I just finished “The Ministry for the Future” — the speculative sci fi novel by Kim Stanley Robinson from last year. It should be required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living.
A few reflections and (potential) spoilers.
Like Black Mirror, it’s the latest in a wave of artwork that envisions a very near term reality — in this case, the mid 2020s. Unlike Black Mirror, it is utopian, not dystopian, so you don’t want to claw your eyes out and actually walk away somewhat inspired.
The titular Ministry is the Subsidiary Body for Implementation of the Agreement, an organization set up at the 2023 Conference of Parties (COP-29) to help make the Paris climate accords a meaningful reality.
Over the course of 106 chapters (some little more than a paragraph long), Robinson narrates the efforts of the scientists, economists, and diplomats in the Ministry to push decarbonization without having (at least at the outset) substantial formal enforcement powers.
The central contribution of the book is to marry an appealing fiction format with compelling characters (on the one hand) with (on the other) pithy explainers on the numerous technical, legal, and economic challenges to decarbonization, including on everything from geoengineering to trade law to modern monetary theory (MMT). I could say this is an efficient way to make the policy medicine go down, but even the policy interludes are informative and fun reads.
Robinson is perhaps the preeminent Gramscian science fictionologist working today. Towards the beginning of the book, Robinson explores the hegemonies that make decarbonization seem impossible now, such as an economics discipline and cost-benefit analysis that force even critical perspectives to speak in their language. He then thrillingly imagines those hegemonies getting displaced through changing the “facts on the ground.” Clandestine groups make it impossible for non-green ships to dock. New socialized social media platforms break tech monopolies that create pro-inaction echo chambers. Oil pipes are repurposed to refreeze Antarctica. Central banks change how they do risk analysis, which lead large petrostates to change the way they think about their economic development futures. Large developing countries that suffer the worst effects from climate change simply stop playing multilateral ball and take matters into their own hands. All these things reinforce one another and create a new (real and discursive) reality.
This dynamic imagination exercise is what makes the book valuable to policy nerds. Often, we isolate specific chunks of the problem we deem to be manageable as individual writers, researchers, and advocates. However, success on a problem this large will require a systemic overhaul where science, economics, culture, and politics are reinforcing one another. Cultivating the “spirit of 1848” is how Robinson describes the needed leap. It’s an apt one to what is needed now but still far short of where some policymakers seem to be.
Specific chapters illustrate how fiction can inform planning. In one passage, Robinson imagines nationalization of the entire financial system. If someone advocated for that today, it would be seen as radical. But Robinson is an adept social planner: he starts with the outcome, and then walks back to what sequence of events would have to occur to bring it about. This is much like so-called “theory of change” practices employed by social change organizations and movements. It’s a useful antidote to reflexive incrementalism. Indeed, the solution to the thorniest problems in the short run may be to create more problems, or as the fictional Ministry’s motto goes in the book: “Overcome difficulties by multiplying them.”
There is some basis for this theory of the world: one read of the failure of the WTO Doha Round — and subsequent talks on environmental goods and fishery subsidies — is that the Uruguay Round (1985–94) was too successful at liberalizing, such that there was not enough to negotiate over afterwards. Now, with the Trump administration’s reintroduction of tariffs, there is now stuff the US has (market access and removal of the tariffs) that US allies want. I for one am more confident of introduction of new issues like climate into the WTO than ever in two decades working on these questions, precisely because of that dynamic.
In short, in a world where we are debating whether the filibuster should come or go, it’s relieving to think of a world where all veto points and resource constraints melt away. That the book follows this melting away with mostly good things happening speaks to Robinson’s utopian faith in humanity. I want to imbibe some of that, to balance out the bitter taste of a lifetime of very little changing.
I came away with a few specific questions for Robinson:
First, how reliant is his theory of change on MMT? The Ministry unleashes several highly productive reactive sequences by opening up the monetary spigots, including through creation of new currencies.
On the one hand, I came away from reading the novel more sold on MMT-adjacent ideas like a jobs guarantee. That’s the magic of storytelling as opposed to white papers. With the latter, my mind as a reader immediately goes to implementation challenges, like, how would this entitlement be enforced in courts and would that ultimately destigmatize marginalized workers. However, through chapters exploring how fossil fuel towns would be shut down and repurposed — and workers transitioned into specific conservation functions — it’s easier to imagine how a JG could work in the context of a total economic transformation and repeated feedback loops. Indeed, as one passage notes, paying people to do activities like soil remediation “would be getting paid for what we had to do anyway to keep from starving.”
On the other, I found some of the proposals discordant with any more traditional resource scarcity / value creation framework. On page 420, Robinson imagines that people in the future would be paid for not doing things, e.g. “Coal had become just a black rock you could turn into money by leaving it alone.” How would this work? If I’m a worker or a firm that is doing something with a piece of coal, that is rivalrous and excludable activities so that this value-adder is paid, and those that don’t value add are not. But loads of people — an infinite number — can not add value to the goal. Who gets the benefit? Who doesn’t? Hard to imagine this working without a liberal-for-even-MMT money creation.
Second, and relatedly, Robinson’s narrators have a fondness for blockchain technologies. However, we know that this can be significantly environmentally destructive. How to square this with the climate objectives?
Third, some of the early events that set the decarbonization sequence into motion were rather violent acts of sabotage and even murder. How critical is such a strategy to creating a critical juncture at scale?
Fourth, there is a passing mention on page 454 to increased strikes as a method of constitutional governance and checks and balances. I am fascinated by that idea, and have written on related themes. I want to hear more!
Fifth, there is a passing mention on page 476 to depopulation as a reason for optimism around energy trajectories. How crucial is this to the framework?
Finally, the character of Frank is someone who pursues very individualized forms of direct action, often portrayed as futile and risible compared with more coordinated collective action. Is that a fair reading of Frank?