With his new book The Ministry for the Future, acclaimed science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson has done what perhaps no novelist has done before: he’s gotten liberal Vox’s Ezra Klein and the socialist periodical Jacobin to agree on something. Klein gushes that Ministry is the “most important book I’ve read this year” and that “it’s [sic] key virtue is it takes our present more seriously than we do,” while Derrick O’Keefe proclaims in Jacobin (originally Ricochet), “it’s one of the most important books in any genre to appear this year.”
The Ministry for the Future has united more than just Klein and Jacobin: Barack Obama included the book among his 2020 favorites. Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent figures in climate activism, writes, “The New Yorker once asked if Robinson was ‘our greatest political novelist,’ and I think the answer may well be yes.” Naomi Klein thinks the book is a “scary and brilliant must read,” and longtime climate commentator Andrew Revkin tweets that it “perfectly matches the dizzying, mesmerizing, dangerous dimensions of the climate challenge itself.” Amy Brady described the book as “tremendously engaging,” and Phil Christman calls it “one of the most useful and important books of the year.”
Just about every mainstream review and interview agrees: this book is Important. It’s not only Important, it is Serious. It’s not only Serious: “there is no shortage of sardonic humour here, a cosmopolitan range of sympathies, and a steely, visionary optimism.” (the Guardian.) The reviewers are as unanimous about this book as scientists are about the reality of anthropogenic warming. Kirkus did temper their praise a bit: “High-minded, well-intentioned, and in love with what Earth’s future could be but somewhat lacking in narrative drive.” Former Vox energy blogger David Roberts was one of the only naysayers, tweeting, “it’s just a bunch of position papers & blog posts & white papers, lightly fictionalized, and I mean lightly. I already know all this shit!” reasonably inquiring of his followers, “Does it get better in the back half?”
There’s no question: this is an important book. Moreover, Kim Stanley Robinson is very smart. He’s clearly done a lot of homework, displaying detailed knowledge on a broad range of climate-related topics, including some of the latest climate science, mitigation and adaptation technologies, economic policies and social science concepts, as well as various projects for wealth redistribution and workplace democracy.
If you’ve been studying sustainability, climate, and energy politics for a while, then you, like David Roberts, likely already know this shit! Most of the concepts and examples will feel like an elementary overview (which may still be valuable for experts to have all in one place as teaching tools or whatnot). If you haven’t been immersed in these deeply depressing discourses—congratulations!—then the book will offer lots of ideas. That alone may be worthwhile, even if just as a hearty rebuttal to the vast, hegemonic silence that surrounds the climate issue. Climate silence is the overwhelming collective ignoring of the biggest and most vital issue in, arguably, the 350,000 odd years of Homo sapiens’ existence. It’s such a problem that there are multiple organizations whose sole aim is to get people, and elite media in particular, to talk about it. Just about anything that subverts the collective unwillingness to engage with this issue is a positive contribution. By introducing a mainstream audience to the dizzying prism of issues and the myriad proposals to address the climate crisis, Robinson is doing a great service.
But while anything is better than nothing, it’s still necessary to critically examine the concepts in the book. Since so many commentators and critics are praising the book for its important ideas, let’s first approach it on those terms. After examining some of the ideas, we’ll then move on to ask whether the book holds up as a good novel, or even as good propaganda. Be warned: The Ministry for the Future is longer than it needs to be, so this review follows suit. The book is dense with concepts, policies, and opinions that would take many essays to sort through, so consider these several thousand words an abbreviated assessment.
[Author’s note: if you’re reading this, Kim Stanley Robinson, please stop reading now.]
Do the Concepts Hold Up?
The vast challenge of the climate crisis can be summed up like this: humanity has spent hundreds of millennia building momentum in transforming an increasingly greater proportion of the Earth’s biomass to human needs. This has not been a linear process, and often it has not been conscious. For vast periods, it hasn’t always been particularly devastating, and more often the guiding principle of most Indigenous societies has been to remain more or less within ecological boundaries. Nevertheless, given that this process has increased its speed and scale exponentially in the last 200 years with the mass implementation of fossilized biomass and its subsequent heating of the planet, this is a momentum that has to be reversed. Turning such a vast historical tide is the greatest possible challenge for a species. This book not only doesn’t articulate that challenge, it doesn’t understand it.
One of the book’s main concepts offers a good example of some of its underlying problems. “YourLock” is a new open source social network and one of the central tools used to build Ministry’s post-carbon utopia. The Ministry for the Future itself (a quasi-U.N. entity, which, we are ceaselessly reminded, has a very small budget and no legal authority) creates this new website, which yields an entirely new internet “co-op owned by its users” and supplants the world’s other social networks. This website is a central requirement for achieving the decarbonized world depicted in the book, and unfortunately, it makes no sense. For one thing, vital details of how it works are glossed over or ignored. How is a co-op of billions of people governed and organized? Who controls and pays for the massive amount of space and energy needed for the data centers? Facebook’s data centers, for example, currently take up 15 million square feet of space and 5.1 terawatt hours of electricity (more than twice Luxembourg’s electricity generation). Who governs the many financial transactions that are supposed to take place on “YourLock?” It’s basically if Facebook were a credit union; how much damage could such a site wreak? We never learn. It just works like a miracle:
We’re seeing an increasing rate of uptake on YourLock. Already a new internet: now its users may be turning into a new kind of citizen of the world. Gaia citizenship, or what have you. Earth citizen, common member, world citizen. One Planet. Mother Earth. All these terms used by people who are coming to think of themselves as part of a planetary civilization. Main sense of patriotism now directed to the planet itself.
This of course would be phenomenal. Nationalism finally dead, superb: just show me where to sign over all my data. But there’s no reason a second internet would deliver this, especially given that the first has been so disastrously otherwise. There’s no depiction of why or how this would occur, no mechanism provided, not even a single sentence of explication on why such a miraculous outcome would follow, and how it would avoid being swallowed up by corporate entities. Given that people self-organize on the First Internet into in-groups and out-groups, even creating bubbles of alternate realities, the internet has—if anything—divided people more than brought us together. What about Internet 2 would prevent this? There’s no contending here with the complex psychology of nationalism and the psychological barriers to a universalist sort of ethics, and the barest grappling with why people behave the way they do.
This problem recurs frequently. Later, an anonymous narrator proclaims, “Not since the Paleolithic have animals meant so much to humans, been regarded so closely and fondly by we their cousins. The land that supports these animals also supports our farms and cities as well, in a big network of networks.” But the events in the book do not reveal the causes or the mechanisms by which the whole of humanity’s value system changes in 20 years, nor does Robinson seriously engage with the challenges to such a miraculous turn of events. It just magically happens.
There’s a lot of gimmicky stuff thrown in that, again, elides how or why they would be valuable to confronting this particular problem. 3-D printing (“3-D printed house, 3-D printed toilets…”), for instance, is featured in the novel, and it seems Robinson believes the technology produces something from nothing. Blockchains not only make an appearance but play a central role in decarbonization. Robinson is apparently unaware of how much energy they require: bitcoin alone, representing a tiny fraction of the economy, consumes 66 terawatt-hours of electricity annually, more than 10 times Facebook’s servers and about the equivalent of the Czech Republic. An “Internet of Animals” runs to first base on page 359, but page 454 hits the triple: “There were discussions as to how much the oceans were still serving as a sink for carbon burned into the air, but now, in the Great Internet of Things, the Quantified World, the World as Data, all these aspects of the problem were being measured…” What? Why? Can the world be quantified like this, and should it be? An analyst in the Ministry states that “eleven policies would get it [global decarbonization] done,” but then lists things that aren’t really policies—including literally just “better urban transport.” At least half of the analyst’s proposals have no scalable political pathways in any high-emission country, much less at an international level, and certainly not in a couple decades.
The book makes a naive mistake that, to be fair, much of the climate left makes. Nationalization of private fossil fuel companies is a primary method by which The Ministry of the Future and many people fondly imagine that the post-carbon utopia can be achieved. But in the real world, two of the top three oil companies are already state-owned, and one by the Chinese Communist Party. Why would the U.S. government—its modern iteration basically just a stack of private oil companies in a trench coat (like Canada)—nationalize ExxonMobil or Shell and then shut down their operations? Is the Republican Party going to allow that? The mainstream Democratic Party, which still takes fossil fuel donations and has refused to ban even the deadliest methods of petroleum extraction (such as fracking), would be unlikely to dismantle the industry. Ministry doesn’t show us radically reformed political parties, so why should the reader believe that nationalization is either likely or a realistic path to decarbonization? As long as petroleum continues to impart an incredibly important strategic advantage, economically and militarily, no nation-state is likely to dismantle their state-owned petroleum industries. One could just as easily imagine the opposite: nationalization accelerates and maintains the fossil fuel economy longer than even the currently subsidized market would. After all, even progressives’ cute and cuddly, social democratic, model petrostate Norway, whose sovereign wealth fund is powered by North Sea oil, is increasing oil drilling and hoping to expand into newly melted and accessible Arctic oil shales, jeopardizing the already strained ecologies there. Nationalization of fossil fuel industries as a path to decarbonization is a pipe(line) dream.
Other such leaps of imagination are made without any real grounding. Robinson’s novel includes profiles of projects like the Mondragon Corporation, a real Basque worker cooperative in Spain, with the implication that if that model was just exported worldwide, everything would change: “If these principles were to be applied seriously everywhere,” Robinson writes, “they would form a political economy entirely different from capitalism as generally practiced. They make a coherent set of axioms that would lead to a new set of laws, practices, goals, and results.” But this is a lot like saying if everyone were a good person, the world would be a better place. What would it take for real-life human beings, all over the world, to accept and adhere to these principles? What would happen when people went against them?
It’s inspiring that Mondragon exists, and it’s good to share what it’s like and how it works, but to say “if everyone were like this, everything would be better,” doesn’t get us closer to a meaningful depiction of how such a utopia comes about, much less contributes to global decarbonization. A case study example like this can be convincing and useful, but it would have to contend with reality (even a fictitious depiction). For instance, there are very real barriers to making all corporations into worker-owned cooperatives—namely, corporations themselves. Corporate management teams frequently use all manner of tactics, such as union-busting consultants, to prevent such entities from emerging out of existing corporations. Amazon deploys tactics like surveillance, special proprietary software, and even advertising for in-house union-busters. Meanwhile, state and market barriers like monopolies and corporate legal structures prevent or disincentivize the creation of new co-ops. Further, even democratic workplaces in the Global North are susceptible to reproducing exploitation by relying on infrastructures of extraction and abuse in supply chains throughout the Global South. Workplace democracy is great, but to suggest that it will magically yield “a political economy entirely different from capitalism” requires ignoring all the existing obstacles to their scaling up, and makes unfounded assumptions about how fossil capitalism actually works.
Ministry also makes errors such as suggesting that plastic manufacturing is a preferable alternative to burning petroleum while still keeping the petroleum economy alive. While it’s important to provide transition work for former fossil fuel employees, who cares about keeping the petroleum economy alive? Even if for some reason we did, this is still a weak premise: ecologically speaking, plastic proliferation is only somewhat less bad than climate change. It’s already killing wildlife at rapid rates, and microplastics permeate every biome and every human body in the world.
But perhaps the most egregious failure is that the book frequently, consistently misunderstands the fundamental human-nature relationship crisis at the heart of climate change. Misunderstanding the problem results in misunderstanding the challenges inherent to it, and the solutions necessary to overcome them. This comes out in several ways.
First, let’s go back to the quote about animals: “Not since the Paleolithic have animals meant so much to humans, been regarded so closely and fondly by we their cousins. The land that supports these animals also supports our farms and cities as well, in a big network of networks.” Ecology is generally zero-sum in the sense that there is a scarce amount of usable energy and biomass available to species that inhabit the planet. We can’t have our farms and cities and also wildlife in the same places. It doesn’t work like that. Farms and cities are fenced off from the vast majority of wildlife for very real and practical reasons. Farms prohibit wildlife because wildlife would otherwise compete for the biomass growing there for human consumption. In cities, bears and moose would get in the way of traffic (and eat garbage). Deer can’t sleep in office buildings. Unless we dramatically redesign farms and cities, it must remain zero-sum. But there’s very little in the book on what these redesigned farms and cities look like, on the details that allow them to suddenly achieve a radically altered relationship with ecologies they inhabit, and even less on how we could dramatically transform them via existing politics and institutions in 20 years.
This misunderstanding extends to the other primary decarbonization solution highlighted in the book, which drives the biggest part of the global bureaucracy plot. Alongside YourLock, the “carbon coin” is the second main intervention that delivers Robinson’s utopia. The carbon coin is essentially a currency issued by the world’s largest central banks that pays for companies to not burn carbon. For all the talk of Robinson’s “eco-Marxism” and the book’s positive nods to communism, the book achieves an impressive anti-materialism. It is purely idealist in the sense that it believes currency and economics, for instance, are simply ideas occurring in a human vacuum that can be easily manufactured or manipulated, rather than concepts tied to physical materiality. Again Robinson misunderstands the critical dilemma at the heart of climate change: overusing biomass and energy for human needs. It assumes that there’s equivalent value that emerges between using carbon energy and not using carbon energy. But this isn’t the case. Using carbon energy delivers an abundance of things that humans rely on, now, and delivers immense wealth to a privileged population. Not using carbon energy might deliver a habitable world in the future while depriving us of certain luxuries today. Those two things are not in any way materially equivalent and so cannot be tied to economic value in an equivalent way, but that’s exactly the kind of assumption Robinson’s plot relies on. Put another way, there’s a difference between paying to maybe not have future bad things happen for the sake of an ill-defined collective, and paying to have certain good things happen now, to individuals. People reasonably and necessarily choose the latter. Again, this comes down to the basic psychology that Robinson seems so reluctant to engage with. If you ask someone whether the food they need to eat for lunch and the abstract crisis they might avoid in five years are of equal value, they will ask if you’re insane and if you’re somehow not a human who needs to eat daily. Using carbon energy buys our lunch today; not using it may delay an abstract crisis in the future.
This problem comes up again with the suggestion that fossil fuel companies can simply remain profitable by pumping water out of the Antarctic rather than pumping fossil fuels to sell. Or the suggestion that fishing for plastic is meant to replace fishing for fish to keep the fish-fishing businesses intact. But the profitability of pumping water away from the ice mass in Antarctica or fishing for plastic is artificially generated. The market utility and profitability of using carbon energy, on the other hand, isn’t an abstraction: fossil fuels are simply capable of delivering things that individuals and institutions want and need. Fossil fuels are liquid, material capital. They are biomass that translates very directly into material need and fulfillment, of food, movement, and goods extracted and manufactured. Fishing plastic out of the ocean might impact me and my loved ones, maybe, in an indirect way, but fish and chips are delicious, and they’re at the corner shop right now, and we need food to eat. Even if some ministry in Zurich declares that pumping carbon into the ground or pumping water out of the South Pole and abstaining from burning biomass for human needs has monetary value, it simply doesn’t possess the same kind of intrinsic, immediate material value as carbon energy burned for heat, light, and motion. More energy (density) equals more money, more money equals more activity equals more stuff equals more opportunity equals more everything equals the economy.
Tom Murphy, professor of physics at U.C. San Diego, published an exchange he had with an economist that illuminates the connection between energy and economics: a continual 3 percent increase in energy production, the exchange reveals, has historically aligned neatly with a 3 percent increase in GDP. The idea of economic and energy decoupling has been debunked. And the idea that energy production can grow perpetually with the economy is also simply untrue, constrained by thermodynamics. If energy were to increase at this 3 percent rate, as Tom Murphy calculates in his debate with the economist, then within around 400 years, the heat the economy generated would make the Earth hotter than the sun, regardless of whether fossil fuels are used. This is the crux of Ministry’s misunderstanding of the problem. The actual value of carbon—and energy more broadly—cannot be replaced by arbitrarily assigning made-up value to activities that may ultimately reduce throughput and material things. Money isn’t just a social construct: the goods and services it buys are tied inextricably to energy production and expenditure. In Ministry, issuing the new carbon currency instantly makes Arabia (the Saud family has been deposed) one of the world’s richest countries, simply because of this accounting trick. But who would believe for a moment that any powerful and wealthy nation would allow another country to become one of the wealthiest overnight, dramatically increasing their relative standing and strategic power in a zero-sum world, just because the U.N. put a price on not using carbon energy? Would the U.S.—any version of it that has ever existed and is ever likely to exist, in fiction or reality—sanction such an outcome?
A recent report at InsideClimate News found that 11 “super-pollutant” emitting chemical companies in China were happy to mitigate their emissions while they were subsidized to do so. As soon as the subsidies dried up, however, their emissions-capturing project stopped, even while cheap remedies were readily available. The deadly emissions continue today. This highlights the very real challenges of solving the problem of who pays polluters, who enforces them, and how you make the economics of not manufacturing more profitable than manufacturing. If the book critically engaged with this conundrum and developed a novel, imaginative way to deal with it, even if it were still in the realm of utopian science fiction, it would have provided far more value than simply hand-waving the problem away, or misunderstanding it in the first place. Robinson of course is not alone in making these mistakes. They are common in climate policy-making discourses, so it makes sense that he would echo them. But it’s the sort of error that detracts from the story, and dates it to a particular time and place, in which Serious People still thought that companies and nations could be paid to stop polluting—that there would be institutions willing and able to pay them—without making real structural changes, or that these changes would occur overnight with little friction.
Even with its errors, Ministry remains an Important Book; as I said before, it breaks climate silence and has successfully managed to help people think and talk about these issues. But is it a good novel? Surprisingly few of its reviews critically evaluate the book as a novel, exploring whether it has literary merit; it seems there’s been a precipitous decline in public discussion about what constitutes good literature, almost as marked as climate silence. I think this is a shame. The book was clearly the culmination of years of study and work: it deserves such analysis. Robinson explicitly claims to have prioritized writing a good novel (as opposed to a good collection of policy papers and activist signs), saying in a recent Rolling Stone interview, “I come at it as a novelist. I want, first, to write a good novel.” Did he succeed in the thing he claims to have prioritized above all else? The book deals with issues taking place from a few years to a few decades in the future; will it remain relevant throughout, or even beyond, the time span it depicts? Or are its 563 pages meant to be consumed now, quickly, as a form of mid-brow infotainment and activism fuel, and then discarded once we’ve gotten the gist of it?
My second question has received even less attention in mainstream reviews: is it competently crafted propaganda? I do not mean this as a pejorative: decarbonization politics is in desperate need of better propaganda. Does the book further the political aim of mass, equitable decarbonization with effective persuasion? It may seem trivial, even harmful, to scrutinize a book that is so full of Important Facts and Ideas, particularly ones pertaining to the apocalyptic cataclysm bearing down with unprecedented urgency. But I think the reverse is true. It’s essential we evaluate this book as art and propaganda, not just because it’s more respectful to both the author and his audience to give these questions due consideration, but because literature has an extremely unique and important role in social life, and in social change in particular.
Good storytelling is critical for having a culture worth living in, but also for achieving the social and political movements that will be necessary to stop (or adapt to) climate change. Narrative persuasion, as opposed to “rhetorical persuasion,” is a critical aspect of political change and just as important as explicit campaign messaging. As a recent Cambridge University study suggests:
…there are strong reasons to think that ideas contained in fiction may have just as strong an impact on people’s beliefs and attitudes as nonfictional content, given that people tend to incorporate ‘facts’ they learn regardless of whether the source is labeled fiction or nonfiction, and the narrative structure typical of fiction is known to be exceptionally powerful in shaping cognition and persuasion.
The study found that dystopian fiction in particular increased participants’ approval of radical political action, even to the point of condoning violence against an oppressor. A climate novel’s importance is more than just the sum of the facts it contains: the manner of its telling matters a lot. And this is a useful consideration when evaluating and improving the role of storytelling in climate discourse more broadly. It’s not a question of deciding whether Ministry or any other novel crosses some arbitrary line of good art, but instead a question of how literature can and should engage with this most important of issues, which in turn will engage the public. Given that prominent publications and authors have anointed Robinson the King of Climate Fiction, it’s worth interrogating how well the bearer of that crown reigns.
Is It Good Art?
Writing cli-fi is hard. The genre presents unique challenges to building compelling narratives, and, therefore, good literature. This is in part because climate change itself is a difficult topic to render at human scales, both temporal and spatial, regardless of the medium. The timescales are staggering and confusing. On one side, you have causes and consequences ranging from the century to the millennium, depending on what aspects you’re focusing on. Meanwhile, geological changes that naturally take centuries or millennia are now occurring at the whiplash pace of months or years. Timothy Morton deems climate change a “hyperobject” due to its unwieldy scales. Spatially, the mechanisms driving climate change—whether fossil fuels or fossil capital—are broadly diffuse, their effluence seeping from millions of factories and farms, millions of cars, buses, planes, and boats, millions of investment portfolios and strategic plans. This relates to Rob Nixon’s notion of environmental “slow violence” which, unlike the quick violence of interpersonal conflict, can be difficult to render in fiction. And on top of the inhuman scales, climate change is boring. Although climate disruption is by far the greatest destroyer of life and worlds in the history of planet Earth, in narrative terms, it languishes in the realm of the mundane. It’s as banal as talking about the weather. Actually, it’s not even that exciting: it’s an invisible, abstract transference of heat and energy. The weather is just one of the more concrete consequences of those hidden dynamics. Any one of these qualities would make designing a compelling narrative around the issue difficult; all three makes the task herculean.
These challenges of containing climate change in a compelling narrative have vexed both novelists and campaigners in the 21st century. In the latter case, activists and their communicators in-house and in the media have leapt from one unsuccessful narrative to the next in the hope of sparking mass movements and elite investment in the problem. They’ve tried save-the-polar-bears stories reminiscent of Greenpeace’s somewhat successful save-the-whales campaigns. They’ve tried save-the-poor-people-least-responsible angle reminiscent of essentially unsuccessful aid campaigns aiming to white-knight the global South (this certainly hasn’t worked in Britain, where Jeremy Corbyn was famously booed for voicing concern for those most vulnerable to climate impacts). They’ve tried industrial war mobilization narratives reminiscent of World War II, with New Deal reformism tightly woven into it. This includes leftist shades fading from the Green New Deal into Andreas Malm’s ever redder “war Leninism.” Perhaps the favorite narrative of the global professionals who populate the U.N., World Bank, IMF, and the pages of The Ministry for the Future—a species of euroliberal possibly softer and more prosocial than the Anglophone variety, hedging more toward German ordoliberalism’s will-to-stability than Anglo-American neoliberalism’s disaster capitalism—is the tale of the plucky bureaucrat who uses science, reason, and technical expertise to stumble on the perfect combination of policy incentives and new technology to save the day. It’s the tale of the bureaucrat’s stone: the magic of procedural alchemy suddenly transforms inert bureaucracy into gold.
It remains to be seen which, if any, of these narratives will succeed in sparking that ever-elusive mass movement or elite investment. So far, none have seemed to capture enough public imagination to nudge greenhouse gas emissions down, or even stop their growth.
Perhaps because of the challenges intrinsic to crafting climate narratives, and perhaps also because of the urgency the issue instills in those of us writing about it, nonfiction climate writing has sometimes fallen into tired patterns. Climate-focused opinion writers, for instance, are often rewarded for producing cloying yogurt-commercial style prose (to which I’ve contributed myself), or self-revelatory personal essays that center how bad we feel about it (have also done this one)—in either case succumbing to the prevailing dominance of activist sloganeering and the intimate self-disclosure of trauma-mongering. This is not necessarily bad; these approaches can be a very good way of helping to guide a collective emotional reckoning with the issue, which has long been lacking from the climate discourse. Much more frustratingly, climate change attracts established elite media figures like Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Franzen, figures who have never before approached the issue and cannot claim any particular specialized knowledge of it, compelling them to suddenly make lofty pronouncements about our imminent, unstoppable demise, before they return to whatever more important projects they were working on before (like genocide apologia). Climate reporters, meanwhile, seem stuck on the Möbius loop of reminding us daily that yes, emissions are rising, fossil fuels are to blame, no, there’s no miracle carbon capture technology coming to deus-ex-machina capitalism (unless…), but solar costs are falling!!, and possible feedback loops like permafrost melt are progressing faster than originally believed.
With nonfiction, it’s hard to determine how we can better write about this issue. Some of us have tried to focus on the political cause—the ideologies and economic systems ruling the world—rather than the morbid symptom (higher temperatures and its impacts). Others have addressed the minutiae of the technologies at the heart of the problem while again avoiding the minutiae of the climate itself. Still others take a big-picture philosophical tack. These can all produce some very compelling writing, but narrative-creation remains an obstacle.
Some fiction writers have successfully gotten around these problems by broadening the focus beyond the particularities of carbon dioxide parts per million to the bigger ecological crisis. Ecofiction is a corollary genre to cli-fi that focuses on exploring the relationship between human systems and “natural” or non-human systems. This conflict—or ideally a harmonious if dramatic relationship—has been at the center of human art for as long as there have been humans or art. So it’s not surprising that it can generate some of the best literature being produced today.
Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, 2018’s Nobel prize winner, wrote a masterpiece of ecofiction, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The book subverts crime genre conventions while providing a fascinating character study of a woman struggling with living biocentric values in a toxically anthropocentric society. Another gem of ecofiction, Lanny, by Max Porter, deploys inventive, experimental style techniques. One of the central characters of the book is a leprechaun-like trickster god, or a Pan-ish magical creature, or a sewer goblin, or all three, or something else not totally clear, never really revealed. This creature stalks an English village’s dirty corners slurping up short snatches of inane and insane conversation made by random anonymous villagers (not too dissimilar from scrolling Twitter). The disembodied words curl around the page and create the effect of a stream of collective human consciousness. The book conjures complex feelings toward humanity and nature as abstractions and the relationship between the two; it earns readers’ emotional investment in both the characters and the natural and social worlds they inhabit. The prose is often beautiful but feels effortless. Porter has a gift for capturing a world of meaning in a single small mundane object or action or bit of dialogue. You can sense the hours layered up behind each finely crafted turn of phrase. Porter trusts us as readers to pick up on subtleties, subtexts, various inflections of meaning, and expressed values; he takes the medium seriously and plays with it, seeming to delight in the act of its creation, meanwhile speaking to some of the most critical themes of the moment.
Drive Your Plow and Lanny aren’t alone. Plenty of 21st century literature is focused on the relationships between humans and nature, ecological destruction, extinction, the climate crisis, and the likely necrocenic dystopia coloring so many of our visions of the near future. George Monbiot has called Cormac McCarthy’s The Road “possibly the most important environmental book ever written,” hailing it, “a thought-experiment that imagines the world without a biosphere.” Though the implied cataclysm that kills life on Earth is probably lots of bombs, the destructiveness aligns closely with the climatic and ecological bombs that our economy is deploying daily. The Soviet Union’s tsar bomb, the largest bomb humanity has ever detonated, released 1,500 times more firepower than the combined tonnage of the U.S.’ Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The global economy generates greenhouse gas emissions with the heat energy equivalent of the tsar bomb every 12 minutes. (There’s an argument, only somewhat Swiftian, that nukes are less apocalyptic than climate change.) The Road achieves the sublime with its prose and emotional sincerity even while depicting the ugliest atrocities and circumstances humanity is capable of creating. Mingled with horrific scenes of a charred newborn and cellar of people waiting to be eaten, it is a heartfelt lament of lost species, ways of life, and celebration of enduring human love in the midst of the worst possible calamity. Reading McCarthy’s earlier work, it feels like the culmination of a technique that has been decades in refinement. And it’s both good art and, whether intended or not, good propaganda: for me at least, it elicits both tears and renewed vigilance for protecting a living Earth, reinforced surety in the moral rightness of preventing at all costs the slow (and fast) violence that is yielding the beginning of the dead world McCarthy depicts so vividly.
David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, meanwhile, manages the scope problem of ecological and climate crises masterfully with a symmetrical structure of interconnected narratives that span several (unspecified) centuries. Mitchell captures the political, social, and technological roots of the climate and ecological crises as well as their deep future consequences, and does so with compelling, interwoven characters. The Southern Reach trilogy, by Jeff Vandermeer—which, by the way, bears virtually no resemblance to the supremely mediocre Hollywood movie Annihilation presumably based on it—is an eerie and masterful feat of ecofiction, subverting tropes of the genre and complicating human-nature relations through a tight, suspenseful, unsettling story that remains emotionally authentic and meaningful throughout.
This is all to say that writing about climate change is hard, but it’s doable, and I wish The Ministry for the Future had managed any one of the techniques that makes celebrated ecofiction so compelling. Unfortunately, as a novel, it misses the mark in some critical ways.
For one thing, the book suffers from what a lot of other contemporary fiction (climate or otherwise) seems to suffer from: a feeling of being rushed. I’m not sure why so much fiction today strikes me as dashed off. I don’t know whether it seems that way or is that way. But it’s the best way I can articulate the phenomenon of so many plots, dialogue, prose, and characters feeling as though they are rushing through a flat landscape. Perhaps authors assume their readers have all had their brains sanded down into smooth Twitter marble, unable to concentrate on anything too long or weighted with too much subtext. Or perhaps many authors themselves have tragically developed chronic online brain poisoning, craving the fast high of likes and retweets, the satisfaction of completion after composing, at most, 240 characters. Or maybe it’s not the fault of authors at all, but instead of systemic publishing industry practices. Maybe deadlines have been severely shortened by a business model that favors cranking out high quantities of low quality (or, to be fair, medium quality) stories hoping that one will stick and yield a large enough return to pay back their many unprofitable investments, or better yet, a franchising opportunity that can be milked dry over decades.
Or it’s the urgency of the immiserated, precarious artist. Young writers in particular (and young writers of color even more so) are underpaid and overworked and often living paycheck to paycheck. Perhaps the absence of the generational wealth transfer urges the cursor forward, compelling writers to submit before thorough revisions so that they might get their word in before it all collapses, receiving their commission before the next month’s rent is due. Impatience is fatal for novices; some masters might get away with it, but in the case of a book as ambitious and important as Ministry for the Future, I wish this master had combined his decades of practice with a little more patience.
Whatever the case, meticulousness seems to be a dying art. And this is not great for literature, or any art really, because the inescapable fact of creation is that quality takes time. Good prose and good plots must be boiled down, reduced like a sauce, distilled for years like a single malt whisky, before they reach their finest form. For many, this means uncounted rounds of editing and hours of quiet rumination. Of course there are some exceptions. Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro claimed to have completed The Remains of the Day—arguably his masterpiece—in four weeks (of course it helps when your wife does your “share of the cooking and housework” in that time). Nathan J. Robinson, editor of this magazine, seems to be able to produce both prolific quantity and consistent quality simultaneously, but he is a rare bird [author’s note: no editor pressured me to include this grotesque display of sycophancy, I debase myself at my own discretion]. For most of us, though, writing requires lots of time, edits, rumination, and energy.
While I’m sure Kim Stanley Robinson has accumulated the knowledge he incorporated in Ministry over many years—and it truly is an impressive display—the novel itself reads more like a rushed first draft whipped together as an afterthought, avoiding those many hours of edits and rumination. The too-big-to-edit problem isn’t just one of pundits leaving well-paid media jobs for the golden shores of Substack and its freedom from editorial tyranny. Fiction authors, too, sometimes grow too famous, powerful, or lucrative to be controlled by any editor. I wonder if that was a problem here. The prose and the dialogue may be the best indicators of this. Too frequently when reading Ministry, my eye stumbled and faltered along lines of sloppy prose, an extra line or word here or there (“irregardless”), and weak dialogue.
In one exchange that feels lazy and dashed off, Mary—the bureaucrat running the Ministry for the Future and one of the novel’s two protagonists—speaks with her Russian colleague, Tatiana.
Tatiana shrugged. “Rule of law is all we’ve got,” she said darkly. “We tell people that then try to make them believe it.”
“How do we do that?”
“If the world blows up they’ll believe it. That’s why we got the international order we got after World War Two.”
“Not good enough?” Mary suggested.
“No, but nothing is ever good enough. We just make do.” Tatiana brightened, although Mary saw the sly look that indicated a joke: “We make a new religion! Some kind of Earth religion, everyone family, universal brotherhood.”
“Universal sisterhood,” Mary said. “An Earth mother religion.”
“Exactly” Tatiana said, and laughed. “As it should be, right?”
They toasted the idea. “Write up the laws for that,” Mary said. “Have them ready for when the time comes.”
“Of course,” Tatiana said. “I have entire constitution [sic] already, in here.” And she tapped her forehead.
Another bit of dialogue with Tatiana has the same abrupt, disconnected, note-taking style, but now the quote marks are inexplicably omitted:
I like that, Tatiana said, feeling buoyed at the thought. I want to sue some people here real bad.
Help me and I’ll help you.
As always. So let’s get off this fucking bridge and go find a drink.
As always. Time for kiryat.
Time for kvasit.
We will anoint ourselves with one hundred grams.
Or two hundred.
No wonder you’re getting fat. Alcohol has calories you know.
Good. I’m hungry too. I’m cold and I’m hungry and I need a drink.
It’s great to pass the Bechdel test, but please, for god’s sake, at least make it good. Too much of the dialogue sounds like a doctored transcript of boring conversation you overhear in public. Hell is other people’s conversations; the novel is meant to escape that or meaningfully stylize it like Porter. Too little of the dialogue conveyed something narratively relevant, or even just delivered lines in ways that were funny, witty, otherwise entertaining, philosophically insightful, or character-building. Most of the time, the conversation served only non-narrative, non-fictional fact-delivery ends. It’s not that dialogue shouldn’t sometimes convey mundane information, but it shouldn’t mostly do that. Or if it does, it should hold within it some greater meaning to be teased out by the reader’s own intelligence. But when all the dialogue speaks in the same voice, uses the same verbal tics and vocabulary regardless of character, or reads like dashed-off Socratic dialogues, it’s clear it was an afterthought.
The prose, meanwhile, seemed written for the least active readerly engagement possible. For instance, “In one of the smallest bars she sat down with Badim Bahadur, her chief of staff, who was hunched over a whisky reading his phone…She nodded to the waiter, pointed at Badim’s drink. Another whisky.” We don’t need this described to us; what would be brief scene-setting in a screenplay is totally unnecessary in prose. When the book slips, as it rarely does, into an ecological sublime, it reads like this:
Flower-filled meadow, wild beasts grazing all careless of them, the young ones literally gamboling, defining the word as they popped into the air and staggered around on landing, then did it again. Gray wall above, with a window in it to make it Alpine-strange. Blue sky. It was definitely a cheerful sight. Even a little hallucinogenic. Breeze flowing over the flowers like a tide, so that they bobbed in place. The young marmot still there near them continued to draw grass stalks to its mouth. The oily sheen of the bunched seeds it had caught in its paw gleamed in the sun. Quick little fans of food. The demon eyes of the chamois just a bit farther away, placidly chewing their cuds, unafraid of anything.
The Road ends with a lament for such a scene made impossible by human agency. The contrast in prose is striking and a good illustration of what’s lacking in Ministry:
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
It’s not just the $10-words McCarthy deploys, which may or may not be to everybody’s taste. Instead, it’s the density of meaning and expression, the suggestion of larger things projected out by those often unexpected turns of phrase. This density is almost entirely lacking in Ministry.
Whole chapters are written in terse, barely conceived sentences. The austerity of Robinson’s language—those sentences beginning with sudden, jarring nouns or adjectives—seem to serve no artistic or narrative purpose and so comes off more as illiterate or impatient than purposefully stylistic. Reading fiction should be pleasurable, or at least stimulating and challenging, not a dull grind to get through for caches of factual information. Chapter 34, for instance, is written as a character’s notes and almost seems to relish denying the reader any pleasure:
M questions this last assertion and C testy in response. Monsoon variability increasing for last thirty years, somewhat like California weather in that the average is seldom hit, most years much higher or lower than average, which is an artifact only. M objects, says thought monsoon was regular as rain in Ireland, crucial to crops and life generally, July through September daily rain, how variable could it be?
It goes on like that for five pages. And five pages is about the average length of a chapter, perfect for online-addled attention spans.
The structure of the book, while we’re on it, also runs into some issues. I respect the desire to experiment with form, but Robinson doesn’t quite pull it off. It’s essentially lots of vignette, all of which are short: some are single paragraph-long riddles that reveal the answer explicitly at the end “I zing and I ping and I bring and I bling [….] What am I? You must have guessed already. I am a photon.”) Some are anonymous disembodied narrativized policies and programs, like the first-person experience of a (probably) Patagonia-clad Angelena Hippie kayaking through a flood or an Indian pilot dispersing sulfur dioxide particulates to block solar radiation. (It’s odd that Robinson so casually throws in these sorts of geoengineering projects without seriously addressing their many potential risks, such as the possibility of cutting rainfall by 30 percent in the tropics, decimating rainforests and releasing the carbon stored there (and therefore potentially worsening climate change), or increasing drought in Africa, or killing crops, or the many other known and as yet unknowable negative side effects.)
Then there are the nonfiction micro-essays. These offer descriptions or opinions on a variety of mitigation and adaptation policies and programs (David Roberts’ “position papers & blog posts & white papers”). These micro-essays, in theory, could have worked: they could have offered original takes on the policies or ideas they depicted, or imagined in depth the likely consequences of those policies that aren’t often discussed in policymaking circles, or focused a critical eye on such policies that only a perceptive novelist could bring, or even invented new policy ideas. At the very least, they could have engaged with each other and achieved some emergent quality as a macro-essay that crescendos to its grand point. But they don’t: the micro-essays stand alone as discrete units that are variably interesting. Had they added anything that can’t already be found in nonfiction analyses, they would have felt more like creative writing and less like pills hidden in dog treats, or—sincere apologies, KSR—dashed-off weed revelations, shower thoughts, and the-more-you-know trivia. If I’m already reading a dense sci-fi book, I can also read nonfiction essays. If a reader feels condescended to, there’s no reason to reciprocate respect, and no reason to trust the author’s opinions. The occasional vague command to the reader to do something about the problem highlighted in a given micro-essay (“Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader”) feels less like the author-reader relationship of reader-as-participant in engaging with the prose and ideas of the author and more like reader-as-audience for the author’s intellectual performance or pupil to the author’s pedagogy.
Perhaps the idea of writing dozens of concept-heavy micro-essays and vignettes was to aim for a quantity-equals-quality approach in which good literature means the more pages printed, the more struggle to get through, and therefore the better the book. In some cases, an onslaught of non-narrative text can have real merit. Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 includes a mass of police reports which create a powerful effect that the narrative alone doesn’t achieve. The mass in Ministry, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same emergent quality, and feels too often like self-indulgence.
Some chapters achieve really impressive granularity of data. Chapter 34, for all its grating prose, and chapter 45 both present very nice overview depictions of agroecology and hydrological systems. But why am I reading a blueprint overview in a novel? The medium is better suited to tell me what it feels like to live in an agroecological economy. Why not show me with scenes and dialogue how that society functions, use vivid imagery and weave that feeling into the whole narrative to make me desperately crave an agroecological economy? It’s another example of Robinson apparently not taking the medium seriously. And while there is often impressive granularity, there’s also a lot of (sometimes literal) hand-waving of detail, particularly when it comes to questions of how we get from the current status quo to the utopia depicted:
When both taxes and carbon coins were applied together, the modeling and social experiments got much better results than when either strategy was applied by itself. Not just twice as good, but ten times as good.
Mary said, Why is that?
Confessed did not know. Synergy of carrot and stick, human psychology—waved hands. Why people did what they did—that was her bailiwick [but apparently not Robinson’s or this novel’s].
Woven between the micro-essays, riddles, and disembodied narratives, there is a plot, following the lives of two characters whose arcs eventually meet and whose relationship drives much of the drama. This alone is rather thin and would have made a much smaller book, but it does have its moments. The opening scene kicks off by doing what only fiction can do, showing in vivid imagery the real scope of climate tragedy, not just the brutal destruction of lives and property, but the lingering inner traumas of survivorhood. The novel’s other protagonist, an American aid worker named Frank living in Uttar Pradesh, lives through a fatal heatwave that kills everyone else in the town where he’s working. (On a superficial reading one might be angry with an American being the only survivor of a disaster in India, but a fairer reading suggests it’s more a depiction of the realistic and unjust fact: wealth can, for a while, buy salvation from climate disasters.)
While the relationship between Frank and Mary did contain its touching moments, one thing lacking throughout—as in a lot of contemporary fiction—was a dense network of relationships. Robinson’s characters, while mostly avoiding cliche, are simply given too little time, too few interactions, too little interiority, and too few relationships to be really compelling and multidimensional. A recent study in Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences found that one thing that makes A Song of Ice and Fire (the series on which the show Game of Thrones was based) so compelling is its realistic illusion of social complexity. Although the story includes more than 2,000 characters, the character networks tend to max out at around 150 other characters, which is the likely maximum size network that humans are able to build in reality. Not only does this network create convincing verisimilitude—the sense of being believable and true to life that literature depends on—but it also provides lots of fuel for conflict, action, and drama. And if you don’t like A Song of Ice and Fire, this kind of network analysis has been applied to classics like Don Quixote and Mrs Dalloway, too. Many novels do not have networks like these, of course, and manage verisimilitude without them, but Ministry is concerned with networks, and with networks of networks. The many vignettes in Ministry could have readily been woven together with each other and with the central plot, forging that dense web of character arcs and relationships, giving the central plot much more engaging movement. But that would have taken time to create.
Verisimilitude isn’t just a nice artistic quality: it’s also a useful bridge to the question of whether this book is successful propaganda. Kim Stanley Robinson agrees with the importance of verisimilitude in writing compelling fiction; as he told Rolling Stone: “The reality principle is that when you’re reading a novel and you come to something you say, ‘Yeah, that’s right. That’s the way life is.’ This is what you read novels for, is that vibe, that feeling. And I want that.” Unfortunately, Ministry’s transcript-like dialogue, flat characters, and poverty of relationships yields less than the vibe Robinson was looking for. But what about the arc of the plot, in which humans ultimately triumph in achieving equitable decarbonization in time to save civilization? Like literature, propaganda depends on its own kind of verisimilitude. Does The Ministry for the Future deliver that?
Is It Good Propaganda?
While reading Ministry, I was also watching Downton Abbey for the first time, and—full disclosure—enjoyed the early seasons before the show abandoned good writing for cheap sentimentality. It’s generally well acted, well shot, with enjoyable costumes and sets, and—perhaps most importantly and most lacking in a lot of contemporary fiction—the plot is paced in such a way as to provide space to develop characters and their relationships. Like Game of Thrones, it achieves that relationship network verisimilitude. But it’s not just a nice little British show about nice little British anxieties. It’s also exceptional propaganda. Not the hard propaganda of war recruitment posters, Fox News, and Leni Riefenstahl, but the softer kind delivered in literature or ubiquitous cultural production. It weaves strands of doubt through your understanding of the world, it structures the foundations of another value system around the corners of your mind, and it reinforces certain biases. It opens psychological doors, empties out some of the material already in there, and makes space for alternative ways of perceiving and judging the world. All literature does this in a sense, but those with political ends we can consider propagandistic.
Downton Abbey was written and created by Julian Fellowes, an aristocrat descendent and current Conservative peer in the U.K. House of Lords. And sure, Downton provides some obvious nationalistic sentiments, faith in the British justice system and military, and nostalgia-laden reivisionist history of bygone—or rather, less covert and complicated—class hierarchies. But it’s more subtly propaganda for a certain notion of societal progress. Although the lovable patriarchs of the working and leisure classes—Mr. Carson and Lord Robert—occasionally grumble about the trappings of the modern world in a curmudgeonly way, and the cook Mrs. Patmore’s luddism toward kitchen gadgets is a running joke, modernist progress is ultimately not only welcomed, but the hero of the show. It’s not just cars and telephones and medical technology: progress is celebrated as a broadening of employment opportunities for workers and a loosening of gender roles and rules for everyone. As ever, the rewards of this latter effect seem to primarily go to wealthy women, whom we are meant to cheer for: one of the aristocratic daughters, for instance, gains controls of a magazine publisher. In Ministry, Mary Murphy and women central bankers save the day. But the institutions they control, the class relations they exist within, and the fundamental hierarchies of these high-energy-density economies remain intact. Although in Downton there’s a sappy lament of the decline in the traditional aristocratic model of individual families owning massive estates of thousands of acres, this is a sleight-of-hand trick. The show rests on the successful effort of our aristocrat protagonists to maintain their wealth and power into this new age, and we’re meant to root for them. It’s basically propaganda for the current state of land ownership: in England, 1 percent of the population—aristocrats and corporations—still owns half the land (it’s even worse in Scotland). To its credit, the show humanizes working people in a way that very few costume dramas do today, if they show workers at all. It even has a sympathetic socialist character (Tom, an Irish revolutionary), which is basically unheard of in mainstream shows. But again, this is a certain literary sleight-of-hand; the arc of the show moderates Tom’s politics, integrates and reconciles him with the aristocratic family, and goes out of its way to humanize the aristocrats to an absurd, fantastical degree (like all landlords, Lord Robert is so benevolent that he pleads with the family to let the poor tenant farmers stay on the land without paying their rents).
In some sense, The Ministry for the Future and Downton Abbey are propaganda for the same thing: a modernist, 20th-century vision of progress in which a high-tech, high-energy density, complex consumer society remains intact and class relations superficially—but not substantively—shift. And they’re geared to the same audience: educated middle-class technocrats and those who believe in their utopian vision. Ministry includes frequent sentimental mentions of “stolid burghers” (burgher being the germanized form of “bourgeoisie”), and the protagonists all hail from this class. In Downton, they are the inheritors of the future: the aristocrats who survive are those who become shrewd businesspeople while the servants must make the same adaptation and become business-savvy opportunists. Many upper-class and lower-class characters in Downton are sort of absurd and bumbling, in contrast to those held up as pillars of modern society: the educated burgher solicitor Matthew and his wife Mary, whom he trains to be an equally ruthless Homo Economicus. It’s the economically rational Matthew and Mary (plus Tom, the socialist) who try to convince Lord Robert to increase rents and evict tenants—and, we are shown, they are right to do so. Ministry, too, seems often an appeal to this class, as well as a celebration of it. Its heroes are always already in the critical positions to save the world, whether they’re bankers or bureaucrats. Toward the end pages, it’s explicitly stated that this is indeed the savior class:
Looking at the central bankers listening attentively to her, Mary saw it again: these people were as close to rulers of the world as existed. If they were now using their power to protect the biosphere and increase equity, the world could very well tack onto a new heading and take a good course. Bankers! It was enough to make her laugh, or cry. And yet by their own criteria, so pinched and narrow, they were doing the necessary things. They were securing money’s value, they still told themselves; which in this moment of history required that the world get saved. She had to smile, she couldn’t help it. Saved by fucking bankers.
There’s tonal irony here of course, yet these are still the events on the page: the world is saved by fucking bankers. In the background, there’s a suggestion of important (and frankly realistic and necessary) eco-saboteurs, whose class associations are murkier. In some of Robinson’s more imaginative moments, fleets of drones disrupt air travel and threaten CEOs, and tightly organized cells of eco-warriors, working in the shadows, take Davos attendees hostage. Robinson, however, rarely explores these characters, keeping these scenes to suggestion and rumor. They are not as critical to stopping climate change as the burghers and the bankers.
One way to tease out what sort of outcome a work of fiction serves—a work whose agendas and sympathies may be subtle and even deliberately covert—is to get a sense of where the author places their faith. In Downton, Fellowes places his faith in modernity, a certain definition of technological and social progress, in staid institutions like the courts and military, the benevolence of aristocrats, and in some more disruptive institutions like modern business. The aristocrats modernize, maintain their place in society, and all is well: class hierarchies remain harmoniously intact.
The Ministry for the Future places its faith, somewhat bafflingly, in the United States Navy. A whole chapter begins with the musing, “So, what if the whole world ran more like the U.S. Navy?” and goes into depth on why it is such a well-run institution, further suggesting it should be in charge of electrifying infrastructure. To be fair, the chapter is mostly making a point about tying the lowest income to the highest. But what a horrifying thought: the whole world run like a branch of the military? This is not an isolated incident: the book frequently puts faith in police and security forces, depicting them as relatively benign or even heroic, as they show beneficent restraint in dealing with a violent mob of refugees, as well as demonstrating attentive, affectionate devotion to Minister Mary Murphy.
Robinson has great faith in the Paris accord, stating in an interview, “The Paris Agreement is a major event in world history and inspires great hope in me that it will serve as a framework for the world’s many nation-states to cooperate in decarbonizing rapidly enough to save civilization from all kinds of climate change damage and death.” In Ministry, he writes, “Indeed it can never be emphasized enough how important the Paris Agreement had been…” It should be noted here that it requires living in a special kind of delusion to look at the past 30 years of U.N. climate conferences and their annual failure to deliver meaningful change, and believe that salvation will come from its latest iteration. To see such negotiations as anything other than cynical political theater intended to prevent meaningful mitigating decarbonization requires willful self-deceit and powerful ideology.
Here’s an extended exchange in which Robinson opines on Paris:
You have faith that the Paris Agreement will reassert itself?
Yes. This is another leftist truism that isn’t true, that the Paris Agreement is irrelevant or meaningless or not good enough or whatever. It’s the framework by which we’re going to make all this happen. It’s a major event in world history. It is obviously toothless and it doesn’t call for enough and the voluntary commitments by the individual nation states are only about half of what’s necessary. But it’s what we’ve got. And to dismiss it out of hand, and then what’s the replacement? Instantaneous world revolution? I mean, give me a break. It’s so crazily idealistic where the perfect is being the enemy of the good.
The “perfect is being the enemy of the good” line is particularly revealing as it’s the go-to phrase for centrists defending the status quo and inadequate policies against the kind of reforms that scientists have deemed necessary to avert collapse. And Robinson even makes the elementary logical error of saying that it is sufficient because “it’s what we’ve got”: it has to be good enough, therefore it is good enough. But it simply isn’t: even if Paris goals were met, which they are very far from being, they still would warm Earth to the perilous extreme of 3 degrees Celsius or more. Not only is Paris not perfect, it’s not even good. In this case, the more accurate truism would be: the woefully inadequate is the enemy of the possibly sufficient.
In general, Ministry places great faith in development ideology as a net positive and blames the rich for, of all things, abandoning notions of progress. This is ludicrous: the super-wealthy are among the only ones still aggressively trying to sell myths of progress. The Gates Foundation and the Koch brothers fund think tanks and media sites (including Vox, Reason, and Human Progress) that promote their conception of “progress”: that things have never been better, that life is getting better everyday, that the future is bright, and that it’s all thanks to the status quo. Their promise of progress essentially goes: we have built the golden age we’re living in, and we’re going to build the even better golden age that is just on the horizon, as long as you allow us to hold onto power. It’s their greatest tool for justifying their own existence. Billionaire investment in AI and space travel are corollaries of this narrative-manufacturing campaign to protect their position as socially indispensable innovators, pioneers, and funders of technological advancement.
Robinson puts great faith in the ability of both national and global institutions to peacefully, rationally, and quickly abandon neoliberal tenets in favor of more benevolent alternatives. For all the book’s vocal denunciations of neoliberalism (and occasionally capitalism more broadly), Robinson doesn’t seem to understand it. Neoliberalism isn’t just million-dollar football advertisements featuring Pepsi’s revolutionary side, Twitter grifters Yas Queening for the dark site torturer Gina Haspel, and the slow violence of the IMF. Neoliberalism—the contemporary ideology of economic liberalism and the system of exchange it reinforces, global capitalism—is also Pinochet’s helicopters, Argentina’s murderous military junta, factory suicides and fires, predator drones, mercenary death squads killing environmentalists, solitary confinement for protestors, and globe-spanning surveillance. To think that its adherents won’t gleefully turn to torture, murder, and extrajudicial terror to protect a penny of share prices from activists (whether those in ministries or on streets) requires living in a fantasy world every bit as ridiculous and credulous as QAnon—and is far, far more dangerous.
In Robinson’s fantasy, nation-states and international institutions are inherently good, and will all jump into action when India suffers a major catastrophe and millions of deaths from a heatwave (maybe he forgot that Britain once deliberately contributed to 3 million Indian deaths and has essentially purged it from collective memory, or that the more than 70,000 European deaths in the 2003 heatwave yielded no international action). And Robinson has faith in the arc of history bending toward justice: “That’s what our ministry is about. We’re trying to set things up so that in the future, over the long haul, something like justice will get created. Some long-term ledger of more good than bad. Bending the arc and all that. No matter what happened before, that’s what we can do now.”
Despite claiming, “I don’t like fantasy,” Robinson conceived this book in a dream. One can find iterations of this dream throughout the world, perhaps most feverishly in the Global North, but not only there. It is a transboundary dream, international, cosmopolitan: it fills the corridors of compounds, skyscrapers, and villages. We could call it the technoliberal dream if we’re feeling a bit ungenerous, or progressivism if we’re content with weasel words. In this dream, most politicians and bureaucrats operate more or less in good faith, and most people are earnest actors (if not always rational ones). Of course there are some bad apples, but most people simply have different ideas about what’s good for the country or world or economy, and are actively working to that end. In Ministry, Robinson characterizes the “nineteen largest organizations killing the world,” as being populated by “good people.” Those who are wrong simply lack sufficient facts and perspective. The direction of the future comes down to success in a marketplace of ideas. People, meanwhile, are parceled out into their respective roles by an admittedly imperfect Darwinian meritocratic system with a general equality of opportunity. If we all band together, each working at the levels the meritocracy has decided for us (whether in Downton Abbey’s basement or reception room), and agree on the problem and the solutions after the triumph of facts and science in the marketplace, there’s no hurdle we can’t overcome.
The dream rests on a cheerful inverse of the apocryphal Einstein quote about the infinitude of human stupidity. Instead, the universe is no match for human ingenuity. The common, historically recurrent triumph of selfishness, cruelty, and impulse over rationality, justice, and restraint—at least since the foundation of complex states and hierarchical societies around 5,000 years ago—has no place here. The ecological boundary lines encroaching on human existence have no place either. The deeply entangled, often paradoxical, networks of causation and competing interests intrinsic to energy transition, or non-carbon energy’s dependence on fossil fuels for manufacture and construction, or of food production and distribution chains entirely dependent on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and petroleum, and of a whole financial and economic sector dependent on cheap, limitless electricity are also missing entirely. They have been—fantastically—solved.
In this dream, the police are largely a positive force, or at worst, a sometimes unfortunate necessity; the government-contracted mercenaries who rampage around the lawless locales where the most intensive resource extraction occurs, killing environmentalists without consequence—places like the Amazon, Congo, South Asia—are cheerfully ignored. The global economy’s pathocracy—institutional and government management cultures ruled largely by narcissists, psychopaths, and machiavellians—has disappeared. Instead, Davos attendees and politicians are either West Wing-style nobles thwarted by ignorant constituents and procedural inertia, or, at worst, bumbling incompetents just waiting for someone smarter and more professional to set them straight. There are no Panama Papers, and there is no assassination of journalists involved in covering them. The rule of law exists; billionaires and politicians somehow do not constantly get away with breaking it. (Robinson: “But I will say this. Rule of law, as weak a reed as it is, is all we got…. it’s rule of law or nothing.” Sorry buddy, it’s nothing. Always has been.)
The Ministry for the Future is a fantasy novel, whether it knows it or not: it relies on technocratic and technological miracles, the maintenance of a liberal world economic order that not only overcomes climate change, but thrives in the process, producing a perfect Whole Foods Silicon Valley paradise. (California is carbon neutral, on its way to carbon negative!) It includes benign European police forces reluctant to mete out violence against unruly migrants from North Africa (perhaps Robinson isn’t aware of the often callous policies of European countries which end up actively killing refugees). Mary Murphy, an Irish bureaucrat vocally dismissive of Irish republican struggles, is a plucky international minister imperfectly navigating institutional barriers, but whose noble heart and incisive head are in the right place. While there is a lot of (sometimes excruciating) detail in this dream, and a great breadth of attention paid to the various interconnected challenges of decarbonization, still the most difficult details of the transition—such as the untangling of the intractable infrastructure challenges of a world entirely dependent on dense, cheap, portable, reliable energy—are largely glossed over, except as gordian knots to be invisibly cut in brief, hasty narrative exposition. Climate change is averted, and not too much else must change. We can chug along basically as is. History is still ended.
Gerry Canavan, writing for the LA Review of Books, suggests Robinson “has always also been a we-can-win-the-argument, marketplace-of-ideas liberal at his core, at least up to now.” But I’m not convinced of that last clause. It’s true that Robinson himself identifies as a leftist. (He told Rolling Stone, “Well, I am a leftist, an American leftist…” and a member of the DSA. However, he added, “I loved Bernie. I love Biden.”) But in Ministry we get something close to a statement of ideology:
One scary thing, there has to still be money, or at least some exchange or allocation system that people trust, which means the already-existing central banks have to be part of it, which means the current nation-state system has to be part of it. Sorry but it’s true, and maybe obvious. Even if you are a degrowth devolutionist, an anarchist or a communist or a fan of world government, we only do the global in the current world order by way of the nation-state system. Or call it by way of the family of languages, if it makes you feel better….It is what we’ve got now, and in the crux, when things fall apart, something from the old system has to be used to hang the new system on, hopefully something big and solid. Without that it’s castles in the air time, and all will collapse into chaos. So yes: money, meaning central banks, meaning the nation-state system. It’s a social agreement, nothing more.
There’s a lot factually wrong here. For one, when collapses have occurred, people haven’t had to hang the next system on the prior system. Central banking doesn’t have to be part of the solution, and probably can’t be, at least not as currently constructed. Nation-states and money are much more than a “social agreement,” given that they are defended by violence and are tied to material realities. But at least we know where this leftist stands.
Very well: Ministry is propaganda for technoliberals. Is it effective? Well, they all seem to adore it. And to be fair, if Ministry is propaganda by, for, and about educated technoliberals, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Climate change is massive. It demands top-down, bottom-up, but also middle-out approaches to political change. The first two get most of the attention: top-down in the form of Paris, Obama’s meager interventions, the recent Democratic stimulus including clean energy, and Biden’s weak climate plans; bottom-up in the form of water protectors, Indigenous land defenders, Democratic Socialists of America, Fridays for Future, the climate strikes, Sunrise Movement, gilets jaunes, and so forth. But the middle-out approach entails enlisting professionals, journalists, middle managers, grunt-level institutional actors, and industry insiders. Maybe this is why Jacobin and Vox agree on the book’s importance: they are part of the middle-out strategy that Ministry is speaking to. Even if they disagree on some fundamental facts, they are representing the same industry and are invested in the same system. Maybe, in some ways, that’s a good thing.
And this isn’t to say there are zero radical notions in the book. There are, but they feel more like that sleight-of-hand move: show the radical notion, then hedge and try to moderate it. Robinson mentions degrowth and the Jevons paradox. He takes several satisfying swipes at economics, referring to the economics Nobel as a “pseudo-Nobel”, and states “macroeconomics as a field was ideological to the point of astrology.” The ethics of righteous extrajudicial executions are even explored explicitly. The book more generally includes a respectable consideration of the need for violence in forcing concessions from fossil-fueled capitalism. These sorts of realpolitik realities puncture the technoliberal dream, and they are welcome diversions from the kind of fiction that generally denigrates environmentalists as the villains, and the forces that murder them as heroes. But the real-world barriers to eco-vigilantism are not depicted, or not taken seriously, rendering the depiction more fantastical than aspirational or inspirational. After Mary’s friend and Ministry colleague Tatiana is murdered (by random Russian mobsters, not state security forces), Mary thinks:
Tatiana. Their tough one, their warrior. Her brother in arms. They kill the good ones, Mary thought bitterly, the leaders, the tough ones, and then dare the weaker ones to pick up the torch and carry on. Few would do it. The killers would prevail. This was how it always happened. This explained the world they lived in; the murderers were willing to kill to get their way. In a fight between sociopathic sick wounded angry fucked-up wicked people, and all the rest of them, not just the good and the brave but the ordinary and weak, the sheep who just wanted to get by, the fuckers always won.
The book says this, but does not believe it. Toward the end, after all these hints at radical actions taking place in the shadows, the book timidly renounces all the shadow operations that came before:
Mary…heard rumors to the effect that the Ministry for the Future had been thousands strong and had waged a savage war against the carbon oligarchy, murdering hundreds and tipping the balance of history in a new direction. Bollocks, no doubt, but people dearly loved such stories.
We do indeed. It would have been nice to have read that one.
This is not to say that climate fiction needs to be hyper-violent, or that a socialist utopia can only be built on blood, or must always be written in one particular way. But if it aims for realism, then it needs to be realistic, both about the scope of the problem and the available solutions. The technocratic dream of maintaining the capitalist order as it has been, with minor tweaks to banking incentives and the magical transformation of every company worldwide into a Mondragon-style co-op without a fight, is less realistic than abolishing evil by throwing a ring in a fire (at least that story demonstrates real tolls and toils when it comes to confronting evil). The neoliberal dream must be systematically dismantled, dissolving before the bright cloudless glare of reality and realistic depictions of human behavior, not propped up by 563 page tomes.
A rigorous utopian novel would sketch out in as much detail as possible the current conditions that exist, and leave blank spaces for the new vision to fill, or for more opaque paint to cover. But climate change and ecological collapse blur the canvas. Whatever comes in the 21st and 22nd centuries, which is about as far as we can realistically imagine, there will be more chaos than there is now. The Holocene is over: disrupted weather and growing patterns will make the reliable agriculture we have taken for granted for nearly 10 millennia much less reliable. Increasingly volatile seas and skies will make supply chains and long-distance travel less reliable. Even telecommunications will be impacted by these weather events. A relatively small migration into Europe from Syria fueled right-wing political violence all over the continent: imagine the billion or more people moving, many from South to North, that have been projected by midcentury. Chaos is inevitable. Utopian imaginaries often set up a dichotomy between a high tech, complex global economy growing ever more complex until it spans the solar system, versus a return to what’s imagined as “primitivism,” foraging for scraps, or toiling as a vast agrarian peasantry. But there’s something in between and beyond that we need to envision. It takes imagination, and for those who make a living using theirs to render it.
To both prepare for and prevent the most chaotic iteration of the future, we need better stories. We need them now. But whether political or literary, nonfiction or fiction, many such stories lack the verisimilitude that is the particular provenance of successful and artful storytelling. Many seem to fall utterly short of the immensity of climate change, as if they don’t really take it seriously, don’t really understand the problem they’re trying to solve. They lack the imagination and scope to feel meaningful and true. Unfortunately for us, as our time to avert collapse dwindles and each year becomes more precious, this most important book of the year is no exception.
This post was originally published on Current Affairs.