The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Book Review by Kristine Madera
The Ministry for the Future reads like modern life—a few narrative threads interspersed with breaking news, social media feeds, sudden technological breakthroughs, secret intrigue, and random acts of terror—all in service to speculating on the ideas, actions, and social, political and technological changes that can shift humanity from Earth’s nightmare creation run amok to a species that can live in greater harmony with each other and the planet we all call home.
In classic Robinson style, it’s a head-spinning, well-researched exploration of climate-change-adapting possibilities funneled through the fictional The Ministry for the Future which is tasked with plotting a way through our escalating environmental and climate challenges and creating something better on the other side. He makes a compelling case for a global Plan B to shift into as our current Plan A status splinters and sinks and explores many possible ways to cobble together a Plan B.
A compelling and worthwhile read!
BONUS! Along with being entertaining, The Ministry for the Future is a well-researched exploration of the possibilities and pitfalls of various ideas that he has speculated about over the years that might help us bridge the chasm to a more sustainable future.
If you want to geek out on possibility, read on…
Kim Stanley Robinson has said that science fiction and speculative fiction writers serve as modern-day prophets. They look at current social, cultural, and technological trends and speculate—often warn—where they might take us. With many writers, this turns into an apocalyptic dystopia where the climax is one more battle between the beleaguered and desperate good fighting the status quo evil run amok.
Robinson is not only hopeful, but he also looks at beneficial trends, deep-dives into multifaceted research, and lays out a speculative path for a brighter future within a book that reads like the frenetic info-bombardment of modern life—narrative threads interspersed with breaking news, social media feeds, sudden technological breakthroughs, secret intrigue, random acts of terror and much more.
Robinson is much more hopeful than I am that government, global finance, and corporate industry interests may step up to lead us into a brave new world, but he makes a compelling case that we need to create a global Plan B to save the sinking ship when the structures (and climate) of the world as we know it fractures and sinks.
Here are three of the many scenarios he explores.
This is different than an easily-gamed carbon credit where companies exchange limited-issue credits for the right to burn carbon. Robinson’s carbon coin is issued cooperatively by the world’s central banks to “pay” people and companies to mitigate carbon in several ways. On os to issue carbon coins to fossil fuel burning companies to compensate them for keeping unburned carbon in the ground—like paying coal companies to keep coal in the ground. Another is to “pay” carbon coins to landowners and farmers based on how much carbon they sequester through land practices, soil management, crop rotations, etc.
Another way is to pay companies who develop technologies to pull carbon out of the atmosphere and sequester it in things like concrete—which is a real thing. Since the concrete industry is responsible for 7-8% of carbon emissions globally, turning that one industry from carbon producing to either carbon neutral or carbon sequestering could make a big difference in slowing or reversing our human carbon footprint. The challenge with making carbon-reducing technologies viable in a profit-obsessed economic ecosystem is one that Robinson “solves” through his carbon coin.
The carbon coin is a major market-shifting financial strategy that would put a higher future value on keeping carbon and other greenhouse gasses in the ground or otherwise sequestered than the value of burning carbon has now. It’s a compelling concept, though it would be greatly hobbled in reality by the fact that the world’s central banks would have to band together as a unit to create this value as well as unite the government in placing limits on carbon-coin speculation in the financial markets. Plus, it would have to be perceived as valuable enough to change current behavior for the promise of a future reward.
Another limitation is that it requires long-range thinking in a world where election cycles, quarterly corporate profit reports, and shareholder demands prioritize short-term results. In other words, things might need to get really, really bad before the government, finance, and power brokers are willing to change the game from sprint to marathon. By that time, it may be too late in the climate-change game for carbon sequestration to be more than a small part of what’s needed to stabilize fast-changing global dynamics.
Geoengineering is the intentional, large-scale environmental manipulation and/or modification for the purpose of slowing down climate change. You can argue—and Robinson does—that business as usual has been heavily geoengineering our planet by burning things for heat, turning wild lands into farmlands, and especially during and since the Industrial Revolution with the widespread use of fossil fuels and the explosion in population that has stressed natural climate stabilizing resources like forests, glaciers and arctic ice. But since have been in the service of progress and profit, we somehow compartmentalize that as acceptable. Geoengineeering in service to slowing the effects of climate change is highly controversial. Proposed geoengineering strategies from cloud-seeding to produce local weather changes, to theoretical carbon removal from the atmosphere to solar reflection strategies like distributing a reflective summer surface over the Arctic Ocean are also very expensive, may have unintended consequences, and are only a short stop-gap to changing our carbon-burning, wilderness destroying modern ways—which we seem unwilling to do in any meaningful way. Some of the interesting geoengineering strategies that Robinson explores are spraying seawater back atop glaciers to slow glacier melt and sea level rise, distributing solar reflecting aerosolized sulfur dioxide in the upper atmosphere a la Neal Stephenson’s Termination Shock, and releasing a yellow sheen over the summer Arctic Ocean to mimic the reflection of diminishing arctic ice.
Another element Robinson explores is that countries would need to go rogue to use geoengineering—in The Ministry for the Future, it’s India—because global treaties prohibit the practice. Private companies, interestingly, have no specific regulations that would stop the practice, at least not right now.
The takeaway for me is that if we are willing to spend the massive amounts of money it would take to geoengineeer slowing climate change, then it would be a better use to spend that money on changing the systems causing climate change to escalate in the first place. But we aren’t. At least not in any meaningful way.
We’ve had small-scale eco-terrorism for years, of course, meant mostly to raise awareness and punish particular companies or practices. Robinson utilizes ecoterrorism in a very interesting way—to discourage all fossil fuel mass transport. In his book, a rogue actor who is never found out sinks cargo ships and down planes that use fossil fuel engines—but not those who use emission-free technology. It’s interesting because it forces change at the purely financial level—the level most likely to work in our present financialized global systems. In his scenario, no one takes credit for it and no one catches the perpetrators—both of which seem unlikely—so the terrorism threat remains constant.
The common thread throughout The Ministry for the Future is the global call for people, governments, global finance, and corporations to create a Plan B to keep a stable society amid massive climate change and the social and societal crises it will trigger. I deeply appreciate Robinson’s work in laying out some strategies for this for people to consider. Personally, I think that the real Plan B will come from globally-minded citizens and not the globally elite governments, finance, and corporations. But if these global forces do step up and use their mighty power to serve humanity and the world rather than prioritizing their own narrow interests, I’d love to be pleasantly surprised!
Kristine Madera is a #1 bestselling Amazon author, novelist, hypnotherapist, and pro-topian with a passion for helping people better themselves and the world. Informed by global travel, teaching abroad, and a stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Kristine believes that everyone plays a part in imagining and creating our collective future.
Volunteering at Mother Teresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta inspired her novel, God in Drag. She birthed her upcoming novel, The Snakeman’s Wife, as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Papua New Guinea.
Read the first chapter of God in Drag HERE