After getting a lot of recommendations to read The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, I finally read it late last year. However, I haven’t gotten around to writing my notes about the book until now and since I’ve already returned it to the library, I can’t check if all my claims about the book are accurate.
With that grain of salt, I hope I can still contribute a few important points to the discussion surrounding this novel.
This post contains many spoilers. Don’t continue reading if you haven’t finished the novel.
First, I applaud Robinson for writing a utopian, or at least non-dystopian, vision of how humankind can survive Earth breakdown. This is a genre of books that is sorely lacking voices and ideas. I call on every artist out there to find these kinds of creative ideas that can help defeat doomism that’s rampant, especially in the Global North.
Robinson writes his vision based on an awe-inspiring breadth of research. Reading all those results and discussions from so many fields of science alone makes this novel a remarkable achievement. While I’m not an expert on the topics, I also didn’t spot any significant factual mistakes.
I found especially impressive the parts on macroeconomics. The discussions surrounding a "carbon coin" and the role of central banks were eye-opening and insightful. Coming from a degrowth background, I also enjoyed Robinson’s analysis of capitalism and the story’s result of a kind of widespread eco-socialism.
All in all, 90% of the novel is solid and that makes it worth reading. However, the remaining 10% has some serious issues.
I want to preface this by saying that these problems would not be that important to pick apart had The Ministry for the Future been interpreted only as fiction. What makes pointing out the problems of Robinson’s work worth it, is that I have seen people advocate using it as an actual roadmap for the future. That’s way too much to ask from a novel. For this reason, my criticism isn’t so much targeted at Robinson, as it is at the people misunderstanding the role of fiction.
Here in order of severity from lowest to highest are my objections.
1. Spontaneously Viral Software
The novel features a non-commercial, decentralized Facebook alternative called YourLock, which suddenly gets traction and everyone migrates to it. The reasons given for the virality are, essentially, "blockchain" and "open source".
Having been personally involved with the decentralized, non-commercial Twitter alternative Mastodon, I can safely say this is not how software gets popular. Overcoming the network effects of existing platforms is a monumental task. The only realistic way the kind of migration depicted in the book would happen is with the regulation of surveillance capitalism.
2. Blockchain Enthusiasm
Hindsight is easy here, but the enthusiasm for blockchains does not look good, especially in 2022.
However, what’s especially worrying is the novel’s support for complete public visibility of everyone’s finances.
This I feel shows total ignorance of how privilege plays into what a person can and can not keep to themselves. The most vulnerable in society are the ones who need privacy the most. To suggest removing privacy for the greater good is to suggest sacrificing the weak to keep the masses contained.
3. Disregard for Most Planetary Boundaries
To Robinson’s credit, The Ministry for the Future does not address only the climate crisis but also biodiversity loss. This alone makes the novel especially strong compared to many current narratives.
Because of this neglect, many of the solutions offered in the book, like large-scale geoengineering, only try to fix one planetary boundary at the expense of another. That’s just shifting Earth breakdown, not stopping it.
4. Absence of Climate Justice
Climate justice demands that we recognize on a global scale who is responsible for Earth breakdown and who is worst affected by it. The Global North is responsible for up to 92% of excess emissions whereas it’s the Global South that gets hit worst.
The novel does touch upon this issue, but in the end, offers nothing to solve it.
The best the Global North can come up with are voluntary clubs of some people living within planetary boundaries, but the power dynamics of the Global North and South divide remain cemented.
The story ends in a grotesque storyline where hundreds of millions of people die but the hyper-privileged protagonists fly around the world in airships. The big revelation is that it’s possible to work in airships while travelling.
No wonder The Ministry for the Future has been a hit among Western readers.
5. Bleak Pessimism for a System Change in the Global North
Despite the novel being creative and optimistic about many possibilities for big changes, the political power of mass movements to induce a system change in the Global North is not one of them. This is especially odd because the story does include large-scale political changes brought about by ordinary people in India.
What’s the only thing that does create change in the North?
The ecofascist answer the novel offers on how to reduce the consumption habits of the Global North is killing thousands of people.
6. Climate Delay
Flat out climate denial is no longer the main tactic of the people benefiting from Earth breakdown. Climate delay is.
The worst part of The Ministry for the Future is that it advocates for climate delay by suggesting that nothing much needs to change in the 20s, and we’ll still be fine.
I understand that the reason for the timeline in the novel might have been to increase book sales by keeping the novel relevant for longer. But still, the "tumultuous 30s" needed to be the "tumultuous 20s".
In the end, I’m left with very mixed feelings about The Ministry for the Future.
Is recommending the novel to people net-positive or net-negative? Would reading this cause people to get encouraged to look for solutions and snap out of doomism? Or will they come back with the ecofascist message that we can wait for one more decade and then use terrorism and a totalitarian economy to fix our problems?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that everyone needs to stop misinterpreting this work of fiction as real world policy suggestions.