There is no planet B

Review of Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry of the Future (New York: Orbit Books, 2020)

by John M Repp

This sprawling novel with 106 chapters starts with a deadly heat wave in India. A heat dome combines with high humidity that is beyond human survival. Millions die. We have been hearing for years about sea level rise, and indeed we could lose all our beaches in a few years. However, we have barely heard about high humidity and heat combined to a level that could kill millions in some areas of the world, including the American southeast. Bill McKibben, a leader of the environmental group, wrote in his review of Robinson’s book in New York Review of Books that such deadly heat wave/high humidity events are virtually certain in our future. Few people really comprehend how desperate our situation is. There is too much denial.

In the first chapter, an American named Frank, working for an NGO in India during the heat wave, is the only person who survives in the area where he is working. He is very severely traumatized and believes he must do something to stop the coming world-wide extinction. The main character is Mary, an Irish woman who leads the Ministry of the Future, an organization started by the 2025 United Nation’s Council of Parties (COP) meeting. The Ministry’s purpose is to represent the people not yet born; a concept that challenges our legal system.

Kim Stanley Robinson is a writer of science fiction who is exceptionally well informed about the latest science. One of his best-selling trilogies featured a human colony on Mars. Today, scientists are sure that the idea of moving to other planets, much less other solar systems, is not feasible. We now know the soil on Mars is extremely toxic and the distance to other solar systems is too far. Only rich men like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk think getting off the earth is an option. So, Robinson recognizing the changed science now looks to our future on earth to practice his “utopian science fiction” trade. The Ministry of the Future is set in the 30 years beyond 2025.

Robinson is an optimist. By the end of the book, carbon dioxide emissions start to go down as does human population. The book is full of very creative ideas of how mitigate climate change, and that is the great contribution Robinson makes with this book. There is violence on both sides of the struggle to deal with this existential threat. Mary’s office in Zurich is bombed one night and Swiss authorities help her hide. Ecoterrorists bring down private and commercial airplanes full of business executives with pebble-mob drones. Container ships plying international trade are torpedoed.

One of the turning points in the drama happens when Mary convinces the chairmen of the central banks of the largest countries of the world to support a new international currency, the carbon coin or carboni. It is based on carbon sequestration and backed by 100-year bonds. A ton of carbon dioxide sequestered equals one unit of the new currency. It is a way to keep oil, gas, and coal in the ground. This is the carrot that motivates the financial system to change. It will pay the fossil fuel companies, their investors, and petrol-nation states to keep their reserves in the ground. Robinson calls this proposal “carbon quantitative easing”. Another positive effect of the coin is explained in one chapter: scientists measure the carbon in the soil of a farmer who farms regeneratively. Two years later, when his soil is measured again and contains more carbon, the farmer earns carboni.

Scientists and engineers also work on preventing the big glaciers in Antarctica from sliding into the sea. They try drilling into the glaciers all the way to their bottom which rests on rock, where melting water helps them slide faster. The water is pumped out, so they slide into the sea slower. The Indians put sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere high above the ground to try and shut out a very small percentage of sunlight to attempt to cool their country. These things and more are done despite a general hesitancy to use geoengineering.

There are several world-wide uprisings, one triggered by students in the United States, who stop paying their student debts. He describes the feeling of solidarity that happens in the streets during a revolution as the “most intense and important feeling” (p.246) anyone could ever have in this life. At the same time, the African Union countries stop paying their debts and several of the Wall Street banks collapse triggering a massive economic depression. Five million people go to Tiananmen Square in China and force the Chinese Communist Party to make changes. There is a chapter on Mondragon, the most successful group of producer cooperatives in the world, located in the Basque area of Spain. Ruth Yarrow is the person who told me about this wonderful book because of the chapter on Mondragon which we visited in 2013 with Ruth and Mike.

There is a discussion of the one to eight pay scale of the U.S. Navy. If the Admirals only get eight times what the sailors get but they manage to pilot huge aircraft carriers, why can’t corporate chiefs run their companies with the same pay differential. There is a chapter where a small dying town in Montana is dismantled and moved as part of an effort to rewild half the world. There is a description of open-source software that mimic the functions of all the popular social media sites. There is a chapter on Sikkim state in India that practices fully organic agriculture, inspired and aided by Vandana Shiva, and a description of the direct democracy of Kerala state, also in India. There is a chapter on MMT, modern monetary theory. This book is a delightful embarrassment of riches and gives me hope in these dark times.

Finally, not too far into the book, Robinson explains that we all need an ideology, a worldview, a philosophy, or a religion. The world is so complex and so big, and humans collectively now know so much, that we all need a filter and an organizing system to make sense of it all, or we are overwhelmed. He admits that even “science” is an ideology, but it is different, in part because thousands of people all over the world are perpetually cross-checking it and communicating their results to each other.