Between the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing ravages of climate change, and even the social-political unrest accompanying this year’s American presidential election, the world is being battered by so many simultaneous crises that it can be hard to look to the future with any hope. Enter Kim Stanley Robinson. The prolific science-fiction author has a new book coming out next month titled The Ministry for the Future, and it portrays a vision of the near future where, if some people work hard enough, maybe everything won’t come to an end.
The central subject of The Ministry for the Future is climate change. The title refers to a fictional organization created under the umbrella of the Paris Agreement in order to combat climate change in a way that will keep the planet inhabitable for future generations. “Science fiction” is maybe a semi-inaccurate descriptor, since everything that happens in The Ministry for the Future could (and who knows, might) happen in our world. Plus, though most of the novel is a narrative following the Ministry’s founding members and their strenuous efforts to get world leaders on board with saving the planet, it is also frequently broken up by one-chapter interludes that are small digressions about the ecological, political, and social elements of climate change’s effects on society.
You can exclusively check out one such interlude below, in which an unnamed omniscient narrator (perhaps just Robinson himself) explains how easy it would be for humanity to live in an equal, sustainable way — if only those greedy rich people weren’t hogging everything for themselves. It’s important to recognize that a better world is very much possible.
The Ministry for the Future is out Oct. 16 from Orbit Books. You can read another small excerpt detailing the founding of the titular agency on the publisher’s website.
Excerpt from The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson
Possibly some of the richest two percent of the world’s population have decided to give up on the pretense that “progress” or “development” or “prosperity” can be achieved for all eight billion of the world’s people. For quite a long time, a century or two, this “prosperity for all” goal had been the line taken; that although there was inequality now, if everyone just stuck to the program and did not rock the boat, the rising tide would eventually float even the most high-and-dry among them. But early in the twenty-first century it became clear that the planet was incapable of sustaining everyone alive at Western levels, and at that point the richest pulled away into their fortress mansions, bought the governments or disabled them from action against them, and bolted their doors to wait it out until some poorly theorized better time, which really came down to just the remainder of their lives, and perhaps the lives of their children if they were feeling optimistic— beyond that, après moi le déluge.
A rational response to an intractable problem. But not really. There was scientifically supported evidence to show that if the Earth’s available resources were divided up equally among all eight billion humans, everyone would be fine. They would all be at adequacy, and the scientific evidence very robustly supported the contention that people living at adequacy, and confident they would stay there (a crucial point), were healthier and thus happier than rich people. So the upshot of that equal division would be an improvement for all.
Rich people would often snort at this last study, then go off and lose sleep over their bodyguards, tax lawyers, legal risks — children crazy with arrogance, love not at all fungible — over-eating and over-indulgence generally, resulting health problems, ennui and existential angst — in short, an insomniac faceplant into the realization that science was once again right, that money couldn’t buy health or love or happiness. Although it has to be added that a reliable sufficiency of money is indeed necessary to scaffold the possibility of those good things. The happy medium, the Goldilocks zone in terms of personal income, according to sociological analyses, seemed to rest at around 100,000 US dollars a year, or about the same amount of money that most working scientists made, which was a little suspicious in several senses, but there it stood: data.
And one can run the math. The 2,000 Watt Society, started in 1998 in Switzerland, calculated that if all the energy consumed by households were divided by the total number of humans alive, each would have the use of about 2,000 watts of power, meaning about 48 kilowatt-hours per day. The society’s members then tried living on that amount of electricity to see what it was like: they found it was fine. It took paying attention to energy use, but the resulting life was by no means a form of suffering; it was even reported to feel more stylish and meaningful to those who undertook the experiment.
So, is there energy enough for all? Yes. Is there food enough for all? Yes. Is there housing enough for all? There could be, there is no real problem there. Same for clothing. Is there health care enough for all? Not yet, but there could be; it’s a matter of training people and making small technological objects, there is no planetary constraint on that one. Same with education. So all the necessities for a good life are abundant enough that everyone alive could have them. Food, water, shelter, clothing, health care, education.
Is there enough security for all? Security is the feeling that results from being confident that you will have all the things listed above, and your children will have them too. So it is a derivative effect. There can be enough security for all; but only if all have security.
If one percent of the humans alive controlled everyone’s work, and took far more than their share of the benefits of that work, while also blocking the project of equality and sustainability however they could, that project would become more difficult. This would go without saying, except that it needs saying.
To be clear, concluding in brief: there is enough for all. So there should be no more people living in poverty. And there should be no more billionaires. Enough should be a human right, a floor below which no one can fall; also a ceiling above which no one can rise. Enough is a good as a feast— or better.
Arranging this situation is left as an exercise for the reader.