Lives in Crisis

This is how the Global Crisis might affect people.

Martine : 2025

The year is 2025 in today’s consumer society. Martine lives in a modern house in a medium sized town in a fruit growing area near the Alps in France with her husband and children. For the past few years, the summers have been getting hotter; there are typically one or two heatwaves in each summer with day-time temperatures above 40C and night-time above 25C. Summers are noticeably more uncomfortable and Martine would like to install air-conditioning but her husband is worried about the cost.

A more urgent issue for the family is the violence of some storms in recent years and the cost of home insurance; it seems that the extra temperatures are causing more violent, extremely localized super-cell storms (essentially, a storm from a single huge cloud). Last year every building in a nearby village was damaged by hail the size of tennis balls; the roofs on some buildings were completely destroyed and the then unprotected building were thoroughly drenched. There have also been a handful of small tornadoes that caused a lot of damage. Local fruit farmers have been hit hard by those storms; all the trees in some orchards have been damaged; replanting is the only way forward but they won’t produce fruit for five years.

Insurance companies have no good way of calculating the increased risk and have savagely increased the cost of home insurance premiums in Martine’s area; they say that the nearby mountains increase the risk of extreme weather. The insurance company will offer a lower premium if they completely upgrade their house to new standards but that would cost far too much. Martine feels they really have to find the money to maintain the insurance on her home but she’s worried that premiums will continue to rise and at some point they won’t be able to afford home insurance.

Jane : 2027

The year is 2027 in today’s consumer society. Jane is 25 and lives in Sheffield in the UK with her parents in a modest terraced house. Her father was a lorry driver; a difficult, lonely job but one that provided reliably for the family. But he has lost that job to automation; lorries now drive themselves. The local economy isn’t very strong and Jane’s father hasn’t found a full-time job. He works on a zero hour contract where he occasionally drives the very beginning or the very end of a lorry journey; the automated driving still has trouble driving in some awkward spots. This work only averages a few hours a week and, to add insult to injury, he knows he is teaching the automation software as he does these small driving tasks. Jane’s mother didn’t work before but now she also has a zero hour contract where she helps a delivery company when it is busy; she averages 2 days a week.

Jane was a hard working, promising student at school with preference for engineering subjects. She would have liked to have gone to university but it simply wasn’t financially possible. Instead she now works for a large web retail company at a huge warehouse on the outskirts of town; she fills orders. It’s exhausting work; every minute of her working day is monitored by technology – she is always being timed and judged. She frequently has to work shifts; one strategy for getting through those is to treat it as a sport or keep fit activity.

On the other side of the road from the vault like warehouse are the company’s offices; they are modern, clean and covered in glass. But it’s not just the architecture that is very different; the people working on either side of that road operate in different worlds. In the shiny offices, knowledge workers control the whole enterprise; they plan the ever increasing automation in the warehouse, negotiate contracts with suppliers or delivery companies and monitor every aspect of the company’s performance. Salaries, working conditions and status couldn’t be more contrasted on the two sides of the road.

Jane has tried to get a job in the offices, but for that she needs a degree. To do that, she needs enough money to go to university, so she is trying hard to save money – she can’t consider leaving home right now. If she gets to university she hopes to continue working for the delivery company for 15 or 20 hours a week. Life seems very hard for Jane; if university cost less or her family was a little better off she would now be a graduate in a well-paid satisfying job. Everyone in the family feels they have been left behind as the world moves on; they work hard but they are poor and insecure and they all resent it. They feel bombarded with images of products and life-styles they can’t afford; the day seems to be filled with reminders of their status as losers. You can read about Jane’s better life in a Modern Society here.

Vicente : 2028

The year is 2028 in today’s consumer society. Vicente is an indigineous quinoa farmer in Salar de Atacama, Chile. Lithium mining has become the biggest economic activity in the area. It’s an activity that consumes lots of water in one of the driest places on earth. The lithium is extracted by pumping salt-water into a hole in the ground; this mineral rich water is then left in evaporation pools for up to 18 months and lithium is then extracted from the remaining salt. Lithium is used to produce batteries used in smart-phones, electric cars and all sorts of ‘green’ products; demand for it is exploding. From the modern world’s perspective, the lithium provides a clean way to store electrical energy. From Chile’s viewpoint, it’s a way to get valuable foreign currency.

But Vicente sees it rather differently. The mining leaves heaps of salt behind – but that’s only visual pollution. Fresh water canals have been polluted with mining waste, turning the water blue. But the effect on fresh-water supplies in the area is the most significant problem. It takes 2,000 tonnes of water to make a tonne of lithium. The water pumped into the mines is extracted from salt water aquifers faster than they are being naturally replaced (through rain etc). For the last ten years there was some doubt, but it is now known that the salt-water aquifers are connected to the fresh-water aquifers used by the local population and these are now much lower as a result. For the last few years Vicente has spent more time and money getting enough water to grow his quinoa and he sometimes has to have fresh water bussed in; when he does so, he has to pass this cost when he sells his quinoa. Local llama farmers complain that since mining started their grazing land has gone from being lush to being barren. The Lithium Triangle straddles Chile, Bolivia and Argentina and has over 50% of the earth’s reserves of lithium but it’s possible the indigeneous people living there will have to move elsewhere.

Marlyn : 2029

The year is 2029 in today’s consumer society. Marlyn has just collected the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism she shared with her murdered husband Jerry. He was researching a story exposing the new giant carbon capture plants being developed throughout the western US. These plants were supposed to capture CO2 directly from the air using electricity generated via renewables (most of them were surrounded by wind or solar farms) and then store the CO2 deep underground. The plants had been in development for over 8 years and were advertised as being the ‘technology solution’ to climate change. The plants’ developer was heavily subsidized by the federal government and both had heavily ‘talked up’ how the plants would ‘scrub’ the air.

The problem for Jerry was that the numbers didn’t add up; the solar or wind farms just weren’t big enough to provide enough electricity to remove the claimed amount of CO2. As Jerry did his research it was clear that both the plants’ developer and the government knew this; they planned to extend the capacity in the future but it was at least 5 years before they’d hit the announced capture figures.

But before Jerry could complete his book he was mysteriously shot. At the time of his murder, Jerry’s conclusions were not public knowledge, but he hadn’t hid what he was working on. Despite a long inquiry, the murderer was never found, nor was any motive discovered. Fortunately, Jerry had shared his conclusions and research with Marlyn; Marlyn wasn’t a journalist but she decided to make a book out of Jerry’s work and his murder. She developed the story in secrecy; its publication 9 months after Jerry’s murder was a sensation. The carbon economy tried to rubbish Jerry’s conclusions; politicians attacked Marlyn’s character and motivations; they were unsucessful and only managed to associate themselves in the public mind with Jerry’s murder. Comparisons were made with Putin’s Russia. The US public’s trust in their government and the carbon economy over climate change never recovered.

John : 2030

The year is 2030 in today’s consumer society. John is a soon to be ex-farmer in Iowa. Over the last 50 years, the families, farms and communities that made up the American midwest have been replaced by agro-industries using robotized farm-machinery to produce cheap food stock on mega-farms. In the eighties, 160 acre family farms that produced cattle, pigs, corn, soy, wheat, beans, hay and oats were gradually bought out and became part of larger operations producing corn and soy to feed animals reared in their own giant, factory farms. Family farms that stayed in business starting selling their grain directly to those same agro-businesses; they gradually went from being independent food producers to being growers. Mixed farming was replaced by huge, more industrialized mono-cultures. Every problem (e.g. failed harvests and banking crisis) hurt small farmers more than big business and accelerated this consolidation. The government actively encouraged this industrialization through corn subsidies, making it economic to produce fuel for vehicles and industrial processed food (e.g. high-fructose corn syrup).

Over the last 15 years the use of robotized machinery, where one operator could remotely control a dozen harvesters, cut employment further and many of the small towns that used to dot the prairie became ghost towns; John’s children spend 2 hours travelling to school each day and have no friends living nearby. Over the same period the weather seems to have changed; rains are heavier but less frequent; the summers are a lot warmer and springs often involve flooding. Soil is being lost and fertility is reducing. But for John right now the biggest problem is water; warmer summers need more water for growing and that means irrigation. John could provide this by drilling down to the aquifer but he would only be allowed if he leaves some fields fallow each year to replenish the aquifer; he simply can’t afford to do this.

So John is about to declare bankruptcy and this means he will lose his 150 year old family farm; a big agro-business is sure to buy the farm for peanuts. John is bitter; the whole midwest now feels like an automated outdoor food factory, owned by and run for the profit of the agro-industry. John and his family intend to move to the Chicago area. He doesn’t really have any marketable skills but he’s sure he can find something easier to do than farming. The real incentive for the move is his children; they will have a school and friends nearby and every chance for the future. You can read about John’s better life in a Modern Society here.

Sam : 2032

The year is 2032 in today’s consumer society. Sam is a salmon fisherman in Alaska; it’s a hard, dangerous way to make a living. Over the last 10 years his catches have been getting smaller and smaller; there are fewer fish and they are smaller. Ocean acidification is the cause; as CO2 levels rise in the atmosphere, more of it dissolves in the ocean and the water becomes more acidic. This affects the entire marine ecosystem; in particular it makes it much harder for marine life that uses a shell of any type. This includes the plankton at the base of the food chain for commercially important fish like salmon, halibut and pollok. Other fishermen – including crab fishermen – tell the same story; there’s talk of the end of commercial fishing in Alaska within 15 years. Sam can’t see any solution to his problems; he could sell his boat and permit, but everyone is suffering from the same problem he’d struggle to find a buyer that would allow him to repay his loans. He is reluctant to declare bankruptcy but he has started to investigate all the legal repercussions. For Alaska, things are even more serious; the fishing industry accounts for 10% of the jobs in the state.

Juanita : 2034

The year is 2034 in today’s consumer society. Juanita is from Guatemala and lives illegally in Miami with her young family. She and her husband grew up in the coffee growing area of Guatemala but persistent drought, induced by climate change, has decimated the harvest and the whole economy. So they reluctantly migrated illegally to the US 10 years ago and have been living in the shadows ever since.

They only recently moved to Miami with a group of fellow migrants; being in a group offers a degree of protection when living illegally. Miami is built on limestone and especially vulnerable to sea level rise, because water seeps up through the ground. Rising sea-levels and delays in approving a $3.2 billion sea wall mean that roads, car parks and buildings are regularly flooded; it’s too late to build a sea-wall now. When insurance companies decided to no longer cover property in Miami, it triggered a collapse in the economy. All building stopped immediately. Those who could afford to do so moved out and the whole property market collapsed. With a much reduced local tax base, downtown Miami has become a ghost town, without electricity or a functioning police force. The condos that once housed rich retirees are now boarded up and squatted by illegal immigrants like Juanita; they find safety in the growing number of ghost towns throughout the country.

The same story is repeating itself around the USA’s coast; most cities are in slightly better shape than Miami, but only because they aren’t quite as susceptible to flooding. The federal government has refused to get involved in defending coastal cities and the cost of that defence is too much for all but a handful of cities. Ambitious sea-wall building projects have been launched in Manhattan and San Francisco amid considerable doubt they can be saved in the long term. Republican politicians complain that entire cities have been lost to ‘immigrant infestations’ while denying there is a climate crisis never mind their role in promoting it.

Omar : 2035

The year is 2035 in today’s consumer society. Omar is a young recruit in the Eqyptian army and he is participating in a highly publicised military exercise. The exercise is taking place on the Aswan dam and simulates the capture at night of a dam under construction and its destruction. The exercise is all part of the ongoing cold water wars between Egypt and its upstream neighbors on the Nile. Against the Egyptian government’s objections, Ethiopia is taking more and more water from the Blue Nile at its Grand Renaissance Dam. Over the last 20 years Egypt has become one of the most water stressed countries on the planet; most domestic water supplies have been cut and people now queue up at public water taps. With reduced water, agricultural output is much reduced; food prices have rocketed and hunger has become the norm for the poor. The population of Ethiopia has almost doubled in the last 30 years and it needs more water to feed its population. Sudan is also proposing to build a new dam which would further reduce Egypt’s water supply. For propaganda purposes, the goal is for maximum realism in the military exercise; the hope is to avoid a real war but tensions have been escalating over the last 20 years.

Li Qiang : 2037

The year is 2037 in today’s consumer society. Li Qiang is an agricultural worker near Jinan on the North China plain. It’s summer and he has to be very careful with the heat; it’s perfectly possible to become ill or even die working outdoors at this time of year. Today will be hot and he has to wear his most effective ‘cold suit’; this features a thick refrigerated waist coat with an attached battery powered cooler and looks like a mini-space suit. When he is inside a tractor or indoors, he can recharge the battery. Automation and planning around the weather minimizes the time Li Qiang spends outdoors during the hottest days, but he still has to wear special clothing most of the summer; the vast majority of the population on the North China plain – especially in the big cities like Beijing and Shanghai – never go outdoors in summer. He has to monitor his exposure to the heat as carefully as nuclear workers monitor their exposure to radioactivity. He finds it a bit ironic that he has to dress like a space-man to farm like his ancestors but he knows workers in poorer countries die in their fields, so he is glad of the protection.

Jamel : 2040

The year is 2040 in today’s consumer society. Jamel is Moroccan and comes to France to work each summer. He is a security guard in Aix-en-Provence, a beautiful, once wealthy town in the south of France that is essentially abandoned during the summer months when most days have peak temperatures above 45C and night temperatures above 30C. Tourists still stream to Aix, but only from October to May. As a result, the town is almost as seasonal as a 20th century ski-resort. Some wealthy Aix residents summer in northern Europe or the mountains and only return in the fall. Most tourism workers only come for the season and rent property that is empty for the rest of the year. So in summer a small army of people like Jamel come to Aix to protect all this empty property. This work is too hot for French citizens (even with high levels of unemployment), so the French government introduced special summer visas for people like Jamel and agricultural workers; the visas don’t allow the holder to travel freely in Europe or to change job. Jamel doesn’t like working in France – he feels resented as a foreigner – but there is very little work in Morocco (summers are even hotter there) and he doesn’t really feel he has a choice. Right wing politicians in France complain that there are too many ‘foreigners’ and ‘invaders’ in France, but they don’t pursue any policies to reduce the climate crisis. You can read about Jamel’s better life in a Modern Society here.

Imran : 2085

The year is 2085 in today’s consumer society. Imran lives in a large village in Pakistan’s lower Indus valley. Rainfall has always been scarce in Imran’s region; villages depend on the river for agriculture and drinking water. Massive irrigation systems have allowed the cultivation of rice, wheat and cotton in this arid area. The source of the Indus is the Tibetan plateau, the planet’s third largest store of ice. During the pre-monsoon period and droughts (often monsoon failures) the Himalyan glaciers have always acted as water reservoirs, with meltwater allowing agriculture to continue.

But for the last 100 years these glaciers have been melting fast due to rising temperatures and soot deposits (caused by air pollution from the densely populated Indo-Gangetic Plain). This boosted the flow in the Indus during the summer months for the first half of the 21st century; flooding became a bigger problem than drought. Now, however, almost all of the glaciers are gone and the flow of the river is a fraction of what it was. Instead of using the period of relative plenty to plan for reduced water supplies (e.g. develop improved irrigation systems, to transition from ‘thirsty’ crops like cotton and rice to more suitable ones like wheat, millet and beans), the government squandered the opportunity.

Droughts and oppressive heat are now standard in summer and working in the fields can be life-threatening on the hottest days. Monsoon disruption is another feature of the climate crisis. The collapse happened very quickly and all of Pakistan is now a poor, hot, dry country; there is nowhere for Imran to go. He has lost all his 3 young children to malnutrition; he is looking at his small crop of wheat shrivel in the heat and he fears for his wife and himself. The population of Pakistan has halved in the last 20 years and the fall looks likely to continue. This pattern is being repeated all over Asia where great river systems (e.g. the Mekong, Ganges/Brahmaputra and Yangtze) that start as meltwater from glaciers once provided water to 20% of earth’s population.

Edward : 2090

The year is 2090 in today’s consumer society. Edward is the Canadian environment minister and he is going to the United Nations to discuss climate change with other governments. Canada is one of a small number of countries that have actually prospered during the climate crisis; others include Russia and Argentina. Those winners have become more temperate and actually have modest levels of economic and population growth.

The biggest losers include the hottest countries in Africa, Asia and Central America and flat countries overwhelmed by sea level rise like Bangladesh and island nations; migration and starvation have left many of these countries essentially uninhabited. In the first half of the century the USA resisted the worst effects of climate change with a gradual migration northward. But this all accelerated when the water supply in the Colorado basin collapsed around 2040; south-western states like Arizona were abandoned and the national economy collapsed. Alaska is now the most populated state in the US and the country has entered negotiations with Canada to buy part of the Yukon.

The earth’s population now stands at 2 billion, down from the 8 billion early in the century. It’s generally accepted that the only way to maintain this population is to allow people to migrate towards the poles, crossing country boundaries and farming intensively in the high latitudes. Countries like Australia, the USA, Italy and Hungary that resisted migration in the early part of the century now advocate it as a solution; it’s now the turn of northern countries to be more skeptical. Radical solutions where one country rents another’s land or several countries unite to form a new country are being discussed. Canada hasn’t decided on its approach; on the one hand it holds the strongest cards but the USA and China are still strong military powers and it isn’t impossible they will take the land they need by force.

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