Friday, April 29, 2022

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

This 2020 novel by science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson starts in the present day and looks at our burgeoning climate catastrophe from many angles. And unlike the familiar doom-scrolling post-apocalyptic downers, this book threads a way forward to a living functional planet. It’s easy to feel paralyzed by the scope of the problem and the juggernaut of progress, which seems incapable of change. But just 2 years ago, the skies were clean because suddenly everyone stayed home. So before we snuggle back into our ruts and try to ignore this existential threat, let’s consider how we live, and how we could live. 

The story starts off with a heat wave in India causing 20 million deaths. This catalyzes India to lead the world in an immediate shift to clean energy, which sweeps up into its sphere soil-regenerative agriculture – and also spawns a group calling themselves Children of Kali, eco-terrorists who shoot down planes, assassinate rich people, and sabotage the beef industry by introducing mad-cow disease. 

The Conference of the Parties (COP) to the Paris Climate Agreements appoints a group, the Ministry for the Future, to find all possible ways to ameliorate climate change. The Ministry is representative of world populations, not just white men, and a spectrum of skills: diplomacy, economics, AI, infrastructure, law, agriculture, geoengineering, ecology, glaciology, insurance, security, and racial equity. Though we do meet some characters, Robinson packs a great deal of data and understanding of systems into this book. 

We see teams experimenting with ways to slow or stop sea level rise by pumping water from beneath fast-moving Antarctic glaciers, using oil-drilling machinery to do it. India buys time before another heat wave by geoengineering: seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to deflect sunlight. The mad-cow spread is so complete that cattle, a source of methane as well as deforestation, essentially disappear. Nations create wildlife corridors linking habitats, so that as climate destabilizes, wild animals are able to move safely to more livable areas. People join “2000 Watt clubs” aiming to reduce their energy footprint by tracking their housing, food, clothing, and transportation impacts. Sort of like getting in your 10,000 steps a day, except to benefit the world not just yourself. 

We see first the idea, then the implementation, of a carbon coin – carboni – with a long maturation value (think of a bond) payable to those who keep CO2-producing sources unused: oil, natural gas, and coal companies compensated for leaving it in the ground. Using blockchain to produce and track the carboni prevents their recipients from gaming the system, and as economies around the world shake, the carboni gains dominance. Carbon sequestration is done in many ways: pumping CO2 into old oil wells, separating it from oxygen and using the carbon as a building material, improving soil health, planting trees. This book is packed with ideas – not just good ideas, actionable ideas. 

Robinson makes a convincing case that we have the capacity to pull together as a species to protect our only home. He doesn’t scorn any technology that can help us get there. He also pokes at some of our assumptions: “Jevons Paradox [shows] that increases in efficiency in the use of a resource lead to an overall increase in the use of that resource, not a decrease” and observes What’s good is what’s good for the biosphere. In light of that principle, many efficiencies are quickly seen to be profoundly destructive, and many inefficiencies can now be understood as unintentionally salvational.” 

By pulling back from a US-centric view, Robinson is able to show that we – and by we I mean all life on this planet – are in the same boat. I appreciate that in this novel he puts India in the lead – one-sixth of earth’s population, nominally a democracy, situated squarely in the tropics where the intensity of the sun hits hardest – and through a fictional but likely catastrophe, mobilizes to change. And if this crowded country, so often viewed by wealthy nations as some lost cause, can pivot to a green future, then the rest of us certainly can. And it’s time!

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Triangulations, by Lorine Kritzer Pergament

This volume, released in March, 2022, contains the novella Triangulations and a handful of short stories by Lorine Kritzer Pergament. The novella reveals the lives of several generations of women in one family, linked through artistic ambition, love, and tragedy. Protagonist Susie wrestles with her reluctance to have children, and as we follow her journey of learning more about her grandmother, a cousin of that generation, her own mother whom she never knew, and her sisters, we come to empathize with her hesitation. 

Pergament moves through time, sometimes inhabiting characters, sometimes viewing them through Susie’s imagination, prompted by stories her older sister is able to conjure from photographs. Their grandmother Fannie survived the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 in New York’s Lower East Side, in a single day meeting the love of her life, and losing her best friend to the inferno. And fire continues to plague the family – Fannie’s daughter, Sylvie, suffered burns in a kitchen fire, with her baby – Susie – delivered a month early while she died from her injuries. Susie’s father won’t speak of Sylvie, and the young caretaker he soon marries, Clarisse, only came into the family after her death. She must turn to her older sister to learn more about their mother. 

Susie is a novelist, and her longtime boyfriend, Zach, who’d like to marry and start a family with her, is an up-and-coming painter. While she loves him, and cherishes their creative connection, having children is a fraught subject. The splintering of her own life renders her wary, and as she delves into the histories of her grandmother, and her grandfather’s cousin, Berta, she doubts a woman can both raise children and sustain a career. Even as she admires their accomplishments, she wonders how much more they could have done, without family demands impacting their ambitions. 

Reading Berta’s diary about living in France from the end of WWI, through Nazi occupation and into the decades beyond, Susie is struck by her predecessor’s adaptability, and her perspective. When she and her husband return to Paris after WWII, they find his optometry shop utterly smashed and burned. She writes: “Charles is despondent. He created that business from nothing, but is trying to be philosophical. We are all alive. What’s left are details.” Susie riffs on this: “We are all alive, the rest is details… Was having a child just a detail? Is being alive all that really matters?” While she appreciates the differences between Berta and Charles’ precarious situation and her own more secure one, she’s not prepared to write off the importance of her creative work as some mere “extra” – to thrive is steps beyond “we survived,” and represents more acutely her dilemma. 

Yet she also grasps the depth of Berta and Charles’ love, and how central that was to who they were. She finds resonance in Berta’s description of Charles as her “other half” – it’s how she feels about Zach. But, as he makes clear, that fundamental disagreement over having children will end their relationship. When we reach points in life where everything seems to be working, we want to make time stop. We know we can’t, but the desire to prevent change is our deepest self-deceit. Susie, recognizing this, has to abandon the version of life with Zach that fit so comfortably, and make a choice. Learning about the courageous women who preceded her, she’s better grounded to be fair to herself, and to Zach. 

Pergament writes with assurance about both the interior world of relationships and the larger sphere of events we cannot control, offering her readers plenty to ponder. 

Her short stories reveal the tensions and pitfalls in relationships. In “What Goes Up” we see a young mother at the end of her tether. In “Smell the Roses on Your Own Time” we watch a marriage unravel. “A Unique Package” surprises the best friend and confidante of a woman who has just died. And “Lost” visits the world of dementia from the inside. Pergament invests her women with humor, curiosity, and iconoclasm in contrast to the often straitlaced world they inhabit. People around them may find their behavior surprising or inappropriate, but this writer is in their corner showing why they live as they do, challenging her readers about our tendency to judge those who step outside the lines.