These days the old adage of fact being stranger than fiction is living itself out so commonly, that a lot of fiction no longer surprises. Pandemics killing off huge sections of humanity have been the stuff of dystopian science fiction or doomsday predictions, but what the COVID-19 virus did was stranger and more dramatic than them all. And so when I opened Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 novel, Ministry for the Future, I was not looking for too many ‘oh wow’ moments, but just expecting a good science fiction read (having read his Mars trilogy).
I was in for a pleasant surprise. There are not too many way into the future ‘no-one has thought of before’ moments in its 576 pages – after all, it is set in the 2040s – but many existing ideas come together in new ways, and the sheer range of topics Robinson is able to weave together into a coherent mix of fact and fiction around the climate crisis, is remarkable. And, given the resurgence or increasing power of regressive political and economic forces around us, and their very visible ecological and social impacts, it is most welcome that the author paints an overall utopian (or, as a climate activist labeled it, ‘anti-dystopian’) vision, and makes it sound quite convincingly plausible. There are some aspects of the story I find problematic, but I’ll come back to these.
Killer heat wave and a kidnapping
The Ministry for the Future begins with a horrific event of high temperatures and humidity levels killing 20 million people in India’s northern plains; given the trends in weather, an entirely possible scenario that many parts of the world are facing. This mass death event is witnessed by a young American volunteer, Frank May, who is amongst the few that survive. He is forever scarred by the experience, and becomes one of the novel’s recurrent figures, prone to desperate acts that he hopes would make the world change course. One of these acts is briefly holding hostage Mary Murphy, in charge of a Ministry for the Future set up under the Paris climate accord, and demanding that she do all in her power to get the world to change course. Though, in turn, traumatised by this experience, Murphy realises that what May has demanded is indeed necessary. Over time and with the help of experts of various kinds, she begins to work the global system to make some fundamental changes.
Meanwhile, there are all manners of other actors: bankers, hackers, saboteurs, violent earth defenders, much more violent earth destroyers, climate and war refugees, people’s movements and civil society organisations, the military, business leaders and even carbon molecules, protons and other elements of nature that are given a voice. The novel intersperses first-person narratives of some of these actors with some fast-paced events of climate disaster (such as Los Angeles under water), and quite a bit of factual detail on the science and mechanics of climate change. It’s a strange mix, but it mostly works – I stress mostly, and will mention my little quibble about this later.
Climate science and climate politics
Along with climate science, the book also weaves in a heady dose of climate politics: the cynical actions of big banks, governments that are hand in glove with capitalist corporations, the Bretton Woods institutions that, based on an infamous Washington Consensus, have pushed devastating ‘structural adjustment’ programmes onto so-called developing countries, and other global elites that underlie so much that is wrong with the world. Also featuring are the legacy of colonisation and various forms of neo-colonialism, resulting in debilitating debt amongst, for instance, African nations, and a massive refugee problem. The growing power of China also figures in Robinsons’ sweep of climate geopolitics; it continues to be ruled by a Communist regime that follows a capitalist business model, and still riding roughshod over Hong Kong. And even the capitulation of seemingly revolutionary parties, such as Syriza in Greece, finds mention. Clearly, Robinson has done his homework on historical and current events.
It is while dealing with the solutions to the climate crisis that the novel gets most interesting. Possibly the most perplexing and seemingly intractable problem humanity faces is this. If scientific predictions about imminent ecological collapse are true (many say, we have about a decade), we need to act very very fast to change our planet-guzzling ways; but such changes require fundamental shifts in behaviour, and replacing the structures and relations of domination inherent in capitalism, statism, patriarchy, racism, and human-centredness. Massive civilisational transformations (mindshifts, heartshifts) are needed to re-heal the rifts within humans, and between us and the rest of nature. But these require time, which we don’t seem to have.
A ministry for the future
Robinson takes a bold step towards resolving this conundrum with a mix of solutions, not all of which will be to everyone’s liking or be able to convince the diehard pessimist. But Murphy and a host of other (often unnamed) characters end up doing their bit in making huge shifts possible by the late 2040s.
One, the character realises that the reins of the global economy are significantly in the hands of national banks, especially of the big economies. She is advised by her ace team in the Ministry that a ‘carbon coin’, a kind of currency, could be put out with a very high discounted rate that can be exchanged for keeping carbon in the ground. Over a series of meetings, she convinces an initially highly reluctant set of bank managers to back this up; and it begins to have an impact pretty soon.
Separately, a bunch of enthusiastic scientists and engineers are commissioned by several countries to drill down to the base of glaciers and pump out the water that has been forming there due to warming conditions, causing massive glacier sliding into the sea. This also begins to have an impact on stabilising glaciers in Antarctica.
There are other market and technical fixes abound in the novel, and the significant attention given to them is not entirely to my liking. Having suffered the catastrophic mass deaths early in the novel, India is amongst the first to employ geo-engineering, pumping out massive quantities of sulfur dioxide to reflect sunlight back before it hit the earth. This breaks an agreement not to try such interventions without international agreement; but as India says, with some justification, that the North having created the problem, and still not acting as it should, is in no position to dictate terms to the South.
But if the problem is caused by economic and political structures, as both Robinson and his characters, including people’s movements in India, clearly recognise, then the solutions also have to be systemic, fundamental, structural. I was pleasantly surprised to see a range of these getting introduced into the story; clearly the novelist has done his factual homework with regard to more radical solutions too. And so we witness global gatherings and networking of grassroots movements and alternatives, including many that actually do exist in today’s world (some that I have worked with!).
They are of diverse nature: worker cooperatives, agroecological farmer groups, decentralised renewable energy initiatives, alternative and community currencies, recommoning of private spaces, movements for refugee rights in recognition of the role of colonialism in destroying their home regions, open source technologies and media, self-reliant communes, and much else.
Many of these are founded on alternative worldviews and visions, such as matriotism to the earth replacing patriotism to the nation-state, and bioregionalism that puts ecological linkages at the heart of decision-making. A growing movement to demand and make effective reparations for colonial and historical damage done by the North also does its bit, including African nations teaming up to reject any repayments of financial debt. Much inspiration is taken from movements like Kurdistan, which since the early 2000s have shown the potential for radical, ecofeminist democracy at a large scale.
India, Switzerland, California are shown to be some major hubs of innovative solutions. In the book, a conglomeration of progressive forces unite to form the government, and grassroots mobilisation achieves considerable progress in taking forward community-led initiatives with support from the state. This includes even a regenerative agriculture job guarantee programme (clearly modeled on the existing National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme) to help regenerate land and water, and provide secure occupations. A kind of Grahasatya (Force peace), Robinson makes his character call it; a verbal reversal of Mahatma Gandhi’s Satyagraha. California shows how a massive rewilding programme can work, convincing wealthy landowners to move out of wildlife corridors. Switzerland shows how refugees can be treated with dignity (and Frank May is shown working with them till he gets caught for having held Murphy hostage).
Robin Hood activism
And then there is the bit many would call ‘terrorism’. Mysteriously, drones start downing airplanes (all of them either private jets or commercial flights carrying mostly businesspersons), and big commercial ships start sinking close to the shore (therefore also making good platforms for corals to rebuild!). These strikes by themselves have the effect of significantly reducing fossil fuel guzzling transportation (perhaps not as dramatically as the COVID pandemic did in early/mid 2020, but still pretty effectively). From half a million people up on the air on a given day, the number dropped to a trickle. Battery- or biofuel-powered planes, blimps, hot-air balloons were not targeted. In many parts of the world, groups called Children of Kali, Gaia’s Shock Troops, and others knock off selective wealthy people, target fossil fuel burning transport, attack thermal power stations, calling it the War for the Earth. Meanwhile, hackers in an unknown location, are doing their bit to disrupt the systems that keep the global financial machine ticking.
As we come to the end, we are given the image of a world that is moving towards fixing the climate and ecological crises, even as it begins to resolve others like North-South inequality. In this sense one can call the book Utopian, though with a heavy dose of the ‘realistic’ grounded on current reality.
In some aspects of this vision, I find there is a lack of depth. For instance, a lot of attention is given to the so-called ‘half-earth’ approach (coined and proposed by famous biologist E.O. Wilson), that leads to the regeneration and rewilding of large spaces across the earth. Critiques of this approach, including one by me, have pointed to its potential for displacing and dispossessing large numbers of communities who may be in the 50% of the earth sought to be strictly protected. Robinson does bring in a passing reference to the need for people’s participation in this programme, but the necessity of a community-centred approach that can take up ‘whole-earth’ and not only 50%, is missing.
Similarly, while getting his characters to start moving towards a form socialism with ‘real political representation’ for all, it is not clear that radical, bottom-up democracy (what in India we would call swaraj) is being envisioned, or how the problems of centralisation in a socialist state can be avoided unless power lies with each person and community on the ground. A significantly overlooked factor, surprisingly, is consumerism; how has this been tackled by the 2040s, to enable a climate-just world? Even a complete shift to clean and renewable energy will not avert ecological catastrophe, if we do not challenge and restrain demand; the same with other sectors.
A final (small) quibble I have is that there are too many textbookish portions. Great for climate knowledge of course, but not for the feel of a novel. So if you’re looking for a purely sci-fi experience, you may want to skip over these portions. But I guess Robinson thought these were essential to make the case for urgent action on climate crisis, and the compromise was worth it.
The above criticisms are, however, not meant to detract from my overall assessment: it’s a roller coaster of a book, one of the most significant pieces of fiction on the climate and ecological crises thus far (I’m looking forward to reading another promising one, Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island). It must be read not only by science fiction fans, but by all those in any position to act on what is clearly humanity’s biggest challenge.
(This book review first appeared on Mongabay)