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Where Realism Tips Into Optimism: Review of “The Ministry for the Future” (2020)

by Felix Schaumann

Just as the current climate talks begin , allow us to imagine another future. An optimist one.

Credit: Pixabay 8385

This spring, I gave my mother a book as a present, promising an optimistic take on climate change and on how our next 30 years might play out. Half a year later, she still has not read past page 32 – “it’s too depressing”, she says. I cannot blame her. The Ministry for the Future, a science fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, starts with a heat wave killing around 20 million people in India and subsequent international conflict about unilateral solar geoengineering. On the other hand, the novel ends in 2050 with people flying around the globe in electric air ships, marveling at all the rewilded and restored ecosystems. In between, it forms a subtle narrative arc in which the initial pessimism (or realism) slowly and almost unnoticeably tips into optimism and hope.

Indeed, the author stated that his aim was to “sketch out a best-case scenario”. In a world where apocalyptic narratives are abounding and positive views on the great transformations ahead of us are scarce—despite being frequently demanded—, this novel is a refreshing outlier.

The plot sets out in the early 2020s, in a world shook by climate and weather catastrophes, while at the same time the first “global stocktake” of the Paris Agreement shows that actions to mitigate climate change are far from sufficient. As a reaction to that, article §16.4(a) of the Paris Agreement which allows to “establish such subsidiary bodies as deemed necessary for the implementation of this Agreement”, leads to the formation of the “Ministry for the Future”.

Taking this rather dire global situation as a starting point, Robinson attempts to write future history – a plausible account of how the world will slowly rise to the challenges it is faced with, ranging from the climate and biodiversity crises to refugee crises and the problems of platform capitalism. In this account, it is not a future technology that will singlehandedly resolve all issues, but a constant fight with one small improvement at a time, failure by failure, crisis by crisis. And these improvements don’t come out of thin air – they are extrapolations of what is already present today, grown-up versions of today’s hidden niches and positive undercurrents.

It is this groundedness in current developments that makes this work of climate fiction such a fascinating read. Seemingly, the book manages to fill a gap in our collective imagination – the gap between anticipated catastrophes in the first half of this century and the hope for a decent global situation in its second half.

For those interested in an account of how things could actually turn out okay—despite all our global problems—, this book is a perfect read. This tome functions as a thought experiment by sketching how we might achieve our global targets, not as an outcome of a master plan, but thanks to constant political activism by committed characters throughout the next decades.

This, in my opinion, is perhaps the most precious subtext of the book: Despite the prevailing rhetoric of now being the last moments for achieving real change and of us running out of time (e.g. a recent Guardian ‘call for action’ video), we will not be condemned to inaction after that. There will always be room for small improvements, and many small improvements can actually amount to something quite beautiful.

And now, let us follow the COP26 developments in Glasgow…

>> Kim Stanley Robinson: The Ministry for the Future. Orbit/Hachette Book Group, New York 2020. 576 pages

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