In 1888, Edward Bellamy wrote a very influential book called Looking Backward. That’s Bellamy in the next paragraph. He placed the action well into the future—the beginning of the 21st Century—so that his readers could get some distance on the society they were living in at the time. Some things in his imagined future look odd to us, the technical things particularly, but every future is an imaginative projection of our present and very often, we are so immersed in that present that we cannot see it clearly.
In 2011, roughly the time when Looking Backward is set, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote 2312: A Novel. His goal is different from Bellamy’s in many ways. Robinson, who also wrote the breathtakingly technical Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars series, is a practitioner of “hard SF.”  He’s not a reformer, really. On the other hand, the protagonist, Swan Er Hong, lives on Mercury and when she is forced to visit Earth, she is scandalized by what has become of it. It is what we all know but projected to a catastrophic future.
In this essay, I would like to point to two very small excerpts from Robinson’s latest work. The first is a new “periodizing system” by the fictional historian Charlotte Shortback. We use historical periods as common currency in the West and give them very little thought: the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Romantic Period, the Early Industrial Period. They use historical periods in the East too, of course, but they use different ones. Those all collect sets of years in agreed upon chunks.
Shortback’s periodization takes off from our present and moves to the present in which the novel is set. I’ll name them all and then I will pay closer attention to three of them. First, The Dithering: 2005 to 2060; then The Crisis: 2060 to 2130.; then The Turnaround: 2130 to 2160; then The Accelerando: 2160 to 2220; then The Ritard: 2220 to 2270; then The Balkanization: 2270 to 2320.
All those are, of course, unfamiliar, because only the first part of the first period has yet occurred. Still for a story set in 2312 that will feature a ruined and barely habitable earth, it is hard to think of a better title for our own era that the one Shortback provides. We live in “the Dithering.” Here is Shortback’s description.
The Dithering: 2005 to 2060. From the end of the postmodern (Charlotte’s date derived from the UN announcement of climate change) to the fall into crisis. These were wasted years.
That is followed immediately by:
The Crisis: 2060 to 2130. Disappearance of Arctic summer ice, irreversible permafrost melt and methane release, and unavoidable commitment to major sea rise, In these years all the bad trends converged in “perfect storm” fashion, leading to a rise in average global temperature of five K, and sea level rise of five meters — and as a result, in the 2120s, food shortages, mass riots, catastrophic death on all continents, and an immense spike in the extinction rate of other species. Early lunar bases, scientific stations on Mars.
Shortback points out that “all the bad trends” converged during this time. The convergence belongs to her time period, 2060—2130, but the trends are all perfectly understandable in our own time. Note the “disappearance of Arctic summer ice (happening now), the irreversible permafrost melt (happening now) and the methane release which results from the permafrost melt (happening now) and the unavoidable…sea rise (happening now).
Then a bunch of things happen. A good deal of the plot of 2312: A Novel comes from these intervening periods. But I thought it might be worth your while to look at the final period of Shortback’s set.
The Balkanization: 2270 to 2320. On earth the major events of The Balkanization are these: “volatile shortages pinching harder, causing hoarding, then tribalism; tragedy of the commons redux; splintering into widespread “self-sufficient” enclave city-states.”
We have met the enemy, it seems.
So Shortback’s historical periods serve as the first clip from the novel. The second excerpt has to do with restoring the Earth and its people with space-based technologies. It doesn’t work very well and in this second excerpt, I would like to explore why.
The “splintering into widespread enclave city states” is known, even in our time (the first few years of The Dithering), but they become prominent in parts of the world that live under life and death tensions for decades at a time. People living under those conditions become less and less able to help themselves and also less and less able to accept help from outside. The local rulers demonize “Outside” as a way of keeping control.
Here’s a recent example. Do you remember the Clinton Administration’s brief foray into humanitarian politics in Somalia? There were starving people in Somalia and there were TV cameras. It was the combination that made it hard for U.S., specifically the Clinton Administration, to bear. The Somalis needed food and we had food.
Here’s an account of what happened by General John S. Brown, Army Chief of Military History. The picture shows “the cheering Somali mobs” Brown describes.
The United States Army has a long tradition of humanitarian relief. No such operation has proven as costly or shocking , however, as that undertaken in Somalia from August 1992 to March 1994. Greeted initially by Somalis happy to be saved from starvation, U.S. troops were slowly drawn into inter-clan power struggles and ill-defined “nation-building” missions.
That sense of “mission accomplished” made the events of 3-4 October 1993 more startling, as Americans reacted to the spectacle of dead U. S. soldiers being dragged through the streets by cheering Somali mobs, the very people Americans thought they had rescued from starvation.
For our purposes, it is the “starving Somalis” and the “inter-clan power struggles” that matter most. The worse things get for the people, the more powerful the clans are. The more powerful they are, the more there will be conflict between them. The more conflict there is, the more their attention will be focused on their power relative to other clans and the less it will be focused on the needs of the people.
Robinson deals with this same process on a much larger canvas. The need on Earth is so great that Swan and some other spacers  decide to “terraform” Earth. 
They planned to start by reconstructing the part of Harare called Domboshawa, transforming its northernmost ring of shantytowns into garden city versions of themselves. This “refurbishing of the built infrastructure” was not a complete solution but the selfreps [not really sure what those are] did build wells, health centers, schools, clothing factories, and housing in several styles already used in Domboshawa, including aspects of the traditional local rondavels.
That sounds spectacularly good to me. It sounds like American marines storming the beach in order to provide food for starving Somalis.
But on Earth, it wasn’t working out. The transformations involved were too great; there grew furious objections, often from elsewhere that the areas being renovated.
It was happening all over Earth…; their restoration projects were getting tangled in dense networks of law and practice and landscape, and the occasional sabotage or accident didn’t help. One couldn’t change anything on Earth without several different kinds of mess resulting, some of them paralyzing. Every square meter of the Earth’s land was owned in several different ways.
Are we surprised? I was surprised only by the scale.
There were of course very powerful forces on Earth adamantly opposed to tinkering from above in general and to creating full employment in particular. Full employment, if enacted, would remove “wage pressure”—which phrase had always meant fear struck into the hearts of the poor [bold font in the original] also into the hearts of anyone who feared becoming poor, which meant almost everyone on earth.
I’m nearly finished with the book. I don’t expect the “terraforming of Earth” to be any part of a successful conclusion of the plot, although they did bring Florida back above sea level. The technology, even now, is enough to relieve a great deal of the present misery, but our efforts founder on what General Brown calls “inter-clan power struggles.”
In setting after setting, we meet the enemy and, as Pogo has it, “he is us.”
 One of my favorite quotes of all time, but variously attributed. The original dates from 1813, when Oliver Hazard Perry reported on his success against the British fleet on Lake Erie, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” Walt Kelly, in the Pogo comic strips I read when I was growing up, revised it to, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Pretty existential for a swamp possum. Lately, I have heart it attributed to Charlie Brown of the Peanuts comic strip.
 I learned that phrase a few weeks ago, just before I started reading Robinson. It means science fiction (SF) that focuses on the scientific and technical aspects (Hard) of the story, rather than the social or psychological aspects.
 “Spacers” are people who were born “elsewhere,” i.e. not on Earth and/or who identify with their place of birth. Swan was born on Mercury. Neal Stephenson has the same naming problem in SevenEves where a “people” who have lived in space for generations come back to Earth to confront two separate populations, one of which survived below the land and the other below the sea.
 Our planet is often referred to as Terra so “terraforming” would mean making life “there,” like life here. Constructing an atmosphere containing oxygen and adequate heat and adequate gravity and so on. By 2270 they have terraformed quite a few planets and asteroids. The question now is, would those same techniques work on what is left of Earth. The technical answer is that they would. The political answer might be entirely different, as it was in Somalia in the 1990s.
Curious to know if you find any good news or redemption in the book.
You know Kim Stanley Robinson lives in Davis, right?
Yes, Dave told me. I wonder if you know him. No redemption for Earth, certainly. The love relationship, Swan and Wahram, is set up as well as possible within a broadly existentialist view. But there are no goals, no legitimate goals, so no achievement. You must have read it, right?