The Ministry for the Future book cover

Dialogue

The Climate of the Future

By Terry Tempest Williams

In Fall 2021, Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence and noted conservationist Terry Tempest Williams hosted a series of 10 discussions, “Weather Reports: The Climate of Now.” Williams interviewed writers, poets, researchers, filmmakers, and activists on the front lines of the climate crisis. These dialogues emerged from some of those discussions.

Terry Tempest Williams: Tonight, we find ourselves in the climate of the future, with a stellar science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, and his epic novel The Ministry for the Future.

Book reviews tell the power of this novel. Rolling Stone magazine said: “Who knew that in this dark hour of the climate crisis hope would arrive in the form of a 563-page novel by a sci-fi writer best known for a trilogy about establishing a human civilization on Mars? . . . It’s 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.”1

The Los Angeles Review of Books writes, “Robinson calls on us to imagine living through a revolution ourselves, as we are in the here and now. Kim Stanley Robinson, our culture’s last great utopian, hasn’t lost heart exactly, but he’s definitely getting deep into the muck of these things this time.”2

Bill McKibben reports that The Ministry for the Future is not science fiction as much as political science and that Robinson is adept at writing “about what the psychology of our country and our world is right about now.”3

The New Yorker posited that Robinson is the greatest political novelist of our time.4 Robinson is the author of 20 books, translated into 24 languages, and has received every possible award in the genre of science fiction, including the Hugo Award for Best Novel, the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the World Fantasy Award. He has also received the Robert A. Heinlein Award for his body of work, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award for imagination in the service of society.

Welcome, Stan. What a joy and privilege to have you here tonight. What’s the weather report where you are?

Kim Stanley Robinson: I’m in northern California, where we’re facing a drought. It could have been desperate, and it still might be. But an atmospheric river slung across last month [October 2021] and dropped a huge load of rain. We hope for more this winter, but it’s a dire situation in California, because it’s really a space that has been plumbed for water. The water that’s here is artificially supplied by human transfers, and it relies on things staying the way they were when the system was built.

But there are historical signs of droughts that have lasted decades, and we had a five-year drought that we were just out of when this one began. I find it frightening. There are 35 million people in California, and they all need water. I suppose we could shut down the most water—going to the thirstiest of the agricultures in the Central Valley—and save water for people. But when there’s no water, everything shuts down.

TTW: It’s the same in Utah. It’s really terrifying. I’d love to begin this conversation with the High Sierra. I finished your book last night, The High Sierra: A Love Story. In it, you tell a story of hiking across the top of Dead Man’s Canyon in August 2021 and how you were struck by the changes that you saw from when you had last been there in 2007.

KSR: Yes. It’s still very emotional for me. It was a shocking thing to see. The top of Dead Man’s Canyon had seven small glaciers, even glacierettes—they’re called that because they don’t slide much. But there, they’re in place, tucked against a north-facing wall at maybe a 45-degree angle. And they were all gone in 2021. It was as dry as a bone in the southwestern part of the Sierra Sequoia National Park. As for the rivers that we had been frightened to cross, we could simply walk down into the black trench and walk up the other side. They were dry as a bone. I was so shocked and dismayed.

Then my friend Armando Quintero, who’s now head of the California State Parks, reminded me that, since the Ice Age ended, the High Sierra has been a sky island. And, like Utah, there have been droughts that have lasted nearly 100 years. So the survivors up there—the plant life, the animals—are extremophiles, separate from the rest. They’re so high they always are going to get a little precipitation off the Pacific. It’s not necessarily the case that everything up there will die. There will be stresses. There will be changes. It will be more of a xeriscape than it ever was. But the Sierras are used to radical climate change, and, with luck, cooler times will come back.

TTW: I have to tell you, Stan, that coming out of last summer, about that same time that you were saying goodbye to that glacier, in rural Utah in the Red Rock Desert, we had temperatures of 114 degrees, 10,000 acres burning 20 miles from our home, with pyrocumulus clouds rising like atomic bombs, followed by flash floods, with a river running black through the town of Moab. It was like something out of your novels.

When I think of science fiction, I think of fantasy. But The Ministry for the Future is not a fantasy. In many ways, it feels prophetic, or like hard-edged journalism. Can you talk about this, and about why you chose to place it in the near future, in 2025?

KSR: Well, science fiction is a big genre. There’s a kind of science fiction that is about millions of years from now, and we’re zipping around the galaxy in magical spaceships. But there’s always been a very strong strand of what I call near-future science fiction that has to do with the day after tomorrow.

What could we do, starting right now, facing the gravity of this situation?

I chose to set The Ministry for the Future in 2025 to ask: What could we do, starting right now, facing the gravity of this situation? In our time, the bar has been lowered to thinking, if we can dodge a mass extinction event, this is a utopian future, because that’s the one catastrophe that we can never claw back from. Extinctions are forever. Even if you imagine some clawing back in the twenty-second century from the disastrous twenty-first century, whatever has gone extinct will be gone for good.

TTW: Indeed. Another question: I want to touch on the themes of violence and the limits of nonviolence portrayed in the novel.

KSR: There is a chapter that describes a completely screwed up 2030s, where it’s obvious we aren’t doing what we need to do. And some people resort to violence. They set off drones in swarms like geese in front of commercial airplanes as they land and take off. They bring down a lot of planes on a single day, “crash day.” The violence gets people to stop flying and makes them aware that terrible forces have been unleashed in the world.

There’s anger in the book from people who’ve suffered because the developed world didn’t bother to pay for decarbonization and clean energy for the developing world—which in fact is happening now. That is going to cause retribution and vengeance.

I’m against violence myself, but I put it in the book as a sample of what could happen—that it could get chaotic in bad ways. It would be better if we acted before things got that dire.

There’s anger in the book from people who’ve suffered because the developed world didn’t bother to pay for decarbonization and clean energy for the developing world—which in fact is happening now.

TTW: Do you think that well-established and unjust structures of power can be changed by peaceful protest? Or do arms only get twisted by the threat of force or by force itself? And if force is used, do you think it corrupts all who participate in it, in deep ways that unfold over time, and only perpetuates the evils they hope to change?

KSR: I would agree with the last part of that question, that there is such damage done by violence against humans. There have been violent revolutions in the past, world revolutions—but it’s hard to rate their effectiveness, because they’re the only things that happened.

TTW: When you write about this kind of violence, there are echoes of Edward Abbey. That was his distinction with the Monkey Wrench Gang—that sabotage was committed against machinery, not against people. It’s interesting to me that you bring that idea of sabotage into the twenty-first century, with climate chaos.

Finally, there’s a part in the book toward the end where what is called for is a spiritual awakening. To me, that was the redemptive part. That was the piece that, as part of the mosaic, I could hang on to: What is the spiritual aspect of imagining a different world, and how do we put that into action? It also made me think about what we do with our anger, which you also bring up. How do we take our anger and turn it into sacred rage?

One question I have, Stan, is a big one, for me. You dedicate The Ministry for the Future to Fredric Jameson, a Marxist political theorist, who is said to have uttered this oft-quoted phrase: “Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” What are your thoughts on a postcapitalistic society? And how do you see us fixing the problem?

KSR: I would describe myself as an American leftist, trained by a Marxist member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and happy to be so. But let’s take the system that we’re in now and the emergency that we’ve got. What do we do, in a practical sense?

We need government seizure of the market, like what happened in World War II. The British treasury took over the Bank of England. The American economy was organized entirely by the government to prosecute the war successfully. Everybody went along with it, because it was needed.

That was guided by the economic theories of John Maynard Keynes. Keynesianism, in our present time, might be some form of modern monetary theory that fights climate change. In that case, the central banks make up new money to spend on decarbonizing projects. And $2 trillion, or even $4 trillion, a year, year after year, made up from scratch and spent on decarbonization projects, would mean a giant public works administration and full employment, raising the standard of living. It wouldn’t be the total solution; you would need to have regulations; you would need to have legislation. But it would be nice to have a big carbon tax that got bigger as time went on.

In other words, there would be a political economy that would go stepwise, from what we’re in now to anti-austerity, to Keynesianism, to social democracy, and maybe to democratic socialism. But these would be new inventions, financialized. It’s best maybe to call it postcapitalism, simply improvising something that works so that there’s equality, equity, and sustainability.

TTW: You say we’re going to have to pay to keep it in the ground, meaning oil and gas. That caught my eye, especially considering the West, where we’re looking at federal lands, public lands, and these oil and gas leases. You talked about the idea of quantitative easing. Can you speak about that a bit?

KSR: Quantitative easing is when central banks make up new fiat money—what the Federal Reserve did in the United States after the 2008–9 economic crash. In my example, the new money is spent on decarbonization; call it carbon quantitative easing. Quantitative easing worked in 2008 and again during the 2020–22 pandemic. A whole lot of money was made up from scratch to keep the economy liquid and to keep people at work. If we spend it on decarbonization, all the better.

But we’re going to have to pay to keep fossil fuels in the ground. Eighty percent of the fossil fuels on this planet are owned by nation states. They’re powerful. They rely on fossil fuel reserves for their future. It’s their economy. It’s their finance reserves. If those become stranded assets, those countries will be in terrible trouble, headed for depression and disruption and violence. The petro states—Russia, Canada, Australia, Venezuela, Brazil, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran—have to be paid to stop drilling. Since the United States has 75 percent of the capital in the world, we should be the ones actually backing the payouts and taking the loss. These states need to be compensated, or else the world goes “smash.”

This gets very strange. It’s like we’re paying off a blackmailer. But we all grew up burning fossil fuels. We’re not innocent. So we’ve got to give up the moralism—the holier-than-thou feeling of “I’m a self-righteous person, a liberal person,”—in order to get something done.

TTW: My last question to you, Stan, is simply: What keeps you whole spiritually, so you can be optimistic, as well as a pragmatic visionary who can look at hard things, can ask the difficult questions that keep us up at night?

KSR: My optimism is partly biochemical and comes from my mom. It’s also political, a matter of a chosen political position: if we can make a good future, we should. And I keep going for my family and friends, my garden, the Sierras, the sense that California is a political, multicultural entity that is progressive, that is recreating the commons for its water, that is a place to be proud of—and it’s so beautiful.

TTW: So beautiful. Thank you, Stan. You have truly left us with a “ministry for the future.”

Notes:

  1. Jeff Goodell, “What Will the World Look Like in 30 Years? Sci-fi Author Kim Stanley Robinson Takes Us There,” Rolling Stone, December 10, 2020.
  2. Gerry Canavan, “Of Course They Would: On Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future,” Los Angeles Review of Books, October 27, 2020.
  3. Bill McKibben, “It’s Not Science Fiction,” The New York Review of Books, December 17, 2020; and “Kim Stanley Robinson on ‘Utopian’ Science Fiction,” The New Yorker, Politics and More podcast with Dorothy Wickendon, August 30, 2021.
  4. Tim Kreider, “Our Greatest Political Novelist?” The New Yorker, December 12, 2013.

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