No one knows what the world will be like in 2050 as a result of the worsening climate. My scenario suggests that the worst effects will not be directly caused by climate change but by human-created conditions that make our supposedly mighty civilization fragile. These conditions include excessive extraction, production, consumption and waste from a growth-driven consumer economy; long, vulnerable supply lines dangerously designed for just-in-time production and delivery in service to corporate control and profit; and a food system that destroys the soil and is utterly dependent on fossil fuels.
Our species has unique and unprecedented power over the fate of the natural world and our own survival. No sane person wants the burden of saving us, a burden no generation before us has ever had to bear, but it’s time we took it up. I do not pretend to be a prophet. I mean this as a warning. I leave it to you to decide if you think such a scenario is a realistic possibility, or close enough that we should finally do something about our ecological overshoot.
So imagine an anonymous document written circa 2050 and found later in an old ruined building. It’s called
A Letter to the Future
I want to say something to you about how it happened. You’ve seen the ruins like no empire ever left before, the concrete, steel and plastic, but they don’t tell the story. This isn’t the Definitive History, believe me, but the evidence for that is disappearing. All the digital files are decaying, the links are breaking, and I don’t know how much printed matter there is for you to read.
I’m part of a generation that’s going before its time. Most of them starved, caught sick or were killed, and more died at suicide parties.
A lot of things happened at about the same time, so it’s hard to say if there was a single cause. We knew the climate was turning bad. Phoenix and Las Vegas were getting too hot to live in, so the desert southwest cleared out, and people on the Gulf Coast had been through one hurricane too many, so they cleared out. All those millions of people on the move stirred things up. States in the path of the migrants started closing their borders — Colorado, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia.
The US was already coming apart from hostility to the federal government and the rural-urban antagonism that became entrenched in the time of President Trump. The so-called red states, the ones controlled by the populist-libertarian, anti-government right wing, were showing secessionist tendencies, defying Washington and trying to nullify federal laws within their borders. The northeastern blue or liberal states still looked to Washington, which they now controlled by default. The west coast states hung together, but the national government was becoming irrelevant to them. In between, the big cities were trying to control their hinterlands or becoming city states at odds with their rural neighbors.
Meanwhile oil was getting harder for the oil companies to find and drill for, and so more expensive. On top of that, the price was being driven up by China’s insatiable demand while the weakened US could no longer enforce its claims to foreign oil. When China finally invaded Taiwan the US did not respond. Overnight we lost the power we thought we still had.
Finally, the demand for solar and wind power put more upward pressure on the price. The realization dawned on people that all those wind turbines and solar panels couldn’t be built without some combination of oil, natural gas and coal to make steel, cement, silicon solar collectors, etc. And then it struck them that industrial society could not continue at the same scale with only renewable electricity, which gathers diffuse streams of sunlight over wide areas instead of pulling concentrated energy out of the ground.
A great many could not face this new reality where the possibilities of movement, comfort, entertainment and wealth were curtailed. They would not “sacrifice” even to save themselves. Vehicles and electronic devices were dying without replacement for lack of minerals from overseas. Despite the rising temperatures and the alternating floods and droughts, they clung to fossil fuels, and the difficulty of getting them — by seizure more often than purchase — begat violent conflict. Deforestation for firewood and lumber was rampant, which only made the climate worse.
Some of the red states were now openly seceding but learning that they could not so easily escape a national economy. No state was self-sufficient. Most things, even food, had to be delivered over long distances; now airplanes were grounded and trucks and trains came to a halt. Shipments of oil, food, and any kind of goods risked being waylaid and plundered. Some states and cities cut oil and gas pipelines so that delivery stopped with them. Things failed for lack of maintenance, including roads and highways. Electrical outages and cyberattacks became frequent, disrupting the Internet and electronic commerce.
As long lines of supply and communication unraveled, it became harder for centralized governments and corporations to assert power. Local authorities, even if they were only robber gangs, tried to ward off migrants and clamp down on any supplies entering or threatening to leave their territories.
The Midwestern states from Minnesota down to Illinois, Missouri and the rice farms of northern Arkansas were relatively wet and exerted their combined market power to buy or commandeer the gasoline, diesel fuel, natural gas, and ammonia fertilizer to keep growing food. The Great Plains were dried up; wind farms were almost the only farms they had left. Midwestern cities led by Chicago formed an alliance with the Plains states to keep the big wind farms and transmission lines operational in exchange for food — while it lasted.
Now I come to tell of the great tragedy and horror that befell us in the 2030s. I must hand the story down as a warning to future generations.
It was plain enough, but with a false sense of security we drew a veil over our eyes. We did not know our vulnerability. We literally did not know where our next meal was coming from except the grocery store. But as the land dried out, the crops parched, and deliveries became erratic, the veil was lifted.
We learned what seemed like madness, that 80% if the country’s fruit and vegetables came from California, much of it grown in the desert where irrigation was failing as rivers ran dry and groundwater was overpumped.
We learned that in the Midwestern grain belt huge farms raised only corn and soybeans that were not even grown as food. They went to feed livestock, make biofuels for cars and trucks, and to processing plants where the food we finally ate was manufactured. We learned that most of the remaining farmers were in their 50s or older and bound in debt to the seed and equipment makers. Young would-be farmers could not afford to get started.
This was the system the agriculture companies created to monopolize production as much as they could. They grew crops in areas they controlled, and they controlled the farmers. This went for livestock too. The animals were grown on feedlots or in buildings. The meat and grain companies got big so they could sell at low prices that small farmers couldn’t match. The supply lines emanated from them and their processing plants.
The system was concentrated production and just-in-time delivery. It worked only under carefully controlled conditions. Those were now gone.
People started looking for alternative sources of food, but farms that grew multiple crops were far too few to feed everybody. In cities there was all manner of community gardens, urban farms, rooftop farms, vertical farms and hydroponic gardens, but their produce was never meant to substitute for grain, meat and dairy.
Some suburbanites took alarm and started turning their yards into farms and gardens, but they ran up against a lack of just about everything — seeds, tools, pest control, fertilizers, ways to preserve food for the cold season, and above all, knowledge.
It didn’t happen everywhere at the same time, but when deliveries failed altogether it was four days till famine. Any place that could secure food supplies did so and left others to starve. The unfortunate descended into desperate competition for food, looting, hoarding, fighting and killing. Reports of cannibalism were widespread.
Some took to the woods to become hunter-gatherers but found little to subsist on, human encroachment had so depleted wild plants and animals. Some city people drove into the country until they ran out of gas and learned that there was little to eat until harvest time. If they survived it was as serfs on the industrial-scale estates.
State and federal authorities were forced into unprecedented action to prevent the near-extinction of their populations. They ordered corn, soybeans and grains to be diverted to human use only. Cattle, pigs and chickens were to be slaughtered, butchered and preserved.
The loss of life was incalculable, less from the deteriorating climate than from the strife that resulted. The worst fared best, those ruthless gangs and private armies that terrorized others to take only for themselves.
It was the steepest fall from grace that any people had ever endured. Prosperous Americans who had enjoyed what no previous generation had ever known in the way of comforts, diversions, travel, health and longevity were trapped unprepared in a pitiless struggle for existence, their helplessness exposed. For many the shock of deprivation was too much. In suicide parties people gathered in groups to give one another the courage to take poison. Sometimes they talked themselves out of it, but more often they succeeded.
To anyone who may read this, I cannot ask your forgiveness. The most comfortable generation in history destroyed your future in the wreck of their own. I ask you to remember that your own parents and grandparents were among their number. They were guilty only of failure to foresee — but they should have foreseen. When you think of them, consider that any other generation similarly placed would have done the same. Then judge us how you will.
Henry Robertson is a member of the GST editorial board and a climate activist who lives in ST. Louis, Missouri.