Fiction can change the world and the didactic approach or the ‘novel of ideas’ can be compatible with good storytelling. Like any work of art, a work of fiction can change us as individuals and, through us, help to make a difference. A powerful novel can both educate and motivate while telling a story well, and the most compelling stories are often those that teach us the most.
‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson is one of those potentially world-changing works of fiction. It has human characters and a narrative arc, but what matters most is the meta-narrative which is about nothing less than global human survival over the next few decades. Robinson has produced a handbook for the near future, a manual for action, using the same large scale social imagination and descriptive power evident in all his writing, whether set in the future (eg: The Mars trilogy, Aurora, 2312) or in re-imagined pasts (eg: The Years of Rice and Salt, Shaman).
Kim Stanley Robinson has described his work as speculative, rather than predictive:
“…more of a modelling exercise…you run this line in history, see what the conclusions are and don’t worry about the fact that it’s one of an infinite spread.”1
As the UK prepares to host COP26 in Glasgow in November 2021 (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the UN Paris Climate Change Convention) we know there is a lot at stake and we fear that we may be doing too little too late. Here, Kim Stanley Robinson imagines the creation at COP29 in the mid-2020’s of a new global agency – nicknamed the Ministry for the Future – to press for change where national governments have proved inadequate.
The themes of the book are those that preoccupy us today as we confront our multiple global emergencies. The catastrophic impact of climate change and unsustainable and inequitable systems of production and consumption. The urgent need for effective action on a global scale and on many fronts. The social, economic and political challenges of developing and implementing the kind of policies that could achieve a better, fairer and more sustainable world. The resources of hope, creativity, determination and collaboration which humans need to draw on to make change possible. This book has them all, and successfully packing this amount of scientific, social and political imagination into one novel is an extraordinary achievement.
The book is punctuated with didactic interludes, which make up a toolkit for renewal, rather like an encyclopaedic ‘Whole Earth Catalog’ for the 21st century. Each one provides a thread for the complex fabric of alternatives, all of which we will need and most of which already exist in some form: critiques of unsustainable growth and consumption and widening global inequality, better measures of progress, equality and ecological footprints, carbon taxes and economic incentives to decarbonize, alternatives to markets and the neoliberal world order, Mondragon-style co-operative networks, permaculture, rewilding and habitat corridors, basic income and job guarantees and many more. As we take all these ideas in, we begin to see how they might work together to give us some chance of survival.
Speaking about this ‘layered’ approach, Kim Stanley Robinson has said:
“The real is too big a term to be comprehended and so you break it down into lots of smaller systems that are trying to explain the whole. Together, you get a mega-system or a stack of systems.” 2
And of the climate emergency he has said:
“The story we’ve all been told is that the system is robust, permanent and massively entrenched…surplus value has always been appropriated out of the natural world in increasing circles, and now we’ve run out of circles, so the expansion crashes and the biosphere too…and so you try to find a pocket utopia where you’re not actively damaging the world. (but) No local solution is sufficient…” 2
Elsewhere, he adds: “No one solution will solve the climate change problem…so you’ve just got to try everything that seems good.”1
Despite the many setbacks and disasters on the way, the direction of travel presented in ‘The Ministry for the Future’ is positive and unstoppable and there is a bracing optimism about the possibility of change. Spoiler alert: we get to share the global sense of elation when at last, after all the action that’s been taken, atmospheric CO2 levels turn around and start to fall decisively; from 475ppm to 454ppm.3 By COP58, presumably in the early 2050’s, it is possible to perceive:
“… a break point in the history of both humans and the Earth itself, the start of something new … the birth of a good Anthropocene.”
Is this a utopian scenario? It’s certainly about the construction of a new reality, but it’s absolutely grounded in today’s challenges and solutions and it doesn’t make any of it seem easy. ‘The Ministry for the Future’ offers us the outline of a possible route to a better place, one where humanity could start to get things right.
Writing about modern fictional utopias, including Kim Stanley Robinson’s work, in his brilliant ‘Archaeologies of the future’, Fredric Jameson says:
“What is Utopian becomes … not the commitment to a specific machinery or blueprint, but rather a commitment to imagining possible Utopias in their greatest variety of forms. Utopian is no longer the invention and defense of a specific floorplan, but rather the story of all the arguments about how Utopia should be constructed in the first place. It is no longer the exhibit of an achieved Utopian construct, but rather the story of its production and of the very process of construction.” 4
‘Educate, agitate organise’ is the activist motto coined by William Morris in the late 19th Century. As we face the prospect of global catastrophe in the 21st century. this book will certainly educate its readers. It’s then up to us to decide whether, and how, to agitate and organise. Kim Stanley Robinson has imagined for us the kind of urgent global initiative we need, can we now create our own Ministries of the Future in time?
Decarbonising education (March 2020)
An A-Z for a world which has to change (March 2020)
‘The Overstory’ by Richard Powers (March 2019)
Edgar Morin on ‘Thinking Global’ (August 2017)
- What the hell do we write now? India Bourke, New Statesman (09/01/2020)
- The realism of our time, interview in Radical Philosophy (Feb 2018)
- Atmospheric CO2 has risen from 315ppm in 1960 to 415ppm in 2020.
- From chapter 13 The Future as Disruption in Archaeologies of the Future by Fredric Jameson (Verso, 2005)