Kim Stanley Robinson’s most recent novel, The Ministry for the Future, begins with a long and horrific set-piece about a massive heatwave in India, in the year 2025, that leaves perhaps twenty million people dead in a single week. The almost unimaginable death toll kick-starts a serious worldwide determination to deal with climate change; one consequence of this determination is the multinational organization that gives the book its title.
But the Ministry is only one such endeavor. Robinson devotes a lot of time — too much time, for this sometimes glassy-eyed reader — to the description of committee meetings and other workings of a vast bureaucracy, because he thinks that, boring or not, such patient work will make a difference to our climate future, if any difference is to be made. However, as he repeatedly makes clear, bureaucratic action is not the only kind of action there is — systemic inertia and global capitalism being what they are:
The disaster had happened in India, in a part of India where few foreigners ever went, a place said to be very hot, very crowded, very poor. Probably more such events in the future would mostly happen in those nations located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and the latitudes just to the north and south of these lines. Between thirty north and thirty south: meaning the poorest parts of the world. North and south of these latitudes, fatal heat waves might occur from time to time, but not so frequently, and not so fatally. So this was in some senses a regional problem. And every place had its regional problems. So when the funerals and the gestures of deep sympathy were done with, many people around the world, and their governments, went back to business as usual. And all around the world, the CO2 emissions continued.
A new government in India, perhaps the first truly representative government in the country’s history, knows that that’s how it goes. So it begins a seven-month campaign of sending cargo planes as high aloft as they will go to release aerosol particulates meant to reflect sunlight away from the earth. Some nations protest; India doesn’t care. India sends the planes because Indians have seen up close what happens when a heat wave occurs that simply overwhelms the resources of the unprotected human body.
Does the seeding help? Probably; a little. It was, one of the pilots thinks, worth a shot no matter what.
Later in the book Robinson describes a more complex technological effort: a massive project of drilling in the Arctic and Antarctic meant to allow meltwater to escape, which in turn slows the shifting and calving of the glaciers. In a related effort, the Russians assume responsibility for dyeing the Arctic Ocean yellow to reflect heat and keep it relatively cool.
I have read many accounts today of the bluntly alarming new report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and only one of them (in the Economist) has mentioned technological approaches to addressing the climate crisis — approaches other than those related to the reduction of carbon emissions, which is anyway typically portrayed as a behavioral rather than a technological matter — even though a good deal of research in this field is being done. I’m sure some accounts say more, but certainly the overwhelming message from the media is simple and straightforward: We must reduce carbon emissions, and reduce them by a degree hitherto unthinkable. (And, they add, even that won’t stop significant temperature increases.)
Why so little attention to technological helps unrelated to the reduction of emissions? Well, for one thing, that reflects the emphasis of the report itself; also, that makes for a simple story, and writers of press releases and journalists alike prefer simple stories. But — and this is the meaning of my title — I speculate, I suspect, than something else is at work. Something maybe more important than simplicity.
There’s no doubt in my mind — not one iota of doubt — that we are headed for a global nightmare because of our own greed and self-indulgence. And if technological solutions emerge that slow or stop global warming, then that will mean that we get away with it. We get away with our greed and self-indulgence; we don’t pay the piper, what goes around does not, after all, come around. And that is — for those of us with a strong sense of justice, and I count myself among that number — a bitter pill to swallow. It’s precisely the same impulse that made so many of us choke on the Wall Street bailout a decade ago. They got away with it, the bastards.
Of course, just as I accepted a Wall Street bailout because I believed that it would result in less destruction and suffering than allowing the system to burn down, I would also accept — eagerly! — technological solutions that left us as greedy and self-indulgent and regardless of the future as ever but averted the loss of countess lives (human and non-human) and the destruction of countless square miles of habitat. Surely this is also true of the journalists and climate activists remaining silent about possibly ameliorative technological endeavors.
But here’s the thing: How much hope does any of us really have that the world’s governments will do the right thing? Oh, they may very neatly re-arrange the deck-chairs on the Titanic — but more than that? There ain’t a snowball’s chance in Waco circa August 2075. In his novel, Robinson imagines the emergence of a kind of chastened and de-centralized capitalism — and I want to come back to that in another post, if I have time — but, like Bill McKibben, I fear that “Robinson underestimates not just the staying power of the status quo but also the odds that when things get really bad, we will react really badly.” (KSR may be a better prophet in his anticipation, in the Mars books, of “transnational” capitalism.)
McKibben suggests that such bad reactions could include the emergence of more authoritarian strongmen, and one would have to be naïve to discount the possibility of that, but I think it’s more likely that elected politicians will just find ways to kick the can a little further down the road, again and again and again. Politicians in a democratic order only think as far as the next election — those who win such elections do, anyway — and unelected ones only think of bread, circuses, and mechanisms of intimidation. Long-term thinking about the common good is simply not a political virtue, insofar as “politics” means “gaining and keeping power.” And that is, after all, what politics means.
I, therefore, have nearly zero confidence in political solutions to our changing climate, which means that I am all the more interested in the likely emerging technologies. I wish it was easier to find out about what people are experimenting on, what they are planning. My primary fear for the medium-term future is that, in a time of particular pain, something like Robinson’s picture of a desperate Indian government acting precipitously will come about — and that the consequences will be much worse than those were. This is why I would like to hear less about the reduction of carbon emissions and more about what the scientists and engineers are planning against the Dies Irae.