this is a work of fiction, and a continuation of the previous story The Lost Tribes
Fieldnote 12 September 2092
I wonder what people living in 2020 might think if they could see what the world looked like today, 72 years later? The planet’s population has dropped to about the same level as it was then — about 7.8B — so they might think things would be much the same now as they were then. If only they knew! If only I could go back in time and warn them! Not that the outcome could have been avoided, but I’m sure they would have welcomed some advance notice for some things that turned out very differently from what the futurists were predicting back then, according to the books I’ve read.
Here are some of the things that I’d tell them:
- Civilization, as it was known back then, has collapsed, but not in the sudden, dramatic way they portrayed it in the old Hollywood movies. It was more like “death by a thousand small cuts”. Everything fell apart so slowly that it was kind of natural, obvious what had to happen. So we no longer have federal or regional governments, only “alliances” and community councils that resolve conflicts. We no longer have large-scale wars, because there’s not enough money or cheap energy to produce the machinery of war, and no place that is so rich in accessible resources as to be worth mounting any kind of large-scale invasion. And there’s no central security infrastructure left — no police or prisons or armies. We pretty much look after any incidents locally, since we know who the usual suspects are that create problems. That’s not to say there’s “world peace” — wherever there are inequalities between neighbouring communities there are always skirmishes, and some of them are bloody. They’re just not on the kind of scale that the word ‘war’ conjures up. War is expensive, and we’re all just struggling to make do, to live a life of sufficiency.
- The other big change since 2020 is that there’s no trade on any large scale. Any fuel we have is used for essential local needs like providing heat and refrigeration, so there’s none for transporting goods, or people, long distances. The start of the Long Depression 50 years ago brought about the rapid end of flying, both passenger and freight, and a decade later there was no spare fuel for shipping, trucking or private automobiles either. Hard to imagine now there being a time when everyone had their own car! So just about everything we want and need has to be produced and provided locally. You learn to need a lot less when that happens.
- Back then you used to have “currencies” and “prices” for everything, and I understand half the people in the world had “debts” that exceeded what they owned. Currencies disappeared a few decades ago, again due to the Long Depression, and all debts were just forgiven, since without money they couldn’t be repaid. There’s not a lot of excess of anything, now, so we just get what we need from the community stores, and provide what we can, and when things run out we figure out what to do, case by case. Nothing is for sale. Even when we trade a bit with nearby communities it’s on an honour system — we trust that everything will more or less even out in the end, so we don’t keep track of what’s traded. No need for accountants anymore. Or lawyers, thank the Goddesses.
- So now we all grow food, very effectively thanks to the scientific learnings of civilization times, in our neighbourhood community gardens, for ourselves and hopefully a bit extra to share. Those two billion people who moved north due to climate collapse between the ’30s and ’80s, in the Great Migration, had already learned how to grow food, how to make and mend clothes, and how to build movable shelters they could bring with them as they migrated, shelters that they could adapt to different climates and seasons. They taught us these things, as we were forced to abandon the bankrupt cities and spread out into the hinterlands. My parents said it was terrifying, and then enormously empowering, to relearn how to live without depending on institutions for everything. We also learned a lot from countries that never got dependent in the first place, like what used to be called Nigeria, which was the second most populous country in the world before the government collapsed. We learned that a lot of people can live pretty comfortably on quite little if they have to. A good thing, since our 7.8B people today have a footprint less than a tenth of what the same number had in 2020. Driven by necessity, and a lot less painful a transition than you’d think. And while climate collapse is still proceeding, with all the forests gone and the oceans dead and 80% of the planet now uninhabitable, the climate disasters would probably have been a lot worse if not for the Long Depression.
- There is much to be said for living in a world with a significantly declining population (down 2B from the peak, and forecast to drop another 2B over the next decade). Suddenly there’s a relative surplus of everything — land, housing, clothing. It makes subsistence living very much easier. Food, especially in variety, is still scarce, because with the soils so diminished from overuse, and chemicals no longer available, it’s a labour intensive activity, and the amount of labour available in our declining, aging population drops each year.
- Africa was our model, not only because of everything they taught us about subsistence, sufficient living, but also because of how they modelled adaptive community living. Most of their two and a half billion people couldn’t join the Great Migration because there was nowhere livable nearby to migrate to. When the governments there collapsed, and all the big corporations that had an oligopoly of wealth there collapsed, and the warlords ran out of money to fund their campaigns of terror, their people’s response was amazing. Average number of children per family in much of the continent went from 5 to 1 in just two decades. No government edicts, no laws or punishments. Once they had control over their own communities’ resources again, with basically nothing going out or coming in, they figured out exactly what they needed to do to live within the constraints of the resources available to them. They self-organized, and recreated a tribal model of living that had not quite been forgotten there in the rush to the cities.
- America, by contrast, was the anti-model. Mostly due to the fact that when the governments there collapsed, most of the people simply had no survival skills and no sense of community at all, and enormous expectations and a sense of entitlement to more than their share of everything, and way too many guns for their own good. And too much cult of the individual, those Anglos, unwilling to share anything. The second American civil war is still essentially going on there in microcosm, sixty years after it began, even though there is no more America. Total Balkan-style implosion. And the British have suffered almost as much.
- We have electricity, community-generated from wind and solar, though some of that technology is aging and we don’t have the materials to replace it, so we try not to be overly-dependent on it. Mostly we use it for light and heat and refrigeration, and to power the community libraries for research and learning. None of your fragile monster electrical grid with its time-wasting extravagant internets. And of course we have to keep the nuclear cooling stations and petrochemical zones operating to keep them from exploding, even though we can no longer use them for power or chemicals.
- We have had our share of crises, of course. The Great Earthquakes devastated America’s west-coast cities, though by then the big cities were already starting to be depopulated. We’ve had six pandemics that killed about 400 million people between them, though that number is highly imprecise, since the most recent ones, after the production of vaccines ceased in the third decade of the Long Depression, were uncontrolled and our information systems could no longer gather much reliable data on their impact. The latest one was extremely virulent, but since long-distance travel has pretty much ceased, its effects were severe but localized. We figure it’s likely to be like that going forward. The loss of the great forests to fire and insects has caused a whole cascade of ecological crises, as has the death of the oceans that preceded it. That has caused the hot deserts of the tropics and the cold deserts of the boreal areas to expand enormously, and they’re largely uninhabitable now, as are the semi-arid areas of western North America, central and east Asia, and southern Europe that have grown unbearably hot and have long ago run out of water.
- And water, always our most precious resource, is now probably the biggest factor driving our population down and our continuing migrations to areas where it is still available. It was the cause of the last great wars, in the northern parts of North America and Europe, and across Asia. When the Long Depression eliminated the capacity to create and maintain pipelines to transport water long distances, those wars ended in a whimper. But with the Long Migration, even that water is in danger of running out, especially as the climate collapse worsens.
- You might be surprised to learn that, despite not having man-made pharmaceuticals, vaccines, or hospitals, our life expectancy is about the same as it was in 2020. We apparently eat much more nutritious food than people did then — less of it, almost entirely plants, and no processed food — and we of necessity exercise more, as we live without most of the electrically-powered equipment that made lives in 2020 dangerously physically inactive. And I’m not sure why, but we seem less obsessed about dying than people back then were. Maybe it’s because we see it when it happens, whereas in 2020 it was always hidden, in institutions, behind closed doors.
I’m a demographer, so I guess it’s inevitable that I’d come back to what’s changed and changing in our populations. In much of the world that humans and their dependant domesticated animals have abandoned — the large desertified and hellishly-hot-without-air-conditioning areas — new species are only very slowly emerging. I would guess it could take millennia for life to recover there, even assuming climate collapse doesn’t make it even harder.
There have been bigger changes in temperate, populated areas where mechanized agriculture was abandoned, when that activity became unaffordable due to the effects of the Long Depression. The problem with those lands, again, is the depleted quality of the soil, but nature has now significantly regenerated those soils, and there’s a veritable menagerie of species living in the exploding forests there. It is my own desire that, when my time has come, I will be able to walk into those forests and spend my last days living the life humans lived a million years ago, and losing my life the same way — in the jaws of a cougar, grizzly or jaguar, completing nature’s food cycle.
For all our adaptation, I think there is something in us that tells us this artificial, constrained way of living is still not the way we are meant to live — we are, I think, meant to be free and wild and fearless and just a part of everything. That’s why I think the human population will continue to decline, even though our lives, modest and precarious as they may be, cannot possibly be as stressful or fearful as the lives of most of those living back in 2020.
Our civilization has largely collapsed, and it can’t and won’t be put back together again, yet still we are to some extent hanging on to its vestiges. Our numbers remain unsustainable, and the desolation that our exhaustion of this planet has wrought must leave us all in a state of deep grief, shame, disconnection and sorrow. Yet we cling to civilization culture’s dregs, as it is, still, the only life we know. We are not yet ready, and may not be for centuries or millennia yet, to take our place, raw, unsettled, uncivilized, and full of awe, in a once-again more-than-human world.
above photo of the settlement of Imizamo Yethu by Sarah Nankin for Time