“The Ministry for the Future” is a vision of everything we could do to save the planet, and ourselves, from catastrophic global warming.
“Imaging a World Without War” is a conceptual tool co-created by Elise Boulding, a founder of the academic discipline of peace studies in the United States. Participants in the exercise create a mental image of a world without war, particularly without nuclear weapons. They start by imagining the existence of such a world, 30 years in the future, and then go backwards to our present time, mapping out what actions and events could create that world. The exercise frees up pessimistic mental roadblocks, allows a sense of possibility to emerge, and helps participants identify what Boulding called “pry points”—crises or catastrophic events that could force big changes for the common good, if people are prepared to act.
Similarly, Joanna Macey’s “Work that Reconnects” (WTR) encourages us to grieve for the pain and loss in a damaged world, and to see how we’re connected to both our ancestors and our descendants. One of Joanna’s famous exercises includes communication from “future beings” who encourage current activists to turn the tide of environmental destruction and global warming.
Like Boulding and Macy, the novelist Kim Stanley Robinson urges us to imagine the series of actions that could save the world and achieve the future we want, rather than the future we’re bumbling toward. His latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, is a must-read for climate activists and of real significance to the climate movement. But it’s a good read for anyone, and a riveting fictional introduction to the task of pulling back global warming, the ultimate true-life adventure of our time.
The story starts in 2025 in India, where a heat wave reaches temperatures beyond human endurance, power systems fail, and 20 million people die within a few days. The plot makes use of many such crisis “pry points” to envision how worldwide society—countries, political parties, technology, mass movements, and rogue elements—could respond to climate change, lurching along intersecting paths toward solutions and finally, global survival.
At the center of all this is the ministry of the title, formed by the U.N. and charged “with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.” In a world of climate crises, the ministry is run from safe, temperate Switzerland by Mary Murphy, a sympathetic Irish diplomat who seems loosely based on Nobel Prize winner Betty Williams.
Other characters, like the American aid worker Frank, a traumatized survivor of the Indian heat wave, experience Robinson’s fictional world at its sharper edges—droughts and floods and arctic expeditions and refugee camps, even a meeting of billionaires hijacked at Davos.
Robinson’s unconventional form keeps the narrative moving around the world and forward in time. His chapters are short, often only a few pages, alternating between plot-driven narrative and exposition, action, and reflection, using multiple points of view and diverse voices to tell a story of worldwide challenge and change.
The enmeshed nature of climate justice and economic justice is a central theme. In one chapter, the narrator eloquently explains that there is enough energy, food, and other resources to meet the needs of everyone on the planet. Inequality allows the overconsumption in wealthy nations that is a cause of global warming. “If 1% of the humans alive controlled everyone’s work, and took far more than their share of the benefits of that work, while also blocking the project of equality and sustainability however they could, that project would become more difficult. This would go without saying, except that it needs saying.”
In the near-future of the novel, the great heat wave in India sets off a democratic decolonizing movement, a reckoning whereby India and other nations reject their economic and political subordination to global corporations and refuse to labor in support of excessive lifestyles in Europe and the United States.
How else to rein in the capital interests and fossil fuel companies whose pursuit of profit drives global warming? The ministry takes that on with an international carbon reduction financing mechanism based on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT, an actual economic school of thought advocated by Bernie Sanders and other progressive Democrats). Stephanie Kelton, the mother of MMT and the author of The Deficit Myth, has been explaining to Americans for a decade now that government economies are not like personal finance. Governments, as producers of sovereign currency, are not in trouble if they carry a deficit. As long as they spend the money for productive purposes as opposed to static purposes like armaments, it will not create debt, but will in fact create economic expansion for useful purposes.
Robinson has Minister Murphy cajole the central banks of the major economic powers to create a climate coalition and a new currency, the carboni. One coin is equal to a ton of sequestered carbon. The carboni is used to pay fossil fuel producers not to produce and to pay others to build alternatives. There are plenty of details about how the ministry’s financial incentives work, but the bottom line is that they tip the world economy toward healing the planet.
As Minister Murphy says to the money guys, there is only one viable long-term investment strategy. “You can short civilization if you want. Not a bad bet really. But no one to pay you if you win. Whereas if you go long on civilization, and civilization (therefore) survives, you win big. So the smart move is to go long.”
MMT and the carboni are helped on their path to adoption by the climate disasters that continue throughout the story, pushing even conservative bankers to accept solutions that previously seemed unfeasible or grandiose. As a reader, I too, was pushed to consider solutions I would not normally embrace, like hydrologic engineering to refreeze melting Antarctic glaciers, or climate terrorism targeting the CEOs of companies most responsible for human suffering and planetary destruction. Happily for me, Robinson also beautifully describes solutions I do believe in, like replacing Facebook with a people-owned social media commons and the elevation of Earth-based spirituality. With all the solutions employed in its 564 pages, The Ministry for the Future creates a believable scenario that many actions and reactions and strategies could help the world escape catastrophe—by the skin of its teeth.
For those of us who work on and/or worry about climate change virtually all of the time, the book is a helpful and encouraging vision of a possible way forward, and a reminder that sometimes disasters kick people into action. As I read it, wildfires burned in California and a heat dome covered the Pacific Northwest, stockholders forced Exxon to change its business plan, funders finally pulled the plug on the XL pipeline, the Klamath plant was shelved in Washington state, and the Biden administration announced plans for a huge infrastructure bill full of funding for climate change. As I wrote this review, massive, unexpected floods killed people in Germany. As I revised it, the IPCC published its report that global warming is happening even more quickly than we thought.
The similarities between The Ministry for the Future and this summer’s events are, of course, art imitating life. But Robinson is a keen student of technological, financial, social, and political solutions to climate change. His novel is itself a kind of solution, a guide that can help us make life imitate art. We can learn from his story and be inspired by it to try everything, be open to possibilities, and develop the flexibility to pivot quickly to deal with the unexpected.
The Earth is warning us, every day, that we have very little time left to do just that.
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