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A Time of Troubles

A Time of Troubles

The following is an excerpt from Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Ministry for the Future. It is a work of fiction.

Courtesy of Hachette Book Group.

Following the great Indian heat wave, the emergency meeting of the Paris Agreement signatories was fraught indeed. The Indian delegation arrived in force, and their leader Chandra Mukajee was excoriating in her denunciation of the international community and its almost complete failure to adhere to the terms of the agreement that every nation on Earth had signed. Reductions in emissions ignored, payment into investment funds that were to be spent on decarbonization not paid— in every way the Agreement had been ignored and abrogated. A performance without substance, a joke, a lie. And now India had paid the price. More people had died in this heat wave than in the entirety of the First World War, and all in a single week and in a single region of the world. The stain of such a crime would never go away, it would remain forever.

No one had the heart to point out that India had also failed to meet its emission reduction targets. And of course if total emissions over historical time were totted up, India would come in far behind all of the developed nations of the Western world, as everyone knew. In dealing with the poverty that still plagued so much of the Indian populace, the Indian government had had to create electricity as fast as they could, and also, since they existed in a world run by the market, as cheaply as they could. Otherwise outside investors would not invest, because the rate of return would not be high enough. So they had burned coal, yes. Like everyone else had up until just a few years before. Now India was being told not to burn coal, when everyone else had finished burning enough of it to build up the capital to afford to shift to cleaner sources of power. India had been told to get better without any financial help to do so whatsoever. Told to tighten the belt and embrace austerity, and be the working class for the bourgeoisie of the developed world, and suffer in silence until better times came— but the better times could never come, that plan was shot. The deck had been stacked, the game was over. And now twenty million people were dead.

The people in the big room in the center of Zurich’s Kongresshall sat there in silence. This was not the same silence as the earlier memorial moment, a ritual period of silence to honor the memory of the dead which had stretched on for minute after minute. Now it was the silence of shame, confusion, dismay, guilt. The Indian delegation was done talking, they had nothing more they cared to say. Time for a response, an answer to them; but there was no answer. Nothing could be said. It was what it was: history, the nightmare from which they could not wake.

Finally that year’s president of the Paris Agreement organization, a woman from Zimbabwe, stood up and went to the podium. Briefly she embraced Chandra, nodded to the other Indians on stage, and went to the microphone.

“Obviously we have to do better,” she said. “The Paris Agreement was created to avoid tragedies like this one. We are all in a single global village now. We share the same air and water, and so this disaster has happened to all of us. Since we can’t undo it, we have to turn it to the good somehow, or two things will happen; the crimes in it will go unatoned, and more such disasters will happen. So we have to act. At long last, we have to take the climate situation seriously, as the reality that overrides everything else. We have to act on what we know.”

Everyone nodded. They could not applaud, not now, but they could nod. They could raise their hands, some of them with their fists clenched, and commit themselves to action.

That was all very well. It was a moment, maybe even a moment to remember. But very soon they were back to the usual horse-trading of national interests and commitments. The disaster had happened in India, in a part of India where few foreigners ever went, a place said to be very hot, very crowded, very poor. Probably more such events in the future would mostly happen in those nations located between the Tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and the latitudes just to the north and south of these lines. Between thirty north and thirty south: meaning the poorest parts of the world. North and south of these latitudes, fatal heat waves might occur from time to time, but not so frequently, and not so fatally. So this was in some senses a regional problem. And every place had its regional problems. So when the funerals and the gestures of deep sympathy were done with, many people around the world, and their governments, went back to business as usual. And all around the world, the CO2 emissions continued.

For a while, therefore, it looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States— mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten or superseded by the next one, until they came in a daily drumbeat and became the new normal. It looked quite possible that the same thing would happen with this event, the worst week in human history. How long would that stay true, about being the worst week? And what could anyone do about it? 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.

But not in India. Elections were held and the nationalist nativist BJP party was thrown out of office as insufficient to the task, and partly responsible for the disaster, having sold the country to outside interests and burned coal and trashed the landscape in the pursuit of ever-growing inequality. The RSS disgraced and discredited at last as an evil force in Indian life. A new party was voted in, a composite party composed of all kinds of Indians, every religion and caste, urban poor, rural poor, the educated, all banded together by the disaster and determined to make something change. The ruling elite lost legitimacy and hegemony, and the inchoate fractured resistance of victims coalesced in a party called Avasthana, Sanskrit for survival. The world’s biggest democracy, taking a new way. India’s electrical power companies were nationalized where they weren’t already, and a vast force was put to work shutting down coal-fired power plants and building wind and solar plants, and free-river hydro, and non-battery electrical storage systems to supplement the growing power of battery storage. All kinds of things began to change. Efforts were renewed to dismantle the worst effects of the caste system— these efforts had been made before, but now it was made a national priority, the new reality, and enough Indians were now ready to work for it. All over India, governments at all levels began to implement these changes.

Lastly, though this was regretted by many, some more radical portion of this new Indian polity sent a message out to the world: change 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. Time for the long post-colonial subalternity to end. Time for India to step onto the world stage, as it had at the start of history, and demand a better world. And then help to make it real.

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Whether that kind of aggressive stance would be revealed as a true national position or the posturing of a radical faction remained to be seen. It depended, some thought, on how far India’s new national government was willing to go to back up this Kali group’s threats— to in effect unleash them. 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.

But two could play at those games, indeed everyone could play those games— not just the 195 nations that had signed the Paris Agreement, but all the various kinds of non-state actors, right down to individuals.

And so came a time of troubles.

(Read our latest interview with the author here.)

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