Robinson’s book contains plenty of warnings for today’s political leaders and policymakers. In Ministry, ever more extreme climate events coupled with political inaction eventually trigger violence and terrorism. A tiny United Nations agency, dubbed the “Ministry for the Future,” maneuvers adroitly in a desperate bid to get countries and institutions to take steps to save mankind.
I called Robinson to find out what he’s been thinking this summer as he’s watched the world move closer to the kind of climate catastrophes that trigger the plot of Ministry for the Future. Although Robinson recently published his first nonfiction book, The High Sierra: A Love Story, he told me that Ministry for the Future continues to monopolize his time, filling his days with a constant round of addresses, interviews — and in the ultimate fiction meets reality — an appearance at the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference in 2021. (UN climate conferences are important to Ministry’s plot.)
“This book has transformed my life,” Robinson said. “I’m doing nothing but talking about Ministry for the Future for the last year and a half, almost two years now. It’s also terrifying. It shows to me that people are feeling a desperate need for a story like this. They’re grabbing onto this book like a piece of driftwood, and they’re drowning at the open ocean.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Laidman: In your opening chapter, 20 million people die in an Indian heat wave and power failure, with several thousand of them poached to death in a lake as they try to escape the heat. Will it take this kind of climate horror to jolt the world into action?
Robinson: No. When I was at COP 26, Jordanian diplomat Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, who had read Ministry, was talking about the power of stories. He said, “You don’t need to be in a plane crash to know that it would be bad to be in a plane crash.” Every year since I wrote the book — I wrote it maybe three years ago — it’s as if attention to the climate change crisis has more than doubled. It’s almost exponential.
We’re not at the point of solutions, but at every COP meeting the sense that, “Oh my gosh, we are headed into a plane crash” is intensified. We’re not doing enough. We’re not paying the poor countries enough. Rich countries are breaking promises made at earlier COPs. Disillusionment with that process is getting so intense that I fear for the COP process itself. I’ve been comparing it to the League of Nations. The League of Nations was a great idea that failed. And then we got the 1930s and World War II. The 2015 Paris Agreement was an awesome thing, like something that I would write that people would call utopian. But it happened in the real world.
Now, with Russia and the brutal Ukraine war, things are so messed up that the COP process and the Paris Agreement could turn into the League of Nations. I’m frightened for that. It’s not a done deal.
Laidman: We have an incredible capacity, it seems, to ignore the plane crash. You talk about this in the book, the pervasive belief that someone else’s disaster couldn’t happen to us, the idea that, “they must have done something wrong.”
Robinson: Michael Lewis has a great story about that in his book [The Fifth Risk: Undoing Democracy] on the federal government. A town in Oklahoma is destroyed by a tornado, the next town over, people say, “Oh, well that they’re in the tornado track, and we’re not.” So yes, we have that capacity. That brings up a good point, though. When you say that, even if 20 million people died in India, people would say, well that’s India — too many people, bad infrastructure, in the tropics. It’s almost their fault. It’s like school shootings in America. Everybody regrets it. Everybody moves on. Nothing changes.
What will make the difference is the cumulative knowledge of climate change in my own home territory. The effects didn’t kill me, but I can tell it’s going to be bad for my children. It’s as though you’ve got a creeping illness, gangrene. You aren’t dead yet, but you know that you’re sick.
Laidman: You’ve spent so much time studying financial policy in addition to all the technology you talk about with ease. I kept looking things up, sometimes to see if they were inventions, like Javon’s paradox, Mondragon, the Gini coefficient. And they were all real.
Robinson: The only thing an English major is trained to do is to read texts and try to generate some new ones. I’m very used to reading scientific papers and science journalism. That’s my main reading. But it was at least 30 years ago when someone said, “Gee, it’s too bad you don’t know anything about economics.” And I was irritated. Then I thought, well, actually I don’t know anything about economics. So, these last 30 years I have been doing a kind of a self-guided study with a lot of help from economists, in political economy in particular. When you’re talking about economics, you need to always think about the political economy that created it in the first place. Then it’s obvious that capitalism is not natural. It’s not actually adequate to the situation. It creates inequality. It wrecks the biosphere. We need post-capitalism. I began thinking that in the early 1990s. But when you go hunting for what comes after capitalism, you find nothing. It’s incredible.
As a science fiction writer, I’ve been frustrated by the lack of help from theorists to build future societies in my novels. I’ve had to cobble it together from people who have done that work, but they’re often from the past. My retreat to Keynesianism in Ministry isn’t post capitalism, it’s going back to an earlier moment of capitalism where government was still the driving force. To make Ministry look plausible — because we are stuck in the system that we’re in with a gigantic network of laws and practices — I needed something that we’ve already done before that might work.
Laidman: In your book, India not only suffers the greatest catastrophe, it then becomes the model for carbon reform. What made you pick India?
Robinson: I had to ponder that hard when writing it. In some ways, it’s a dodge. Most of the readers of this book are in America or in the English-speaking world, although, it’s getting read in India too, for sure. But what I mean is, if the good things happen in a big country on the other side of the world, you’re more likely to believe them because you don’t know the details of that country as well as your own country. If I were to set it in our own country, at every point you’d be going, well, that wouldn’t happen. That’s impossible. So, on the one hand, it’s a utopian literary dodge to put the change elsewhere so you can believe in it. And that’s not good.