The Great Hunger, May 19, 2055
I took my bike to university the next day so I could go grocery shopping on the way home. After two classes in the afternoon, the last one spent trying to fire some enthusiasm for the computational beauty of genetics in a dozen second years when the only thing on their minds was the end of term exams, I was more than ready to leave.
At the co-op store, an unhappy knot of customers clustered around the profile tills. The iris scanners were offline. The profile economy was a side effect of the war on terrorism. It ran on biometrics and most businesses used iris scanning because it was cheap and supposedly reliable. People didn’t need to carry cards or ID of any sort. They just submitted to an iris scan and their profile account was debited. If you happened to not have a balance in your government account, you were left with cash or barter in the offline market.
The choice of currency was a wildcard. After the devaluation of the American dollar in the oil crash, the United Nations pushed their coinage, UN credits, but a lot of people didn’t accept it. I could have used loonies, but as usual I wasn’t carrying cash. A couple of the people around the profile till were quite irate, but the store people couldn’t do anything about a network problem.
I was standing in the entrance taking in the scene, wondering what to do and just then Mark Andrews passed through the cash till. Mark was the share crop gardner dad had enlisted when Matt, Jon and I were becoming independent and he wasn’t able to handle all of the gardening chores. Dad supplied the garden and a little work, Mark did the rest and they split the crop. Mark had the same deal with several other households. He was dark haired, about 40, married with no kids. His wife worked at one of the local credit unions. I didn’t know him all that well, but I knew he lived outside the profile economy.
“Fontaine!” He stopped in surprise.
“Luc, actually.” Most people couldn’t tell Matt, Jon and I apart, so I was used to that kind of interaction.
“Well I was going to do some shopping, but I don’t have any cash on me and with the scanners down…”
“What do you need?”
“Just some eggs and chili.”
“How much will that be?”
“Fourteen or fifteen bucks.”
“Here’s twenty.” He handed me four coins. “I’ll be over to see your dad in a day or two and you can pay me back then.”
“Great. Okay. Thanks.”
He clasped me by the shoulder and departed.
I did my shopping and paid at the cash till. There was still an angry knot around the profile till.
As I rode home, my thoughts circled around Mark, money and food. Food security was an issue seldom far from people’s minds. I never saw a ration card until I was ten years old. Canada was lucky. The breadbasket of the world — how quickly that changed!
In the 19th century, upwards of half the population lived on farms. Agriculture required draught animals and manpower. The development of the internal combustion engine and petroleum at the end of that century changed the energy equation. Generations of new and more powerful farm machinery initiated a gradual shift towards industrial agriculture. Fertilizers, irrigation, plant breeding and then genetic engineering hastened the process. By the end of the twentieth century, less than five percent of the population lived in the country.
As the end of the era of cheap energy dawned, gas was $10 a liter and the energy equation changed again. Now the underlying economics made local food production not only sensible, but necessary. Deglobalization began. Farmers were switching to electric power, to animals, to biofuels, but the days of giant farms were over. Petroleum derived fertilizers were exorbitantly expensive. Irrigation became largely impractical. As food became more expensive, city people began moving back to the country. Land that had been suburbs became market garden farms again.
Americans put up with poverty. They put up with no cars. They couldn’t put up with no food. Half the country was perpetually in a state of insurrection. When the first waves of American climate refugees moved north, many of them went straight into homesteading. It was a rerun of the American wild west with the internet and cellphones the equivalent of a twentieth century supercomputer.
If the economics of energy and agriculture were the only relevant factors, this would be a far happier tale. The era of cheap energy had also put gigatonnes of green house gases into the atmosphere and that transformed our climate.
The plain fact is that all the climate treaties, the negotiation and legislation aimed at preventing global warming came to naught. It was too little, too late. The heat built up in the oceans and there was no stopping it.
At the turn of the millenium, scientists estimated Antarctica would be stable for at least a thousand years. Mind you, they didn’t think the Arctic ice pack would melt as quickly as it did either. The ice free Arctic hastened the melting of Greenland and the attendant sea level rise rippled through the ice shelves of Antarctica. A feedback effect kicked in. As the sea rose, more of the grounded Western Antarctic Ice Shelf floated and broke free, to melt and further raise the sea level in a self perpetuating process. In seven years, the sea level rose four meters.
The repercussions were enormous. Whole geographies changed overnight. Pacific island states disappeared. Low lying coastal cities were inundated. Sea ports were unusable. London, Bombay, Shanghai, Washington, Hong Kong, New York — the list went on and on. Millions fled to higher ground triggering conflict. In Bangladesh, those who didn’t drown, flooded into India which couldn’t cope. From the lowlands of China, a mass movement into Eastern Siberia began. Russia didn’t even try to keep the Chinese out.
The flooding, the drowning and the conflict over refugees was bad, but it was not the worst. Around the world, but particularly in China and South East Asia, much of the flooded land was agricultural. The loss of the most productive farmland in the world, the river deltas, was a devastating blow. World grain reserves fell to nothing and the Great Hunger began.
In some places, social order disintegrated completely. It was man against man, mother against child, the young against the old. In the evocative phrase of one survivor, it was “a time of hating.” Millions starved.
In Canada, the coast guard and police could deal with one or two boatloads of illegal immigrants, but not hundreds. All along the west coast, climate refugee ships were beached. Some held nothing but corpses. Canada was swamped and it was not like we could send them back. The Committee began shipping them to camps in the northern prairies.
That was the first volunteer work Jon did. He spent his summers distributing food aid and building packed earth shelters. Most of the refugees were from tropical or moderate lands and they had no idea what a Canadian winter could be like. The globe was warming, but winters could still be cruel. Despite the volunteers, many didn’t make it through the first winter.
When I got home I told dad about Mark and made sure to put $20 in loonies on the fridge for him.
Dad stared at the money for 5 seconds or so, then said, “He’s a good man, but he doesn’t realize the game has changed.”
“It’s not about truth and justice anymore.”
I thought I would put the old man on the spot, so I said, “Yeah? What is it about?”
He stopped on his way down the hall, looked back at me over his shoulder and skewered me with just one word: “Overshoot.”
Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor: