It’s the year 2024. After most nations fail to meet their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, delegates to the annual Conference of the Parties (COP) create a “subsidiary body” to defend and protect future generations of citizens and all living creatures, present and future, who cannot speak for themselves. It quickly comes to be known as the Ministry for the Future.
The following year, a catastrophic heat wave strikes the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, sending both temperature and humidity skyrocketing for days on end killing around 20 million people.
These events – one calamitous, one hopeful – open Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel The Ministry for the Future.
Kim Stanley Robinson is a Hugo and Nebula award winning American science fiction author. He’s written 22 novels and numerous short stories. The Ministry for the Future is the first book of his that I’ve read.
The Ministry for the Future
By Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit, New York, 2020
What’s impressive about this big book – it’s over 500 pages – is its breadth. The novel gives us a glimpse into how the climate crisis and various mitigations could affect us from economic, social, political, humanitarian and scientific viewpoints. The overall message of the book is that there is no one silver bullet that will solve the climate crisis. Many approaches will be needed. We’ll have to try new techniques, new arrangements, new approaches. Some of these will fail, but many will succeed.
As this bit of dialog suggests, we must act now:
“Strike while the iron is hot. Put the crisis to good use. Change as much as you can as fast as you can.
Won’t so many changes at once lead to chaos?
It was chaos before. This is coping with chaos.
It’s a bit of a case of inventing the parachute as you fall, isn’t it?
Beats landing without one.
But will we have time?
Best work fast.” [p. 459]
In some ways, I think The Ministry for the Future is less a traditional novel and more a catalog of potential solutions presented in story form.
For me, the most intriguing idea of the book, aside from the idea of a Ministry for the Future itself, is the carbon coin, a new currency backed by the world’s major central banks that’s earned through CO2 reduction or sequestration. One coin could represent a ton of CO2 equivalent sequestered or reduced for one hundred years. It’s not Robinson’s invention but an idea that’s been proposed by an Australian engineer named Delton Chen. Oil companies and petrostates could earn carbon coins by leaving oil in the ground. Framers could earn them by adopting agricultural practices that retain more carbon in the soil.
Other topics in the book include habitat corridors such as the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor or the even larger Half Earth Project that set aside contiguous areas of land and sea for wildlife only to ensure sustainable biodiversity. All part of rewilding.
To help slow sea level rise we have to slow the world’s major glaciers from sliding into the oceans. One idea Robinson explores in the book is drilling through Antarctic and Greenland glaciers to the sea floor and pumping out any meltwater that has collected underneath them. This could let the glaciers lock back down onto the rocky sea floor, dramatically slowing their movement into the oceans.
Our economy can’t continue to operate in the same way it has for the past two hundred years. Robinson shows us some potential alternatives that involve more democratic, collective and sustainable ways of organizing economic activity, such as the Mondragon cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain.
Of course, some groups won’t be content with gradual change. They’ll want to take direct action. Perhaps, like the terrorists in The Ministry for the Future, they’ll use pebble mob missiles, clusters of small, inexpensive drones that swarm their targets from multiple directions at once, only converging in the last seconds before they explode. We’re already seeing early examples of this. The sinking of the Russian ship Moskva by Ukrainian forces earlier this year using inexpensive missiles potentially signals the obsolescence of most of the world’s existing naval fleets.
And if we don’t take urgent action, The Ministry for the Future lays out harrowing scenarios for what lies ahead, like the opening heat wave where wet bulb temperatures exceed 35C for prolonged periods. Wet bulb temperature is a measurement that incorporates both heat and humidity. At wet bulb temperatures of 35C or above the human body can’t cool down by sweating because the surrounding air is so hot and humid that it can’t absorb any more moisture. At this temperature, you’ll die in a few hours.
I think The Ministry for the Future presents a rich, plausible view into the near future. There are stark warnings here for sure, but on balance it’s hopeful. In fact, if anything, the book may be a bit too optimistic, but I think we need some of that these days.
If you like novels that involve complicated, twisty plots or rich character development, you may be disappointed by this lengthy book.
But like many great science fiction novels, The Ministry for the Future tackles big subjects with audacious, wildly imaginative ideas.
We’re going to need them.
Thanks for reading.
A Weird, Wonderful Conversation with Kim Stanley Robinson
Interview with Ezra Klein on The Ezra Klein Show podcast, July 15, 2022
A scary but hopeful novel about climate change
Bill Gates’ review of The Ministry for the Future, June 6, 2022
Could a ‘Carbon Coin’ Save the Planet?
Interview with Dr. Delton Chen in The Wall Street Journal, March 8, 2022
Global Carbon Reward
Program founded by Dr. Delton Chen to advance a carbon-backed currency for funding climate mitigation