This Is How It Gets Better

by Suresh Naidu on May 13, 2021

It’s a real privilege to comment on this book.From the Mars trilogy to my personal recent favorite, Aurora, Kim Stanley Robinson has been one of my favorite science fiction authors, staying with me as I went from teenage escapism to middle-aged escapism. There are so many great ideas in The Ministry of the Future (TMFTF), where Stan has clearly combed the academic and activist literature for the boldest ideas to grapple with the climate crisis and used the medium of fiction to communicate them. There are engineering feats, like the propping up of glaciers to slow melting, direct air capture of CO2 at economically feasible scale, alongside political transformations like the mutually-assured-destruction made possible by targeted kinetic pebble smartbombs, a rebirth of Indian democracy, and carbon quantitative easing? Everyone who cares about climate change (and really at this point it should be everyone with some stake beyond the next 10 years) should read it. But beyond being a hardware store full of tools for decarbonization, it also charts a politically possible trajectory to a transformed economy. TMFTF is not just outlining a future sustainable economy, but showing a properly historically contingent path to it. [click to continue…]

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… is set out over the fold. I’m confident readers who take a little time to think about it will realise it’s far superior to existing policy, and to any alternative proposed so far. (Previously posted in 2011).

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Philip Roth has been in the news, as has Palestine. By sheerest coincidence, a piece I’ve been mulling over—on the uncanny convergence between the lives and concerns of Roth and Hannah Arendt, particularly when it came to Jewish questions such as Zionism—came out in The New York Review of Books this morning. It starts with the Blake Bailey controversy, but goes on to explore what the surprising parallels between these two writers, who knew and respected each other, has to say about the left, Jewish identity politics, and American political culture today.

In 2014, the mystery writer Lisa Scottoline wrote an instructive essay for The New York Times about two undergraduate seminars she took with Philip Roth at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1970s. One of the courses was the literature of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt was on the syllabus.

In his five-page discussion of those years at Penn, Roth biographer Blake Bailey makes no mention of this course or Arendt. Instead, he focuses on the other course, “The Literature of Desire,” and Roth’s erotic presence inside and outside the classroom. In the wake of the allegations of sexual assault and inappropriate behavior that have been made against Bailey, the omission may seem small or slight. Yet it is telling. As Judith Shulevitz argues in a searching analysis of the allegations and the biography, Bailey is as incurious about Jewishness as he is about the reality of women. When the two come together in the form of Arendt, his interest seems, well, nonexistent.

The result is a life stripped of one of its vital currents. Arendt was a real presence for Roth, and the unexpected convergence between their biographies and concerns, particularly regarding Jewish questions, is as uncanny as the doubles that populate Roth’s novels.

The difference between the two writers is obvious. She was born in Germany in 1906; he was born in Newark in 1933. She fled Hitler and never looked back; he fled his parents and kept going home. She wrote The Human Condition; he wrote Portnoy’s Complaint.

Yet, throughout the postwar Jewish ascendancy in America, as other writers and scholars eased their way into the conversation, Arendt and Roth distinguished themselves—not by stirring up the little magazines but by contending with the Jews. Summoning the anxious wrath of a still vulnerable community, Roth and Arendt occupied a singular position: defending the margin against the marginalized, refusing the political pull and moral exaction of an embattled minority. Today, at a moment of rising anti-Semitism and increasing polarization, when the tendency, even among writers and intellectuals, is to circle the wagons in defense of team and tribe, their shared archive of heresy among the heretics pays revisiting.

You can read on here.

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Technocracy and Empire

by Henry on May 12, 2021

The Ministry for the Future is a novel, not a manifesto. That complicates things. As Francis Spufford described Red Plenty nine years ago in his own CT seminar:

I was trying to stitch together a sort of story that paid more attention than usual to the economic motives for human behaviour, but even there, I wanted my account of causes to be as broad and open as possible, and not to collapse without residue into any single one of the rival diagrams of economic behaviour. Basically, I wanted to be awkward. I could take advantage of fiction’s built-in tolerance of overdetermination, in which multiple possible causes for an outcome can be allowed to exist alongside each other without being resolved, or even given definitive weights. Storytelling lets you bring negative capability into economics.

KSR was in that seminar too, arguing that Red Plenty was a novel. And so is TMFTF – it brings negative capability into the politics of climate change, allowing it to capture both how we need radical changes, and how we can’t be sure exactly which radical changes, in which combinations, we need. You can read the book as presenting KSR’s best guesses as to how such changes might unfold. But – and this is my argument – that’s not the only reading of the book. Because it’s a novel, it folds those best guesses together with the uncertainty that they will be right, and with the presupposition that actual history emerges, as the imagined history of the novel does, from disagreement and conflict between people with different guesses, different theories, different ideologies. From this perspective, the novel invites people who disagree with KSR’s surmises to advance their own, recreating in real life something like the arguments that drive the book.

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Half the Earth ?

by John Quiggin on May 11, 2021

When I read fiction, it’s mostly either the 19th century classics or speculative fiction – what was and what might be, as opposed to what is. I live in the present, and spend most of my waking hours analysing the economy and society of today, along with the recent past and near future. In doing that, I am, for the most part, in agreement with Mr Gradgrind – what I want is facts, nothing but facts.

But in relation to the future (and, in many ways, the past) we don’t have facts, only possibilities. And, unlike the present, we don’t have lived experience to help us understand those possibilities. Speculative fiction, at its best, extends our thinking to encompass possibilities we wouldn’t otherwise consider, and to imagine ways of life no one has actually experienced. [click to continue…]

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The Sudden Tempest of Ultimate Summer

by Belle Waring on May 10, 2021

O Kali’s feet are red lotuses wherein lie heaps of holy places. 
All sins are destroyed by Kali’s name as heaps of cotton are burnt by fire. How can a headless man have a headache?
I am irresponsible, cruel and arrogant,
I am the king of the great upheaval,
I am cyclone, I am destruction,
I am the great fear, the curse of the universe.
I have no mercy,
I grind all to pieces.
I am disorderly and lawless,
I trample under my feet all rules and discipline!
I am Durjati, I am the sudden tempest of ultimate summer,
I am the rebel, the rebel-son of mother-earth!
Say, Valiant,
Ever high is my head!
—Kazi Nazrul Islam
[Translation: Kabir Chowdhury] 

We can think of two versions of The Ministry of The Future, each of which invites us to imagine a world in which we make difficult, creative choices to mitigate the effects of climate change, and ultimately prevail. In the first book, a whirl of technological, sociological and financial solutions are attempted. Some are cautious science, some desperate acts of brute force, such as filling the atmosphere with particles to rival the cooling effects of the 1991 Mount Pinatubo eruption (and indeed, scientists are seriously considering this, which I have always thought would be the first true action on climate change). In the second book, a careful ruthlessness prevails. People still use container ships? They are sunk in spots to create new reefs. Billionaires have gotten rich on carbon fuels, and have no plans to stop? They are brutally stabbed to death in their own beds before their companions can even grasp what’s happening. But, which of these two books above has Kim Stanley Robinson written? Having written the first seems to say he can’t write the second, and yet can he still have written both? [click to continue…]

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Sunday photoblogging: cones

by Chris Bertram on May 9, 2021

Marseillan, cones

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Ministry for Your Future Soul

by Todd Tucker on May 7, 2021

The Ministry for the Future” should be required reading for anyone that writes white papers for a living.

A few reflections and (potential) spoilers.

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Can the World’s Bankers Really Save the Climate?

by Jessica Green on May 6, 2021

The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF) should be lauded for reimagining global climate governance. It recognizes what many climate scholars do not: climate change is in large measure, a problem of extreme wealth and wealth inequality. Thus, addressing the climate crisis requires discussing “potential alternatives to the global neoliberal order” (155). Moreover, the Ministry is keenly aware of the shrinking window for action. Addressing climate change is a race against time, rather than a “tragedy of the commons.” Thus, we should be less worried about getting everyone to participate in international agreements, and more worried about acting quickly, since delay will make climate problems harder to solve, and could result in irreversible changes. What follows from these two premises is nothing less than a wholesale reimagining of the global economy, as enacted through coordinated efforts by the world’s biggest central banks. However, the Ministry’s proposed technocratic solutions overlook the messiness of domestic politics, and the huge challenge of constraining powerful anti-climate interests.

In essence, TMFTF trades one technocratic solution for another – bankers instead of climate wonks, converting tons of carbon dioxide into “carbon coins.” Robinson acknowledges this, noting that “all central banks [are] undemocratic technocracies” (291). Indeed, the appeal of the Ministry’s proposal to the central bankers is precisely the extent to which it bypasses the politics of democratic decision-making. [click to continue…]

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On Solar Geoengineering and Kim Stanley Robinson

by Oliver Morton on May 5, 2021

The solar-geoengineering effort in The Ministry for the Future takes place shortly after the book’s harrowing opening. It is presented as part of a continuum of responses to that extraordinarily lethal Indian heat wave, one which stretches from domestic politics—the full nationalisation of the electricity industry—to transnational armed struggle by means of support, at a level never fully revealed, for the revolutionary violence of the “Children of Kali”. [click to continue…]

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What is Ours is Only Ours to Give

by Maria on May 4, 2021

Kim Stanley Robinson’s books are how I think about the future. I’m not exaggerating when I say they’re how I manage to think about it at all. They provide much of the temporal and political context in which I do my work, which is to say, they educate me and let me know I’m not alone. Future uses of data and networks are a tiny part of The Ministry for the Future (TMFTF), just as tech policy only counts, now, insofar as it serves our species-wide effort to survive and perhaps flourish. TMFTF does some thinking on how network and information technology – specifically, social media and blockchain – can do the genuinely liberatory work they’ve long been hailed as making possible. I’ve worked in tech policy since the late nineties and will talk mostly in this piece about ways that might work sooner and better to get us to a desirable tech future, and one that gets less in the way of dealing with climate crisis. (I use ‘climate crisis’ as shorthand for the cluster of anthropogenic extinction events described in TMFTF.) [click to continue…]

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What’s In Our Way?

by Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò on May 3, 2021

In 2019, Cyclone Idai generated the fastest wind speeds ever recorded on the African continent. Mozambique, Malawi, and Zimbabwe were all affected – the Mozambican city of Beira was levelled, and hundreds of thousands of people in the region were displaced. Many died from the heavy rains before the hurricane landed, many more died from the hurricane itself, and still more from the cholera outbreak in the wake of the first two calamities: a month after the storm, over a thousand lives had been confirmed lost. A year after the crisis, over 40,000 Zimbabweans and nearly 100,000 Mozambicans were still living in makeshift shelters, and nearly ten million in the region were still in need of food aid.

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The Ministry for the Future seminar

by Henry on May 3, 2021

Over the next ten days, we’re running a seminar on Kim Stanley Robinson’s recent novel about climate change and how our political and economic system might have to change to stop it, The Ministry for the Future. We’re happy to be able to do this – it’s an important book. Since it came out, it’s had an enormously enthusiastic reception (see e.g. Barack Obama and Ezra Klein). What we want to do in this seminar is not to celebrate it further (although it certainly deserves celebration) but to help it do its work in the world. So we’ve asked a number of people to respond to the book, by arguing it through and, as needs be, arguing with it. Soon after the seminar finishes, we will publish a reply piece by Stan, and then make the seminar generally available under a Creative Commons license. As the pieces are published, I will update this post to provide hyperlinks, to make it easier for people to keep track.

The participants in the seminar:

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Twigs and branches

by John Quiggin on May 2, 2021

(Overdue again!) Another open thread, where you can comment on any topic. Moderation and standard rules still apply. Lengthy side discussions on other posts will be diverted here. Enjoy!

Note: Unfortunately there appears to be no way to turn moderation off selectively, so the discussion here will be a bit slow. Still looking into options.

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Sunday photoblogging: Ashton Avenue Bridge

by Chris Bertram on May 2, 2021

Another iPhone panorama

Three Bridges 3: Ashton Avenue Bridge

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