Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 3

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

If you’re new to the book clubhere’s the introductory post.  Today’s we’re right at the novel’s middle.  If you’d like to check out our discussions of earlier chapters, here are part 1 and part 2.

MinistryFuture coverAnd welcome to all readers!  Happy holidays to those who celebrate during the winter solstice.

With this post we start discussing the third part of the novel, chapters 51-68 (pp. 227-340).  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.

Speaking of which, shout-outs to last week’s discussants Leslie A. Donovan, Steve Foerster, Chris Mayer, Sally Mudiamu, Doug Reilly, and Kevin Werbach. They touched on a great range of topics, from carbon coins and short time horizons to atomic power, central banks, international organization, as well as potential roles for higher education.  These fine folks pointed out the US Federal Reserve making climate change moves (!!), one carbon coin, another carbon coin, and the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales.

Beyond our blog, on his blog Tom Haymes offers a thoughtful post on climate change, scarcity, post-scarcity, and learning. (PS: Tom has a new book out  with a great title – Learn at Your Own Risk – and even better content. Go grab some copies.)

Now, to dig in to this week’s reading!


“The thirties were the zombie years. Civilization had been killed but it kept walking the Earth, staggering towards some fate even worse than death.” (p.227)

In this section we advance further in time, through the 2030s, and the climate has gotten worse. CO2 levels hit 463 ppm (56). Climate terrorism ramps up, with coordinated drone strike on air travel downing aircraft and killing thousands, leading to a massive decline in flying, as well as a similar torpedo hit against container shipping and others upon power plants. The Children of Kali scare people out of eating beef by claiming to have introduced mad cow disease at scale (51) while oil executives are attacked (56). Another revolt hits Paris (55). Los Angeles floods (59).  There are ten million climate refugees and both strikes and protests in many cities (60).

Meanwhile, most people are scrambling to respond.  Indian states experiment with expanded direct democracy and large-scale solar power (52). Mary and the Ministry pressure energy companies to support pumping water from under the Antarctic ice shelf, while inventing a user-owned, blockchain-backed alternative to social media called YourLock (53-4, 60). Badim suggests the creation of a new religion (56). The south polar pumping project makes progress, albeit at a cost (57).  Credit unions start to replace banks. Mary convinces the world’s central banks to back her carbon coin plan; China’s central bank head plays a key role in this.

The Ministry is bombed. Mary relocates to a mountaintop retreat with guards, but they are attacked there as well and shift to a Swiss military bunker, where they learn other international agencies and Swiss banks have been attacked by unknown assailants (60, 62-3).

Swiss Alps by crash71100

“And you need the Alps.” (p. 340)

Mary visits Frank in prison twice.  We learn Frank is also the “Jake” we saw marrying into a refugee family last week.


More non-plot chapters occur, including one on how to end capitalism (64).  There are two more very short riddle chapters on the photon (53) and the Earth (66).  Further micro-stories crop up about characters we never see again, but who give us glimpses of ideas and the world in transition.

Social change: we see something of Janus Athena, who seeks to “efface gender, to exist in that very narrow in-between, the zone of actual gender unknowability.” (54; p.241)

Technological change: we remain where we were last week, in a slightly advanced version of our world, with airships, blockchain, and many drones.

I think the author just coined the term “Götterdämmerung syndrome.”  It’s the subject of chapter 61:

The Götterdämmerung Syndrome, as with most violent pathologies, is more often seen in men than women. It is often interpreted as an example of narcissistic rage. Those who feel it are usually privileged and entitled, and they become extremely angry when their privileges and sense of entitlement are being taken away. If then their choice gets reduced to admitting they are in error or destroying the world, a reduction they often feel to be the case, the obvious choice for them is to destroy the world; for they cannot admit they have ever erred.

Discussion questions

  1. On the theme of violence: did the terror attacks we’ve seen so far succeed in changing human behavior, reducing our carbon usage?
  2. What do you think of the novel’s weaving together of fiction and ideas so far?
  3. How plausible would widespread use of YourLock be?
  4. Badim’s new religion of climate change: what do you think that might look like?
  5. The book has been silent on academia so far.  What role do you think colleges and universities could play in this world of the 2030s?
  6. Ministry staff offer this list of targets to attack for cutting back emissions in a serious way: “Carbon pricing, industry efficiency standards, land use policies, industrial process emissions regulations, complementary power sector policies, renewable portfolio standards, building codes and appliance standards, fuel economy standards, better urban transport, vehicle electrification, and feebates, which is to say carbon taxes passed back through to consumers.” (251) Which of these do you see as most likely for humanity to tackle now?


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

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

Previous posts:

More resources:

  • New York state divested its pension funds from oil companies
  • The leading Kim Stanley Robinson website has a huge post on the novel, with links to tons of resources, including a fine shout-out to this very online book club.

Over to you!

(thanks to saramin for linkage; Swiss Alps photo by crash71100)

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14 Responses to Our Ministry for the Future reading: part 3

  1. I’m liking the book less as it goes along. YourLock and CarbonCoin are old, real-world ideas, which have gotten little take-up. Personal data pods have been tried many times, most recently with Web creator Tim Berner’s-Lee’s Solid (https://inrupt.com/solid/). Sure, people hate giving their data to Facebook, but that alone doesn’t lead them to change behavior in ways that overcome the powerful network effects of the existing platforms. KSR’s references to quantum encryption and blockchain for these services are magic pixie dust hand-waiving. And the conceit of having characters explain concepts to the reader by pretending to explain them to others makes the targets, such as the world’s central bankers, seem clueless.

    I want to be inspired by the book, but it’s hard to suspend disbelief about collective societal moves beyond capitalism when every character (except Frank, who was always a hippie) and organization is completely unchanged from real-world 2020.

    Maybe my problem is that KSR is seemingly committed to telling a story in which institutions are the heroes. (And as I said before, there are no villains.) The title of the book perhaps gives that away. I find the idea powerfully appealing, but the execution lacking. The institutions in the book are all radically conservative in structure and operation, even the Ministry for the Future. In the real world, there are plenty of innovative efforts to create data trusts, platform cooperatives, and decentralized autonomous organizations, but KSR doesn’t seem to know about them.

    To tie this back to Bryan’s day job (and mine), I was hoping Ministry of the Future might help me imagine an institutional change scenario for universities. It doesn’t really try. The closest example in the book is the Saudis flipping to renewables because the economics make it more profitable than oil extraction. Selfishly, as tenured faculty in the Ivy League, I should be excited about the analogy — yay, the revolution will make us even richer! With the risk outsourced to others! Yet that would be a big letdown for the world.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Kevin, I’m sorry the book is dropping in your estimation. Yet these are good criticisms.

      I’m skeptical of the switch to YourLock, especially as we’ve seen all kinds of YouTube/Facebook/Twitter competitors die or stall out in marginality.

      Higher ed appears next week.

  2. Tom Haymes says:

    I think one of the things that KSR is trying to do both narratively and content-wise is to point out that addressing climate change will require a process of emergent design that crosses disciplinary boundaries. Some things will work and some things will fail to make an impact.

    Recognizing which is which will determine whether we will survive or not. Doing that will require us to rise above standard disciplines and paradigms of thought. This is the role universities must play for they are a prime repository of knowledge generation across disciplines. Unfortunately, as I point out in my blog (https://ideaspaces.net/the-scarcity-paradigm/), we are often mired in disciplinary silos. I think one of the challenges for all institutions of education is figuring out how to apply digital tools to break down disciplinary barriers.

    I’m not sure KSR is so sanguine about that happening, hence his relative silence on universities directly. However, what he does show us time and time again in the book is the impact of graduates of elite educations and how they fail to grasp the larger opportunities because they are so focused on playing out the games they understand instead of surfing paradigms. We can teach that. We must teach that.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good point, Tom, about the novel outlining an emergent process. At many points Mary and also the narrator observe that they are making things up as they go.

  3. Bryan, finally getting to commenting here on the blog. I intended to back track to the first and start commenting there, where I had written but lost a first impression comment. Then reading this post and having already wondered about your previous comment that Jake “seemed like” Frank, I decided to jump in here. I never wondered. The transition was clear but understated — a throw away reference — perhaps even a deliberate misdirection.

    After his Antarctic PTSD melt down, emergency, evacuation and firing, Frank went underground, fake ID (Jake) and living off the grid in Zurich. He didn’t become Frank again until arrested and connected to his past by DNA.

    Other anonymous narrators may be repeating characters. I’ve noticed a few but can’t be sure (another deliberate effect?). One in particular is quite intriguing. A series of narrators, less unreliable than representing a particular perspective or voice.

    Mulling over reactions to Kevin’s and Tom ‘s comments that I hope to get back to… Suffice to say for now that KSR’s higher ed omission feels deliberate too.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Hello Vanessa!
      Good point on Frank/Jake and those potentially repeating characters.
      See what you think of higher ed this week.

  4. Kevin Ryan says:

    Just checking here. I have posted replies in Week 1 and here in Week 3. Neither have appeared.

  5. Lisa Sieverts says:

    I’ve also posted replies that haven’t shown up.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Lisa, how strange! I’m so sorry.
      This is the only comment WordPress can find.
      Do you have any copies of your comments, or summaries?

  6. sibyledu says:

    Today I want to respond to one of Bryan’s questions, the one about academia.

    The book has been silent on academia so far. What role do you think colleges and universities could play in this world of the 2030s?

    It’s certainly true that academia isn’t one of the leading players here, but I wouldn’t say it’s entirely missing.

    It’s clear that the Antarctic teams are connected to universities. They are supported by NSF grants, and they spend half the year in the US, just like today’s Antarctic scientists. In the same way, I assume that the scientists and economists floating through the narrative are mostly based in academia.

    And we see a whole lot of educated people in this story – not just glaciologists and economists, but also lawyers, computer scientists, and social workers (of a sort; I mean Frank and his work with the Indian people and also with the refugees). The insurgents who take over the Davos meeting, and Mary’s military-style bodyguards, certainly seem to be well educated and trained. I assume that the functioning oil companies still have geologists and engineers, who still get their jobs because they have specialized training. The bankers have expertise in finance. All of the scientists who are giving Mary reports on the effects of carbon on the atmosphere and the seas were trained at universities. And presumably some of the bureaucrats who write reports, and the activists who have complex ideas about abstract ideas like justice and concrete tactics like demolition, learned at least some of those things as undergraduates. In short, colleges are everywhere in this story, but their role in society has basically remained the same as it is in ours: education and expertise, not direct action.

    I disagree with Doug Reilly’s contention from last time that we need to see the creation of more academic programs. Academia has never ceased to create degree programs. But the vast, vast majority of them recede into nothingness in a few years because they don’t catch on with the broader society. Some do make it, of course. Environmental studies spent decades as a marginal field before market demand for graduates reached something of a critical mass.

    Moreover, many of the new program ideas like the ones Doug suggests are born and mature within existing disciplinary structures. Fashion design colleges will create courses in zero-waste fashion, and then possibly concentrations, and then zero-waste approaches will simply be absorbed throughout the whole curriculum. Once again, we see evidence of this in Ministry. Being in the economics department doesn’t stop Dick from working on environmental economics, and being a lawyer hasn’t stopped Tatiana from being an environmental lawyer.

    The first great efflorescence of college majors and graduate studies, which happened 100-150 years ago, was based in colleges and universities. But it was encouraged through government programs like the US land-grant colleges, which famously encouraged the development of studies of practical use in agriculture and mechanics, and welcomed by industries that needed trained people who could apply the latest methods and knowledges of physical sciences, business, and engineering. The university has always acted to respond to the needs of closely related actors, whether it is the church, the state, or the marketplace.

    Josh Kim’s question about academia implies a desire for academia to take a starring role, or even a leading role, in this story, but that’s not realistic. FDR’s Wise Men and JFK’s Best and Brightest had no great accomplishments while on campus, but only when they left academia to hold the levers of government power. Academia’s influence on the world is, and always has been, indirect. It educates people, and germinates and circulates ideas, and provides laboratories for evaluation and development. That’s its lane.

    To be sure, we have colleges devoted to environmental issues (hat tip to Warren Wilson College), and colleges that are committed to carbon neutrality (hat tip to secondnature.org), and colleges that purchase carbon offsets. And those efforts should certainly continue. But presumably, fast-food restaurants and big-box appliance stores and auto dealers could all do the same. And we’ve been told several times in this story that individual initiatives don’t really do much to offset the greater forces pushing toward more carbon emissions. So I don’t think that higher education is going to play a leading role in climate change. So I think that, for the purposes of this story, academia is one of the many social institutions, unseen in this book, that will be, in the 2030s-2040s, doing pretty much what they did in the 2010s.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      sibyledu, it’s exciting to read along with you.

      Agreed about the quiet role of academia in forming so many of the professionals we see. And I appreciate your argument that we might stay in the quiet lane of indirect influence.

  7. Rosey Faire says:

    I read chapter 61 (about “Götterdämmerung syndrome”) at almost the same time as the Jan 6 events, and am now even more fervently counting the days until the dreadful briefcase is transferred into what I hope are safer hands.

    The analogy to Götterdämmerung capitalism is also food for thought when considering some hard to fathom behaviour amongst the denialists-turned-doomer politicians.

    Thanks for this interesting website which I stumbled across in my searches on this topic. I am enjoying reading this novel during this pandemic/”natural” disaster escalation period because I’m no longer sure which is the “stranger than fiction” reality.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Rosey, welcome! And thank you for the thoughtful comments.

      Good point about Götterdämmerung syndrome. Living next to Washington DC, this makes me even more nervous.

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