The Story Itself
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson is the best novel about climate change out there. This is partially because of the massive amount of research that must have gone into it and the believable details of the solutions and events that occur throughout the book (or at least most of them). However, the real reason why this book is so damn good is because it gets at the visceral, real, and brutal consequences of climate change better than any study or opinion piece ever could and better than any other fiction I’ve read on the subject.
The novel opens with Frank May, a volunteer medical worker from the U.S. working in India, surviving a heatwave that kills twenty million people. Page twelve has descriptions like
all the old people were dead. People murmured what should have been screams of grief; those who could still move shoved bodies out of the lake, or out towards the middle where they floated like logs, or sank,
The true human cost of climate change being made clear from the start, as well as that event’s impact throughout the rest of the book, forces you to get it—to understand how truly fucked up even the early effects of climate change are going to be and how almost anything is justified to stop and reverse the process. Robinson makes sure this personal understanding of the consequences of climate change remains with you through a character who spends, by the end of the book, twenty-eight years of their life in climate-refugee camps or in transit between them as well as detailing Frank May’s struggle with PTSD post-heatwave. Opening with climate change caused suffering on a scale surpassing the entirety of WWI means that a few chapters later, when a couple hundred mid-air flights and cargo ships are destroyed by drones, ending all public air travel and commercial shipping, you almost feel relieved, rather than horrified. Then you think about that relief and realize “If it’s going to get so bad that an onlooker could approve of eco-terrorism, we really have to do everything to stop and reverse this process RIGHT NOW!”
Of course, in The Ministry for the Future ecoterrorism alone isn’t enough. And it won’t be enough (and ideally it won’t be anything) in our world. That’s where the titular ministry comes into play. The Ministry for the Future was created by the UN during a Paris Agreement conference in 2025 and was tasked with representing the unborn future generations of humans and other lifeforms who can’t speak for themselves, although the organization undergoes quite a bit of scope creep. The ministry’s cajoling and pleading with national governments, their good-enough solutions, and their sometimes successful attempts at establishing their own initiatives, all feel incredibly real, detailed, and well researched.
Another thing that Robinson does that makes his vision of a potential future look so complete is the diversity of solutions being practiced by different groups, from India geo-engineering the equivalent of a volcanically induced cooling to prevent climate-holocaust, the various agricultural solutions proposed by conservationists, technological solutions funded by billionaires in Silicon Valley with spare money, laws from governments, and more.
(An interesting aside is Robinson’s take on geo-engineering, or as he calls it, geobegging: “Ugly? Very much so. Dangerous? Probably. Necessary? Yes”).
An in-depth review of the even greater list of specific solutions practiced by these groups and my own (uninformed) perspective on how well they’d work isn’t in the purview of this review, but they include recreating all social media to be peer-to-peer and with personal data as a thing to be sold or withheld by the person themselves, national reserves working together to maintain a carbon-coin based off of Keynes’ Bancor to incentivize divestment, a gajillion different agricultural reforms, conservationists starting a movement to give half of Earth back to non-humans by creating and widening wildlife corridors, zeppelins, Photovoltaic sail-boats, coloring the arctic sea yellow to increase its albedo, reforestation, carbon capture into old oil wells, pumping water out from under glaciers to slow them down, and much more.
The point is that the variety of solutions is so wide, their interactions and consequences so complex, that two things happen. The first is that you accept the broad stroke of all of them taken together. The story is believable. Or at least you aren’t smart or knowledgeable enough to refute every point sufficiently so you just shut up and enjoy the ride. In fact, the scope of the book is downright overwhelming in the best way possible. So much is going on in every cultural, technological, ecological, and economic sphere imaginable that it’s difficult to give a full accounting of every little concept or event.
The second and much more important thing that happens is that you start to feel kind of optimistic. It’s not all doom and gloom and twenty million dead in one day. There’s hope! There are SO MANY SOLUTIONS (blog post about that in the works, needed to be updated partially because of this book). If we keep throwing things at the wall to see what sticks, what saves us, it will be worth it. The book doesn’t end on a safe or comfortable note. There is still so much left to do, and some things, like ocean acidification, are irreversible. But things have gotten better, there’s more hope than ever before. PPM of CO2 in the air is going down, animals are coming back, and inequality has shrunk more than it ever has before.
The book is a message to keep fighting because we have to fight and we can win.
So What does Kim Stanley Robinson Believe?
Another unique feature of the novel is occasional interludes. Many of these are almost riddles given by various material or immaterial things like The Sun, the market, or photons. Others are technical digressions on anything from taxes, Keynes’ definition of the “rentier class,” to how much carbon we’re burning, or animal extinction rates. As the book progresses these interludes become more philosophical, early ones are brief and about what ideology is or “alternatives to global neoliberalism.” They eventually reach topics like whether or not technology drives history.
These interludes provide very clear insight into the framework Robinson uses to understand the world and thereby what kinds of changes need to happen to fight climate change and how. So what is that framework?
First off, Robinson embraces complexity. This is clear enough from the interweaving structure of solutions and problems throughout the book, but it’s made even more clear by chapter eleven, an interlude on ideology.
An imaginary relationship to a real situation…There is a real situation, that can’t be denied, but it is too big for any individual to know in full, and so we must create our understanding by way of an act of the imagination.
Robinson’s distinct and early awareness of the map of ideology not being the territory doesn’t preclude him from having some sort of ideology (which we’ll get too soon enough) but rather it forces him to embrace more complexity and ambiguity than a conventional ideology would. Ideologies are simplifications of reality that frequently lead us to believe two systems or solutions to a problem are mutually exclusive or in direct conflict with each other when it is simply not the case. Robinson gets this.
For example, it’s clear from early chapters about the 2,000-watt society (a group dedicated to only use 2,000 watts of energy each day), conservationism, and the Jevons paradox, which proposes that “increases in efficiency in the use of a resource lead to an overall increase in the use of that resource, not a decrease,” that Robinson has some degrowth beliefs. (Degrowth is a belief set I deeply disagree with and which people who know more than me have written about.) Despite all this, The Ministry for the Future isn’t wholly in favor of degrowth, neither in methodology or endpoint. Robinson acknowledges the absurdity of demanding that developing countries embrace degrowth and the most explicit case of degrowth is something which I don’t believe would actually count as such(I’ll get to that next section). In terms of the status of humanity at the end of the books:
Jevons Paradox appeared to be foxed at last; not in its central point, which stated that as more energy was created, more got used; but now that it was being generated cleanly,
Because of his overall view of how ideology relates to reality, Robinson forces himself to write about a world and series of events that go beyond and require more than one simple belief set (or horizontal application of one system) can provide. We don’t just need to reduce energy usage we also need to produce more clean energy. We don’t need to, or simply aren’t able, to dismantle harmful financial systems, we can use them to incentivize leaving the growth of clean energy or leaving oil in the ground. No matter how much I disagree with specific solutions or conclusions Robinson reaches, his overall approach is broad, complex, and open enough to tackle the entirety of climate change better than almost all other authors.
So, with his approach to ideology and solving problems out of the way, now for his actual ideology. Thankfully, half of it can be summed up in one phrase:
“What’s good is good for the land.”
This sentence gets repeated numerous times throughout the book. Both by the narrator and as a description of various protagonist organization’s world-views. This either informs or is informed by Robinson’s valuing of conservation and sustainability and manifests in various schemes for more sustainable farming/fishing and the “Half Earth Movement” which is dedicated to cutting the land humanity uses down to half of the land area of the planet. This is the simpler, driving, idealistic, and degrowth connected half of his ideology.
The other half is more pragmatic and complex. It’s not the goal he’s reaching for but his model of understanding the systems that can achieve those goals. From a discussion between the narrator(s):
Who matters the most in that group [that administers our economic system…and teaches others how to work it]?
That’s a bad thought.
No it isn’t. Why would you say that?
Rule of law.
But me no buts. Rule of law.
What a weak reed to stand on!
What can we do about that?
Just make it stick.
This summarizes Robinson’s view of how to change things, at least in this current version of the world, almost perfectly. Energy can come from the bottom and force the powerbroker’s hands. Violence can come from ecoterrorists and force their hands as well. The people can vote in elections to pick new lawmakers. The people can rise up in rebellion to pick new lawmakers. But the people who make the rules change things. I’m not certain how much I agree with this, but I find it true enough and I admire its pragmatism. It’s this side of his ideology that leads to one of the main characters negotiating with central banks to enact the aforementioned carbon-coin. It’s this side of his ideology that has the first major initiative to fight climate change come from a massive electoral and then more relevantly, legislative, shift in India after the heatwave from the first chapter. More than that, it’s his belief in rule of law that makes the central organization in the fight against climate change a UN agency!
There’s a lot more complexity and ambiguity in the details of all this, a lot of which will come up in my criticisms, but these two halves are the broad strokes that inform the approaches and actions taken in the book. And when it comes to solving the largest crisis humans have ever faced, embracing complexity is the best place to start.
My Criticisms(or are they?)
Q: Where do humans live?
As of 2018, 55% of all humans live in cities. One in eight humans live in one of just thirty-three cities! By 2050 that number will be closer to 68%.
Q: In what kinds of settlements do humans emit the least amount of carbon?
A: In dense ones, i.e. cities.
The carbon footprints of dense cities is leagues under those of suburban sprawl and rural areas. This is partially because methods of transportation used in the suburbs like trucks and cars account for about 50% of all household emissions in the United States, meaning that dense cities that allow for public transit, walking, and cycling are already massively cutting emissions. But it’s more than just that. Denser housing also uses significantly less energy than less dense housing. In a 2017 study titled “Global scenarios of urban density and its impacts on building energy use through 2050” researchers found that:
Across all urban density scenarios, advanced efficiency technologies result in about 7 exajoules per year less energy use for heating and cooling in 2050. In comparison, the difference between the high and low urban density scenarios (corresponding to the most compact and least compact urban form futures) is about 8 (in the case of advanced efficiency) to 9 (in the case of business-as-usual efficiency) exajoules in 2050.
Their overall conclusion is that density is more important in urbanizing areas, efficiency in areas that are already densely urbanized.
With all these people living in cities, even more people about to be living in cities, and the crazy drops in energy usage we get from dense healthy cities, you’d expect Ministry for the Future to contain a whole lot of content about how cities around the world grow and change in response to climate change, becoming denser, getting better public transit and infrastructure, dealing with massive influxes of internal migrants, fighting NIMBYs who don’t want denser housing, even though the world depends on it. Or at least you’d expect some of those things right?
There are only two chapters in Ministry for the Future that are about cities. There are many digressions within chapters about Zurich, a few of which are about things possible in all cities (as opposed to comments on Swiss culture), like public transportation. But there are only two chapters, out of one hundred and six, about cities.
In the first of these chapters, LA goes through a terrible drought and then floods and is destroyed. At the end of the chapter, the character it centers on thinks to themselves:
The entire city of Los Angeles is going to have to be replaced. Which was great. Maybe we could do it right this time.
The book never returns to Los Angeles. We never see them do it right.
The second and final chapter that is about cities is only tangentially so. It’s about the three hundred inhabitants of a small American town (that was never that large to begin with and which has been shrinking for decades) who all have been paid by the government to pack up and leave for a big city because where their town was is getting reclaimed by the Half Earth project I mentioned earlier in the review.
I love this book, that should be clear from the first section of the review, but this is ridiculous. Over five hundred pages, a nice amount of which is on farming and farmers(Only in India and the United States, but still), but next to none of it is about the complex, diverse, and changing built environments that most humans live in! Yes, climate change is the broadest and most universal process in human history. Yes, Ministry for the Future does a better job of capturing that than anything that’s come before it. But come on! How does Robinson basically never touch on the direct material surroundings of almost all humans?
Well, the answer is actually pretty obvious. Degrowth and the uniquely American fear of cities. Cities in the U.S. are kind of a mess. We pillaged our functional thriving cities throughout the bulk of the twentieth century in exchange for suburbs and cars. A lot of that pillaging was driven by racism(white flight) or had its implementation shaped by racism(building highways straight through African American communities). This fucked up our cities and has left a lot of them conglomerations of humans who are seen by popular culture as physically close but metaphysically distant(whether or not this is truly the case is likely a neighborhood by neighborhood matter, the point is that this is the popular American conception of cities). That this, combined with Robinson’s degrowth proclivities results in a narrative devoid of the spaces where people actually live.
Ironically, Robinson’s degrowth beliefs, namely limiting where humans live to only half of all land, would lead to huge increases in urban populations and necessitate even greater density and even higher functioning cities.
Or maybe not ironically. Maybe perfectly in tune with the broader themes of the novel. Here’s where we get to why I put “(or are they?)” in the section title. Robinson’s blindspot(increasing city density and livability) being increased behind the scenes by his beliefs(degrowth is good, as well as a certain definition of growth) is a perfect example of both the limitations of ideology that he states early on in the book. It’s also an example of how an ideological approach like his, i.e. one that is systems-based and therefore fundamentally open to new ideas/systems, so long as they’re goods ones, is capable of enacting two systems at once that more simplified and rigid world-views would say are mutually exclusive. Who’s to say that condensing humans into denser spaces and leaving more space open for non-human lifeforms aren’t both forms of vital growth? Literal growth in the case of non-human lifeforms. And cities.
Ministry for the Future is not a perfect book, but it’s one of the best visions of a few of what’s ahead of us, both the crises themselves as well as the available solutions and potential roadblocks.
Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Chronicles is another freakishly prescient view of America and climate change, though in a very different way from Ministry for the Future. The titular Earthseed is a religion, the central tenet of which is “God is change.”
God is Power—
And yet, God is Pliable—
God exists to be shaped.
God is Change.
Change is coming, whether it’s climate change or the changes to our societies we make to combat climate change. We can’t stop change, but we can shape it. Ministry for the future shows us a few ways in which we can shape the coming change and urges us to do so before it’s too late.