Avoiding Wet-Bulb 35C

Kim Stanley Robinson, "The Ministry for the Future" (2020, 563 pp.)

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Kim Stanley Robinson’s least conventional novel, the 563-page The Ministry for the Future, is a book every politically sentient person should read. But permit me a warning based on my own experience: don’t start it at bedtime. Given that its subject is a climate emergency we are quickly recognizing is existential for our species if not strictly speaking the lump of molten rock we currently occupy, this is on the whole a reassuring book—even optimistic in its way. But the 12-page first chapter, which takes place in India just five years from now, is so inconducive to pleasant dreams that it sent me to an ambien bottle I open as little as possible.

What’s most unconventional about The Ministry for the Future is that it’s too long on policy ideas to make much room for characters. Foremost of these by far is an Irish bureaucrat with the pointedly dull name Mary Murphy, a union lawyer turned foreign minister who comes to head the largely symbolic Zurich-based Ministry for the Future, charged by the UN’s 2029 Framework Convention on Climate Change with determining how to apply the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to “the world's future generations of citizens”—that is, to human beings yet unborn. Her chief conduit to the actually existing outside world is Frank May, the fulcrum of that first chapter. A stateless Muslim who proves to be Frank’s ex-wife reports occasionally from a soul-sapping succession of humane Swiss refugee camps where she and her children are sequestered, a few Ministry functionaries are more than names on the roll call Robinson provides, and Frank befriends an airship pilot with a zoology sideline toward the end. A patient artificial intelligence named Janus Athena makes several major conceptual breakthroughs. But only Mary and Frank emerge as vivid human beings. There’s action enough—the grueling trek through the Alps that some bad guys compel Mary to undertake ranks high among outdoorsman Robinson’s many vivid hiking scenes, and having spent more time in Antarctica than any novelist ever, he situates several icy-dicey chapters on that climatically crucial continent as well. But this remains a dauntingly abstract fiction.

For one thing, it’s festooned with gnomic essays on such subjects as, for instance, the sun, photons, planet earth, economics, capital, ideology, the market, economics, encryption, extinction, cognitive errors, economics, caribou, Götterdamerung Syndrome, the euthanasia of the rentier class, pay scales in the Navy, joy as the meaning of life, and—especially—economics. These impede narrative flow by definition, especially those you don’t altogether comprehend, but they also brim with entertaining prose, which given how large economics looms throughout is a boon and then some. Much although not all of the Ministry’s work involves wresting macroeconomics—a discipline or pseudo-discipline “ideological to the point of astrology” in which the U.S., China, Russia, and an uneasy German-French axis maintain control of “the most wealth-inequal moment in human history” by manipulating currency and credit, and if that seems a little vague I apologize. Believe me, I’m even worse when it comes to explaining my sign.

How an unmilitarized cohort of conference junkies brainstorming in a Switzerland “rich in part because [it’s] the bagman for criminals worldwide” manage to keep our planet from becoming a place where “things fall apart and you’re eating your cat” is the big drama of Robinson’s novel. Two major elements of their success are ultimately attributable to Janus Athena. One is “open source instruments that mimic the functions of all the big media sites.” (“So, the decapitation of Facebook,” Mary enthuses, to which the AI responds, “And all the rest like it.”) That one we presumably get. Harder to grasp is an even more crucial innovation: bank-backed hundred-year “carbon coins” that pay investors including monster corporations and ordinary people to “sequester” carbon rather than burn or sell it. If you say so, Mr. Robinson. Back in ordinary people’s comfort zone is a whole chapter devoted to do-gooding small fry from a worldwide array of nations: “I have been sent to you by Ecuador’s Cloudforest Agroforestry,” or “I speak to you for Senegal’s Great Green Wall Initiative, also Rolling Back the Desert.” Just as familiar, for better and/or worse, are activists who include the Children of Kali conspirators who tell Frank he’s not tough enough for them. The nonviolent interlopers who take over Davos don’t get much bang for their buck in the end. But blow enough jetliners out of the sky (many in a single action soon nicknamed Crash Day) and fuel-sucking high-speed air travel suddenly seems less convenient. As Robinson sums up: “The war on terror? It lost.”

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About 50 pages in there’s a very long sentence I suspect will ring a bell with many reading this, all less privileged than those it targets but nonetheless familiar with the feckless stratagem it describes: “But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to the remainder of their lives, or perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le déluge.” You’ve been there, right? Most of those reading this have accepted the global warming thesis while desperately hoping, against evidence that keeps accruing, that maybe things won’t be as bad as the doomsayers figure. But as scientists keep devising ways to mitigate glacial melt or coral collapse or protein shortfall, many of us have gradually been prioritizing environmental issues on our pathetic wishlists of desirable political outcomes. So has Robinson, who quietly abandoned the vision of Mars as a plausible Terran safety valve that jump-started his sci-fi career in his Mars trilogy after NASA discovered poisonous calcium perchlorate there. But where just five years ago his New York 2140 conjured an almost comic vision of a metropolis under water, he seems to have lost his taste for joking around.

So in May 2020 he published a New Yorker essay observing, too optimistically you could say but let’s pretend it’ll work out that way, that the pandemic might well prefigure a world in which citizens will battle catastrophe by taking scientists seriously. And this past August 20 he took a rather more pessimistic tack via a rather less humanistic journalistic bulwark: the London-based, Japanese-owned, centrist-conservative Financial Times. I strongly recommend this superb piece of polemical prose, and for those who shy away from character-deficient 568-page novels it’s certainly better than nothing, though easier to understand if you read The Ministry for the Future first. So let me close my fiction review by summing up the essay. The two are intimately connected.

The Ministry for the Future, the essay reports, was written in 2019, and although in some ways it was quite prophetic, it got one thing seriously wrong: “several important developments—ones I described in my novel as happening in the 2030s—I see now are already well begun. My timeline was completely off; events have accelerated yet again.” Moreover, the adaptation plutocrats in their fortress mansions prescribe as the way poorer people can combat their environmental challenges is quite literally impossible. “Human beings can’t live in conditions above the heat-index number called wet-bulb 35C, a measure of air temperature plus humidity. We didn’t evolve for such conditions and, when they occur, we quickly overheat and die of hypothermia. And in July this year, wet-bulb 35s were briefly reached in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.”

Speaking generally, Robinson goes on, we already have a structure with which to combat heat death: the 2015 Paris Agreement Trump pulled the U.S. out of and Biden rejoined. But as Robinson goes on to explain, the mechanisms of nationalistic market capitalism render the Agreement’s goals very difficult to achieve, because they’re up against all the nations including our own with serious wealth tied up in carbon-based fuel stockpiles that are worth nothing until they’re extracted from the earth and released into the atmosphere, thus accelerating humanity’s extinction. “So unless we make other arrangements, there will be a fire sale.” Markets aren’t designed to generate healthier alternatives to such a sale; neither, bet on it, are grotesquely energy-inefficient cryptocurrencies. But at least “central banks” are now “investigating” something called “carbon quantitative easing,” a close relative of the novel’s carbon coins. Robinson believes this is a positive sign.

Unfortunately, however, it comes with a major caveat: “It will take far more than carbon quantitative easing to finesse the coming years.” So we should all be grateful to Kim Stanley Robinson for doing his bit. Pleasant dreams. Pass the ambien.