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A Future with Fewer of Us in It

September 13, 2013 – There are now almost countless articles, scientific studies, and books about climate change, many of them dealing with how the world will have changed as a result of climate change.  Many of them give reason for hope, perhaps even more reason for consternation.  All are good at describing various causes and effects as if they were happening in isolation from one another.  Very few bother to mention that, no matter what life is like in a climatically-changed world, it will be lived in the midst of utterly wretched weather.  It’s not that some things will be harder to do.  Everything will be much, much harder to do.

When I get out my crystal ball and try to imagine what life will be like during the latter half of the twenty-first century, I feel pretty confident about one thing.  While it should be a surprise to no one, it’s hard to put into words, due to its sheer awfulness.  Millions of people will die.  (You may need to reread that sentence several times.  It says so much in so few words.)  As a result, Americans will relearn what they once knew about death.  It will happen at home and on the road, by disease or by accident.  People will drown because of floods.  People will collapse due to heat stroke.  It seems likely that environmental immigrants will have to fight in order to gain a foothold in a new land.  We will once again die because of a lack of vaccines and antibiotics.

Those who die will tend to be very young or very old.  As for the rest, I think they will live as extended families, all together under one roof.  When they travel, I think it will be by bicycle or horse or horse-and-buggy.  Their economy will be local.  They will live at close to a subsistence level.  After that, the picture gets much vaguer, at least for me.  Will power come from wind turbines, or from solar panels?  What about wind and hail – can the turbines and panels survive these?  What about the western United States – will drought and fire have rendered it uninhabitable?  Does that mean the eastern U.S. will get a lot more crowded, or will people move to Canada?

What about bullet trains?  What about the smart grid?  What about electric cars?  What about the Internet?  What about smart phones?  What about nonstop music?  Actually, I don’t care about the answers to the last three, but I know a lot of people do.  It will all depend on the weather: the bullet trains, the smart grid, electric cars AND the Internet.  Then again, if we need to repair things endlessly, I suppose that could be viewed as job security, at least for some!  Whether or not people will perform the actual repairs, or if they will need to make robots who repair roads and electric lines and bullet trains because human beings are unable to endure the severe weather …

I don’t think it’s a pointless exercise to attempt to ready ourselves for an arduous future.  I certainly don’t think it’s pointless to learn how people managed to survive in pre-modern times.  Of course, whatever we prepare for will turn out to be different from what the future actually holds.  That’s ok, though – we’ll at least have learned to think in terms of radical change and how to manage it.   Nothing will make the future easy.  We will need to learn gratitude for simply having one.


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