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At JLF, sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson on climate change

At Jaipur Literature Festival 2022, the decorated sci-fi writer spoke on concepts from his book, in which a town near Lucknow reels under a heat wave

Kim Stanley Robinson speaking in a session during the TED Countdown at Cop 26
Kim Stanley Robinson speaking in a session during the TED Countdown at Cop 26 ( Screenshot from the UN Climate Change channel on Youtube)

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Last year, American writer Kim Stanley Robinson, one of the most decorated and popular science fiction writers of all time, was invited to ‘TED at COP26’, a series of preview events leading up to COP26 or the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference at Glasgow, eventually held across late October and early November, 2021. Robinson spoke about ‘carbon coins’, a fictional concept from his latest novel The Ministry For the Future (2020) that experts now believe may be part of a very real set of solutions to the climate change crisis. Simply put, carbon coins are a traceable digital currency, a way of incentivizing the removal of a bloc of carbon from the atmosphere — a company planting an all-new forest in a region they have previously polluted, a nation committing to using less oil and natural gas, and so on.

‘The Ministry for the Future’ was also the name of Robinson’s online session at the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) yesterday, wherein he was interviewed about the eponymous novel by the writer and journalist Raghu Karnad. Describing the book as a “planetary novel”, Karnad said that one of the aspects of the book that appealed to him was “the heroic role it gives to India” in the ongoing climate change crisis. Robinson explained the making of the opening chapter of The Ministry For the Future, which is set in a town just outside of Lucknow reeling under a heat wave.

“That chapter came about after I read about the danger posed by ‘wet bulb heat waves’, which combine extreme heat with extreme humidity,” said Robinson. “There are parts of America, especially in the Midwest, that have seen something like this before. There are other areas around the world, too, like the Persian Gulf region but the Gangetic plain in North India is, obviously, of great concern. This is also because the surrounding Himalayas act as a natural back-wall of sorts, trapping heat and humidity onto the plains. At ‘wet bulb 35’ or above, the human body breaks down completely and you can die. And so, air conditioning becomes of paramount importance.” In the novel’s opening chapter, this is exactly what happens — a power grid failure in Uttar Pradesh (India’s most populous state) in the middle of a heat wave, leads to millions of people dying due to heat sickness, a cataclysmic event that forces the hand of both governmental and non-governmental Indian stakeholders to take action immediately.

As Karnad correctly pointed out, this is a novel almost overstuffed with hopeful stories from around the globe — a simple plot description of The Ministry For the Future would be “hundreds of organised players and lone wolves across the planet take radical action to reverse the effects of climate change and bring about systemic change”. Most of the chapters in the book are no more than 2 to 3 pages long and a lot of them are first-person eyewitness accounts that make the narrative all the more urgent and viscerally enjoyable. The book is both dystopian and utopian — it is incredibly detailed and technical in its depiction of exactly how climate change leads to death and destruction on a global scale. But it is also relentlessly optimistic in its faith in mankind, in the wish-fulfillment narrative of ‘I will solve this, come what may’.

The front cover of the book
The front cover of the book

And if doing so upends political and economic systems that we take for a given, so be it. Not that everything about the novel is inherently utopian or unrealistic—quite the contrary, including and especially the titular idea, a body representing the interests of the next generation, ensuring that incumbent governments do not overdo ‘quick fixes’ at the policy level. In fact, in 2019 the Welsh government appointed Sophie Howe the world’s first “Future Generations Commissioner”, representing the interests of the Welsh unborn. And it makes sense, when you think about it: children across the world have zero votes between them, while they will, in all probability, have to deal with a global-scale climate catastrophe through no fault of their own.

To that futurist end, Robinson spoke about the aforementioned ‘carbon coins’ in the novel, saying, “I would describe it as Keynesian economics vs neoliberal economics.” He explained further: “In Keynesian economics, the government leads the market while in neoliberal economics the government serves capital and the market, mostly. Carbon coins would be fiat currency, built upon a mutually agreed-upon system (of incentivizing carbon removal) among the governments of the world. The government says what counts as ‘value’ and the market follows. The cryptocurrencies that we hear so much about these days are just a bunch of guys speculating in the developed world, they’ll never replace fiat currency.”

Karnad noted that the novel name-checks several Indian organizations doing invaluable grassroots work to fight climate change. “The novel offers a surprisingly believable solution as to how India can lead the world in this fight,” Karnad said. “If during the last century, India’s call to leadership in the 20th century was decolonization, in this century it’s de-carbonisation, leading the world into a post-carbon future.” The range of strategies employed by Robinson’s characters is impressive and tells the reader just how many things we need to get right at the same time, if we are to save the planet. There are lobbying efforts across both government and industry, there are unsung on-ground heroes who guide their peasant communities towards climate change-alleviating patterns of behaviour. There are even ‘dark cells’ of the titular Ministry that are not averse to, say, drone-bombing a leading oil company’s reserves or kidnapping a couple of billionaires in order to leverage their companies into enforcing their own ‘green policies’ much more stringently.

Both Robinson and Karnad emphasized that a big part of the struggle was political — the global rise of disinformation-fuelled nationalism has to be countered with “internationalist governments who see the larger picture”, according to Robinson. Karnad has, in the past, made similar points about climate change and the role of governments in his podcast Marine Lines, which hosts conversations around Bombay’s natural spaces and ecosystems.

“I wrote this novel in 2019, mostly, when I was in a foul mood,” said Robinson. “Donald Trump, a rabble-rousing fear-mongering nationalist if ever there was one, was attempting reelection and for a while there it seemed like he had a chance. Luckily, his defeat gave us one of the small victories of the climate change movement. But there are going to have to be many, many such small victories to go before we can begin to make a real change.” 

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer

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