Many nonfiction books describe current and coming dangers of climate change. In “The Ministry for the Future,” author Kim Stanley Robinson uses the genre of science fiction — or specifically the new sub-genre of “climate fiction,” or cli-fi — to thoroughly educate his readers on climate change. Through multiple styles of writing in over 100 short chapters, Stanley Robinson covers many topics directly and indirectly related to climate change. He successfully ties science to key elements of our society, allowing him to predict how things may play out over the next few decades.
The story begins just a few years in the future, at a clinic in India during a severe heat wave that kills 20 million people. Frank May, the main protagonist and an American volunteer at the clinic, tries but fails to save people from essentially being baked to death. Frank manages to survive and soon joins a nationwide movement toward climate action. India becomes a global leader in fighting climate change, beginning with using geoengineering to release aerosols in the atmosphere to scatter sunlight back to space. Indians demand a new government to focus on addressing climate action.
The book’s title refers to an international agency created to “defend all living creatures present and future,” called the Ministry for the Future. The second protagonist, Mary Murphy, heads the agency. Since it doesn’t have any real power, the agency initially struggles to force change but, as climate disasters worsen, begins to have some success. Stanley Robinson uses the agency to introduce ideas that may help civilizations survive climate change, such as pumping water out from underneath glaciers and spraying it back onto the top of the glaciers so the water refreezes. This stops glacial melt and thus the flooding of coastlines. Another big idea is the creation of a carbon coin, or a digital currency disbursed on proof of carbon sequestration, to effectively base money on a carbon standard.
Stanley Robinson goes into extensive detail on how these ideas would work, as well as the struggles it would take to implement them. The agency must do battle with the world’s most powerful institutions, including major governments, fossil fuel companies and financial institutions. Stanley Robinson seems to make an extra effort to show just how powerful and destructive global banking institutions have become. He also makes some fairly credible leaps as to how fossil fuel companies can be redirected away from emitting CO2 toward sequestering it, as well as getting them to play other key roles with climate action. The agency’s other big ideas include crafting a refugee plan to create global citizenship and creating a “half Earth” movement to essentially establish half of the planet as protected for animals.
As Stanley Robinson introduces multiple climate-driven disasters, the outrageous-sounding solutions seem more and more doable and urgent. As the book progresses and the planet gets hotter, we face a collapsing insurance system, cities that are being wiped out in massive floods, killer heat waves and hundreds of millions of climate refugees. As Stanley Robinson puts it, “until the climate was actually killing them, people had a tendency to deny it could happen.”
The book includes some pretty dark possibilities, such as a highly organized, violent pushback against the world’s biggest polluters. Led by survivors of India’s deadly heat wave, the proponents of violence use technology — mainly drones — to bring down airplanes, sink ships, spread mad cow disease to force people to stop eating beef, destroy dirty powerplants and continually attack the super-rich who are burning the most fossil fuels. Stanley Robinson invents high-tech weapons that could make these attacks feasible. It’s these attacks, combined with climate disasters, that push climate action forward.
Stanley Robinson provides the reader with a wealth of potential climate solutions. Some are expected, such as the use of many forms of clean energy and carbon-negative agriculture. Others inspire imagination, such as fleets of sailing ships with sails that capture energy from the sun to help power them, as well as fleets of electric aircraft and airships. The ideas just keep coming. Honestly, some seem downright crazy, such as staining the Arctic Ocean yellow to keep sunlight from penetrating deep into the water or creating an “Internet of animals” to avoid species extinction, but Stanley Robinson provides reasonable detail to give the reader a view of how they could happen.
In the many, short chapters, one or two pages each, Stanley Robinson introduces topics that initially may seem unrelated to climate change, such as happiness indexes, narcissism, tax laws, providing legal standing for animals, the impact of discount rates, Modern Monetary Theory, etc. Others deal with topics more directly related, such as the brutal experience of living in a refugee camp. These chapters show the connection between differing aspects of society and how they are leading us down a very dangerous pathway.
“The Ministry for the Future” is a quite good novel. The characters are well developed, and I found myself strongly rooting for them as their lives evolve throughout the book. The plot includes many unexpected twists, keeping the reader engaged. Stanley Robinson tries to balance telling a good story with educating the reader and leaves us with some important ideas. One is “history goes like this: lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, win,” meaning it may seem daunting, but we can do this if we keep trying. Another is that “there is no such thing as fate,” or that our future lies in our own hands. Other insights that Stanley Robinson provides, such as “the status of women is fundamental to the success of any culture” and that “when everyone in the world has their dignity, we will be all right,” provide us with needed guideposts for climate action. In the end, “The Ministry for the Future” is an inspiring and hopeful read.
If you are interested in “The Ministry for the Future,” you may also like:
• “A Psalm for the Wild-Built” by Becky Chambers.
• “The Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler.
• “Orleans” by Sherri L. Smith.
Dave Gamrath is a longtime community activist who founded InspireSeattle.org and serves on multiple regional boards and committees.
Read more of the Nov. 3-9, 2021 issue.