protagonist finds friends.

Steve Paulson (31:40):

I don't think we're giving away too much here, but the protagonist is this trans person, [Sewa 00:31:46], who has autism, and this is this near future dystopian United States, and discovers that actually AI is an ally.

Victor LaValle (31:57):

That's right.

Steve Paulson (31:58):

I love it when the AI identifies itself as a collective, whose mission is to protect the vulnerable.

Victor LaValle (32:05):

One of the great surprises of that story, at least for me, even as a reader, was for me to realize I was very used to this sort of Skynet, "All technology is bad. They're out to kill us," sort of story, and that part of being knocked out of my chair and that story was to say, "Oh, right, that's right. We're supposed to think differently about the future for everyone, and in this case, everything."

Steve Paulson (32:33):

It also seems like one of the central questions you're asking in this anthology is how do you find hope in desperate circumstances? If you're living in a world that's increasingly authoritarian or fear-mongering, where climate change is looming over us, what does hope mean?

Victor LaValle (32:53):

For a lot of the stories in this collection, hope largely means the ability to still be here fighting. The idea that hope means a happy ending I think number one has ruined many, many people's lives, but two, doesn't take into account, to my mind, one of the beautiful things about life is that today things are great, tomorrow you start again, and things might go badly tomorrow, but then the day after that, you might try again, and that, I don't know, as human beings, I think that's a lot to get in this world, the chance to keep trying, to fail sometimes, and to sometimes succeed. That to me is, that's as happy and ending as I imagine humanity ever gets.

Steve Paulson (33:36):

Wow. That's a great way to think about hope. Let's talk about another one of your stories. N.K. Jemison, she has a story, Give Me Cornbread Or Give Me Death. Can you give us a quick outline?

Victor LaValle (33:50):

Sure. This is our most fantastical story, I would say, in the sense that it's set in a world where there are dragons. Power has been seized by this great authority who have segmented people of color in particular into essentially closed off ghettos or quadrants. They use the dragons as a security force to hunt down and kill anyone from these groups of color who oversteps their bounds. The narrator and her allies have come up with a plan, which is to feed the dragons really great ethnic food, for lack of a better term, and turn those dragons into, if not pets, allies.

Victor LaValle (34:44):

"The towers are pissed. They send in cops to retaliate, arresting anybody who talks back, even killing two women for no reason at all. They feared for their lives, the cops say, they always say. Collard greens get added to the contraband list between C4 and contraception. We retaliate right back when they come with crews of deputized men from Americana to tear up our fields. No collards, fine. When the dragons come next, we offer them callaloo. They come for the callaloo. We just stand there pretending harmlessness and don't fight back. They can't admit that the dragons are supposed to eat us, so they claim they're worried about listeria. After they take the callaloo, Longtimetown, none of us [inaudible 00:35:55] sends over frozen blocks of spinach cooked with garlic, fish sauce, and chili oil, layered in with their heroin shipment. We have to add our own spinach to stretch it, but that chili oil is potent. It's enough.

Victor LaValle (36:15):

"By this point, the towers figure they've either got to rob us of every vegetable and then watch us die of malnutrition, or there's no way their dragons will ever bother with bland, unseasoned human meat again. They actually try it [inaudible 00:36:34] burning our farms and we have to eat cat grass just to get by. We fight over kohlrabi leaves grown in an old underground weed hothouse. Can't give this to the dragons. There isn't enough, and our daughters need it more.

Victor LaValle (36:57):

"It's looking bad, but before the next raid, Spicymamaville smuggles over mofongo that makes the dragons moan. They love it so. Towelhead Township is starving and besieged, but a few of the Mujahideen women make it through the minefields with casks of harissa straps to their bodies. Sorry City, mad about Bollytown, ship us friendship basketballs. They do this openly, and the towers let them through as a goodwill gesture. Black people love basketball, right? Maybe it'll shut us up, and it does for awhile. There's enough saag paneer and curry paste vacuum packed inside each ball to feed us and the dragons too.

Victor LaValle (37:56):

"The towers burn our peppers, and our allies respond with dead drops of hawaj, wasabi, chili pepper water. The towers try to starve us, but we just don't die. Each visit, I pet my dragon a little more. She watches me, looks for me when she lands, croons a little when I pet her. It's war. I check in with my girls before every meal and ask if they're still willing to serve. They are, we are resolved. We will win."

Steve Paulson (38:43):

Wow, that was great.

Victor LaValle (38:55):

Oh, good.

Steve Paulson (38:56):

What you read is almost the ending, but there's a bit more of an end. How does this story end?

Victor LaValle (39:02):

I think I would say this story ends with a great meal.

Steve Paulson (39:11):

That's very good. We'll leave it there. You end the introduction to this book, where you talk about what you wanted these stories to accomplish. You said that you want the stories to be narratives that release us from the choke-hold of the past. I'm just wondering what stories can do that can actually release us from the past.

Victor LaValle (39:35):

I find human beings, all of us, we are raised with degrees of prejudice and insularity because of who our family is, who our community is, our race, our class, our religion, all those things. Even the best of us, we're taught this or that thing about people. The amazing thing about stories, whether it's in literature or film, TV, or music, is that they have a way to sneak under our defenses and make us think that people who we never met before, that they might have hopes and dreams and fears just like we do. I think at this point I realize that's not an immediate human way of thinking. If we are animals, we are pack animals in a lot of ways, but stories find a way to trick me into extending the circle of humanity.

Steve Paulson (40:26):

You're talking about the power of art too. It doesn't just operate on a rational level. It does something else that's kind of magical in a way.

Victor LaValle (40:35):

It is absolutely magic. There's no reason it should do what it does. Like a series of characters on a page or on a screen or a painting or a sculpture, why should that thing somehow crack you open in a way that say being harangued by somebody for 20 minutes will never do or 20 years will never do? Who knows, but that's the power of doing this thing with you.

Anne Strainchamps (41:07):

Victor LaValle is the editor of the collection of speculative fiction stories called A People's Future of the United States. Steve Paulson talked with him. Sometimes fact really is stranger than fiction. For instance, Elon Musk is making cars, yes, but he's also making concrete plans to send a spaceship full of people to Mars in 20 years. With any luck, you and I will be alive to see that. We could even be on the ship. Robert Zubrin says it's about time. Zubrin holds advanced degrees in aeronautics, astronautics, and nuclear engineering. He has three U.S. patents, five pending, in space propulsion and exploration. He used to work as an engineer at Lockheed Martin astronautics and, oh yeah, Charles Monroe-Kane found out, he is the most enthusiastic cheerleader for colonizing Mars you will ever meet.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:13):

Robert, I have a really simple question to start. Are we ready for humans to go to Mars? Is there an idea or an invention or something missing or are we ready to go?

Robert Zubrin (42:22):

From a technical point of view we're entirely ready. We're much better prepared today to send people to Mars than we were to send men to the moon in 1961, and we were there eight years later. Given a serious decision, we could certainly have people on Mars within 10 years.

Charles Monroe-Kane (42:39):

What is the serious decision? Who makes the decision?

Robert Zubrin (42:42):

There's basically two possibilities right now. One is NASA, which has immense resources, but is not prepared to make such a decision, and the other is Elon Musk, who has much less resources, but nevertheless substantial and who is quite decisive. While I wouldn't have said this 10 years ago, or even five at this point, I think that it's likely that Musk will get to Mars before NASA.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:12):

When's this going to happen? What's it going to start?

Robert Zubrin (43:15):

Parts of it have started, as I say, the robotic impact-

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:19):

What I mean by starting, I mean, when is the human foot going to land on that planet? When are we going to get there?

Robert Zubrin (43:24):

You can never be sure about the future, but if Musk keeps moving forward at the same rate he currently is, I would say they would land before the end of the 2020s.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:35):

How old are you, if you don't mind me asking?

Robert Zubrin (43:37):

I'm 67.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:39):

That's your lifetime, and you've earned the right to see that happen.

Robert Zubrin (43:42):

Yeah, frankly. I was 17 when we landed on the moon. If anybody told me then that I'd be 67 and we wouldn't have cities on the moon and Mars, I would have thought they were crazy.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:54):

Let's stay in Mars now. We're there. People are going there. There's some different missions. Now it's building up. Why would it be good for earth to go to Mars?

Robert Zubrin (44:03):

First is the reason that NASA gives for the science. We're going to be able to find out if life is unique to the earth or a general phenomenon in the universe. There's the challenge, the very positive stimulus to a society given by challenge, particularly to the youth, learn your science and you can be a pioneer of new worlds. Then there is the martian society itself. I think it's going to be an engine for invention, because the martians are going to be a group of technologically adept people in a frontier environment where they're strongly challenged, where they're forced to innovate and they're free to innovate and they're going to innovate.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:34):

Yeah, of course. We have a history of that, right?

Robert Zubrin (44:37):

Yes, we do. Here's the thing. What is the greatest danger that humanity faces? What caused the disasters of the 20th century was bad ideas, and in particular, variants of one continuous bad idea, which is that there isn't enough to go around. We have to fight each other for what is. We have to push other people aside or even exterminate them in order to take what there is. This idea is still around. I know for a fact, because I've spoken with them, that there are people in the Pentagon in Washington who look at the rise of China and say, "This has got to be stopped because if they all become middle-class, they'll use too much oil. There won't be enough oil in the world. We have to stop them from developing." If these ideas prevail, there will be more wars. Human exploration and settlement of Mars is a disproof of this theory. It shows that the resources are defined by human creativity, that we can open up whole new worlds of resources if we exercise our creativity, and do it even better if we work together at it. It's the only positive answer to this thing.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:54):

You know what my wife would say if she was sitting right here right now, because we've been talking about this recently, because she knew I was doing this interview. She would say, "Hey, why should we go and screw up another planet when we haven't fixed our own first?" What do you say to that?

Robert Zubrin (46:07):

To take an extreme example, there are some people who compare humans landing on Mars to Europeans destroying the Native Americans and the bison and the redwood forests and all this stuff. There's no question that something valuable and precious was destroyed in that process. Yet if there had been nothing in the Americas when Columbus landed, then a barren desert with no Native Americans, no bison, no redwood trees, not a single blade of grass, just a bunch of rocks with maybe a little bit of bacteria hidden under them, and they turned that into a continental nation of liberty with a thousand universities and a hundred thousand youth bookstores, would anybody be picketing Columbus Day parades today? I don't think so.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:56):

Wow. Is this utopian? Are you a utopian?

Robert Zubrin (47:01):

No. I don't think Mars is going to be a utopia. I think it's going to be a mess. A great mess. That is to say, it's going to be a lab. It's going to be a place where new ideas are tried out. A lot of them aren't going to work, but some of them will. That's what we need. We need to have a place where people can go where the rules haven't been written yet, so they can give new ideas a try, and that's what Mars is going to be.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:26):

You used the word hope. I'm interested in this word. Is that what we need?

Robert Zubrin (47:32):

I think hope is essential. Despair is the worst of sins. The lack of hope is the worst of sins, because it causes you to give up striving for anything better. None of the virtues can be actualized if you think the situation is hopeless. Of what use is courage if the situation is hopeless? Of what use is wisdom if the situation is hopeless? Of what use is love if the situation is hopeless? Here's the thing, the planet isn't little. It comes with an infinite sky. The earth is in space. If we're not confined to just this part of space, but to have unlimited reach into all of space, then clearly we don't need to fight over this tiny corner of the universe.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:21):

Let's assume Elon Musk sends people to Mars. You and I are still alive. How do you think that will be viewed on earth?

Robert Zubrin (48:32):

Look, I'm going to tell you something, a story. In 1969, when we landed on the moon, I was actually in Leningrad because I was a young chess player and I was studying Russian, because you had to be able to read the Soviet chess texts if you want it to be a serious chess player at that time. I knew some Russians, other chess players, and a lot of Russians that I met in the street, because they play chess and parks and everywhere. I could meet a lot of people that way. They were over the top enthusiastic about it. The leaders must have been having kittens, but the regular people there, they'd punch me on the shoulder and say, "Maladyets," which is like, "Attaboy." They thought it was swell. We had excelled at a sport they appreciated. What Musk is doing is really a tremendous ad for human creativity, for freedom. What this is saying is you untie people's hands and they can do amazing things.

Anne Strainchamps (49:30):

Wow. Sign me up. Robert Zubrin is an astronautical engineer and the author of A Case For Space: How the Revolution in Space Flight Opens Up A Future of Limitless Possibility. Charles Monroe-Kane talked with him. Our three-part series on hope ends with this episode, but if you want to listen again, share, memorize, or hey, write about it, you'll find the whole series at ttbook.org/hope. Of course you can find it any place you get your podcasts. We have so many people to thank for making this series possible. Our distributor PRX, who went the extra mile, our public radio home of Wisconsin Public Radio, especially the wonderful people who produce the morning show, composer Wendell Patrick, who created the perfect musical score for Alice Walker's poem. Angelo Bautista for meticulous editing and great advice. Mark Riechers for original art and creative digital and social media strategy. Joe Hardtke for all his inspired sound design. Steve Paulson for leadership and encouragement. Lastly, I want to thank the lead producers of this series on hope, Charles Monroe-Kane and Shannon Henry Kleiber. They had a vision of what this could be and they made it happen. I'm Anne Strainchamps. I feel better for being part of this series, and I hope you do too.

Reporter (50:52):


Last modified: 
March 28, 2023