books climate change

Book review: The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

“The climate crisis is also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” wrote Amitav Ghosh in 2016. In his book The Great Derangement, he notes that literature has failed to grapple with climate change. When it does, it is almost always stories of heroic individuals battling a crisis. “At exactly the time when it has become clear that global warming is in every sense a collective predicament, humanity finds itself in the thrall of a dominant culture in which the idea of the collective has been exiled from politics, economics and literature alike.”

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future almost feels written in response to Ghosh’s critique. This is a climate themed book that is honest about the challenge, but hopeful about the possibilities. And while it has individual characters, it is all about collective action.

The Ministry for the Future is a fictional UN body that is located in Geneva and tasked with solving climate change. The book tells the story of what it does, mainly through the eyes of the ministry’s chief, Mary Murphy – an Irish diplomat with distinct similarities to Mary Robinson or Christiana Figueres. It quickly sets up a contrast between the staid and orderly business of Swiss life, against the chaos and tragedy of climate change in the global South, and the extreme measures taken to fix the crisis.

Sometimes it’s easier to ask difficult questions through fiction, and The Ministry of the Future is not afraid to do so. Themes include geo-engineering, eco-terrorism, and climate black ops targeting the wealthy or the polluting. It’s also full of solutions, from large scale projects such as a carbon-backed global digital currency, to the ‘half earth’ nature restoration. There are dozens of ideas that I’ve written about on the blog over the years, and it was nice to see the 2,000 Watt Society feature, given the Swiss setting.

Sometimes books written about issues end up sacrificing the story to serve an agenda. The difference here is that this is a novel written by a novelist, not an environmentalist having a go at fiction. So there is no shortage of drama and intrigue, danger, and also humour – even when the prose takes the form of a lecture, or meeting notes.

Another risk is that the book could be partisan, and Robinson is smart in how he addresses this. For a start, not everything works, which avoids a utopian predictability. It also has a diversity of narrators. One amusing chapter on a failed attempt to re-educate the World Economic Forum is told by an entitled wealthy attendee. By contrast, events unfolding elsewhere are narrated by refugees, slaves, survivors. Some of the short chapters are told from more abstract points of view that work almost like riddles. “I am blockchain” concludes one little interlude. “Put me to use.”

The book has over 100 short chapters, multiple perspectives, and its power is in their cumulative effect. Solving climate change will take heroic efforts of diplomacy and science, visionary businesses, innovative technologies. But solving it will be the work of everybody, and something we do together.

There are plenty of things in The Ministry for the Future that we should all hope never materialise – particularly the opening scenes of a heatwave disaster. There are other things I very much hope are prophetic. Like the book’s closing sections, where having spanned decades its storytelling, it reflects on “a situation that no one would have believed possible even ten years before”.

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