The Ministry for the Future

by Kim Stanley Robinson

★★★★★

Finished

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It opened my eyes to the new realities of climate change but matched those realities with some thought-provoking, optimistic steps we could take in the future.

I found myself marking lots of pages with interesting ideas and collated them below.


Odds & Ends

Gini coefficient

The Gini coefficient is a measure of income or wealth disparity in a population, typically given as a fraction between 0 and 1.

0 is the coefficient if everyone owned an equal amount, 1 is for if one person owned everything and everyone else nothing.

The Gini coefficient for the whole world's population is higher than for any individual countries as there are so many more poor people in the world. It's roughly 0.7 for the world.

Monocausotaxophilia is the love of single ideas that explain everything – "one of humanity's most common cognitive errors." The Gini coefficient is a good example of this, some countries have the same coefficient despite a large difference in the average annual income. We should consider the spread between the richest and the poor.

Cognitive errors

Foreshortening is a common perceptual distortion.

When standing under a cliff in the mountains and looking up at it, the cliff always appears to be about the same height—say a thousand feet or so. ... Only when you get miles away [...] can you actually see the immense height ...

Other cognitive errors include "anchor bias (you want to stick to your first estimate or what you have been told) and ease of representation (you think an explanation you can understand is more likely to be true than one you can't)."

The book mentions an "excellent circular graphic display of cognitive errors" – it could be this but it doesn't quite match the description.

Another one from later in the book is the "availability heuristic," in which you feel that what is real is what you know.

Secret actors

Hebrew tradition speaks of those hidden good people who keep the world from falling apart, the Tzadikim Nistarium, the hidden righteous ones. In some versions they are thirty-six in number, and thus are called the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim, the thirty-six righteous ones.

They emerge and act when needed to save their people before sinking back into anonymity. They are exemplars of humility, if someone were to proclaim himself to be one of the Lamed-Vav, this would be proof that actually he was not. The Lamed-Vav are generally too modest to believe they could be one of these special actors.

The stories of secret actors are the secret action

Paradoxes

The Jevons paradox is that increases in efficiency in the use of a resource lead to an overall increase in the use of that resource, not a decrease. Originally written in reference to the history of the use of coal.

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.

2,000 Watt Society

The 2000-watt society is an environmental vision, first introduced in 1998 by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH Zurich), which pictures the average First World citizen reducing their overall average primary energy usage rate to no more than 2,000 watts (i.e. 2 kWh per hour or 48 kWh per day) by the year 2050, without lowering their standard of living.

Carbon coin

The book posits a carbon coin, or carboni, a cryptocurrency backed by central banks to reward and promote ecological actions. I'd like to learn more about this potential for cryptocurrencies, it sounds fascinating.

Hazards

Some of us talked about the bathtub graph. People doing dangerous things make mistakes when they're first learning it, and then when they've known it forever. Theses were the two periods with higher rates of accidents, while the in-between was a stretch of low accidents.

Avoidance

One pathologicial reaction, a form of avoidance, has been called The Masque of the Red Death Syndrome, after the story by Edgar Allan Poe. In the story, a group of privileged aristocrats, isolated in a castle on a peak above a countryside devastated by a plague, stage a masquerade to distract themselves, or to display indifference or defiance to their eventual fate.

A silent masked stranger then appears and stalks through the party, and few readers are surprised when this stranger turns out to be death itself.

Even more extreme pathological responses to biosphere collapse are possible and have been observed. Some who feel the end is near work to hasten it, or worsen it.

Götterdämmerung Syndrome ~ the Goddamning of the world or "twilight of the gods."

Shorting civilization & assorted quotes

Yes. You can short civilization if you want. Not a bad bet really. But no one to pay you if you win. Whereas if you go long on civilization and civilization (therefore) survives, you win big. So the smart move is to go long.

You could literally fill a medium-sized encylopedia with the good new projects already invented and waiting to scale.

Are your machines learning?

Data mining tells us things we wouldn't have known unless we did it. That could be called artificial intelligence but it's what we used to call science. What we have really is computer-assisted science. Best to call it that. It's getting stronger. But we have to figure out what to do with it.

Mail delivered by Lions

Charles Fourier was a French utopian with followers in France and America. There were communes based on his ideas. For him the animals were very important—they were going to join us and become a big part of civilization.

So at one point he says, The mail will be delivered by lions.

After a cursory look online I can't find anything about this but it's a nice idea.