Eco-terrorism! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing... is off the table in Kim Stanley Robinson's The Ministry for the Future. What kinds of extreme actions will our lack of present climate reform produce?

Reading Time: 10 minutes

This week for Humanist Book Club, we’re looking at the most infamous facet of Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020). Yes, this near-future speculative fiction imagined quite a few ways to tackle climate change: a state-backed crypto coin to incentivize carbon sequestration, Antarctic drilling to pump meltwater out from shifting glaciers, tinting the oceans to better reflect sunlight, shifting to green energy for marine transport, solar geoengineering to deflect heat in the stratosphere…

But everyone remembers the terrorists.

Why is that?

Well, in part, we seem to be fond of hypothetical extremes. Why deal with the challenging, nuanced, yet also somehow mundane work of transitioning our economies and lifestyles for climate resistance, when we can play in the grand, moralizing sandbox of ethical what-ifs instead?

In prominent book reviews, Robinson managed to get himself charged with both overly optimistic thinking (as we’ve discussed in relation to how smoothly international politics run in his fiction, compared to our own), and romantic and/or cynical leaps into sanctioning terrorism.

Except that this last isn’t an accurate representation of terrorist action in Robinson’s novel. A better way of discussing the phenomenon is this: the use of violence for protest or dissuasion, or to seize power entirely, is part of the world we live in. The absence of extreme acts in an international climate change story would stand out as much as their inclusion. Maybe more.

When we treat this narrative element as fealty to realism, rather than absolute endorsement, we can think more about the “work” of eco-terrorism: how it can distract us, how it can change general appetites for new policy, and how it can be lessened, if not entirely avoided, if states are willing to make other changes first.

As we’ll see, after all, one of the biggest targets for eco-terrorism is wealth. As some dramatic online memes already suggest, if billionaires don’t want “the guillotine” they can simply advocate for fair taxation instead. Move all their fun money into public coffers, so that countries can honor their international pledges for climate change projects, and everyone ends up better off. Right?

There’s a lot of magical thinking in the above hypothetical, though: both in the book, and in the world at large. That’s why, this week, we’re looking at the ideas around human nature and systemic injustice that underpin the reality of eco-terrorism.

Is it inevitable?

Or is that just a story we keep telling ourselves to make it so?

Early in The Ministry for the Future, a radical eco-activist group arises in India after a terrible heat wave kills tens of thousands. The Children of Kali are firm in their declaration to the world:

[C]hange with us, change now, or suffer the wrath of Kali. No more cheap Indian labor, no more sell-out deals; no deals of any kind, unless changes were made. If changes weren’t made by the countries that had signed the Paris Agreement⁠—and every nation had signed it⁠—then this portion of India was now their enemy, and would break off diplomatic relations and do everything short of declaring military war. But economic war⁠—yes, economic war. The world would see what this particular one-sixth of its population, formerly the working class for the world, could do. …

War in the age of the internet, the age of the global village, the age of drones, the age of synthetic biology and artificial pandemics⁠—this was not the same as war in the past. If they were serious, it could get ugly. In fact, if even just the Kali faction of the Indian polity was serious, it could get very ugly.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Later in the text, we hear from the Children of Kali themselves, in a chapter broadly describing their campaigns of retaliatory terror:

They killed us so we killed them. … It was a question of identifying the guilty and then finding them and getting to them. The research and detective work was done by another wing. A lot of the guilty were in hiding, or on fortress islands or otherwise protected. …

Methods were worked up over many iterations. We took a lot of losses at first. Of course suicide bombing is often effective, but this is a crude and ugly way to go about it, and uncertain. … Much better to kill and disappear. Then you can do it again.

For that, drones are best. … Not easy, but once accomplished, boom. … The guilty died in dozens in those years. …

We sometimes joined domestic staffs or landscaping crews, and worked for years. Other times it was a matter of breaking and entering. … Sometimes their bodyguards would have to be killed too. They shouldn’t have taken work like that. Protecting mass murderers makes you complicit in mass murder. So we didn’t worry about them.

The only thing we worried about was what the guilty ones always call “collateral damage.” In other words, the accidental killing of innocents to kill your target. The guilty do it all the time, it’s one sign of their guilt, but we don’t. It’s a principle. Kali is very fair and very meticulous.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Hold these claims of “fair” and “meticulous” conduct in mind, though, as we reflect on escalation in this book. In Robinson’s imagined 2030s, the “zombie years”, “[c]ivilization had been killed but it kept walking the Earth, staggering toward some fate even worse than death”. This is a time when “[e]veryone alive knew that not enough was being done, and everyone kept doing too little.”

Within that climate of despair, we’re given Crash Day: a day when sixty passenger jets, from all over the world, on flights of every type (but disproportionately private), crash over a few hours. Business flights, commercial flights, “innocent people, flying for all kinds of reasons: all dead.” Clouds of drones had been directed into each flight path. Dozens of terrorist groups take credit and try to leverage the terror for a variety of ends in the aftermath.

But also? After that day, the number of people flying plummets. Even military transport. Then some notice that none of the crashed planes had used alternative energy sources. There weren’t many planes at the time with experimental batteries and biofuels, but all had been spared. Not a blimp, dirigible, hot-air balloon, or other airship was touched, either. So… maybe they would be safe? This in turn leads to an uptick in their manufacture. Flight returns, but differently.

Later that year, we also get torpedoed container ships⁠—almost always near land, in ways that allow the wreckage to serve as the foundation for new coral reef systems. And only ships running on diesel fuel. Two months after Crash Day, the Children of Kali publish a manifesto: no more fossil-fuel-burning transport. Full stop.

Then they target the cows: mad cow disease, brought by drone dart to populations the world over… except India. The West stops consuming as much meat and dairy milk, but not without accusing the Children of hypocrisy for sheltering India. Did India not burn coal? Did cows in India somehow emit less methane? In the furious chaos of the era, someone attacks Indian power plants in turn⁠—other terrorist groups? The Children themselves, without taking credit for attacking countrymen? No one can say for sure, but it also doesn’t seem to matter.

What matters is simply that, by hook or by crook, the world’s lifestyles finally change to reduce our overall carbon footprint.

So do the ends justify the means?

The Children of Kali are a fascinating addition to Robinson’s world, because they don’t exist in isolation. He also includes another terrorist organization, a shadow group that helps the Ministry for the Future carry out work it can’t do on its own (but which needs doing, to achieve consensus on key projects). If international relations in this book seem to run smoothly, in part it’s because this formal representative of our international community has people behind the scenes who will do whatever it takes, with very little public accountability, to get it done.

For instance, when one of our lead characters struggles to get central banks on board with a carbon coin, international offices and banking apparatuses conveniently get hit by cyber and material attacks. Switzerland in particular finds that it needs to change its tax haven reputation, and fast, to protect its country from further terrorism. But since the Ministry for the Future has also been attacked, and since even our protagonist was once kidnapped by an extremist pushing for her to do more… it can’t be the Ministry itself orchestrating so much violence, can it?

The Children of Kali, conversely, are extremely public⁠—and yet, the extent to which they too are a shadow wing of Indian government remains unclear. Much like Wagner’s nebulous relationship with the Kremlin in our world, these eco-extremists in Robinson’s novel skirt all the usual formalities of state accountability, while defending its interests and enjoying at least its tacit support in turn.

Meanwhile, the Indian government in this book also chooses extreme responses unilaterally, not least of which being through the use of solar geoengineering. What makes an action “violent” and “terrorist”? Is it simply the source of unilateral action causing harm? The lack of public accountability for its actors?

India’s attempt to shield its stratosphere comes with huge risks not only to its own climate, but also to the climates of neighboring countries. The action doesn’t go that badly in Robinson’s book, but in the real world the jury is still out on whether solar geoengineering will do more harm than good, by disrupting weather patterns and reducing crop yields. Either way, how is one country’s decision to risk harm to a shared environment any different than the decisions states make every day that affect air, earth, and water quality for neighbors and citizens alike?

Plenty of corporate and government actions create “collateral damage”… but through forms of violence routinely shrouded by economic benefit. Boardroom terrorism. The right of captains of industry to do whatever serves stockholders best.

So where does this notion of “terrorist” action, and its actors, begin and end?

We need to address the breaking points that typically yield more desperate and extreme actions. But by “we”, I mean those with the power to move the needle in the most important ways.

Rich people’s ‘heart’ therapy

One other fascinating form of terrorism explored in The Ministry for the Future, after all, comes from a far less lethal attempt to change hearts and minds. Instead of killing the rich entirely, some of the affluent are held hostage at a Davos conference, where they’re forced into a kind of boot-camp crash course in empathy.

Does it work?

Tough to say. For all that Robinson’s book has been charged with optimism (the horror!), it’s in his descriptions of the resistance of rich individuals to having a heart that we see some of his most grounded views of human behavior. Around 2,500 businessmen and political leaders are just getting into the week-long swing of things, patting themselves on the back for marginally improving the number of women in their number (a nod to a bankrupt form of liberal activism that believes having 50% female CEOs will fix our equity problems), when suddenly

… we had just gathered and gotten down to the series business of eating and drinking and talking, when the power went off and we were left in the dark. … And the security people were suddenly seen to be not the same security people, these new ones were in masks guarding us in a different sense … We all said what the fuck and they ignored us, we all tried to get outside and see what was happening; no luck. Doors all locked. The whole town was physically closed.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Their plumbing stops working, so they use the woods and spots in town until they can develop a makeshift latrine. The water stops flowing, so they have to learn how to pull water from other sources. Otherwise, amid the tedium of their capture,

we were asked to attend what we called the reeducation camp. We figured we must have been captured by Maoists, that only Maoists would have such a naive faith in propaganda lectures. These bounced right off us, and in fact were a considerable source of mirth, as we were already educated and knew what was what. … It was like looking at the longest charity advertisement ever made.

… And it was despite all a sobering sight to see how the poorest people on Earth still lived. Time travel to the twelfth century, for sure. … Often statistics appeared on the big screen; yes, PowerPoint shows, a true punishment. That a tenth of one percent of the human population owned half humanity’s wealth⁠—that was us, yay! … The figures kept coming, graph after graph, repeated in ways that were not even close to compelling. Bored, sleepy, hypnotized, we tried to figure out which ideological or ethnic group had assembled such a stew.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

As these excerpts suggest, the affluent at Davos waver, as all humans do. At times it feels like they’re actually affected by what they’re seeing, against their best efforts to the contrary. But mostly, the rich shore up their defence mechanisms, leaning hard into the idea that they’re too intelligent to fall for this sort of reprogramming. Yes, when part of the program involves talking to the children of wealthy parents, their defences are shaken by seeing “all kinds of pathetic angry supercilious kids” that it turns out belong to people in attendance. But this wavering is short-lived. Even fear for the well-being of their own progeny isn’t enough.

You are one of the Davos Hostages, a voice said at the end … You will have been a participant at the Captured Davos. What will you do with that? We will be interested to watch you live the rest of your lives.

With that the incarceration ended.

… Back home we found ourselves minor celebrities, and opportunities to tell our story would last forever. Some of us took that opportunity, others slipped back into comfortable anonymity. I myself decided to decompress in Tahiti.

So, effect of this event on the real world: zero! So fuck you!

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

Robinson’s writing is quite clever here, though, because even though attendees insist that they haven’t been changed, they have still undergone a life event they’ll now be talking about, or at least marked by, for the rest of their lives. And the world will have watched. And many who didn’t attend will be impacted by the possibility (fear) of similar kidnappings at future events.

Easing the threat of extreme action

Suffice it to say, terrorism in Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future has a range: targeted killings of the rich and powerful, whose own boardroom terrorism first contributed to climate change disaster. Blowing planes out of the sky, and ships out of the harbor. Infecting livestock with killer diseases. Kidnapping Davos attendees and UN officials for re-education. Risking the destruction of one’s own and neighboring countries’ environments, either for profit or maybe to save both.

Everyone has a breaking point for which the ends will surely justify the means.

The less “sexy” discussion lies with how we avoid those breaking points entirely.

Earlier this month, a study published in Science Advances offered further grim climate news. In “Earth beyond six of nine planetary boundaries”, the authors suggest that “Earth is now well outside the safe operating space for humanity”. Of the other three boundaries, stratospheric ozone levels have slightly recovered, but the other two (ocean acidification and atmospheric aerosol loading) are also rising toward danger zones. Everything is bad, and it is getting worse.

Credit: Azote for Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University. Based on Richardson et al. 2023, Steffen et al. 2015, and Rockström et al. 2009. CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Licensing.

Are we already in the “zombie years”, which Robinson’s book configures as the 2030s? Has civilization already died without fully realizing that it’s dead?

We need to address the breaking points that typically yield more desperate and extreme actions. But by “we”, I mean those with the power to move the needle in the most important ways. Next week, we’ll wrap up this Humanist Book Club series with a look at personal responsibility. For now, the question goes much further:

Do we have the political will to reduce the likelihood of climate terror being met with even more extreme forms of eco-terrorist response?

Or will it truly take more terror to increase humanity’s will to survive at all?

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.

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