Books: “The Ministry for the Future”

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It’s the middle of February, and we haven’t had much rain – four dry weeks across January and February, in fact. There’s a high-pressure system that builds up across the North Pacific sometimes in the winter. This is two winters in a row we’ve had it, but it’s hard to pin this down in your memory, because this weekend last year a terrible ice storm broke trees up and down the Willamette Valley.

Climate change is tough to buttonhole, because it looks just a little worse than last year. Maybe it’s a 60-degree day in February but hitting a warm day now and then is just the frog in the warming water pot.

I just finished Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future,” which outlines an astonishingly pseudo-bureaucratic response to the human-caused climate changes of today with a storming Normandy approach to reshaping the planet’s economy around carbon reduction with a hint of terrorism for good measure.

Most folks struggle to see climate change as anything other than a set of obscure consequences someone way down the road will have to deal with. I’m guilty of that myself when I celebrate these warm, February days where I can ride my bike in short sleeves well before the summer riding season begins.

After reading Robinson’s book, I tend to get a pit in my stomach on these nice days, knowing that the blue skies are anything but sunny. They are a dark omen of what a planet without defenses becomes in the light of a merciless star.

I try to stay grounded around climate change, because I grew up in the Evangelical church, where I was taught that the world is going to burn away, and God will create a new heaven and a new earth.

Nothing about that ever sat right with me from the first time I heard it. It sounded like a selling point more than a spiritual promise. It sounded like an excuse for capitalism and coal mining and human-caused extinction.

It didn’t pass the smell test and was one of many issues that ground my religion down to a fine, powdery nothing over the years.

But here I am, a former journalist working in conservation communication who believes in science as a process and the process of documenting climate change, and there they are, the millions of people who believe in the inevitability of the world burning away in fire.

How do you reconcile any of this? It’s like screaming into the void or explaining why a mask or a vaccine individually doesn’t help but they do when everyone participates.

And that’s the point of “The Ministry for the Future.” It plays around with the concept of convincing the winners and losers to work together, until millions of people are dead as consequences of a warming planet. Then it’s down to brass tacks, the horrific violence, the massive economic ruin and rebuilding and the total shift in society necessary bring the threat level back down to Defcon 1.

What sucks is standing here looking at the future and knowing just how much people are going to have to suffer, because the people standing next to me don’t believe the future exists.

All in the name of a probable mistranslation of one Holy text.

It’s maddening.

I won’t give the end of the book away but suffice it to say there it’s an exploration of probable solutions that grow more probable the more desperate we become. They’re too expensive now, and you still have millions of people who believe the world is going to burn away anyway, so you’d never convince them to pay for it. The hope that I took away from the book is that there are solutions out there we could be doing. And we will likely get there at some point, and all my wishing we could end the culture wars and get on with the business of saving the planet is just the reality of many people dying over the course of the next decades of climate change until that cost outweighs the costs of the solutions to slowing it down.

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