Sustainability Book Club – The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

The Ministry for the Future

About the book

The Ministry for the Future is a well-balanced mixture of science/climate fiction and real-life climate change issues. The book takes the reader into a fictional near-future which consists of existing real-world technologies, economics, and societies, where the actions and inactions of the characters decide their fates. The book is packed with fresh ideas and perspectives on sustainability, as well as solutions to combat the climate crisis such as geoengineering and the ‘carbon coin’.

 

The verdict – did you like the book?

While there were some mixed responses amongst the group, the unanimous conclusion was that the book was interesting. Everyone liked the fictional element of the book and how ironically it depicted reality, albeit in an exaggerated manner. The non-fictional elements of the book were appreciated based on how well researched and fact-based it was. Many felt that it was on the lengthy side and grappled to read the first few chapters where the author describes horrifying experiences of the heatwave. However, it was also agreed that the book had humorous elements to it that made it a fun read alongside other facts and fresh ideas.

 

Do you think it would take an event as severe as the heatwave to trigger people to respond more seriously to climate change? Do you think it’s plausible or would it be a more gradual change?

The book opens in a small city in Uttar Pradesh, India, where the character Frank May, an American who works for an unidentified NGO, barely survives an extreme heatwave that kills millions of people. “It was getting hotter,” the novel begins, before unfolding like a terrible, claustrophobic dream, over the course of a very hot and humid day, following a stretch of many. In one of the scenes, a character points a gun at Frank and says, “You”—Westerners— “did this.” The author described Frank’s condition in the heatwave as “he had been poached, slow-boiled, he was a cooked thing.”

Readers of the book could draw parallels of this chapter to the very current situation of the Covid-19 pandemic, with regards to political power dynamics. In particular, they discussed the idea that opinions of western countries are influenced only once they are themselves affected by a situation, and how as a society we are not open enough to listening to different voices and perspectives.

 

What are your opinions on Black Ops? Do you think you could ever justify that from a moral standpoint?

The book asks a question that has typically been forbidden to ask in anything but deeply coded, allegorical, and sublimated terms: what if political violence has a role to play in saving the future? What if you actually can’t beat the bad people, playing by their rules in the institutions they buy and sell?

Characters in the novel (as part of the Black Ops Division) contemplate targeted assassination of politicians and CEOs, industrial sabotage of coal plants, intentionally bringing down airliners in the name of destroying commercial air travel, and bioterrorism against industrial slaughterhouses. In fact, they do more than contemplate them. How does it change what is possible when we stop worrying so much about losing in the ‘right’ way, and start thinking about winning via the ‘wrong’ way?

The general response of the readers was an agreement on how inaction towards climate change can also be perceived to be immoral, and many can overlook the consequences as it does not make them feel directly responsible or guilty. It is easier to take lives of people through inaction rather than directly assassinating them. In the book, the Black Ops end up killing very few people compared to all the people that die from the heatwave, which was itself a consequence of inaction. Other readers also drew parallels of the Black Ops to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) whose leading target is the whaling industry of Japan.

However, readers also tended to agree that while Black Ops proved it could be an effective way of resolving the issues in the book, from a moral standpoint, the group could not condone violence and thought that other tactics could be used just as effectively to influence CEOs and politicians.

 

What do you think about the Carbon Coin? Do you think it could work? Should Central banks play more of a role?

The Carbon Coin in the book is a Bitcoin-like currency that the Ministry gives out for carbon sequestration — that is, any project that sucks CO2 out of the air, whether it is carbon capture or by farmers rewilding their fields — at a rate of one coin to one ton. Oil companies get coins if they stop being oil companies, that is, leaving their assets in the ground for a century or so. Coins can then be bought and sold on currency exchanges. The key aspect is that the world’s central banks agree to back it, buying Carbon Coins on a schedule that slowly raises their price over time. The planet-saving coin thus becomes the safest investment in history, even more so than U.S. Treasury bonds. You can read more about the carbon coin in another piece by Kim Stanley Robinson at www.bloomberg.com/news/features/2020-04-22/kim-stanley-robinson-let-the-fed-print-money-for-the-planet.

Readers were quite intrigued to understand the flip side of the coin, that is, the disincentivising of companies that generate CO2. Many felt that Central Banks do play an important role in bringing change in the economy as they have an arsenal of tools to influence businesses and the Carbon Coin as mentioned in the book could be a possible way of incentivising businesses to “do the right thing” i.e., by reducing their carbon emissions or ceasing them altogether. However, it was also noted that it is the government that would have to take the first step in influencing the central banks with their policies.

Whilst the carbon coin could be an effective tool in influencing the reduction of carbon emissions, some readers pointed out downsides of attaching a monetary value to reducing carbon emissions, which to some extent promotes “greenwashing”, and in a way made them feel like “natural capital” is not being appreciated or valued enough.

 

Many of the book’s 106 chapters are devoted to such technical topics as the history of central banking, modern monetary theory, the Gini index, blockchain technology, Mondragon, carbon taxes, clean energy technologies, Jevon’s Paradox, different forms of geoengineering, population biology, and wildlife corridors. Was there anything that stood out for you?

 

Interest Rates

Since discount rates are close to our hearts as actuaries, this concept was quite interesting to read about. The concept involves charging ourselves today for the damage we do today which affects future generations. Many could draw parallels from Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics, while others could draw parallels to the current states of western economies where insufficient action is being taken to tackle the climate crisis and everything is merely being “accounted” for. It assumes that in the future we might have technologies that help tackle the climate crisis, but we may well have passed a few tipping points while waiting for these technologies.

 

Wage Inequality

The book offers solutions for wage inequalities in terms of wage multiples i.e. by limiting the wage of the highest earner in an organisation to, say, 10 times that of the lowest earner. Some readers found this to be a conflicting idea as it has both upsides and downsides. For example, many companies could lose their best employees as they would not be paid enough, losing them to other companies or countries as a result. Overall, the conclusion was that it was a complex, yet interesting idea.

 

Geoengineering

Many felt that the consequences of such activities (involving man-made intervention in the Earth’s climate system) would be difficult to judge as it is a fairly new area. There could be drawbacks as one country’s geoengineering activities could affect others, as natural resources often do not belong to just one country. Other issues with such activities would be that responsible climate behaviour may not organically arise within people. Readers felt that if geoengineering activities were to be implemented, the same should be carried out on a global scale. On the other hand, this concept felt more integrated than the carbon coin where countries were divided in their goals.


All opinions disclosed are personal opinion and not the view of the IFoA.

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