Coming back from a time of illness: how finance can learn from climate change fiction
Nick Robins reviews Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel ‘The Ministry for the Future’.
Note: Contains some plot details.
2020 tied for the hottest year on record, driven by the continuing carbon pollution of the atmosphere. Images of kangaroos silhouetted against burning eucalyptus and the Golden Gate bridge surrounded by fire stay sharp in the memory. In many places, the heat became unbearable. But imagine if spiralling temperatures started to kill on a massive scale.
This is how the science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson opens his latest novel, The Ministry for the Future. The tale is hardly science fiction at all, rather a thriller set in the near future. The book starts with the world’s nations continuing their inadequate efforts in the form of the annual climate summits (or COPs). Then, to spur action, in 2025 the UN sets up the clunkily named ‘Subsidiary Body for Implementation’, which quickly becomes known as the ‘Ministry for the Future’. Shortly afterwards a catastrophic heat wave hits India and around 20 million people die. In the wake of this trauma the Ministry’s founding director, a determined Irish diplomat called Mary Murphy, works to restore planetary ecosystems and achieve some form of climate justice.
The Ministry for the Future is the latest addition to Robinson’s rich body of work that deploys fiction to get us thinking about our relationship with our environment. It has strong links to his 2017 climate thriller, New York 2140. In this earlier book, set over a hundred years hence, climate efforts have failed spectacularly and sea levels have risen by more than 50 feet. New York City has become a 22nd century Venice, with life lived among remnant skyscrapers and avenues reborn as canals. The drama swirls around the residents of the Met Life Tower as they try to thrive in this transformed but still recognisable waterscape: cops and activist lawyers, hackers and traders in intertidal derivatives, wildlife stars and ‘water rats’ (a pair of Oliver Twistian youngsters). New York remains a centre of global capital and the dance of finance is subtly played out as hedge fund managers aspire to deliver social benefits, and housing campaigners plot a debt strike to force the banking system to finally serve the public good.
In some ways The Ministry can be seen as a special kind of prequel to 2140, one that explores how the devastated future engulfing New York could be avoided. Across its 500-plus pages The Ministry sets out“how to do the needful in the biosphere’s time of crisis”. Our own decade is presented as the “Trembling Twenties”, before the “Great Turn” begins. The heroine of the story, Mary Murphy, backs a series of policy bets to make a difference, from legal manoeuvres to refreezing meltwater on Antarctica. But climate conditions continue to worsen. Shadowy terrorist groups emerge (including the Children of Kali, based in India), who bring down fossil-fuelled jets, sink diesel-powered ships and inject millions of cattle with ‘mad cow disease’ to stop beef eating. One year, the Davos conference is held hostage. Cities run dry of water; others are devastated by flooding.
Reimagining financial purpose
Beneath these episodes of climate drama, this is a story that easily navigates the contours of a financialised world in the age of climate chaos, gliding between stranded assets and the time value of money. The book is not shy of its critique of the prevailing neo-liberal economic order: “the invisible hand never picks up the check”. Indeed, the book can be read as a vast scenario exercise showing how the transformation of finance becomes part of the solution to the climate crisis.
Strikingly, central banks are given a pivotal role in this reimagining of financial purpose. Murphy’s team come up with the idea that central banks should introduce a new climate-linked currency, the carbon coin. A supercharged form of quantitative easing (QE), the plan is to issue coins to pay for activities that sequester carbon, ranging from keeping fossil fuels in the ground to rewarding subsistence farmers for regenerative agriculture. To win support for the idea, Murphy heads out to meet the chair of the US Federal Reserve, Jane Yablonski. (Is it a coincidence that she shares the same initials as former Fed Governor and incoming US Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen?) Yablonski stonewalls, arguing that saving the world is simply “not our purview”. Murphy also finds the Bank of England to be “coolly unappreciative”, so too the European Central Bank and the Bundesbank. The People’s Bank of China stands out as Murphy’s strongest hope for the plan, but it still does nothing.
Eventually, after further ecological disasters and the worst financial crisis for a century, the Climate Coalition of Central Banks (CCCB) is established to administer the entry of carbon coin into the world. The world of finance takes this shift in its stride and the carbon coin is quickly included in indices, traded and shorted just like every other commodity, in the process “hedging the apocalypse”. In all of this, Stanley Robinson deftly captures the cautious approach to climate change initially taken by central banks uneasy about overstepping their mandate. The drama also brings to life the growing range of proposals for central banks to tie their policies to sustainability goals, for example through ‘green QE’.
What would a just civilisation look like?
Halfway through, Stanley Robinson sets out a question which sums up the book’s narrative drive: “a just civilisation of eight billion, in balance with the biosphere’s production of the things we need: how would that look?”. In answering this question, The Ministry for the Future ranges far beyond finance and has all the elements of death and desire to keep the pages turning. But it’s not without its tensions.
The first is a timeline which stretches out to the 2050s, which jars with the mounting pressure for urgent action. With all the climate disruption underway, it’s not clear why it takes so long for the CCCB to be set up. In the real world, the Network for Greening the Financial System is already up and running with more than 80 central bank members including the Federal Reserve – although it is still some distance from introducing anything like the carbon coin. Second, at times The Ministry risks becoming a radical wish-list, with name-checks for the real-life Basque cooperative Mondragón, organic agriculture in Sikkim, crowdfunded financial alternatives, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and mandatory wage caps. But perhaps these aspects of the book are part of its design, the first to generate frustration (why do we have to wait so long?) and the second to prompt robust rethinking (if not this, then what?).
Towards the end of the book, Murphy attends her final climate conference. Has the Great Turn worked? What has happened to levels of carbon dioxide and inequality? This I will leave readers to discover for themselves. But this is not her final engagement. One more time, she heads to meet the central bankers and reflects that: “these people were as close to rulers of the world as existed. With quiet satisfaction, she concludes that: “if they are now using their power to protect the biosphere and increase equity, the world could very well tack onto a new heading and take a good course”.
The golden thread of money that runs through this work of fiction is both a vindication of the vital work of so many people today to build a genuinely sustainable financial system and also a push to be bolder and move more quickly. Profiling central bankers as one of the unusual heroes of the tale speaks to a potential that has yet to be fully scoped, let alone deployed. Beyond the pages of climate change fiction, the financial world is now gearing up for the 2021 COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. Amidst all the buzz about net-zero and green bonds, conservation finance and impact investing, The Ministry makes this contest seem more human, more urgent and also far more rewarding. With the fruits of the Great Turn starting to emerge, one of The Ministry’s characters notes that “it feels like coming back from a time of illness. Like healing, like getting healthy”. This seems like something to really aim for, especially as we struggle to plan and invest in a green and just recovery from COVID-19.
‘The Ministry for the Future’ by Kim Stanley Robinson was published in October 2020 by Orbit.
Nick Robins thanks Caspar Henderson for comments on an earlier draft of this commentary.