Visions of a Climate-Bright Near-Future

Sunrise at Mount Pinatubo, Philippines. Image courtesy of Wallpaper for Tech.

“You gotta ac-cent-tu-ate the positive, e-lim-i-nate the negative…”**

The dire situation of the climate crisis is just that — dire. This makes it hard to remain optimistic. Nonetheless, two books of speculative fiction — both triumphs — have done that in remarkable, gratifying ways.

These books, Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson and The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, offer a near future world in which a subset of scrappy, empowered people successfully do useful things to minimize and counter the impacts of climate change. Both broadcasting the joy each author took in writing the work. Terrific reads — I recommend you spend time getting to know them both.

The books share many conceits that reflect the science of climate change, the complexity of governments and governance, and the role of emerging technology. One example: an outsized roll of small European nations (Netherlands and Switzerland) and India. Similarly, both feature the U.S. as a diminished power not widely trusted, and China at the margins focusing on a mix of financial and geopolitical outcomes.

Another shared feature: targeted, well financed ecoterrorism. Provocative geoengineering with sulfate particles drives actions in both books and is executed with minimal geopolitical consequence, either by a nation, an individual, or both. However, these aspects don’t evoke more tired, dystopian trauma-scapes. On the contrary, they reflect the richness of our world and support the optimistic future built in both.

I find one aspect of both books startling from the present political and civil discourse: carbon management is just assumed! Carbon capture, even direct air capture, happens in the background as a sidebar and complement to other actions. In Termination Shock, Norway’s crown prince takes on carbon capture as his vocation (in supposed counterbalance to the emissions embedded in the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund). In Ministry for the Future, carbon capture and carbon removal are tossed off in passing, mentioned as a subset of the many useful measures to counter global warming.

This reflects two important aspects of carbon management. First, it’s unglamorous. There’s little drama in the old-school engineering of solvents, compressors, fans, and drill-rigs. Carbon management is ultimately untelegenic and unremarkable, so commands few lines of text. Second, it’s both obvious and required. Even in a world with widespread geo engineering (TS) and natural rewilding (MFTF), carbon management complements other tasks of emissions reduction, removal, and avoided misery.

The natural rewilding of Ministry highlights another shared aspect — adaptation measures. These can be small — like personalized “earth suits” tp handle the outsized Texas heat of the future — or enormous, like continent-scale ecosystem corridors. Like carbon capture, these measures are both complementary and in themselves insufficient. Chiefly, adaptation serves the role of reducing suffering, whether for our narrative heroes or for charismatic megafauna.

Despite these similarities, the books have wildly different styles — one Dionysian, one Apollonian. Stephenson’s book is a rollicking, technophilic thriller. It lovingly discusses supply-chain elements in drones, the coking film in combustion chambers, and the wiring of soldering irons and elevators. The details provide heft to the book and feature in key plot elements. The author trusts the reader to make connections and insights through these details.

The dialog is crackling and occasionally scandalous (c.f., discussions of vitamin D and amphibious aircraft) — rich and stylized. It draws the reader’s focus to the characters themselves, diverse and complicated individuals gamboling through the narrative discovering their roles in life as the world around the shudders. The people drive the narrative and persevere to preserve their ways of life and professional excellence.

In contrast, Robinson’s book is a vast, epic drama told in short, interlaced vignettes — almost 100 chapters in total. The story rides the complex, interlaced physical and political systems of banks, governments, and electromagnetic radiation, each characters and narrative drivers. One important central character is multi-generational refugee camps — an unfortunately and cruel adaptation measure necessary in such a world, which affect the societies they inhabit and the poor suffering families within.

The story unfolds over decades, with small footwork producing dramatic improvements and consequences. Closed-door meetings drive responses and actions around the globe. Here, the language of the book is startling rick and varied, evoking global actions from Africa and India to corporate board rooms and economics lectures. The result is kaleidoscopic, revealing facets of the dynamic landscape to create a global gestalt, flowing into the evolving catastrophes (some slow-motion and some lightning fast).

Tellingly, both stories anchor on a substrate of generosity. Individual generosity includes money, enterprise and sympathy. It knits the characters and their actions into working teams committed to improving the lots of others, and occurs at personal, financial, national, and international scales. Such generosity may have other benefits (from preserving the value of Houston’s real estate to maintaining civil order or fence-line security) but remains generous, nonetheless.

This is a tacit but real aspect of the climate crisis: the world will require unprecedented generosity to succeed.

* For what it’s worth, I’ve met many people like those featured in these two books. That maked it extra fun for me.

** For you musical mavins, the line comes from a WWII-era song by Harold Arlen & Johnny Mercer. The song is widely recorded, from Bing Crosby to Ella Fitzgerald to Sam Cooke. I rather enjoy this version by the Andrew Sisters.

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Julio Friedmann

I’ve spent my career trying to keep CO2 out of the air and oceans, and more recently trying to remove CO2 from them. Carbon Wrangling full time.