The Ministry for the Future - book review

How Much I recommend it: 7/10

Wow. The opening of this novel is vivid and horrible (in a disturbing way, not the quality of writing). The type of scene I’ll never forget. Set in the near future (maybe 2040?), an entire town in India gets killed in a horrific heat wave. Across the country, 20 million die. That scene sets the stage for the urgency and gravity of what’s to come.

The book is cleverly written in a way I haven’t seen before. Each chapter is written from a different perspective and there are dozens of stories unfolding at once. Some of the main storylines include an aid worker from the US who was present in a town hit particularly hard by the Indian heat wave. One story is that of an Irish woman who is the head of The Ministry for the Future. One is a group of scientists working to slow the melt of glaciers. And other chapters include refugees, climate terrorists, and even one from the Sun’s perspective among dozens of others.

The basic premise is that climate change get’s so bad that people from all over the world in all different professions take things into their own hands. Some resort to violence by taking down commercial aircraft with drones, some assassinate oil executives and politicians who are deemed responsible, others deal with the effects of drought in their cities or, on the other hand, extreme flooding.

Overall, a decent read that exposed me to some new ideas and challenged my thinking.

Some of my highlights:

  • Easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism: the old saying had grown teeth and was taking on a literal, vicious accuracy.
  • Humans are burning about 40 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons) of fossil carbon per year. Scientists have calculated that we can burn about 500 more gigatons of fossil carbon before we push the average global temperature over 2 degrees Celsius higher than it was when the industrial revolution began; this is as high as we can push it, they calculate, before really dangerous effects will follow for most of Earth’s bioregions, meaning also food production for people.
  • Ideology, n. An imaginary relationship to a real situation. In common usage, what the other person has, especially when systematically distorting the facts.
  • We are always more confident of our reasoning than we should be. Indeed overconfidence, not just expert overconfidence but general overconfidence, is one of the most common illusions we experience.
  • Jevons Paradox proposes that increases in efficiency in the use of a resource lead to an overall increase in the use of that resource, not a decrease.
  • The paradox is visible in the history of technological improvements of all kinds. Better car miles per gallon, more miles driven. Faster computer times, more time spent on computers. And so on ad infinitum.
  • the world could still be divided into roughly three groups of wealth and consumption, measured by their transport methods. A third of the world traveled by car and jet, a third by train and bicycle; the final third was still on foot.
  • “The rentier class.” Keynes meant by this the people who made money simply by owning something that others needed, and charging for the use of it: this is rent in its economic meaning. Rent goes to people who are not creators of value, but predators on the creation and exchange of value.

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