The non-utopian hope of a science fiction writer on climate change

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Robinson’s book contains many warnings for today’s political leaders and policy makers. In Ministry, increasingly extreme climatic events coupled with political inaction eventually trigger violence and terrorism. A tiny United Nations agency dubbed the “Ministry of the Future” is maneuvering deftly in a desperate attempt to get countries and institutions to take action to save humanity.

I called Robinson to find out what he was thinking this summer as he watched the world draw closer to the kind of weather disasters that trigger the plot of Ministry of the Future. Although Robinson recently published his first non-fiction book, The High Sierra: A Love Storyhe told me that Ministry of the Future continues to monopolize his time, filling his days with a constant series of speaking engagements, interviews – and in ultimate fiction meets reality – an appearance at the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference in 2021. (The Conferences of United Nations on the climate are important for of the ministry ground.)

“This book transformed my life,” Robinson said. “I don’t do anything but talk about Ministry of the Future for a year and a half, almost two years now. It’s also terrifying. It shows me that people feel a desperate need for a story like this. They cling to this book like a piece of driftwood, and they drown in the middle of the ocean.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Laidman: In your opening chapter, 20 million people die in an Indian heat wave and power outage, and several thousand of them are killed in a lake as they try to escape the heat. Will it take this kind of climate horror to spur the world to action?

Robinson: No. When I was at COP 26, the Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, who had read Ministry, was about the power of stories. He said: “You don’t have to be in a plane crash to know it would be wrong to be in a plane crash.” Every year since I wrote the book — I wrote it maybe three years ago — it’s as if the attention to the climate change crisis has more than doubled. It’s almost exponential.

We’re not close to finding solutions, but with every COP meeting, the feeling that “Oh my God, we’re headed for a plane crash” intensifies. We are not doing enough. We are not paying poor countries enough. Rich countries are breaking promises made at previous COPs. Disillusionment with this process is becoming so intense that I fear for the COP process itself. I compared it to the League of Nations. The League of Nations was a brilliant idea that failed. And then we had the 1930s and World War II. The Paris Agreement of 2015 was a great thing, like something that I would write and people would call utopian. But it happened in the real world.

Now, with Russia and the brutal war in Ukraine, things are so messed up that the COP process and the Paris Agreement could turn into the League of Nations. I’m afraid for that. This is not a done deal.

Laidman: We have an incredible ability, it seems, to ignore the plane crash. You talk about it in the book, the pervasive belief that someone else’s disaster couldn’t happen to us, the idea that “they must have done something wrong”.

Robinson: Michael Lewis has a great story about it in his book [The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy] on the federal government. A town in Oklahoma is destroyed by a tornado, the next town, people say, “Oh, well, they are on the trail of the tornado, and we are not.” So yes, we have that capability. This brings up a good point, however. When you say that, even if 20 million people died in India, people would say, well this is India — too many people, bad infrastructure, in the tropics. It’s almost their fault. It’s like the school shootings in America. Everyone regrets it. Everyone is moving forward. Nothing changes.

What will make the difference is the cumulative knowledge of climate change in my own territory. The effects didn’t kill me, but I can say it’s going to be bad for my kids. It’s like you have a creeping disease, gangrene. You’re not dead yet, but you know you’re sick.

Laidman: You’ve spent so much time studying financial policy on top of all the technology you talk about with ease. I kept looking, sometimes to see if they were inventions, like Javon’s paradox, Mondragon, the Gini coefficient. And they were all real.

Robinson: The only thing an English major is trained in is reading texts and trying to generate new ones. I am used to reading scientific articles and science journalism. This is my main reading. But that was at least 30 years ago when someone said, “Oh, it’s too bad you don’t know anything about economics. And I was pissed off. Then I thought, well, actually, I don’t know nothing about economics. So for the past 30 years, I’ve done a sort of self-guided study with a lot of help from economists, in political economy in particular. When you talk about economics, you always have to think about the political economy that created it in the first place. So it is obvious that capitalism is not natural. It’s not really suited to the situation. This creates inequalities. It destroys the biosphere. We need post-capitalism. I started to think that in the early 1990s. But when you go looking for what comes after capitalism, you find nothing. It’s incredible.

As a science fiction writer, I have been frustrated by the lack of help from theorists in building future societies in my novels. I had to tinker with people who have done this work, but they often come from the past. My retreat to Keynesianism in Ministry is not post-capitalism, it goes back to an earlier moment in capitalism when government was still the driving force. Do Ministry sound plausible – because we’re stuck in the system we find ourselves in with a gigantic web of laws and practices – I needed something we’ve done before that might work.

Laidman: In your book, India not only suffers the greatest disaster, but then it becomes the model for carbon reform. What made you choose India?

Robinson: I had to think about that while writing it. In some ways it’s a dodge. Most readers of this book are in America or the English-speaking world, although it is also read in India, to be sure. But what I’m saying is that if good things happen in a big country on the other side of the world, you’re more likely to believe them because you don’t know the details of that country as well as your own country. If I had to put it in our own country, every moment you would gowell, that wouldn’t happen. It’s impossible. So, on the one hand, it’s a utopian literary dodge to put the change somewhere else to believe in it. And it’s not good.

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