Earlier this week I spent an enjoyable day at How The Light Gets In, the “other” Hay festival. I attended some interesting talks and discussions but the last got me hopping mad. The topic “Out of the Apocalypse” was billed as a discussion about:
“From climate change and superbugs to nuclear strikes, visions of man-made apocalypse fill the headlines. Is this because we don’t really believe them and as a result are simply entertained? Should we see impending apocalypse as very real and act with more urgency? Or is apocalypse a perennial human narrative that sells books, magazines and news and is mostly fantasy?”
Unfortunately the contributors circled around the subject although none appeared to be climate-change-deniers. First there was discussion of the meaning of the term “apocalypse”. Apparently it is derived from the Greek word for Revelation as used in the last book of the Bible and so refers to religious hopes for the end of the world where God triumphs, believers get their reward and the rest get punished or annihilated. It perhaps doesn’t quite mean what the title was intended to mean. This meant that apart from a bit of discussion about nuclear holocaust we never dug into the impending disasters facing us. The chair even asked at one point why we “don’t see any evidence of the coming apocalypse.” I felt like shouting out “how many more pictures of retreating glaciers, disappearing Arctic ice, burning rainforest, turtles with stomachs full of plastic bags, heaps of rubbish, city smogs, etc., etc., do you need?”. The participants seemed to approach the Apocalypse, or whatever it is, in an almost religious manner i.e. that it was all about an abrupt death. Yes, it is about people (and wildlife) dying, but that’s not the worst part of it.
The coming Armageddon, (another term of dubious applicability) will not be a one-off event. It will be a slow (in human if not geological terms) process, as the environment dies, food becomes short, order breaks down and people gradually die of starvation, disease, “accidents” and violence. The causes are numerous. Here are just a few: climate change caused by excessive use of fossil fuels and deforestation leading to drought, violent storms (causing landslides), mass extinctions et al; death of marine life by pollution (not just plastics) and acidification; soil degradation (we’re losing a massive amount every year); air pollution; pollution of fresh water sources; invasive pests and diseases (e.g. flu, ebola); etc.
I don’t see governments making any real attempts to solve these problems. I hope I am being pessimistic but what I see does not give me cause for optimism. In the future we will see rising prices for food, increasing unrest in areas where food and water are in short supply, leading to break down of law and order, wars, refugees and migrants. In richer countries, those with power (corporations, the wealthy) will take steps to protect their interests (perhaps by supporting populist groups that give them the tools of government), while the ordinary people will see their standard of living and rights slowly eroded.
It sounds like a dystopian novel. I wish it was, but I fear it is a forecast for the next hundred or so years. I hope I can see out the rest of my life in relative safety and comfort but I fear for my children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
One of the speakers wants to cut the world population by reducing births. While a reduction of numbers is essential, a lack of young people with new ideas and energy will only hasten the descent into chaos. So, I don’t know what the answer is.
I don’t have any solutions, but welcome ideas.
So, let’s look the other way, forget reality and delve into my fictional world of Benefactors. Here’s the next episode.
Benefactors: Part 8
Helen didn’t know how long she had. It turned out to be what felt like a couple of hours before the lock clunked and the door opened. A young man appeared with a tray. He was unimportant, a junior, a servant perhaps. Behind him stood a pair in military style dress though without any badges or insignia. One was male and the other female although they looked almost like twins with short hair, bulging muscles and coms implants in the side of their heads. They both held weapons.
Helen wasn’t sure which of them to address her words to. Perhaps none of them. Perhaps there were invisible listeners who would act on the message.
She spoke loudly and clearly. ‘I need to see someone. The man that visited me before or someone else. I have important information I must divulge. It is vital that you pass this message on. If my memory is wiped before I am able to speak then the future for this nation is dire.’
The servant and the guards made no sign that they had heard her. The tray was placed on the desk and then he withdrew. The door closed and the lock clunked again. Helen sat and tasted the food – a tasty chicken casserole. She found she had an appetite.
She had only just put down the blunt plastic fork when the door opened and the gaoler entered.
‘I understand you have something to say to me, Professor,’ he said in a bored voice that did not take Helen in. The speed of his response showed his interest.
Helen stood up, composed herself as she would before delivering a talk to a packed lecture theatre, and began.
‘I do and I think you will be interested. First of all let us put aside this idea that the tree’s genome is a hoax designed to fool me. Your involvement shows that this matter is far bigger than my reputation.’ She paused for a breath and to examine his face. He was impassive, but listening. ‘I can understand the concern about how people would react to the news that someone or something visited us eons ago and left us a secret message. I am not sure what effect that information would have on the populations around the world.’ The man’s headed nodded almost imperceptibly. ‘I also understand the government’s fears about what might happen if some of our, um, competitors made use of the information in the genome more successfully than ourselves.’ Helen noticed the man stiffen slightly. That indeed was his principal concern. ‘You think that by removing me and Darmaan and Fraser from the picture, by destroying the trees and the people who tended them, that the secrets can be hidden for ever. I’m sure you are also aware that history suggests that that course of action is not going to work. You can never be certain that the secret will not get out, and that has got nothing to do with whether, Darmaan or Jock or I managed to spread the word before we were, er, taken out of the picture.’ The man’s eyes flickered; a hint of anxiety. ‘How do you know that it was only Jock Fraser who took samples from the trees and got a hint of the secret that they hide. Who was it that destroyed the trees and killed their gardeners?’ The man shifted his weight on his feet as if uncomfortable. ‘But just think for a moment about the people or creatures, or whatever they were who planted the message in the trees all that time ago. How do we know that they just left the message once? Why just one tree in the Rift Valley. They could not be certain that the people they left tending the trees would survive for ten thousand generations. Okay, that is where we think modern humans originated and spread out from. But wouldn’t it have been sensible to leave copies in other plants in China, say, or South America, anywhere, to ensure that they would be found when we were capable of it.’
Helen stopped talking and watched the man. He had taken his eyes off her. He was thinking. She continued. ‘Our benefactors, let’s call them that shall we, did their best to see that our race progressed. As well as the message in the DNA they provided a drug that helped the people cooperate and work together. Yes, I’m sure that is the purpose of the toxic narcotic that you mentioned. They knew that it would be a long time before we were ready to understand their gift and I am sure they would have taken every step to ensure that when the time was right it would be available to us.’ The man was definitely agitated now, his mouth moving and his hands clenching and unclenching.
Helen went on. ‘If we are the first we must do what we can to interpret the message, and very carefully let the news out so that others do not try to stop us, steal it or keep it to themselves.’ She had made the case, now her statement had to get personal. ‘I, and Darmaan and Jock are already involved but what a waste it would be to wipe our memories. You need me, us, to lead the work of using this gift. I’m not being boastful but my main talent is running teams of researchers. I learnt it on the Human Genome Project. Now you need me on this which is far, far more important. Please give me, all of us, a chance to help.’
She finished and stood waiting for a response. The man looked at her then turned and departed without a word. Helen flung herself on the bed, her heart beating fast as it did at the end of any presentation. Had she said the right things? Had she done enough to save her mind? Had she saved the world?
Jock had spent time in various prison cells in nations across the world. Sometimes his papers had not been “in order” or landowners had got upset at his “trespassing”, or rivals had had words with the authorities. It had never been more than a few days but he was familiar with bare walls, lack of furnishings and amenities, unpalatable water and food. This wasn’t one of those simple gaols in a developing country. This had freshly painted, strong walls, a bright light in the ceiling (which didn’t go off), an effective lock on the door, and was so insulated from the outside world he couldn’t tell whether he was still in the tropics or had been ferried to one or other of the poles.
Time passed. He rested on the hard rubber bed fixed to the wall. He was fed by a bowl pushed through a letterbox sized slot in the wall. Most of the time he lay thinking, feeling anger and remorse for the death of Ekuru Lengabilo and wondering at the fate of the boy and the old woman. He wondered what Professor Patel had found in the genome but realised that it must have been as special as he had guessed to have brought Special Forces all the way to the Rift Valley to extract him.
He was actually beginning to get bored with his company, particularly as he had no means of writing or recording his thoughts, when the door to the cell swung open.
‘Please step out of the cell,’ a voice said from outside. Jock jumped to his feet but walked very slowly to the doorway and looked through it. There was an honour guard of helmeted, armed and uniformed but unidentified personnel on both sides of the short corridor.
The squad leader at the far end of the corridor spoke with a firm but unthreatening voice. ‘Come with me, please, Dr Fraser.’ He beckoned Jock to join him. Jock walked passed the soldiers examining each. Their dark visors prevented him from seeing if there was any emotion at all in their eyes, but they held their weapons at the ready, with fingers on triggers. Jock joined the officer who turned and pushed the door open and they stepped out on to a small parade ground. A one-man quadcopter rested on the tarmac with its canopy raised. The seat was empty.
‘Get in,’ the officer commanded. Jock did as he was told, settling into the body hugging, memory foam seat. The canopy lowered. The craft took-off vertically, the four rotors whirring but the electric motors silent. Jock rose above the roof of the surrounding building and then the craft began moving horizontally.
‘What is the destination?’ Jock asked. Perhaps there was a communications link with the drone pilot wherever he or she may be or perhaps the craft was autonomous and would tell him itself. There was no reply. Jock looked out trying to interpret what he saw. He soon worked out that they were travelling north and the landscape looked as if it could be British but could equally be northern Europe or even some parts of North America. Britain was most likely. The small craft didn’t travel in a straight line and Jock presumed it was avoiding urban areas. He guessed that being battery powered the journey would not last long and indeed after an hour they descended to an air field. A helicopter stood alone on the concrete with a guard of soldiers around it similar to those at the prison.
The quadcopter landed and the rotors slowed to a stop. The canopy opened. Without waiting for an order Jock got out. Having recently been in Africa and then confined inside, he shivered in the cool breeze. One of the helmeted soldiers beckoned him towards the helicopter whose rotors were already turning slowly. The door in the side was open and Jock climbed in. There were no other passengers. Jock took a seat and the door was closed on him. At once the engines grew louder and Jock felt the slight lurch as they left the ground. He hurried to fasten the safety belt. The windows had been opaqued so he had no sight of the disappearing airfield and no way of determining the direction of travel. The change of transport persuaded Jock that he was in for a somewhat longer journey and with no companions to talk to decided that sleep was the best pastime for the journey.
…………………to be continued.