Kim Stanley Robinson’s Global Catastrophe Epic: We Will Keep Going

by David Oates

The day I began writing this essay, Portland Oregon braced for yet another round of uncharacteristic heat. Over several months of preparation, as I had been reading and pondering Kim Stanley Robinson’s big, detailed, hyper-realistic science-fiction book The Ministry for the Future, our normally cool northwest town had found itself repeatedly facing drought and high temperatures. Now we were about to be  trapped  under a “heat dome” of  115 degrees Fahrenheit (46° C) – Las Vegas temperatures, Abu-Dhabi temperatures – for days on end.

Salmon poached in their streams and fledgling birds leapt to their deaths from too-hot nests. Vulnerable people died in their apartments or on the streets. Eventually we went back to our Northwest summer normally so mild by day, so cool overnight. I continued writing. But within a few weeks, more Saharan temperatures. And in time, another heat dome began to form.

It’s no merely local problem. Sicily has just achieved Europe’s hottest temperature in history: 119.8° F (48.8° C). And the latest (sixth) IPPC report from the UN has confirmed it with a dreadful, deep-researched authority: as the Washington Post put it, “On the current emissions trajectory, global temperatures are likely to rise by 2.1 to 3.5 degrees Celsius, blowing past the 1.5 degree threshold scientists warn humanity should not breach.”

Our reality is bending, melting, reshaping in deeply disturbing ways. News stories have started to sound like fiction.

So perhaps fiction is needed to guide us into new ways of thinking about it – thinking that isn’t just panic and despair. But it would have to be fiction grounded on reality, fiction that grapples with the facts we face. That is, fiction that is at least half non-fiction.

* * *

Robinson’s novel is barely over a year old, but our climate reality is already catching up to its fictional big-bang opener: unprecedented heat waves that grip the Indian subcontinent and kill millions. Millions. Simple to say. Horrifying to depict.

The year is 2025. This is our world, our time. But here’s the slight tweak, the thought-experiment: What if the global-warming problem suddenly became so vivid and unmistakable that something actually got done. What if instead of verbose inaction – real change happened?

At the UN, under the Paris climate accords, a new agency has been chartered

 . . . to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens, whose rights, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, are as valid as our own. This new Subsidiary Body is furthermore charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.

The press dubs this agency “The Ministry for the Future.” It’s regarded as a hopeful step, but little more. And haven’t we had too many “hopeful” steps already, with little change?

But when the Indian death-wave strikes, the situation suddenly becomes dire, obvious, unmistakable. And the new Ministry finds itself with clout enough to finally . . FINALLY! . . . go to work to ameliorate, mitigate, and even begin reversing the global warm-up.

Robinson’s reading of human nature, collectively, is that change doesn’t happen until reality unmistakably demands it. I’ve felt this way for a long time now. In fact my whole writing life of impassioned environmentalism seems to make it clear that fine words and eloquent appeals do little to move the needle. No: change happens when everyone can see it in the flesh and feel it as fear, loss, danger. Ministry’s plot bears this out: when death comes, then delusions and habitual denials are finally discarded. Only then.

So at last – how dreadfully – change becomes possible!  But what to do? How, exactly, to re-imagine our world of industry, transport, agriculture, in such a way as to reverse the damage and restore our green, living earth?

* * *

You could say that Kim Stanley Robinson is pre-adapted to imagine how to make the earth more earthlike. His most popular best-sellers are the three books of the “Green Mars” series, in which Robinson walks his readers through the centuries of  planetary intervention that could result in a Mars of open water, mild temperature, and breathable air. A terraformed Mars. And this is not just fantasy: all the science is real or at least plausible.

And Robinson is pretty good with the human side of the equation, too. As a lifelong (if intermittent) sci-fi reader, I’ve observed that typically science fiction is about power – about imagining new powers granted us by science and technology. And that therefore most science fiction is also, inevitably, about politics: the social structures that wield power.

Dopey sci-fi will have its princesses and emperors. Smarter science fiction will have its Ekumens and Federations. These narratives of power will usually be half ray guns/space ships, half palace intrigue/politics. And this is the human condition. Nothing gets done until we figure out how to do it together. And on a mass scale. Our social technology (politics) is fully as crucial as our nuts-and-bolts technology.

So this book of the very near future is half how-to, half how-do-we-get-ourselves-to-do-it.

These are both questions I find myself deeply interested in – when I can bear to think about them. My problem, over the last decade or so, has been finding the heart to do so. Who can endure another story of dying polar bears, crashing ecosystems, or doomed “island nations”? Who can stand to think about it as long as it seems intractable and hopeless?

A book like Robinson’s radiates a subtle attractiveness because it answers the both technical and political questions with a detailed affirmative: Yes, it is possible. Here’s how.

Here’s how we might terraform the earth.

* * *

First, a few of the practical and technical measures.

  • In the wake of the appalling heat-driven die-off, the Indian government decides to do something big – without waiting for the UN’s permission, or anyone’s. India deploys its air force to disperse aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect some percentage of solar radiation back into space. A small but effective cooling measure, “carried by the winds all over the stratosphere.” Indian planes go up every day, around the clock, for seven months. The result is compared to  Mt. Pinatubo, the Philippine volcano whose eruptions lowered global temperatures by nearly a full degree Fahrenheit in the early 1990s. In time, perhaps a few years, the reflective aerosols would disperse, as the volcano’s emissions had. But the relentless warming of the atmosphere would have been arrested in one concrete way. They call it a “double Pinatubo.”

One step. Many more needed.

  • The “Half Earth Movement” aims to share the planet with all the other animals and ecosystems which had been crowded almost out of existence. A fifty-fifty deal.

Sometimes it’s called “rewilding.” For instance a plan to return the buffalo to the middle of North America, and of necessity to restore their habitat the prairies, that deep and deeply interconnected life form. The Midwest had been emptying of its humans for many years anyway – in place of farmers and families, increasingly just agribusiness and machines. The restored prairieland concept just takes these trends the next step.

Meanwhile, global instability and rising seas cause massive refugee movements and, everywhere, declining birthrates. Earth is headed for a smaller population – no more need to mine the prairies for cheap corn calories. No need for ever-spreading suburbs, cities, favelas, slums. Time to rest the earth, let the nonhumans reinhabit and in their myriad ways restore it.

  • Melting glaciers seem to guarantee those rising seas and displaced populations. But Robinson depicts a gathering of glaciologists drinking, talking, imagining a fix.

“Reality of problem is that glaciers are sliding into the sea ten times faster than before.”


“So, the reason for that is that there’s more meltwater created on the ice surface every summer, because of global warming. That water runs down moulins until it reaches the undersides of the glaciers, and there it has nowhere else to go. So it lifts up the ice just a bit. It lubricates the ice flow over the rock beds. The ice used to be in contact with the rock bed, at least in some places, and usually in most places. . . .

“Okay. So you pump that water out from under the glaciers. Melt drill-holes like we already do there when we check out subglacial lakes, or to get through to ice shelves. Technology is well known, and pretty easy. Pump up the water from under the glaciers, and actually, the weight of the ice on it will cause that water to come up a well hole ninety percent of the way, just from the pressure of all that weight. Then you pump it up the rest of the way, pipe it away from the glacier on to some stable ice nearby. . . .”

As technological fixes go, this one’s a doozy – for the scale of the problem is staggering. But part of the fun of The Ministry for the Future is that it gives itself many decades of time. We jump forward a couple years from that cocktail party and find that a trial pumping station has actually been set up. And jump forward again, say ten more years, and see that the world’s nuclear aircraft carriers – those massive floating cities, each with self-contained power source – have been repurposed. Across Greenland and the Antarctic, they anchor and become resource stations for glacial pumping projects now scaled up to a world effort.

The seas are not prevented from rising. But they don’t rise nearly as much as they would have.

* * *

How does it feel to be alive as the world comes apart around you? A key assumption of a novel like this is that the felt worlds of all us somehow correlate with each other, touch and abrade and come to a kind of rough, felt consensus. What is the structure of feeling of such an era?

To trace this inner world, Ministry follows two individuals who have wildly different relations to the ongoing global epic. One is Mary Murphy, the head of the Ministry for the Future. Having started in Ireland but with a long background in UN politics, she’s as interesting as she needs to be – though her institutional role demands a certain kind of aggressive blandness. I find myself picturing her as an Irish Angela Merkel: rather beige, yet surprisingly effective. In her chapters we catch views of how many horses there are teamed up in response to this galloping global emergency – and how guiding them demands an almost superhuman nerve and skill. She does her best. She lives quietly in a simple flat in Zurich. She goes to the Schwimmbad in the late afternoons, followed by her security detail, to try to swim away the daily struggle.

One day, an apparent lunatic kidnaps her. This is Frank, the other main character. He had been a doctor working for a nonprofit in India when the die-off happened. He ministered, but uselessly, as people choked and gasped, tried to find water, shade, oxygen, anything. He had watched them die, in his office, on his stairwell, in the street. In his arms. When the temperature passed the “wet-bulb” limit – the combination of humidity and heat past which the human body cannot dissipate its own heat any more – there was simply no hope. From his second-floor window he saw them walking toward the large, shallow lake nearby. Walking straight into it, hoping for relief. Dying right there, and becoming one with the floating corpses.

Frank has been driven mad. He returns from India, attacks a corporate CEO and gets away with it. But as he holds Mary prisoner, she finds his conversation strangely sane. He knows more must be done to respond to the global emergency. He is desperate, righteous, hopeless. Yet Mary recognizes that his challenge to her is not crazy: Why aren’t you doing more?

After Mary has been rescued and Frank is delivered to a Swiss psych ward,  these conversations nag at her. “A terrible conviction had been forced into him. . . .”  He’s like an Ancient Mariner, driven mad by the truth. And as the weeks and months go by, Mary finds that Frank’s sincerity and desperation offer some kind of necessary touchstone for her.

For the rest of the many decades of this novel, Mary circles back to Frank, visiting him in the ward; then in prison; and later in the halfway-house-like quarters where, on a loose tether, he works for a refugee agency helping the mostly brown-skinned people who are flooding places like Switzerland. . . Europe. . . anywhere not already fried or baked or drowned.

Frank’s relation to the global emergency is the diametric opposite of Mary’s. If she is at the pinnacle, guiding decisions that mobilize millions – he is the lone individual, powerless, searching for some path of effective or authentic response. Each of us, no doubt, reflected now in the one – powerful and privileged – then the other – the lone individual, adrift in the terrible events.

* * *

How do politics work in an era such as this? Within that shared structure of feeling, how do we organize ourselves politically and socially to do what must be done? How do we decide, coerce, acquiesce?

In the coming world Robinson imagines, collective action has become self-evident and essential – it is life and death. So the UN  Ministry for the Future becomes central to all politics. Of course the Ministry has to negotiate with countless other players and stakeholders, countries and corporations and megabillionaires. But the difference is that they also have to negotiate with the Ministry.

Meanwhile changes in behavior at the individual level are supported by social mores and also social systems. Combustion engines, for instance, quickly become machina non grata: they’re felt (as well as understood) to be wrong. And so other means replace them: electric vehicles. Mass transit. There’s a corresponding turn away from needless flying, too. Robinson imagines a social movement that aims to limit an individual’s yearly energy footprint to 3000 watts. There’s a social cachet to it, a buzz, an appreciation. And a corresponding social stink attached to wasteful behavior. People see it. And don’t like it. And let you know.

Carrot and stick. What’s possible, what’s frowned upon. What’s forbidden, what’s made easy to do. This is what enforcement looks like.

* * *

Robinson looks hard at social coercion. He’s no utopian, he sees that a price is always paid (his book is as insightful, in its way, as Ursula K. Le Guin’s sf novel The Dispossessed, with its sympathetic yet unsparing look at communal conformism.)

As we have seen in the story of Frank, some people take vigilante measures on behalf of the threatened planet. The power of billion-dollar industries that oppose change is not to be underestimated; but suddenly there’s a spate of kidnapped corporate CEOs, and some murders. And so corporate behaviors, too, begin to bend toward the Zeitgeist.

Meanwhile airplane travel is seen ever more clearly to be  irresponsible and polluting, so sabotaged passenger airplanes begin falling from the sky. And the market for airplane travel just goes away. Poof. (Replaced, charmingly, by travel in zero-pollution lighter-than-air-craft, zeppelins crisscrossing the continents at a stately Edwardian pace.)

How much coercion does the Ministry employ? It’s not exactly clear – in public at least. Mary  Murphy suspects that the Ministry for the Future might be exerting violence secretly, off the books and  unknown even to her. Her chief of staff, Badim, has conversations with her that repeatedly trail off into vagueness. You don’t want to know, is implied.

Is there really a “dark wing” to the Ministry? Murphy concludes that there has to be. It’s unavoidable. It’s how the world works. But ethically. . . ? Her mind veers off from it. What even are ethics when an entire planet hangs in the balance, the lives of a few billion people and most of the existing ecosystems?

* * *

Economics dominates the life of choosing (aka politics). Yet it leaves out so much. “The whole field and discipline of economics, by which we plan and justify what we do as a society, is simply riddled with absences, contradictions. . . false axioms and false goals” says Robinson (in a chapter that’s really just a two-page discussion of paradox, economics, and reality).

Despite our obsession with money, economics can never really guide us. We are, in fact, guided by deeper intuitions, beliefs, and guesses that may be implicitly religious. These are products of how we experience reality – that which we experience as unambiguous and self-evident.

If the baseline conditions of existence on planet Earth change, then a “new structure of feeling”  inevitably follows. “Some deep flip in the global unconscious,” as Murphy suspects must be coming.

She sees a pattern emerging. “Gaia citizenship. . . . Earth citizen, commons member, world citizen. …Main sense of patriotism now directed to the planet itself. Matriotism.” And her scary dark-wing subordinate Badim sees it too:  a “new Earth religion that would change everything.”

It is a truism, she observes, that “people lived in ideas.” So when those ideas changed – when  the sense of lived reality shifted – it was “A tectonic shift in history. An earthquake in the head.” A changed heaven and earth.

I read Kim Stanley Robinson because he’s faithful to literal reality – spinning plots and novels out of real-world materiality. In his hands “sf” is an exploration of reality, not just fantasy with labcoats thrown over the wizard cloaks.

But even  more, I read him because he’s always got one eye on what is technically called “the history of ideas,” looking for the underlying value/feeling structure at any given moment of civilization. He’s a historian of  ideas. . . of the future. How it will feel to be alive. What ideas and images will be self-evident, potent, definitive for feeling and for action. The new structure of feeling.

* * *

One proposal, central to the book, has attracted some attention in itself. It’s a version of money, a cryptocurrency scheme that might actually reverse capitalism’s appalling power of destruction. I list it last because it’s hard to categorize, hovering somewhere between the practical/technical and the social/political.

The currency scheme straddles or spans  the two great realms of action and feeling. It’s both,  perhaps because money isn’t real (as Robinson comments). Unreal, yet strangely potent. Money.

Since I don’t really grok cryptocurrency, I’ll let reviewer Chris Taylor (in Mashable) comment on it:

“It’s called Carbon Coin in the book, a Bitcoin-like currency that the Ministry gives out for carbon sequestration — that is, any project that sucks CO2 out of the air, whether it’s carbon capture or farmers rewilding their fields — at a rate of one coin to one ton. Oil companies get coins if they stop being oil companies, basically, leaving their assets in the ground for a century or so. Coins can then be bought and sold on currency exchanges like any other.

“The key point is that the world’s central banks agree to back it, buying Carbon Coins on a schedule that slowly raises their price. The planet-saving coin thus becomes the safest investment in history, even more so than U.S. Treasury bonds. Our entire economic system becomes as motivated to fight climate change as it is currently motivated to ignore it.

“Really, I think it is crucial,” [Robinson] says. “Can we pay ourselves to do the right work, rather than wreck the biosphere? Can it become a way of making a living, for millions of people to do the right thing?”

The right work, the right thing – referencing of course the Buddhist concept of “right livelihood” – and perhaps also echoing eco-poet Gary Snyder’s now-ancient phrase from the beginnings of the modern environmental movement, “the real work”: work that does not burn up the world. Work that enriches the web of life, instead of impoverishing it.

* * *

The Ministry for the Future often seems to be barely fiction at all. Many chapters offer no plot – and sometimes no character either. It’s a work of fiction that seems to desire to be a work of nonfiction.

When you read Moby-Dick and you get to a nonfiction chapter telling you more than you want to know about, say, flensing a whale with knives on long poles and boiling it down and putting it in casks with the bloody carcass still lashed to your ship – you probably think, in a cartoon thought-bubble, “What th’. . . .” And then (hopefully) go on reading. You have faith that the author will pay off your perseverance.

Many a long novel makes some kind of similar demand — some way to say This is a novel but it’s the real world, too strange and difficult and various to boil down into some neat little plot. Even though that’s what you think you want.

Or when you read Le Guin’s great big novel Always Coming Home, and you’re faced with chapters that appear to be anthropological reports, or sociology, or ethnographic collections of random cultural scraps. Bits of song, drawings. Disconnected tales. Even (strangely) bulletins directly from the author about how the storytelling is going (or not going), with titles like “Pandora Worrying About What She Is Doing: She Addresses the Reader with Agitation.”  It seems that she knows exactly how trying all this is for the innocent reader, who just wants to get back to the dad-gummed story to see what happens next and how it all turns out!

How well she knows this yearning for plot. And how far she goes to resist it.

And which Salman Rushdie novel is it, in which the narrator’s wife appears at irregular intervals, kicking the storyteller under the table and demanding that he get on with the plot? (Note: He doesn’t.)

Robinson’s novel is about the whole world and its fate: that thing about which you and I, dear Reader, may be so worried that we almost cannot stand to think about it. When he puts it into a story, this problem, it’s still the whole world. Too big, too much. So he doles out the plot like bribes, like sweets enticing us to continue. And in between, he asks us walk through plotless nonfiction chapters about, say, the international monetary system set up at Bretton Woods (yes, a whole chapter exclusively explaining that. No plot, no character.) Or a chapter about photons (narrative point of view: a photon). Or a chapter on herd animals (point of view: herd animal). Something about “Euthanasia of the rentier class.”  Liberation theology. Jevon’s Paradox.

This novel is subversively anti-narrative. Or is it really pro-reality – pro-fact? – asking the reader to care about the actual situation of our world so deeply that the superficial pleasures of plot and character, what happens next and who wins, are understood not to be the real point. The real point stretches between the nonfiction side and the fiction side like a violin string. Stretches tight. It asks the reader to be the bow, to play the tune of hope. Hope. To be willing to say: Yes. Something can be done.

Yes. This awful, nearly incomprehensible million-headed problem can be faced.

Yes. If we stop avoiding it, we can move the thing forward to a different conclusion.

And the book ends with that Irish girl Mary Murphy in a kind of Molly-Bloom yes soliloquy:

“There is no other home for us than here. . . We will cope. . . We will keep going, she said to him in her head – to everyone she knew or had ever known. . . . We will keep going, we will keep going, because there is no such thing as fate. Because we never really come to the end.”

Over five hundred and sixty-three pages, Mary and Frank are put through some adventures. They learn, suffer, endure. Something like love arises, a little. They move among vast nonfiction realities like tiny hikers in the Valley of the Giants. Yet they get somewhere. Something is accomplished. Mere passivity is not the solution. Engagement is. Immersion in the realities; commitment to each other and to collective action that brings, in the end, a surprisingly hopeful result.

Read on, brave Reader. We are small, the world is big and hot and scary. Yet good things may still happen. And we will be the ones to do them.

* * *

Note: Check out this insightful podcast, featuring Bill McKibben interviewing Robinson about The Ministry for the Future. I heard it after finishing this essay – it powerfully underlines  many of the same points.“Kim Stanley Robinson on ‘Utopian’ Science Fiction,” The New Yorker Radio Hour.