Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 1

And now we begin with reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

If you’re new to the book club, here’s the introductory post.  And welcome to all readers!

MinistryFuture coverGreetings to Twitter friends like Justin Cerenzia, Steven Foerster, Rebecca Pope-Ruark, Julie Uranis, Becky Klein-Collins, Tanya Spilovoy, and Catherine Wehlburg.  Thanks to Joshua Kim for his kind column about our reading.

With this post we start discussing the first part of the novel, chapters 1-26 (pp. 1-106).  I’ll begin with a summary of the story so far, add some notes, then ask questions for discussion. At the end I’ll repeat the reading schedule and add any resources I’ve come across.

You can share your thoughts by writing comments at the end of this post.  You can also contribute via social media – I’ll copy this post or a link for it to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Mastodon, and Medium.  I can copy and link to your comments there in next week’s post.  You can also respond through a podcast, video, web page… just be sure to let me know somehow.

Now, to dig in!

Summary

Ministry for the Future begins with horror, a mass death in India due to a climate change-caused heat wave.  This opening chapter introduces us to Frank May, one of our main characters, an American working for an international aid organization, and the lone, badly traumatized survivor of that initial disaster.

We then change gears to meet the titular Ministry, based in Zürich.  Technically, it’s a Subsidiary Body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, established in 2024, but people preferred the nickname “Ministry for the Future.” (16)  Its leader, and the novel’s central protagonist, is Mary Murphy, an Irish politician. (18)  We also meet other leaders in the Ministry and learn about their charge: to help the world decarbonize.

Through the Ministry we learn that India responded to the heat wave by mounting their own geoengineering effort (37-39) – without international support.  India has also had a peaceful political revolution. (18)

Ganymede Zurich_Wally Gobetz

For Mary: “…where the statue of Ganymede stood…. This was a place she often came to; something in the statue, the lake, the Alps far to the south, combined in a way she found stirring, she couldn’t say why. Zurich – life – she couldn’t say.  The world seemed a big place when she was here.” (34)

We also meet a crew of Antarctic experts who invent a daring plan to slow that continent’s ice sheet loss. (79-83)

Meanwhile, Frank grapples with his bad case of PTSD.  He undergoes therapy and tries to join a kind of green terror group, the Children of Kali, but is rejected. (49-50) He commits a crime in Switzerland (77-8) and goes into hiding.  Then he kidnaps Mary Murphy and furiously demands that she take greater action to address the climate crisis. He rattles her, then escapes. (91-106)

Notes

Robinson covers a lot of ground in this part of the book.  We meet a lot of people, learn about global geopolitical systems and ideas, learn about a range of topics from the Gini coefficient to what lubricates the motion of massive ice sheets.  The tone is dark, as befits an unfolding planetary catastrophe.

I’ve described the book in terms of plot, but chunks of it stand apart from typical storytelling.  For example, the novel includes very short riddle chapters.  On page 13 it’s the sun.  There are also meditations on political theory (41), extinctions (43-4),  economic measurement (73-6), and problems of human perception (87-88). We get micro-stories about characters we never see again, but who give us glimpses of ideas and the world in transition (51-2, 59-61).

Several character names are open, even on-the-nose signals of their roles.  Frank May: he’s definitely direct and open (i.e., frank) while also undecided (may).  Mary is, as befits the Christian tradition, positioned to be the mother of human salvation.  The novel’s first line is similarly on the nose: “It was getting hotter.”

There are plenty of echoes back to earlier Robinson novels: characters named Frank, lots of walking, rapid-fire political arguments, glimpses of social perspectives, and critical theory.

Discussion questions

  1. Do you think the Indian government justified in conducting its geoengineering project? What does this suggest about the near term future of international governance and climate change?
  2. Frank urges Mary to support violence. What forms of such climate change-related violence do you anticipate, either in the novel or in our world?
  3. Ministry leaders discuss possible leverage points they can work with to save the world. (54-6) Which do you think are the most effective?

READING SCHEDULE

December 14, 2020 – chapters 27- 50 (pp. 107-225).

December 21, 2020 – chapters 51-68 (pp. 227-340).

December 28, 2020 – chapters 69-88 (pp. 341-443).

January 4, 2021 –  chapters 89-106 (pp. 445-563).

Previous posts:

More resources:

Over to you!

(thanks to Bill Benzon, Joshua Kim, Gwynneth Alexander, and more; Ganymede photo by Wally Gobetz)

Liked it? Take a second to support Bryan Alexander on Patreon!
This entry was posted in book club and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

50 Responses to Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 1

  1. Josh Kim says:

    Bryan…thanks for bringing us all together to read this book. A word to everyone new to Kim Stanley Robinson. Please give the book some time to settle in. His books can be confusing when they start – as Robinson writes from all sorts of perspectives and always throws in all sorts of characters. The Ministry for the Future is no exception. My advice is to just go with – not worry too much about groking everything that is going on – and trust that the narrative will cohere.

    Of course, read the book in your favorite format. But I’m going to give a plug for the audiobook version. It is read by a big cast of actors. The various voices help the story to come to life. I also very much enjoy going back and forth between reading the text on a screen (or a page), and listening to the story.

    At this point, I’m on chapter 67 – and The Ministry for the Future is shaping up into one of my favorite reads of 2020. Fiction is doing more to worry me as a climate change moderate than all the nonfiction I’ve read over the years. Looking forward to the conversation.

    • I like his somewhat epistolary approach! Done right, it can make an author’s world much more immersive, and he’s doing it right.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Hello, Steve! Not exactly epistolary.
        In part we’re seeing a version of the social novel. Invented in the 19th century, this involves a large cast, each member of which can represent one bit of a society.
        There’s also a nod to the American novelist John dos Passos, who pioneered a style that tried to reflect modern media technologies, like rapid-fire telegraphy and radio. The British writer John Brunner brought this into science fiction in the 1960s and 70s. Robinson has been doing some of that in recent novels, like New York 2140.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good advice, Josh. And thanks again for spreading the word.

  2. I’ve just finished chapter 26 and I’m still waiting for the speculative fiction part. I’m enjoying it so far, though.

    Assuming it’s true, the fact that the Gini coefficient of the planet is bigger than any country (chapter 20) is quite striking. It reminds me of the anecdote that if you’re in a typical roomful of people and the world’s tallest individual walks in, the average high changes only slightly. But if Jeff Bezos walks in, the average wealth shoots up many times higher than before.

  3. So far I’m enjoying the book!

    If circumstance like those in those in the book arose, with millions of deaths, I’d find it very difficult to criticize Indian policymakers from taking that action. Speaking of geoengineering, is the proposal from the glaciologist to strategically pump water out from under Antarctic ice sheets based on a real world proposal? (Being KSR I suppose I expect so?)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Yes it is. You’ll see.

      So we might expect climate disasters to prompt national, rather than international actions. That sounds both plausible and quite a challenge to international order.

  4. Tom Haymes says:

    This book has helped me connect the discussion on last Thursday’s Forum session to the pandemic, climate change, and democratic questions. The key metaphor here is applying technology to manage the water of information so that we can understand challenges, communicate those challenges clearly, and take concerted action to counter them. It all starts at our colleges and universities. See my blog at: https://ideaspaces.net/rain/

  5. Mark Rush says:

    Hi all—

    In conjunction with this, I’d recommend CLIMATE LEVIATHAN by Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann (https://www.amazon.com/Climate-Leviathan-Political-Theory-Planetary/dp/1786634457/ref=sxts_sxwds-bia-wc-p13n1_0?crid=3UJXI0SB3RK2T&cv_ct_cx=climate+leviathan+a+political+theory+of+our+planetary+future&dchild=1&keywords=climate+leviathan+a+political+theory+of+our+planetary+future&pd_rd_i=1786634457&pd_rd_r=0e7678db-b792-41d4-9772-4672bb11ecf6&pd_rd_w=9XuUT&pd_rd_wg=CEt9L&pf_rd_p=1835a2a9-7ed8-48dc-ad07-fcd7527bd2bc&pf_rd_r=ANMDZ4ZMXN3W6ZHW3AG5&psc=1&qid=1607355963&sprefix=CLIMATE+LE%2Caps%2C148&sr=1-1-80ba0e26-a1cd-4e7b-87a0-a2ffae3a273c ). It demonstrates that humanity’s track record indicates that there is no democratic way to address the climate crisis. Human rights need to be rearticulated (apropos the black wing in MoF). This is especially true of western, liberal notions of property, privacy, etc.

    Essentially, the solution to the climate crisis requires the creation of a global government with legitimate, extensive, potentially violent power behind it to force people to abide by changes and policies necessary to control the climate changes. Otherwise, we are faced with that world described in chapter 16 where the well to do hunker down and wait out the disaster while the poor…just…suffer and die. OTOH, there is no question that people are going to die because of climate change. So, who gets to decide?

    This reminds me of an old, wonderfully mediocre movie with Peter Ustinov, Jenny Agutter, Michael York, Roscoe Lee Brown, Farrah Fawcett called Logan’s Run. You could have anything you wanted except your 30th birthday. That would go a long way to solving all sorts of Anthropocene problems. But, it would also require the rejection of western, liberal values. Problem is, though, humanity’s growth is forcing the west to consider the assumptions of and constraints on liberalism. Is it possible that liberalism works only in a non-crowded world?

    Another discussion I find intriguing is the reference in chapter 31 to the substitution of manual labor for fossil-fuel driven agricultural production. This would solve a lot of troubles as well. It would provide employment. It would be green. It would not require killing 30 year olds. But, it also entails a rejection of technological advancement and the notion that tech can free humanity from the constraints of and indignities associated with manual labor. Surprise! Manual labor is green.

    But, check out the UN SDG site. Is manual labor… “decent?” I had my students in intro to global politics read the SDGS as well as a great Chicago Council on Global Affairs study by Felix Yeboah (YOUTH FOR GROWTH: https://digital.thechicagocouncil.org/youth-for-growth ). In broad strokes, it demos that in the LDCs, there are enough natural resources and sufficient population to develop an agricultural base that would sustain the population in a green manner and generate enough money to support the development of an industrial (or post-industrial or, perhaps digital) economy.

    My students were happy to recommend that denizens of LDCs pick up their hoes and scythes. But, my soon-to-be BA-holding first worlders would have none of this. It would be indecent to waste a BA in the fields.

    This caused a solid (but very short-lived because they found it very unsettling) discussion of the connection between a college education and the work you do. “Why can’t a farmer come home and enjoy Shakespeare or the Odyssey?” I asked. Despite all of the critical thinking skills that they were attaining, this caused no shortage of synapse failure. This is a pretty powerful vision into the mindset at least of students at SLACs. If higher ed is considered to be a route to escape labor, then there is a tremendous disconnect that needs mending. Otherwise, there really would be no need to educate all those soon-to-be field laborers in the LDCs, now would there. Unless…

    Such labor could be regarded as a national/global service requirement. How about all college grads, or HS grads, or just 18-year olds to keep it simple, must sign up for 3 years in the fields? Global service 101.

    But, respond my students, this would have a minimal impact on global warming so long as big coal, etc. still exists. True. Note the discussion thereof in MoF from India’s perspective. Also, every kids who complains about big coal or big oil has access to a car…not all of them are hybrids…

    At this point in our discussion, I asked whether the future would require relocation to greener living quarters. Everyone moves to newly designed or upgraded cities with green metros and virtually no cars. Groceries, etc. are available at the street level of all apartment buildings. Everyone lives in flats—much easier to control climate in one building with 100 units than to do so in 100 free-standing houses.

    Also, what about these pretty American college campuses in the middle of nowhere. Impossible to get to these ancient, historical spots via public transportation. Why do we need these things anyway? Lots of students around the world are educated at metropolitan campuses or online. How can we justify keeping such things when we KNOW they are not green? Ditto the small towns or rural areas where a gallon of milk requires a 30 mile round trip.

    Also—as the seas rise, how about no more FEMA money for rebuilding coastal McMansions?

    More thoughts to come. Fascinating stuff. Best wishes to all.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Mark, thank you for so many thoughts! Let’s see:

      Climate Leviathan – I agree: https://bryanalexander.org/future-of-education/4-futures-for-how-civilization-could-respond-politically-to-climate-change/

      Logan’s Run – yeah!

      Manual labor – this is something I’m not hearing many people recognize, but yes, one way forward is to substitute muscle for some technology. I think this appeared in the same author’s New York 2140, with people living in shared work co-ops. I wonder which colleges and universities could manage this.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Ozarks: yes, good call.
          There are actually a number of schools which include physical work as part of the curriculum, like Berea. Maybe we’ll see more of this.

          • mkt42 says:

            There’s also Deep Springs College.

            But switching back to manual agriculture is a silly idea, a recipe for hunger and impoverishment. If someone wants to be a gentleman farmer and raise goats and fancy heirloom vegetables, great, more power to them. But most people don’t own acreage except for maybe a backyard. Where are all the agricultural workers needed to manually sow and reap wheat in Nebraska going to come from? There’s a reason those small farm communities have been losing population for decades (and immigrants who work as migrant farm workers try to make better lives for their children): there are much better ways to earn a living — and to feed the world.

            That doesn’t mean that current industrial agriculture is great. There are multiple issues of pesticide overuse, fertilizer runoff, soil salination, gas-guzzling farm machinery, etc. Those are issues that need to be addressed, but manual agriculture is not the answer, it’s a waste of human labor that could be put to better use.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Great point about that model of ag, mkt42. Want me to ask the author?

    • Doug Reilly says:

      I think that remote college campuses are ideal experimental communities, and more should refocus on the holistic model of considering the entire campus as part of the curriculum–with students running/working in all the community systems. It could be very powerful.

      • Mark Rush says:

        I wonder if someone–Soros, Koch, Bezos… might take some of the $$ and offer to create a green “company town.” How dystopian, I know. But, still… Rouse did it with towns such as Columbia , MD in the 1980s. But, a truly green city with metro…apartment living, no cars to speak of (rent them), etc. Problem is that it would be completely unrepresentative–how many can afford to move to such a place, shed the landholdings, change jobs (or at least, job location and telecommute), etc. Still…worth pondering…

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Fascinating thought, Mark. I could imagine one combined with an engineering project, like an airship base.

          Perhaps a climate change-oriented government would establish some. I’m thinking of what FDR did with the Green Belt towns.

  6. Mark Rush says:

    MoF02

    Had not noticed the Discussion Qs that Bryan Posted. So, some particular thoughts:

    1. Do you think the Indian government justified in conducting its geoengineering project? What does this suggest about the near term future of international governance and climate change?

    Later we are told that it seemed to work—at least for a bit. If the rest of the world is not doing anything, how can we condemn the Indian government for doing…something—esp. if India is the country that suffered the direct impact of climate change while the rest of the world…fiddled…?

    2. Frank urges Mary to support violence. What forms of such climate change-related violence do you anticipate, either in the novel or in our world?

    I suspect there will be attacks (terrorism) against the industries that pollute the most—coal, fossil-fuel companies…perhaps auto and plane manufacturers. I suspect we will see a tremendous uptick in interpersonal “microviolence” ® as people circulate pictures, etc. of climate sinners. This will be the successor to throwing red ink on animal furs. There will be shaming. Kinda troublesome because that generates all sorts of images of witch burning and Maoist public confessions.

    One also wonders about…travelers. With the COVID-inspired advent of Zoom and proof that it works pretty good, is it difficult to foresee local backlash against travelers flying in fossil-fuel belching planes to vacation, study abroad, tour, conduct business when…you can stay home, travel locally, and connect via zoom? My students and the young people I know say that this latter scenario is silly bc the damage to the climate caused by individuals is puny compared to what’s going on with the fossil fuel industries. Still, can individuals not alter their mores?

    In response, I could see equal but opposite backlash. Will those unemployed coal miners who never had access to quality educational opportunities just stay put in their dying towns (no jobs= no money=no economy) or might they pack up and move to live under an overpass in Los Angeles or Seattle… If they are stopped, what happens then? Equal but opposite violence?

    The latter scenario touches upon the themes raised back in the 197s in THE CAMP OF THE SAINTS by Jean Raspaille (https://www.amazon.com/Camp-Saints-Jean-Raspail/dp/1881780074). Folks in India say enough, climb onto to freighters and set sail to land, literally, on the shores of Europe. Violence ensues. Same deal in The March (apropos MoF, complete with an Irish protagonist…) except that it is a land-based migration.

    3. Ministry leaders discuss possible leverage points they can work with to save the world. (54-6) Which do you think are the most effective?
    I find 54-56 to be terribly distressing. Classic babbling among detached, elites. None will work. Then, Mary asks Badim about a black wing. NOW we will get somewhere. Liberal democracy does not work well in the face of a crisis such as climate change. Who are (and who decides) the people that deserve to be killed? At which points will they set their sights on individual defectors (not just corporate big shots)? Kinda scary, no? Visions of Soviet and Chinese totalitarian surveillance states.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Mark, thank you for solid answers to the discussion questions.

      India: it sounds like a vast dialectic is at work. On the one hand, nations which feel they have the motivation and means to attempt massive geoengineering projects. On the other, there’s a need for global governmental coordination, as you say above. Do these two waves synthesize?

      Violence: I’m glad you’re reading ahead. Badim has a fascinating function in the novel, a kind of locus for hints that run for the rest of the book.
      Travelers: I could see the emergences of Good Travel and Bad Travel, with the former being carbon-light or -neutral. Slow, using mass transit, or otherwise avoiding carbon. (The end of the book is a kind of ode to this.)

      Pressure points: it is a depressing passage indeed, with Mary finally snapping at her crew. Violence is the missing term.

    • James Genone says:

      Mark, your point about travel resonated. Before the pandemic, many of the people I know who claim to be most concerned about climate change fly…a lot. And arguably the individual hard we do by flying outweighs all of the good we can do through other means like recycling, composting, solar panels, electric cars, etc. I personally adopted the policy of purchasing carbon offsets for all of my air travel when I started traveling a lot for work a couple of years ago (https://united.conservation.org/). But it’s hard to track the efficacy of these programs, and I don’t know many other people who make use of them. I’m discouraged by the thought that it will take catastrophes like those described in MFTF before individuals will be willing to accept the inconvenience of personal behavioral change (including myself!–I should be doing the work to figure out my total footprint and either reducing it or buying more offsets).

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        I think that’s true, James.

        Over the past year I’ve asked academics what they think about flying less. I’ve gotten an earful, even being accused of Trumpism for raising the topic.

        • If there were passenger airship service, I would prefer that. Unfortunately, a Zeppelin revival seems to be one of those things that is often proposed yet never delivered.

          As it is, the only practical option I see to avoid airplanes is to be a passenger on a freighter: https://www.freightertrips.com/

          On the one hand, freighters burn the worst fuel available when it comes to climate change. On the other hand, they’re going there anyway whether they carry passengers or not, unlike airplanes.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            I hear similar things about airships, Steve. But perhaps terror will bring them forward.

            Later in the novel KSR proposes a new model of freighter.

  7. Chris Mayer says:

    I found the Ministry for the Future’s mission especially interesting and inspiring: “to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection” (16). Policies and decisions would be very different if the idea that future generations of people and all living creatures have moral and legal standing is taken seriously.

    • Joshua Kim says:

      Chris..I’m with you finding the Ministry of the Future’s mission inspiring.

      The question that is rattling around in my head is if colleges and universities would ever incorporate anything having to do with climate into their core mission statements?

      Is climate – or the environment – too far afield from the central mission of our institutions? Or is there an argument that they are deeply interrelated to a degree that working towards climate justice is central to what our schools do?

      I really don’t know the answer to these questions. But the book has me thinking.

      • Bryan Alexander says:

        Agreed, Chris. The novel definitely has an inspirational message.

        “if colleges and universities would ever incorporate anything having to do with climate into their core mission statements?”
        That’s a terrific idea, Josh!

        • Chris Mayer says:

          Josh and Bryan,
          I like the idea of the mission statement including something on climate change, although its inclusion would face challenges in some states. A way to get avoid this would be to include something in the mission statement about the students and faculty of the university or college addressing the world’s most pressing problems/challenges. Individual and center research on climate change (and other issues) could be incentivized, and the curriculum could address climate change and also teach students how to think more systematically, ethically, and confidently about the future.

  8. Michael Galvin says:

    I’ve been devouring KSR since I picked up Red Mars in ’92. I often recommend his books to others when I hear a need for conversation and entertainment around one or several of the interwoven themes Robinson story arcs arise from, and now 1/3 of the way through this one I am recommending it to anyone i know that thinks. Like Heinlein, Clark, Asimov and other of my scifi heroes, his prescience is astounding, storytelling compelling and artistically crafted, and I learn, I learn. This is the perfect time to read this work, and to let it’s suggestions and images of the future drive serious investigation and even activism on our parts, as we face the (perhaps another) fall of humanity and accelerated mass extinction of our own making. One wonders if this is a story (the book and the current narrative) is one that lies in our genes or in our heart minds as a reflection of a long past/11 dimensional present cycle of birth/death/rebirth, and if our movement out of our solar system is just another jump for the parasite that is sentient phenomenal beings. I appreciate reading along with this “salon” of thinkers and seekers.

  9. Thanks for doing this, Bryan!
    But I disagree with you on appreciating those posting on chapters we’re not yet scheduled to get to. If people keep on posting spoilers, I’m going to step away and come back the last week.
    Please no spoilers!

    To the discussion questions:

    Do you think the Indian government justified in conducting its geoengineering project? What does this suggest about the near term future of international governance and climate change?

    Absolutely justified, and I think it’s very realistic about the near term future of international governance, which is to say, not much will happen that isn’t undertaken by individual countries. However, individual nation work doesn’t really do much, since the climate is global. I’m pessimistic at this point about anything real happening, unless it’s undertaken (or underwritten) by the re-insurance industry (as happens in another KSL novel).

    Frank urges Mary to support violence. What forms of such climate change-related violence do you anticipate, either in the novel or in our world?

    I except some of the types of violence Frank and the Children of Kali espouse. While I don’t condone it, there’s no doubt he’s right about its potential effectiveness (that’s the nature of terrorism, after all).

    Ministry leaders discuss possible leverage points they can work with to save the world. (54-6) Which do you think are the most effective?

    The bit of drilling and draining under the glaciers seems potentially promising. Beyond that, as someone mentioned above, it just seems like a lot of bureaucratic gridlock, as Frank points out to Mary in his own special PTSD-influenced way.

    One thing I appreciate about this book is its global outlook, compared to the decidedly local outlook of New York 2140. (For me it was so local that the submerged subway stop where two of the characters were held captive — Cypress Avenue in the Bronx — was *MY* subway stop for the year during which I read the book.) In the latter book, the tremendous toll in human life is mentioned in passing but he doesn’t go into it in detail; here, it’s fucking personal in the character of Frank!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Joel, hello! Good caution on spoilers. All right, I’ll try to focus on the text up to each week’s cut-off.

      Great point about reinsurance as a transnational actor.

      And Frank is definitely personal.

  10. Doug Reilly says:

    Really happy to be part of this group! I’m responding to this book in part professionally; I’m running a climate-change initiative at my college called The 2041 Project (actually inspired by another KSR work, the Luna City immersive theater event at ASU a few years back). The goal of our project is to try to imagine a “positive” climate future that isn’t polyannish but rather honest and courageous (“hope” feeling a little out of reach at the moment). We’ve created a timeline of events from now to 2041, mostly concerned with the US, trying to imagine how we might get to some kind of consensus on the need for massive, coordinated, climate action. The work is collaborative, and we’re rolling out a series of virtual workshops in the Spring to invite people to worldbuild with us.

    So I’m really engaged with KSR’s worldbuilding here, and probably only secondarily with his storytelling. But a lot of both is hitting home. The idea that the fundamentals of economic understanding needs to change seems self-evident when you realize that up until now the concept of “neverending growth” has never really been challenged. I share his view that climate change can’t be solved in the context of capitalism and maybe not even the modified context of social democracy.

    I struggle with the righteousness and utility of violence like Mary does. Sometimes I think a bit more like Frank, that there are certain people (and ideas) that just aren’t compatible with progress, and they’re not interested in compromise that incurs any cost to them. I would expect more “eco-terrorism” regardless of whether I agree with its ends or means.

    I find the centering of India in this story to be fascinating and refreshing. In a way I think China is more fleet at adapting to climate change because of its centralization, but I share a greater ideological affinity for what KSR is talking about in India. This is one of those intersections between KSR’s work and the 2041 Project: we realized that we needed to expand our collaborators to include non-white and non-western perspectives. We have begun to ask not just what a “green” future looks like, but also a black future, indigenous future, non-gender binary future….all these struggles for justice are connected, after all. One of our ideas is that the US will eventually hold another Constitutional convention to strengthen democracy, institutionalize the seventh-generation rule, gender equality, etc. (And start honoring all those broken treaties starting with a transfer of the Black Hills back to the indigenous inhabitants.)

    So reading Ministry of the Future from the point of view of our own constructed future is dynamic, fun and thought-provoking.

    Some other thoughts, not in any particular order:

    KSR is a more confident storyteller than ever, feeling fully free to allow things like political economy to serve as characters. Sometimes I wonder how my grad schools International Relations texts snuck into this novel as chapters. Then I wonder why that’s actually working for me…

    I’ve long loved “social novels” though I do wish there was a little more signposting of whose perspective we are jumping into. It is dragging out the drawing of the main characters, however. Page 100 still feels rather introductory. But I like where it appears to be heading.

    I’m still amazed at the ammount of storytelling KSR can fit into a stroll around a city or countryside. John LeCarre, another famously perambulatory storyteller, would feel right at home.

    What an opener! There is no easy way out. Here’s a lake full of corpses.

    I feel like Frank would not have radicalized on his own, but rather in contact with (or even under the guidance of) others. I’m sure he could have found a western eco-action group to work with. Or he would found one. Maybe it’s just because I’ve been listening to the Road to 9-11 podcast which focuses a lot on how radicalization works.

    I was a little delighted when the characters mentioned founding an earth-centered religion as that’s a central event on our 2041 timeline. Nothing moves Americans (and people more widely?) like religion does. Something like Earthseed could be a very powerful lever, as could a real stewardist movement in the Christian churches. The characters laugh it off–but I’m not sure it’s a silly idea.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Doug, hello and welcome! Thank you for sharing so many thoughts.

      China: it’ll play a role. Keep your eye out… but not so large a role as I’d think.

      “we needed to expand our collaborators to include non-white and non-western perspectives”: agreed. And we should have more *here*.

      Religion: I agree, and have been scanning for (ahem) seeds of it now.

      PS: what’s the best URL or other document for your 2041 work? I want to include it in next week’s post.

  11. Rhonda Palmer says:

    https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-ezra-klein-show/id1081584611?i=1000500763227

    Great conversation with Ezra Klein and KSR about this book

  12. Tom Haymes says:

    One of the problems with the book is the “trigger” event is somewhat unrealistic. I can see why KSR feels the need for it to happen as a plot device (although I could also see a more realistic scenario where an unexpected ice slippage from Antarctica triggers a tsunami that wipes out Eastern India’s coastal cities that I would be more willing to buy).

    As I argued in my blog, the problem is fundamentally one of seeing and the killer heatwave is a way of getting people to “see” climate change. On that note there was an interesting rebroadcast of a segment on On the Media yesterday that talks about how we develop perceptions of “normal” is fundamentally what KSR (and the MotF) struggle in this book. A good relatively quick listen. https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/otm/episodes/shifting-baselines

  13. Mark E. Rush says:

    MftF03

    I find the end of the reading for 14 December to be most perplexing. What underpins this is my incapacity (so far) to get a clear sense of how KSR conceives of power. Granted, there is other perplexing stuff. Having just started BLACKLIST, I’m wondering whether Frank’s capture was an accident or part of a bigger plan he is hatching.

    But…

    On the one hand, we see the impotence of global organizations. Mary can’t get any central backs to get on her side. None seem to have the power or desire to shift to a carbon-based medium in order to commodify pollution. Keynes had a great idea that would have curbed goring global inequality. But, it got shot down.

    Meanwhile, she and her compatriots continue to struggle to control or rein in the oil companies. These guys remain the bad guys—rapacious, money-grubbing CAPITALISTS who protect their profits at the expense of the common good. (Reading ahead, it’s kind cool that fossil fuel companies could be coaxed into using their equipment to pump water and pump CO2 out of the atmosphere.) OK. I get all that.

    KSR is pissed off at private power and wants to do something about it. In chapter 50 he laments the linking of private finance to state power back in Scotland. The kings were licentious. So were Roman Emperors. But, the sources of money, I believe, are ultimately private, regardless, no? It’s simply a question of where the government (in whatever form) is going to identify and appropriate funding. If you go through those Scottish banks, you have a few creditors. If you tax, you have many more. Both can get angry and fight back if they regard government as a kleptocracy (or a protection racket). Regardless, the money is coming from someone’s (private) pocket. Money/wealth/value is not spun from thin air (hold that thought as I foreshadow chapter 54 in a bit).

    Throughout, KSR drops references from different characters about the need for legislatures to assert more political control over economics. This is a bit astonishing because it suggests a naïve faith that democratic processes are indeed free and manifest “the will of the people.” They are affected by private power.

    Granted, the discussion in chapter 45 about what California managed to do is hopeful and demonstrates what can be done. It is a hopeful vision. I’d support its implementation.

    But, seriously, how about a bit more background? How did the elected officials insulate themselves from backlash as they purchased or simply condemned and took over land? Government has eminent domain power. But its exercise is seldom uncontroversial (Critics still complain about the SCOTUS decision in KELO v. NEW LONDON. But, the people of New London could very easily have elected a legislature with a different approach to eminent domain or pressured their elected officials to alter the principles by which land is taken in the public interest). Dunno how I’d feel if the government wanted to boot me out of my house. Would “the public” (i.e. “all my neighbors and fellow citizens”) manifested by “the government” give me a fair price for my stuff so I felt as though I could maintain some semblance of my quality of life?

    I’d support such moves by “the government.” But, it would be Pollyanna-ish to presume that the governors were operating at least in part on their own self-interest or being influenced by interests who would profit from the water system. That’s reality and I can live with it. Strange, though: as I re-read the chapter, visions of CHINATOWN kept going through my head.

    Granted, perhaps there is a world in which a benevolent dictator or…shall we say “monarch” could and would seize and reallocate property for the public interest. But, that monarch would need to be able to accumulate and use the power and resources (money) to implement such a plan. Even if the army worked for free, someone would have to oversee and implement and pay for the process of building and maintaining that water system. Where are we going to get the money? Taxes? Scottish bankers?

    Even if the government (and remember, the government is the manifestation of the power delegated by a popular majority to a few elected legislators. So, it really is “the neighbors”) could appropriate/expropriate the funds from Bezos, Zuckerberg, etc. in the same way that the government expropriated my land for that water system, who is going to administer and oversee? Are they going to work for nothing? So, where is the money going to come from to pay them?
    Granted, one can simply rely on more taxes. But, you can only tax to 100%. Then what? (Think of the discussion about getting the central banks to “buy the fucking market.”)

    OK, I’m rambling, monologuing. Point is, there is no solution to the mess that KST is describing that will not entail violence (already manifest interpersonally by Frank’s braining that guy in Zurich) and something akin to authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Capitalism also remains a target of constant criticism by KSR. But, how is any benevolent dictator going to find the wealth necessary to seize and convert resources and personal habits without the incentives provided by capitalism? Socialism simply has not produced those incentives.

    Meanwhile (that foreshadow, I threatened) in chapter 54, Janus-Athena tells Mary about a brilliant idea to set up an Internet Cooperative Union that is essentially user owned, that keeps personal data secure, and can be driven by a carbon-credit version of bitcoin. This is the foundation for a rival to the national central banks. Wealth can be accumulated through credits gained and lost based on one’s carbon-responsibility.

    Questions to ponder:

    1. OK. Anyone else think the ICU acronym is an accident?
    2. Anyone else NOT see this as almost a perfect parallel to China’s system of social credit? As described, it’s anonymous and driven completely online. It’s therefore COMPLETELY EGALITARIAN AND DEMOCRATIC. Kinda sounds like’ Barlow’s “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” (https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence). That utopian vision quickly became the dystopia populated by revenge pornographers.
    3. So, is KSR not just looking to replace one dystopia with another? Yes, ideally, if there is a reasonably happy ending to MftF, the world will be saved, climate will be managed… but there will be a physical terra-firma based global authoritarian government and what seems to be a completely unregulated, anonymous, equally unaccountable cyber-society. Power will still be allocated unequally.

    All great stuff to ponder. I think KSR is doing a great job describing and diagnosing the mess we are in. But, kinda like Karl Marx, he offers no useful prescription…yet.

  14. Friends, if anyone is interested in KSR’s book New York 2140, Amazon has it on sale today for only $3.99.

    https://smile.amazon.com/New-York-2140-Stanley-Robinson-ebook/dp/B01KT7YTO6

    Cheers,
    — Joel

  15. Joe Murphy says:

    Regarding unilateral action by governments, I think the big question will be how unintended consequences are assessed. If India’s sulfur dioxide release causes acid rain in China, what then? If a crop has a bad year, how much blame will be assessed on India’s lowering temperatures? (Please note that, if a crop has a good year because it requires cooler temperature, India will receive no credit.)

    The atmospheric level is a nice dramatic stage to play this out in, but I’d guess we’ll see a lot more of it on the local level, even the internal level. Water rights and the impact of damming and drainage don’t stop at the border, as we saw in _The Water Knife_. Reforestation has impact on migratory patterns, and provides habitats for animals and plants which a neighbor might find invasive or predatory. Any attempt to unilaterally impose a carbon tax will be viewed as an attack on free trade. What is the impact of additional solar and wind installs on regional electrical grids? And so on… I’d predict a whole lot of these debates in the future.

  16. Mark Rush says:

    I paused at chapter 60 to go back and reread the several chapters (45, 49, 50, 54) dealing with:

    • Mary and the central bankers
    • The apparently favorable idea the central banks could/should be controlled by governments
    • Janus-Athena and the ICU idea
    • The appeal of having a private, anonymous rival power structure on line that could control currency and punish/reward carbon activity.

    KSR has a peculiar vision of political power. Bankers are described as elite, powerful, unaccountable. So would be those faceless folks in Janus-Athena’s crowdsourced ICU. Anyone seen or read The Circle? Privatized power is unaccountable. Those carbon coin merchants would simply be a substitute for the Scottish bankers or the fossil fuel companies. Tom Hanks was a heck of a guy for the first half of The Circle. So was Mae…

    Granted, insofar as the ICU would be organized in the name of saving humanity (the planet will survive. Whether humanity does is a separate question) and controlling the external cost/impact of carbon use, this is an absolutely good thing. The ends will certainly justify the means.

    Still, does this not strike anyone as a surveillance state? Recall my earlier reference to China’s social credit system. The ICU would be the same sort of thing. I **DO** get KSR’s point about the need to alter practices and mores. But, does anyone doubt that this is a move to happy-faced totalitarianism?

    Maybe this is the next step in human governmental evolution. Liberal democracy has reached its shelf life. Maybe those folks in Brazil, eastern Europe, and China are on to something? Not according to the overwhelming majority of American and west European critics. So, how to square our collective opposition to moving away from western liberalism to…something less liberal (but, not, perhaps, authoritarianism)?

    Wondering what comes next….

  17. Mark Rush says:

    The earlier reference to RED PLENTY now has me looking to dig back into Marxism and communism. I’ve also reacquired a Marx-Engels Reader and David Harvey’s Companion to Das Kapital. (The college version of me is dope slapping the current version. The only thing we share right now is the agreement that the only good that came from reading Hegel was that he made Marx seem eloquent and easy to read…

    I need to catch up and read a lot more. But… to me it remains clear that the failure of communism and socialism had as much to do due to corruption of the elites. Granted, a society needs to create incentives in SOME way to generate the wealth/resources to advance, do good, etc. In the BIS/ICU this wealth creation is based on carbon sequestration. But, regardless of the constant shots by KSR across the bow of capitalism, his celebration of the carbon coin is just another celebration of the creation of wealth and the incentives necessary to create it. So, in the end, the story of capitalism is the story of communism—it can work so long as the powerful (or the ones who know how to acquire whatever wealth is valued) are not corrupted.

    There has to be another show about to drop. The BIS/ICU version of deep-fakers must loom in this book.

    • Tom Haymes says:

      The fundamental flaw in both capitalism and communism is their assumptions of scarcity and redistribution. This means that in both instances, the natural world is just there for exploitation in service of reducing that scarcity. Neither deal well with the concept of sufficiency, which is something that KSR seems to hint at in certain points of the novel. If you take out principles of acquisition (individual in the case of capitalism, societal in the case of communism with socialism representing a sliding scale in between), then economics, as we have understood it since at least since Adam Smith, fails to explain human behavior. I recommend you take a look at Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics for an interesting perspective on this conundrum. https://www.kateraworth.com. It was one of the more interesting reads I had this least year.

  18. But scarcity of resources is real. I don’t see economics as inherently about acquisition, or inherently including assumptions either way about the propriety of using natural resources. It’s simply the social science studying how humans deal with that scarcity.

    The way I’d put it is in line with Raworth: understanding economics is necessary for good decision making, but it’s not the only thing one needs to understand.

  19. Pingback: The Scarcity Paradigm – IdeaSpaces

  20. Mark Rush says:

    Closing thoughts…

    I had expected to write a lot more in closing. But, I’ve distilled my thoughts and would actually prefer to do something live—perhaps on Zoom?

    In the end, this is a good, hopeful story. The tech and politics have prevailed. The climate is under control. There is more to do (women’s equality, etc.). But, still…

    “But, still” is the operative phrase. There is a lot that KSR glosses over. I touch upon two items that really made me pause because of how quickly he glossed over them. First, he celebrates the guaranteed employment policies. That sounds super—what stop at UBI? Give everyone a job.

    What job? Somehow, I doubt that those guaranteed jobs all line up nicely with the college or more advanced degrees that folks will have attained. Will state-funded unemployment be an option? I kinda doubt it. There will be work do be done to continue saving the planet. It would, no doubt, take the form of some sort of “global service.” I’ll bet most young Americans find it inconceivable that we’d be forced to do national service work because we haven’t been able to put our degrees to work (seriously—how much tech, accounting, law, etc. will be outsourced to AI or some other tech?). But young folk who can’t find jobs in the LDCs? Put them to work?

    I’ve no doubt that some sort of global service program may be necessary. See my reference to YOUTH FOR GROWTH in an earlier post. Are we first worlders ready to put our hands and money where our words are?

    Second, KSR quietly makes a passing reference to the fact that global population growth has slowed. How’d that happen? One child policy? Logan’s Run? Penalties for having too many kids? Seriously—population control is not the stuff of liberalism. Wondering how he conceives of it working out?

    There is a global authoritarianism that runs through MFTF. The world he celebrates at the end was not achieved by liberal means. The question, IMHO, is whether contemporary liberalism can acknowledge that and work perhaps to modify the liberal playbook so that it can adapt and address climate change, demographics in a manner that is teleological without begin…fascist.

  21. Mark Rush says:

    sorry…”being fascist”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *