It has been a few years since I imagined India as a world leader. The question follows, darkly, Lead to what? But as I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry of the Future, the question was answered – and my memory refreshed about this country’s promise and its relevance in 2021.
The novel, which Ezra Klein of the New York Times called “the most important book I’ve read this year,” is a muscular effort by a master of science fiction to find a way to overcome the climate crisis : the hard road to a happier global balance. In the first chapter, a heat wave combines with deadly humidity over Uttar Pradesh, leaving a “wet bulb” temperature at which bodies can no longer cool themselves. The result is catastrophic mass death from the heat – but also a national uprising and the start of a climate revolution.
India is now emerging as a hero, pulling the world to its feet on decarbonization and ecological rehabilitation. “We looked at what India is doing,” the Chinese finance minister said in a later passage. “They are now leading in all kinds of things.” Robinson’s goal is ultimately to reinvigorate readers with a vision of “all kinds of things”: an abundance of flawed strategies, social alliances, scientific moon shots and sweeping operations, all working together. to eliminate the carbon economy. He situates many of these ideas and actors in India’s current landscape, and others in its future. An image is forming, of India as a moral and political example – just as it was 75 years ago, and sometimes since then – accepting its new rendezvous with fate, its dharma in the Anthropocene.
Reading The Ministry for the Future in Delhi, ahead of the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, I found this picture startling – and suddenly compelling. I spoke to Robinson about writing a future for India, at the forefront of the fight for the future of the world.
India is not the only “hero” in the future of the book – but you have chosen it as the society to emerge from the disaster and lead the charge through the crisis. Why India? Is it the mere exposure of the country to climate catastrophe? Or was there a positive association that guided your choice?
Maybe it was a bit of both. It is certain that the vulnerability is there: the plain of the Ganges, the back wall of the Himalayas to try a high pressure cell; also, the dense population, and the stressed electrical network. It could lead to disaster. I don’t think this is news to anyone paying attention. But just as important to me was the positive idea of India as a rising superpower. Along with China, it is one of the super-giant countries that are crucial for the human history of this century.
The book brings out a national quality that I had lost sight of in recent years: India’s progressive and proactive interest and its creative role in the world. Did this cultural and historical heritage guide your writing?
Yes they have. Since my college days in the early 1970s, I have read and practiced to some extent a California form of Buddhism. It’s a long road that ultimately leads to India. And I’m a close student of Henry David Thoreau – he was one of the first Americans to learn Indian philosophy, and it’s good that he also had an influence on Gandhi.
Of course, it is difficult, if not impossible, to speak of other countries with discernment; they are still so complex that even the citizens of this country cannot keep a good track of everything that is going on. America, for example, is now an incomprehensible mess; but with great hope for better times. But no matter which party is in government, they will all have to join in this effort or they will suffer. And the closer we get to the equator, the sooner the suffering will begin.
The political changes you write for India suggest that histrionic nationalism is a serious obstacle to climate action. But the book also offers the prospect for countries – China, Russia, the United States and others – to view climate action as crucial to the national interest or national survival.
All national directorates are dedicated to defending the interests of their nation first; the world as a whole comes after that, if ever. It is a great danger in our time. What I think is that national leaders understand that the sooner their country’s policies and industries are green, the more they will have a relative advantage in the new technological world to come, if anyone is to survive.
In other words, dragging his heels and burning all possible fossil fuels, while other countries take a leap forward in developing green technologies, is a recipe for national failure. The boldest countries will be the most successful later in the 21st century. We cannot stress it enough: the first to go green will do his best afterwards.
I’m curious how you did the research to visualize India’s redemptive future.
It was mostly reading, which I do for many hours every day. In addition, help from acquaintances in the world of technology, who read the manuscript in the early versions. My reading of Indian history dates back to when I was writing The Years of Rice and Salt, an alternative history with a strong Indian component; this reading took place from 1998 to 2001. This reading led me to The Wonder That Was India, by AL Basham, and Autobiography of an Unknown Indian by Nirad Chaudhuri, and New History of India by Stanley Wolpert, among other books that I have kept from that time.
Over the years I have also read a lot about Kerala, Sikkim and Ladakh. I know these might not be the main line of Indian society today, but they illustrate the great variety that India displays politically and socially.
Have you been informed by any particular living characters? Vandana Shiva, for example, receives a cry.
I met Vandana Shiva at a conference in California in 1991, and she was very impressive. I still think she’s very important to farming practices and equality in general, but I don’t agree with her harsh views against genetically modified organisms – we’ve been modifying genes for as long as we’re humans, the methods do not. question; and we need it for the future; and that’s for sure. To complain about the implication of science in genetics is to confuse the good of science with the evil of capitalism. Coming back to the positive, she has been a huge force for good for most of her career.
Finally, I want to say a word for Indian science fiction, with the idea that every culture needs a vision of its future to be complete. The stronger Indian science fiction, the better its vision for the future.
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