Each fall, I teach a vocation course to a group of talented and enthusiastic students from the intensive core humanities program at my university. I find it difficult to know how to approach what will be the defining reality of their lives: climate change. How can I communicate – without crushing their minds – how bad our situation is and how much will be asked of them? While scientific studies reveal our predicament, technological and political analyzes show that an answer is still possible. But the possibilities are a cold comfort in the world of denial and procrastination in which my students are maturing. It is difficult to imagine a way forward.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, The ministry of the future,offers just that: an honest vision of the coming century on the scale of the crisis that offers a plausible way to face it. The ministry mentioned in the title is a group created in accordance with the existing provisions of the Paris Climate Agreement, with a mandate to âdefend future generations of world citizensâ and to defend âall living creatures present and future … by promoting their legal status. and physical protection. The composition of the ministry’s staff maps the dimensions of the crises we face and the means to deal with them. The staff includes professionals who are experts in law, economics, ecology, earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences; disaster and refugee specialists; and expert in artificial intelligence.
âThe Ministry of the Futureâ offers an honest, scale-up view of the crisis that offers a plausible way to deal with it.
The ministry of the future is a hopeful novel, although it opens with a heart-wrenching tale of a severe heat wave in India. In this crisis, the surcharged electricity grid breaks down, leaving a large population without air conditioning or water. Tens of millions of people are dying. These events are taking placeâ¦ over the next five years.
Robinson is an accomplished author of “hard” science fiction, a writing that attempts to imagine the future in light of realistic constraints and technological possibilities. He is best known for his 1990s Martian trilogy, which envisioned the terraforming of the red planet and, somewhat infamously, inspired the dreams of planetary escape of billionaires in Silicon Valley. Alas, the use of the concept trilogy of Saint Hildegard of Bingen from the work of the Holy Spirit of viriditas, or “green”, because the guiding vision of a biologist figure dedicated to bringing life to the barren planet had less impact.
Robinson’s novel 2015 Dawn– published a few months after the release of the papal encyclical âLaudato Si ‘â – offers a very different vision of our planetary destiny, perhaps intentionally questioning the uses to which its Mars series has been put. The novel reverses the well-worn sci-fi plot of interstellar colonization. After a multigenerational expedition arrives in the Tau Ceti star system, the colonists discover the inseparable nature of Homo sapiens’ connection to Earth and struggle to return to the planet we evolved on. As he wrote in an essay published with the release of the book: “There is no planet B.”
The novel describes in detail how economic and financial systems both contribute to the climate crisis and hinder solutions.
Robinson studied with the American Marxist literary theorist Fredric Jameson, and his fiction has long struggled with Jameson’s observation that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” (Try it and see.) This idea from the literary imagination threatens to become the reality we bequeath to our children as we increasingly grapple with climate change and ecological collapse.
The ministry of the future describes in detail how economic and financial systems both contribute to the climate crisis and hinder solutions. Economic doctrines can cloud reality. As one character says of a demanding plan to slow the melting of glaciers, âLook, if you’ve got to do something, you have to do it. Don’t keep talking about cost like it’s a real thing. Money is not real. The work is real.
At the heart of the novel is one of the most formidable economic obstacles to the fight against climate change: âstranded assetsâ. We can only burn a fraction of the current proven reserves of oil, gas and coal to stay below global warming of 1.5 or even 2 degrees Celsius. The owners of these billions of dollars in assets have fought and will continue to fight policies that will make them worthless. Robinson explores the idea (proposed by geohydrologist and civil engineer Delton Chen) of a “carbon coin” as a solution. This offers an alternative reserve currency, invented as payment for lost profits from carbon extraction. Such a solution would convert those trillions of dollars in losses into potential profits and also provide a way to reimburse countless small players, such as farmers in developing countries who manage their fields, for carbon reduction. This would require a coordinated reorientation of the entire global financial system. The crises and the negotiations that bring about this reorientation are the central drivers of the book’s plot.
Robinson obliges us to reckon morally with the extent of the violence that our indifference and indecision will provoke.
The book isn’t just about politics; it painstakingly portrays the lives of climate migrants, slaves and technocrats who run the ministry. History’s heat wave survivors in India demonstrate the role climate trauma will play in the culture and politics of this century. Among the survivors are the Children of Kali, an activist group born out of India’s grim knowledge that rich nations care little about the suffering their shows cause to the poorest. With meticulous planning and tireless tenacity, they fight to end high-emission industries and consumption, usually with violence, often with genius. âKali sees everything. And the Children of Kali will not leave until the culprits are gone. Be advised. “
The work done by sabotage and terror is a challenge. It obliges us to take into account morally the extent of the violence that our indifference and our indecision will provoke. Future generations will suffer from our inaction on a scale that far eclipses the mass genocides of the 20th century. What level of action and sacrifice on our part would be necessary to prevent such a turn to violence for the sake of our unborn victims?
A chapter stands out as luminescent. It depicts the call for a future international conference on ecological restoration. Page after page, nothing but presentations from organizations from all corners of the world working to save and restore their lands and ecologies. Robinson is not saying that all of these groups actually exist and are already undertaking this great work.
In an influential article titled âBeyond Hope,â radical environmentalist Derrick Jensen opposes hope in the face of environmental destruction: âHope is what keeps us chained to the system. For him, hope is the opposite of action – the kind of thing we do when we are in the passenger seat, not when we are behind the wheel. Aquinas’ definition of hope, on the other hand, is intrinsically linked to action. Hope is patient waiting and a work for one “bonum futurum arduumâ: A difficult future though. Robinson The ministry of the future is a work of hope precisely in this sense.