Review: The Ministry for the Future

This book by Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) came out in late 2020. It’s a CliFi story about The Ministry FOR the Future, a (fictional) UN agency based in Switzerland with a mission to protect future generations from our current (climate-changing) selves.

The book is long (577 pages; my page numbers are from the digital version), with interwoven stories that sometimes peter out and sometimes take up more space than you’d expect. It’s a bit operatic.

KSR has a deep understanding of the political and economic forces driving climate chaos (CC), various mitigation and adaptation options, and the science of what will is happening to ecosystems and humans as the chaos intensifies.

The book begins with an (entirely believable) heat wave in India that kills millions. NB: The difference between India and the Pacific Northwest (recently hit by a heat wave that killed hundreds) is the same in the book as now: wealth. CC will kill far more poor than rich, on a per-capita basis.

The undercurrent in the book is a struggle with adapting to worsening CC and attempts by the MftF, as well as many other actors, violent and diplomatic alike, to mitigate worse damages. I found the adaptation struggles and CC damages to be entirely believable. [SPOILER ALERT] I found the mitigation success to be a bit too fast and easy, although KSR at least builds a reasonable excuse (a carbon coin) for 200 or so nations to cooperate in reforming their economies, cities, transportation and infrastructure.

The central stories in the book involve Mary, who leads the MftF, and they focus on her work in the Ministry, building solutions with outsiders, and her relation with Frank, a near victim of the heat wave who travels to Switzerland to shock Mary and others into taking action. It’s difficult to combine fiction with science, but I think KSR does a good job (not that I could even get within miles of his writing!), putting this book firmly into my CliFi canon. (You know that I edited two books of short CliFi stories, right? Go download them; they’re free.)

So let me get to my usual set of bullet-point highlights and comments:

  1. Mary reminds me of Mary Robinson, another Irish leader, but I don’t know much about MR.
  2. KSR is absolutely right that fossil fuel reserves are mostly owned by national (not private) companies, that they must stay in the ground, that evolution will refill the Earth (after it recovers from the Anthropocene) in two million years (or more), that CC will break insurance markets, and that our overconsumption (not basics) is driving CC:

    “To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is a good as a feast— or better.
    Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.” P 75

  3. There are several instances of “eco-terrorism,” all aimed at the rich middle classes, with their flying, shopping, overfishing, etc. The MftF may — or may not — be supporting these attacks, which are (in the book) effective at changing behavior.
  4. Geoengineering plays a big role, as it must if we’re going to have “negative emissions,” and it takes both coordinated and go-it-alone forms.
  5. The Half Earth [for Nature] and 2000kWh [per year, per person] Society are existing ideas that deserve attention for their potential benefits.
  6. There are many vignettes in poor countries and poor communities in rich countries. Those people suffer but they also cooperate in mutual defence.
  7. Scientists are super excited to finally make progress against CC, using ideas and techniques that mostly (in 2021) exist.
  8. As I’ve advocated, the tide turns when money (bribes) are used to persuade incumbents.
  9. KSR’s scenario of converting all currency into crypto that can be tracked on the blockchain is not that believable, but central banks are trying!
  10. The recovery of ecosystems and species that comes with their protection doesn’t surprise me. It’s the protection that surprises me. KSR does not consider most of the difficulties of protecting commons. That said, consider this reality:

    “In a fight between sociopathic sick wounded angry fucked-up wicked people, and all the rest of them, not just the good and the brave but the ordinary and weak, the sheep who just wanted to get by, the fuckers always won.” — p510

  11. KSR  blames the Washington Consensus for many things it’s not about. Maybe the WC is a handy reference point but I would have preferred he attack crony capitalism (corruption) rather than the WC’s helpful macroeconomic policy suggestions.
  12. KSR highlights the many contradictions and hypocrisies within CC-discussions as well as everyday politics. He’s a good tutor.
  13. I was happy to see user data privatised away from social media leeches (e.g,  Facebook, YouTube) and back to users. This system links in with (9) above.
  14. Co-operatives, UBI and many other progressive-popular ideas get implemented. They work. As with (10), it’s the implementation more than the function that surprises me, but what’s the point of CliFi, if not to work through the implications of “what if” thought experiments.
  15. LA gets hit by an atmospheric river that drops so much water on the land that the weight causes faults to slip… and earthquakes. I’ve long thought that earthquakes would be ONE disaster not correlated with CC, but I now have reason to doubt 🙁
  16. A good summary:

    “A tax on burning fossil carbon, which could be called not a tax but rather paying the true cost, could be set progressively, or offset by feebates, to avoid harming the poorest who burn less carbon but also need to burn what they burn to live. A fossil carbon tax set high enough would create a strong incentive to quit burning it. It could be set quite high, and on a schedule to go even higher over time, which would increase the incentive to quit burning it. Tax rates on the largest uses could be made prohibitive, in the sense of blocking all chance of profits being made from any derivative effects of these burns” — p386

  17. Psychology (also see my “7 reasons we’re failing to stop CC“):

    “This was yet another manifestation of racism and contempt for the South, yes, but also of a universal cognitive disability, in that people had a very hard time imagining that catastrophe could happen to them, until it did. So until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen. To others, yes; to them, no. This was a cognitive error that, like most cognitive errors, kept happening even when you knew of its existence and prevalence. It was some kind of evolutionary survival mechanism, some speculated, a way to help people carry on even when it was pointless to carry on.” — p405

  18. Think about it:

    “Europe is just punishing the victims. Sudan takes care of more refugees than all of Europe, and Sudan is a wreck. People come to Europe and they get called economic migrants, as if that wasn’t just what their own citizens are supposed to do, try to make a better life, show some initiative. But if you come to Europe to do it you’re criminalized. You’ve got to change that” — p458

  19. The Chinese, Russians, and Americans also suffer so much, they decide to address CC. (The already suffering young and poor area already favor action).
  20. Farms, roads, cities need to go if “Half for Earth” is going to work.
  21. Migration also needs to be more flexible. KSR proposes “world passports” (with settlement rights in proportion to national capacities), which matches my 2012 idea.
  22. Hong Kong wins in this telling. Interesting that it was already dead (in the name of “national security”) before this book came out.
  23. The Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is finally returned to Nature (and taken away from rapacious farmers), much as I recommended in 2008.
  24. KSR ends with “we will keep going, because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.” — p639. True.

My one-handed conclusion is that anyone interested in their future, the science and political-economy of climate chaos, and good writing should read this book. It’s long, but always interesting. FIVE STARS.

Addendum (29 Jan 2022): A nice interview with KSR

Here are all my reviews.

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

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