I approached The Ministry for the Future, eco sci-fi master, Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest book, with some trepidation. I was anticipating a grim imagining of a near future in which human civilisation descends into chaos as a result of failure to respond to the climate crisis, something I am generally trying to escape when I find time to pick up a novel. But while there is plenty that is frighteningly real in Robinson’s narrative – from millions dying in droughts, floods and fires, to the rise of global eco-terrorism as a generation realises that the one-percent really are willing to sacrifice their futures for short-term profit – ultimately ‘The Ministry for the Future’ is a manifesto of hope.
That said, the book gets off to a brutal start. It is the early 2020s and Frank, a young western doctor, is sheltering terrified patients in his surgery as wildfire sweeps through an Indian town. When their air conditioning can no longer cope they take refuge in a nearby lake but find thousands of other townsfolk already there, most of whom are subsequently overwhelmed by the smoke and extreme temperatures. For the rest of the novel we check in on Frank’s progress as he struggles with the survivor guilt (had he not kept that secretly stashed bottle of water for himself, would he be dead too?) and rising anger at the greed and myopia that has reduced the world to such a dangerous place.
Yet while there are many passages that bring poignant focus to the extent to which in today’s very real world we are on the precipice of civilisational disaster, as the book’s title suggest the main focus of the novel is to imagine how humanity might ultimately save itself. The book traces that journey from 2023 to somewhere in the 2040s.
The pathway Robinson charts is based on erudite analysis of current woes, and a clever imagining of what might happen next. In many ways, it is how Robinson sees the next few years panning out that is the most interesting. As the real-life current Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guiterres, has said repeatedly of late, we are standing on the edge of the abyss – it is the direction of our very next step that will determine the fate of humanity.
The answer is a combination of local revolution (starting in an India fed up with its self-serving elites’ failure to prepare for and respond to existential shocks) and then a global intervention from a specially created global agency, The Ministry for the Future of the books’ title.
This ministry is granted sparse funding, but unlimited licence by a desperate United Nations, whose member countries understand the seriousness of the scientific data and warnings, but can’t break free of their own political boundaries to really do something about them.
It is impossible to say much more without ruining the plot, but while there is enough drama in the story to keep you wanting to turn the pages that isn’t really the main point of the book in any case. Indeed, I found myself reading The Ministry for the Future pencil in hand, noting down key facts and marking out great quotes like I might do with a particularly brilliant polemic, or long-view article.
In general, Robinson’s thesis is that climate breakdown can only be averted through a massive reduction in consumption by the rich, leading also to a beneficial improvement in standards of living for everyone. Half of global GDP today, we are told, is comprised of prosperous people buying things they don’t need and which pollute the biosphere. Average energy consumption only needs to reduce from 2,500 watts per person to 2,000 watts, the theory of the Swiss-based ‘2,000 Watt Society‘, but the problem is that in wealthy societies the average is two or three times that and prestige is based on increasing material wealth, not reducing it. There’s a quite brilliant four page chapter explaining why everyone would be better off if inequality is reduced, including a superbly succinct explanation of the Gini coefficient measure of wealth disparity. Re-wilding on a continental scale becomes critical, along with a new carbon currency, and a public-owned competitor to big data.
Some of Robinson’s expectations of the future come from leftfield, but often he draws on real, modern-day societies to imagine a more equitable and sustainable future, including the state of Kerala in India and the Mondragon co-operative model in Spain. More surprisingly, given that the director of the Ministry for the Future concludes early on that central bankers are “useless”, beholden to the wealthy individuals who buy government bonds since the creation of the Bank of England, and characterised by inertia, following the market rather than providing leadership, central bankers have a pretty big role to play in ‘The Ministry for the Future’.
So-called ‘free market economics’ and capitalism in general, come off less well. The major breakthrough’s in Robinson’s story come when determined public-sector leaders follow the data and build alliances to regulate, legislate or otherwise overcome the market, or from (often brutal) direct action by “eco-terrorists”. These characters, largely the heroes of the books, conclude that “[t]he rentier class..will not help [in creating a] just civlization of eight billion, in balance with the biosphere..They are not interested in that project. Indeed that project will be forwarded in the face of their vigorous resistance.”
Instead, for many of the key protagonists who have a voice in the novel, the philosophy is that “This time, our time, when the whole thing broke all over the world, there had to be a Plan B..Public ownership of the necessities, so that these are provided as human rights and as public goods, in a not-for-profit way. The necessities are food, water, shelter, clothing, electricity, health care, and education. All these are human rights, all are public goods, all are never to be subjected to appropriation, exploitation, and profit. It’s as simple as that.”
Does it work? Well you really will have to read ‘A Ministry for the Future’ to find out.