Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 2

Today we continue with our reading of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future.

If you’re new to the book club, welcome! Here’s the introductory post.  And here’s last week’s discussion of part one.

MinistryFuture coverAlready discussion has been flowing.  In comments on last week’s blog post, Joshua Kim offered advice about the novel’s style.  Kevin Werbach found the first chapters realistic and was fascinated by the idea of a Gini coefficient for the planet.  Steve Foerster has an answer to one of my questions.

More: political scientist Mark Rush shared a lot of responses in two comments (1, 2). One key point:

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?

Elsewhere on the web, but still in the book club, Tom Haymes notes on his own blog the theme of too much water, and builds on that to explore the theme of an information deluge.  (PS: Tom has a new book out this very day, with a great title – Learn at Your Own Risk – and even better content. Go grab some copies; it’s available this week.) In his Inside Higher Ed column Joshua Kim argues that colleges and universities already play the future-oriented role that the novel’s imagined Ministry performs.  And in a second blog post Haymes argues that the advent of digital technology should enable us to rethink economic paradigms.

Now, with today’s post we start discussing the second part of the novel, chapters 27- 50 (pp. 107-225).  I’ll begin with a summary of the story this part reveals, 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, as I did up above with Tom’s and Joshua’s.  You can also respond through a podcast, video, web page… just be sure to let me know somehow.

Now, to dig in!

Summary

(NOTE: Spoilers for chapters 27- 50 (pp. 107-225).)

With many pieces on the board, the plot, like the planet, heats up.  Mary, under police guard after Frank’s attack, learns that Badim is part of a “black wing,” a shadowy direct action group willing to countenance violence (110; chapter 27).  That group may be connected to the Children of Kali, who conduct drone strikes and assassinations (ch 33). The Antarctic crew experiments with using their pumping idea on Thwaites Glacier and elsewhere (chapters 29, 44).  India plans on doing another independent geoengineering project, and is also running a massive, solar-powered, organic farming initiative (140-2, ch 34).  The Arctic’s ice cover melted completely, for the first time, in 2032 (147; ch 36).

We meet a Libyan refugee family that a man named Jake marries into; he sounds a lot like Frank (ch 37).  A direct action group takes the Davos meeting hostage and makes participants become more self-sustaining, while showing them slides and videos about the climate crisis (ch 39).  The Ministry comes up with the idea of offering a carbon coin, a tradable, blockchain-backed currency created by sequestering carbon (ch 42).  Mary pitches the world’s central bankers on the carbon coin, but they refuse to buy into it (ch 45, 50).We learn of a Californian project to recast water as a common good, then to build a vast new catchment for rebuilding groundwater (185-7, ch 45).  Frank continues to live on the run, joining then leaving a family and helping refugees, until he gets arrested (ch 47). Mary visits Frank in jail (221-225, ch 50).

The climate crisis worsens.

Notes

Ministry for the Future _my stickies

My library copy with some post-its.

The novel continues to offer non-plot chapters. There are some very short riddle chapters, such as one where the speaker is encryption or the market.  There are also meditations on Hebrew tradition, historical periodicity, economically discounting the future, the Jevons paradox, and the Bretton Woods conference and world order. We get micro-stories about characters we never see again, but who give us glimpses of ideas and the world in transition: Indian reformers (ch 31), climate migrants, an unnamed city experiencing a water shortage.

Technology notes: we learn that airships are being widely produced (148). Drone strikes can succeed by using large numbers to overpower defenses (135).

In chapter 42 characters discuss “the Red Plenty argument” (171). This refers to Francis Spufford’s 2012 book, Red Plenty, a combination of fiction and history, describing the Soviet Union’s experiment with central planning backed by cybernetics and lots of data.

Mary remains our main character, with Frank in counterpoint.

One more note: “Ministry” is a loaded term. It refers to the governmental agency, of course, but also has salvific overtones from religion.  It is, after all, about saving both humanity and the world.

Discussion questions

  1. What do you make of how Ministry for the Future weaves together narrative and ideas?
  2. At this point in the novel humanity is not acting in a cohesive way. However, we do see various projects offered by separate governments and organizations at scale: California, India, the Antarctic team. Do you find this a likely way we will proceed? Is it an effective one?
  3. What do you think of the climate change mitigation strategies this part of the book has offered?
  4. Returning to the question of violence: we now know the Ministry is connected to people who commit property damage and violence against people.  Looking ahead, how do you think this two-winged strategy will fare?
  5. Joshua Kim notes that academics do not play a major role in the novel thus far. He then invites us to fill in that gap. How do you envision colleges, universities, and our populations acting in the Ministry‘s future?

READING SCHEDULE

Coming up next:

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:

Now, over to you!  What do you think?  Please use the comments box or share your thoughts elsewhere.

(thanks to Mary Churchill)

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32 Responses to Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 2

  1. Still wondering why this book deserves the label of science fiction. It describes things that haven’t happened, but so far, nothing that couldn’t relatively easily happen today. I appreciate that “speculative fiction” in the sense of alternate history is a more appropriate designation, but we’re in 2040 or so at this point in the novel, and the wildest tech is drone strikes? That presumably is part of the point: The details are to be determined, but in all likelihood some form of climate crisis is already baked into our timeline.

    Well, maybe one totally unrealistic fact. The Ministry’s budget is purportedly $60 billion. The whole UN’s budget today is 1/20th of that (https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/12/1054431), yet the Ministry seems to be nothing but a Secretariat in Zurich.

    Whatever the humans we read about, it’s clear that the real protagonists of the story are economics, politics, politics-by-other-means (violence), and ultimately, power. And there are no antagonists. Who are the bad guys? In real-world climate politics, there are the greedy and cynical oil companies and Republican politicians who directly covered up information about climate risk. In the book, the central bankers and others opposing more drastic action do so out of learned helplessness and adherence to narrow mission scope, despite acknowledging the problem.

    Finally, as a blockchain person, I chuckled a bit at the Carboncoin as a great Hail Mary. There are a bunch of carbon credit cryptocurrencies already; one called Carboncoin, for example, launched in 2015: https://medium.com/@Carboncoin/the-carboncoin-story-f8541f865e28. Mary focuses on getting central banks to back it, but I’m not sure why the two are connected. if you’re asking the Fed to create $1 trillion of liquidity to fund carbon removal, the $1 trillion is the point, not whether the recipients can spend it via a cryptocurrency rather than as dollars. Blockchain could be useful for a trusted record of the carbon removed, but that doesn’t require the coin or the funding. And as we’ve seen with Facebook Libra (now Diem), central banks oppose a cross-border stablecoin because they are concerned about loss of monetary sovereignty.

    • Oops, I should have read your response before posting mine about a real world carbon coin. I couldn’t agree with you more that the notion that central banks would cooperate to push an alternative to undermine their own hegemony was fanciful, to put it diplomatically.

      (And if you think that’s unrealistic, wait until we get to YourLock….)

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Kevin, good points.

      Bad guys: I find this to be a weakness of some KSR writing. The villains are not visible, or we don’t get into their heads.

      Budget: whoops!

      • Joe Murphy says:

        I may be abusing the term, but I find something almost Brechtian in the lack of villains. There’s a particular point in the next chunk which made me keenly aware of this, a point where I found a lack of an evil response almost implausible. But… to introduce a Big Bad would be to let the systems off the hook. It might be dramatically more compelling and even more logical, but if the villain of the story is really the system, then crystallizing it into an individual lets the reader off the hook. And maybe the point of this book is how much its target audience is on the hook.

  2. Chris Mayer says:

    Regarding question 2 (humanity acting in a cohesive way): How these projects are being implemented seems realistic and effective. People are used to working within their groups, whether it is within the context of a business or non-profit organization or at the national level. International coalitions are hard to put together, and international agreements and treaties can be difficult to sustain because of a lack of trust and because changes in political leadership can result in countries withdrawing from them. The way these projects are developing seems effective because it is simpler to develop and implement innovative ideas through separate governments and organizations than trying to resolve all of the political issues required to gain international agreement. As some of these projects demonstrate success, it seems likely that the international community would be willing to adopt a common framework that incorporates some of the projects. It seems too early in the novel for this sort of consensus to have developed.

    Regarding question 5 (the role of academics): The teaching and research functions of many colleges and universities would be aligned with efforts to address climate change. In the undergraduate curriculum, there might be more majors focused on areas related to addressing climate change, and the general education requirements would likely include some focus on this as well. There would also be a greater emphasis on teaching students how to systematically and ethically think about the future and how to lead change. The investments of colleges and universities and external partners would shift research focuses to climate change.

    • Leslie A Donovan says:

      Re: Chris’s comment that “There would also be a greater emphasis on teaching students how to systematically and ethically think about the future and how to lead change.” I teach an interdisciplinary Honors, senior-level seminar that aspires to do just this, albeit to greater and lesser degrees of success. Although Climate Change is only a small part of it, my seminar “What Worlds May Come: Studies for the Future” asks students to think hard about the future holds in their own professions after graduation. Ministry of the Future holds lots of food for thought in such a course, but it’s too long to sustain most of my students’ attention.

      • Chris Mayer says:

        Leslie – That sounds like such an interesting and important course. What do you have them read?

        • Leslie A Donovan says:

          Funny you should ask that question! My readings change pretty substantially each time I teach the course. The future changes so rapidly that often works useful one year are starting to be out of date a year later. Much of my course is about students finding materials about recent innovations– not just technology but policy, sociology, psychology, etc.– and applying them to their own majors and therefore future careers. I focus a lot on short readings on the internet since those are most timely. But, I always assign some actual books as well. In the past, I used Diamandis and Kottler’s Abundance, Kaku’s Physics of the Future, Kottler’s Tomorrowland, and others. One of the first times I taught the course (WAY back in the dark ages!), I even used William Shatner’s I’m Working on That. For my students, nonfiction slanted toward popular audiences tends to work best. But, I also assign some speculative fiction, because that’s where I live. This spring, because I am teaching remotely via Zoom I have decided to cut readings and radically revise the course. But I am assigning Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (I use this one most years), Okorafor’s Binti (just the first volume of that trilogy, because the last two books don’t really work well for what I do), and a new book I just read last summer, Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day. The last one is a but more specific than I would normally assign, but it is so relevant to our pandemic times that I hope it will help my students confront our current state and move forward. The syllabus for the last time I taught the class in Spring 2020 may be found at https://sites.google.com/site/whatworldsmaycome/syllabus-1.

          • Bryan Alexander says:

            Leslie, that sounds like an awesome class.

            How do your students think of the future when the class begins?

          • Leslie A Donovan says:

            To Bryan below– just can’t figure out how to respond there. At the beginning of the class, my students are pretty bleak about the future and can only come up with dystopian possibilities. While I do not prevent them from such conversations, I try to nudge them always to think how such futures might be avoided rather than inevitable. It’s a big uphill battle but usually by the end of the course they have more hope for their own agency in their own futures. My task all semester is to keep asking them why X has to lead to Y and not something else. When I ask why we need money at all, that always blows their minds!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Chris, good point about projects proceeding without international coordination because it’s easier.

      I wonder how a Biden administration’s foreign policy might impact this. On the one hand he sounds like a multilateralist, one engaged in rebuilding alliances and collaborative work. On the other, his opposition to China and Russia might create space for those nations, and their allies, to act independently.

  3. In response to the question of role of academic institutions acting in the Ministry’s future: Call me dystopian, but I think that Chris is too optimistic about the quality of engagement of students and faculty in addressing climate change in an unbiased manner. If public institutions must partner with private industry in order to operate and make payroll (the current envisioned panacea) there are going to be conditions attached, even if implicit. As a former university president told me yesterday, curricula and programs are inherently political. Maybe a “black wing” of researchers would develop inside institutions in response.

    I am also curious if anyone who works for the Commission for the Future in Wales https://futuregenerations2020.wales/english is reading or has read this book and what their response would be to Dick telling Mary (p. 131): ” I like to think of it as a rugby match, with present-day people as the New Zealand All Blacks, playing against a team of three-year-olds, who represent the people of the future…We’re the Ministry for the Future. So we step in for the the three-year olds. We substitute for them.” Does the Welsh Commission see itself this way?

  4. Q. What do you make of how Ministry for the Future weaves together narrative and ideas?

    A. Robinson clearly means this book to be as much a call to arms as it is a novel, so given his goal his approach is unsurprising, and he’s a good enough writer to pull it off, so it’s not a problem.

    Q. At this point in the novel humanity is not acting in a cohesive way. However, we do see various projects offered by separate governments and organizations at scale: California, India, the Antarctic team. Do you find this a likely way we will proceed? Is it an effective one?

    A. “Cohesive” is an interesting word. Humanity in the story isn’t acting in a coordinated way, that’s true, but the different approaches that different parties are taking all are having an effect on the greater issue, whether directly on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or to counter the disastrous consequences of that level of atmospheric CO2. If the net effect of those different efforts leads to mitigation of the problem and its effects, is cohesiveness important?

    (That’s not to say cooperative effort is never in order, though. For example, I’d agree that there was no realistic alternative to a global ban of CFCs when it came to their clear and present danger to the atmosphere.)

    Q. What do you think of the climate change mitigation strategies this part of the book has offered?

    A. When it comes to the geoengineering ideas, I’m not particularly qualified to judge. For example, when I asked last week whether piping out water from under glaciers might be practical, I meant in the real world, not just whether it would work in the book. It would be interesting to see a review of this idea from glaciologists, particularly if they disagree!

    I’ve noticed, however, that the most practical real world technology for becoming carbon neutral is conspicuously absent from this entire book: nuclear power. Provided they’re not built where a predictable extreme event like a tsunami could damage them, modern designs for nuclear power plants would be a safe alternative that we could build at scale right now. And that’s without even considering the prospect of using thorium as fuel instead of uranium and its derivatives.

    Q. Returning to the question of violence: we now know the Ministry is connected to people who commit property damage and violence against people. Looking ahead, how do you think this two-winged strategy will fare?

    A. Robinson doesn’t seem to have any qualms about ecoterrorism, even when it includes murder, so I doubt it will fare poorly in the story he’s writing. But the level of competence, operational security, and vast capital and military resources he assumes his ecoterrorists would maintain over the span of several decades strikes me as rather unrealistic, to put it mildly.

    Q. Joshua Kim notes that academics do not play a major role in the novel thus far. He then invites us to fill in that gap. How do you envision colleges, universities, and our populations acting in the Ministry’s future?

    A. Were they featured, I expect it would be in a supporting role, drumming up support among those in the future professional classes for the otherwise politically infeasible approaches deemed necessary by the Ministry. But I suppose educators are superfluous when public opinion is not a significant factor, as it seems to be in this story.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Steve, thank you for these solid answers to my brooding questions.

      “If the net effect of those different efforts leads to mitigation of the problem and its effects, is cohesiveness important?” Great point. That’s one possible way forward, and an alternative to the four scenarios _Climate Leviathan_ advances. I wonder what to call it.

      Nuclear power: good question. I’ll ask the author.

  5. By the way, it’s not exactly the central bank-powered behemoth that Robinson has in mind, and it probably won’t magically crowd out all other cryptocurrencies the way his does, but it may interest money geeks to know that there is a real world carbon coin now: https://universalcarbon.com/

  6. Chris Mayer says:

    Suggesting that the tragedy of the time horizon (page 172) was a better way to argue for carbon coin than the tragedy of the commons was helpful and related to my earlier comment. The tragedy of the time horizon is described by Robinson as not being able to “imagine the suffering of the people of the future, so nothing gets done on their behalf. What we do not creates damage that hits decades later, so we don’t charge ourselves for it, and the standard approach has been that future generations will be richer and stronger than us, and they’ll find solutions to their problems.” I think this is another example in the book that supports why we must teach people at an early age how to determine the future impact of what we do today along with providing opportunities to consider and discuss the idea that we have ethical responsibilities to future generations.

  7. Doug Reilly says:

    The structure of Ministry of the Future is interesting, and partially works. I don’t appreciate the riddles. Rather than playful, they come across as too overtly didactic. I don’t mind the non-fiction chapters as much, though I do with they were signposted more (like in Dune, complete with fanciful references). It’s probably better than forcing characters into long exposition, though there is plenty of that too. It’s a social novel, yes, but only partially. Really it’s (so far) mostly about Mary and then Frank, and then a hierarchy of named and nameless characters. I wonder if chosing three or four named narrators would have been a stronger choice. It would be interesting to ask KSR about his process here, what approached he considered or tried.

    I think a piecemeal approach will be the next phase. It’s not enough, but it’s better than nothing. Eventually unified action needs to be taken. It can manfiest in unique and original ways in different places, but reducing consumption, shifting to sustainable energy and geoengineering probably has to happen everywhere, and represent a pretty radical shift. As one of the other club members has pointed out, that really does push us in the direction of a world government. Though those who idenity is wrapped up in national sovereignty will push back quite hard against this…

    I spend a lot of time reflecting on violence in different contexts. As a child, I really wanted to be a soldier. Luckily for me that led me into a deep study of war, which brought me to World War I, a sense of nihilistic dread, and a rejection of violence. Then Gandhi and King. But…also Malcolm X pointing out the audacity of asking black people to not respond with violence to the constant warfare enacted against them. My current views are more nuanced. Violence has a lot of repercussions, as Mary keeps pointing out. And yet there are people who understand the language of violence and not much else.

    think of this most urgently in the realm of American politics, where we have two different realities fighting for control of the future, and only one of them is based on facts and evidence and empiricism. The other side meanwhile seems fixated on political violence (actual or performative) as means and ends, and honestly my belief in Gandhian non-violence is deeply challenged by this. I sometimes have trouble seeing the possibility of transforming people so deep into the death cult and wonder if it is maybe better in the long run to grant them their wish and move on to a brighter future. A scary thought to think, and to think about thinking.

    Ministry is asking us to think about this question in the context of climate change, where the stakes are even higher and more important. There is no way we’re getting through this without violence…the violence has been happening for a long time and it’s directed at the earth and the creatures (people included) who are closest to it. The entrenched interests are too deeply committed to the status quo. I’m part of this: I still use a car, I still use air travel. I live in a tiny house but I’m sure my carbon footprint is still greater than that of a billion people. I know what needs to be done, but either it’s impractical to go it alone, or I don’t have the courage to take action. While I know that there are bigger players that need to embrace change than me, it’s not like any of us are off the hook.

    I hope that colleges and universities can (in the pandemic and in the climate crisis) rediscover their powerful role as learning communities and literal creators of the future. Much of my career in higher ed, I’ve seen colleges doing the opposite, trying to stay relevant and responsive to a capitalism that can’t save us and intends us harm. What does the workforce need? What do our customers want? What does the market tell us to do? But instead we should be asking: what does the world need? What are our students really seeking (hint: connection, community, meaning)? What does the future call us to do?

    Bring on the Departments of Geoengineering and Sustainable Design. Graduate programs in Cradle-to-Cradle Industrial Design and Zero-Waste Fashion Design. Maybe in the future some students will live off-campus in the woods, experimenting with more sustainable lifestyles while going to school. Maybe dorms will include classrooms and greenhouses where food is grown. Maybe the model of student-run student services will become more common, for financial sustainability and resilience but also because maybe we will recognize that gardening and the liberal arts are not anethema to each other. Maybe there will be more permaculture clubs than fraternities, and maybe we’ll have a National Service Year where every young people will serve in geoengineering and infrastructure projects and also learn about the wider polity in which they live–nation and world. This question is exciting to me because I’ve worked in higher ed for a long time, and have been frustrated by the radical potential of education and the reality of an educational project tied down by neoliberalism. What comes next?

    As I mentioned last time, the university science museum I run is doing a futures project on these themes called 2041: Imaginging a Positive Climate Future. It’s linked to my name. We’ll be running a series of workshops in the Spring and would love to have some of the reading group members participate. It’s a collaborative worldbuilding project.

    • “think of this most urgently in the realm of American politics, where we have two different realities fighting for control of the future, and only one of them is based on facts and evidence and empiricism. The other side meanwhile seems fixated on political violence (actual or performative) as means and ends”

      The funny thing is that I can imagine this same passage being written by someone on either Team Red or Team Blue.

    • Leslie A Donovan says:

      I love your 2041 project, Doug! I wish I had the vision and resources (and personal drive!) to create something like this for students in my Honors College course at the University of New Mexico (see the course I teach mentioned to Chris Mayer above). Would you mind if I used your page in my upcoming course and perhaps adapted some of your ideas for my course? If you ever want to expand this beyond your own school, please let me know!

      • Absolutely! We’d love to see this work spread. Also, feel free to contact me for more information, I can share with you our workshop outlines, etc and a link to a page with a LOT more timeline detail!

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Doug, thank you for these marvelous comments.

      Named and unnamed people: I’ll ask the author.

      “we should be asking: what does the world need? What are our students really seeking (hint: connection, community, meaning)? What does the future call us to do?” I have gotten steady pushback on this for decades. Academics have replied:
      -that’s very well, but I have to do [X] right now
      -none of that pays the bills
      -we just need to coax states into magically paying us more

      • Leslie A Donovan says:

        That is EXACTLY what academics say and it makes me crazy to hear colleagues who have chosen an academic profession make statements like those Bryan notes. Such obliviousness to our professional responsibility to focus consistently on preparing the future is unconscionable to me. Those pushback comments highlight the narrow, ivory tower mentality that we have so often been accused of, but which so many of us seek to push against and which KSR takes on in most of his works. While I often find KSR a trudge to read, I always learn immense amounts from doing so and my world view alwasy changes as a result.

        • Bryan Alexander says:

          Leslie, ivory tower is precisely right. Many of us join the academy so we don’t have to worry about the world external to our professional focus.
          Since 2008 we’ve been shaken out of that view, I think.

  8. Bookkooks says:

    Wow, congratulations! We are definitely looking forward to hearing from you about this book.

  9. sibyledu says:

    I am getting to the novel late, but better late than never. (It is apparently popular at my local library.)

    For this installment I’d like to respond to Bryan’s second discussion question.

    ——
    #2: At this point in the novel humanity is not acting in a cohesive way. However, we do see various projects offered by separate governments and organizations at scale: California, India, the Antarctic team. Do you find this a likely way we will proceed? Is it an effective one?
    ——

    I think it is extremely likely that this is how we will go forward. It is difficult to imagine a way forward that will unite all of humanity, whether through a supra-national organization like the UN or even a coalition of governments. Instead we will move forward in fits and starts. Some countries will be very green-forward, others could be defiantly green-backward (“Bring your manufacturing plants to our country! We don’t regulate pollution! And we have good workers!”). There’s an old SF trope of how Earth can only unite in the face of attacks from Mars, or the Kree, or the fourth dimension – in other words, some catastrophe that makes us forget our quarrels, or at least recognize that they are low-stakes. But the long slow catastrophe of climate change isn’t like that.

    For this reason, I find the epistolary style (as it was sort of misnamed in part 1 of our discussion) to be especially effective. This is not going to be the kind of story that can be told in a singular voice and setting, because there are too many protagonists, too many discrete actions, and also too many long-term trends, like the evolution of the airship industry. Climate change isn’t one thing. It makes sense that the fight to preserve humanity isn’t one thing either. So the first India heat wave is the subject of a few long chapters, and then the first few decades of the airship industry is tossed off in a single sentence.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      sibyledu, hello! I’m delighted you can make it.

      Good point about how we respond piecemeal… and how climate change isn’t a good driver for drastic and unitary action, *and* that the novel reflects this.

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