Jim Morrison observed that you don’t get outta here alive. Though Morrison had a point, Kim Stanley Robinson sketches an optimistic scenario in which we – or many of us – do get out of the climate emergency alive. Robinson, in a book of 530 dense pages entitled The Ministry for the Future, mixes sci-fi with hard science to make his case. It is a tour de force, though a book of such demanding complexity that it is more likely to be talked about than read.
Despite the author’s touching belief in the sanctity of the rule of law, democratic representation and social and ecological justice, the book raises disturbing questions. Success in mastering climate change depends heavily on violence to deter carbon-intensive enterprises and life-styles and on extensive geo-engineering. Is this really what a just transition will entail? If so, how do those committed to non-violence and skeptical of geo-engineering respond?
Taken as a work of fiction, The Ministry for the Future is unconventional. Robinson blithely breaks all the rules of novel-writing. For one thing, very little character development takes place. For another, he stands the maxim, ‘show, don’t tell’ on its head. ”Tell, don’t show” prevails in the form of a series of mini-lectures ranging from the Jevons Paradox and cognitive behavioural therapy to the depredations of rentier capitalism and the promise of Modern Monetary Theory. So be warned: this is not a novel for leisurely reading.
Do enjoy the sheer audacity of the book’s shifting points of view, however. The novel shifts back and forth from third-person omniscient, for narrative and idea-development, to the first-person viewpoint of an amazing array: a photon from the sun, a reindeer, a carbon atom, Gaia, the weather system, and my favourite, the market. This zany approach entices the reader, but also makes us reflect on phenomena far outside our experience. This is, after all, sci-fi.
Or is it? If it were sci-fi, we might dismiss it as a lark. We cannot dismiss this book, however, because it is heavily based on scientific knowledge and on existing climate trends. The mini-lectures are there not only to inform readers of complex realities, but also to persuade them not to dismiss the dangers he sketches as mere fiction. He harnesses the imaginative power of fiction to alert us to the imminent threat of climate disaster and to a potential pathway to safety and justice.
We begin the book with a searing portrayal of what lies just ahead. It describes in graphic detail a horrendous heat wave in central India that kills 20 million people. It is a horrifying event, yet the risk of such a deadly heat wave occurring in the next few years is high, according to climate scientists. As I was writing this article, NASA and NOAAA issued a report announcing that, in 2019, the earth trapped nearly twice as much heat than in 2005. Already, hundreds of thousands have perished from the heat throughout the world, including hundreds in France in 2003. Today, a headline caught my eye: ‘B.C. Records Hundreds of Deaths Linked to Heat Wave’. If a heat wave can hit Vancouver, where the weather is usually cool, no one is safe. Meanwhile, people in the Persian Gulf and the Indus Valley now regularly experience brief episodes of wet-bulb conditions beyond human endurance. We may know the facts, but Robinson’s fictional account brings home the terror.
So, what does Robinson propose? How do we get out alive?
We observe the climate crisis and the halting response to it mainly through the eyes of Mary Murphy, the thoughtful and committed head of the Ministry for the Future. Established under the Paris Climate Agreement, the Ministry is based in Zurich. Its mandate is exemplary: to work on behalf of children, those yet unborn and animals in pushing for measures to create a just and stable climate Predictably, the Ministry is poorly funded. Its international staff is over-stretched and ineffectual at first. But the ministry has a greater impact following a devastating global depression in the 2030s.
The survival scenario is too complex to summarize. Suffice it to say that there is no integrated program that rallies the world in concerted action. Instead, the world muddles through to the 2040s and 2050s. The concentration of carbon in the atmosphere begins to decline from a dangerously high 450 ppm, half of the world’s surface returns slowly to the wild, and the human population declines to a sustainable level. Robinson offers a decidedly democratic-socialist perspective, though his scenario involves no revolutionary upheaval. Instead, we witness a gradual movement to practical forms of cooperative organization and democratic representation. Strangely enough, the conservative central banks play a key role in this scenario. Mary and others persuade the bankers that, if we fail to conserve the world, worrying about inflation is pointless. Central bankers, tentatively at first, and then enthusiastically, embrace quantitative easing to support a new carbon coin currency, with one ton of sequestered carbon worth one coin. This stable currency persuades even petro-states and energy companies to accept complex compensation for leaving their hydro-carbon assets in the ground. All the parts of the puzzle fit together, though with many false starts.
Is all well that ends well? Not really. The scenario depends for its success on many strands, but two are controversial.
We may recoil at the geo-engineering, which is undertaken on a massive scale. The Indian government, following India’s devastating heat wave, resorts, without consulting other governments, to ‘solar radiation management’. It seeds the upper atmosphere with sulfur-dioxide dust to emulate the effect of a major volcanic eruption. The experiment reduces global temperatures marginally over three years. A second complex engineering feat, which I will not attempt to explain, is to stabilize glaciers in Antarctica. ‘This effort succeeds in slowing down the movement of glaciers into the sea, thus reducing the rise in ocean levels. Finally, the Russians dye the ice-free areas of the Arctic Ocean yellow to reflect solar radiation and impede oceanic warming. All experiments seem to have a positive effect.
The justification for geo-engineering is that global warming exceeds the point where it is reversible through conventional methods. Will this indeed be our predicament? Most of us harbour strong doubts about geo-engineering. We believe it is impossible, in complex systems, to gauge the unintended, and possibly devastating, effects of major interventions in climate dynamics. We may, however, be forced to rethink our position. Global warming is proceeding much faster than expected. Three or four degrees (Celsius) of warming would be disastrous. How many of us would survive as the tropical and semi-tropical regions become uninhabitable? If we are headed in that direction, we may have little choice but to consider geo-engineering as a last resort.
The second controversy concerns the legitimacy of employing violence to deter carbon-intensive activities and life-styles. In the novel, characters who have earned our respect condone the use of violence.
Attention in the novel focuses on a shadowy international ‘terrorist’ group based in India – the ‘Children of Kali’ – and a ‘black-ops’ group associated with the Ministry for the Future. Mary Murphy stumbles on the secret operations established by her deputy at the Ministry. She struggles with the morality of violence; Mary is depicted as a well-balanced, fair-minded democrat. Eventually, she accepts the necessity: ‘The hidden sheriff, she was ready for that now, that and the hidden prison. The guillotine for that matter. … The gun in the night, the drone from nowhere. Whatever it took. Lose, lose, lose, fuck-it – win!’
What transpires is a cascade of violence. Underground groups commit widespread sabotage of pipelines, polluting power stations, passenger jets (60 crash in a single day) and private passenger planes. Air travel ceases as dirigibles return. The Children of Kali assassinate billionaires who profit from hydro-carbons. Drones sink container ships and factory-fish ships, and pulverize cement factories, Cattle ranching ceases as a bovine fever fatal to humans spreads among cattle and other domestic animals. Direct attacks – such as an operation that kidnaps the rich and famous at an Economic Summit at Davos – strike fear into the hearts of the powerful. And the violence succeeds in lowering emissions. The age of carbon-intensive industry and travel ends, while vast tracks hitherto dedicated to animal agriculture revert to wilderness. As the human population dwindles, the natural world undergoes a renaissance. Consequently, the concentration of carbon dioxide begins a steady decline in the 2040s or 2050s.
Considering the beneficial outcomes, is violence justified in the fight for a just transition?
Those of us committed to non-violence would answer in the negative. Yet, whether we like it or not, violence is likely to come. As extreme weather events multiply, as these events destroy agricultural and other livelihoods, the resulting panic and anger create conditions for extremism and ‘terrorism.’ In fact, adverse climatic trends are already exacerbating violent conflicts in tropical regions; in Syria, Sudan, Mali, and Central America, for instance. Security agencies in the United Kingdom and Canada have already identified such non-violent groups as Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, and PETA as potentially subversive. Extreme climate, loss of livelihoods, growing criminality, and collapsing governments are fuelling a growing stream of climate migrants/refugees. If we do not take decisive action to halt carbon emissions, with dangerous tipping points in the offing, we invite instability, conflict and violence.
Combating global warming is thus not just a fight for climate activists; it is a a fight for peace and justice activists as well. Kim Stanley Robinson shows as what might happen. But we have agency, and the violence and chaos that might happen, must not happen. Robinson’s final words are not exactly a consolation, but at least ground us in the reality of our situation: “We will keep going, we will keep going because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.’
Richard Sandbrook is professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of Toronto and President of Science for Peace.