The Dark Side of Environmentalism
The Ministry for the Future Kim Stanley Robinson's book is not one that praises ecoterrorists
The Ministry for the Future Kim Stanley Robinson's book is not one that praises ecoterrorists. It actually manages to avoid this subject on most of its pages. The dark side of the story, which focuses on the eponymous ministry over the next few centuries, is the key to transitioning Earth into a peaceful and sustainable future.
This is a bizarre setup for a plot-driven novel. The actual plot, which includes the sabotage of planes and the sinking cargo ships, is casually mentioned as news commentary or in conversations between characters. The Children of Kali group is briefly mentioned and vicariously told through rumors. They use violence to force plutocratic capitalists to accept a net zero carbon world.
As the climate crisis has worsened, ecoterrorism has been more popular among authors. Richard Powers, author of The Overstory which was awarded the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, showed how five different characters come together to do a violent act in order to save the planet. Then, they process the consequences.
It's a dark subject and was almost unheard of before the terrorist attacks on September 11. This isn't a new concept, however. Square's Final Fantasy VII was released in 1997. It remains a star in the franchise's history. The story follows a group of ecoterrorists who are trying to save the world from the evil mako extraction corporate empire Shinra.
Robinson avoids the ethical dilemmas of violent revolution or the deeply-wrought emotions that can come from people who love the planet and people but believe that killing them is a way to salvation. Robinson instead writes a sprawling, dense work that examines the challenges of creating a carbon-free future and ultimately finds that humanity can achieve it, even if it is a bit violent.
The Ministry for the Future has a lot of speculation and is a piece of speculative fiction. There are many discussions about everything, from the economic discount rate to blockchains, central bank politics to scientific bureaucracy, Swiss governance, Earth’s albedo and Swiss governance. It is a comprehensive policy memo that spans decades. Let's not forget, it has a compelling narrative that surpasses any policy memo.
The novel reminded me of an old saying about diplomacy, and other professions: That the job is a lot of boredom punctuated with moments of terror. The Ministry for the Future can capture the indelible scenes of the future, at its best, with great empathy and verve. The scenes that begin a heat wave in India are shocking, painful and memorable. Robinson's scenes of nature are at their best, with Robinson discussing Antarctica, Swiss Alps and views from airships.
This is only a quarter of the book. Robinson took on the quixotic task of writing a narrative that could transform the activities at an agency charged with enforcing Paris climate agreement into something appealing for general readers. It is uneven and contains glimpses of scenes that recall Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle which had a similar lens on a future supranational government body as well as its bureaucratic activities.
Robinson, on the other hand, has had to do without a direct antagonist in her series. The villain is us all, it's capitalism, the system, inertia, and lethargy. The reader's interest is greatly affected by whether the bureaucrat has worked at a public policy school in their personal history. This is me, but I was not able to get there.
Robinson's work is missing the most fascinating part, despite nearly 600 pages of discussion on climate change mechanics. Sometimes, whole countries can change their political positions in a matter of pages. Capitalists are forced to be held in Davos by the Children of Kali, who presumably want them to view videos about the end of the planet and the way forward. But they suddenly change their minds. This is speculative fiction, but it's filled with the possibility of something happening. What if China suddenly became a democratic, open, and equitable country? What if India abandoned modern Hindutva and returned back to an organic, agrarian society that regeneratively farms? What if capitalists gave up?
The book lacks any narrative on human behavior and, especially, the desire to take revenge for those who are forced to live without. Yes, an ecoterrorist group can use drones to sink cargo ships and knock out carbon-emitting aircraft from the sky. They also hack all banks around the globe and destroy petrodollars. Did any of those affected ever reply? Ironically, the Children of Kali were created in the wake of the India heat wave. So revenge is definitely on the author's mind.
Robinson wants to reveal what is possible and show us a new path. Of course, it's always possible to do what's possible. Given the many human forces involved, the challenge is in how to make that happen. The novel becomes less speculative fiction, and more fantasy. It is a form of escapism, for someone who is particularly politically-adept about world affairs and wishes that people in Geneva could make things happen.
This lack of behavioral insight can quickly lead to the book going astray. The Ministry for the Future was first published in 2020. It focuses on the future decades and shows how China can be a vehicle for changing the climate debate over the next years. Hong Kong is made a bastion for freedom and democracy.
The novel's last pages provide an analysis of how the country won its freedom. "So, in Hong Kong we fought to get it, we fought against the rule of law. They fought all through the years, from 1997 to 2047. "Over the years, we learned what works and improved our methods. Violence did not work. Numbers did. This is the secret to resisting imperial power. That was what we did for those years. Non-violent resistance by the entire population or as many as possible. This is what works.
The book's publication coincided with Hong Kong's collapse. Editing and publishing takes time, of course. Many thousands of people participated in the protests that took place over the last few years. However, the government on the mainland was able to subsume them all within a very short time. Newspapers were shut down, websites blocked, and museums, universities, and cultural institutions closed. The numbers didn't work out. Organisers in Hong Kong were the best at non-violent resistance. They were completely defeated.
This brings us back again to the central premise of the book. This book's central premise is that, despite all the positive changes we can look forward to in the future, it will only be possible if a radical group is willing to use violence to bring about this new world. Robinson longs for utopia and believes that we can achieve it with the information on the page. Someone once said that political power is derived from the barrel of a gun. This is a concept that Hong Kong has recently rediscovered and which is becoming more common in environmental discourse. The Ministry for the Future uses the same tactics that previous ministries around the world used. This is a terrible thing that we should not want.