Sci-Fi Saves the Planet

Sci-Fi Saves the Planet

April 13 2022

Science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson doesn’t believe that our efforts so far will save the planet from the disastrous effects of climate change. The hurricanes, floods, wildfires, heatwaves and drought over the past few years have yet to galvanize enough people to take the action needed to avert the worst outcomes. Robinson’s remarkable novel, “The Ministry for the Future,” aims to show us a possible path forward.


The story begins in India in 2025, when a series of hot and humid “wet bulb” days cause a heatwave that makes large swathes of the country uninhabitable, killing over twenty million people. Humans run at 98.6 °F, so sustained temperatures of 104 °F and above coupled with 60+ percent humidity, absent AC and cool drinking water, will eventually cause widespread death. For reference, the forecast for Delhi, India for the next ten days is 107 °F average highs, and temperatures often exceed 110 °F in many heavily populated places around the planet. The extreme heat knocks out the electric grid, shutting down AC and thirst-quenching water supplies. Thousands take refuge in lakes and streams, but the temperatures in these polluted waters are higher than human organs can handle.


Such a grid shut down is entirely plausible. Americans largely took “the grid” for granted until the Texas freeze last Winter. Texas officials have acknowledged that a full-blown month-long blackout was moments away from occurring before rolling blackouts were executed to save the day. Otherwise, the State of Texas would have had to be evacuated and the US fossil fuel energy system, which depends on Texas, would have gone haywire.


Robinson’s book describes how in the aftermath of the devastation, terrorist groups in India, fed up with developed nations’ massive carbon emissions, take matters into their own hands killing oil executives, shooting down carbon-spewing airplanes and sinking polluting cargo ships. The United Nations forms a committee called the ‘Ministry for the Future’, led by an Irish diplomat named Mary Murphy. She has the thankless task of gaining international consensus (and capital) to turn climate change around.


Measures include slowing glacial melt in Antarctica by digging hundreds of wells into the glaciers and pumping water to the top where it can refreeze and regrow the glaciers to reflect sunlight. Murphy spurs the global adoption of a blockchain-traded government bond-backed currency called the ‘Carbon Coin’ that is traded for carbon reduction or capture. Dozens of grassroots organizations spring up to heal the planet. These include regenerative farming cooperatives; a group called the ‘2,000-Watt Society’ that limits its energy usage to a planet-saving 2,000 watts per day (Americans today average 12,000 watts); and the ‘Half Earth Movement’, where half of the Earth is cleared out and set aside for animal populations to thrive as they did prior to human disruption. In the end, the efforts prove successful and carbon emissions eventually decline and reach net zero.


By 2040, humankind has adapted to living in a low-carbon world. They travel much less, eat little to no meat and live in smaller, more energy efficient homes, mostly in cities. Air travel is limited to short flights on electric airplanes and sea cargo shipping returns to wind powered sail that humans have relied upon for centuries. Supply chains are sharply reduced, and oil and gas companies become carbon sequesters, not emitters. The book ends with Ms. Murphy traveling the world in an electric powered blimp, seeing the wonders of nature recovering and reclaiming the Earth.

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