The Unfamiliar Apocalypse

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 loved the first 5 or so of, 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 Neopagans and medieval re-enactors.  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.  Riots are sparse.  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.

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.


Most of this essay appeared a couple of years ago in my private blog. I went to write a new post on the topic, but realized that I still think basically the same thing I did then, except that I’ve gotten bored with the Change series.

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