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Adventures with Psychologists: Discussing Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future

By Tim Hall

For anyone interested in a mind-changing walk through a near-future world coping – ultimately fairly successfully – with environmental disaster, Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi novel, The Ministry for the Future, is worth your serious consideration.  I read it last summer, at my wife’s urging (her friend Carolyn said, “You have to read this book!”), and I hung in there to the end, in spite of the prodigious length – 563 pages.  I like short books, short attention span!

The book centers on the life and work of Mary Murphy, who has been appointed Director of a new United Nations ministry whose constituency is the people of the future.  It deals with near-future events, starting with a catastrophic heat wave in India that killed millions of people. We see the great cross-pressures she felt and the deft maneuverings that she employed to influence the world’s political leaders and the central bankers to get them to recognize the problem and then to agree on a common strategy for dealing with it. That deceptively simple sentence does not do justice to the complex analyses of numerous world conferences, back-stage deal-making, violence, sabotage, national upheavals, and multitudinous personal crises for Mary —  and that’s what you have to read the book to learn about.

One of my long-term groups of friends that I have known almost as long as my 1962 classmates is a group of Industrial-Organizational (I/O) psychologists, called the Summit Group [1].  Like Y62 Coffee Hours, we started meeting virtually a couple of years ago when a face-to-face meeting was cancelled due to Covid-19. Like Y62, we often have 20-40 people who show up for a Zoom call. And also like Y62, we all tend to be up in years, curmudgeonly, and quite sure of our beliefs, thank you very much. However, there is more gender diversity in the Summit Group, and I do think that helps us stay open to more diverse points of view.

As befits the complexity of the issue, the book follows a varied terrain of characters, organizations, groups, evolving technologies and financial strategies and instruments, with many short chapters devoted to specialized topics.  I especially liked the short chapter format, as often I am capable of getting through only a few pages when I read at bedtime!  And I also like the idea that each chapter generally tells a complete mini story on its own. This really ameliorated the impact of the daunting length of the novel.

Without divulging any spoilers, I’ll say that the book raises a number of far-out and not-so-far-out technologies and financial innovations that are used in combination to great effect.  Examples include geoengineering for aerial dispersion of reflective particles to divert solar rays from the earth’s surface, replacing planes with solar-powered airships,  and a novel method for slowing the advance of glaciers into the sea,   A new financing system is created to create carbon currency to fund decarbonization and reward carbon sequestration (returning or keeping carbon, such as petroleum and coal, in the earth).  We also see political creativity, courage, and leadership, as world leaders and central bankers struggle with creating more shared awareness of the climate crisis and the urgency of action.  And this is all aided by fundamental disruptions in the Middle East, with some entirely reasonable political changes.  And, in fact, we already see evidence of these changes taking place with the demonstrations in Iran, discontent with the royal family in Saudi Arabia, and terrorist attacks in Turkey. So, it is within the bounds of reason to think that, within a few years, some major shock waves could shift the political, economic, and social landscape in that critical part of the world.

As the novelist Richard Powers said, “There aren’t a lot of writers who have tried to take a literary approach to technical questions, and a technical approach to literary questions.”[2]

What makes this all so readable and compelling is that everything that happens in the book is within the realm of reason, and the technologies and structures that are used are ones that already exist and are being tested with research.  As one reviewer pointed out, the author, Kim Stanley Robinson, is a regular attendee at scientific and global climate conferences, and he is respected by experts in the field. In one account, he was treated like a quasi-celebrity at the 2021 global climate gathering, COP26. Another writer pointed out that Robinson’s work is not really science fiction; it’s fiction based on science.

In our Summit Group discussion, which only lasted an hour, we had a wide range of responses.  Not everyone had finished the book (did I  mention that it’s 563 pages long?) so I asked two people who I knew had read the whole thing if they would start us off, with each speaking for 5-7 minutes about their reactions and what they took away from the book.  One of them described it as the best sci-fiction book he had ever read. (Actually, he said it would more properly be termed “cli-fi.”)  And coming from such an avid reader as he, an eminent behavioral scientist, a former President of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and a voracious reader, we all knew this was a comment not to be taken lightly.

The other speaker seconded much of the first speaker’s assessment and added that, as a researcher, he cares a lot about data – he needs arguments to be well supported with observable evidence, and he saw this as a defining feature of the book.  And he also loved the fact that Robinson was looking at how the change processes in the book were operating at multiple levels, in social systems fashion: changes in individuals and their ways of thinking, changes in interpersonal and group dynamics (such as the central bankers working together), changes in organizations (e.g., polluting companies that came to see how they could in fact profit from reducing and sequestering carbon), and countries (when an oil-producing state realized they could make billions of dollars in carbon currency by simply doing nothing – not pumping their oil out of the ground.)

In the ensuing discussion, one of the other members, who had worked for two major oil companies, commented on how strong the profit motive was in the culture of those companies. It seemed entirely reasonable to him that if his former colleagues could be convinced that they could earn big profits while also helping to save the world, they would probably jump on board.

Other members were critical of the book.  One, an eminent academic at one of the world’s top business schools, and a consultant on organizational transformation whose clients are CEOs of big corporations, said he read the first hundred pages and decided he didn’t like the book’s approach. We never heard what it was about the approach that he didn’t like, but it sounded as if the book did not agree with his ideas about what makes organizations change.

Another person, a well-respected scholar and educator in the area of leadership selection and development shared that she also couldn’t finish the book, as she didn’t like the short chapters that jumped around too much from topic to topic.  And as a result, there was no flow to the narrative.

To that point, another person pointed out that, since the book does take a holistic, systems approach, climate change necessarily requires that it be approached from a number of different perspectives, with multiple disciplines, and at all levels of our human ecosystem.  She encouraged her friend to keep reading, and she would see the flow and how everything comes together.

Perhaps it was because we are all psychologists, that one of the questions that generated the most interest was what caused these massive changes in the perceived interests and behavior of key leaders, in powerful groups, and in major, entrenched companies and countries?  Most of the members seemed to agree that the critical issue was not that we lack the means of reversing warming, but that we lack the will.  And this book shows how the world’s will slowly evolved.

So the hour went by pretty quickly.  And as we wrapped up, the folks who had stopped reading averred that they might take another look.

One of my thoughts as a result of this discussion was, I wonder if our Yale62 group might want to give this long book a try?  How would that work as a Coffee Hour, or a similar kind of discussion?  We have some class members who have given a lot of thought to these issues, and they could get us started.  Or perhaps we might want to have an occasional book discussion, of various kinds of books, as a separate kind of activity, perhaps an evening conversation with a small group who have read a certain book.  Perhaps the sessions could be about books by Yale authors, whom we might entice to meet with us. One of my neighborhood friends, about our age, is part of a Dartmouth alum group (mid-1960’s) that uses this format for books by Dartmouth professors, on Zoom.

So, I will leave you with that question – would this book, which one of our classmates described as a “mind-changing book” – be something that we would like to discuss together sometime?

[1] In spite of the lofty name, it is not an especially elite group – it was started by a group of friends at a 1970s-era meeting of the American Psychological Association which was held at the Summit Hotel in NYC.

[2] Quoted in Alexandra Alter, “A sci-fi writer returns to Earth: ‘The real story is the one facing us.’” NY Times, May 12, 2022.

And to give you more information about Kim Stanley Robinson and his work, here is a New Yorker article that you might enjoy.

If you have an hour and a half, here is an engaging podcast by Ezra Klein interviewing the author.

And, finally, if you only have ten minutes to spare and would like to see the author and get a sense of his warm, straightforward style, here is a 10-minute reading by Kim Stanley Robinson, summarizing what his book is all about. It is delivered as a message from the future, “Remembering climate change … a message from the year 2071”.

Comments are welcome below.

3 comments to Adventures with Psychologists: Discussing The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson

  • I’d be up for a Y’62 cli-fi discussion group/book club and think Stan Robinson’s “Ministry” an excellent place to begin. Robinson’s grasp of climate-change issues is so “real” and compelling that he was a featured speaker at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, which was our coffee hour topic in Nov. 2021. I also found “Ministry” a bit long, but its overall optimism is refreshing. A couple other cli-fi novels we might consider are Barbara Kingsolver’s “Flight Behavior’ and Paolo Baggaluci’s “The Water Knife.”

  • Burgert S. Roberts

    I completely support Gary Richardson’s suggestion that we (a) Form a Y’62 cli-fi discussion group/book club, and (b) devote a specific Coffee Hour session to THE MINISTRY OF THE FUTURE by Kim Stanley Robinson,
    Many thanks,Tim,for your stimulating article, and the additional information on Robinson.

    I would love to be part of a discussion with Classmates of these ideas. Count me in!

  • Tim Hall

    Thanks so much for your comments, Gary and Burgert. So let’s talk with the Y62 Communications Team about next steps.