by James Wallace Harris, 1/26/21
Many people have the inner confidence that the world will always muddle through. That we’ll solve our problems naturally through the unfolding of uncontrolled events. Other people believe as the population of humans grow, we’ll eventually reach a breaking point and things will fall apart. If you read Jared Diamond’s Collapse, you know the history of the world is a history of failed civilizations. Whatever goes up must come down, and if you’re the kind of person that uses numbers and graphs to anticipate the future, it doesn’t look good.
Kim Stanley Robinson has written a science fiction “novel” where he imagines humanity intentionally solving our big problems. The book is called The Ministry for the Future. It’s hard to recommend this book because people who expect a novel to work in a certain way could have difficulty reading it. I’ve already written about how The Ministry for the Future isn’t structured like a typical novel so you might want to read that essay before buying it.
The Ministry for the Future imagines how humanity could save itself. It’s just one possible scenario, but it does offer more hope than I’ve seen elsewhere. Now, it’s not entirely Pollyannaish, because it also assumes a massive economic depression and worldwide acts of terrorism will force us to change at times too, warning us there are no easy solutions, and to expect a bumpy ride.
The chief task to saving our planet is reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Robinson suggests this can mainly be done by inventing a new worldwide currency he calls the carbon coin. Like the gold standard, this currency will be based on carbon kept out of the atmosphere. Once worldwide financial institutions back the carbon coin, and people and corporations realize future wealth depends on it, there will be an incentive to keep CO2 out of the atmosphere. At one point, Robinson says we’ll pay Saudi Arabia to keep its oil in the ground and that will create more worldwide wealth. That’s hard to believe, especially if you watch this film. (Really, watch this film.)
Robinson also imagines many giant geoengineering projects, including pumping water out from under glaciers to slow their pace into the oceans. He also assumes we’ll pursue different kinds of carbon sequestering combined with switching to renewable energy sources. These are all technical solutions that we’re considering today, but Robinson also has several chapters about why many of our current big ideas will fail.
The whole goal is to get CO2 back down to 350 ppm. Near the end of the novel, which spans many decades, CO2 peaks at 475 ppm. Robinson promotes the success of the real 350.org movement in the book. Last month we were averaging 413.95 ppm of CO2, so we’re currently about half-way to Robinson’s future in real life. To get back to 350 ppm we’ll have to stop using all fossil fuels and retrieve a lot of CO2 already in the atmosphere and put it away somewhere safe. Generally, that’s into trees, or sequestered. So, Robinson imagines the world reforesting on a vast level. But can you really imagine that we’ll stop taking oil, gas, and coal out of the ground? That’s trillions of dollars in wealth that people have invested trillions of dollars to own.
Concurrent with the CO2 problem is the extinction problem. Robinson also embraces Half-Earth Project to give half the Earth back to wildlife based on E. O. Wilson’s book Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. Within Robinson’s novel, huge tracts land are purchased to create wildlife corridors to connect the larger national parks around the world. This is a beautiful vision that I hope comes true. But to achieve it would require buying up small towns and destroying roads on a vast scale. That adds another giant expenditure for saving the world. Robinson claims this will add jobs and eventually grow the economy, but will people see saving animals as an investment?
Robinson foresees two horrible sources of good for the earth that are evils for people. A giant worldwide depression will slow the release of CO2, and he imagines vast networks of ecoterrorists that will stop air and sea travel by any machines that run on fossil fuel. Robinson pictures us returning to clipper ships and dirigibles, as well as new kinds of electric planes and ships that use renewable resources.
In this book Robinson doesn’t dwell on rising seas and other natural disasters like he has in her earlier novels, but he does focus on the refugee problems. He imagines we’ll eventually develop a global citizenship status that will allow us to fairly resettle the millions of refugees. Will we be that wise and kind?
All of this is just a tip of the iceberg among Robinson’s speculations. Overall, The Ministry for the Future is a very hopeful story, but you must read between the lines to account for all the horrors. However, his first chapter is an extremely dramatic scene of one terrifying ecocatastrophe, and I can’t recommend reading it highly enough. It’s available online to read.
After finishing The Ministry for the Future, I keep asking myself: Will we really save ourselves? Robinson believes we’ll more than muddle through, and even find triumph in our achievements. Robinson is almost gung-ho for the future. Americans can’t even pull together in a crisis like the Covid-19 pandemic, so why expect us to pull together at far greater challenges? Will we muddle through despite ourselves? I don’t think so. Humans have always muddled through in the past because there were always been an abundance of options and resources. Solving climate change is where the Ponzi scheme of Capitalism finally comes due. Saving ourselves will require moving to a new paradigm for the politicaleconomy. I’m not sure that will happen. In fact, I seriously doubt it. Why? Because it will require humans to work together at a level of cooperation that we’ve never shown in the past.
Kim Stanley Robinson is an optimist. I’m a pessimist looking for hope. I believe it’s important to read science fiction novels like The Ministry for the Future because we need to all ask ourselves if such dreams are possible. Are we capable of making these kinds of changes in our lives? My hope says its theoretically possible. My pessimism says no.
If you haven’t really thought about how we’ll save ourselves in the future, then you might want to read The Ministry for the Future. It’s not a fun page turner, but I believe it covers most of what you’ll need to consider.