Possibly some of the richest two percent of the world’s population have decided to give up on the pretense that “progress” or “development” or “prosperity” can be achieved for all eight billion of the world’s people. For quite a long time, a century or two, this “prosperity for all” goal had been the line taken; that although there was inequality now, if everyone just stuck to the program and did not rock the boat, the rising tide would eventually float even the most high-and-dry among them. 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 just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic—beyond that, après moi le déluge.
I’ve written about Kim Stanley Robinson before—a science fiction writer with literary leanings and environmentalist preoccupations, probably best known for his Mars trilogy, about the terraforming of that planet over a period of centuries. I have reviewed his novels Red Moon here, New York 2140 here, and his Green Earth trilogy here.
In this one, he returns to the topic of anthropogenic climate change which was the theme of Green Earth, and formed the backdrop to New York 2140. I’d suggest he has also returned to the theme of the Mars trilogy, because this novel deals, in effect, with the terraforming of Earth—a decades-long race to reverse or ameliorate the effects of global warming, before the planet becomes uninhabitable for much of the human race. Mixed in with that, a necessary part of the project, is the righting of the inequality Robinson eloquently outlines in the three long sentences with which I’ve started this post.
One thread that runs through the narrative is the activities of the titular “Ministry For The Future”—a United Nations “agency with no financial power and little legal leverage”, created to push forward the goals of the Paris Agreement. We follow its director, Mary Murphy, as she tours the world attempting to persuade financial institutions to move away from petrodollars and to adopt a new cryptocurrency that rewards countries and organizations who leave fossil fuels in the ground, or actively remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The other principal character is Frank May, an aid worker caught up in the lethal Indian heatwave with which the book opens. Damaged by survivor guilt and plagued by PTSD, Frank seeks revenge on the wealthy vested interests who are resisting a switch to a carbon-neutral economy. The fragile and ultimately poignant relationship between Mary and Frank is the only linear narrative running through the book. Mary embodies the cerebral response to the climate crisis; Frank the emotional—and Robinson’s message seems to be that both responses are necessary.
Mainly, however, the story is told in short chapters from multiple points of view and in multiple styles. There are first person narratives that feel like diary entries or interview transcripts; essays on economics, the Jevons Paradox and the Gini coefficient; minutes from meetings; even short riddle passages in which the reader is invited to guess the identity of the writer—one “writer” is a photon, another a carbon atom. By doing this, Robinson conjures up a sort of frenzied collage of people and organizations all doing their own thing to achieve one vital outcome. There are glaciologists pumping water from the undersides of Antarctic glaciers, to stop them surging into the sea; geoengineers temporarily increasing Earth’s reflectivity by injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, and colouring the ice-free Arctic Ocean with yellow dye; complex rewilding projects to preserve Earth’s endangered fauna; efforts to level up the unequal distribution of wealth through social engineering … and, on the dark side, ecoterrorists conducting targeted assassinations and downing passenger aircraft.
it sounds all very worthy, but it’s constantly lightened by Robinson’s dry wit. Here he is on the annual World Economic Forum meeting at Davos:
With immense effort the percentage of women there had gone from six percent to twenty-four percent, we were told, and the organizers congratulated themselves on this progress and promised to keep working on the problem, which was difficult to solve, as most wealthy people and most political leaders are just by coincidence male.
One thing I found striking is how Robinson has his two main characters, Mary and Frank, pretty much stumble into the realization that animals might just possibly be interesting, about three-quarters of the way through the book:
“How was your day in the Alps?” Badim asked her.
“It was grand,” she said. “We sat in a meadow and looked at marmots and chamois. And some birds.”
He regarded her. “And that was interesting?”
“It was! It was very peaceful. I mean, they’re just up there living their lives. Just wandering around and eating. It looked like that’s what they do all day.”
“I think that’s right,” Badim said, looking unconvinced that this would be interesting to watch. “I’m glad you enjoyed it.”
An outdoorsman and environmentalist like Robinson could so easily have foisted his own attitudes on his characters. Instead, we get the clear impression that Mary and Frank want to fix the planet just because humans have broken it and people are dying, and it’s a moral imperative to put that right—for them, the benefits to nature are simply a side effect which turns out to be pleasant.
Some climate-change solutions go well, and some go badly, and the story ends with hope for the future and melancholy for what has been lost. Near the end of the book, Robinson revisits Frank and Mary’s revelation about the significance of animals being free to go about their business:
In a high meadow, wild bighorn sheep. Their lambs gambol. When you see that gamboling with your own eyes, you’ll know something you didn’t know before. What will you know? Hard to say, but something like this: whether life means anything or not, joy is real. Life lives, life is living.
That paragraph, I think, sums up what the other 563 pages are about.