Book Review: Kim Stanley Robinson's 'The Ministry for the Future'

The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, 2020) is a magnificent novel but also an especially welcome resource for thinking about ecosocialist initiatives for a near-future global Green New Deal. Could not be more timely! This was my initial impression upon reading it last week. After some reflection, I am somewhat more critical but still highly recommend this novel for its inspiration and provocation — particularly because of how Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR) concretely addresses the radical transformation of real existing capitalism dominated by its militarized fossil legacy. Ministry should certainly be subject to critique, but KSR has his heart in the left place!

After reading KSR’s novel 2140 in 2019, I sent him an email suggesting that his scenario for this post–climate catastrophe New York City would be more relevant to the near-future pre–climate catastrophe early 21st century. While I am confident that my email had nothing to do with why KSR wrote The Ministry for the Future, I am delighted he did address our immediate future this time. And how refreshing is this radical utopian novel, in contrast to most dystopian sci-fi, which feeds into the quietistic self-indulgence of so many in the professional class.

The novel begins with the horrific mass death of 20 million in India from a climate change–induced heat wave, which creates a foundation for what transpires over the next two decades — including, as a character, a survivor of this event. Significantly, Kerala/India is chosen as the model for ecosocialist, democratic communism and not China, which only exits from its Communist Party, top-down-ruled state capitalism — “socialism with Chinese characteristics” — later on. While multidimensional/transnational/top-down and bottom-up class struggle is pointed to with several examples, the emphasis is more on top-down-initiated change led by the Ministry, with a middle-aged Irish woman as leader; in itself a welcome choice. India is by no accident the locale for the emergence of the Children of Kali, bringing Andreas Malm's How to Blow Up a Pipeline to its logical conclusion, i.e., revolutionary terror directed against fossil capital and its human instruments. And a leader of the Ministry from Nepal is involved in this terror campaign. Bottom-up class struggles around the world are featured — mass strikes, civil disobedience — but described briefly without explaining their history or how they are organized. W. Warren Wagar, in his A Short History of the Future, invoked the agency of a transnational world party for bringing about a post-capitalist future. I didn’t see an analogue in The Ministry for the Future. I submit that an ecosocialist transnational party coordinating national struggles while emerging as a powerful countervailing force challenging the rule of both national and transnational capital is a more plausible agent for radical transformation of global, political and physical economy than an institution created by the IPCC operating out of Zurich.

At the same time, Ministry highlights the global transition to abundant clean energy with the capacity for carbon sequestration from the atmosphere, desalination of sea water and sufficient energy consumption/person for meeting basic needs. We addressed the same specifics in our published non-fiction studies going back to 2011 (,

I note an interesting convergence of digital political intervention from the left between what the former Greek Finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, has proposed in his novel Another Now and its analogue in Ministry, which points to the lack of a plan B to avoid devastating austerity imposed by European finance capital (in the case of Greece when Syriza ruled [chapter 82]). In fact, Varoufakis did attempt to pressure his government to adopt a plan B but failed. Ministry argues that the “best plan B will emerge from the multitudes.” Ministry includes a very welcome explicit critique of US imperialism and militarism (p. 482-483).

The Ministry for the Future adopts the scenario of E. O. Wilson, putting half of the Earth's surface in protected status to preserve biodiversity. I suggest an alternative is found in this paper by ecosocialist ecologists: “Biodiversity and Agriculture: Nature’s Matrix and the Future of Conservation.” This approach is rooted in current struggles of groups like La Vía Campesina and research by the authors, e.g., high biodiversity in shaded coffee agriculture in contrast to mono-culture.

On February 23, I participated as an observer and posted chat comments in a DSA-sponsored Zoom meeting that featured KSR in a one-hour interview. He reiterated his support for Wilson’s Half-Earth proposal, as well as the need for a negative global population growth driven by women’s education. Indeed, there is mention of a possible optimal global population of 2 to 4 billion in Ministry (p. 502). I do not share KSR’s support for neo-Malthusianism/sociobiology lite.

The late Immanuel Wallerstein said in his final blog post, "I have indicated in the past that I thought the crucial struggle was a class struggle, using class in a very broadly defined sense. What those who will be alive in the future can do is to struggle with themselves so this change may be a real one. I still think that and, therefore, I think there is a 50-50 chance that we’ll make it to transformatory change, but only 50-50." Let’s hope that readers of The Ministry for the Future around the world will be inspired to increase these odds for a hopeful tomorrow.

Related Entries