From time to time many of us look around and experience a kind of dreadful Damascene moment, in which not only civilisation, but also human existence, seems preposterous in its ability to continue. We may even ask the questions: how does all of this just keep going? And how long have we got? Whenever I delve into history or read about the earth and its changing environments I find myself asking these questions.
The potential causes for a collapse of civilisation, and even for an eventual extinction of our species, are manifold. During much of my lifetime the most popular speculations for collapse have been direct impacts against the earth, or moon, from the cosmic shrapnel that is constantly hurtling through space; the self-inflicted wounds of a nuclear war were a real and present danger for decades too, and they might be planning a comeback world tour; and the consequences of endangering an ecology and instigating a pandemic seem to reappear every few years and pirouette around our panic buttons.
As a result, “the big one” followed by the terrible aftermath and the struggle of survivors to continue in some semblance of what went before, has been explored repeatedly for our grim entertainment. This storytelling also serves to endorse ideas about the resilience of the human spirit. In some fictional scenarios, we may even vicariously fantasize about joining the fight for survival, maybe growing a beard and riding in a pick-up truck with a sniper rifle. I do. But in others, like The Road, the big question becomes: would you honestly want to survive? After we’d watched that film at the cinema, my wife said “No”, and I found her candour terrifying. I insisted I’d have a go at “making it,” and still try and work out how I’d cope in the post-historical world of that novel. While doing so, I have to suppress the idea of having my limbs amputated to provide food for others, while imprisoned in a freezing cellar larder, along with some of the others who had a go at “making it”…
But do we need another alien invasion, nuclear proliferation, chain of volcanic eruptions, asteroid impact, or for the dead to rise, and rise, and then rise again? Even the worse pandemic in human history probably “only” killed one-fifth of the people who lived in a very unhygienic Europe, centuries distant from the one that injects antibiotics. What could I add to the sub-genre anyway, and is a conclusive “next big one” theme the most relevant approach in fiction, when we consider where we are, right now, in the earth’s lifespan?
In my own writing, I didn’t feel a compulsion to stretch my imagination into any of the post-apocalyptic or “the big one” directions that abound. For two reasons: I harbour a suspicion that art has made the apocalypse too existential in our imaginations. These days, can you even mention an extinction level event, or global crisis, without someone mentioning a film or a book? Perhaps that is the only tolerable way to deal with it. My second reason for taking a different path has arisen because of my incrementally expanding awareness of a potential future that has already been set up, and for a near incalculable array of catastrophes, that will occur through a vast set of variables that are hard to keep track of.
It was my own interest in earth science and human history that slowly led me through the appalling set of interlinked ideas and occurrences that amount to my current conviction that we are already collapsing.
Scientists cannot really afford to be alarmist. They are important people and are often compromised by vested interests. But I’m not important. Without any fear of crashing markets and losing funding, I can amass as many interconnected problems facing the earth as I wish, and within a single story. I can dare to endure the nightmare that civilisation is already crumbling, and that its final collapse may come far sooner and be more rapid than prevailing assumptions allow for.
So what became more interesting, compelling and urgent to me, as a writer, was this condition of pre-collapse, and the very idea that we are already deep within the foothills of the apocalypse. My preoccupation for Lost Girl became: what happens before people paint their faces, form tribes and whizz about in customized cars in the desert, or eat each other in radioactive snow? Approaching an endgame scenario season by season and year by year, as it unfolds, had a drama through inevitability, and a realism that I found far more compelling.
I researched runaway climate change harder than I’ve researched most things, and in the end it wasn’t even research: it was an appalled gaping at non-fiction books, websites, and statistics. But that wasn’t sufficient in providing the bigger picture. Not even the fact that most of the scientists involved with the IPCC agree that the planet is overheating—and that we burned too much coal and cleared to much land to graze livestock, and have changed the chemical composition of that thin film of breathable air that is our atmosphere. The interglacial period that has lasted ten thousand years was dependent upon CO2 being 280 parts per million, and that figure is a distant memory now. The consequences are inevitable for weather patterns—the wet get wetter, the hot get hotter, and that has been defined by some scientists, as a rule of thumb. We know this. It’s already happening. But that also trends into the main consideration on the subject of climate change: the changes in the weather. Will we have a good summer?
But climate change is just one factor in a vast, unpredictable, interconnected set of causes and effects. I found I couldn’t write about climate change without investigating the invisible water trade and the worsening global fresh water crisis—the two are interlinked. Aquifers are emptying, glaciers are melting too fast, rain is no longer falling on some places that were just about temperate, but is falling too hard on other places, as we know. And you cannot talk about fresh water without identifying the consequences that such shortages will inflict upon agriculture. Water shortages also turned my attention to soil erosion and soil degradation, particularly in places like Equatorial and North Africa, which feed much of the Middle East and parts of Asia.
Musings on food exports and food aid and mouths to fill then dropped me into considerations of population. As a species we are currently adding one billion new mouths to our fold every twelve years (it took twelve thousand years to create the first billion). With overpopulation added to the mix—and we are at seven billion souls now—I slowed down and thought it inadvisable to imagine a near future world with more than nine billion souls upon the planet. And that is one reason why I settled for the 2050s. If I went any further forward in time, the world of the novel would start to feel too distant again, the problems too existential again, too unimaginable… the very problem with writing about the future. But, as many current readers may still be alive in the 2050s, and their children and grandchildren will be, that period is more vivid within the image-making faculty of our minds.
So, considering there will be nine billion (plus) of us on the earth in the 2050s, can the current seven billion agree on much that affects all of us? So how will the nine billion reach a consensus in a much-changed world, in which food and fresh water availability is threatened on a planet perpetually disrupted by climate change?
The consequences of runaway climate change won’t occur separately, either—they’ll congest in the same timeframe, are connected to each other, will get progressively worse, and instigate each other and create new variables barely even imagined. For my story, the only way to encompass this was to imagine simultaneously occurring global crises, with far-reaching effects: vast forest fires across Europe amidst another heat wave (but the worst heat wave so far), and yet another one in Australia amidst another blistering heat wave down under. Meanwhile, 80% of Bangladesh has already gone underwater from risen sea levels. The Southern states of the US have run dry, agriculture there is finished. The Amazon below continually catches fire as it dries out, too. Wars have kicked off and hit dead ends over fresh water (the new oil) around the foreign farms across Africa that feed the Middle East. Add a pandemic in Asia because of the toxicity of the environment, and a second pandemic in Equatorial Africa. If an animal is cornered, endangered and frightened, it may release a virus onto something else in the food chain that is then eaten by us (Ebola and SARS are believed to have been caused in this way by bats). These were just a handful of many options that an author can choose from—a pick and mix of disasters.
I naturally imagined the refugee problems arising from any of these crises that all start to occur much closer to each other than they do in 2015, while also displacing far more people from a population of nine billion. At a postage-stamp level, four countries are currently being torn apart by wars below Europe. Nine million people have been displaced, with another three requiring humanitarian aid, from only one of these countries: Syria. The current headline is: The biggest migration of human beings since the Second World War. So my headline for the 2050s is: The biggest migration of a single species in the history of the planet, and mostly northwards. Up from Africa, up from South America, up and across from the Middle East, and from China into Russia.
And what becomes of our values, empathy, compassion, of our actual humanity in that world, a world a mere forty years distant if everything keeps going wrong at the rapid pace that I have set? The 2050s is probably a worst-case scenario, and as I have said, I chose that decade to make the future feel less speculative. But let’s say I’m being hasty in my timescale, and that I am making improbable guesses. What if the compound interest of these catastrophes is more likely to kick in during the 2070s, or in 2100? How much would it matter, those extra few decades, in the scheme of things?
My premonitions also include broad brush strokes; I haven’t even begun on economic inequality and the consequences of the needs of the few exceeding the needs of the many, a reality that gets worse in the first world, year by year…
But in my research I did learn how the past, the present, the very near future are as interconnected as the planet itself. From fresh water, to food production, to soil health, to population size, to the climate being a few degrees hotter than it should be, to 2% of the population having most of the money, to rising sea levels, to the burgeoning of organised crime, to keeping the lights on by generating enough electricity on a planet that will see the extinction of 30 – 50% of its animal and plant species by 2050… every single crisis creates a chain of consequences that feeds back into the momentum of the collapse that is already well underway.
To my mind, after the long journey taken to write Lost Girl, I came to the conclusion that the world will not end with a bang, or a whimper. It is already ending in an interconnected series of incremental crises with a cumulative effect. I may risk ire in a community of such science fictional treasures, but I’ll admit it: I cannot believe in a future of advanced physics, intergalactic travel, artificial intelligence, or any further great technological leaps. I just don’t think we’ll get that far because of… disruption. The disruption caused by too many things all going wrong at roughly the same time, across a few decades, that displace millions of people. For me, the future is horror, and that’s one of the reasons why I write horror.
And if that near future world is not bad enough, what if your four-year-old child also goes missing inside that chaos, in one of those crowds? So allow me too to just get out of the epic statistics and tell the story of a few people in that world, to make it even more pressing.
I’ve written this book because my imagination is no longer locked into the after anymore, it’s all about the just before of a future that I can no longer enjoy imagining. Nothing would delight me more than being wrong, or off by a few hundred years. But I don’t really think nitpicking about near future timescales matters that much anymore. In the news, we’re already reading the prologue of the grimmest apocalypse that any of us can imagine: a story that is no longer fiction…
Adam Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is the author of the supernatural horror novels Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16, The Ritual, Last Days, House of Small Shadows, No One Gets Out Alive and Lost Girl. In 2012 The Ritual was the winner of The August Derleth Award for Best Horror Novel, and in 2013 Last Days won the same award. The Ritual and Last Days each won the RUSA for Best in Category: Horror. You can read an excerpt from Lost Girl here.