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!

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