BOOK REVIEW: The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson – January 2023

Reviewed by Jane Tompkins

A work of tremendous scope and ambition, this novel dares to imagine what it would take to protect the entire world from environmental collapse. Not in a hand-waving, presto change-o way, but by taking practical problems like the burning of fossil fuels and the melting of the ice-caps and proposing concrete technical solutions for them. It addresses problems of political leadership and outdated economic and social assumptions as well. It does so by following a range of first-person narrators whose lives have been impacted by environmental degradation or whose work involves solving the problems that caused it. The whole structure is held together by these narrative threads.

The first person we meet is a man named, Frank Bascombe, sole survivor of a catastrophic heat wave in India that killed 20 million people. Traumatized by the experience, unable to lead a normal life, he kidnaps the book’s main character, Mary Murphy, who directs the Ministry for the Future, an agency set up by the countries who signed the original Paris Agreement: its mission, to preserve the planet for future generations. He never harms her, but rants and raves, telling her she’s not doing enough. She knows he’s right. As agency director, she will pioneer experiments that eventually change the trajectory of the earth’s climate. The novel’s power derives from its dramatization of these changes, in all their specificity and scope.

On a personal level, when Mary Murphy goes somewhere, she doesn’t travel on airplanes or steamships but in airships like blimps which do not burn fuel oil, and ocean-going vessels powered by a combination of electricity and wind. When she buys an apartment, Mary, the modest consumer, chooses the attic of an old house where she can stand up straight only when standing in the middle of it. No fancy apartment or second home. On a professional level, she proposes that governments issue a new currency called carbon coins—equivalent in value to the US dollar—to businesses that can prove they have reduced their carbon footprint by a certain amount. By making it more profitable not to use carbon-based energy than to go on polluting the air and raising the temperature, this policy catches on.

In the financial realm, Mary convinces the central banks of the world’s largest nations to abandon the traditional goal of keeping their nations’ currencies stable and to invest in costly experimental operations that, it is hoped, will help save the planet. One of these, as described by a geo-engineer who loves the Antarctic, is pumping seawater from beneath glaciers and spraying it across their surfaces where it will re-freeze, thus slowing the ice-cap melt that is killing marine life and threatening to engulf coastal cities. These instances show that climate-friendly decision-making at the highest levels must be not only incentivized by financial gain, but also, ideally, transformed by the realization that there will be no world where dollars matter if those dollars are not immediately invested in preventing its demise.

The Ministry learns that the more clean energy the world has at its disposal, the more it can do to mitigate damage already done. For instance, substitutes for the fossil fuels used in automobiles and home heating can also be used in projects like desalinization. As the world becomes more aware of the need to reduce carbon emissions, its practices change across the board—in agriculture, in transportation, in manufacturing. And these changes produce alterations at other levels as well—re-forestation, flood prevention, wild-life protection. There comes to be a sort of unified consciousness, it would seem, that sets off—the relationship is never quite spelled out—revolutionary social changes such as issuing global passports to refugees, universal basic income, universal employment, and, get this, guaranteed basic services like housing, health care, and education. Seem improbable? Yes. But the vision is compelling. Don’t all human beings deserve these things? Another by-product of the emerging shift in values is an organization called Half-Earth, dedicated to preserving half of the world’s livable land mass for animals.

Kim Stanley Robinson is an ecologically minded science fiction writer who is used to creating imaginary worlds, most notably in his Mars trilogy, where he writes brilliantly about  the geological conformation of the planet, the technical solutions earth-men have devised to withstand its hostile climate, and the variety of political structures that evolved there as settlement progressed. The novels are mind-expanding and entertaining in equal measure. This present work, however, is on another level: It is a must-read. It’s not an easy read, but the pay-off is tremendous. Barack Obama said it was one of his favorite books of 2020. Ezra Klein wrote of it: “If I could get policymakers, and citizens, everywhere to read just one book this year, it would be Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.” It raised my consciousness by several notches. If you care at all about the environment, I suggest you read it, too.~