In the first week of January 2023 it is not easy to be optimistic. There is no obvious end to the cruel, grinding Russian war against Ukraine. Economic recession looms for the West. Climate change targets are being missed all over the place. Closer to home, the Protocol deadlock continues and hope of any real reconciliation in Northern Ireland has all but disappeared.
So for my first blog of the New Year I am going to write about a novel that I read over the Christmas period (‘one of Barrack Obama’s favourite books of the year’), which positively fizzes with radical good ideas about how climate change can be successfully combatted over the next two decades. The central protagonist in The Ministry for the Future, by the celebrated American science fiction writer, Kim Stanley Robinson, is Mary Murphy (loosely modelled on Mary Robinson?), a 45-year-old former Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs and trade union lawyer. She is appointed to head a new Zurich-based agency charged with implementing the decisions of successive COPs and safeguarding the “legal standing and physical protection” of future generations threatened by global warming.
Her chief of staff is a mysterious Nepalese man, who is in charge of the organisation’s secret ‘black wing’, which is believed to be waging “a savage war against the carbon oligarchy”: assassinating heads of fossil fuel companies; destroying coal and oil-fired power plants; using drones to shoot planes (mainly used by business travellers) out of the sky; torpedoing diesel-powered container ships; and introducing ‘mad cow’ disease into millions of cattle all over the world to frighten people into stopping eating beef.
Or maybe that is all the work of the India-based Children of Kali terrorist group? This is founded after a terrible heatwave kills over 20 million people in that country in 2025 (a graphic description of which provides the starting point for the novel). After that catastrophe India starts to lead the world in a wide range of positive as well as negative ways. It uses geo-engineering to shoot sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere to replicate a volcanic ash cloud in order to lower the global temperature. It nationalises all the country’s energy companies and decommissions their coal-fired plants. It spreads organic regenerative agriculture developed in Sikkim and Bengal across the whole sub-continent, and uses fertile soils in states like Karnataka to plant specialised crops which save large amounts of carbon. It espouses ‘direct democracy’ by following the example of left-wing governments in Kerala to devolve government down to village level (Mary Murphy notes that Switzerland does something similar). Its ‘Silicon Valley’ in Bangalore leads the planet in IT solutions.
“We have so much sun”, a senior Indian official tells Murphy. “It’s power, right? We can use solar power to pull water right out of the air, hydrogen out of the water, grow the plants that provide for bioplastics and biofuels for whatever still needs liquid fuels, use hydrogen to power turbines. Sun also helps grow forests that draw down carbon, and fuel the biochar burners, and provide the wood for building. We are a fully recycling solar powerhouse. A green power. Other countries don’t have our advantages in sunlight, and minerals, and people, especially people. And ideas.”
In the summer of 2032 the Arctic Ocean’s ice cover melts away completely. Experiments are being carried out there, and even more in Antarctica, to pump water from under the melting glaciers threatening to raise sea levels up to the surface in order to spray and refreeze it across the ice caps. On an idealistic pre-Russian invasion of Ukraine note, Stanley Robinson has the Russian navy donating a nuclear submarine reactor to provide the massive power required for this pumping. As the oil industry is slowly persuaded by carbon taxes and a carbon reduction-based new currency (see below) to abandon fossil fuels, it sees a new business opportunity in the enormous pumping of meltwater that these exercises require.
Probably Mary Murphy’s toughest task is to persuade the world’s central bankers – the real powers in financial and economic decision-making – to adopt a new system of ‘quantitative easing’ (i.e. the creation of new money to try to boost the economy) based on the urgent existential need to reduce carbon. “If you combined this thing with carbon taxes,” she argues, “you would get taxed if you burn carbon, but paid if you sequester carbon.”
This would require “the exertion of state sovereignty over the global market, by way of international cooperation between nation-states big enough to face down the market; even to alter the market. To fucking buy the market.” And if this sounds like socialism, or even communism (the Chinese are enthusiastic supporters), so be it: the future of the human race on the planet depends on it.
So eventually the reluctant central bankers take on Murphy’s proposal: they come together to issue a new single currency [the ‘carbon coin’], coordinated through the Bank of International Settlements. “For every ton of carbon not burned, or sequestered in a way that would be certified to be real for an agreed-upon time, one century being typical in these discussions so far, you are given one carbon coin. You can trade that coin immediately for any other currency on the currency exchanges, so one carbon coin would be worth a certain amount of other fiat currencies. The central banks would guarantee it at a certain minimum price, they would support a floor so it couldn’t crash. But it could also rise above that floor as people get a sense of its value, in the usual way of currencies in the currently exchange markets.” This seems to work, since by the end of the book it looks as though the carbon coin might soon supercede the dollar as the world’s hegemonic currency, the ultimate guarantor of value.
The new currency is typically circulated by a new Facebook-replacing worldwide internet provider, YourLock, created by the Ministry for the Future, but owned as a co-operative by its thousands of millions of owners. Data-mining companies can access this to offer people micro-payments for their data on things like health information, consumption patterns and finance.
The background to all this is a ‘Super Depression’ in the late 2030s, with unemployment rising to 25%, banks crashing and governments forced to nationalise financial systems everywhere (but also causing a major drop in carbon dioxide and methane emissions).
On the environmental side, equally dramatic things are happening. The Half Earth project to rewild huge areas of the planet’s surface is spreading from continent to continent, with the Yukon to Yellowstone and Yellowstone to Yosemite habitat corridors – allowing plants to thrive and animals to roam, with humans compensated to leave – leading the way in North America. People are talking about an extension, following the Andes mountains, to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Latin America. The African countries are coming together in an ‘Africa for Africans’ movement, with oil-producing countries like Nigeria being pressured to claim the carbon coin to fund major infrastructure and education, and total debt forgiveness being demanded with a common voice.
By the 2040s things are improving greatly. Huge increases in clean energy mean far less CO2 being burned than ever before. More and more people are starting to follow the Swiss 2,000 Watt Society’s (founded in 1998) example of learning to live (and live well) on 2,000 watts of power (based on the calculation that if all the energy consumed by households were divided by the number of humans alive, each would have the use of 2,000 watts of power – people in Western Europe currently use about 6,000 watts; in the USA 12,000; in India 1,000). The earth’s population has started to fall. Fewer domestic beasts are being raised for human food, occupying far less land. The 2030s depression has been overcome through robust Keynesian-style stimulus spending using the new system of carbon quantitative easing (CQE) and a governmental job guarantee for everyone, as economics is re-oriented to human and biosphere welfare.
Here we come close to utopianism, with all kinds of extraordinary projects happening everywhere: regenerative agriculture; landscape restoration; wildlife stewardship; garden cities; ‘global citizenship’ passports for refugees (there are 100 million climate refugees in the ‘zombie thirties’); universal basic income and services; the reintroduction of airships for long-distance travel; and financial, manufacturing and higher education cooperatives being set up everywhere, modelled on the remarkable Mondragon initiative in Spain. The most arresting symbol is the use of aircraft carriers as mobile towns in the Antarctic (“swords into ploughshares kind of thing”), as the melting glacier slowdown proves a success. It is truly becoming a wonderful world.
And if some of this sounds a bit dense for a novel, Mary Murphy also has a (kind of) love affair with an airship captain from Belfast. She undertakes a hair-raising trek through the high Alps. And she forms a deep friendship with a young man, a traumatised survivor of the Indian heatwave catastrophe, who takes her hostage. The novel’s conclusion comes down on the side of utopian communism: that money and energy and even land will have to become state-owned public trusts if the planet is to survive. But whatever your politics, this is a rich and rewarding and, above all, a visionary and optimistic read for the New Year.