When I imagine the future, I imagine myself as an old woman, one who has survived the apocalypse, sitting around the campfire with her grandchildren. They’ll be like
“Tell us about the old days, O wise grandma?”
I’ll tell them a story about how in the old days we practiced inter-generational warfare. And how back then if only we had stopped buying avocados we could have bought a house. And saved the planet. And they’ll be like, “What are avocados?” And I’ll describe to them this mythical forbidden fruit, its luscious green inner and its propensity for bruising, and how it went the way of the polar bear.
“Look.” I’ll say pointing at a random patch of sky “Look. There they are”
And, lo, a constellation will be born.
It is a comforting thought, in an otherwise bleak scenario, that somehow it would be me, and my children, who would survive the apocalypse. I’m sure all those skills I have will come in handy in this new world. Skills like cooking from scratch. So as long as the supermarkets also survive I’d be fine.
Who am I kidding, I’d be fucked.
Frankly, we’d all be fucked.
* * *
My son loves Dinosaurs. He is obsessed. I found an old, but still reasonably accurate, book in a second hand shop, The Story of Life on Earth. Thanks in part to his book, scientific concepts once foreign to me have taken up space in his brain. The different eras and their classifications. Earth’s first – the Hadean, then the Devonian, the Silurian. Each page of the books lists life as it develops. The first trees in the Carboniferous. The first dinosaurs in the Triassic.
“Did you know” He enthuses “the first primates evolved in the Cretaceous?”
No, I did not know. I did not know my son would absorb these facts. Holding ludicrously scientific conversations with strangers. Using long multi-syllable words and then declaring himself an “expert” in a charmingly childish way.
He can list time periods and dinosaurs. He can remember the right words. It all means something to him, but millions and billions are hard concepts to grasp. Millions are almost as unfathomable as my thirty-odd years. He might be impressed by how big these numbers sound, but the scale of geological time is beyond his understanding. It is hard for any of us to comprehend.
He has another book, just about dinosaurs. It has a scale across the top of the page, showing the 248 million years from the start of the Mesozoic to the present. Black lines mark the time each species walked the earth. He flips through the pages.
“When were the first humans?”
I hold a fingernail at the edge of time. The most advanced species on earth, this is all of time we have seen. A hair’s breadth of civilisation.
What do we have to show for ourselves? Ancient temples and pyramids. Our people scattered across the globe showing our explorer spirit. The songs and stories of our ancestors, shared around a campfire. Produce, grown on the other side of the world, then left to gather dust in our fruit bowls, or blitzed into smoothies for the ultimate, nutritious snack.
We are the decipherers of the universe. The only species we know who have unlocked its secrets. We pride ourselves on our mathematical formulae, our poetry, our telescopes that peer into the deep recesses of space, our analysis of the very beginnings of life on this planet we live on. Do we think we are like the wizards in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series, who gain their power by knowing the “true name” of things. As though by naming photosynthesis we somehow control it. That a system of cataloguing makes us experts?
My son’s book has a page of alternative theories for why the dinosaurs died out. Bizarre explanations: eye disease, too lazy. A victim-blaming exercise in which the dinosaurs are complicit in their own destruction. He knows that scientists believe an asteroid strike wiped them out, almost as certainly as it is possible to be 65 million years after the fact. An unpredictable disaster that frightens my son. We offer the gentle white lies parents tell anxious children, that scientists know so much now, they’d find a way to stop a strike.
He has invented a solution for himself. Enormous space ships will rocket off into space to keep us safe. We will live off-planet. It’s a Star Trek like future, in which humans are wise and peaceful. Explorers who will sail off the edge of the earth without the complications of colonialism. I imagine it more like WALL-E. Leaving a desolate, rubbish strewn, water-world, destroyed by our own insatiable appetites. Bloated consumers in search of somewhere else. The next best deal.
What will the AI overlord species of the future make of their creators. Will they mythologise us? Tell stories about our demise in the great floods? Noah, Zuisudra, Utnapishtim safe in the ark of their hard-drives, then sent forth to build a world anew, free from our sins. I can’t help but think it would be less fucking embarrassing for it to have been some particularly nasty eye disease that wiped us out, rather than our own relentless greed and stupidity.
One day we will have to answer to the children of this world. I will have to look my son in the eye and tell him what we did when we knew this asteroid was coming. We are all so busy, So Busy, pointing the fingers at everybody else for our problems. Or quibbling about individual actions that are not meaningless, but are not, and never will be enough. Did we do enough internet campaigns? Did we do Plastic Free July or Meat Free Monday? If only I had done them would New York and Jakarta still exist? While we are busy nitpicking at each other the time for systemic structural change is melting away.
Then I reassure myself. Nothing so terrible will happen. Nothing fundamental about the universe will change. Not the law of gravity, the earth will still float around the sun. Not photosynthesis, or nuclear fusion.
So sit back. Relax. Enjoy that avocado on toast. Maybe we’ll all be fucked in the future. But it’s not like there is anything we can do to change that, is there?
The stars in the sky will burn, whether we are here to name them or not.
Don’t despair – do something. The overwhelming evidence is that it is not too late if we act now. I recommend the Planetary Boundaries project for further reading, or listen to one of its key researcher’s interview with Kim Hill. Vote for parties and politicians who will prioritise our environment, and commit to a carbon neutral earth by 2050.