The unbearable lightness of being
Right. Let’s just rip off the plaster and get past this awkward moment. It’s been a year since the Mail & Guardian stopped reporting on the end of the world. In that time, the Western Cape drought was survived and no new environmental disasters unfolded (if you ignore the sewage running into rivers and the other stuff that happens all the time to make life horrible for much of South Africa’s population).
But we owe you an apology if we created the illusion that there is some hope for our collective survival. The M&G has failed you. Mea culpa. Normal service will be resumed.
So, El Niño. That ended well last time, when the Pacific Ocean warmed up and the Highveld dragged itself through a multiyear drought. The maize crop halved and we had to rely on imports to keep feeding the country. Cattle died in their thousands. Small farmers were wiped out. Large farmers took out huge amounts of debt and tested the pockets of their expensive insurance.
South Africa’s resilience — its ability to respond to, and survive, disaster — was cruelly exposed. Although, to be fair, the authorities tasked with running the country were focused on the economic opportunities that came with running the country.
We didn’t learn much. Which will be a problem when El Niño rocks up again this summer, and when the years to 2020 are all projected to set heat records. For the rest of this century, temperatures will continue to climb and things like El Niño will move from once a century — or once a decade — to the way things are all the time. That’s climate change for you; relentless and real.
But this isn’t a story about a single weather phenomenon or the changing climate. And, I’ve made a resolution to do more cheerful reporting. It’s a thought I scrawled in notebooks several times over the past year.
It’s week one back and I have to deliver on this promise, lest I never achieve it. I’ll get there. But before I do, let me quickly run through all the not-so-cheerful stuff. Then I can dive right into happy, fluffy things that can be squeezed and that taste sweet.
We live in the most unequal moment in human history. A few hundred thousand people own the world. They know they can gamble and break the world economy, and we’ll come along and bail them out. We give them all our thoughts on social media platforms, and their surveillance networks pick up everything else, so they know who is agitating against their absolute domination of our world.
Anyone causing a problem has to contend with a militarised police force and an industrial prison system that doesn’t care about rehabilitation. Any chance that humans inside these forces and systems might object to crushing resistance is being handled, with robots and drones taking over.
These do what coders tell them to do. Those coders get plucked up from your normal human community and dropped in designer cities, where the poor are gentrified out of sight. That eliminates the risk of empathy.
Getting robots to do everything is a no-brainer. Humans are an annoying workforce. They want leave and they cling to their futile hopes and dreams. Their only positive attribute is that they take all their money and spend it on your products. But if you replaced them with robots, they could do all the spending.
Any attempts to slow down this robot-replacement thing are shut down, because the rich own our political system. Democracy is a handy illusion to give us hope that we could one day be in charge of our collective futures. Debt is an even better tool. We don’t protest because debt forces us to keep mucking about for money, so we can feed our families and pay to live in cities owned by the rich.
But even this is a short-term thing. The rich project is to avoid paying tax, while putting politicians in place who will strip the state of all its capability. This means that as the effects of climate change continue to make life difficult — by changing rainfall patterns, planting seasons and all the things we rely on for life — so our ability to survive them will weaken.
By the time we wake up and go for a revolution — by sticking a gun to the collective heads of the rich — they will have achieved their dream of being hermetically sealed off from us. The 0.1% of the 1% (pity the less-rich 0.9% of the 1%) will be living on some space station or on another planet. Why do you think billionaires are investing in healthcare (to live forever) and in rockets (to get away from here)?
That will leave us with a broken planet, and robots roboting about to send resources to the off-world dwellers. Those robots will follow the logic of their programming. So, the robot tasked with maximising potato production for Mars will get rid of people who insist on stealing potatoes to feed their families.
Logically, it will then get rid of the people that created these people.
And that will be that: no more humans on Earth. And 10-billion corpses to fertilise the fields of potatoes that will cover our former home.
Reasons to be cheerful? Let’s try again next week.