The Ministry for the Future

Book cover image Kim Stanley RobinsonThe Ministry for the Future

Kim Stanley Robinson

Hachette, October 2020.

The Ministry for the Future is a year old but it took me most of the year to discover it and read it, and now, with COP26 imminent, I feel an urgent need to share it with as many people as possible.

Sadly, I can’t find the time to give it the attention it deserves so I am resorting (as I have before) to a meta-review: extracts of reviews by writers who say between them what I would have liked to have said myself.

The conclusion of this short review by Mark Yon for will serve as an introduction to the longer pieces:

Whilst it could be said that Ministry for the Future is a political agenda dressed-up as fiction, my abiding feeling at the end is that it shows hope – a sensible and rational way out of the mess we live in – and reflects a heartfelt belief that sensible people, wanting to do the best for as many people as they can, can work in difficult situations to make the world a better place. And at the moment, with all of the political and environmental chaos going on around us, it is therefore the novel we need.

The two longer reviews I will quote are written, respectively, by an environmentalist who knows books and a literary critic who has been following environmental matters.

First, J.R. Burgmann, writing for the Australian Book Review:

Our stories are not working. Whether they be the kind we tell in fiction, or the larger canvas of culture twittering away across the global village, our present reality – the seismic planetary shifts, the pandemical turmoil – evades our collective narrative comprehension. We are clearly at a critical moment in history, the consequences of which will ripple through time in unimaginable ways. In preparation for what is to come, we urgently need to view the frightening present with clarity. Only then, by extrapolating the likely future of our planet, might we begin to imagine a better world. There may not be a more qualified living writer to do this than Kim Stanley Robinson. …

Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, attempts to articulate the societal transformations, the collective shifts in thought, that will be necessary in order to confront and therefore change the shared future of the earth and all life therein. …

Set just a few years from now and spanning multiple decades, The Ministry for the Future recounts the rise of the eponymous ministry, established in Zurich in 2025 to work with the IPCC, the United Nations, and all governments signatory to the Paris Agreement. Headed by Mary Murphy, a no-nonsense Irishwoman appointed to the unenviable task of guiding her team of experts from across a range of disciplines, the ministry’s singular purpose is ‘to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens … all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves’.

Of course, Mary’s team soon discovers the present impossibility of its mission, the mere symbolism of its formation against the intractability of international policy and of the very systems through which our current world order is organised. To be blunt, neoliberalism is the primary problem. Robinson is unwavering here, the sweeping sequence of events by which the ministry attempts to trigger immense societal transformations as clear a critique of present-day capitalism as you will find in fiction. …

Constructing a novel, a towering future history, from more than one hundred short story-like vignettes might be disorienting, even distressing, given the subject; but in so doing Robinson appears to have arrived finally at an ideal hybrid of forms.

Finally, the review by Michael Svoboda for Yale Climate Connections. The internal links are his, by the way.

In The Ministry for the Future, his twentieth novel, science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson creates something truly remarkable: a credible, very-near future in which humans effectively solve the problem of climate change.

Climate lukewarmers may be tempted to interpret this upbeat summary as support for their technological optimism. That would be a mistake. Though it ends well, the story Robinson tells is harrowing. …

Many of the book’s 106 chapters are devoted to such technical topics as the history of central banking, modern monetary theory, the Gini index, blockchain technology, Mondragon, carbon taxes, clean energy technologies, Jevon’s Paradox, different forms of geoengineering, population biology, and wildlife corridors.

With these many different pieces, Robinson assembles a Rube Goldbergian machine for social change that ultimately delivers the goods: a more equitable social economy and a more stable climate, one in which CO2 levels are actually falling from the peak level (478 ppm) reached in the 2040s. …

The Ministry for the Future, then, is both an optimistic and a difficult work. Morally difficult for the role it envisions for violence, and sometimes a slow read for the many complex topics that must be explained along the way. But precisely because of the extra effort required, readers will finish Ministry with a clearer view of the big picture and a much better understanding of the many different pieces humanity must puzzle together to meet the challenge of climate change.

7 thoughts on “The Ministry for the Future”

  1. G20 endorses global corporate minimum tax

    The deal to have a minimum corporate tax rate of 15 per cent falls short of US President Joe Biden’s push for a 21 per cent minimum. It aims to discourage multinationals from stashing profits in countries where they pay little or no taxes. OECD secretary-general Mathias Cormann says the deal will make “international tax arrangements fairer”.

    It’s a step in the right direction, albeit a smaller step than we really need. It’s also one of the elements in Robinson’s blueprint for a fairer and more sustainable society.

  2. Shortly after reading The Ministry I picked up A Banquet of Consequences – reloaded by Satyajit Das. I was (morbidly?) fascinated to see that he, a finance expert, has analysed our economic system without much reference to the natural world and come to much the same conclusions as Robinson. He recommends very similar solutions, too. This review summarises his diagnosis well enough to show the parallels; his remedies include drastically reducing the size of the financial market and increasing taxation of the super-rich.

  3. Climate Justice, by Mary Robinson, is in many ways a shorter, non-fiction version of The Ministry, as this book review will show.

    Mary Robinson is a former president of Ireland, UN Commissioner on Human Rights, and advocate for climate justice through her foundation. Her work over the last few years has been all about climate justice: showing that “the fight against climate change is fundamentally about human rights and securing justice for those suffering from its impact – vulnerable countries and communities that are the least culpable for the problem.”
    This ought to be obvious, but it is obscured when climate change is thought of as an environmental issue. …
    It’s not a long book, … so you’ll be able to make time for it. It’s powerful, compassionate, generous and hopeful.

  4. A beautiful extended interview of KSR in The New Yorker, mainly about The Ministry but covering a lot of ground.

    It isn’t easy to be a utopian science-fiction writer. “Star Trek” is famously optimistic but isn’t in any sense realistic; in general, when sci-fi engages in serious social analysis, it curdles. We may feel that dystopian stories are more plausible, yet Robinson thinks that there’s something a little craven about them. Isn’t it odd, he has written, to enjoy “late-capitalist, advanced-nation schadenfreude about unfortunate fictional citizens whose lives have been trashed by our own political inaction”? It’s better, he believes, to be utopian, or at least “anti-anti-utopian.” … What he seeks to practice is, in a phrase popularized by the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.”

  5. More on the economics proposed by The Ministry, although the book isn’t even mentioned. In this long interview, Varoufakis takes apart received wisdom about the nexus between politics, economics and technology, e.g. …

    The Left, radicals, progressives, etc. have either refused to acknowledge the genuine ingenuity of blockchain or have fallen for it. We seem to have forgotten how Marx and Engels had the nous and the ability, on the one hand, to admire and celebrate the technological and scientific wonders of their era and, on the other hand, grasp that these potentially liberating technologies were bound to enslave the many if they became instrumentalised by the very few. The two Germans believed in the emancipatory potential of the steam engine and of electromagnetism. But, they never believed that society would be liberated by the steam engine and/or electromagnetism. Liberation required a political movement that first overthrows the bourgeoisie and only then presses these magnificent technologies into the service of the many. This seems to me an excellent way of approaching today’s potentially liberating technologies, including blockchain.

  6. One of Robinson’t key tactics in enforcing equitable taxation was a switch to cryptocurrencies. I found that troubling, since crypto is notoriously energy-intensive. Here, though, is a proposition which may slash its energy consumption and therefore make his plan viable.
    Climate groups say a change in coding can reduce bitcoin energy consumption by 99%

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