Kim Stanley Robinson’s THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE is a solitary work of genius. It is one of the most eye-opening, brilliant, and simultaneously horrifying and hopeful novels I’ve ever read.
Fast forward a few years from now, and India suffers a heat wave so lethal it kills millions. This galvanizes the world to take global warming due to human carbon emissions as seriously as the vast majority of scientists. At the United Nations, an agency is formed, the “Ministry for the Future,” designed to represent future generations and the biosphere. This hefty novel imagines the challenges they and humanity face in the coming decades, the daunting forces entrenched in their way, and the systemic changes required.
Holy crap, what a powerful, mosaic novel of ideas. A warning: It’s wonky, meaning it’s filled with policy and discussion about how bureaucracies can get policy implemented. It doesn’t have a typical storytelling narrative. The characters come across as real but not necessarily people you heavily invest in; they are vehicles for expressing a much bigger story about the future of life on Earth and whether we want civilization and possibly human life to survive. The read is worth it, but it’s also helpful to have the right expectations going into it.
Robinson covers all the bases, acknowledging that capitalism, neoliberalism (the idea that capitalism, not governments, can solve all problems), and fossil-fuel global economies are engines wrecking the planet, and to address global warming and prevent catastrophic climate change, post-capitalist systems will need to be pioneered. Neoliberals often comfort themselves by saying technology will get us out of the mess we’re making, but Robinson addresses that as well, noting how technology only does what humans want it to do. If there is little will to address humanity’s role in climate change, technology can only do so much. He imagines a new digital carbon currency that rewards carbon draw down, governments finally taking on the 1% and taxing them, corporations adopting the Mondragon worker coop model (which works so beautiful in Spain and other countries) to reduce income inequality and invest workers in their enterprises, fossil fuel burners having to accept the true cost of their product, a new global eco-terrorism war, reducing meat consumption in favor of vegetable substitutes, expanding instead of privatizing the Commons, clean energy, restoring land to wildlife, waves of climate refugees, massive engineering projects to save the polar ice caps, and much, much more. Robinson, who once wrote a brilliant trilogy about the colonization and terraforming of Mars, imagines us doing it to Earth to save it.
It’s a novel of tremendous scholarship that should be required reading by pretty much everybody. Too much conversation about climate change happens online, where people who simply agree with the vast majority of scientists (and their own eyes and common sense) end up arguing with people quoting cranks hired by Exxon, who end up winning by keeping it in debate, like a never-ending filibuster. Like everything else, climate change has become politicized as Left/Right, which is just dumb and proves robber baron Jay Gould’s famous quip that he could always hire half the working class to kill the other half in his defense. As a result, more carbon has been pumped into the atmosphere and more damage done since Al Gore’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH than all the decades before. As for the planet, it doesn’t care about these debates. Climate change is happening, it’s happening now, it’s going to get worse, and technology and capitalism aren’t going to solve it without systemic change that threatens the very rich sociopaths who would rather show off with flying yachts into near space rather than pay taxes so we can collectively solve our problems. This is problem that should unite everybody in common cause, with the debate focused on what we do rather than whether we should do anything. My kids aren’t going to die for a few rich assholes’ profits.
THE MINISTRY FOR THE FUTURE excited me for its brilliance and ideas but utterly depressed me, as I’m old enough now to be pretty cynical about human nature and what we’re capable of in large organizations instead of individuals. Fixing the problem will be hard work and require systemic change, not just a percentage of the population buying electric cars and LED light bulbs, and people probably aren’t going to be excited about doing what must be done until climate change is bashing down their door, at which point it may be too late. Robinson shows a path out of this, but I don’t share his faith that the global elites will give up a single dollar or ounce of privilege. They think they’ll be in lifeboats when the ship goes down. They are products of a system engineered to maximize profit today, not tomorrow, and bulldoze anything or anybody to do so, with any externalities–pollution, wrecked ecosystems, etc.–everybody else’s problem. Meaning ours. These people (the 1%) own 43% of the world’s wealth, control its financial system, virtually control its governments, and of course can get half the working class to kill the other half. So I’m more cynical than Robinson, though I appreciate his hope and applaud him showing him a way forward.
If you can’t tell, I loved this one and highly recommend it to anybody who cares about the world they live in and humanity as a whole.