The prolific science-fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who is at heart an optimist, opens his newest novel, The Ministry for the Future, with a long set piece as bleak as it is plausible. Somewhere in a small city on the Gangetic Plain in Uttar Pradesh during the summer of 2025, Frank, a young American working for an NGO, wakes up in his room above a clinic to find that an unusually severe pre-monsoon heat wave has grown hotter still and more humid—that the conditions outside are rapidly approaching the limit of human survival. Actually, conditions inside are approaching the same level, because the power has gone out.
Frank manages to get a generator going and opens the doors of the NGO’s offices to seven or eight extended families, who cram themselves into the few rooms where creaking air conditioners knock the fatal edge off the heat. But then local thugs take both the generator and the AC unit at gunpoint. The temperature inside and out approaches 108 degrees Fahrenheit; the humidity is 60 percent. People start to die, and their bodies are taken up to the roof and left there. As night falls, Frank goes with some of the survivors to the shallow lake in the center of the city and they submerge themselves in the water, hopeful it will help them survive. It doesn’t—the lake water, too, is above body temperature, and as thirsty people drink it,
hot water in one’s stomach meant there was no refuge anywhere…. They were being poached….
People were dying faster than ever. There was no coolness to be had. All the children were dead, all the old people were dead. People murmured what should have been screams of grief.
Frank survives, barely, with a lifelong case of PTSD: “Any time he broke a sweat his heart would start racing, and soon enough he would be in the throes of a full-on panic attack.” Even a job he gets in the UK in a meat-processing plant with refrigerated rooms is not enough to keep the terror at bay. Nor the guilt, nor the anger, which become plot points of sorts in this sprawling novel. An uncountable number of Indians died in the heat wave he survived—perhaps 20 million. In the book, it marks the effective starting point of humankind’s effort to deal realistically with climate change.
And such a heat wave is not unlikely—in fact, it is all but guaranteed. We came pretty close in California in September, when temperatures even in communities near the ocean like San Luis Obispo hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit, albeit at a lower humidity. Over the last few years we’ve seen record-breaking combinations of heat and humidity in Middle Eastern cities—the heat index has approached 160 degrees Fahrenheit in places like Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and Bandar, Iran. The latest research—some of it published last summer—indicates that such heat waves will become steadily more common. As the decades pass, a belt across India, Pakistan, and the North China Plain will see temperatures past the survival point for days and weeks at a time. The heat wave that killed tens of thousands in Europe in 2003 is only a foretaste.
In taking on heat and glacial melt and fire, Robinson is writing more realistic fiction than most contemporary novelists, for whom the physical world remains a backdrop for more interior stories. We are entering a period when physical forces, and our reaction to them, will drive the drama on planet Earth. We are lucky to have a writer as knowledgeable, as sensible, and as humane as Robinson to act as a guide—he is an essential authority for our time and place, and our deliberations about the future will go better the more widely he is read, for he is offering a deeply informed view on what are quickly becoming the great questions of world politics. The New Yorker once asked if Robinson was “our greatest political novelist,” and I think the answer may well be yes. He’s not trained as a scientist, but he’s so up on the literature that he’s usually three or four years ahead of the news, and not just in the US—his sense of the Earth’s political currents, including the rise of China and India, runs deep.
Which is interesting, because Robinson first made his mark writing about a different planet. His Mars trilogy, published in the 1990s, won every science-fiction award there is. (Robinson writes long books, and they often come in groups of three.) That story begins at almost the same time as The Ministry for the Future does: a group of a hundred earthlings takes off in 2026 to colonize Mars, as conditions on their home planet begin to deteriorate. It is an epic tale of the technological effort required to “terraform” Mars—to make it habitable for humans by, say, drilling deep holes to release subsurface heat, and exploding nuclear weapons in the permafrost to start producing flowing water. Robinson’s scenarios are precisely what NASA engineers were thinking through back then: that it was only a matter of time before we colonized the red planet. But in truth the technology is secondary—his true interest, then and now, is more in political science than in science itself.
The Mars trilogy is really an exercise in asking how humans could, would, and should settle an uninhabited place: how, given a blank slate, we might work out our divisions and create a society that could survive and thrive. With a Mars colony as a setting, Robinson needed to deal with only a scattered few people on an empty world and had room to address questions of human nature, human organization, and human agency that are harder to deal with on the messy, crowded, historically contingent world we actually inhabit. His careful thought in those early novels has paid off in the years since; the conceptual seedlings he nurtured on Mars he has transplanted back on Earth in his more recent work, culminating in The Ministry for the Future, which may serve as his ultimate account of how to set our Earth on a workable course.
Before diving in, however, it’s worth noting why Robinson has mostly left space behind. In the decades since the Mars trilogy appeared, the science has made it clearer that we’re not going to easily spread out into the cosmos. The visions of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk notwithstanding, even colonizing Mars will be much harder than originally envisioned by the writers of space operas and the NASA planners in the halcyon post-Apollo days—among other things, NASA probes have discovered that the red planet is carpeted in a soil containing toxic perchlorates, so you’d somehow have to decontaminate the planet before you started doing anything grander.
It has also become clear that the distances involved in interstellar travel effectively preclude colonization outside the solar system: everything from the effects of radiation to the lack of genetic diversity in any “ark” that we’d send into space would amount to crippling obstacles. As Robinson has said:
There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.
Indeed, he devoted an entire (and quite lovely) novel, Aurora (2015), to demonstrating why deep space colonization would be impossible. It follows the crew of an interstellar craft as they fail to inhabit a distant planet and then try, against the odds, to return to Earth, with a much-sharpened appreciation for its fragility and beauty.
The real danger of fantasizing about space travel is that it creates a moral hazard: one begins to care less about the fate of our own world. And Robinson very much wants us to focus on this world. In book after book in recent years, he has laid out the path forward for dealing with the existential crisis that climate change has clearly become.
In a trilogy of novels set in the near future in a rapidly heating Washington, D.C.—collected in 2015 in an omnibus edition titled Green Earth—the US government and the National Science Foundation are still focal points for the fight to save the planet. By 2025, in the new novel, it is a UN agency that takes the lead—“the Ministry for the Future,” formed in response to the Indian heat wave by the parties to the Paris climate accord. The ministry is located in Zurich, an often overlooked city that Robinson describes with great intimacy and affection, and is headed by Mary Murphy, an Irishwoman—she is, for my money, an accurate and beguiling composite of an actual former UN commissioner for human rights, Mary Robinson, and Christiana Figueres and Laurence Tubiana, the two diplomats who did more than any others to pull off those Paris talks. (That women have been at the center of climate diplomacy is perhaps less noted than it should be.)
No UN ministry, of course, can move world affairs—that waits on the interests of the powers that be. In this case, those interests come in many forms. Some countries, like India, are scared enough to try anything: Delhi launches a fleet of airplanes that ferry sulfur compounds into the atmosphere, where the particles block some incoming solar radiation, a fairly low-tech (and in the real world highly controversial) geoengineering plan to reduce the temperature.
The ministry sponsors other technological tricks, all of which have to be applied on similarly immense scales to have any effect: drilling holes to the base of Antarctic and Greenlandic glaciers to drain the meltwater collecting there so the ice sheets slow their slide into the ocean; dyeing the newly melted Arctic Ocean yellow so that it stops absorbing so much sunlight. Some schemes work better than others, but by themselves they’re nowhere near enough, and indeed The Ministry for the Future mostly brushes past them, more concerned with the changes in the world economy and governance that must come.
Such shifts are opposed by entrenched interests like fossil fuel executives and the status quo politicians. And so those interests are targeted by a terror group, the Children of Kali, which arises in India to avenge the victims of the heat wave, and also by a dark-ops wing of the UN ministry itself. These operatives are clever: in one of the more enjoyable interludes in the book, they manage to take over Davos, subjecting the global elite to an endless series of seminars and workshops on global poverty and environmental disruption. Meanwhile, on what will henceforth be known as Crash Day, the terrorists send swarms of drones into the engines of jets around the world, downing them. Some are the private jets of plutocrats, but not all—the deaths of innocent people are real, if limited. As a result, far fewer people are willing to fly, except in the growing fleet of solar-powered dirigibles and airships that slowly circle the Earth.
Similarly, vast, smoke-belching container ships are torpedoed by futuristic “pebble-mob” missiles that can overwhelm defenses by sheer force of numbers. They are replaced by photovoltaic clipper ships that harvest both sun and wind as they make their more stately way across the ocean. (Murphy travels in one from Europe to Florida, making the obvious point to anyone who’s lived through the pandemic that as long as you have your laptop you can as easily work from the deck of a boat as from an office.) But again, these technologies—all in various stages of development today—aren’t the real salvation.
That lies instead in the various changes that start rippling through societies. Minister Murphy’s most important interventions are with the four or five crucial central bankers around the world; they’re persuaded not only to tax carbon but to issue a “carbon coin” as a reward for actions that keep oil and gas in the ground or sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. This “carboni” begins to replace the dollar as the underpinning of the global economy, and as that happens, neoliberalism—really capitalism itself—begins to bend a little in its dictates.
“The euthanasia of the rentier class,” as Keynes called it, begins; more and more of the uberwealthy find themselves compelled to take a serious haircut, left with tens of millions in place of their billions in increasingly stranded assets. Popular movements break out everywhere—debt strikes by students, and then by the debtor nations of the global south; uprisings in China of migratory workers long denied residence permits in the cities where they work, who take to the streets by the millions and force some basic changes from the Chinese Communist Party:
There was so much going on, such a spasm of revolts occurring spontaneously (if it was spontaneous!) all over the world, that some historians said it was another 1848…. Coincidence? Conspiracy? World spirit, Zeitgeist in action? Who knew? All they knew for sure was that it was happening, things were falling apart.
And when things fall apart, new things can emerge. It is here that Robinson is at his best—he has a head full of all the hopeful experiments on our planet, the ones that run a little counter to the prevailing wisdom. For instance, there’s a tidy discourse on the town of Mondragón in Basque country that for decades has seen a successful and fascinating experiment in cooperative control of industry; there’s an informed account of the state of Kerala in the south of India, where a low GDP coexists with high quality of life; there’s a nod to Modern Monetary Theory and the idea that deficits might not matter, and to Vandana Shiva, an activist and pioneer in organic agriculture who has long argued that local agriculture is significantly healthier for people in developing countries.
Robinson also understands the blockchain technology underlying currencies like bitcoin, and the ways it might stop the wealthy from hiding their cash in the Caymans; he knows what the agronomist Wes Jackson is up to at the Land Institute in Kansas, where they’re figuring out how to grow wheat as a perennial, not an annual crop; and he’s followed the French law intended to increase carbon in farm soils. He’s got a handle on rotational grazing and on wild oyster farming, and on a thousand and one other possibilities. He knows that—pace Margaret Thatcher—there is an alternative to capitalism, or really millions of alternatives, each designed for its own place. If only the system can be moved.
And it turns out that climate change—as Naomi Klein posited in her great book This Changes Everything—is the tool for moving it, the crisis that finally forces us (because chemistry and physics simply won’t be denied, the way morality and justice can be) to deal with our inequality and our unjust history and the whole wretched mess we’ve managed to make of things in the early twenty-first century. Robinson’s scheme is not utopian, it’s anti-dystopian, realist to its core: there’s still money and still nation-states and still central banks, and change comes from riot and occupation and protest (grahasatya, he calls it, or force peace, in a realpolitik nod to Gandhi)—but “it will be legislation that does it in the end, creating a new legal regime that is fair, just, sustainable, and secure…. The best Plan B will emerge from the multitudes.”
In The Ministry for the Future, it all kind of works. Yes, there’s a great and savage depression, and ongoing ecological wreckage, especially in the acidified oceans. But by the 2050s the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has begun to drop, and fairly fast—down five parts per million per year, maybe even headed back to the 350 mark that the climate scientist Jim Hansen set as the boundary for some kind of civilizational chance.
Is this possible, outside the confines of fiction?
I think it might be: the emergence, for instance, of Greta Thunberg and a hundred other high school–age leaders, militantly demanding change, seems like it could easily have been a plot point instead of a reality. The youth of the Sunrise Movement and their demand for a sweeping Green New Deal exemplify the kind of change Robinson imagines. The rapid development of cheap renewable energy makes a quick change in that direction technically and economically possible, even at this late date.
But part of me fears that Robinson underestimates not just the staying power of the status quo but also the odds that when things get really bad, we will react really badly. It’s possible that a killer heat wave striking India might begin to wake up the conscience of the world; it’s also possible that it makes the emergence of the next round of Trumps and Bolsonaros and Modis more likely.
If the Covid pandemic is a kind of early test of our ability to respond to crisis, some parts of the world seem to have passed and others seem to have failed. Can the US achieve the kind of unity that might make it an ally in this greatest of fights? In Robinson’s novel, the valiant people of Hong Kong not only hold off Beijing but manage to help change the flavor of its government—at the moment, that river seems to be flowing the other way. And the change that must come must come rapidly: even one more wasted decade may be enough to put us past the point where the momentum of global warming can really be checked.
This is precisely why one hopes that this book is read widely—that Robinson’s audience, already large, grows by an order of magnitude. Because the point of his books is to fire the imagination, to remind us that the great questions of our lives are not just about love and relationships, but also about politics and economics.
He ends with another set piece, this one charming. Mary Murphy, retired, has returned to Zurich after a dirigible tour of the planet, which has been increasingly rewilded as populations begin to shrink and human settlements are purposefully taken off the map. From the air the passengers have watched herds on the Serengeti, caribou streaming across a reviving Arctic. She has begun to fall for the gentle and quiet captain of the blimp, and the two of them now go out together to wander the streets of the Swiss city for Fasnacht, the pre-Lenten masquerade. Men with alphorns play Fanfare for the Common Man, a steel drum band offers a Trinidadian tune, some Andean Indians in serapes play the panpipes. Mary looks at this world, which she has done much to save, and she thinks:
That there is no other home for us than here. That we will cope no matter how stupid things get. That all couples are odd couples. That the only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction. That we can make a good place. That people can take fate in their hands. That there is no such thing as fate.
December 17, 2020
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