Kim Stanley Robinson’s “The Ministry for the Future”

I have, as per my demographic and political / cultural leanings, been reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate novels since he started writing them. But I’ve never been moved to review one before The Ministry For the Future.

Read this book, and not just because it imagines a successful path forward. Read it because it does so without down-playing the climate danger, and because it holds the vision of a “post capitalist” world in proper equipoise with the defining necessities of crash decarbonization. Robinson may be just a wee bit optimistic about the manageability of the climate system tipping cascades that now seem to be on the horizon, but in the context of this book, I think this is OK. When you’re done with the opening scene, you will not feel moved to claim that the arc of The Ministry is in any way based on soft-pedaling.

This is not a proper review. Just three points.

1) Read this book, particularly if you’ve been underwhelmed by “Climate Fiction”. In this regard, note this recent opinion piece on Cli Fi. I cite it because it’s erudite in a useful sort of way, and because it gives me a chance to suggest you might be better off reading The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh’s non-fiction book on the challenge the climate crisis poses to literature, than Gun Island, the Ghosh novel it cites and discusses.  And because, when it comes to Robinson’s work, it references only New York 2140, which allows me to quickly opine that The Ministry is a more important book.

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The Pandemic Pivot

Earlier this year, the prolific and admirably lucid John Feffer, currently based at the Institute for Policy Studies, invited me to participate in an international conversation that he called The Pandemic Pivot.

I’m sorry to say that the project’s framing text is already dated, for it talked about the coming second wave. I’m writing this in late October of 2020, and any anyone reading it will know, we’re not embroiled in the third wave. That said, the overarching less is the same, “If the current pandemic is a test of the global emergency response system, the international community is flunking big time.”

Here’s some introductory text, which clearly explains the link between the Covid crisis, and my own work, which is focused on climate and inequality:

“But perhaps the most important takeaway from the COVID-19 experience so far has little to do with the virus per se.

The pandemic has already killed more than a million people, but it is not about to doom humanity to extinction. COVID-19’s mortality rate, at under 3 percent, is relatively low compared to previous pandemics (around 10 percent for SARS and nearly 35 percent for MERS). Like its deadlier cousins, this pandemic will eventually recede, sooner or later depending on government response.

Other threats to the planet, meanwhile, pose greater existential dangers.

At a mere 100 seconds to midnight, the Doomsday Clock of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists now stands closer to the dreaded hour than at any point since its launch in 1947. As the quickening pace of this countdown suggests, the risk of nuclear war has not gone away while the threat of climate change has become ever more acute. If fire and water don’t get us, there’s always the possibility of another, more deadly pandemic incubating in a bat or a pangolin somewhere in the vanishing wild.

Despite these threats, the world has gone about its business as if a sword were not dangling perilously overhead. Then COVID-19 hit, and business ground to a halt.

The environmental economist Herman Daly once said that the world needed an optimal crisis “that’s big enough to get our attention but not big enough to disable our ability to respond,” notes climate activist Tom Athanasiou. That’s what COVID-19 has been: a wake-up call on a global scale, a reminder that humanity has to change its ways or go the way of the dinosaur.

Athanasiou is one of the 68 leading thinkers and activists featured in a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies, the Transnational Institute, and Focus on the Global South. Now available in electronic form from Seven Stories Press, The Pandemic Pivot lays out a bold program for how the international community can learn from the experience of the current pandemic to avoid the even more destructive cataclysms that loom on the horizon.”

The Pandemic Pivot is actually an engrossing read. Seriously. Check it out.

Unflinching Truth, Unwavering Hope

I just published, in the Earth Island Journal, a very brief review of “the two exemplary climate crisis books of the current moment.” They are, in case you were wondering, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells, the newbie, and Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? , by Bill McKibben, the elder. I also comment, in passing, on a few other recent climate books, which I find less exemplary.

Laudato Si’

51. Inequity affects not only individuals but entire countries; it compels us to consider an ethics of international relations. A true “ecological debt” exists, particularly between the global north and south, connected to commercial imbalances with effects on the environment, and the disproportionate use of natural resources by certain countries over long periods of time. The export of raw materials to satisfy markets in the industrialized north has caused harm locally, as for example in mercury pollution in gold mining or sulphur dioxide pollution in copper mining. There is a pressing need to calculate the use of environmental space throughout the world for depositing gas residues which have been accumulating for two centuries and have created a situation which currently affects all the countries of the world. The warming caused by huge consumption on the part of some rich countries has repercussions on the poorest areas of the world, especially Africa, where a rise in temperature, together with drought, has proved devastating for farming. There is also the damage caused by the export of solid waste and toxic liquids to developing countries, and by the pollution produced by companies which operate in less developed countries in ways they could never do at home, in the countries in which they raise their capital: “We note that often the businesses which operate this way are multinationals. They do here what they would never do in developed countries or the so-called first world. Generally, after ceasing their activity and withdrawing, they leave behind great human and environmental liabilities such as unemployment, abandoned towns, the depletion of natural reserves, deforestation, the impoverishment of agriculture and local stock breeding, open pits, riven hills, polluted rivers and a handful of social works which are no longer sustainable”.

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With Liberty and Dividends for All

This will probably sound wrong, but Peter Barnes’ new book, With Liberty and Dividends for All, is surprisingly good. It presents as a kind of wonky little instructional book – and I suppose it is – but it’s thoughtful, and it draws big and relevant conclusions, and it’s very good on the power of ideas. And its ideas are good and useful ones, especially now that neoliberalism has been dragged into the lights so that we can all finally see its twisted, death-wish logic. If you’ve ever wondered if there might be something really big at the core of the Cap and Dividend proposal – like, say, if there’s a link between emergency climate mobilization and proposals for guaranteed national incomes, or if “pre-distribution” is actually a real thing – then this little volume is for you

The basic idea here is that the natural and social matrix within which we live is thick with all sorts of common resources, which the neoliberals would love to privatize but which should instead be treated as “co-owned wealth.”  And though Barnes is as much a climate hawk as any of us, he’s not just interested in the global carbon sink. He’s thinking, too, about the electromagnetic spectrum, and oil and mineral extraction rights, and a whole lot more besides. And his goal is to create a “dividend society” in which everyone – even your right-wing Uncle Bob – has a vested interest in the protection on the greater world.

So read this book. And when you do, keep something in mind – Cap and Dividend will not work at the global level, this for a lot of reasons that I’m not going to get into right now. But at the national level, in a world where we desperately need good ideas about the “adjacent possible,” it may well have a pretty solid role to play.  And this is now the book on the subject.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

This review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was first published in the Earth Island Journal, here.  See this notice on Klein’s own site. 

The first thing to say about Naomi’s Klein’s latest book is that its title makes a grand promise — This Changes Everything – and that’s before you even get to the subtitle, which sets up a face-off between capitalism on one side and the climate on the other. The second thing to say is that no single book could ever meet such a promise. Klein, with careful aplomb, does not attempt to do so. Rather, she offers a tour of the horizon upon which we will meet our fates. Or, rather, the horizon upon which we will attempt to change them.

book cover thumbnail

In the face of such huge topics, Klein’s strategy is a practical one. She defers the problem of capitalism-in-itself (as German philosophers used to call it) and focuses instead on our era’s particular type of capitalism – the neoliberal capitalism of boundless privatization and deregulation, of markets-über-alles ideology and oligarchic billionaires. Her central argument is not (as some have insisted) that capitalism has to go before we can begin to save ourselves, but rather that we’re going to have to get past neoliberalism if we want to face the greater challenges. Klein writes:

Some say there is no time for this transformation; the crisis is too pressing and the clock is ticking. I agree that it would be reckless to claim that the only solution to this crisis is to revolutionize our economy and revamp our worldview from the bottom up – and anything short of that is not worth doing. There are all kinds of measures that would lower emissions substantively that could and should be done right now. But we aren’t taking those measures, are we?

At the outset Klein asks the obvious question: Why haven’t we, in the face of existential danger, mobilized to lower emissions? There are lots of reasons, but one stands above all others. We have not mobilized because “market fundamentalism has, from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as this ideology was reaching its zenith.” In other words the climate crisis came with spectacularly “bad timing.” The severity of the danger became clear at the very time when “there-is-no-alternative” capitalism was rising to ideological triumph, foreclosing the exact remedies (long-term planning, stricter government regulation, collective action) that could address the crisis. It’s a crucial insight, and it alone justifies the price of admission.

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Countdown: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?

(An shorter version of this review was published in Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2014)


COUNTDOWN: Our last, best hope for a future on Earth?
Alan Weisman
Little Brown, 2013, 513 pages

During his recent book tour, writer Alan Weisman told me that Paul Ehrlich, he of The Population Bomb, said that “Countdown is the best book on population written in decades.” It’s a nice line, and a considered judgment (see Ehrlich’s own review), and I have no reason to dispute it. Countdown is a good book and a fine read. It crosses dangerous ground, and while it stumbles, it does not fall. If it’s read closely and fairly — a big if these days — it will be helpful.

Before I go any further, a disclaimer: I’ve known Weisman for some time, and count him a friend. But Countdown is a population book, and I hate Malthusianism. They’re not the same thing, of course, but I still hesitated before reviewing it.

First up, what’s this “Malthusianism,” and why is it hateful? Well, Malthusianism is a specifically biological kind of reductionism, one that buttresses right-wing pessimism and policy conclusions, and one that not at all incidentally pushes social justice off the political agenda. It does this by telling a tale in which we humans are simply animals, and are fated by our natures to fill our niche to overflowing. But this just isn’t true. We’re animals, sure, but we live in history as well as nature, and as Marx pointed out long ago, we make our own history, or at least we try to. It’s never been easy, and it only gets harder when we pretend that exponential breeding is the fundamental reason that things are getting away from us.

Is Weisman, then, a Malthusian? No, he is not. He gets close, but he doesn’t drink the cool aid.

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Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth

Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen, James Davis, with a foreword by Doug Henwood. PM Press 2012   
(Click here for a shorter version of this review on Earth Island Journal)

There are four essays in this slim volume, one on left catastrophism, one on green catastrophism, one on right catastrophism, and one on zombies. I’m most interested in the left and the greens, though we do need to keep an eye on the right. As for the zombie craze, doesn’t it just come down to the fact that modern life feels like people keep trying to eat your face off?

Doug Henwood’s preface sets the stage nicely. He immediately makes a point that all green pessimists should keep always in mind: “Catastrophe can be paralyzing, not mobilizing.” In fact, it usually is. The challenge is to remember this even as you face the real and present catastrophe that’s now visible on the horizon.[1] It’s a dilemma, no doubt about it, but the way forward, whatever it is, is going to have to take both its horns into proper account. The question is how.

Catastrophism comes at a good time for the green movement, which is in a period of rapid change. The key point here is that, even as we struggle to come to terms with the latest climate science, we need to remember (see particularly James Davis’ essay) that catastrophism is the “native terrain” of the right. The baseline point here is that right-wing politics is all about natural limits (scarcity, austerity, etc) rather than social ones (even in a world of limits, we’d be fine if we shared the commonwealth).  This is not to say that environmentalism itself is biased toward the right – just the contrary – but it has flirted with catastrophism for a long, long time, and along the way it has had a number of unfortunate dalliances, particularly with right-wing populationism and xenophobia.

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America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy

America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy, by James Gustave Speth (Yale University Press, 2012, 272 pages)

Gus Speth has been around the block — cofounder of the World Resources Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council, senior environmental advisor to President Jimmy Carter, head of the UN Development Program, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Sciences at Yale, and a whole lot more. He’s been a busy man, and more importantly, he’s an honest one. While not repudiating his past efforts, he readily admits that, at least when it comes to “the existential threat of climate change,” they‘ve come to “ashes.” These days, civil disobedience is at the top of his very crowded agenda. His footnotes hold surprises (I was particularly amused to see Peter Barnes and Tony Negri sharing a citation). He’s well worth reading.

Speth’s particular talent — evident here as in his earlier books — is that he’s a kind of encyclopedist. As Herman Daly says on the book’s blurbs page, America the Possible offers a “selective, judicious, and integrated” narrative that brings together “the best current thinking on the American political economic crisis.”

The selections are generally excellent, and are animated by their integration into Speth’s overall argument, which is that when we collect and organize our best ideas, and then fit them together in just the right way, we can construct a coherent vision of a new and far better America, one that’s ready to prosper even amidst the coming storms. Such arguments have, of course, been made before, but Speth’s version is so wide-ranging that after a while you realize that he’s trying to summarize the shared ambitions of the progressive American green movement as a whole. This is of course a Very Big Ask, but all told Speth is remarkably successful. Which is not to say that there aren’t some real holes in his argument. But even the book’s weaknesses don’t seem his alone, but rather the shared weaknesses of, well, the progressive American green movement.

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Praful Bidwai’s “The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis”

Praful Bidwai is a former Senior Editor at The Times of India and one of South Asia’s most widely published columnists.  He’s also the author of the recent book The Politics of Climate Change and the Global Crisis: Mortgaging Our Future. This book is notable in a number of ways, and not just because it contains a long and coherent chapter called “Alternative Visions: What would an Equitable Global Climate Deal Look Like?”

Bidwai is a rare analyst.  He writes as a man of the South, but at the same time he can be extremely critical of the South’s negotiating postures.  In fact, he devotes an entire chapter — “Rooted in Incoherence: Anomalies and Contradictions in India’s Climate Policy” — to an excoriation of India’s stance in the negotiations, which he judges to be incoherent, duplicitous, and short-sighted, and all of these by virtue of being rooted in an unjust model of development.  His essential claim here is not simply that India’s position is an undemocratic one that ultimately serves its elites, though this is a line he develops at length.  It is also that India’s position is based on unsound ethical claims that cannot possibly support a fair global accord.  That, in particular,

“the per capita norm does not capture, nor is it logically related to, the central concern highlighted by recent climate-related scientific findings: namely, the urgent need to prevent dangerous climate change.”

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