Can the Ministry point to a better future?

Jay Blackwood reviews the latest work by celebrated writer Kim Stanley Robinson.

 

The Ministry For The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, published by Orbit, 2020.

Title cover of ‘The Ministry for the Future’.

Kim Stanley Robinson (popularly known as KSR) is a celebrated US science fiction writer best known for his Mars trilogy. He’s also a socialist whose politics permeate his books. His latest novel, The Ministry For The Future, tackles the theme of climate catastrophe here on earth. It was widely welcomed by reviewers, including Derrick O’Keefe (Jacobin) who described it as “a daring, provocative history of the next thirty years”, and Michael Svoboda (Yale Climate Connections), who says that with this novel KSR “creates something truly remarkable: a credible, very-near future in which humans effectively solve the problem of climate change.” The Guardian described it as a  “chilling yet hopeful vision of how the next few decades might unfold”. Not all activists have been quite so positive, but in general, the book has been well received.

With the paperback edition due for release this autumn, this seems like a good time to take stock.

Ministry is an ambitious, sprawling novel that deploys a number of different narrative techniques to investigate possible solutions to global warming. It also implicitly poses the question of whether the existing system is capable of reforming itself in order to meet the challenge.

The main narrative follows the story of Mary Murphy, head of the eponymous Ministry, a determined but sometimes naïve bureaucrat who finds herself at the sharp end of the struggle against rapidly accelerating climate change. There’s also Frank May, a survivor of the murderous Indian heatwave that kicks the book off, an event that provides the starting point for a series of revolutionary climate initiatives. While other important characters, like Mary’s second-in-command and ‘black ops’ fixer Badim, also pop up regularly, it’s Mary and Frank, and their uneasy interactions, whose story provides the main framework.

But Ministry isn’t a conventional novel. KSR employs a range of literary techniques – short explanatory chapters on climate change, finance, and politics; first-person reportage from disparate individuals, including a US navy rating, a Syrian refugee, and an Indian farmer;  gnomic riddles; staccato conference reports; and more. Some of these interpolations are more successful than others, and it’s only fair to point out that the book is not an easy read.

It is worth the effort? In my opinion, yes. Even as a partial success, and with the caveats mentioned below, Ministry is a refreshing intervention in the climate debate. It provides a wealth of data and ideas for further exploration and discussion. And in these troubled times, it’s refreshing to read a book on this subject that is constructive and optimistic rather than glibly dystopian.


Exploring the ideas in the book in a bit more detail will inevitably involve some spoilers, so stop reading at this point if you want to avoid them!

Ministry doesn’t propose a single ‘silver bullet’ solution to global warming. Instead, it presents a multiplicity of partial solutions which, taken together, may just halt the slide to disaster. That KSR’s solutions to the crisis are primarily technological is no surprise from an author renowned for his ‘hard’ sci-fi books. But it’s an aspect of the book that has drawn criticism from those environmentalists who believe drastically reduced consumption provides our main chance of survival. Although reduced consumption is part of the picture in Ministry, it’s not the main factor.

Instead, this is provided by a roster of geoengineering projects, as well as the development of clean energy alternatives. These include carbon-capture technologies, desalination of seawater for inland irrigation, atmospheric interventions to reflect back sunlight, technologically advanced sailing ships, and airboats, and even the injection of reflective dye into the Arctic ocean. Wildlife corridors, reforesting, and sustainable agriculture are some of the less controversial tools that are deployed. One of the ongoing threads of the story follows an Antarctic project to pump seawater out from under the glaciers and back up onto the ice where it quickly freezes, thereby slowing the glaciers’ slide into the sea. Lots of other methods are employed, but this should give you a flavour of the book’s approach. It’s quite a list, and if it does no more than encourage readers to go off and do their own research then it will have achieved its goal.

Many of these technological fixes are controversial and have been the locus of some of the negative reactions to Ministry. Criticism of the book on these grounds seems harsh to me. After all, it’s a novel, floating a number of ‘what if’ scenarios and see how they might play out in a world where the political will to implement them actually existed. How we get to that world is another matter entirely, and I think it’s here that deeper problems start to emerge.

There are two main drivers of the major social changes charted in Ministry. The first is the sheer scale of the threat to human survival; in the opening pages of the book, twenty million people die. The second is the eponymous Ministry itself, whose struggle to get the great and the good onside is reinforced by the social chaos and mounting pressure that builds in the outside world.

The Ministry’s technocrats drive through a number of important changes, including the establishment of an encrypted open-source social network (‘YourLock’) which successfully replaces all existing platforms; and a carbon capture currency underwritten, after a struggle, by the world’s central banks. YourLock helps to drive the ideological changes, popularising a new attitude to the natural world and enabling activists to link up; while the carbon currency is used to force through changes to the economic practices of the big multinationals and even of nation-states.

Although it’s the Ministry that steers this process of change, its work is facilitated by manifestations of popular revolt. These range from Gandhian satyagraha to widespread terrorism. They include mass action in the form of strikes, demonstrations, occupations, and boycotts. But the most decisive factors are terrorist attacks masterminded by the shadowy Children of Kali group, and wider military actions conducted by ‘persons unknown’ (possibly by the Ministry’s own black ops section which acts as a law unto itself). Thus aeroplanes are shot out of the sky to the point where conventional air travel becomes too dangerous to contemplate; and container ships are torpedoed, making them commercially as well as environmentally toxic; these old technologies are replaced by airships and ultra-modern sailing boats respectively. In addition, leading fossil fuel villains are assassinated, and the world’s militaries are paralysed by the deployment of ‘pebble mob missiles’ (an invention of the author’s). At one point delegates to the Davos summit are held hostage at gunpoint and subjected to a (largely unsuccessful) re-education programme!

Much of this is fanciful at best. Lenin once described terrorists as liberals with bombs, and it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s a similar dynamic at work here. That Ministry relies on a terroristic Deus ex Machina, armed with an imaginary super-weapon, to provide the key engine of social change suggests a seriously flawed politics. And it’s not just the means of change that are fanciful, but the nature of the change itself. By the end of the book, the immediate climate catastrophe has been avoided, at least for now. But the world order has merely been re-jigged rather than overthrown, despite the waves of popular action that have swept the planet. The big banks and the big states remain the dominant actors on the world stage. KSR suggests that’s just the way it has to be:

“One scary thing, there has to still be money, or at least some exchange or allocation system that people trust, which means the already-existing central banks have to be part of it, which means the current nation-state system has to be part of it. Sorry but it’s true, and maybe obvious. Even if you are a degrowth devolutionist, an anarchist or a communist or a fan of world government, we only do the global in the current world order by way of the nation-state system. Or call it by way of the family of languages, if it makes you feel better….It is what we’ve got now, and in the crux, when things fall apart, something from the old system has to be used to hang the new system on, hopefully something big and solid. Without that it’s castles in the air time, and all will collapse into chaos. So yes: money, meaning central banks, meaning the nation-state system. It’s a social agreement, nothing more.”

kim stanley robinson

But of course, it isn’t just a social agreement. It’s a power relationship based on a specific organisation of the means of production – something we call capitalism! And the way that untrammelled capitalism underlies and underwrites the climate catastrophe itself is an issue that KSR cannot fully address given the limitations of his politics. Although mass action from below forms an important thread in the process of change that he describes, it’s very much secondary to the actions of the technocrats and the bankers. In the end, it’s those bankers – with a helpful nudge from the bureaucrats and the terrorists – who save the planet.

In the final analysis, KSR’s optimism seems to be predicated on the world’s key actors behaving in ways which are utterly alien to them. In the real world, the Paris Agreement is never going to provide the impetus for the major changes needed to avert climate catastrophe. Nor are the bankers and the leading capitalists, no matter how much pressure is exerted on them, going to mend their ways and suddenly begin acting for the common good. The world’s main imperial powers are not going to transform themselves into enlightened agents of social progress. Faced with the reality we actually inhabit – where feral capitalism holds sway and profit trumps all other considerations – Ministry’s vision of change bears the hallmarks of a reformist socialism that simply fails to convince.

For all that, I would argue that even on the political front the book is worth reading. KSR throws everything into the mix, and by doing so opens up a space for discussion that might not otherwise exist, reaching new audiences in the process. The novel is not, in the end, prescriptive. Indeed, it’s probably best approached as a roster of ideas and strategies for further debate. Such an approach would be wholly in line with the author’s intentions, no matter how different his socialism may be from ours:

“To be clear [..] there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is as good as a feast — or better. Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.”

kim stanley robinson

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Jay is a Bristol-based political activist and supporter of Anti*Capitalist Resistance.

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