Chicago (Special to Informed Comment) – In the wake of a killer heat wave that slaughters millions, eco-terrorism spreads across the globe and capitalism ruptures in Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel that envisions a climate crisis scenario of the next thirty years. Despite violence, ecological calamity and a super-depression, The Ministry for the Future is ultimately an optimistic book that imagines a manifesto for radical climate change and alters the trajectory of “overt gloom and doom that we increasingly encounter in today’s climate discourse” as Michael E. Mann puts it in The New Climate War.
Best known for the Mars trilogy, Robinson has written twenty novels and received every science fiction honor including the Robert A. Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke awards for his entire body of work. “Science fiction is the realism of our time,” says Robinson. “We are all now stuck in a science-fiction novel that we’re writing together.” Published at the end of last year, The Ministry for the Future was well-received and, among the plaudits, New York Times opinion writer Ezra Klein called it “the most important book I read last year.”
Robinson — a self-described eco-Marxist — dramatizes the relationship between ecological destruction and capitalism while proposing solutions to the climate crisis that involve the end of wealth inequality, authoritarianism, hyper-masculinity and racism. The sprawling novel navigates a chaotic path that dismantles the free market, countenances eco-terrorism and avoids mass extinction, apocalyptic nihilism and fascistic clampdown. Hopeful, but still frightful, this plausible best-case scenario results from great loss and suffering.
The opening of the book, in 2025, plunges us into an eye-witness account of a brutal heat wave in India — a sustained combination of extreme temperatures and high humidity that renders humans unable to shed heat. “The sun blazed like an atomic bomb, which of course it was,” thinks American aid worker Frank May who hears screams of distress as the power grid crashes. Making his way to a lake, he sees that old and young are roasting in the streets and, in the lake, people were being “poached.”
Twenty million perish in the heat storm, which galvanizes India into taking extreme actions to fight climate warming and prevent another disaster. Delhi’s first action is a geoengineering attempt to dim the sun. Called Solar Radiation Management, scientists seek to imitate the Pinatubo volcanic eruption of 1991, which partially blocked solar radiation with sulfur dioxide particles within the ash cloud and lowered global temperature by a degree of Fahrenheit for a year. India launches a fleet of airplanes to ferry sulfur compounds into the atmosphere, a global intervention forbidden by the novel’s updated Paris Climate Agreement.
The anemic progress of the Paris Climate Agreement has led to the creation of a new international climate-crisis body. Called the Ministry for the Future, it has been “charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves.” Led by ex–Irish Republic official Mary Murphy, the Ministry’s close-knit staff includes bureaucrats, economists, engineers and scientists. They emerge as the rather ordinary even boring heroes of the novel, eventually succeeding in finding effective climate interventions to save the planet. Rumors persist that the Ministry runs a secret “black ops wing“ that violently supports their work
In India, a terrorist network arises. The Children of Kali, named for the Indian goddess protector of the innocent and destroyer of evil, pursue violent — and shockingly effective — methods, including sabotage and murder. Robinson suggests that given the immediacy of the crisis, all methods — legal, extra-legal and technological — must be tried.
Disregarding narrative drive, Robinson covers a lot of ground in 106 chapters and almost 600 pages. He mingles Wikipedia articles, news reports, philosophical musing, political analysis and prose poems. With an exuberant imagination, he even gets weird — writing short chapters from the point of view of the sun, the earth, a carbon molecule, and a caribou. He knowledgeably riffs on
In the real world, widespread research into the efficacy of solar geoengineering has been stalled for years. Solar Radiation Management remains highly controversial among environmentalists. The first proposed sun-dimming experiment, in Sweden, was delayed just last week due to opposition by green and anti-technology groups. This so-called Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment (SCoPEx) — partially funded by Bill Gates and designed by Harvard University — would involve the launch of a balloon into the stratosphere where it would spray fine dust mists (calcium carbonate) and then circle back to measure chemical and physical alterations.
Progressive opponents believe such atmospheric techno-fixes come with unpredictable risks and unforeseen consequences, including extreme shifts in weather patterns that might weaken the summer monsoons. The 2013 movie Snowpiercer dramatizes a unlikely extreme result: a new ice age. Environmentalists also fear that because this technological strategy does nothing to treat the underlying cause of climate change, the polluters who spew greenhouse gases will push for technological solutions and continue their bad behavior. As Michael E. Mann argues, “Geoengineering is simply a way of avoiding the need for true systemic change, even as that shift is increasingly feasible.”
In the novel, the Ministry tries several technological strategies, including dyeing the Artic Ocean yellow to reflect more sunlight and moderate its warming. As Robinson, in the novel, asserts: “Geoengineering? Yes. Ugly? Very much so. Dangerous? Possibly. Necessary? Yes. Or put it this way; the international community had decided through their international treaty system to do it. Yet another intervention, yet another experiment in managing the Earth system, in finessing Gaia.”
While not embracing any specific technological solutions or making predictions about what will or will not work, Robinson refuses to dismiss geoengineering as techno-utopian wishful thinking. The threat of mass extinction is so dire that every strategy must be considered. Most immediately, this includes a restructuring of capitalism as a step on the way to overturning it.
“Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: the old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy,” says Robinson. Still, in India, the capitalist system collapses in recognition that this legally mandated economic system is an attack on the biosphere and a crime against humanity. The ruling elite lose legitimacy and the world’s biggest democracy nationalizes the power companies, closes down coal-fired power plants, and builds wind and solar plants while dismantling the caste system and shutting down cheap Indian labor. The more radical elements of the Indian polity send out a message: “change with us now or suffer the wrath of Kali.”
Aside from these threats, pressure on the world’s central bankers comes from catastrophic ecological events including a murderous heat wave in the U.S. and the flooding of Los Angeles. Debt strikes by students and debtor nations of the global south as well as uprisings by migratory workers create economic pressure. Driven by the sense that the world is collapsing, millions of people march in the capitals of the world: ”a spasm of revolt, things were falling apart.”
Eventually, the world’s bankers help break the petro-billionaires and shift the economy away from fossil fuels. Fundamental to the book is Robinson’s elaboration of an alternative to the neo-liberal capitalist order: an end to the free market, which is destroying the planet, to a profit structure that rewards saving the planet. In this, The Ministry for the Future imagines the first steps towards the end of capitalism.
What makes this tough reading is the detail-heavy complexity of the financial transformation that Robinson envisions, including an elaboration of carbon quantitative easing — “carbon coin” compensation for actions that keep CO2 from the atmosphere — combined with blockchain technology that makes money traceable, trackable and fully taxable. For a real-world explanation and evaluation of this financial labyrinth, see How to Save the Planet.
Though the central bankers are treated as a kind of Illuminati controlling the world, the novel shows that the end of capitalism is a pivotal requirement for moving the globe onto a path of reducing carbon emissions. This financial revision incentivizes a shift away from fossil fuel burning to a clean, green economy.
After redesigning the financial system, the Ministry for the Future unravels the various knots of the climate crisis: requiring the fast development of green modes of urban transit, stimulating the mass adoption of sustainable agriculture and enforcing stringent regulatory standards for the biggest carbon emitting sectors: industry, transport, land use, buildings, and transportation. Robinson says, “It will be legislation that does it on the end, creating a new legal regime that is fair, just, sustainable, and secure.”
To be clear, none of this — the fracturing of capitalism and the creation of green laws — none of this happens without brutal, ruthless political violence that ramps up exponentially after the Indian heat wave horror. The clandestine, now international terrorist network — the Children of Kali — target the world’s biggest polluters: “They killed us, so we killed them. All death dealers. All mass murderers for cash.” The Ministry publicly abhors such acts, but the financial titans believe that the Ministry’s “black wing” participates in such eco-terror.
“The War for the Earth is said to have begun on Crash Day,” recounts Robinson in the novel: terrorists launched swarms of sparrow-sized drones into the flight paths of airplanes, fouling their engines anddowning them. Some are the private jets of plutocrats, but not all: “Sixty passenger jets crashed in a matter of hours, about seven thousand dead.” After Crash Day, the Children of Kali issue a manifesto: No more fossil-fuel-burning transport. This prevents twenty-five percent of civilization’s total carbon burn. Flying is mostly limited to the growing fleet of solar-powered dirigibles and airships that slowly circle the Earth. Next, the Children of Kali tell the world that livestock has been infected with mad cow disease (BSE). To stay safe, people must stop eating beef. Vegetarianism spreads, severing the world from its addiction to carbon-intensive meat production.
We never meet any of the terrorists or their victims. The savage acts are reported blandly, in summaries of newscasts. Although any of these audacious actions could be the plot of a thriller, Robinson does not embellish their stories with suspense, as in Kelly Reichardt’s 2013 movie Night Moves. Unlike the film, the novel doesn’t burden terroristic behavior with moral considerations. Still, the violence is not valorized, but rather presented as inevitable — a vengeful reckoning proportionate to the ecocidal crimes against the planet that brought civilization to the brink.
By the 2050s, the Ministry reports significant victories in the battle to save earth. While more energy than ever is being created, less CO2 is burning into the atmosphere than at any time since 1887. Every continent shows improvement. The Ministry for the Future imagines a vast complicated green revolution — the immense totality of the transformation that needs to happen. With a mind-boggling multitude of perspectives, Robinson assembles a complex machine for social change that ultimately delivers success: a more equitable social economy and a more stable climate.
In recounting the positive planetary changes, Robinson demonstrates his pastoral voice with beautifully vivid portrayals of animals, people and environments — the natural world brought back to life. In one powerful chapter (85), he transcribes the opening of a fictional congress of global climate remediation groups that lists over 350 multifaceted land and animal restoration projects scattered across the globe. As it happens, it is a real list: Spherical Studio’s Regen Earth, a collection of regenerative projects presented in short films.
While optimistic, The Ministry of the Future stillrepresents the dark fears of one of America’s great writers. The needed green transformation may require political violence and entail the sacrifice of moral convictions, justified on a belief that the carbon oligarchy is committing mass murder and most of their victims will be our children.
At the end of this truly subversive novel, Minister Mary Murphy looks at the saved world and thinks: “That there is no other home for us than here. That we will cope no matter how stupid things get. That all couples are odd couples. That the only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction. That we can make a good place. That people can take fate in their hands. That there is no such thing as fate.”
Bonus video added by Informed Comment: