Act: Inspiration

How we put out the fire

January 14, 2022

Like Dante in the inferno, for humanity in the first decades of the 21st century, the only way is through. In The Ministry for the Future, writer Kim Stanley Robinson imagines that path, telling the story of a world that somehow manages to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. A future history that does not shy away from tragedy or violence, the novel does not offer a linear progression. Instead, it points to the institutions, levers, and struggles to be seized upon on the messy road to a world that is not just liveable, but better.

Green European Journal: Your latest novel unfolds over the critical decades leading up to 2050, the year that humanity has set to meet the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The setting is much more immediate than some of your other novels such as 2312 and New York 2140; is the age of science fiction upon us?

Kim Stanley Robinson: I think so, but I’ve thought this for a long time now, certainly since 2000. The future dates that appear in my fiction don’t really indicate a changing view. But part of my project has been driving me to set the dates of my future fictions closer and closer to our present. I’ve done that in part because the pace of change has accelerated and we’ve come to some crucial tipping points, ecologically and socially. It seems very clear that what humanity does in the 2020s will have an outsized influence on what comes after. If we don’t make huge changes, we will initiate a mass extinction event that future generations won’t be able to recover from. If we change quickly enough, we may set a course for a just and sustainable human future in a healthy biosphere. These futures are radically different and there is no easily habitable middle ground. If you are interested in writing about the present, it obtrudes as the story of our time even for science fiction writers. If you like to set stories in various futures, as I do, then they all lead back to the coming decade as the crucial time.

The Paris Agreement is central to The Ministry for the Future. Throughout the novel, the agreement is messily implemented: countries negotiate over their climate commitments, under-report emissions, and cut corners where they can. Nevertheless, the agreement gradually guides the world towards a more liveable future. Does this point to the necessity of global governance, however flawed, to making headway on climate change?

The climate crisis is global and concerns Earth’s biosphere as a totality. But we live in a nation-state system in which each nation sets its own rules and exists within a paradigm of comparative advantage and zero-sum politics. Even when not at war, nations see themselves as competitors, causing national interests to take priority over global concerns.

A global problem is awkward for the nation-state system. We find ourselves in various versions of the prisoner’s dilemma, in which you might do better if you trust your fellow prisoner and know that they trust you, but this is hard. It’s easier to pursue one’s own interests and hope it won’t ultimately wreck the both of you. That being the case, international treaties such as the Paris Agreement are the best we can hope for. Solutions to climate change need to be pursued jointly by all nations to work effectively. It was the awareness of our shared fate that brought the agreement into being in the first place. Now we need to live up to it. That won’t be easy.

Your novel treats the climate question as a fundamentally geopolitical issue. From tensions between the US and China to the gulf in access to vaccines between the Global North and South, how do you read world politics today?

Many of the tensions go back to the idea that my nation does better if yours does worse. If you are doing better, that threatens me. None of this holds for climate change. But, in a capitalist world, the basic question is: how can we make a profit from this? That question boils down to competition. There is money to be made in reacting to climate change faster than the industries of other nations. It is a kind of double set of imperatives that we have to avoid turning into a double bind.

If the race for profit and comparative advantage were aligned with the race to decarbonise our civilisation, this could even be seen as a good thing. However, the situation commands that no nation be left behind, as that would harm everyone. “No one can lose, or everyone loses” is a hard concept to bring into international relations, but the climate crisis is forcing us into that new kind of cooperation. The competitive aspect then begins to recede and look pathological or self-destructive.

You’re based in California. From your point of view, what positive role can Europe play in the world when it comes to the climate? Where does Europe have leverage?

Europe is interesting precisely because it is a group of nation-states that don’t always share the same interests, so accommodations have to be made. The EU is a model for how broader international cooperation can work successfully. In the aggregate, it is also one of the three or four biggest economies on Earth, and a social-political unit on a par with the United States, China, and India. In many senses, Europe is more advanced than the others, although partly because of a troubling history that leaves it with the obligation to take bold steps to help the whole world as a matter of (mostly psychic) reparations. Europe has been central in world history for 400 or 500 years, and that isn’t completely over. Europe can be a model of effective multinational cooperation.

The novel opens with a horrific heatwave in India that kills 20 million people. In its aftermath, the Indian political class is swept away by a people’s movement that mobilises India’s vast population to dismantle fossil fuel infrastructure and turn towards regenerative agriculture. This turn of events hinges on tragedy but its consequences are dynamic and hopeful. Is this a conscious effort to stress the importance of politics to our fate?

I wanted to suggest that the nations that are the first to suffer the worst climate change catastrophes might lead the way in trying to deal with the problem. That could be India. It is the world’s biggest democracy and a very complex political entity, and is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather events including heatwaves. Certainly, politics is crucial to all of us, everywhere. Science as a political force has done much to improve people’s situations, but even our successes have secondary effects that can increase the burden on the biosphere. It becomes a matter of directing science and society to cope with both old and new challenges.

While technical solutions to climate change have already been invented, we don’t have a way to pay ourselves to enact these at scale because they don’t offer the highest rate of return in the current capitalist economic system. What we need are viable reforms that create a working post-capitalism. This could initially take the form of Keynesian control of the economy for the human good. For economic reforms that require political systems to exert their power to a maximal extent, working political majorities will have to legislate these solutions. So yes, politics is key. As always.

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Throughout the plot, it seems that some, even most, of the progress achieved by humanity is somehow connected to the violent acts of the Children of Kali, an ecoterrorist group formed after the heatwave in India. Should we read this as a pessimistic statement as to humanity’s ability to change without being violently forced to?

No, that isn’t a correct reading. Most of the progress in the book is achieved by science and politics working at emergency speed. The strand of the book concerned with the Children of Kali exists because it seems to me that there will be people in the future struck so hard by climate disasters that they will be radicalised and angry. It brings up the question of violence for sure – because it seems like violence will happen, and I wanted my novel to portray a realistic future. Will the violence in the future be as targeted and effective as the work of the Children of Kali? Not very likely. It’s possible, but violence so quickly gets out of control, and the backlash against it is often even worse, such that the subsequent repression is more damaging than any good that the violence might have done. That said, Andreas Malm makes an interesting distinction between violence against people and violence against property – sabotage and the like. When should ordinary citizens resist the slow violence of the fossil fuel industries and their supporters with physical resistance, including “blowing up pipelines”, as he puts it? It is an important question. My novel doesn’t help think that question through; it is as messy as history itself on this question.

The carbon coin – an idea whereby central banks create new money to fund carbon-negative activities – is a central lever in the book. Is greening the global financial system the key to solving the climate crisis?

It is one of the keys. The real centre of my novel as a political intervention is advocating not the use of violence but rather a Keynesian, even post-Keynesian and post-capitalist political economy in which we pay ourselves more for decarbonising work than for any other work. Carbon-burning activities would be penalised with regulations and taxes strong enough to remove any possibility of making a profit from them. Decarbonising actions of any sort should be rewarded, not just with praise but also with money. You should be able to make your living by doing decarbonising activities of any kind. This shift requires the world’s economic system to be seized for the good of humanity, just as 20th century governments seized economies during wartime, the Second World War in particular. That kind of major intervention is appropriate, even required, for the good of humanity.

We’re witnessing a worldwide attempt to make capitalism greener by replacing fossil inputs with renewables and new technologies. But this does not address how fundamentally unsustainable our societies and indeed our daily lives are. As famously put in The Leopard: “If we want everything to stay as it is, everything has to change.” How should progressives respond? Cautious optimism? Reject greenwashing? Exploit it for further gains?

All of these reactions would be appropriate. What would be inappropriate would be to reject possible solutions because they are not pure enough, or are seen as complicit or suspect in various ways. Ideological purity is not the point. In fact, it is impossible in our time. We have a biospheric emergency, real and huge and immediate, and we have an existing global political economy, just as real and huge, but inadequate to the problem and in need of rapid reform. In this situation, there won’t be an instant revolution to a better system, no matter what some might hope.

What there will be is a grinding, irregular, stepwise shift to a better system; that’s the only good option. There will be partial solutions, backsliding, recalcitrance, and outright opposition, so every step forward is worth pursuing in the hope of staggering toward the best result. Purity? Forget about it. Question all your old opinions on this. Geoengineering as a moral hazard, a plot to keep doing capitalism and get away with it? Sure, but such talk belongs back in 1995. Now, geoengineering may represent a necessary clawing-back from utter catastrophe. In the future, we may have to do odd things to escape mass death that would wreck civilisation. Same with nuclear power. Oh my God – so dangerous – yes. But France runs on it, and new kinds of nuclear power are being invented that lessen the dangers. Anything that doesn’t burn carbon has to be considered as we try to survive.

As a leftist and an environmentalist, I appeal to all fellow leftists and environmentalists to rethink all the old truisms in the light of the present emergency. History going forward will be a stepwise process that, if it succeeds, will inevitably require leftist solutions. The power of democratic government to take over the economy is the modern version of seizing the means of production for the good of the people. The values of justice and democracy can remain at the forefront, while the technological details will always change, as technology itself changes. Judgment of any particular tactic or technology has to be weighed against the current crisis and the technological and political means at hand. That means a continuous reconsideration of all these questions for maximum effectiveness.

The Ministry for the Future was published in 2020, the year the pandemic hit. Ever since, the pandemic has continued to rage, and the effects of climate change have become increasingly palpable. What needs to happen to make this a turning point for the world?

More awareness, more analysis, more flexibility. The creation of working political majorities in all the major economies, towards taking immediate, strong action in coordination with all other nations through the Paris Agreement. Central banks helping to concoct a new political economy in which money is moved away from carbon-burning activities into decarbonisation. All this will need to be led by the people telling their political representatives to do it. Resistance to all nativist authoritarian leaders encouraging tribalism and ignoring the climate problem; these forces are strong, and they need to be defeated.

What might be stronger, in the end, is a sense of One Planet; that we are all stuck in one biosphere and have to create a good relationship with it or nothing else will work at all. It goes back to awareness and education. If every natural and human event is seen as an aspect of the larger story of coping with climate change and finding a balance between people and biosphere, then the entire structure of feeling in human civilisation will change in accordance with that reality. All the things that happen will be seen in that new light. They will be dealt with in ways that look unlikely now, but will increasingly come to be seen as normal, even the “only way”. Of course you take care of your home, your extended body, your one and only life support system. Who wouldn’t? It would be stupid not to. And so you find yourself living according to a new worldview, with a new structure of feeling, and in a new political economy. It will happen, and the sooner the better.

Tags: art as social change, climate change responses, cultural stories, science fiction