Argument with Ministry of the Future
Book by Kim Stanley Robinson
This article was just published in a different newsletter I write called Arguments with Books. I am sending it to Intertwine readers because the book is all about climate change. Hope you enjoy.
The cover of the book is all I needed to get into it. It proclaimed: “One of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year.” Several hours of reading later, I’m left wondering why.
The strength of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book lies in the dire yet plausible events he depicts regarding climate change. The book opens with a massive climate change event—a devastating two-week heat wave that sends wet bulb temperatures far beyond survivability in India. Twenty million people die. The depiction of the suffering is horrendous and striking, especially when you recall that Canada had a heat wave not quite as bad in 2021 where 600 people died—only because the heat dome hit an area with a very sparse population in comparison to India.
Two other fictional but plausible events are depicted as well—an atmospheric river hitting and flooding LA (not unlike the floods we have seen further up the coast in California a month ago) and another heat wave across the south of America stretching from Arizona to Florida. Again, wet bulb temperatures go too high, and 200,000 to 300,000 people die.
These are fictional accounts, but they are shocking anyway because those who study climate change recognize they are all too possible. Their value isn’t so much in the shock as in the suggestion in the book that these events are big and traumatic enough that they lead nations to take unilateral actions that affect everyone. In particular, India begins deploying aerosols into the upper atmosphere mimicking a volcanic eruption, which scientists know tend to cool the planet. It brings up the old saying that desperate people do desperate things. Twenty million dead is enough to make anyone desperate to prevent a repeat.
What disturbs me in the book, however, are the usual good vs. evil tropes in the climate discussion, and his vision of the future that leaves out key elements altogether. All the corporations are bad, governments are parochial, and central bankers—who play a big part in the book—are limited-vision bankers who grudgingly agree to things proposed by the more enlightened. If you start with these tropes, then the solution you end up with is predictable—revolution and socialism.
The real revolution in Robinson’s story begins with Crash Day, a day when self-selected eco-terrorists down twenty airplanes at once. The message? Stop flying. A continued campaign of such downings brings air travel to a halt. Likewise, they go after container ships that burn diesel fuel and shut that down. They go after corporate leaders who Robinson argues, in one of the non-fiction vignettes in this book, are among the 500 people or so who could change everything if they wanted to. Hence, Robinson's vision is that a self-styled, modern-day Robin Hood will go after a cabal of the wealthy and powerful to save humanity.
This is a dire vision—violence is the only solution to climate change, he seems to say, the only way to get humanity to change how it does things. Total power is given to the violent groups—including weapons that cannot be stopped and an all-knowing power that enables them to avoid being found out. The story has no accounts of the violent activists being taken down or stopped, but plenty of them expressing moral indignation at the correctness of their cause. Hence, the book sends the message: violence is the way.
My argument with this notion is not a pollyannish peacenik one. No, it is the corrosive fantasy that such a force could exist—all-powerful, all-knowing, and operating with superior morality to save the Earth. I object to the notion that this is how we will finally succeed because it represents, as Kafka said, a monstrous failure of imagination. Robinson says, in effect, that a terror war—The War for the Earth—is the answer the climate change. But worse, he makes it work based on this notion of the all-powerful, all-knowing, morally superior terrorist group that no one can touch. Is this our only salvation? The message seems to be that we are utterly disempowered to fix anything.
It is inevitable and disappointing that the romance of the eco-terrorists becomes the romance of socialism. "People power" and the people finally making the bastards pay, and all that. Although Robinson talks about the limits of revolution, he expresses it as that one problem all revolutions have—they are empowered so long as they have someone to hate and get rid of, but once that is done, there is no plan for going forward. That's when revolutions get lost. So he gives them a path of socialism.
The problem with socialism, of course, is that it never remains a people-driven movement because it can’t. New folks rise to leadership, and therefore power, and they become the new power elites—usually, power elites who are soon enough corrupt power elites. This is why socialist revolutions tend toward dictatorship. While the dream of socialism is that it serves the people, the actuality is that it always serves the power elites—it’s just that it is a different set of power elites with a slightly different stated ideology than the one that preceded it. These differences can be real enough, but to dream that the people are now in control is an exercise in self-delusion.
These, however, are common criticisms of socialism. The bigger point is that socialism is not the only option, and in celebrating it, Robinson completely misses the other options. There is, of course, a necessity to move beyond capitalism as we have known it to solve climate change. But if the only option you can come up with in a rapidly changing world is a 170-year-old idea, I suggest you aren’t thinking very well. The non-capitalist or post-capitalist world we are moving toward has an enormous range of possibilities based on technological changes that enable new ways of being. Robinson only dabbles here with the invention of the carbon coin utilizing blockchain technology. Yes, it unlocks tremendous new wealth in a “for the people” kind of way, but fails to consider the impact of more revolutionary technology on the post-capitalist world. Robots, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, automation, networks, and blockchain all present possibilities and likelihoods far beyond what he has portrayed here. It seems that rather than trying to imagine what a post-capitalist world would look like, he just found it easier to stay with socialism as the tried and true alternative. The book, and his vision, suffer because of it.
Although this book was lauded by many as "ultimately hopeful," I don't read it that way. Yes, at the end of the story, it appears that humanity is successful against climate change, but only through the savvy attacks by sophisticated eco-terrorists who can’t be beaten because of a secret weapon, and only when central bankers create a floor to uphold a global socialist system. Fortunately, those aren’t the only conditions by which we can beat climate change. Good thing, because if they are, humanity is screwed.
To see more of my Arguments with Books, please subscribe to the newsletter. It’s free! And if you really enjoy my work, please consider a paid subscription to support it. I will be very grateful.
If you like Intertwine, subscribe for free with this button…
Free Newsletters by Anthony
Get my free newsletter Write On here! It is writers, writing, and the business of writing.
Get my free newsletter Intertwine: Living Better in a Worsening World here.
Get my free newsletter Arguments with Book here.
Get my free newsletter Tony on Business here.
Get my free newsletter Soul Food: Poems by Anthony here.
Books by Anthony
To read more of my original work, try my books! All are on Amazon and published by various small presses.
Speculations on Postcapitalism: How Digitalization Is Disrupting Everything We Know About Modern Civilization
The Great Mechanism: The Power Behind the Relentless Juggernaut of Western Capitalism
Consent Is Not Enough: What Men Need to Know in a #Metoo World
Call to Liberty: Bridging the Divide Between Liberals and Conservatives
Rooster Crows at Light from the Bombing: Echoes from the Gulf War