A utopian novel of climate change

Kim Stanley Robinson is an award-winning science fiction writer whose novels have appeared on the New York Times best-seller list.

His newest novel, THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE, is about the effects of climate change and environmental devastation, but is different from most SF novels on this theme.

Such novels typically are set in a future in which all the bad things we’re being warned about have come true.  In contrast, Robinson’s novel is utopian, not dystopian.  It is about disparate people struggling for decades to achieve a better world and eventually making headway.

It belongs on the same shelf as H.G. Wells’ The Shape of Things to Come or Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887.

The novel begins in the near future, where an American named Frank May is doing humanitarian aid word in a village in India. A heat wave strikes in the start of the monsoon, combined with a failure of the electrical grid across India.

Robinson tells in grim detail what it would be like to die of inescapable heat and humidity—the humidity preventing sweat from evaporating and cooling you off.

The catastrophe causes the Paris Climate Agreement signatories to meet and consider what to do.  Their only action is to create a subsidiary body with ample funding, but no powers, to advocate for future generations, children and those who have no voice.

The new organization, nicknamed the Ministry for the Future, is headed by an idealistic, middle-aged Irish politician named Mary Murphy, who becomes one of the main viewpoint characters of the novel.

Her team comes to the conclusion that the main barriers to action on climate change are the legal system and perverse economic incentives. 

For example, one principle of economics is the discount rate—the idea that a dollar next year is worth less than a dollar today.  Even a modest discount rate, that $100 next year is only worth $99 now, effectively makes it uneconomic to invest in anything with a payoff more than a few decades away.

The Ministry comes up with ideas for changing this.  The most important one is the “carbon coin.”  It is a currency to be paid to anyone who sequesters a ton of carbon, either by removing it from the atmosphere or preventing it from being burned.  Its value is guaranteed by making it legal tender for payment of carbon taxes.

The world’s bankers aren’t interested.  Not their job, they say.

A terrorist organization called the Children of Kali emerges.  Like the Thugs of old-time India, they worship the goddess of death.  Their program is to kill plutocrats and politicians responsible for heating up the world. 

From that they move on to downing aircraft and sinking ships that burn diesel fuel.  Their weapon of choice is flocks of bird-sized flying killer drones, guided by artificial intelligence.  They are widely dispersed until they converge on their targets, and cannot be defended against.

Ocean and air travel by fossil fuel becomes uneconomic.  A worldwide economic depression results.  But then high-tech dirigibles and sailing ships emerge.  They have battery-powered electric motors, which are charged by photo-electric and piezoelectric materials that cover all surfaces.

So progress comes about, as one character remarks, through a combination of “arbitrage and sabotage.”   Mary Murphy gets her carbon coin, which is a form of block-chained BItcoin, which can be deposited with a guaranteed rate of interest.

We meanwhile follow other protagonists in this imaginary future.  One is Frank May himself, one of the few survivors of the Indian climate catastrophe, who struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, also described in excruciating detail.  He wanders the world and eventually winds up in prison in Switzerland, near the headquarters of Mary Murphy’s ministry.

Another is a glaciologist—I hadn’t known glaciology was a thing—who thinks of a way to prevent the Antarctic ice cap from sliding into the ocean.  The idea is based on the fact that the water on the underside of the glacier is melting and creating a danger that the whole mass of ice will slide into the sea. 

Dr. Giffin thinks that the water on the bottom can be pumped to the surface, increasing the mass of the glacier, all powered by the temperature differential between the surface and the bottom.  But it is not so easy to put this theory into practice.

A fourth set of protagonists is a widow and her two daughters, climate refugees from Middle East who wind up in a refugee camp in Switzerland.  In Robinson’s imagined future, the population of Europe’s climate refugee camps exceeds the population of Germany or France.

Along with the plot threads are many short-short stories, snapshots of villains, victims and heroes, briefings on key issues and even riddles, whose answers include “the sun,” “a carbon atom” and “bitcoin.”  After finishing each section, I felt I had to put the book down and digest what I’d read before moving on. 

K.S. Robinson

I like this novel better than I did Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future.  That collection also was about the use of science and technology to solve society’s problems, but it seems to me that it had a hidden agenda of showing that science and technology could be used to make social change unnecessary.

Robinson knows better.  Technology is created to achieve the goals of people who hold power.  Thus, in today’s society, we have labor-saving technology whose purpose is to eliminate jobs, not to enable workers to be more creative and self-guided. 

So if you want a society in which there are alternatives to burning fossil fuels, you have to change the economic incentives.  Energy companies have to burn fossil fuels in order to realize a return on investment.  Robinson’s imagined future makes it more profitable for them to put fossil fuels back in the ground than to take them out.

I have to say I do not consider Robinson’s book a blueprint for the future.  His specific proposals are vague on details and are open to objection.  Also, I don’t endorse terrorism and assassination as tools for progress.  What his book does is to show the situation we face and the kind of thinking that is needed to make things better.

I think any lay person concerned about climate change would find this novel interesting and informative, no matter how much or how little they knew about the topic.  But if you are just a person who reads science fiction for pleasure, I’m not sure I can recommend it.

Robinson is a skillful writer.  All his writerly skills are shown in this novel.  But it is so crammed with interesting information and intriguing new ideas that I tended to lose interest in the characters and their fates.

If you don’t know Robinson’s work and like highbrow science fiction, I recommend his masterpiece, Galileo’s Dream, or maybe Antarctica or New York 2140.   For sheer entertainment, I recommend Escape from Kathmandu, a trilogy of connected stories about American hippies and mountain climbers in 1980s Nepal—especially the title story, which about the rescue of the amiable Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas from the clutches of an evil zoologist.

LINKS

Imagining the End of Capitalism With Kim Stanley Robinson, an interview about The Ministry for the Future for Jacobin.

Kim Stanley Robinson is One of Our Greatest Socialist Novelists by Robert Markey for Jacobin.

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson, Is the Most Important Book I’ve Read All Year by Ezra Klein for Vox.  [Added 11/30/2020]

Kim Stanley Robinson Imagines a Future Where We Don’t All Die by Derrick O’Keefe for Jacobin.  [Added 12/15/2020]

The Ministry for the Future, or, Do Authors Dream of Electric Jeeps? by Samuel Miller McDonald for Current Affairs.  [Added 1/16/2021]  A more critical review than the others.

Kim Stanley Robinson Wikipedia biography.

Kim Stanley Robinson Wikipedia bibliography.

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3 Responses to “A utopian novel of climate change”

  1. Mike Says:

    You might change “a few decades area” to “a few decades away”.

    Like

  2. Maddie Says:

    Extremely interesting! Thank you so much for sharing this piece with the rest of the world! Loved reading this! To spread more awareness of the climate crisis, please feel free to check out my recent blog post! (:

    Like

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