IanMcKinley’s shory story explores the dystopian world in the not so distant future
The Shinkansen was on its last legs and, as such, a good metaphor for the entire planet. The battered Nozomi train was making maybe thirty km/h, well less than a tenth of what it managed in its prime. Nevertheless, the onboard fuel cells still functioned, and its duck-like beak of a front end, combined with the hardened sloped windows of the cockpit, were just what we needed to push aside the debris that had accumulated on the empty tracks and in the abandoned stations.
Yoshi was driving, still taking his job as minder seriously. The surviving Think Tank members were sprawled in the Green Car behind the locomotive, seats turned so that we were facing each other, four and four, silently drinking a rather industrial saké out of thermos flasks. The flickering lights lit our faces as we sat back in the shabby seats and watched the dark, faintly moonlit countryside slowly roll by. I looked at the postures and clocked the furtive glances to see who would kick off, knowing that the Blame Game would start soon.
I smiled as Jenny coughed and got ready to launch into a spiel, only to be pipped at the post by Gerd, who had certainly been waiting for this further chance to annoy his ex. “Well, to me there is no question about it. We can see that global warming was the initiating factor, so it has got to be the metanational industrial complex that—”
“Crap.” Jenny, shoulders shaking with emotion, broke in before the bearded German economist got any further. “Global warming was a symptom, not the cause. Runaway capitalism driven by greedy bankers and complicated by green nutters who blocked any technology that could have sorted out the problems being created…that’s what really screwed things up.”
I sank deeper into my seat and smiled. Poor little Jenny; a Nobel geneticist from a working class background in Wales. Pretty as a picture and sharp as a razor blade, but useless in a debate. She tries to hit too many targets at the same time. Of course, the fact that she had abandoned her boyfriend to hitch up with our open lesbian, added an extra frisson to her fights with Gerd.
“This green stuff, this is shit. You know it is all the shit of the mega bull crap.” Jordi was on his feet, the floor swaying in time to the rattle of the wheels, and seemed to be literally foaming at the mouth. Probably something to do with the rotgut we were drinking.
“You scientists do all this shit stuff, screwing up our environment and poisoning our children.
We try to stop you and we are the devils.”
Jenny blushed in an incredibly attractive manner. “No, that’s not what—”
“Goddam green raghead terrorists. All you mothas got to take the blame that you rightfully deserve.”
I didn’t know if it was possible to grimace and roll one’s eyes at the same time but, if so, I was sure that I did. It was a mystery to me how this redneck – despite PhDs in astrophysics, philosophy and biochemistry – ever managed to get chosen for this group. You can take the boy out of Texas…
James came in, right on cue. “Steve, old chap, a bit of decorum if you please.”
If I closed my eyes, I would have thought he had spent his entire life in the Eton-Henley-City triangle, but he came from Bangalore and, before his ill-fated trip to Nippon, had only once set foot outside of India. This lack of travel experience was not matched by a shortage of imagination, with a list of literary prizes that was amazing in its diversity. Booker to Hugo: nobody had ever managed that before, much less picking up just about everything else between. Our second Nobel laureate, his previous foreign trip having been to Stockholm.
“Now, who has the talking stick?” He referred to the instrument that he had introduced to bring some order into these debates, reducing the tendency of these prima donnas to constantly interrupt each other.
I tossed over the latest incarnation of this venerable object, a short plastic branch decked out in somewhat bedraggled pink nylon cherry blossom, but Gerd snatched it from the air and brandished it to emphasise his points. “Look at the facts, for God’s sake. We could see the writing on the wall by the tens and twenties. Despite all the promises at the start of the century, not only were greenhouse gas emissions still increasing, but the rate of the increase was climbing. Everyone knew that destabilisation of marine methane clathrates was inevitable, so how can anyone possibly say that the climate catastrophe, not to mention the associated coastal shelf collapse by mega-tsunamis, can’t be taken as the root cause for everything that happened thereafter?”
“Good points, good points indeed.” James was, as ever, accepted as chairman and allowed to pry the talking stick from Gerd’s still shaking fist. “Now, Brit, what do you say to that?”
Brit solemnly accepted the twig, careful to keep it well away from the big Texan. Steve looked like he was ready to grab it from the slim Danish journalist and filmmaker, and I half-hoped that he would try. The boor was over two-metres of solid corn-fed manhood, but I had often seen the small blonde working through some form of martial art kata when I took my habitual sunrise strolls, and I had a feeling that she would be well able to handle herself.
“Nobody would claim that global warming was not a key factor, but what was the actual driving force that caused continued expansion of fossil fuel combustion? As we passed the peaks of natural gas and easily accessible oil, we just moved to horribly inefficient oil from deep waters and tar sands, methane from fracked shale and clathrates. Why was that accepted by the public and politicians, while they blocked nuclear power, genetically-engineered biofuels, other carbon capture methods and any form of geo-engineering? Why was it that our communication efforts were so ineffective?”
This beautifully enunciated presentation moved the blame towards Brit’s own area of expertise, which was a rather unusual occurrence amongst the Blame Game participants. Or, more accurately, the current participants. We were originally twenty: a special multi-disciplinary team set up by the Japanese Mori Foundation, in collaboration with the Universities of Tokyo, Oxford, Harvard and the ETH in Zurich. Eight out of twenty’s not bad, actually, considering the chaos of the first few weeks and the daily reports of further disasters that convinced many to attempt to head home, regardless of bans on international commercial flights. Despite such quarantine attempts, the pandemic was already unstoppable in Japan, and things went downhill rapidly after it decimated Tokyo. Yoshi up front was the sole representative of the army of Japanese minders, flunkeys, facilitators and media representatives who had travelled to Hakone with us for the kick-off session of the Environmental Remediation Task Force.
“Now, Father Tino, I think you are next.” Our chairman presented the talking stick to the chubby Mexican cleric and Peace Prize laureate, who looked at it for a moment as if it was imbued with some kind of power to help him organise his thoughts.
“Yeah, she is kinda right.” He nodded in the direction of the smiling Dane. We had been together now for more than six months, but the catholic clergyman still could not remember anyone’s name. “The people jus’ didn’ believe anybody no more. All the politicians was corrupt, the police was even more corrupt, the bankers and all the men with big money…they was really corrupt. You don’t ever get a hold that kinda cash honestly.” He hesitated, seeming to have lost his line of thought, then rushed on when it looked like James was about to reclaim the stick. “No more trust, no more culture…so no way that the people could make a change. We had all the revolutions last century, starta this one, but they made no difference for the people. What you say, new faces, same ol’ shit?”
I groaned quietly as the next speaker rose to his feet. “Well, Reverend, for a Dago, you ain’t all totally wrong. The thing is, what caused all this here loss of trust? Could it just be a co-in-see-dence,” he made this sound like four words, “that most of the green wackos that blocked everything were getting funded by ay-rabs? Just a co-in-see-dence that, the day after that tsunami took out Northern Europe, the ay-rabs released bioweapons in the EU and nuked Israel? A co-in-see-dence was it?”
Surprisingly the American meekly passed on the talking stick to Jordi and sat back with crossed arms and a smile on his round face, clearly convinced by his killer arguments.
“This is such shit, such total shit. This was one scandal, Saudi petro-dollars to one shit Green…” The Spaniard ground to a halt.
Steve moved closer to him and brandished four fingers in front of his nose, adding in a stage whisper, “All of the big four, including the loony-tune mob you represent.”
I felt sorry for Jordi as the fiery young man tried to reorganise his arguments. His English wasn’t up to the cut-and-thrust of real-time argumentation. When speaking Spanish with Father Tino, he was much more fluent and controlled. He finally slumped in his seat, shrugged his shoulders and passed the stick to Jenny who was waving wildly at him.
“Although I’m not saying that there weren’t any bioweapons, the flu pandemic was clearly the main killer, and that was already well established before the first shelf tsunami. It was just that the loss of ability to isolate breakouts occurred exactly at the time when a series of natural disasters exposed huge numbers to the normal diseases that follow destruction of sanitation infrastructure. If we hadn’t all travelled to this high profile shindig, would we have been on the list to receive the vaccine? There just wasn’t enough to go round. And, also, there’s no proof that any Arab countries were nuclear aggressors. Jerusalem seems to have been hit during a first strike from Pakistan, and the major regional damage resulted from the retaliations by India and Israel.”
Yet again, the geneticist managed to spread her targets so widely that she was rewarded only by a grin from the big American. “Yeah, all ‘cause of a bunch of mad ragheads,” he muttered below his breath.
Now Gerd was back in action. “This just proves my point. Blatantly allowing global warming to advance was a result of the drive by the global industrial complex to maximise short-term profits. Expanding fossil fuel production made money, building flood defences made money, developing medication for new diseases and new crops for changed climate conditions made money. It was just about money with no concern about consequences.”
James accepted the talking stick and, typically, his own input moved towards consensus, as if this would ever be possible for our diverse team. “The arguments presented raise many key issues, but the root question, the one that this group was actually set up to address, involves identification of possible solutions. It was indeed most unfortunate that the day of our plenary session coincided with the North Sea mega-tsunami, which seems to have been the straw that set the disaster dominoes toppling. There must have been a veritable horde of apocalyptic horsemen just waiting in the wings to be unleashed, which indicates that a tipping point had been reached. Our society was so finely poised that, if not a tsunami, some other event would have started the snowball rolling and resulted in a similar chain of coupled catastrophes.”
As always, the non-native English-speakers struggled with the little Indian’s mixed metaphors and literary allusions. Steve was thus first to raise his hand and received the stick.
“Tipping point, yeah that’s clear enough. So what’re we seein’ in this twenty-first century o’ ours? Loss of control by the nations that created science, technology and democracy to this damn Third World: that’s where all the problems o’ pollution, weapons o’ mass destruction, damn Hong Kong flus come from. That’s where the blame lies.”
Clearly considering everywhere outside the borders of the USA as Third World, the American handed the stick directly back to James, the representative of this demonised grouping.
“Well, Steve, loss of control of science and technology is certainly a critical issue.
Nevertheless, the nations responsible for establishing and nurturing such fields, and democracy also for that matter, had certainly lost control of these volatile concepts very long before the twenty-first century. Usurping and manipulating the power of science and the political control offered by democracy have classical precedents and particular characteristics of the West since the industrial revolution, while their enforced propagation during the various phases of colonial expansion is what created the Third World in the first place. Whether gunboat diplomacy or softer hamburgerisation, the end product was the same, a global culture driven by dog-eat-dog expansionism, regardless of the inherent constraints set by local, regional or even global resources.”
Even the Spanish-speakers realised that our chairman had, without actually disagreeing, neatly reversed the thrust of his opponent’s argument. The American scowled, but was unable to formulate one of his usual sotto voce jibes before the stick passed on to Jenny.
“I think Brit was right or, at least, more right than Steve. It wasn’t really control of technology, it was inability to build consensus to use it. Or, at least, develop and implement the right technology fast enough. As James pointed out, our group was supposed to look at the problems that everyone knew about…and we started work on the very day that things started to go completely tits-up. Why wasn’t this all started decades ago? It isn’t as if any of the individual issues involved were unknown then. Although, even if the tsunamis and wars and plagues had held off for another couple of decades, would we have been able to propose any solutions? And, even if we had, would anybody have acted on them?”
James drew circles in the air with the talking stick. “Yes, Jenny my dear, a lot of apposite observations there. How do we find the head of this Ouroboros Worm? Even though it’s all a bit post hoc, we’ve had the best part of six months to glean what we can from our annus horribilis. Do we yet know what the actual tipping point was: fossil fuel combustion or the tsunamis, water shortages or nuclear arsenals on hair triggers, pandemic threats or terrorist bioweapons? If we could nail that down, could we see any way of minimising consequences? What do you think, Ell? You are silent throughout these regular debates, but I see fire in your eyes that implies to me that you are far from disinterested. Please let us know what you think, even if just this once.”
They call me Ell because my name is unpronounceable for them. I am a Ukrainian nuclear engineer specialising in knowledge management, in a world that probably has few, if any, functioning nuclear power plants and a rapidly imploding knowledge inventory. I could feel all eyes on me and my face felt warm. Then Jenny squeezed my arm and whispered, “Go on, Ell, tell them.”
I spent five years at UCL, so my English is reasonably fluent, but it takes me a while to get it going – which makes me even more reluctant to speak. But there’s no way out of it now. “Okay, the tipping point was sometime in the 1960s. After that we have been, how do you say it, shifting deckchairs on the Titanic.” I glanced at James, worried that I had already broken the taboo and mentioned the elephant in the room.
“That is very specific, I must say.” He seemed pleased. I breathed a sigh of relief.
“So can you say more? Would there be a number associated with your date; about three billion?”
I was sure that James was, by far, the smartest of this very clever club. He actually knew the substance of everything that we discussed, but he worked to draw it out of others rather than just simply cut straight to the answer himself.
“Yes, I think so, about three billion. That would be around the carrying capacity of the planet, with all inhabitants having a standard of living typical of the developed countries at that time.” I stopped, waiting for a barrage of counter-arguments, but everyone was silent.
Probably not so much that they agree, more the novelty of me contributing anything at all to the discussion. Or maybe it’s just that I’m getting very close to the taboo elephant.
“So the problem was over-population?” James nudged me further.
“Certainly not just the number of people at that time. It was continually increasing populations, encouraged by religious and ethical positions, combined with technological drivers that made the inequalities of living standards obvious to the underprivileged. This caused the…” I clicked my fingers, searching for the English term I was looking for.
“Red Queen’s race?” James suggested. “The constant fire-fighting of resulting crises, every time straining technology to the limit, further depleting non-renewable resources and leading to more serious future problems. That kind of thing?”
“Exactly. After you have passed a certain point, catastrophe is inevitable. The longer you hold it off, the greater the effect will be when you eventually slip up. Technology could probably have coped with any of the individual triggers that you listed, but they become more strongly coupled with time so that, eventually, it leads to a failure cascade that is unstoppable.” I could feel my English come together as I finally enunciated the thoughts I had been brooding over for the last few months.
“That seems very convincing,” our chairman said, seeming to notice for the first time that he had retained the speaking stick for the entire time. “So, we develop the technology to stave off disasters one by one, but, after a point of no return, we are simply increasing our vulnerability to common mode failures, combinations of initiators that lead to runaway chain reactions. Dominoes, snowballs, positive feedbacks, however you want to describe it, it all seems to hang together. So, no matter what we had done, the great population cull was inevitable.”
This was our taboo topic. Over the last six months we had become inured to death, but, as a group, our focus was entirely on survival. Probably this was inevitable, otherwise we would not have lasted this long.
To my surprise it was Father Tino who broke the silence. “You say three billion left? That’s it? We lose internet months ago, when they talk about a billion peoples dead. But it’s gonna be six, seven billions dead? Seven billions.”
This is the question I dreaded. The one we tiptoe around, not wanting to think about the answer.
I intended to play dumb, but James handed me the stick. “You’ve been thinking a lot about this, I see. Since the EMPs took out the satellites, we’ve been flying blind. We have been wagging our chins and scoring debate points in an information vacuum, but you have spent these months thinking. So, tell us now, what will the result be? Will our global population crash to three billion?”
“No, three billion was the carrying capacity a century ago. This doesn’t apply now.”
Our community breathed a sigh of relief, with one notable exception.
“So, what is the best case? What kind of world will our children and grandchildren inherit?” James looked directly into my eyes, and I could see that he was well aware of the direction I was going in.
“A world with a hell of a lot less than three billion living in it,” I conceded quietly. “Runaway global warming is unstoppable. When the pandemics finally burn themselves out, the population will already have dropped below the requirements to maintain services and infrastructures, especially in the big conurbations. The coastal areas not already devastated by tsunamis will be drowned by rising seas. Some inland areas will be dried out by rising temperatures, made much worse by polluted or mined-out aquifers. Others will be devastated by supercharged typhoons and hurricanes, with flooding and landslides in summer and blizzards and avalanches in winter. Yes, a lot less than three billion.”
The shock was palpable.
I don’t think even James expected such a bad prognosis.
Jenny pulled on my arm. “Is it really so bad. Is it the end for us, gone the way of the dinosaurs?”
“Not at all.” I forced a weak smile. “There will still be millions, maybe even a billion or so people. By Red Book standards, we wouldn’t even qualify for protection, much less endangered species listing. The big question is, will we stabilise at that level, or will populations grow again as the ecosystem recovers?”
James grabbed the stick and passed it to a rather pale Gerd. “So this is it? We just accept loss of ninety percent of our population? We conclude that there is nothing we can do about it?”
Everyone was looking at me, so I had to respond. “Potentially, this catastrophe could have been prevented a century ago, if the risks had been taken seriously back then. Maybe there could have been some form of damage limitation if we really got our act together decades ago, maybe around the turn of the century. Now, even if we could immediately coordinate all recovery efforts…” I pointedly glanced out of the window of the shabby train to indicate how likely that might be. “…it really would make little difference. James talked about snowballs. This started off last century as a small snowball on a gentle slope, something that could be stopped. Then it became a very big snowball on a steep slope, the best you can do is maybe divert it, to influence its final impact. Now it’s a large mountain avalanche. There is absolutely nothing that you can do until it has run its path…and then it’s just a case of pulling what you can from the wreckage.”
That’s it. After months of tap-dancing around the issue, I’ve said what everyone must be increasingly aware of, that our little group was not only impotent, but was pointless from the very start.
“So what do we do now?” James asked me, as if I had suddenly become group leader. I shrugged. “Stick to the plan. Keep heading south and try to make our way to somewhere like Australia. An isolated land with low population density should have suffered less and will recover quicker.”
The Indian nodded. “So we see what remains of Hiroshima. If we are unable to find a ship there, we just continue south along the shore. Pulling what we can from the wreckage en route. The team conceived to produce global solutions reduced to lowly beachcombers.”
I said nothing, but it was clear that even the brilliant James still could not get his head around the new world order. We’re a bunch of academics and dilettantes, the kind of people that caused the problems in the first place. If I was building a team to recover from this, I’d be looking instead for medics, builders, farmers and fishermen.
I squeezed Jenny’s hand as I remembered a childhood dream to be a sailor, a goal lost in the treadmill of career progression. This will be my focus for the future, because I’ve been less than honest. I am sure that we could maintain a billion souls on this ravaged planet, but things will get an awful lot worse before we recover to that stage. The message everyone wants to hear is that we’re through the worst, the apocalyptic death rate is tailing off, we’re moving towards rebuilding. Such wishful thinking helps to get us through the day, just like it allowed us to ignore warning signs for a century.
The silence was becoming uncomfortable when Gerd finally rose. “Ell may be right, but might also be wrong. If we consider that the key factor was global warming…”
Jenny seemed ready to jump to my defence, but I grinned and whispered into her ear.
“Okay, forget about Ell, from now you can call me Cassandra.” “But Cassandra was never believed.”
“Look at that bunch. They have all the brains needed to see what I do, but they just don’t want to look. They are stuck in the rut of trying to find someone to blame, spreading the net wide enough to capture everyone from near-omnipotent oligarchs with their obscene greed to starving peasants and their drive to produce yet more starving children. They will never find a solution, because they’re all looking top-down, seeking roles for themselves. They’re specialist dinosaurs that will disappear quickly when the extinction really kicks in.”
“So what do we do then, Cass? Are you going to tell them this?” Jenny grinned mischievously.
“You know that there’s absolutely no point. Keeping together as a group is sensible, at least for as far as we can get on this train. After that, we lose this bunch and look for a boat. I’m fairly sure that Yoshi would come with us. He is originally from Okinawa and that would be a good point to aim for first. Also, his family are fishermen, so he almost certainly knows his way around boats.”
“How do you know all this? Have you been talking to Yoshi?”
“Not talking, listening. I let the others do the talking. While they’re cataloguing the woes released from Pandora’s Box, I’m looking for hope.”
Jenny’s smile widened. “First Cassandra, now Pandora…you’re going mythological all of a sudden.”
I smiled back. “Helps you see the bright side of an on-going apocalypse. Even if nobody else is facing up to the truth of things, our knowledge could help us steer our way through the next decade and maybe even help rebuild things in a more sensible way thereafter. Isn’t that hope enough?”
Our resolution was sealed with a kiss, but nobody else noticed. They were all too enthralled in the cut and thrust of the Blame Game.
Ian is a Scot, living in Switzerland, working as a consultant in the rather esoteric field of radioactive waste management. He has focused on everything from the safety of disposal sites a million years in the future to evidence that can be gained from the Oklo natural reactors that operated two billion years ago – which may be classified by many as a kind of science fiction. This experience ensures sound technical backdrops to my hard, near-future science fiction. He has three other published novels that focus on further future threats: collapse of the internet, emergence of artificial intelligence and the impact of a mega-rich oligarchy who live beyond the law.