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Persistent political pressure staves off global warming in a new climate allegory

The Ministry for the Future: A Novel

Kim Stanley Robinson
Orbit
2020
576 pp.
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Renowned science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson has long been fascinated by climate-modifying technologies such as geoengineering and terraforming, but his passion lies in the necessity of political action to achieve a sustainable future. Based in an affectionately described Zurich, whose normalcy contrasts with global crisis, the titular Ministry for the Future described in Robinson’s new book is a small agency within the United Nations with a mandate to encourage nations to realize the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The book follows Mary Murphy, a middle-aged Irish diplomat who heads the ministry from the mid-2020s through the 2040s. Her story intertwines with that of Frank May, who survives a heat wave that kills 20 million people in 2025 but never regains his mental stability. May seeks peace by living rough in Zurich and working with refugees, but he is eventually imprisoned for breaking into Murphy’s apartment—an act driven by anguish over the slow pace of official action. She visits him in prison, and they slowly build an unlikely friendship. May serves as a stand-in for the damaged Earth that Murphy is trying to protect.

This is a book of ideas, not a plot-driven page-turner, which advances through 106 short chapters. Some are episodes of traditional action—activists take over a Davos meeting and hold the economic elite captive, Murphy escapes from assassins over an Alpine pass. Interspersed are loving portraits of landscapes and ecosystems, as well as capsule essays on climate science, ecology, politics, economic history, and global finance. Chapters that give first-person voice to a photon, a carbon atom, and a herd of caribou put human concerns in perspective. Readers familiar with Robinson’s work will see parallels to his Science in the Capital trilogy (1–3), which followed fictional scientists and administrators at the National Science Foundation struggling to translate climate science into action.

Along with some of Robinson’s favorite alternative technologies, such as dirigible airships and hybrid clipper ships powered by sails and solar energy, The Ministry for the Future explores two prominent science-based interventions that have been proposed as potential mitigators of global warming. Several chapters detail efforts to stabilize Antarctic and Greenland glaciers by drilling into their respective bases and pumping out the meltwater that lubricates their speedy advance. Several others imagine how early efforts to restore wildlife corridors might be scaled up to rewild much of the planet.

Ultimately, however, the book privileges global politics over geoengineering. For example, over several pivotal scenes, Murphy works to convince the heads of the world’s largest central banks to back carbon coins—monetized credits awarded for keeping fossil fuels in the ground and for sequestering atmospheric carbon.

Climate action in Robinson’s fictional future comes from strategy sessions in Zurich and from lobbying the Federal Reserve and the Chinese Ministry of Finance, but it also comes from local initiatives. One important chapter is simply a list of hundreds of grassroots organizations—from an Argentine permaculture initiative to a Zimbabwean ecological land trust—whose cumulative impact forces power brokers to consider alternatives to neoliberalism. Citing, both as an example and a caution, the revolution that swept through Europe in 1848, the novel envisions a moment when both governors and the governed realize that a new set of ideas has more power and relevance than the old.

Like the protagonists of Robinson’s earlier books, Murphy is a hero because she is persistent. Her Ministry for the Future pushes, prods, and persuades decision-makers to reverse greenhouse gas accumulation, but even as she retires from her post, she knows that progress does not mean victory—just a measure of positive change. She has spent her career struggling with “the clot of trends, the Gordian Knot of the world,” tugging at this strand and that to loosen the snag. The future, she realizes, will be filled with new and different challenges. “We will keep going,” she muses to herself, “because we never really come to the end.” Like Murphy, we must all keep at it.

References and Notes
1. K. S. Robinson, Forty Signs of Rain (HarperCollins, 2004).
2. K. S. Robinson, Fifty Degrees Below (Spectra, 2005).
3. K. S. Robinson, Sixty Days and Counting (Spectra, 2007).

About the author

The reviewer is an emeritus professor in the Nohad A. Toulan School of Urban Studies and Planning, Portland State University, Portland, OR, USA.