March’s Critical Mass featured Kate Treloar talking about The Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel; I thought I’d better read it for the discussion.
I spent a week reading the novel, savouring the delight. As Bill McKibben, head of 350.org, noted1, “it’s not a utopia, it’s anti-dystopian, realist to its core.” He compares the book to Bellamy’s Looking Backward 2000-1887.
The opening chapter deals with a drought in India, and a heatwave. A power failure triggers millions of deaths as temperatures reach 37 degrees wet-bulb, with no relief. It is a short chapter, and the horror of the event identifies the desperate need to take action on climate. It provides an effective counterpoint to calls for “adaptation”.
India reacts by scrambling jets to unilaterally dump sulpher dioxide into the atmosphere, trying to re-create the cooling effects of two Pinatubo volcanic eruptions2.
The Ministry for the Future is a group created and funded by the signatories to the Framework Convention on Climate Change at their meeting in 2025. It is based in Zurich, and headed up by a savvy Irish ex-politician called Mary Murphy.
Frank May, who somehow survived the Indian heatwave deaths, struggles to cope with the reality of his continuing existence. At one point, despairing of any real action to halt the climate catastrophe, he traps Mary in her apartment, to question her on why the Ministry is so ineffectual. He asks her why the Ministry doesn’t have a black ops division, and urges her to establish one. The police arrive and he escapes, to be eventually caught.
Mary tells her second in command about the absurd meeting, and notes it’d be ridiculous to have a black ops division. Her number two says very little, just looks at her. “If we had one, I really couldn’t confirm it. You need to have deniability.”
She realises that the Ministry does, indeed, have such a division. We never learn what it’s done, but in the course of the 106 short chapters which make up the novel, we are given hints as to what it might get up to.
Unlike many modern novels, which all seem to tell a story in the same voice, Stan’s novel changes tone and voice as appropriate to each chapter, similar to the style of older novels.
Some chapters are riddles, some are political discussions, some are meetings with international banks. Some deal with geo-engineering: piping melt water from beneath glaciers back atop them to freeze, to slow their slide into the seas. The cost and hazards are immense, but the consequences of climate change are even more expensive.
We hear of terrorists (Sons of Kali) who are going around murdering the billionaires profiting from fossil fuels; drone attacks bring down airplanes — but zeppelins are spared!
India undergoes major political changes — the caste system is removed, and farms become cooperative. The Basque cooperatives of Mondragon are used as examples of sensible corporate structures.
Stan is familiar with discussions and proposals for moving beyond our existing capitalist system, and his knowledge of wilderness and mountain climbing is useful in picturing possible solutions to many of the problems in tackling climate change.
I am a leftist, an American leftist, and I’m saying just as a practicality that overthrowing capitalism is too messy, too much blowback, and too lengthy of a process. We’ve got a nation-state system and a financial order, and we’ve got a crisis that has to be dealt with in the next 10 to 20 years. So I’m looking at the tools at hand. Tax structures, sure. And essentially, I’m talking about a stepwise reform that after enough steps have been taken, you get to something that is truly post-capitalist that might take huge elements from the standard socialist techniques.— Rolling Stone interview3 with KSR by Jeff Goodell, “What Will the World Look Like in 30 Years?”
I love the [the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez]. That’s really a smart document. It’s not naïve. It’s not primitive. It’s a fully articulated plan that takes in a lot of social elements that are very smartly done. So this is not a naïve crowd. There’s something hubristic about the phrase geoengineering, and it looks like a Silicon Valley techno silver-bullet fix that is against the grain of the total program that the left is insisting on, which I totally agree with.
There’s a fine chapter on political economy which explains why the tendency to discount future events is so troubling. The Ministry even suggests creating a blockchain currency that will increase in value in the future. The carbon coins can be earned by sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. If guaranteed by the major banks, this could provide an incentive to tackle climate change.
It’s not a utopia, as it recognises that change will be difficult to achieve and hard-fought. It is an anti-dystopia because there are people fighting to save the planet, despite all the odds. An informative, interesting and inspiring novel about climate change.
Highly recommended.4 ❦
2 the1991 eruption pushed 20 million tons of sulpher dioxide and ash into the atmosphere, decreasing global temperatures by 0.5 degrees C a year later