The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson: What Will the World Look Like in 30 Years?

Planes spray sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere in The Ministry for the Future, as an international taskforce tackles global heating in this chilling yet hopeful vision of how the next few decades might unfold.

Established in 2025, the purpose of the new organization was simple: To advocate for the world’s future generations and to protect all living creatures, present and future. It soon became known as the Ministry for the Future, and this is its story.

From the visionary, NYT bestselling author of New York 2140, the 563-page novel is a gripping exploration of climate change, technology, politics, and the human behaviors that drive these forces –a gutsy, humane view of a near-future Earth: a trip through the carbon-fueled chaos of the coming decades, with engineers working desperately to stop melting glaciers from sliding into the sea, avenging eco-terrorists downing so many airliners that people are afraid to fly, and bankers re-inventing the economy in real time in a desperate attempt to avert extinction.

One of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020

It opens like a slow-motion disaster movie. In the near future, a heatwave of unsurvivable “wet-bulb” temperatures (factoring in humidity) in a small Indian town kills nearly all its inhabitants in a week. The Indian government sends up planes to spray sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to mimic the dimming effect of major volcanic eruptions. This does not, naturally, meet with unalloyed approval around the world.

A new international climate-crisis body has been “charged with defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves”. Led by protagonist, Mary Murphy, former foreign minister of Ireland, the outfit is a Zurich-based UN agency called the Ministry for the Future (thus the title of the book).

The Ministry is up against corrupt politicians and petro-state billionaires. In the aftermath of a horrific heat wave that kills 20 million people in India – Robinson describes thousands being “poached” in a lake where they fled to escape the heat — the Ministry sponsors various technological tricks to try to slow the warming, including dyeing the Arctic Ocean yellow so it stops absorbing sunlight. But the real drama is Murphy’s confrontations with a handful of central bankers around the world who help break the petro-billionaires and shift the economy away from fossil fuels. Meanwhile, debt strikes by students and uprisings by migratory workers send millions of people marching in the streets. It all feels plausible, in a holographic, sci-fi kinda way. In the end, Robinson achieves something unexpected: He transforms the existential crisis we face into a modern fairy tale of resilience and redemption.

“My whole notion of utopia has come down to just survival of the many species that are in danger,” says Robinson. “If we dodge the mass extinction event, we can cope with everything else that might happen later.”

Meanwhile, scientists at the poles are trying to pump water out from under the ice caps to prevent them from sliding into the ocean and raising sea levels catastrophically. Kim Stanley Robinson, who wrote the classic Red Mars trilogy of novels about geoengineering the red planet to be habitable by humans, now offers a story about whether we can geoengineer Earth back into Earth.

He riffs on blockchain technology, Jevon’s Paradox, carbon taxes, ice sheet dynamics, quantitative easing, among other things. He pays a lot of attention to how money moves around in a carbon-based economy, and may understand the financial underpinnings of the climate crisis better than any writer.

Dark comic relief comes from fragmentary dialogues between unnamed speakers.“Have you heard,” one asks, “that the warming of the oceans means that the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in fish and thus available for human consumption may drop by as much as sixty percent? And that these fatty acids are crucial to signal transduction in the brain, so it’s possible that our collective intelligence is now rapidly dropping because of an ocean-warming-caused diminishment in brain power?” The other replies: “That would explain a lot.”

I’m terrified that heat wave will happen. And so it struck me that a slap to the face, a warning shot, might be a good way to begin.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s interview with the Rolling Stone on violence as a political tool, and why he thinks it’s time to buy out the oil companies.

Within these pages there is much hard science, of atmospheric and oceanic physics, usually helpfully explained by a passing expert; but also speculative military strategy – the invention of “pebble mob” missiles, which converge on a target speedily from all directions, renders almost all military hardware redundant – plenty of economic history and much comforting detail about the grey civility of Switzerland in winter.

The renowned sci-fi writer also shows that an ambitious systems novel about global heating must in fact be an ambitious systems novel about modern civilization too, because everything is so interdependent.

Told entirely through fictional eye-witness accounts, The Ministry For The Future (106 chapters) is a masterpiece of the imagination, the story of how climate change will affect us all over the decades to come.

The novel’s setting is not a desolate, post-apocalyptic world, but a future that is almost upon us – and in which we might just overcome the extraordinary challenges we face.

It is a novel both immediate and impactful, desperate and hopeful in equal measure, and it is one of the most powerful and original books on climate change ever written.