Apocalypse Maybe

Every trip to the small grocery store near my home is an adventure. I don’t know who is in charge of their supply chain, but it is patchy and odd: some weeks there is a glut of strawberries, other weeks you can’t get a berry for love or money. The same inconsistency applies to most of their stock: the swings between availability and absence exist for commodities as varying as sparkling water and red lentils. Planning dinner is a spontaneous activity: I have no idea what I’m going to have until I actually get there.

As I was walking down the aisle this past Saturday, wondering what size eggs they would have this week, it struck me that this might be a view of the future. We are so used to having everything we want, whenever we want it: but it may be that this is going to be the first thing to change, once the final cheque for our civilisation’s excesses comes due. At first glance, it’s not so bad, I’ll buy green lentils instead of red ones, and use sunflower oil instead of olive. That said, it may be the transportation links of of globalisation will continue to weaken as the cost of oil goes up; diet and habits will change as economic localisation starts to fill in the gaps with substitutes. We will probably have to become more dependent on our own gardens: I already grow my own tomatoes, herbs and chilli peppers, using modified window boxes lined up against a brick wall that faces the afternoon sun.

I can imagine planning permission being relaxed due to energy shortages; at long last, I’ll be able to put up solar panels and a small wind turbine without going through the usual bureaucratic rigmarole. Perhaps capacitors will improve to the point that I will be able to store a consistent amount of energy to power my home’s needs; nevertheless, the trend on energy consumption could and should go one way, downward.

I already rarely use my car: as a result, I have only filled it up twice in the past seven months. I can imagine this being the normal state of affairs for most people: cars may become less valuable and perhaps there will be a switch to vegetable oil for efficient diesels like mine. Even so, the car may become solely a failsafe if cycling and public transport are inadequate; driving just on a whim could be eliminated.

This is by no means a comprehensive vision of the future. However, it is possible.

This scenario particularly appeals to me because it dovetails with an overriding theme from humanity’s history: we will do the right thing when we are forced to do it by the inevitable. When so opposed, humanity has a tendency to muddle through. A reduced, less consumptive future which is less convenient and pleasant than the present strikes me as realistic.

It will involve a great deal of economic pain; I can imagine a lot of stores being shut down and not replaced, dark and empty reminders of the gluttony of yesteryear. If I look down my town’s main high street, I can already identify the potential victims: Woolworths’, dependent on so many cheap, plastic (i.e. petroleum based) products imported from China, is a sitting duck. Starbucks will be gone as well; £4 will be regarded as an excessive amount of money to spend on coffee. Many of the clothing stores will be shut, dependent as they were on cheap sweatshop imports. However, the store specialising in local linen and bolts of cloth will likely still be there: making one’s own clothing could come back into fashion. The bookstore should also still be in operation, however they could expand using recycled paper in publishing. The farmers’ markets, in the Corn Exchange as well as on the high street, may become a five day a week affair, and supply most household needs.

Some of the trappings of high technology could remain; it’s difficult to see how the internet could be abolished, though the servers which provide its backbone may be converted to use Open Source solutions exclusively, in order to extend their life and reduce power consumption. Perhaps the National Grid will be revamped – in a hurry – to deal with microgeneration. Wind, tidal and solar energy could be the mainstays, as well, probably, will be some nuclear plants.

Yes, this scenario is not utopia; there will still be carbon emissions to control and still be effects of climate change with which to contend. It’s just a guess, but I believe in the hypothesis that the melting polar ice caps will have a negative effect on the Gulf Stream, and thus Britain will actually become a colder, rainier place to live. Some areas will be flooded, others will be subject to dangerous erosion, including the Norfolk coast. Places nearer to the equator will probably have to deal with nature’s full onslaught, creating a refugee problem in Europe. The positive side effect will probably be the opening of new Nigerian or Kenyan cafes in even the smallest provincial town.

The other plus side to this scenario is obvious: we’re alive. While we’re missing luxuries, and there will be “tragic” days such as the one on which the final battery in last iPod dies, at least the model will adjust to something more sustainable. However, given the choice between this world and the end of it, one wonders what most would prefer.

My reading of human nature is that we are prepared for triumph and disaster, but we don’t quite know what to do with just carrying on. This future is not “The Day After Tomorrow”; it’s merely difficult, not devastating nor a portent of the apocalypse. Humanity has experienced events like the Black Plague and the Cuban Missile Crisis to prepare for death; we haven’t been prepared to live frugally and simply forever more.

As such, perhaps this should be the main subject for political discourse: how are we going to modify our lives to fit into the new reality? The truth is stark: if everyone was to achieve the same living standard as Europe, we’d need several planets worth of resources. Oil and gas are running out. Climate change is happening. We are going to have to adjust our lives, whether we like or not. No, this is not the end of the world; only the overly dramatic and spoiled will think it so. But the sooner we make the adjustment, the better off we will be, and the foundations of a future can be established whereby a balance is struck between our comfort and that of the Earth.

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