What Kind of Thoughts Has the King of Climate Fiction Got? 

Kim Stanley Robinson and the Normalization of Denial

fundamentally Important question

By Lee Zimmerman

The celebratory reception of Kim Stanley’s Robinson’s recent climate novel, The Ministry for the Future, made me doubt my own possibly lying eyes.  I had written about Robinson’s Science in the Capital, a climate trilogy reissued in 2015 as Green Earth, arguing that, like much climate fiction—and much of our climate discourse more broadly—it frames engagement with our desperate dilemma in ways that do not finally threaten the business as usual in which the dilemma is rooted: a form, I’d argued, of normalized denial.  The Ministry for the Future continued this normalizing approach—or so my possibly lying eyes told me.

So the unanimity and ideological range of the Chorus of High Praise for Ministry gave me pause.  Surveying that Chorus, Samuel Miller McDonald writes:

Kim Stanley Robinson has done what perhaps no novelist has done before: he’s gotten liberal Vox’s Ezra Klein and the socialist periodical Jacobin to agree on something. Klein gushes that Ministry is the “most important book I’ve read this year”. . . while Derrick O’Keefe proclaims in Jacobin (originally Ricochet), “it’s one of the most important books in any genre to appear this year.” 

The Ministry for the Future has united more than just Klein and Jacobin: Barack Obama included the book among his 2020 favorites. Bill McKibben, one of the most prominent figures in climate activism, writes, “The New Yorker once asked if Robinson was ‘our greatest political novelist,’ and I think the answer may well be yes.” 

If Naomi Klein thinks Ministry is a “brilliant must read” and Rebecca Solnit thinks it’s a “superb climate-futures novel” and Bill McKibben calls Robinson “an essential authority for our time and place” . . . well . . . in light of my critique of Green Earth, when I approached The Ministry for the Future was I simply too loaded for bear to see that what appeared wasn’t a bear at all but a real life unicorn?

So it was a relief to come upon McDonald’s own critical response to Robinson’s text.  Speaking back to the Chorus of Praise, McDonald trains a sharp eye on a question about Ministry that the Chorus mostly keeps in very soft focus: “is it good climate commentary, or even good fiction?”  He takes a long look at this long book and argues in detail that the answer is no.  And yet.  . . . after his detailed dismantling of Ministry as good climate policy, for McDonald it somehow “remains an Important Book”—Important because it “breaks climate silence” and thus “help[s] people think and talk about these issues.”  I’ll suggest that the fundamentally Important question is less whether people are thinking and talking about “these issues” than what they are saying.  “Many times we’ve shared our thoughts,” Johnny Cash sings to his friend in “I See the Darkness,” and then asks him, “But did you ever, ever notice / The kind of thoughts I got?”  

He shares a lot of thoughts, but what kind of thoughts has Robinson got?  Of course, Ministry knows and shows that our planetary house is burning down.  But in its celebrated focus on “solutions,” I’ll suggest that it nonetheless remains structurally aligned with existing, culturally dominant political, bureaucratic, and financial institutions—that it remains rooted in the institutional business as usual and the ideological fundament that, as many have argued, started the fire in the first place and keep it burning.


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The Ministry for the Future

McDonald himself details one important aspect of how The Ministry for the Future remains embedded in business as usual.  One of its central premises, he observes is that “companies and nations could be paid to stop polluting—that there would be institutions willing and able to pay them—without making real structural changes” (my italics).  Sifting through its vertiginous onslaught of policy proposals and technological interventions, McDonald gets at the novel’s underlying logic: “Its heroes are always already in the critical positions to save the world, whether they’re bankers or bureaucrats.”Bankers are especially important.  Appealing to their power, the head of Robinson’s titular U.N. Ministry, Mary Murphy, thinks these “central bankers. . .were as close to rulers of the world as existed. If they were now using their power to protect the biosphere and increase equity, the world could very well tack onto a new heading and take a good course” (510).  Even Mary shakes her head at the logic here (they “save the world” not for its own sake but merely to “secure money’s value,” which, from their perspective, is the point). But that doesn’t undermine the book’s reliance on this logic. And after the bankers “save the day,” McDonald puts it, the institutions they control, the class relations they exist within, and the fundamental hierarchies of these high-energy-density economies remain intact.”

Describing the utopian solution envisioned in The Ministry for the Future, in an interview Robinson reveals the extent to which that vision remains embedded in the prevailing financial institutional structures and their economic logics:

You’re going to have to pay off the oil companies. You’re going to have to pay off the petro states. They’ll need compensation, because their fiduciary responsibilities and their national priorities for the power of their own nation states are intensely tied up with these fossil fuels. And so we’re going to have to pay to keep it in the ground. And so you can regard that as blackmail or you can regard that as just business as usual, as a stranded asset that still has a value to us by not being burned. I mean, it’s a real financial value. Saving the world has a financial value that needs to be paid,

Asked whether he shares a “leftist” notion that “solving the climate crisis is incompatible with capitalism,” in the same interview he elaborates on the way he frames his approach:

Overthrowing capitalism is too messy, too much blowback, and too lengthy of a process. We’ve got a nation-state system and a financial order, and we’ve got a crisis that has to be dealt with in the next 10 to 20 years. So I’m looking at the tools at hand…. I take the tools that we have in hand, try to wield them from a leftist and an environmentalist perspective.  

There is a complex and compelling body of work studying the way the climate crisis is rooted in the logic of industrial capitalism itself.  And Robinson himself sometimes acknowledges that “biosphere degradation and radical social inequality. . . . are both natural results of capitalism as such.”  But here, as elsewhere, Robinson simply dismisses the implication of such thinking, reducing it to the cartoonish call for “overthrowing capitalism,” in order to contrast that “too messy” prospect with the ostensibly more “practical” measure of working with “the tools that we have at hand” (including the “financial order”).     

Even as the U.N.’s own IPCC recognized the urgent need for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” for Robinson, those “tools we have at hand” somehow remain neutral instruments, to be taken up and put to possibly good use—as if those tools weren’t themselves ideological constructs with particular agendas. And, for all his nonce nods to capitalism itself as one such construct, capitalism itself remains for Robinson the crucial neutral tool. A key aspect of Robinson’s earlier climate trilogy, Green Earth, is the celebrated “utopian” vision culminating in the election of the ostensibly progressive president Phil Chase, and, while Chase first observes that “capitalism continues to vampire its way around the globe,” he cannot then process the traumatic implications of that vampirism to the political order with which he is identified, and thus, incoherently, rethinks that vampire simply as a neutral force that “we have to harness … to our cause” (940). Because “we in the United States have the biggest and richest and most powerful government in the world!” (940), he triumphalistically exclaims, we can “aim capitalism in any direction we want … creating the newest region of maxim profit,” by directing the “natural flow of capital.” For him, as one the heroes of the book, this is great news: “saving the biosphere IS the next investment opportunity! It’s massive.”  (It’s possible, of course, to imagine markets playing some necessary but much more modest role in a possibly sufficient Green New Deal without seeming to rely so thoroughly on the mystical “natural flow of capital,” just as, if we’re going to start the necessary radical greenhouse emissions soon enough, it will in some way likely involve some, significantly altered, elements of the existing power structures.)

In the recent book, the Ministry does intervene somewhat more aggressively in directing capital’s “natural” flow, establishing a “black ops” division for that purpose.  Even assuming its “black” operations do in fact contribute to the Ministry’s apparent ultimate success, however, they don’t in fact disrupt the book’s fantasy that the tools by which the crisis has been produced are fundamentally neutral so that, again, bankers can save day while the existing hierarchical institutions and class relations “remain intact.”  Where Gerry Caravan “suspects” that the presence of the black-ops division, rendering the book “dangerous,” will mean Ministry will prove “controversial,” in fact, then, as we’ve seen, the book remains almost universally lauded.

Undangerously, Robinson approaches the 2015 Paris Agreement as another of the “tools that we have at hand.”  “It can never be emphasized enough how important the Paris Agreement had been” (475), Ministry insists, and in interviews Robinson routinely refers to Paris as a “crucial” event that “inspires great hope.” He does briefly conjure some of its limitations but, it seems, only for the purpose of summarily dismissing them: 

Paris is obviously toothless, and it doesn’t call for enough and the voluntary commitments by the individual nation states are only about half of what’s necessary. But it’s what we’ve got. And to dismiss it out of hand, then what’s the replacement?  Instantaneous world revolution?  I mean, give me a break.

The only “out of hand” dismissals evident here are Robinson’s own, and it’s hard to see how his view of Paris as inspiring great hope could survive a non-dismissive encounter with those who see the Agreement not as a step toward the solution but as a plan to maintain an ecocidal status quo.  Predictably, as Clive Spash details, the years after Paris saw “an unremitting and ongoing expansion of fossil fuel energy exploration, extraction and combustion, and the construction of related infrastructure.”  This is just what one would expect following negotiations in which, Amitav Ghosh observes, “various billionaires, corporations, and ‘climate entrepreneurs’ played an important part,” drawing on premises “borrowed directly from the free-trade agreements of the neo-liberal era.” Unsurprisingly, then, the text of the Agreement “contains no clause or article that could be interpreted as a critique of the practices that are known to have created the situation that the Agreement [ostensibly] seeks to address.” Indeed, as Spash notes, “there are no mentions of GHG [greenhouse gas] sources, not a single comment on fossil fuel use” (my italics).

Robinson waves away such concerns (“give me break”), dismissing those who would throw out Paris’s baby with its bathwater. But. . .where’s the baby? For Robinson, “It’s so crazily idealistic where the perfect is being the enemy of the good.” But if the overriding question is how, as time runs out, to retain some reasonable chance of preserving a version, however badly damaged, of the climate system that remains a condition of being for what we like to call “civilization,” then what do “perfect” and “good” mean?  What Robinson calls his “stepwise” approach is often justified with a logic—“don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good”—conveniently abstracted from any historical, scientific, or social context.  What the particular context of the climate crisis presents us with, I’ve argued, is a logic of a less convenient sort: as our house burns down, we must not let what is comfortably-enough called the “good” be the enemy of the sufficient

Among the “tools we have at hand”—that in Ministry and elsewhere underlie Robinson’s celebrated vision of “solutions”—even more useful than Paris, for him, is science as a mode of inquiry and, especially, as an institutionalized form of knowledge.  Once again conjuring conveniently benighted straw interlocutors, he sets his views against those of “many leftist colleagues,” who “thought of science as merely the instrument of power—as the most active and effective wing of capitalism.” For him, “we actually exist in a situation that can better be described as ‘science versus capitalism.’” Of course, the complex relationship between science as way of knowing and the systems of power in which it developed and remains embedded is a subject of much study. But,  just as he abstracts the notion of “the good” from the particular context of the current dire emergency, Robinson fantasizes that science itself could be abstracted from its long history of such embeddedness, imagining it as “another name for the utopian way.”  Or, rather, he imagines that the institutions in which science is embedded are themselves expressions of “the good.”  The National Science Foundation, and “science more generally” seem to him “a kind of proto-utopian space,” and he’s “totally in love with NASA.”

It’s true that, while it emphasizes space exploration, NASA’s mission statement also directs it “to understand and protect our home planet.”  But Robinson simply averts his eyes from the relationship between that possibly utopian project and the obfuscatory workings of the institution itself, as detailed, for example by James Hansen, for over twenty years (1981-2013) the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren offers a detailed account of the institutional repression or marginalization of the increasingly dire climate science, including, for example, an index entry for NASA that lists a span of ten pages offering numerous instances of high-level “censorship of employees

What is important about Robinson’s idealization of institutionalized science is how fully it informs the “determined commitment to solutions” for which he is so celebrated.  Written, Robinson tells us, in response to his sense that “scientific institutions in our world were undertheorized utopian attempts to change the world,” Green Earth imagines “the first step to utopia, starting in our world now,” a vision of “how utopia might start from our current conditions.”  And, indeed, that trilogy was widely taken seriously for its vision of “how to go forward.”  As we seen, Bill McKibben later calls Robinson an “essential authority,” one “we are lucky to have. . . as a guide”

In 2015, when the revised trilogy appeared, how then did this essential authority imagine “how to go forward?”  As its central character, NSF scientist Frank Vanderwal, exclaims, “science is the only way out of this mess—a “mess” whose causes don’t seem to concern him, or the book itself.  It’s as if, with Francis Fukuyama, Robinson images us at the end of history, ideological conflicts having withered away, leaving only “the endless solving of technical problems.”  So the way “forward”  in Green Earth is massive geoengineering—a “rescue operation… so much larger than anything else we’ve ever done” (940): restarting the Gulf Stream by dumping five hundred million tons of salt in the North Atlantic, the introduction into Siberia of genetically engineered lichen (designed to increase absorption of atmospheric carbon), and other such experiments, constituting the “world’s first planetary engineering project.”

The crucial point, however, is that this planetary engineering project is, as Frank insists, the “only way” forward (my italics).  It is entirely decoupled, that is, from any effort to stop the burning of fossil fuel in the first place—in Green Earth and, again, later, in an interview entitled “The King of Climate Fiction Makes the Left’s Case for Geoengineering.” Given the lateness of the day, it would of course be possible, as a desperate attempt to avoid the worst, to consider some more modest technological intervention, like directly removing carbon from the atmosphere, as a necessary supplement to a radical effort to stop emitting greenhouse gas—and some “leftists” and others have indeed made precisely that case. In Green Earth and after, however, Robinson persists in decoupling those efforts.

Again, Robinson defends his commitment to the institutional “tools at hand” mainly by dismissing critiques of those tools as “crazily idealistic.”  With The Ministry of the Future, the ostensibly non-idealistic alternative to such crazy idealism is what McDonald pithily describes as a “tale of the plucky bureaucrat who uses science, reason, and technical expertise to stumble on the perfect combination of policy incentives and new technology to save the day.”  But if we consider the distinction between the so-called Good and what, as the house burns down, might be Sufficient to save it, then we might see the sort of plucky “realism” embraced by Robinson as itself constituting an unrecognize species of crazy idealism.

For one thing, as Stephen Saperstein Frug puts it, “Ministry contains a hidden miracle: the seeming disappearance of those cultural groups working hardest to prevent addressing climate change.”  Constituting, a “beautiful mirage,” the book ”only makes sense if you posit the melting away of precisely those forces which are, wittingly or otherwise, working hard to bring fiery destruction down upon us all.”  But where Frug refers here to the obvious climate villains, climate deniers in the Trumpian mold, we can also hear those “forces” as alluding to the very institutions of power that Robinson imagines as solving the problem.   In the six years after the Paris Agreement—for Robinson the “framework by which we’re going to make all this happen” and thus so crucial to solutions in Ministry—world bankers, who in Ministry save the day, in real life funneled 4.6 trillion dollars into fossil fuel financing. Robinson does concede that  “despite our good intentions, we still aren’t making progress fast enough in slowing down the burn,” but the crisis isn’t that we’re not “making progress fast enough”; it’s that, in an important way, we’re not making any progress at all, as global greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and at an accelerating rate.  As for “our “ institutional “good intentions,” as David Lapp Jost has detailed, “the Obama-Biden administration drove the sharpest expansion of oil production in the history of the U.S., and perhaps the largest or second-largest boom of any country in human history,” an ecocidal “boom” about which, in 2018, Obama boasted, “That was me, people. Just say thank you.”  In the face of this demented recent history Robinson’s continued faith in the institutional “tools at hand”—his seeing a history of “good intentions”—remains both unperturbed and, again, almost universally lauded.


Presuming their good intentions, Ministry offers no real challenge to those most identified with institutional business as usual.  It’s easy to see why, a few years after his ecocidal gloating, Obama named it as one of his favorite books of the year.  But the more difficult question is why the Chorus of Praise would involve such a wide span of the political spectrum.  Even after sensibly noting that the Ministry “only makes sense if you posit the melting away of precisely those forces which are, wittingly or otherwise, working hard to bring fiery destruction down upon us all,” Frug goes on to “urge everyone… to read it.”  And, as we’ve seen, after his acute account of the emperor’s near nakedness, McDonald still pronounces the book Important—for “helping people think and talk about these issues.”  But what are these people thinking and saying? Again, Johnny Cash’s question gets to the point: “Many times we’ve shared our thoughts / “But did you ever, ever notice / The kind of thoughts I got?”

For the most part, the kind of thoughts we got fail to distinguish between the Ostensible Good and the Sufficient. Most of the ways we talk about climate, constituting discursive business as usual, thus help normalize cultural business as usual more generally as a process of virtually genocidal violence—an atrocity the global north is in the act of committing both against those in the global south and against the future itself.

How to disrupt that discursive business as usual?  After James Hansen tried to “explain the science as well as [he] could” (98) in many futile meetings with government officials, he was left wondering “how to portray the horror of that devastation in a way beyond graphs and numbers and phrases we have heard before, like ‘climate disaster’?” (260).  Teasing out the logic of his question, we might ask: if the climate crisis itself represents a challenge to the ideological fundament in which it is rooted, then how to speak outside of the discursive categories by which we know and process the world?   Timothy Clark sees global warming as involving “the deconstruction of multiple frames of reference in multiple fields and modes of thought at the same time (e.g. politics, economics, ethics, cultural history),” but, if the crisis exceeds those frames of reference, how can it be spoken?  One response to this question, I’ve argued, is offered by works that stage and grapple with precisely that representational dilemma itself.  For the most part, though, the kind of climate fiction of which Robinson is King declines that dilemma, and thus perpetuates discursive business as usual—in Hansen’s terms, the kind of “stories we have heard before.”  

Of course, in some sense any imaginative work must rely on what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.”  But such work doesn’t also thereby require that this suspension become a permanent condition, obliterating the critical facility itself.  Indeed, perturbing the business as usual by which we speed numbly toward catastrophe might demand especially acute acts of critical attention—not only to influential work itself, like Robinson’s. but also to the suspension of critical facilities with which such work is often met.  So I’ll close by looking again, a little more fully, at one especially telling instance of such suspension.

As a writer and an activist, Bill McKibben has done as much as anyone over the years to bring the climate crisis into public view, but, as we’ve seen, writing about The Ministry for the Future in The New York Review of Books, he joins his especially prominent voice to the Chorus of Praise, offering less a review than an encomium.  In that piece, he gives the last word to the novel itself, quoting a “charming” passage from the book’s last scene.  Mary, the head of the Ministry, “looks at this world” that, McKibben writes, “she has done so much to save, and she thinks”:

That there is no other home for us than here. That we will cope no matter how stupid things get. That all couples are odd couples. That the only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction. That we can make a good place. That people can take fate in their hands. That there is no such thing as fate.

McKibben ends with this flow of Mary’s thoughts, as if the passage spoke for itself.  But has he noticed what kind of thoughts Mary has got here?  What are these “charming’ thoughts, comprising the book’s own (almost) last words?

  1. People can take fate into their hands.  There is no such thing as fate.  The question of human agency in relation to what lies outside of it is certainly something to ponder, but here Mary’s musings remain impervious to the provocations of that question.  Here, at the book’s happy end, we’re left with simple certitude, with what in this context looks like the technocratic fantasy that “nature” can be reduced to “our” managerial terms.  Just before this thought, she thinks “we can make a good place”—like IBM’s  hubristically claiming to “build a smarter planet.”
  2. The only catastrophe that can’t be undone is extinction.” What does it mean to “undo catastrophe”?  In the context of the novel, “extinction” refers to the extinction of species, but what about other catastrophes?  The book opens with a heat wave killing 20 million people. That can’t be undone—so is it not a “catastrophe”? 
  3. People can take fate into their hands.  There is no such thing as fate.  The question of human agency in relation to what lies outside of it is certainly something to ponder, but here Mary’s musings remain impervious to the provocations of that question.  Here, at the book’s happy end, we’re left with simple certitude, with what in this context looks like the technocratic fantasy that the “nature” can be reduced to “our” managerial terms.  Just before this thought, she thinks “we can make a good place”—like IBM’s  hubristically claiming to “build a smarter planet.”

“The point” of Robinson’s books, for McKibben, “is to fire the imagination.”  Of course, our imagination desperately needs firing—or, we might say, in response to the existential urgency of our dilemma our cultural imaginary needs radical revision.  For that reason, it behooves us to imagine beyond the “tale of the plucky bureaucrat who uses science, reason, and technical expertise to stumble on the perfect combination of policy incentives and new technology to save the day”—a tale at once both too tame and crazily idealistic. Uncrazy realism demands that we fire up not only our imaginations but our critical facility as well.  If saving or even salvaging the day is the point, it behooves us not only to share our climate thoughts but, firing up both imagination and critical facility, to attend acutely to what we are saying—to notice, while we still can, the kind of thoughts we got. 

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