The numbers were in, and everybody could see what was coming: at least ten billion human souls by the end of the century. All of us clamouring for food, water, space and the triumphant benefits of the all-conquering “global economy”, which the Western powers had been cajoling, threatening or enticing the rest of the world into since the dawn of the age of empires. Now this economy encompassed everything, everywhere and everyone on Earth. There was no escape, even on the highest peaks or in the deepest forests, from its products, its worldview or its 15G connectivity. The entire planet, from mahogany trees to office workers, was now a “resource”, to be eyed and totted up for the necessary and beneficial growth of the global machine.
That growth, of course, came with a few side-effects: a changing climate, collapsing ice sheets, mass destruction of ecosystems, the razing of forests and the highest extinction rate in sixty million years; not to mention growing social polarisation and massive economic inequality. Everybody had known about this since the late twentieth century, but they had all presumed, or hoped, that somebody else would sort it out. The World Economic Forum was on the case, after all, and Bono and that Swedish girl, and those weirdos who dressed up as dinosaurs or whatever and chained themselves to bridges. This sort of thing had been part of the furniture for so long that people barely noticed it anymore.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
But it wasn’t working: everything had been going in the wrong direction since the Limits to Growth report had correctly predicted, back in 1972, what was on the way. By the 2020s it was uncomfortably obvious that the report’s predictions — mocked or ignored at the time by the great and the good — had turned out to be startlingly accurate. Spiralling global consumption had led to rising demand for resources, which were becoming exhausted as landbases and ecosystems were degraded by human use, leading to increasing prices, social and political strife, ecosystem breakdown and looming civilisational collapse. Limits to Growth had identified the period between 2008 and 2030 as the point at which the collapse would begin to bite, with stalling growth, climatic instability, rising death rates and social turmoil as evidence of overshoot. So it had proven.
Even the most committed apostles of Progress and Development could see the writing on the wall. Something radical would have to be done. The old-school greens who, in response to Limits To Growth, had preached about pie-in-the-sky stuff like “de-growth”, simple living, organic farming or foraging for nettle tops, didn’t have a sellable message in a world of demand, with Westernised consumers all insisting on their right to low-cost WiFi connectivity. Everyone was sick of being nagged by people like that, anyway. The more grown-up environmentalists — the kind who wore business suits and wrote policy papers about the regrettable but realistic need for nuclear power and geoengineering — knew this very well. Solutions had to be big, brave and global.
In the end, as the wildfires, droughts, ice melt and supply chain collapses mounted, a stark choice presented itself: an ambitious plan to Save The Earth, or a collapse into barbarism. That was how the media sold it, anyway, and since it had been long anticipated, nobody really minded much. We were all locked into the machine by now, after all: all reliant on its largesse to eat, sleep and work. The worse things got — and they were getting worse fast — the more appetite there was for bold, assertive, planetary-scale action. And since the Covid-19 pandemic, everyone had got used to obeying the authorities and submitting to behavioural monitoring, in order to prevent mass disaster.
And so, the global empire arrived, largely on schedule. Corporations, well-heeled NGOs, states and regional blocs, trailing a bevy of media and intellectual lapdogs in their wake, consolidated their Green New Reset, or whatever they were calling it today, with impeccable ease. The new world would be progressive, inclusive, open, sustainable, gender-neutral and, above all, intensely profitable. The ongoing assimilation of any ecosystems, cultures, perspectives and lifestyles that conflicted with progress would be implemented in a manner which ensured carbon neutrality. The sustainable global machine — smart, interconnected, perpetually monitored, always-on — would encompass everything and everyone, producing cascading benefits for all. The long-held Western dream would finally be achieved: the world would become one. One market, one set of values, one way of living, one way of seeing.
By the time some of the environmentalists realised who they had sold their soul to, it was too late. But what, in any case, had the alternative been? The small-is-beautiful crowd, with their patchouli-scented jumpers and their 1970s talk about limits and sovereignty, had been cancelled as eco-fascists long ago, exiled to distant smallholdings and housing co-ops with their well-thumbed copies of Tools for Conviviality and other yellowing tomes by dead white men. Now that an actual eco-fascism was on the horizon — a global merger of state and corporate power in pursuit of progress that would have made Mussolini weep like a proud grandfather — there was nothing to stand in its way.
Unlike previous empires, this one knew how to present itself: with wind farms rather than dreadnoughts, pictures of smiling children rather than squares of redcoats. It used eco-friendly, inclusive language as it enclosed land, funnelled wealth upwards and coated wild landscapes in renewable technologies made from rare earth metals (a regrettable necessity, but a temporary one: sustainable asteroid mining was well on the way). But it was curious how the wealth and power seemed to stay in mainly the same hands; odd too that the rolling eco-crisis never seemed to actually go away, however many billionaires and NGOs attempted bright new techno-fixes. In fact, the tighter the empire gripped, the more everything seemed to slip away from its grasp. It was almost as if the techno-fixes themselves were the problem.
Over time, the inevitable happened: the age-old progress trap closed in like a Venus Flytrap patiently digesting its victims. The genetic modifications and the nanotech “solutions” went awry, as Earth’s inscrutable systems refused to behave the way the computer models had predicted. The mass dumping of iron filings into the ocean did not sequester as much carbon as hoped, but it did lead to an unexpected collapse in whale numbers. The Bill Gates-funded sun-dimming technologies had succeeded in lowering the planet’s temperature, but the feedback loops that kicked in lowered it much more than expected, leading to mass crop collapse and famine, which in turn caused riots across the world. The early 2040s saw half of Africa subsisting for several months on locust swarms while Silicon Valley’s finest dined on sustainable insect burgers in their New Zealand redoubts.
Tower farms, superpigs, eco-drones, cloud seeding, space reflectors: everything was tried, but the trajectory didn’t change. Earth’s limits refused to budge. To the Faustian West, “saving the world” had been just another means of trying to control it, but Gaia, like God, would not be not mocked. Life went on, but civilisation, increasingly, didn’t. Cities fell, waters rose, deserts spread. Jeff, Mark, Richard and Elon went into low Earth orbit on separate rockets, all claiming to have got there first, but their head-freezing facility in the Sonoran desert suffered a tragic thawing episode when the solar farm formerly known as Kansas was knocked out by a freak solar flare.
By the late 21st century the oil wells were slowly bottoming out, the rare earth metals were exhausted, and the boundless renewable future of electric cars and limitless green energy had been filed away and forgotten like an embarrassing teenage crush. The asteroid mines never got off the drawing board. The population peaked and started falling, along with the sperm counts. The suburbs and the oceans slowly emptied, and the stuttering Internet became so poisonous that even Mumsnet came with a trigger warning. Everyone told themselves that progress would be happening properly if only those people weren’t in charge.
Most of all, a great disappointment seemed to spread like an ink stain through the remnants of the West, as it dawned on everyone that there was to be no spectacular denouement. There was no revolution and no restoration; no Star Trek, but no Matrix either. There were no robot soldiers to fight and nobody was building a Death Star. The best anyone could manage at this point in industrial capitalism’s downward curve was a weedy little spaceship built by a glorified bookshop manager, which could stay up in space for all of three minutes. The end of the world, it turned out, was less like Terminator and more like a Star Wars prequel: you wait for years in anticipation, and then it’s just a let-down.
In other words, it was history-as-usual, as the latest grandiose human project faced a long, grinding decline. The apocalypse, in the end, had turned out to be… boring. But maybe this shouldn’t have been surprising. The word Apokalypsis, in the original Greek, simply meant unveiling, or revelation. In an apocalypse, something is exposed that we all need to see, but are refusing to look at. What we saw, as our delusions crumbled, was that we had never really been in control at all. We had misunderstood the world, and our place in it. We had come to it as conquerors, boors, abusers, rather than lovers or friends — so obsessed with orbiting Earth that we had forgotten to look at what we were orbiting.
Modern humanity had turned on both creator and creation but our rebellion, as long predicted, had failed. Now the post-apocalyptic skyline belonged to those who had always known that: to the monks, the hermits, the anchoresses and the forest tribes; to the workers on the margins, steadily improving lives human and non-human with no desire to shout about it. To the small nations and the edge-dwellers, the quiet and the unambitious. To the earthworms and the shy hedgehogs, the suckering plants and the ever-flocking birds, foraging in the ruins of the latest fallen empire. To those who had seceded, and who had generated rather than draining the finite pool of life.
By the 23rd century, some of those who still remembered quite what had happened (it was hard to piece the facts together, since everything of value had been stored on the now-obsolete “Internet”) noted with some irony that the society which had grown out of the rubble of the machine age looked curiously like the one proposed by those early eco-fanatics: land-based, low-tech, community-centred, cored around a religious story, and highly suspicious of any grandiose claims. Much of England now looked like the fourteenth century, only with CB radios and better dental work. Over in America, the Amish had bought up most of what had once been New York state, and the remnants of the self-build hippie culture of the Pacific Northwest had begun restoring the deserts created by the megacities of the 2070s. The blades of giant wind turbines were bent into ploughshares. The meek had — after a very long detour — finally inherited the Earth.