Carbon coins and the odd airship: Kim Stanley Robinson and the future

In the past, Kim Stanley Robinson has taken a Tolkien-like three volumes to transform a planet, in his magnum opus the Mars Trilogy. Now however, he can manage it in one. Admittedly, The Ministry of the Future is about the Earth, so there is no need for spaceflight. And it still takes 563 pages.

The eponymous Ministry is a body set up under climate change machinery to represent future people and ecologies which cannot speak for themselves. And while the book starts with a crushing climate tragedy, it ends as the most hopeful of global futures imaginings.

You really should read the book to discover exactly how the Ministry, led by a former Irish foreign minister, transforms the world.

Despite Robinson’s standing as a leading science fiction author, very little hard technology is involved, just the odd airship. Instead, Robinson takes us on a trip which reminds me of the big reply to climate change deniers: what if we made the world a better place without needing to?

The answer is delivered as a stunning series of changes to human attitudes as well as to global systems. It’s no surprise in a book of this seriousness that carbon pricing via a new carbon-unused coin is part of the picture. But the atmosphere is only one side of the equation. On the other, we find human beings, and a massive concern for inequality, forced migration and statelessness. As a result of more or less consensual action, the Ministry succeeds in altering not only the climate, and global ecology as a whole, but also human views of progress, wealth and how we live together.

At the same time, the book is the product of a whole-body immersion in pretty much anything to do with the future of humanity and the Earth. The importance of central banking? Of course. Antarctic glacier drilling? Naturally. Rewilding and wildlife corridors? Yes, big time. Making a COP meeting interesting? Walk this way. Nansen Passports? Check. A cure for inequality? D’accord. Soil science? Understood. Community-led land reform? Sine qua non.

This is Robinson’s 25th book and shows him at the height of his powers. You ought to read it. But there is just one oddity. Lots of the book is set in Switzerland, especially Zurich but also the Alps, in a way that restarted my own desire to be there again soon. The tourist board must be delighted. But while the Helvetic Confederation may look like a blueprint for sociable living, critics may view its role as a sump for grubby money in a less kind light.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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