Warning: This blog contains unsolicited advice and the dreaded “you should have” from a lowly Internet blogger to a well-regarded, award-winning, and best-selling author.
Highlights of this review:
The Ministry for the Future, and its author Kim Stanley Robinson (KSR), advance important ideas into the public sphere, and should be celebrated and promoted widely. The book calls out capitalism for “shorting civilization,” points the finger at the 1%, as well as the central bankers. It mentions many of the ideas FEASTA has been working on, and in some ways I’m nitpicking it in this review because it doesn’t mention FEASTA by name, nor Peter Barnes or Richard Douthwaite, nor me (LOL on that last one)!
The book comes very close to getting it right, but I will go ahead and offer how it could be made better (for a second edition?). One of the big ideas in the book, the “Carbon coin,” reminds me of an offsets-based approach (payments made for emission reductions off a fictitious business-as-usual baseline). It would have been better if, rather than quantitatively-eased into existence by central banks, it were instead a cap-and-permit-based carbon cap-and-dividend program, where permits are made valuable by a tight cap on carbon and paid for by fossil fuel companies. In other words, I wish CapGlobalCarbon were the main project of the Ministry. And while we’re at it, let’s rename the Ministry into the Global Climate Trust. And instead of an Irish bureaucrat named Mary, let’s make my friend Morag from FEASTA the main protagonist. And let’s get The Rock to play me in the movie. And let’s make it non-fiction instead of cli-fi (climate fiction). Actually, forget about reading books, let’s go implement CapGlobalCarbon at COP-26! OK, read on for the full book review.
Ministry’s author, who some fans call KSR, is very knowledgeable, maybe the best sci-fi and cli-fi writer out there. I always learn something from his books. One of his previous books from about 8 years ago, called 2312, was amazing, with characters traversing the solar system from Mercury to Titan in spinning asteroids, and some asteroids are set aside for wildlife to preserve endangered biomes from Earth. It got me back into sci-fi after my decades of reading primarily climate science and ecological monetary reform non-fiction. KSR’s Mars Trilogy is a classic, and changed my ideas about terraforming and geoengineering, even to the point where I don’t think geoengineering is controversial anymore. I really enjoyed the Science in the Capital series, which I read soon after I moved to Washington DC in 2012. Reading the newspapers today, I wonder when the oil tankers will start dumping salt into the Northern Atlantic to restart the thermohaline circulation, something he wrote about almost 15 years ago. His book New York 2140 was also very interesting, with boats replacing taxis and walkways at the 10th floor replacing the flooded sidewalks of the new Venice. (By the way, if you like New York climate catastrophe, the 2013 book Odds Against Tomorrow by Nathaniel Rich is another strong contender in the cli-fi genre.) But back to Robinson, as you can tell, his books always contain big ideas and environmental themes. Even Aurora, which took place in a “generation space ship” in deep space, revolved around ecology, and included a lot of soil science.
In Ministry, KSR knows that economics is at the heart of the transformation to sustainability. He also knows about the Bretton Woods system, the World Bank’s structural adjustment program, the importance of central bankers in being able to change the system (if they wanted to), the weakness of international institutions compared to nation states, and of course, the dire implications of climate science. He writes about economic inequality and discusses quantitative easing, and even alludes to the idea of QE for the People. He talks about Henry George and land taxation, which is a FEASTA program (that deserves a little more attention). He has some knowledge of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and how it can allow countries to spend more than the austerity hawks currently advocate. He alludes to job guarantees, basic income, and universal basic services. He writes about the failings of GDP, something else that FEASTA is working on. He even alludes to one of my favorite provocative ideas, “Cap and Jail,” meaning throw the fossil fuel executives in jail (or worse). So this book is already in the top 1% of books I’ve read, and KSR is willing to go where few others dare.
In other words, the book is about changing the system and saving the planet. Great! KSR is realistic in not supposing you could just bring a good idea to the central bankers and have them instantly embrace it and we all live happily ever after. In fact, if there is one theme through all of his books that I’ve read, it is that politics is messy. Still, Robinson is a utopian, and I am too, so I am not going to criticize him for that (although others have). We need to be utopians to have hope during the onset of the Anthropocene and the 6th Mass Extinction.
I’ll avoid too many spoilers, but I do need to address the “Carbon Coin” in the room. For KSR, the coin represents a new currency that can steer the economy away from the ecological brink. Awesome. But…as carbon markets have been developed, mostly in California and in Europe, it is necessary to distinguish between offsets and permits. Offsets are based (if they are based on anything) on value created by avoiding a fictitious future emission. They set a counter-factual baseline, and then try to provide compensation for avoiding assumed future emissions. For example, they would pay you to plant trees and hope the trees live for 50 years. But this is slippery. What if the trees go up in smoke (as unfortunately much of the Western United States is doing)? Is it worth it (or efficient) for the central banks to pay for a huge monitoring and verification apparatus that continuously checks every carbon reduction project, and revokes carbon coins from cheaters or projects that failed?
A better approach would be to set a cap on fossil fuel emissions, auction permits, and return the funds to people. In a capped system, permits are issued to fossil fuels companies representing the amount of fossil fuels introduced into the economy in a given year. Then the next year, fewer permits are issued, which makes their value go up. Instead of the assumed future baseline of offsets, you have a real baseline, determined by the cap, and if demand exceeds supply, the cap provides a real basis of value. The permits can be auctioned to the upstream companies that introduce fossil fuels into the economy by mining or importing them (there aren’t that many of them), and the money collected would be sent to people as a carbon dividend.
It appears that Robinson’s carbon coin drew from an offset-like proposal called 4C, from a group of writers including Mr. Delton Chen. According to proponents, the 4C proposal defines four unique carbon pricing options: carbon taxes, cap-and-trade, carbon subsidies, and the proposed carbon reward. 4C also includes blockchain, which may yet have some utility in a new global currency system, but for now, its most prized asset is that people don’t understand it, and users are left to hope that whoever is behind the curtain knows what they are doing, and so are speculating on its future uses. This critique could apply to Robinson’s at times vague descriptions of the carbon coin overall. It should be noted that FEASTA founder Richard Douthwaite also proposed an “energy backed currency unit” (ebcu) in his book The Ecology of Money. Perhaps a future blog will delve into the similarities and differences between 4C and the ebcu, but for now, suffice it to say, in my opinion the carbon coin could be much improved by changing it to a carbon cap-and-permit system.
I would like to also make a suggestion to improve the terminology of the actual organization, the “Ministry for the Future”. To an American ear the word “Ministry” sounds foreign, maybe authoritarian, like something found in North Korea. Was that Robinson’s deliberate intent? The book occasionally alludes to the Chinese political system as a model for the future. Personally, I have enough problems with a two-party political system in the U.S. I don’t have any need for a one-party system. Or, with the word “Ministry” was he just trying to invoke the awkward sounding words often found in United Nations documents and international treaties? But FEASTA has been advocating for a “Global Climate Trust” for years now. That would have made a much better title, and just sounds better, at least to the American ear. In FEASTA’s formulation, the Trust would administer a global cap on greenhouse gases, and oversee the return of funds back to people as a carbon dividend. The Trust would have a science advisory committee to set the cap, as well as economists to monitor the impact of the cap on global industries. There would have to be enforcement mechanisms (the international community loves that word; remember the “Clean Development Mechanism”?). Sure, add in a few climate experts and glaciologists, and you have approximated the Ministry’s staff. For FEASTA, the icing on the cake is that in the book the head of the Ministry is Irish, and she exhibits what he refers to as “Irish” traits (KSR tends to generalize and stereotype sometimes, but he means well). While reading the book, I could imagine FEASTA’s real-life administrator Morag doing many of the things Ministry’s fictional Mary did, for example muttering and swearing at how steep the Alps are when she is marched up a mountain to escape an assassination attempt. (Just teasing, we love you, Morag!)
What about the “monkey wrenching” described in the book? For those who don’t know, Edward Abbey’s book The Monkeywrench Gang introduced the concept of direct action and sabotage against machinery in an attempt to slow down the gears of industrial pillage. As I recall, Abbey described pouring sand into the gas tank of a bulldozer at a construction site in the middle of the night as an example. In reality, almost all ecological direct action against pipelines, etc. is non-violent. But that doesn’t play to the corporate narrative that tried to direct the Homeland Security-Deep State to surveille environmentalists during the W. Bush Administration, or attempts to tie so-called “radical” environmentalism to terrorism. So here is Robinson, describing drones that take down air planes (due to their carbon footprint), and harassment if not outright murder of fossil fuel executives. They are a “shadow” operation, and no member is ever described in detail or given a chance to explain themselves. This is provocative stuff, but much too vague to take seriously. It would have been nice for Robinson to bring that part of the narrative out of the shadows rather than focusing so exclusively on UN bureaucrats and central bankers (although maybe they are more relatable to Robinson’s middle-class readers).
A somewhat harsh review of Ministry in Current Affairs described it as “the tale of the plucky bureaucrat who uses science, reason, and technical expertise to stumble on the perfect combination of policy incentives and new technology to save the day. It’s the tale of the bureaucrat’s stone..”
But perhaps Robinson kept the extra-legal shenanigans vague so that people like Barack Obama (who named the book to his most important books of the year list) and Ezra Klein (who gushed over the book as a must-read and fawned over Robinson on his podcast) would not get scared away, and would promote the book to a wider audience. If that was his goal, he seems to have succeeded. In other words, Robinson stayed mostly within the bounds of acceptable middle-class discourse, but left some crumbs out there for the more radical readers. It’s fashionable to be concerned about the climate and have lunch with Greta, but if you start criticizing capitalism and the 1% or advocating for degrowth, well that’s too edgy, as when Obama castigated activists for demanding change on the streets. My hope is that Robinson reads this review, and issues either a second edition or a sequel about Cap Global Carbon with a cap-and-permit-based system with climate dividends to people, changes the main organization from the Ministry to the Global Climate Trust, and yes, let’s go with Morag instead of Mary.
Failing that, well, if I want to be the change I wish to see in the world, I better get started writing my first novel: The Global Climate Trust for the Future.
Featured image: Ganymede statue in Zürich, Switzerland. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ganymed-Zurich.jpg
Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members.
Mike Sandler is the current Chair of FEASTA’s Board of Directors and is a climate change and sustainability professional with experience working for nonprofits and government. In 2001 Mike co-founded the Center for Climate Protection based in Sonoma County, California. Inspired by Peter Barnes and Richard Douthwaite, he has advocated for revenues from a price on carbon to be returned back to the public as a per capita dividend or share. He actively promotes CapGlobalCarbon and he has written on green monetary reform and basic income, some of which is archived on his author page on HuffPost.