Book Club

The Chair read for you The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

Published on 21 November 2022

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson throws us into a very near future, from about 2025 to 2050, in his novel The Ministry for the Future [1]. The book begins with a horrific scenario: a heat wave of unprecedented intensity literally suffocates millions of people in India. Despite this, this novel about climate change, made up of 103 short chapters, does not fall into the dystopia category. The author succeeds in showing a relatively optimistic yet believable future. By following the fate of a new global institution, the Ministry for the Future, through two characters – Mary Murphy, its director, and Franck May, a humanitarian traumatized by the Indian heatwave – we are introduced to a multitude of changes that reposition the world on a more sustainable path. To achieve this, a wide range of political, technological, economic, and social transformations are tested or discussed.

The title “The Ministry for the Future” sets the tone for this novel. Political and geopolitical changes are crucial to move towards a greenhouse gas reduction trajectory. The spearhead for climate action is supposed to be the Ministry for the Future. This ministry was founded in 2025 after countries realized they were far off from the climate targets they had set themselves. As a consequence, the parties to the convention created an auxiliary body based in Zurich to implement the Paris agreement, authorized by articles 16 and 18. The Ministry is charged with advocating “for the world’s future generations of citizens ” and defending “all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves”. Initially powerless, the Ministry’s impact and legitimacy grows over the course of history. At the domestic level, some countries build a new model, like India which plays a decisive role in changing the world’s trajectory. Following the deadly heatwave, this nation takes a new direction: Western companies are expelled from the country and a new party comes to power. Anger against developed countries and polluters awakens and gives rise to an eco-terrorist movement (the Children of Kali) that avenges citizens who were victims of the disaster. It would be a misreading to conclude that the author believes violence is necessary to drive change. The intention here is rather to depict a realistic future. On the other hand, he does not omit the need to resort to sabotage. Indeed, the Ministry for the Future also has a dark department whose actions are secret. Polluters are murdered, power stations bombed, airliners shot down, livestock farms infected with mad cow disease and participants to the Davos forum held hostage.

Technology is of course an important lever in climate change mitigation in this  novel and is supported by the Ministry. First, India, which is urgently trying to prevent further heat waves, decides to go against the United Nations by unilaterally deploying solar geoengineering technology. Its army releases sulfur into the atmosphere to block some of the ultraviolet radiation coming from the sun and thus lower the global temperature. Leading the way towards a different model of society, the country also has vast solar fields supplying it with energy. Regenerative agriculture techniques, supported by technology (digital modelling of agriculture, the “Internet of animals”, etc.) make it possible to feed the country, while preserving biodiversity and storing carbon in the soil. On a global level, huge projects are implemented to stabilize sea levels. The task is arduous, and the solutions found are makeshift and costly, but eventually prove effective… The waters of the North Pole are tainted with yellow dye, while in Antarctica, the meltwater accumulating under the glaciers is pumped out and moved to the bottom of the ocean. Airships and solar-powered and sail-powered ships replace motorized ships and planes.  The science fiction novel format lends itself particularly well to discussing the governance of geoengineering, which is a topic that is not often discussed in public debates, even though it is ultimately a credible outcome. Indeed, when countries are facing human tragedies and are cornered, how can we ensure the governance of geoengineering, which is for the moment unanimously decried? Is it better to do nothing than to test a risky solution? Another geoengineering scenario not explored in the book, although plausible, would be that these techniques are not imposed by the victims of climate change, but by the winners of the current system who would like to pursue a business-as-usual scenario. The topic of rare earths could also have been explored further.

Finally, the crux of the climate change problem is the economic system, as mitigation solutions exist but are not implemented until they are cost-effective. In order to make project assessments more inclusive of future generations, India chooses to revise its discount rate, giving it a bell shape, with the peak corresponding to the present and the rate remaining very low for at least the seven generations to come. But the key solution, which allows the author to make the optimistic ending plausible, is the implementation of climatic quantitative easing by central banks, following several decades of Mary’s tough negotiations. The idea is to design a crypto currency backed by major central banks, and distributed to any organization, person, or state that stores carbon, thereby incentivizing the funding of costly transition plans. This innovation is the reason why fossil fuel-producing countries are willing to leave their wealth underground without getting poorer. Kim Stanley Robinson was inspired by the idea set out in the scientific article “Hypothesis for a Risk Cost of Carbon: Revising the Externalities and Ethics of Climate Change”, co-authored by Delton Chen. Chen’s idea gained popularity and visibility through this novel.

After a few decades, the Ministry achieves its goals. It was necessary to work with determination on all fronts by combining political, technological, and economic innovations to dodge collapse and make societies more just. However, all of this happens following considerable human catastrophe, in a chaotic and slow transition, where violence played a key role in accelerating change.  The Ministry for the Future does not quite read like a novel. Halfway between science fiction and essay, this book is full of explanations of economic theories, historical events, scientific descriptions, definitions and much more. But this format successfully illustrates the plethora of issues and actors involved in the environmental crisis. The reader will therefore come away with a comprehensive view of the options for transition, and (importantly) remain optimistic about the future that lies ahead.

Léa Crépin, PhD Candidate Soybean trade and imported deforestation.

[1] Robinson, Kim Stanley (2020)The Ministry for the Future. Orbit Ed., 576 pp.