What will the world look like after environmental collapse?
“Are you familiar with the psychology of radicalization?”
The din in the conference room of the fifth annual Climate-State World Forum died down, the delegates straightening with the realization that this session was to be taken seriously.
On stage, the speaker continued: “Extremists, whether driven by religion, ideology, or anything else, are not so different from the rest of us. They are driven by a shared sense of purpose, a deep sense of injustice at the current social order, and are radicalized step by step. The key to stopping them is to intercept them early on their radicalization journey.”
In the front row, a black-haired woman in a white cheongsam-style dress suit sat still on the edge of her VIP seat, her eyes fixed on the speaker before her, a slight furrow in her brow.
“We — all of you — have achieved an extraordinary amount in the past twenty-five years. Under the Climate-State model of governance, terrestrial human society is stable again, and we have more hope of continuing human civilization on earth than we have ever had since the Collapse.” Here, the speaker paused, his hooded eyes glaring out at his rapt audience, as if hoping to imprint his words onto each listener’s brain. “But we cannot fall into the mistake of previous eras and assume that Climate-States are some kind of end of history. We have temporarily tamed the worst of our environmental calamities, but our solutions have second- and third-order effects, and already, there are people that disagree with us enough to actively try to dismantle what we have built.”
There was a moment of silence at this heavy pronouncement, and then the black-haired woman — President Eva Wu of the Climate-State of Lüdu — rose from her seat and led the crowd in a standing ovation. In the cacophony of approval, she made her quiet exit.
A few minutes later, President Wu — Eva — was sinking into a floating bubble seat in the VIP Lounge, grateful for a quiet moment to check in on the affairs of climate-state back home, as well as on her sixteen-year-old daughter Mei, whom she had been surreptitiously following — while giving every appearance of rapt attention during the radicalization talk — via her in-eye contact lens personal AI.
Every year, the students of Lüdu went on an overnight school trip and, now in her second-to-last year of high school, Mei and her classmates’ journey was especially significant. For the first time, the class was leaving the comfortable shielded confines of the Lüdu Climate-State for the neighboring climate-protectorate, CP 18.
CP 18’s climate control efforts, supported by Lüdu’s foreign environmental aid program, were still limited to the weekly shooting of particulate matter into the sky to disperse a variety of noxious gases, rather than the full-scale bioshield that completely sealed off Lüdu’s air and earth two miles in either direction.
Eva was anxious about her daughter. She had given the teacher special instruction to keep an eye on Mei and ensure that she kept either the personal bioshield bubble, which enclosed each wearer in a pocket of air matching Lüdu’s atmospheric conditions, or the back-up hazmat suit, on always; it would be just like Mei to want to experience the more toxic air, in the name of science. In this regard, mother and daughter were really too much alike.
Eva touched the corner of her right eye, activating her personal AI, which immediately beamed a live route map tracking Mei’s travels, snapshots from the students’ live visual feeds, data readings from personal bioshield bubbles, and audio dispatches from the teacher and accompanying parental chaperones. Eva zoomed into the scene, scanning for signs of her daughter, whom she hadn’t been able to locate during her check-in from the radicalization talk.
If she remembered correctly, they should be entering CP 18 now. But for some reason, she still couldn’t find Mei.
Mother and daughter had been in touch earlier that morning, their physical realities temporarily blending via reality beam, so that while Mei was physically located thousands of kilometers away, camping in the wilderness, her virtual proxy sat on her mother’s bed, munching on an apple, her legs pulled up to her chest and her muddy hiking boots projected ultra-realistically onto the white linens of the hotel suite.
“How’s the Forum going?” Proxy-Mei asked in their native Mandarin, bouncing slightly on the soft mattress.
“It’s good,” said Eva, forcing herself to pull her eyes away from her daughter’s muddy boots. “The topics on the agenda are pretty heavy this year.” Then she added, “You’re not missing much,” even though it had been Mei’s choice not to accompany her parents to the Forum, as she typically did. She hadn’t wanted to miss her school trip, though she had been so taciturn and mercurial lately that Eva had no idea what her daughter was really thinking.
Almost by habit, Eva held up her palm and, after a moment of hesitation, Proxy-Mei met it with her own, and they intertwined their real and virtual fingers in a moment of proxy-intimacy.
Mei didn’t meet her mother’s gaze, giving the older woman a chance to examine her daughter closely. Mei’s own eyes, normally lively, were almost hidden by puffy dark circles. Her hair was greasy, strands falling out of her usual plait. Eva even thought that she might have spied a twig back there but Mei, as if sensing her mother’s gaze, brushed it out of sight.
A pang of worry that seemed outsized, even given her penchant to overthink, shot through Eva’s nervous system to her contact lens computer, sending her an automatic reminder to breathe more deeply and moderate her temper.
Instead, Eva shot back a series of questions, “How’s the trip, Mei? Where are you? It looks like you’ve been camping! I thought that you wouldn’t be camping until the third night.” She wished that Mei had turned on the transmission on her end, so that Eva could experience her surroundings as well, but Mei had demurred, saying that her just-waking classmates would be mortified at being seen in their pre-Caffeine-pill states.
Mei shrugged nonchalantly, still playing with her hair. “Oh, you know how I am in nature, like a fish in water — ”
They were interrupted by a knock on the door, and Yang Xia popped his head in. He grinned widely at the sight of his wife and virtual daughter. “My favorite ladies!” He exclaimed, blowing them both kisses before turning to his wife, “Are you ready, beloved? There are some important meetings that can’t start without you, and” — he gave a mock bow with an exaggerated flourish — “I’ve been sent to make sure you’re there.”
Proxy-Mei leapt up, and made to push her mother towards the door. “Go! Don’t keep them waiting! I’ll tell you all about the trip later!” Mei waved goodbye to her parents and disconnected her transmission, and suddenly the room was empty of both girl and dripping boots.
Eva took one last look around, still wondering about her daughter’s physical surroundings. But she tried to push it out of mind, and with Xia at her side, strode out towards the main hall of the Climate-State World Forum.
Before the founding of Lüdu (Mandarin for ‘Green Capital’), during what historians have since termed the Collapse, the few remaining northern inhabitants of the former People’s Republic of China (FPRC) had stopped venturing outdoors.
The great capital city of Beijing, with a population of 30 million at its peak, was a ghost of its former self, with some estimating that as many as a third of its residents had left — or perished — in the Collapse’s most turbulent years.
For the residents that remained, the city became almost unrecognizable. The streets emptied, as all human activity moved indoors, or online. The city grew its food in hydroponic farms, built underground tunnels that connected all buildings, and used advanced filtration technologies to treat the limited rain- and groundwater that remained.
In the rare times that they did appear in the open air, they covered themselves head to toe in heavy protective suits that limited their exposure to the stinging sand and thick smog carried southward by the relentless desert winds.
It was not just Beijing that moved indoors; the phenomenon was global. Coastal cities that had not been inundated suffered from increasingly worse acid rain, while inland, dark pollution clouds covered the sun for days at a time.
Humanity was ill-suited for a long-term life indoors, however. Mental and physical health plummeted, new strains of disease ran rampant, and within a generation, age spans had shrunk by a decade. Beijing, and other population centerslike it, became so focused on basic survival that the global economic and political systems, which had both been under strain for some time, had all but collapsed.
Something had to be done. The world’s remaining leaders of state and industry did their best to respond, but driven by short-term self-interest, their efforts were band-aids on a gushing artery.
What good were efforts in FPRC, if across the Acidic Pacific, the government of the Independent States of America continued to deny, let alone address, the realities of climate change? The FPRC and others could implement all the mitigating measures in the world — and, sometimes it seemed, were doing so — but even divided by the Acidic Pacific, these two civilizations could still not change the fact that they shared the same air and the same planet.
Of course, a small contingent of the wealthy had tried to change this fact by establishing moon colonies and even permanent space stations, but from all accounts that made it back to earth, these were never as glamorous nor comfortable as pre-Collapse sci-fi movies promised.
Meanwhile, many more of the world’s wealthy were holed up in remote, off-the-grid homesteads built in the hey-day of survivalism, but those bunkers were designed for apocalypses in which humans were the main threat, rather than the air that they breathed.
Many believed that the spirit of these ventures was right: the ‘global commons’ was obsolete. It was just that mankind had not yet found a way to geographically or environmentally sever ties between societies.
At the time, Dr. Eva Wu was working at a small biotech lab in the deserts of the Pacific Northwest, where her team, funded by a space-obsessed billionaire, was building infrastructure for the moon colonies that would allow them to manufacture and maintain their own self-contained natural environments.
Eva had no interest in settling on the moon, despite the guaranteed spot on the lunar colony that came with her employment package; she was interested in applying her findings to help terrestrial civilization.
And she believed that she had the answer: her team had successfully created atmospheric bioshields that could completely seal off an interior climate from an exterior one, not only in the air (this was the easy part, relatively speaking) but also deep into the ground as well. With the poisons in the earth contaminating the little groundwater that remained, this was a game-changer.
She asked for more funding from her boss to explore the applications of the bio-shield for earth, but he instructed her to focus on space. Her colleagues, who, unlike her, did want a chance at a new life on the moon, also advised that she keep her head down.
And for a few months, she tried, wrestling with her own conscience. Ultimately, she made a scientifically unethical but, she believed, necessary decision for the sake of humanity: she stole the research findings and the plans for the bioshield, and snuck across the Acidic Pacific.
There, she approached another rich man whom she believed would be more receptive to her ideas: Yang Xia, the heir of a space travel empire who, unusually, just announced the start of a new project that would fund innovative new approaches to terrestrial human settlements. Called the Lüdu Development Corporation, it had already signed agreements with the weakening government of the FPRC to run pilot cities in the outskirts of Old Beijing.
Xia immediately saw the genius of Eva’s work, and was further taken by the scientist’s courage and conviction. He raised the funds and team to support the development of the world’s first large-scale atmospheric bioshield, selected the best of the land from the FPRC for the test site, laid out plans for a new city to be built underneath the shield, and, amidst all of this, convinced Eva to marry him.
After Eva’s brief respite in the VIP Lounge, the rest of the day passed by uneventfully, though the theme of the morning’s talk, radicalization, followed her.
At three o’clock, she sat in on a reality beam intelligence briefing with the State Security Agency of Lüdu, which had been tracking an uptick in activity of anti-geoengineering extremists. “Nothing to worry about, Madame President,” said the Director of Security, “We expected this due to your absence from Lüdu for the forum.”
Then, at four o’clock, she attended a closed meeting with the Head of the Climate-State of Singapore, the only pre-Collapse government that had survived into the new era.
“You cannot be afraid to stamp out all hints of resistance,” Singapore’s president told her. “Last week, we sentenced a sixth-grade teacher and his entire class to a lifetime of labor at an underground waste disposal camp for questioning the climate-state in their spring play. ‘Pull out not only the grass but also their roots’, as our shared ancestors used to say. It may sound harsh, but this is how we are still here.” Unlike others, Singapore’s small size and precedent of forceful governance had made it much more nimble and adaptable during and after the collapse. The president concluded, “As a new climate-state, Lüdu has a lot to learn.”
Eva nodded grimly, hoping to hide her distaste and wishing, not for the first time, that she could go back to the days where being the head of the climate-state relied more on technical rather than political skills. Her husband had always been much better at this side of things than she.
After every event — and during many of them as well — Eva discreetly tapped her right eye and scanned for updates from Mei’s school trip, but in the few moments of multi-tasking, she wasn’t able to locate her daughter. She came up with many plausible explanations for her daughter’s absence from the data feeds, all the while feeling as though there was some important detail that she was forgetting.
It wasn’t until later, as she was half-listening to her former space colony boss complain about the challenges of achieving climate-state status for his newly repatriated earth colony, that it hit her: on their reality beam earlier that day, Mei had described herself as being “like a fish back in water” outdoors, when Eva knew that it had been years since her daughter had expressed interest in the natural world.
She turned away from her former boss; it was suddenly imperative that she find her husband and together, their daughter.