By Robert A. Vella
Thirty-one years from now, I would be 95. Fortunately, I probably won’t live that long. My nieces and nephews will be in their early retirement years. Their children will be in the prime of life at around 40 years old. They will have children of their own by then some of whom would be of high school or college age. Forget the dying Baby Boomers, this post is about what life in the year 2050 might be like for Generation X, Millennials, Gen Z, and the following generation which I’ll dub the Orphans. I chose that name because the humans born in the 2030s and later will have already been abandoned not necessarily by their parents, but by society at large.
The auspices of modern civilization, that which people today so flippantly take for granted, will progressively degrade with time until it is unrecognizable to contemporary eyes. In fact, the social institutions we are all dependent upon have been in decline since the 1980s. What started this disturbing trend was primarily short-sighted anti-government politics, but what will finish it is cataclysmic global warming. Despite tremendous effort by scientists, activists, and concerned leaders across the social spectrum, it is highly unlikely that effective mitigation policies can be implemented in time. The crisis we face is just too big for our disagreeable and fractious nature. Solving anthropogenic climate change would require both fundamental reform of our socioeconomic systems and a level of cooperation which humankind has never before seen. The die is cast. The course is set. A collision with reality is now within our horizon.
Francie gathered around her teacher with the other students to watch an instruction on digital basics as there was a shortage of electronic devices at her school. The 12 year old wanted badly to learn an employable skill because she feared a life of indentured servitude like that of her mother. But, her mom could not afford to send her to a good school where the wealthier kids attended. Public education was eliminated in America, along with all other democratic institutions, following the Enabling Act of 2033 which replaced the U.S. Constitution with an authoritarian governmental structure. Poorer children, especially in states like Missouri, only received education enough for them to function at the lowest levels of society; however, they were well instructed in Christian theology.
Francie’s hopes for a better life is all she has. She never knew her father. Her younger brother died of an infectious disease as an infant, and her older sister was declared “mentally incompetent” by medical officials when Francie was just five years old. Two years later, the family fled from Phoenix, Arizona after severe water restrictions were imposed on that city along with Las Vegas, Nevada where her mother’s family had lived. Although water is more available in the Midwest, it isn’t very clean and getting enough to eat is always a concern. Gone were the days of massive, ubiquitous supermarkets where the general populace could afford a variety of foods. Francie’s diet consists mainly of corn, squash, beans, and a few dairy products purchased at the local food outlet.
Asha and Virendra listened carefully to the news reports coming out of war-torn Kashmir from their New Delhi home. The region has been devastated by the worsening military conflict which erupted between India and Pakistan four years earlier. But now, China is exploiting the situation by seizing weakly defended areas previously held by the two warring nations. The Pakistani military, which has been losing ground to Indian forces despite inflicting terrible losses upon it, has threatened to use nuclear weapons against any aggressor which invades its territory. In response, India has issued a similar threat while the Chinese are denying its recent moves into the valley.
The strategically important Kashmir region has long been contested by these three powers. In addition to its geographic significance, Kashmir’s religious divisions have caused much tension primarily between Muslims and Hindus. However, the effects of climate change have greatly fueled this raging fire. The Himalayan glaciers, upon which hundreds of millions depend for water during the dry season, have receded by more than half. The summer monsoons, which replenish these glaciers, have become more erratic and extreme. While annual precipitation is declining over the subcontinent, the storms are getting more powerful resulting in devastating floods. Temperatures are rising too to unbearable levels. Record highs for the hottest months of May and June now regularly exceed 120°F in India’s capital, and wildfires burn uncontrollably across the landscape every year.
For Asha, Virendra, and their family, the couple’s successful finance business and upscale lifestyle face perils as never before. One miscalculation by their political leaders, one misstep, or one impulsive act of aggression by their rival neighbors, could wipeout everything they’ve built in an instant. Still, they can do nothing – for there is nowhere to hide and nowhere to run.
João is a 52 year-old shrimp farmer who lives near Belém, Brazil. He began his small aquaculture business two decades ago after the top international exporters in Southeast Asia suffered ruinous production losses due to uncontrollable disease outbreaks. Although he has only earned a modest living, it turned out to be a good occupational choice for him and his extended family.
In recent years, however, João’s business has struggled. Environmental stresses have impacted the economics of the entire Amazon River basin. The region is slowly but steadily drying out, and the once lush tropical rainforest is evolving into savanna. The cause is climate change combined with decades of deforestation. The expanding grasslands are better suited to agriculture and ranching which in turn are damaging the area’s freshwater and saltwater habitats through runoff pollution. Compounding the problem for João is the worsening acidification of the oceans which is degrading the quality and taste of his shrimp stocks while increasing their mortality rate. Unlike many disappearing bivalve mollusks which have difficulty growing hard shells in acidic conditions, most crustaceans don’t have that problem. Still, ocean acidification is negatively affecting these species in other ways. Making matters worse for João is the explosion of jellyfish populations which are dominating marine ecosystems and imposing additional pressures on species humans depend upon for food.
Consequently, João is considering transitioning his aquaculture operation towards other marketable products or giving it up altogether. He’s very worried about not being able to provide for his family because the future looks so bleak. Everywhere he looks, living conditions appear to be deteriorating. He’s too old to start a new career, and he doesn’t have enough money to relocate even if he could find a more promising place to migrate to.
Latisha curled-up on the floor of her son’s spare bedroom. He was at work, and she was all alone. At 70 years old, with no home of her own, no income, and suffering from numerous ailments which she can’t get medical treatment for, the once proud and respected community leader wished for a quick and painless death. For someone who had spent a lifetime helping others less fortunate than her, Latisha now felt ashamed at being so destitute and of being such a burden. She contemplated suicide, but thought it would cause even more emotional harm to her struggling family.
Just before Latisha had reached retirement age, the government had cancelled the social programs she had planned to rely upon (i.e. Social Security, and Medicare). Their excuse was that these programs had become too costly and inefficient, and that more money was needed for policing, national defense, and disaster recovery. Indeed, internal unrest, external threats, and a myriad of climate catastrophes were straining the capacity of government to cope with these existential problems. Street crime was out of control, migratory pressures were overwhelming border security, military conflicts – both large and small – were omnipresent, and extreme weather events had become routine occurrences. Latisha’s North Miami home in Florida, which she had inherited from her parents, was finally inundated by rising sea levels. Three years ago, authorities declared that area as an “evacuation zone” and ordered all residents to immediately move.
Prancer, Latisha’s little brown poodle, pushed open the door and walked into the room. He paused for a moment and studied her. She was crying and shivering. He licked her face and snuggled close to her chest. A strong gust of wind blew the window blinds into a contorted mess. The sky darkened. Another storm was brewing.