Notes on the Ministry for the Future

I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future (just out). I’m half-way through it and… it’s an angry book, and in all the right ways. I’ve been marking more highlights and taking more notes than normal, and I’d like to highlight a few things here because he is, I think, spot on.

In no particular order…

Tech will not save us:

“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. At this point it is naïve to expect that technological improvements alone will slow the impacts of growth and reduce the burden on the biosphere. And yet many still exhibit this naiveté.”

On the role of efficiency & inefficiency:

“there is good efficiency and bad efficiency, good inefficiency and bad inefficiency”

See also this blog post.

On resilience:

“Robustness and resilience are in general inefficient; but they are robust, they are resilient. And we need that by design.”

On how economics are the wrong tool for the job:

“Not profit, but biosphere health, should be the function solved for; and this would change many things. It means moving the inquiry from economics to political economy, but that would be the necessary step to get the economics right. Why do we do things? What do we want? What would be fair? How can we best arrange our lives together on this planet? Our current economics has not yet answered any of these questions.”

On the yardstick we should measure by:

“This suggests a general operating principle similar to the Leopoldian land ethic, often summarized as “what’s good is what’s good for the land.” In our current situation, the phrase can be usefully reworded as “what’s good is what’s good for the biosphere.””

The tragedy of the time horizon:

“Having debunked the tragedy of the commons, they now were trying to direct our attention to what they called the tragedy of the time horizon. Meaning we can’t imagine the suffering of the people of the future, so nothing much gets done on their behalf. (…) What we do now creates damage that hits decades later, so we don’t charge ourselves for it, and the standard approach has been that future generations will be richer and stronger than us, and they’ll find solutions to their problems. But by the time they get here, these problems will have become too big to solve. That’s the tragedy of the time horizon, that we don’t look more than a few years ahead”