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With the U.S. experiencing back-to-back record heat waves, the opening chapter of Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 Sci-Fi novel, The Ministry for the Future, is starting to feel eerily prescient. The book’s story details the impact of climate change on our near future, and how global society manages—slowly, shakily—to avert total cataclysm. In a recent telephone chat, TIME spoke with the Hugo and Nebula-award winning writer about his book, the future, and the role of ecoterrorism in the climate movement.
TIME How did you pass the pandemic?
Kim Stanley Robinson I had been in the Grand Canyon, out of contact, on a rafting trip [when the shutdown started], with U.C. Davis geology students. When we went in, nothing had happened except for rumors and the NBA had canceled its season. When we came out, it was to a completely different world. I honestly didn’t think something like that could happen. Everybody was suddenly aware [that] we’re in a planetary culture. Ecology matters. Science matters. That was a new thought for our civilization. The pandemic was like a slap in the face. We’re now living in a science fiction novel that we’re all co-writing together.
How did the pandemic impact the novel’s reception?
I wrote the Ministry For the Future in 2019, before the pandemic. My novel was rendered obsolete even before publication—it can happen doing near future science fiction. But when it came out in October, it actually got a more understanding response than it would have without the pandemic: people reading it thought, ‘yeah, this could happen,’ because the pandemic had happened. One thing that pandemic did to me personally was to make me think that the timeline in Ministry For the Future is very much off. Things are going to happen faster than I wrote. So things I talked about happening in 2030s or the 2040s, they’re going to happen in the 2020s.
That’s quite terrifying. The novel opens with a gruesomely realistic heat wave in India that kills 20 million. Then again, I’m sitting in a heat wave here in Rome, and half the U.S. is experiencing unprecedented temperatures. Why did you start with a heat wave?
[Many] argue that humans are so good at adapting to things that it’s ridiculous to fight so hard to keep the [global average] temperatures down. Then I heard about wet bulb 35°C temperatures (the intersection of humidity and heat at which point the human body is no longer capable of cooling itself even in the shade) and that made me want to write that scene as a way of saying we can’t just adapt. We have to mitigate, we have to keep the temperature down. Or else vast swathes of the Earth’s surface could become uninhabitable and there could be mass deaths. I chose India because I thought they were vulnerable. It’s millions of people stacked against the Himalayas where the heat waves could stick and be humid, not dry heat waves like in the American West.
They are not just victims. They come up with solutions too.
I couldn’t just do it in India and then go to Zurich and have the rest of the novel be in Zurich, I had to stick with India. I just had to bear down and say look, the problems may hit there first, but the solutions might come from there first too. I thought it would be interesting to see India coming to grips with the problem first. Luckily I have Indian acquaintances, I ran that manuscript past them a couple of times and they helped in significant ways.
The global reaction in your book was parallel to what it would likely be in real life: that climate catastrophes only happen to far away, developing countries. Not “us.”
Humans are very good at saying “it happened to someone else, it won’t happen to me.” This is like a survival mechanism, a cognitive ability or a cognitive error. And so, no, a heat wave in India would not change the world instantly, no way. Even one in the southeastern United States, which, like India, is vulnerable because it’s got heat and humidity in combination. The whole Caribbean is a candidate for a wet bulb 35°C event, and one even happened outside of Chicago [in 1995], so the Midwest is also vulnerable. But people just go on and say, “well these things happen.” This is how climate change is different from the pandemic. When the pandemic began, everybody was thinking “I could die from this.” Nothing can stop it unless we change everything, and we changed everything. Well with climate change, you can think well, “I live in the north.” “It’ll happen after I die.” You can always put it off and say it’ll happen to someone else. It can happen to everyone. It will.
One of your central characters is Mary Murphy, a UN bureaucrat, not exactly the dashing hero we typically see saving planet earth. Who inspired you?
There are Marys all over! I even met a woman named Mary Murphy, who was on the Dublin City Council and an environmentalist. I literally met the minister for the future for the country of Wales, John Davidson. And I hope to meet Mary Robinson, who was an obvious model for my Mary Murphy. After the book came out I met Christiana Figueres, the Costa Rican woman who got the Paris Agreement written, and she was definitely a Mary figure and she told me how much she loved the book and I was thinking to myself, “well, yeah, I bet you did.” There are a lot of women in diplomacy, who often are working on humanitarian causes, peace causes, climate causes. I don’t want to make a gender assignment type thing about it, it just seems to me that you see it happening.
The ministry in the book enacts necessary, but difficult, financial changes. Is that what it is going to take in the real world?
The analogy I use is like when a doctor says to you, “we read the signs in your blood and in the X rays and MRIs. And you’re gonna die unless you let us give you chemotherapy,” which is effectively poison. “Even tough you don’t feel anything’s wrong right now, we need to poison you in order to save your life.” And most people say, “Okay, go ahead,” because they want to live, and so they’ll take the chemo, even when they’re asymptomatic. It’s a trust in science.
So here’s a macro case of where civilization has to trust in science. A lot of people will say, “well that won’t work.” But the Paris Agreement exists, because the governments of the world have listened to their scientists. They have said we have got to do this, we have to do this chemo, we have got to change the infrastructure to make the economy safe, to make individual people safe. And governments are in charge of economies and economies are people’s livelihoods. But they’re doing this anyway, because they’re believing the scientists about what’s coming down on us.
But the poison in this analogy is privation—it’s stop doing the things you like to do like driving or flying or using a clothes dryer. That’s harder for people to embrace outside of a medical crisis. In the book Mary uses old-fashioned airships to get around. That technology is starting to make a comeback today.
Yeah, one thing people really love is travel, it’s a human joy to want that, and I think it’s an ancient drive to wander and see new things. So if you get into this puritan mode that to survive we’re all going to have to shelter in place forever, it’s a groan from everybody. I’ve been interested in something that replaces jets, which are like getting on a bus. So I’ve been thinking about airships and hot air balloons, this is all kind of a childhood love, And yet it seems to me that sailing ships— another childhood love —are carbon zero. For me as an American leftist, slowing down is like an anti-capitalist move. We can increase quality of life, even if it decreases profit. That is not privation.
In the novel, the public willingness to abandon air travel and other climate-change accelerators comes not from a desire to save the planet per se, but from the very real threat of terror attacks. Even Mary’s ministry has a black ops wing. Is the political violence and eco terrorism of the book a warning, or a recommendation?
I would call it a warning. I’m a suburban American white man. I am in a very privileged position and recommending violence that I would never do myself, I would abhor that. Now, that said, the Ministry For the Future is a scary and confusing novel, in that there are people in that book that think they are fully justified in their violence against persons. I wish now that the book made a clearer distinction between murder and sabotage. When do privileged and comfortable citizens of the developed countries have a moral obligation to get in the way of fossil fuel burning and break things? That would be very different morally than murder or harming humans. So, the only thing I can say here is that the novel is confusing both on purpose—I wanted to imitate history—and by accident, in that my own mind was not clear enough to make the novel a better thought experiment. As it is, you have to read it like a detective. Did the Ministry do some of these violent acts or not? And then you have to think to yourself, ‘would I order that?’
I couldn’t help but think of that when we saw the hack of the Colonial Pipeline, followed by the hack of JBS beef industries earlier this month, two major climate change contributors.
On social media a lot of people were suggesting that these hackers had read the Ministry For the Future. I wasn’t sure if I should be horrified or pleased. But these things are going to be happening. I was basically acting like a reporter with this book. I didn’t make up new things, I just looked around the world, and sieved through to the points that I could put into a story of things that were happening now. And then I shoved it out into the future.
More than anything it was the financial markets and banking regulations that saved the day more than science, which seems like an unusual choice for a science fiction writer who writes a lot about scientists, and who is married to one.
The reason I focused on finances is, a; I’m interested in it. but b; I think it’s key. The scientists have already done their job. We already have the clean technologies. If we only worked with what we had right now we could be to carbon zero and even carbon negative. We don’t need the innovative new technologies. We’ll get them anyway, and it’ll make it easier, but if we had to go with what we have right now we could do it. But scaling them up? People are gonna have to pay for it. And you probably need to compensate the fossil fuel owners, financially, because they’re part of the economy in a big way, and if they just crash, then we go into a depression. A whole lot of money has to be seized and directed that way, as if we were in a war. I did have my scientists in Antarctica MacGyvering salvation at sea level, which was great fun, and turns out to be more possible than I thought when I wrote the book, but finance will be key.
Some of the other controversial solutions you touch on in the book, such as geoengineering and nuclear power, are third rail topics in the environmental sphere. Why was it important to include them?
Everything should be on the table. You do see analyses in which we just don’t need nuclear power, that solar and wind become so cheap and so powerful that between those and battery power we can get by without. So there is a debate to be had. But there’s no way that you should just say nuclear is dangerous and we always have to be against it no matter what. There are higher priorities than political correctness. The word geoengineering has been demonized particularly on the left because it looks like it’s a getaway card for the fossil fuel industry or it looks like we’re trying to ignore the problem and just MacGyver our way out of it. Well, women’s empowerment is geoengineering because it drops the population rate and that impacts the biosphere. Anything that’s done at scale is geoengineering. I know people in the geoengineering world who are trying to get rid of the word, it covers too many separate activities that have different impacts, and different possibilities. So, one replacement that I want to recommend is climate restoration. Geoengineering, you think about the engineering of the planet, you know we can’t do that very intelligently. Climate restoration speaks to the why of it, that we need to restore the climate or we might cause a massive extinction event. So then hopefully it comes back onto the table.
The IPCC report was grim. Does that make you lose hope?
No. It’s just going to be another spur in our butts to really act because we are right on the verge of starting to mess with a mass extinction event that we can’t undo. So I think a sense of urgency is justified, and does not replace hope. You need to use hope like a club to beat your opponent.
Hollywood has yet to address climate change in a big way. Will Ministry change that?
There’s promising developments going on with Ministry For the Future for a TV series, but I can’t say much more.