June 5, 2023

A recent article in The Economist addressed global warming’s effect on India and Pakistan. With discussion of “wet-bulb” temperatures, a more complex measurement of heat impact; 35 about the limit humans can endure. Heat waves in those countries inch toward that. It sounded like India and Pakistan are on the cusp of becoming literally uninhabitable.

Then I pick up Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 book, The Ministry for the Future. A novel — or a polemic in the guise of a novel. Starting in the very near future, with an Indian heat wave (and more wet-bulb talk), vividly chronicled through the eyes of Frank, a young aid worker at a clinic. The power’s gone out, but he’s got a generator and air conditioner. Until they’re stolen by gunmen. Frank still struggles to help save townspeople. In vain; all are among the 20 million killed by this heat wave. Frank himself survives — barely — traumatized.

The Ministry for the Future is a global agency set up to try to save civilization. But it’s not some monster bureaucracy with draconian powers. More like a glorified Greta Thunberg, to nag the world. Its head, Mary Murphy, is the book’s sort-of-hero. Its villain is “capitalism.”

There’s the usual bashing of fossil fuel industries; of course “the rich;” and “neoliberalism.” A pejorative referring to the economic consensus that widely emerged after communism and socialism seemed discredited; emphasizing free markets, globalization, free trade, and limits on government. When the word is fetishized, as here, you know where the writer is coming from politically.

Oh, and here America too is a villain. China and Russia basically good guys. Right-o.

This is a very preachy book. Pedantic, didactic, tedious. And long. Not a fun read. But a spoiler alert: the good guys win! Indeed, solving not just climate, but (practically) all the world’s other problems. Even inequality!

Some shadowy forces wage war against carbon emissions. Thus “Crash Day” when sixty planes go down. Though not quite indiscriminately — many are private jets. Container ships are being sunk. Et cetera. For Robinson, anyone contributing (heedlessly) to carbon emissions is a genocidal criminal deserving the ultimate penalty. Which he administers with relish.

Yet unlike many climate zealots, he understands the limitations of a carbon-centric approach. Even if we cut emissions to zero tomorrow, rising temperatures are already baked in. Global warming would only be moderated slightly.

“Geoengineering” is the term for actions to actually reverse the effects and cool the planet. It’s been a dirty word among climate warriors fixated on curbing emissions. One might think their real animus is not to save humanity but to punish it; to especially punish “neoliberal capitalism.” Geoengineering seen as an unwelcome distraction from that jihad.

In the book, India, after its catastrophic heat wave, goes full geoengineering — sending up planes to seed the atmosphere in mimicry of a major volcanic eruption, which does cause cooling. Mary Murphy tells India they can’t do that without international consensus. India tells Mary to stuff it.

Other concepts in the book, new to me, are pumping sea water into Antarctica’s interior where it freezes, thus offsetting sea level rises due to melting ice elsewhere; and dying the Arctic Ocean yucky yellow, to prevent heat absorption.

All these measures are portrayed favorably, as feasible and impactful, without the untoward side effects that geoengineering haters warn of. Indeed, given the climate crisis extremity in this imagined future, the word “geoengineering” loses its opprobrium, and even drops from common discourse. Now it’s just doing whatever it takes to save civilization.

Capitalism’s critics rarely have a glimmer of an alternative. Robinson at least tries. Confronting the argument that the market’s pricing and production decisions are too complex for government planners to substitute for — as the Soviet Union proved — Robinson says AI should solve that, being up to the job. Disregarding that bloodless AI lacks the entrepreneurial incentive to satisfy customers.

That’s the “greed” we keep hearing about. Another word Robinson harps on. Excessive greed can — like anything excessive — be a vice; but “greed” itself merely refers to the universal human desire for betterment for oneself and one’s family. An ineradicable thirst for wealth and status. Which has been the impetus behind betterment for everyone, all human progress. The idea of a world without “greed,” with everyone just complacently having their needs met, is actually inhuman — a world of cardboard cut-outs, not people.

Similarly, Robinson’s alternative economic model — he plays footsie with the word “socialism” — entails disallowing profit for provision of any goods or services people really need, those needs being met instead by government. Well, he talks in terms of everyone owning everything in common. But in practice that means government. Which in turn means certain people once again having inordinate power. Something you can’t get around, no matter the system.

The source of the money to finance production of all these goods and services, to be distributed with nobody making any profit, is something of a mystery. People would still be paid for working; with everyone, moreover, guaranteed a job. Old Soviet joke: “we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us.”

Robinson considers money itself a bad thing, at least as presently constituted; he sees it replaced by some sort of blockchain “people’s money” which, somehow, no one can hide or exploit for bad ends. And nobody’s allowed to have more than a limited amount.

It seems he actually foresees replacing humanity itself, as presently constituted, with a new model, free of greed, selfishness, tribalism, ignorance, every bad tendency. Required for the global New Jerusalem he envisions.

I’m no misanthrope, believing human good outweighs the bad. But you gotta grapple with the bad. Can’t just wish it all away.

Early in the book, attendees at an annual Davos gathering are locked in by some of those eco-terrorists and subjected to “re-education” via films and power-points, trying to shake their capitalist faith. They’re told that four billion people are still in poverty.* And one of the captive fat-cats rejoins that but for capitalism, it would be eight billion.

That guy was right. Robinson should listen to him.

* No longer true.