Book Review: Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry of the Future

This book was released in October 2020. I liked many things about it and disliked some others.

Let’s get rid of the negative points first.

This is supposed to be fiction, but the story is incoherent. Readers are treated to lots of completely different sets of characters and independent short stories. The whole thing feels like a collection of short stories.

That makes the book somewhat difficult to read.

And one of the good ideas in the book, the “carboncoin” concept, greatly suffers from a lack of understanding of Bitcoin, which is obvious alone from the fact that in his world Bitcoin goes to zero. But there are also scenes where one of the characters tries to pitch the “carboncoin” idea to bankers.

I am trying for a moment to imagine Satoshi Nakamoto convening a meeting of central bank managers and trying to convince them of the merits of Bitcoin. I recall that is not exactly what happened to assure the success of the idea.

But the basic idea of using a new cryptocurrency to solve the climate emergency does have some appeal.

The interesting point about Robinson’s carboncoin is that it rewards taking CO2 out of the atmosphere, as opposed to rewarding only letting carbon stay in the ground. That may be a possibility.

Back to the real world and back to the present world for a moment. Bitcoin already is helping massively with the climate emergency. That’s because it is a virtual planetary power line that allows you to shift power demand to any location. Or in simpler terms, it allows you to sell electricity wherever you produce it without having to wait for a power line to be built.

That is a big deal. It takes time to roll out the power lines to the good offshore wind locations. It takes time to roll out the power lines to the good solar desert locations. Of course, in the next couple of centuries these power lines can be built. But since time is short right now, being able to build the renewable project first and worry about the power lines later is a big deal.

Of course, Bitcoin is also an excellent model for what should happen for fossil fuel supply. It should go down by half every four years, for a radical and predictable production rate reduction. Once that happens, it does not matter if the gap is closed by renewable or energy savings. The market will just take care of how to deal with less fossil fuel in the mix.

Anyway, I like the fact that Robinson gives some space in his novel to a “carboncoin” idea, even if I am not convinced by the details he proposes.

The good parts are the short stories about various catastrophic developments. There is a story about what happens in a serious heat wave (hint: lots of dead people). There is a story about Los Angeles getting drowned by a vertical river rainfall.

And there are some interesting ideas of how the future could be better than the present. One is the idea of a world citizenship as an answer to the refugee problem. While it is fair to say that for example in the United States there is some degree of racist discrimination left, there is much more discrimination on a world wide scale between a citizen of the United States and one of Syria. The former have drawn the lucky tickets in the lottery.

Robinson also describes air traffic migrating to airships, progress in giving more space to animals, drone terror attacks no one can defend against. There are many interesting ideas about the future in this book.

And I definitely agree with the general idea that humanity has a decent chance to solve the climate emergency. In his future, CO2 levels in the atmosphere are going down again. While I don’t know if the future will look exactly like the story in this book, I am optimistic.

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

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