The dark side of environmentalism

“The Ministry for the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson isn’t a book that lauds ecoterrorists. In fact, it mostly manages to avoid the subject across its many pages. Yet, at the center of its speculative account about the eponymous ministry and its leadership over the next few decades, the dark side is the linchpin for transitioning Earth to its peaceful, sustainable future.

It’s a strange setup for a plot-driven novel, in which the actual plot — the sabotage to airplanes, the sinking of cargo ships — is mentioned casually as news commentary, sometimes in conversations between characters. The so-called Children of Kali group, seen in a handful of quick asides and vicariously through rumors, uses the darker methods of violence to force the plutocratic capitalist class to finally capitulate toward a net-zero carbon world.

Image Credits: Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Ecoterrorism has gotten more sympathetic purchase from authors in recent years as the climate crisis has crescendoed. Richard Powers, the author of “The Overstory,” which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, depicted how five divergent characters eventually come together to commit a violent act to save the planet and then process the repercussions.

It’s a grisly subject, and one that had been all but off limits in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It’s not particularly novel, though. Square’s Final Fantasy VII, which was released in 1997 and remains a lodestar in that franchise’s long history, follows a cell of ecoterrorists trying to save the planet from the machinations of the evil mako-extraction corporate empire Shinra.

Yet Robinson has avoided the challenging ethical quandaries of violent revolution, or the deeply wrought emotions that come from people who theoretically love the planet and people and believe somehow that killing those very beings is a form of salvation. Instead, he writes a sprawling, heady work that explores the challenges of getting to a carbon-free future, ultimately finding that humanity can get there, albeit with an off-page violent nudge here and there.

As a work of speculative fiction, “The Ministry for the Future” is heavily ladened with speculation, with an almost encyclopedic remit. It’s got discursive discussions on everything from the discount rate used in economics to blockchains, glacier movements, central bank politics, scientific bureaucracy, Swiss governance, Earth’s albedo and more. It’s a very comprehensive policy memo wrapped up into a windy plot that extends over decades — and let’s be clear, a much better narrative than any policy memo could ever hope to attain.

Yet, the novel reminds me of an old adage about diplomacy and many other professions: The job is one that is mostly boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. At its best, “The Ministry for the Future” is able to capture indelible scenes of the future with deep empathy and verve. The opening scenes of a heat wave that strikes India are harrowing, stinging and unforgettable. Robinson is at his finest when crafting scenes of nature, with discussions of Antarctica, the Swiss Alps and views from airships having particular resonance.

That’s only maybe a quarter of the book though. Robinson has taken on a quixotic challenge, to write a propulsive narrative that can transform the activities of an agency tasked with enforcing the Paris climate agreement into something enticing for a general readership. It’s uneven, and there are glimpses of scenes that remind me of Malka Older’s Centenal Cycle, which similarly had a lens on a future supranational government body and its bureaucratic goings-on.

Older had a direct villain in her series though, while Robinson has taken on the damn hard challenge of doing without. The villain is all of us, it’s capitalism and the system, it’s inertia and lethargy. A reader’s interest in a political bureaucrat’s fight against inertia is heavily dependent on whether their personal biography includes a stint at a public policy graduate school. That’s me, but even I couldn’t quite get there.

But even with nearly 600 pages of discourse on climate change mechanics and economics, what’s missing is still the most interesting part of Robinson’s work. Whole countries change their politics, sometimes in as short as a page. Capitalists, sitting in Davos and forcibly locked down by presumably the Children of Kali to watch videos of the death of the planet and a positive path forward, suddenly have a change of heart. It’s speculative fiction of course, but with a heavy dose of “what if this just happened.” What if China suddenly became an open, democratized and equitable place? What if India just rejected its modern Hindutva and returned to an organic, agrarian society of regenerative farming? What if the capitalists just gave up?

What’s missing repeatedly in the book is any form of narration on human behavior, and particularly, the penchant for revenge for those forced to go without. Sure, an ecoterrorist group is successful in using drones to sink the cargo ships littering the high seas and knocking out carbon-emitting planes from the sky, and also hacking all banks around the world and destroying petrodollars. Do any of the people affected ever respond? Ironically, the Children of Kali were formed in the aftermath of that India heat wave, so revenge is certainly on the author’s mind.

Robinson wants to unveil what’s possible, to show us a different path. But of course, what’s possible is quite literally always possible. The challenge is how to actually strike down that path, given the human forces that are often insurmountable along the journey. In this way, the novel is less speculative fiction and more just fantasy, a form of escapism for a particularly politically attuned observer of world affairs, who just wishes that people in Geneva can make things happen.

That lack of human behavioral insight can lead the book astray quite quickly. “The Ministry for the Future” was published in 2020 centering on the coming decades, and one of its plot points is how China becomes the vessel for changing the climate debate in the years ahead. In the process, Hong Kong becomes something of a bastion of freedom and democracy.

In the novel’s final pages, we get the analysis of how it won its freedom. “So we in Hong Kong fought for it, we fought for the rule of law. All through the years between 1997 and 2047 we fought.” How did they fight? “Over the years we saw what worked and refined our methods. Violence didn’t work. Numbers did. That’s the secret, in case you are looking for the secret to resisting an imperial power, which was what we were doing through those years. Non-violent resistance of the total population, or as much of it as you can get. That’s what works.”

Contemporaneously with the book’s publication (editing and publishing always takes a long time of course), Hong Kong’s resistance movement completely collapsed. Hundreds of thousands joined the various movement protests over the past few years, only to be completely subsumed by the mainland government in incredibly short order. Newspapers have been shut, websites blocked, museums, universities and cultural institutions curtailed. Numbers just didn’t pan out. Non-violent resistance was executed par excellence by organizers in Hong Kong. They failed completely.

Which brings us back to the uncanny nature of the book’s central premise. For all the positive changes we should look forward to, this future history depends on a radical group willing to commit violence to usher in this world. Robinson wants utopia and feels that a natural utopia is within our grasp but can’t seem to find a way there with what’s on the page. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” someone once said. It’s a notion that Hong Kong recently relearned, and one that is increasingly normalized in the environmental discourse. The Ministry for the Future is just reusing the same tactics that past ministries of the world have used, and that’s a devastation that none of us should want.

The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson
Hachette, 2020, 576 pages