I just finished reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future. Where his book New York 2140 is a grim picture of the future with New York City flooded by the ocean due to climate change, Ministry for the Future is a story of how we might save ourselves from global collapse and extinction. It is not optimistic—bad things happen—but it is hopeful.
The book begins in 2020-something with a horrific wet-bulb heatwave in India. A wet-bulb temperature of 32C/90F is equivalent to a heat index of 55C/130F. At 33C/95F humans cannot survive for more than a few hours in the shade. Our perspective is that of Frank May, an aid worker. After days and days and the bodies piling up and the power out and the generators running out of gas, everyone who is still alive in the town goes to the shallow lake as a last resort. In the lake are people who had already gone there and died. But the lake, barely cooler than the air, is their only hope for survival. Frank May is the only person in the entire town who survives. He is traumatized by this for the rest of his life.
Millions of people in India died in the heatwave, which sets off a global impetus to finally start doing something about climate change. India becomes a leader for change.
Along with Frank’s story, we follow Mary Murphy, chief minister of the Ministry for the Future, an organization created by the UN with little funding and pretty much no authority, but with the direction to represent the lives and voices of future generations in the present. Everyone there has big ideas and goals and works hard, but they are just muddling along because they have no way to write laws or do anything but try and convince the countries of the world to make changes.
That is until the Indian heatwave happens, and then a few years later when Mary and Frank’s paths intersect.
In some ways the book is a thriller—will humanity survive? Can climate change be stopped? Who blew up all the private jets one day while in-air? Who is killing all the oil executives? Will the world banks agree to create a new carbon coin currency based on how many tons of carbon are not burned? Who is trying to sabotage the efforts of the Ministry?
In other ways the book is a realistic imagining of how we can transition to a carbon free, or at least very low carbon world. We are so late in the game that some drastic measures are required including geoengineering—seeding the air with sulfur dioxide, dying the ice-free waters of the arctic yellow to reflect back sunlight, drilling wells into the glaciers of Antarctica and pumping out the melted water underneath in order to slow them down. Global economics need to be changed—here Robinson makes the heads of the world’s central banks heroes. With much negotiation and urging from the Ministry, they begin to change global economic policy which becomes the impetus for people to change their behavior and that leads to more economic policy change, and on and on.
But the eco-terrorists make a difference too. Because of them the airline and shipping industries collapse and have to rebuild. And so air travel is by solar cell covered dirigibles everyone calls airships. And the giant carbon spewing container ships are cut down to smaller and faster ships with masts whose sails are covered in solar cells. There are very few cars and these are used mainly as emergency vehicles. Everyone gets around by walking or cycling or taking buses, trams, and trains.
Robinson is thorough and detailed and does not invent wild new technologies to save the world. He uses ideas that we already have and imagines how it might look—what if? Because of all the detail the story sometimes moves a little slowly, but if you want to nerd out on climate science you will be well rewarded.
One of the most moving chapters takes place on the second to last day of a Paris Agreement Conference of Parties sometime in the 2040s (Robinson is vague with the dates). Atmospheric CO2 has dropped 5% for the previous couple of years so this day of the conference is dedicated to all the success stories and the chapter is nothing but 4 pages of programs from all around the world from farming to watershed to reforestation and more. It made me cry because it was so beautiful seeing what the world was doing and I thought, if only.
I recognized some of the project names and I thought, did Robinson toss in some real ones to add some realism, or are these actual projects that are happening now? I did not go through all four pages but did some random spot checks. And you know what? They are real! How amazing is that? But of course, these projects alone cannot get us to where we need to be, all the other things need to happen too. Still, it made me cry even more.
The next chapter and last day of the COP was dedicated to the problems that still needed to be solved. Here Robinson was a bit vague on details and managed to piss me off. One of the still unsolved problems was equality for women. He describes a room full of women and only a few men and then says that it is something women were going to have to solve for themselves. WTF? That’s like saying Black people have to solve racism and Indigenous people have to figure out how to enforce treaty rights. So it’s up to women to fix the patriarchy. The man can imagine a future where we save ourselves from the worst of climate change, but not one in which women have equal rights. Grrr.
Overall I enjoyed the book. We need more books like this that imagine, not utopian futures, but futures where we survive the slowly unfolding disaster we are currently living in. Because if we can’t imagine it, we can’t make it happen.
There is no such thing as a UN Ministry for the Future, but in a podcast today I learned that Wales created one. In 2015 Wales passed the Wellbeing for Future Generations Act that requires all public institutions in Wales to consider the long-term impact of their decisions. The podcast, What Could Possibly Go Right? was an interview with Jane Davidson who was the one who first proposed the Act while she was serving as Minister for Environment, Sustainability in the Welsh government. Granted, Wales is a small country without much global influence, but here they are, kicking off the Ministry for the Future. Let’s hope that other countries follow their lead.