Climate Solutions from Ministry for the Future: The Collective
Real-world ideas stitched into story
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So far in our exploration of The Ministry for the Future, we have looked primarily at the ways Kim Stanley Robinson envisions institutions shifting to a new world order. But this reorganization would not be possible without changes in public sentiment and activities emerging from the grassroots. Here we will investigate our final two themes:
- Decentralized organization for local climate interventions and community resilience…
- …and the emergence of a collective planetary consciousness through direct personal interactions with climate.
Within each theme, I will outline the specific ideas proposed and how they manifest both in the book and in the real world today.
As power shifts away from the market and towards the public sector, Robinson also envisions that distributing out to the edges of society. Local participation plays a role in regenerating ecosystems, ensuring community resilience, earning collective buy-in, and enacting climate justice.
Participatory Local Government
What’s the idea? Effective local governance is important for decentralized climate efforts occurring in ecosystems around the world. When done in a participatory way, it can also uplift social standing, decrease population growth rates, and garner public support.
What’s The Ministry’s take? In the book, India identifies effective models around the country to apply nationally in a strategy known as positive deviance. The Kerala model is selected as the de facto form of local governance to be emulated. The model has produced a high quality of life despite low per capita income by focusing on quality of life indicators, redistribution of wealth, and democratic participation.
What’s happening in the real world? Environmentalist Bill McKibben called Kerala “a bizarre anomaly among developing nations, a place that offers real hope for the future of the Third World.” Prior to the recent coronavirus spike in India, several writers lauded Kerala’s response to the pandemic, suggesting it should be applied throughout India and around the world. Case studies abound for applying lessons from Kerala elsewhere in India, as well as modeling participatory governance off of other positively deviant systems elsewhere. But lifting a social system that works in one place and dropping it elsewhere is no easy feat, facing entrenched cultures and political structures. A key factor that makes this work in The Ministry is India’s unified national identity arising from its heatwave.
Nonviolent Direct Action
What’s the idea? Nonviolent direct action involves acts of civil disobedience to demonstrate collective power of a group in obtaining political goals. Even if a minority of the public is engaged with an issue, direct action can mobilize awareness and support more broadly.
What’s The Ministry’s take? The ministry’s initiatives are advanced by grassroots direct action throughout the book. In one instance, a march of cowboys, protestors, and animals stopped a militia group from blocking wildlife corridors. In another, students collectively defaulted on loans, causing a cascading financial crisis that gave the ministry leverage over central banks to adopt carbon coin.
What’s happening in the real world? Direct action on climate is mobilized by groups like the Sunrise Movement in the US, Extinction Rebellion in the UK, and Fridays for Future in Sweden. The movements use varying takes on direct action and electoral involvement, including stopping traffic, protesting at politicians’ homes, and occupying public areas. The groups differ in terms of their level of involvement with electoral politics and mobilizing support for progressive candidates. Another organization, Debt Collective, has organized a debt strike in pursuit of student debt forgiveness and free college tuition, threatening to escalate if President Biden does not forgive student debt.
What’s the idea? Many indigenous communities have intimate knowledge of their local ecosystems and manage them for biodiversity and resilience. Recognizing indigenous sovereignty over land can improve ecosystem health and enact conservation in a more just way.
What’s The Ministry’s take? Rebecca, the ministry’s liaison to indigenous peoples, incorporates native partnerships into their plans, including paying carbon coins to groups in the Amazon Rainforest and allocating land in the Half Earth project to indigenous groups.
“His friends Tobias and Jesse were helping to create what they called the Anthropocene wilderness, a composite thing that was like the wilder wing of the Half Earth movement, and many of the governments there were cooperating in creating a vast integrated park and corridor system that included and supported the local indigenous human populations, as park keepers or simply local residents, part of the land doing their thing.”
What’s happening in the real world? The conservation movement has a history of stealing land from indigenous communities. When the US national park system was created, the army removed native peoples. Yet studies show that indigenous-managed land has equal or higher biodiversity than the modern “fortress conservation” approach of removing all human interaction. The Campaign for Nature, a movement to set aside 30% of land and sea for conservation by 2030, states that “community conserved areas” are an important part of its plan and calls on governments to respect indigenous leadership.
What’s the idea? Giving workers ownership of organizations increases collective resilience to economic disruptions and makes businesses more likely to prioritize the needs of their community over shareholder-focused growth.
What’s The Ministry’s take? Robinson gives cooperative models accolades, including the Mondragón Corporation, credit unions, and housing cooperatives. A citizen reporting from Mondragón reports on their holistic approach, including a network of businesses, credit unions, universities, and insurance companies with wage ceilings regulating how highly executives can be paid. By the end of the book, this model spreads throughout Europe, meeting some cultural resistance elsewhere in Spain.
What’s happening in the real world? Cooperatives can help mitigate the effects of rising inequality in income and climate justice. Several movements have arisen to organize a transition to a more collectivist economy, including the Solidarity Economy, New Economy, and Just Transition. These movements advocate for collective ownership, non-extractive finance, participatory budgeting, mutual aid, land trusts, and other practices to make the economy more equitable and democratic. Loan funds like Seed Commons enable individual lenders to make funds available to cooperatives.
Open-Source Social Networking
What’s the idea? Putting social networking into the commons via open-source technology could empower people to collectively organize their digital, social, and economic activity. This would shift power away from technology companies and governments and possibly enable distributed climate action.
What’s The Ministry’s take? Janus Athena develops YourLock, a platform that replicates social networking features with open-source technology, distributed computing power, and the ability for users to own and sell their data to earn a basic income. YourLock also becomes used for banking in local currencies, as well as funding and organizing local ecological projects. The ministry leverages this to negotiate with federal banks with the threat of administering carbon coin through YourLock. With time, a global identity arises:
“We’re seeing an increasing rate of uptake on YourLock. Already a new internet; now its users may be turning into a new kind of citizen of the world. Gaia citizenship, or what have you.”
What’s happening in the real world? Many open-source social networking alternatives have been attempted. There’s Minds instead of Facebook, Mastodon instead of Twitter, D.tube instead of YouTube, Aether instead of Reddit, and Signal instead of WhatsApp. Most have yet to take off, much less see the utopian activities Robinson imagines, including local currencies, crowdfunding, and time banking. Whether such a platform could cross the threshold for networking effects to drive growth and manage to handle the required technical and operational scale mastered by proprietary platforms like Facebook has yet to be seen.
Collective Planetary Consciousness
Under the book’s surface of systemic change is a slowly rising tide of culture towards a global sense of identity and concern for the planet. However, these changes tend to only occur in situations where people are personally and deeply impacted by climate.
What’s the idea? The most personal way that climate will affect individuals is through social disruptions, such as environmental disasters, ecoterrorism, and financial crises. Such events break down the patterns of social life in a community and may galvanize new relationships with climate change.
What’s The Ministry’s take? Robinson maintains that empathy for others affected by climate change will not solve our problems. Many individuals are not motivated to change their behavior or advocate for structural change until they are affected by social disruptions, including the heatwave in India, flooding in Los Angeles, and regime change in Saudi Arabia. In these cases, galvanizing effects only occur within affected areas, with outsiders failing to take action. An attempt to manufacture a social disruption was made by holding Davos attendees hostage for reeducation, but it had little apparent effect.
What’s happening in the real world? It’s a central question to climate efforts: what will drive people to change their behavior? A study of the effects of climate documentaries concluded that storytelling can generate concern but not action. Another tested the effects of personalized climate messaging and found no impact on willingness to pay for regional climate measures. A third focusing on the effects of weather anomalies found little impact on climate opinions. These studies support Robinson’s conclusion that empathy alone should not be relied on to motivate climate action.
What’s the idea? Reviving a sense of the nature’s sacredness may give people a more personal sense of meaning in engaging with environmental issues. This could be achieved through a new planet-centered religion inspired by indigenous animistic spirituality but with a global scope.
What’s The Ministry’s take? Noting that secular society lacks a meaningful connection with the world, Badim proposes a new planetary religion:
“I think we need a new religion…Well, maybe it’s not a new religion. An old religion. Maybe the oldest religion. But back among us, big time. Because I think we need it. People need something bigger than themselves. All these economic plans, always talking about things in terms of money and self-interest — people aren’t really like that.”
This proposal culminates in a moment of collective prayer called “Gaia day.” The event attempts a sense of global, cross-cultural connectedness, though it comes across as a slightly awkward digital simulation of connectedness.
What’s happening in the real world? Drawing on the Andean traditional reverence for pachamama, or Mother Earth, the United Nations adopted a resolution in 2009 to designate April 22 each year as International Mother Earth Day. This effort was led by Bolivian President Evo Morales Ayma, drawing on his work integrating pachamama into official policy. Robinson’s use of the term “Gaia” draws from Gaia theory, proposed in the 1970s, which suggested that the earth acts as a single self-regulating unit. Adopting the metaphor of Gaia gave the theory spiritual connotations, which has both raised skepticism in the scientific community and enhanced its popular adoption. Many of its propositions have proven true, and its philosophy has inspired more recent research into biospherics and systems theory. The theory also inspired Gaianism, a holistic, earth-centered spiritual practice.
Collective Energy Conservation
What’s the idea? Though per capita energy use varies hugely by country — from 300 watts per year in Bangladesh to 12,000 in the US — studies suggest the worldwide average sits at a comfortable level. If each country shifted towards 2,000 watts per person, all could enjoy a high standard of living.
What’s The Ministry’s take? When Frank is living under the radar in Zurich, he engages with a group called the 2,000-Watt Society, which promotes the goal of living on 2,000 watts per person on 75% renewable energy without sacrificing quality of life. The group seeks to accomplish this by increasing the efficiency of infrastructure, including buildings and transportation. He decides to live in a co-op with society members.
What’s happening in the real world? The 2,000-Watt Society has been operating since 1998, founded by the university ETH Zurich. In 2001, they launched a pilot in Basel, with Zurich, Vancouver, Munich, and other cities joining later. Interventions in these cities include strategies like carbon-neutral Passivhaus building standards, efficient public transit, and converting power generation to renewable energy.
What’s the idea? Climate change is already impacting mental health, and its effects are likely to worsen with environmental disasters and media messaging. Ecotherapy offers mental health tools focused on reconnecting people with the natural world and making sense of environmental narratives.
What’s The Ministry’s take? The character most affected by mental health is Frank, who suffers from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of India’s heatwave. His psychiatrist offers a treatment using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which seeks to shift patterns of thought and behavior. Ultimately, he finds the most solace hiking the Alps and getting lost in eye contact with chamois antelope. He takes Mary with him, and she too reconnects with the reality of what she is working so hard to save.
What’s happening in the real world? In 2017, the American Psychology Association published a report on climate change and mental health, categorizing impacts into acute (e.g., trauma and PTSD from disasters) and chronic (e.g., loss of meaningful places and occupations). They recommend helping patients foster resilience, cultivate meaning, and connect to place. The benefits of spending time in nature are well-documented for mental health. Forest bathing, or spending attentive time in forests, reduces stress through biophilia (our evolutionary affinity for nature) and aromatherapy. Horticultural therapy, a form of gardening, restores feelings of efficacy and care. Involvement in conservation activities helps people make meaning in the face of climate change and feel capable of making an impact.
Making the Future
Whether Robinson’s collectivist climate vision is appealing to you may be a matter of values, and whether it is possible may be a matter of faith. For all its narrative power, The Ministry leaves to the reader’s imagination the details of how these ideas will materialize. Would the US really allow carbon coin to upend the distribution of global wealth overnight? Would a social network really be used for collective good just because its code is open-source? Some ideas need fleshing out and some may prove to be fantasies.
But what is real is the seeds of just about every proposal Robinson includes in his book. They all exist today, powered by real people dedicating their life’s work to changing the way we live, work, and relate to the world. It is within our power to seek out and nurture the seeds we want to become the forests of the future.
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