Thursday, May 8, 2008

In the Year of Our Folly

The future I see is different than the one I grew up with.

A family man leaves for work in the winter time, wearing a woolen tunic with wooden toggles, woven pantaloons his wife patches with scraps of leather, carrying a vinyl briefcase he inherited from his grandfather, dating from a time when such things could be made. On the way out of the living room he stumbles on the wooden models of soldiers his young boy likes to play with, kicking one aside so that it fetches up against the foot of the hulking, crystalline computer nerve centre that dominates the room like a grandfather clock. It shows the time to be 9 am, and the outside temperature is 5 degrees. On his way out the door he pulls on a heavy woolen great coat.

This family lives with three thousand others, all working in a kind of rota system. The family man in on his way to the office, to work on administration. In summer he works in the feilds. But now, there is a new shipment of grains and meat arriving from the north, as well as some luxury items like coffee, sugar, and rice. Unfortunately they have a shortfall in kilowatt hours, the basic unit of currency, which old fashioned dollars have become a symbol of. The recent wind harvest has been poor. There have been a lot of foggy days, and they haven't seen a shipment of enriched uranium for the power plant in more than one hundred days. They owe the grid power. The man has to find somewhere to cut costs.

The state is a nine hour walk from one side to the other. They have 90 horses, 20 plows, one micro-nuclear reactor and 200 wind turbines scattered throughout, perched on roof tops or out in fields. One good days they hum loudly, a welcome sound, because it means more for the local economy. On days like this, with the air thick as cold soup, the triple bladed turbines are silent, and missed.

This is a city state, one that isn't doing so well as the summers grow shorter, the winters get colder, and the rains still fail to fall. This used to be a part of a great sprawling city of three million, built on a river flowing into a wide bay. The only ships that visit these days are powered by the wind and the sun. The only news that comes from the more livable north arrives by horse and carriage. Sometimes, it doesn't come at all, because as cities break up into smaller, more insular city-states, the spaces in between become badlands, stalked by highwaymen and killers. Our family man once won an award for his design of the local walls, which are made of wood and stone cut from the quarry, strengthened by tar mined from the old bitumen roads.

There was no war here. There are still some old cars around, and on festival days during the festival days over Christmas they charge the old hybrids up with a few kilowatts so they can crawl down the dusty main street towing floats from which the beautiful girls wave at the happy children. And at least they are still connected to the grid, fed by the great solar and nuclear generators in the north, megawatt hours and lights sparkling in binary code through the glass arteries of the fibre network. Here on the east coast, at least, they still have news. Occasionally they hear about other countries doing better, when a ship with tall sails makes it over the vast, isolating oceans. Mostly, they hear about other countries doing worse, as reports from the western front filter back about yet another attack on the battered, half-lost North Western Coast. No war at all, not here at least, but civilization has reverted to a feudal system none the less.

There was a man, a few decades back now, who did a census of the entire planet, riding from place to place on a slow solar cart with a pedal system for those days when the sun wasn't out. At the time, he enumerated a 30% drop in the human population, from 7 billion back to 4 billion, the same level of one century ago. Worst hit, he said, were the so called "First World", where dependence on the old fuels was greatest. He gave a prediction, then, that we would go with a whisper after all.

Our family man still thinks about space travel. As a hobby, at night, he writes science fiction stories. His wife laughs at him, but who does it harm? she asks. He scribbles by candle light as she reads the news tickling through the crystal set, breast feeding the infant girl, while the boy slumbers in her lap. Our family man writes about still undiscovered fuel reserves deep in the Atlantic which might allow us to once again revive plans for a space elevator, so we can escape our prison with bars of gravity, to venture forth to the stars in space craft made of hollowed out asteroids, and meet those other people out there who surely overcame the same obstacle of not enough fuel to sustain our bad habits...

... and at the same time our dreams.

1 comment:

Caris said...

Thats the problem, isn't it? A reliance on a limited resource to power our world, and even now, when we're starting to realise that things can't go on this way forever, even our new power sources are dependant on the old. After all, how are you going to transport turbines without fuel? And what solar panel is manufactured without petroleum?