Originally published on April 18, 2016
For a society that is supposedly at the pinnacle of its powers, we residents of the twenty-first century are very keen to think up ways of imagining our own cataclysmic destruction.
Despite—or perhaps perversely because of—our relative stability and material abundance, our creative energies are often directed to the myriad ways our society could unravel. These reflections have shown up consistently in our cultural works, especially in our fiction (books but especially, in terms of viewership, television and film). While we have entered the twenty-first century confident that the future holds untapped potential for advances in the human condition, it is clear that we have not ceased to look for the cloudy lining which will drive all of that progress over the precipice.
How thin are the strands that bind civilization together? Are our humanitarian inclinations—the kindness a neighbor shows to another—deeply held, or will we cast them off as soon as the institutions of government and law and order recede around us? What would you do to survive, if survival was as up close and personal as needing to fill the empty stomachs of you and your children?
“What would you do to survive, if survival was as up close and personal as needing to fill the empty stomachs of you and your children?”
The pop culture landscape of the last seventy years is lush with examples of how precarious “civilization” actually is. For our parents, it was the Bomb, whose world-ending capability could be seen in the serious Fail-Safe or the off-the-wall Dr. Strangelove. Later it would be the hubris of mankind in thinking it could control or manipulate nature. Stephen King’s The Stand imagines a super-flu escaping from a government research laboratory, spreading globally, and wiping out virtually the entirety of humanity—and that’s just the first half. As scary as “Captain Tripps” was as a viral armageddon (wiping out over 90% of the global population), it has nothing on Randall Flagg, the walking triumph of darkness over anarchy. 28 Days Later renewed the theme, updating a very well-worn zombie trope and putting its core group of survivors in a haven where their rescuers are not exactly what they seem.
Enter into that crowded legacy the rise of “cli-fi”—climate fiction. It is a genre that tries to imagine a world of runaway global temperatures and the myriad ecological, social, and economic impacts that follow. These are the Tales from the “Anthropocene” (literally, new man), the purported geological era in which the impact of human beings on their natural environment is, for the first time, much more destructive than the impact of nature on humanity (at least until temperature rise really gets going). The definitive nonfiction take to date remains Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, with its case studies of how we have come to understand our ability to destroy entire species.
Fictional takes are starting to proliferate as the real-world consequences of climate change become more salient. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife imagines a future United States fractured by water scarcity, where the flows of the displaced from the American south leave Texas a shell of deprivation and California and Nevada fight hybrid conflicts over the remaining water in the West. Though Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar does not ascribe its global food chain collapse to climate change, the way the future of mankind is imperiled looks near to the mark of what the worst-case scenarios proponents of climate change suggest.
To judge by Jacquelyn Bengfort’s “A Story Told Over Dinner,” our reactions to that eventuality are not for the faint of heart. Bengfort presents, on a much more accelerated timescale, what happens to our present day idyll when crops die and people stop being polite about looking after their kin. The formula of this disaster flashback is not unfamiliar, but it is compelling. A grandmother, blessed with the preternatural sense of foreboding that seems to be the genetic defense mechanism of people with more experience in the world, arrives at the home of her son’s family and enters full-on prepper mode.
At first dismissed as a kook, her doomsday sensibility is eventually rewarded when, after a period of government obfuscation, the true disaster (“the Desert”) arrives and the embrace of civilization shrinks down to the size of the family home. Without giving too much of the plot away, the narrators of the story — children at the time of the events — gain a firsthand experience with death, deprivation, and the transformation of their average suburban neighborhood into a place patrolled by children resembling “clans of feral monkeys.”
What lessons should we draw from such a story? Though a worst-case scenario, does this hold some ground truths for what our future looks like? Though at first glance it seems a little far-fetched, it is just such a future that worries future scenario planners in the defense and intelligence communities in the United States. Prominent think tanks are devoting resources to the security implications of climate change impacts, including water and food scarcity.
“A Story Told Over Dinner” contains an important kernel of truth, stated in the narrator’s introduction to their retrospective oral history: “it’s important to tell you about how things were in the suburbs where the lower middle classes experienced the onset of the Desert.” It is not a banal point; for all of the laudable concern for climate change in developed states, it is developing states and poorer regions which will feel the full brunt of climate change (here’s a test: do competing Google searches for “Miami flooding” and “Kiribati flooding.” Depending on your geographic location, the former will have about twice as many hits as the latter, even though flooding in the latter is an existential crisis for a sovereign state.
Such a conclusion has profound implications for how we process the impact of climate change on our planet. If most of the stories like Bengfort’s take place in an indistinct developing world, we will react differently than if it takes place in the small towns of modern America. The recent debates over refugees from the Syrian conflict in Europe and the United States may be seen as indicative of future reactions to climate change-linked displacement affecting those living in what is often called the Global South.
“The recent debates over refugees from the Syrian conflict in Europe and the United States may be seen as indicative of future reactions to climate change-linked displacement affecting those living in what is often called the Global South.”
Responses to the Syrian refugee crisis have fallen into two different tracks. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is facing intense political pressure over her government’s generally pro-refugee policies, which reflect the official European Union position that its member-states should provide shelter for those seeking safety from civil war. By contrast, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has defended his country’s policies, which take the opposite tack of trying to control and prevent refugee flows, a response he defends by citing the need to protect Europe’s “Christian values.”
This pushback is just one slice of a broader cross-section of anti-immigrant sentiment (and not just from the Middle East). There is little evidence to suggest that those fleeing climate change natural disasters or resource scarcity will receive a warmer welcome. Countries which have no wish to set a precedent have shielded themselves behind the fact that “climate refugee” is not a category recognized by international law—a fact that a divided United Nations Security Council seems in no hurry to address, despite the yawning estimates for future victims of sea-level rise.
Add to that the possibility that climate change may act, in the vernacular of the Pentagon, as a “threat multiplier” for future conflict, and it is clear that we are dealing with a profound threat that the international community is only now beginning to grapple with. As Bengfort’s story makes clear, human solidarity is contingent, negotiated, and a servant only to the fair weather moments of functioning civilization. With potent warning of the prospective dislocations of a warming world, the only times we may even have the option to act is right now.
Neil Bhatiya is the Climate and Diplomacy Fellow at the Center for Climate and Security. He currently studies the challenge climate change poses to U.S. diplomatic and development priorities, with a special focus on impacts in South Asia. He is also a Fellow at The Century Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank. Follow him on Twitter.