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The world has always been about to end.  When I was growing up, it was World War 3.  It was the most well-documented of modern wars, so we all knew the shape of the thing.  Someone would mistake a flock of birds or a computer error for nuclear warhead, and they'd launch all their missiles, and then the other side would launch all their missiles, and that would be the end.  Depending on your literary bent, a few people might survive in bomb shelters, their children growing up as very well-armed mutants.

Charlie Stross has pointed out that World War 3 is topologically equivalent to the return of Cthulhu.

The most common nuclear war/Cthulhu/cometary impact/Rapture story (if such things leave room for stories) is the cozy catastrophe.  A few survivors band together.  Civilization has fallen away, leaving small tight-knit groups to guard their resources and each other.  They live with medieval technology and whatever additions they've been able to cobble together from the instructions in preserved encyclopedias.  S. M. Stirling's Change books (which I love, it should be said) are the epitome of this form--all the distraction of radiation and so on is forgone, replaced by an unknown force that prevents the use of technology above a certain level.  The world is ruled by Pagans and SCAdians.  This is quite common in cozy catastrophes, by the way: the reader's favorite groups, unappreciated in our impersonal modern civilization, turn out to have exactly the skills required in the new world.

A lot of people think about climate change and/or peak oil in the familiar terms of the cozy catastrophe.  They find response strategies appropriate to the Rapture.  Get away from civilization.  Start a homestead.  Learn to keep bees and milk goats.  Assume that cities will fall apart and crowds will riot, and that your best bet is to be far away from targets.

But climate change is not topologically equivalent to nuclear war.  Nuclear war is (mostly) all or nothing.  There is one dramatic event; you have to get through it, and then lay low during the aftermath.  And there's no missing it.  When the bombs fall and the dead rise, everybody will know, and everybody will react. 

Climate change is slow and incremental.  It has already started; the effects are measurable and perceptible.  Some people notice, and some people don't, and some people who notice aren't yet alarmed.  No one riots.  Fuel prices rise slowly, but the fuel itself doesn't disappear overnight.  When peak oil comes (or when we realize we've overshot it by 20 years), access will decrease slowly.  If we're not careful, we'll get to a very bad place, very slowly--but people who are in a very bad place don't react like people who are surprised.  They don't panic, and things don't collapse so much as disintegrate or simply change--slowly.

So, no riots.  No return to medieval technology, either.  Medieval tech levels depend on a low population density, as much as modern ones depend on a high population density.  And if we implement any solutions, no matter how imperfect or inadequate, many of them will be high-tech solutions.  There will be beekeeping and wind farms.  There will be solar-powered laptops.  There will be sustainability coordinators calling you through the carefully maintained cell phone network to let you know that electricity is rationed tonight and you need to turn off your lights at 8.  There will be cities with local food grown on green roofs, and country homesteads networking with people around the world for efficient organic gardening techniques, and people going hungry because we don't have the resources for artificial fertilizers, and a ban on plastic packaging because we need that oil to make sterile medical supplies. 

If we survive this, it's not going to be in isolation.  It's going to be in, and because of, civilization.  This problem is too big to handle in small homesteads with no connection to the outside world, or in 100-person tribes of east African plains apes.  All of the solutions I've seen--not just the ones that will minimize the warming, but the ones that will help us adapt to it--depend on the resources of a large and reasonably well-coordinated civilization.  We currently have one of those.  We also have people who are trying to tear it down, who insist that it's not good for anything.  These are also, in many cases, the people insisting that climate change is not a real problem.  This is not a coincidence.

So that's what I've learned.  Much as my society drives me crazy sometimes, I am inextricably intertwined with it.  I cannot get through this by myself.  I cannot huddle off the grid and wait for the storm to blow over.  The evidence very strongly supports the idea that we are all in this together.

Date: 2010-10-11 05:32 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thank you for writing this. I think that what you're describing is a best case scenario -- slow change with everyone working together for the best of all. Lovelock compares it to the Brits during the Blitz.

But I think that because of rising seas, changes in hardiness zones and moisture bands, and violent weather, we will see a great reduction in the US GNP. I think that we'll get to a point where the government won't have the money to pay out for things like schools, medicare and food stamps.

I don't think that we'll have enough food to feed everyone. I don't know much about the dynamics of starving people. Maybe they will die peacefully, but Americans aren't used to dying from hunger, so I don't think so. We have a vast population of poor, uneducated folk who really do see the world as us versus them. We have trained them to be dependent on us and to look no further than just getting through the month.

Honestly, I don't know what the answers are. I am encouraged by your hopefulness.

Date: 2010-10-11 07:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
We have a vast population of poor, uneducated folk who really do see the world as us versus them. We have trained them to be dependent on us and to look no further than just getting through the month.

If it's really the poor folk that see the world as "us" versus "them", why is it you who's phrasing things in terms of "us" and "them" in the very next sentence?

Date: 2010-10-11 11:37 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I don't think that it's just the poor folk who see the world as us versus them. I think that it's pretty normal for anyone to see the socioeconomic class which they identify as "us" and everybody else as "them." This isn't just me putting words in people's mouths -- I work with people who live below the poverty level every day. And I've lived below the poverty level most of my life.

We have trained them to be dependent on us -- by we and us I meant our society as a whole -- sorry about my lack of clarity.

Almost all of the folk I have met and worked with who have grown up below the poverty level see education and economic stability beyond their reach, and they see folk who make enough money to do things like buy a house or a new car as "them."

Date: 2010-10-11 03:46 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Honestly, this isn't the best case scenario. The best case scenario is that the next international meeting on the topic results in an actual treaty, and several governments (China and the U.S. at minimum, because neither will move forward without the other) agree to sizable cuts in carbon emissions.

The scenario that I describe above is middle of the road--slow change with some people working for the good of all (already happening) and some people ignoring the thing or causing more problems (already happening).

I'm not expecting a lot of starvation in the U.S., though I'm expecting more of the poor nutrition that we already have for those with few resources. There are two reasons for this. One is that first-world countries are in a better position to adapt to climate change--more technology for moving people around, moving food around, and producing food under less than ideal conditions. The other is that the universe isn't fair, and several scenarios show the U.S. and Canada producing more rather than less food--a few regions become less productive, but several become more productive.

The U.S. is also really good (and I don't like this) at convincing people that there are ways out of trying circumstances other than fighting to improve the lot of poor people--even when they're poor. People always think of themselves as being poor in the moment. So if the government keeps people fed in the moment, they'll put up with a lot, or at least find relatively non-violent ways of objecting, most of the time.

I do expect a large influx of immigrants from countries harder hit by climate change, including the ones that are going to disappear entirely. I do expect Americans to react to that immigration in the stupid, counterproductive ways they usually do. I do expect terrorism from people who resent the degree to which economic differences between countries will be getting worse. I expect quality of life in the U.S. to deteriorate in several important ways, just slowly enough that people won't be quite sure what they've lost. There are things that can be done to ameliorate all of these; I expect some but not all of those things to actually get done.

One major thing to do now is remind people, loudly, that schools and medicare and food stamps and roads are worth paying for, because the danger at the moment isn't so much that we won't find the money for these things (they're awfully cheap relative to the country's budget) as that we'll choose to stop paying for them.

Date: 2010-10-11 10:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Wow, food for thought there. Thank you for writing this. I'll need to think on it more before saying any further, I believe.

Date: 2010-10-11 04:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Thanks, I'm glad you found it interesting. The Hearth and the Hive was one of the triggers for me thinking about this--I love "Kitchen Heroes," and then "World's End" sent me off to look up England's population density.

Date: 2010-10-11 12:01 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm not convinced. As resources get scarce the divide between haves and have nots will widen. Famine, disease and strife will spread, particularly among the have nots. I can easily envision a society ripe for a single trigger that push us over our collective edge resulting in catastrophic upheaval.

I are looking at -likely-realistic scenarios. That's fine but I'm not ready to give up my favorite niche science fiction theme just yet!!

Eta: as I think about it, I'm guessing disease will be our post-climate-change catastrophe. A hungry, thirsty, displaced, overcrowded population is a prime target for an opportunistic virus.

Also here's a fun scenario. You following the Hungarian toxic waste spill? Yeah. Our history lives right next to us, lying in wait...while we become desperately focused on today's struggle, our past sins are held back by forgotten, neglected, entropy-ravaged walls... A good writer could make a lot of hay of that one.

I think it's a short leap from climate change to unstable dystopia. And a short leap from there to a cozy catastrophe.
Edited Date: 2010-10-11 12:11 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-10-11 04:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Cozy catastrophes make good stories. But, while I think that catastrophe is possible, I consider the coziness wildly unlikely. It's pretty hard to set up a truly self-sufficient homestead. In a worst case scenario, I'd want to be in a small city surrounded by fertile land--or in the fertile land near a small city--away from the coasts and very far from the Southwest. Preferably just on one side or the other of the Canadian border. The most stable areas will be the ones that have both dense technological networks and a diversity of locally produced food.

The U.S. is large, and full of people who pay their cell phone bills before their rent. We're very attached to communication, and unlikely to have catastrophe affecting the whole country at once. There will be more Katrinas--storms, toxic waste spills, disease outbreaks--but they seem unlikely to overturn the whole system. It's going to break down in places, but I'm more worried about underreaction than overreaction.

Sorry, man. I love the theme as much as the next person.

Date: 2010-10-12 12:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Verra interesting indeed.

I was just having this conversation with The Daughter last night. I pointed out that people of my generation pretty much grew up assuming that the Nuclear Apocalypse was going to happen -- maybe not tomorrow, maybe not in the next decade, but definitely Someday. We all lived, as the saying went, three minutes to midnight.

And then... the Soviet Union collapsed. I remember watching the Solidarity riots, the Velvet Revolution, the Berlin Wall coming down, absolutely drop-jawed flabbergasted -- this was NOT what was supposed to happen! This was a hopeful future beyond my imagination!

Along with th Big One, *all* of the little apocalypses that we had been primed to expect over the sixties, the seventies, the eighties: the Population Explosion, the Environmental Catastrophe, the End of Oil, the Endless Stagflation... they *went* *away*.

We congratulate ourselves that we were clever, we can applaud ourselves for being stalwart, we can knock wood that we were lucky, we can bless ourselves that we are clearly the favourites of God, pick your explanation, there's one for everybody.

But my generation -- who alas, for better or worse (mostly the latter) are the folks with their hands on the levers of power -- we don't believe in catastrophes any more. We somehow think that we are charmed to dodge every bullet.

So when the climate scientists present us with irrefutable data, when our own eyes see the shrinking icecaps and the creeping hurricanes, we scoff at it. We've been down this road before, haven't we?

And besides, Al Gore is fat.

Date: 2010-10-12 03:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Mm. I think somebody is not making enough distinctions.

For some reasons the Soviets and the US leaders chose not to start WWIII and the Soviets chose to change their government. Totally within their choice and control.

The Population Explosion was going to happen if we didn't increase contraception. We DID increase it. Not enough, because the population has grown tremendously, and IS causing problems.

Which Environmental Catastrophe? Look in the news and pick one. Rather, we're having different ones in different places.

Oil -- we're drilling deeper and fighting harder for less and less.

High fructose bread and Al Qaeda circuses....

Date: 2010-10-14 11:06 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I suspect that feeling immune to long-term catastrophes isn't specific to this generation. Maybe even feeling most vulnerable to the ones we grew up with is normal?

Population's an interesting one--growth calms down as soon as you provide women with good educations and easy access to contraception. The places with the worst population growth are still the ones that haven't done this.

Date: 2010-10-12 06:38 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
That is really interesting. Thank you for the food for thought!

Date: 2010-10-14 11:07 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
You're welcome! I've been thinking about this a lot.


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