Creative writing by Steve -- Intro and post by John
I have an old copy of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, a science fiction novel published in 1887. Using the literary device of having the central character fall into a Rip Van Winkle type sleep until waking up in the year 2000, he describes what the country and the world could be like in a Socialist utopia. The vision looks quaint to us as we actually can look backward, but the author's imagination is not far off predicting many developments long before they came into existence, including credit cards, artificial light and even shopping malls. The book is accessible at the Guttenberg Project. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 10.
"Here we are at the store of our ward," said Edith, as we turned in at the great portal of one of the magnificent public buildings I had observed in my morning walk. There was nothing in the exterior aspect of the edifice to suggest a store to a representative of the nineteenth century. There was no display of goods in the great windows, or any device to advertise wares, or attract custom. Nor was there any sort of sign or legend on the front of the building to indicate the character of the business carried on there; but instead, above the portal, standing out from the front of the building, a majestic life-size group of statuary, the central figure of which was a female ideal of Plenty, with her cornucopia. Judging from the composition of the throng passing in and out, about the same proportion of the sexes among shoppers obtained as in the nineteenth century. As we entered, Edith said that there was one of these great distributing establishments in each ward of the city, so that no residence was more than five or ten minutes' walk from one of them. It was the first interior of a twentieth-century public building that I had ever beheld, and the spectacle naturally impressed me deeply. I was in a vast hall full of light, received not alone from the windows on all sides, but from the dome, the point of which was a hundred feet above. Beneath it, in the centre of the hall, a magnificent fountain played, cooling the atmosphere to a delicious freshness with its spray. The walls and ceiling were frescoed in mellow tints, calculated to soften without absorbing the light which flooded the interior. Around the fountain was a space occupied with chairs and sofas, on which many persons were seated conversing. Legends on the walls all about the hall indicated to what classes of commodities the counters below were devoted. Edith directed her steps towards one of these, where samples of muslin of a bewildering variety were displayed, and proceeded to inspect them.
The author had no way of knowing that in our capitalist version of shopping malls anchor stores would be attracted by developers by years of free rent with the smaller merchants along the main concourse paying very high rents per square foot and shouldering the lion's share of common area charges for expensive plants, fountains and security. So much for Socialist utopias. But the prescient vision of Edward Bellamy was remarkably accurate in many ways.
Steve Hynd, our host here at Newshoggers, is something of a latter-day Edward Bellamy. A few readers have noted his absence lately, but he has not been idle. In the historic tradition of predicting the future by looking backward, he has produced An Overview of the Collapse. Unfortunately, current trends point more to a future dystopia than any utopia. Here is a description from Edgerunners, a GURPS creation from today's world of games creation, science fiction and the predictive imagination.
Impending world economic collapse brought on by greedy corporate fat-cats who it seems will never see the inside of a jail no matter what they do. Impending societal collapse catalyzed by that economic breakdown and only to be worsened by increasing global climate change, which will cause war, famine and disease on a truly global scale. Superpowers that aren�t super at anything anymore except bombing brown people and warrantless watching of their own citizens, run by politicians that in any case are all in the pockets of those corporate financiers.
The majority of people now earning below the �average� wage, which is only average because the billionaires skew the statistics � worldwide, that 1% own 99% of everything. Peak �cheap� oil heralding the end of the capitalist lifestyle for the 99% who own only 1% of the wealth, but the fat cats still want to wring the last red cent out of an obscelecent energy policy. Riots and revolutions by the disenfranchised, the disenchanted, against the elite � everywhere from Cairo to New York.
Sound familiar? It should. That�s the modern age, but it�s also pure cyberpunk. It�s as if the 1980s pioneers of the genre got the motifs right, but were off on the timeline by about thirty years.
That�s the starting point for this new imagining of cyberpunk for the GURPS 4th edition rules. In this dystopic setting Japan and Europe are just as much in the hole as America, cellphones aren�t the size of house bricks and the Net is for everyone. But other than that, this dystopic future looks a lot like the one imagined by the likes of Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson. Some inner city areas are combat zones filled with crime and poverty, the corporate elite rule the world from their glittering towers, and the foolish or brave few try to change their lives or the course of history. We�ll call those few Edgerunners.
The Corporations control the world from their skyscrapers, enforcing their rule with private cyborg assassins and insider deals at every level for politicos and police. The world economy has crumbled while global warming and environmental pollution have made many places, including large chunks of America, uninhabitable. On the streets, Boostergangs roam a shattered urban wilderness, killing and looting. In the hottest clubs and sleaziest bars it�s a perpetual party, as fashion-model beautiful techies rub biosculpt jobs with battle armoured roadwarriors. The Future never looked so bad.
An Overview Of The Collapse
1. Economic Collapse
First, the world�s economy had been crippled by debt, created in the great credit default and property bubble scams that made a few very rich at the expense of a very great many. The first ripple of the economy�s cratering was the Depression from 2008 to 2012, which turned into the Double Dip of 2013-2014 as frantic state governments spent trillions to bail out banks they were told (by bankers) were too big to fail and tried to cope with crippling national debts brought about by short-term, big-spender thinking from spendthrift politicians who refused to tax the rich elite bankrolling their election campaigns and dictatorships. Most nations installed harsh austerity measures that further depressed growth and discouraged corporate capital spending at the very time they finally should have been running up debts for stimulus measures. In this, again, they were encouraged and cajoled and even threatened by bankers who sat on each others boards and owned each others shares. A cynic might have seen a scam in all that, one designed to benefit only the financiers, but politicians who had been bought and sold certainly didn�t.
By late 2016 world debt totalled over U.S.$50 Trillion with no nation in the black. States which had staved off defaulting on their debts through massive new loans from other nations and international banks reached their last gasp. The domino topple of defaults began in Southern Europe and in over-leveraged Mid-East states like Dubai, but quickly spread as each default made financial markets ever more risk-averse, calling in loans and threatening nations who wouldn�t consider even more austerity in the face of angry populations. Illinois was the first U.S. State to go broke, then California. By then, Argentina, Italy, Pakistan and several other nations had also defaulted. The European Currency agreement broke under the strain � Germany leading the way out � and worldwide, stock markets crashed in response. The so-called Christmas Crash of 2016 was the last death-knell of the post-WW2 world economic system. Billions lost life savings, jobs, everything. Governments world wide found they could no longer afford both military and welfare spending � and chose to keep their militaries and national security apparatus as their only remaining claim to legitimacy of power.
In the aftermath, the select list of the world�s richest companies � who had all remained suspiciously cash-rich through all this � embarked on a massive program of acquisitions and mergers and emerged even stronger and more consolidated in the hands of an ultra-elite of the mega-rich. In 2011, a �super-entity� of 147 tightly knit companies � all of their ownership was held by other members of the super-entity � controlled 40 per cent of the world�s total wealth. By 2020, a group of five corporate entities, all financial houses, formed a �Hub� of mutual ownership that also owned 100% the score or so largest of the world�s merged corporations. These scant two dozen corporate entities controlled 60% of the world�s wealth between them. The age of the Megacorps had arrived.
2. Climate Upheaval
In 2011, climate scientists were broadly agreed that the world had blown right through the emissions levels needed for serious climate change. A position paper by the influential CNAS think-tank proved glumly prophetic for the next forty years.
�In the case of severe climate change � nations around the world will be overwhelmed by the scale of change and pernicious challenges, such as pandemic disease. The internal cohesion of nations will be under great stress, including in the United States� The flooding of coastal communities around the world has the potential to challenge regional and even national identities. Armed conflict between nations over resources� is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervor to outright chaos.� The Age of Consequences, CNAS, 2007
By 2050, mean sea levels worldwide have risen by over half a meter and every year it gets worse. Scientists agree that the North and South ice sheets have become wildly unstable and expect sea rises of up to six meters over the next century and a half. Bangladesh is mostly gone. The Low Countries of Europe and the Norfolk region of the UK are partly inundated, and fighting a rearguard action to save what is left. In the U.S., New Orleans and Houston were turned into permanent Venices by hurricane tide surges and Galveston, Texas has been evacuated � abandoned to the Gulf�s advance. It�s by no means alone � across the globe, smaller towns and villages are likewise flooded and abandoned. In the temperate regions precipitation falls far more frequently and heavily, up 20% since 2010: storms that were �once in a hundred year� occurrences are now expected to happen twice or more a decade. Worldwide weather patterns have become more energetic: hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes are both more common and more powerful.
The Arctic is ice free for half the year and the Northwest Channel can be kept open by nuclear-powered icebreakers even in Winter � much to Canada and other Northern nation�s benefits. With the U.S. too weakened to enforce freedom of the seas, these nations charge shipping a toll to pass through their territorial waters, routes which cleanly bypass the Suez and Panama canals for First World imports and have made those engineering marvels obsolescent. Both the Arctic and Antarctic circles are being exploited for their great mineral wealth, previously inaccessible, and several nations are greedily eyeing the Antarctic mainland, where grass now survives even through the Winter months.
Some areas have too little water, however. In the dry tropics and sub-tropics, severe water scarcity affects 2 billion people worldwide. The Middle East in particular has seen water wars help fuel its meltdown into two decades of war, while the Amazon rainforest has shrunk by over a third, leaving flatlands ideal for corporate farming methods. The Indian Ganges river is dry, the Nile and the Euphrates nowadays fail to reach the sea � all the water is sucked up before they ever reach their now-salty deltas. Australia is an arid nightmare, with a fringe of civilization clinging to a narrow coastal band.
In the U.S., the dustbowl is back with a vengeance � much of the American Southwest and is uninhabitable without expensive piped-in water. Ghost towns proliferate by their hundreds, making the entire center third of the U.S.A. an arid wasteland punctuated by wandering bands of nomad migrants and cities hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Wildfires devestate millions of acres every year. In the Midwest, massive corporate agrifarms are sucking up water for irrigation, and the Ogallala Aquifer, on which the entire region depends for water, is nearing total depletion. Worldwide, over 60% of the world�s previously most productive farmland is nonviable.
Ocean currents have changed too. The Gulf Stream died in 2027, other currents have shifted or died too. Monsoon patterns are increasingly erratic and fish populations, already suffering from heavy over-exploitation, have nose-dived. Jellyfish, being luckily well adapted to the more acidic and warmer world�s oceans, proliferate like bacteria in a petri dish. All the coral reefs have died, part of a massive and world-wide species die-off which has seen 60% of the world�s bio-diversity sink into extinction in the past 40 years.
Pandemic disease, famine and war have stalked the world for over two decades, bringing with them the fourth Horseman, Death. Over a billion and a half are estimated to have died, bringing the world�s population back to around 8 billion, just as it was in the third decade of the century. Another billion, at least, are homeless refugees and wanderers. The Middle East, Asia and Africa have seen the bulk of those fatalities, but by no means all. In the U.S., where FEMA and ICE largely died with the Christmas Crash, the various causes of the collapse are estimated to have killed 50 million and another 60 million are �displaced persons�. Like every other nation, the U.S. response has been to tighten its grip on what it can still control � leading to Emergency Powers declarations, martial law, more control handed to the Megacorps and more resentment.
3. The Collapse
�We can evade reality, but we cannot evade the consequences of evading reality.� Ayn Rand
�I�d put my money on the sun and solar energy. What a source of power! I hope we don�t have to wait until oil and coal run out before we tackle that.� Thomas Edison, 1931
The second half of the 20th century saw amazing economic and technological growth, literally fuelled by the access to cheap energy and transportation afforded by oil. But oil was always a finite resource, so what was going to happen to that growth when the oil began to run out? Experts had been warning for some years that �peak oil�, the point at which more than half of all oil reserves would have been extracted, would be reached sometime around 2010. Other experts, usually employed by big oil companies, countered that new techniques for drilling and new oil field discoveries could push �peak oil� out, perhaps as far as 2030.
As it turned out, the truth lay almost exactly between those extremes. In 2011, the world was consuming 89 million barrels per day, by 2030 that was 105 million. The difference amounted to 5 new Saudi Arabias. While such reserves existed, notably in tar sand deposits and processing natural gas into fuel, production from unconventional oil fields was never able to ramp up fast enough to replace declining production at aging conventional oil fields.
Already, in 2010, analysts knew that a more important landmark had already been reached � the era of cheap oil was over. As the shortfall between production and demand grew ever larger, prices rose to and stayed at the magic figure of $90 dollars a barrel � where the price of oil for transport and energy generation is so high that it prohibits economic growth. When that harsh reality � and the reality of �peak cheap supply� in many other major resources, including tin, copper and iron � intersected with the world economic collapse of 2016 and the growing turmoil created by climate change, things got ugly quickly.ready, in 2010, analysts knew that a more important landmark had already been reached � the era of cheap oil was over. As the shortfall between production and demand grew ever larger, prices rose to and stayed at the magic figure of $90 dollars a barrel � where the price of oil for transport and energy generation is so high that it prohibits economic growth. When that harsh reality � and the reality of �peak cheap supply� in many other major resources, including tin, copper and iron � intersected with the world economic collapse of 2016 and the growing turmoil created by climate change, things got ugly quickly.
Corporations hanging on to wring the last red cent from high oil prices before changing to alternates, and hamstrung governments, failed to act anywhere near in time to head off a crisis. Nuclear power failed to deliver on many promises � safety concerns over sites following the Fukishima tsunami and meltdown of 2011, then the Indian Point, New York, earthquake and leak of 2018, meant that nuke plants never could deliver more than 2% additional energy before 2045 and the advent of fusion, exactly as M.I.T. had predicted back in 2010. Solar and other renewables didn�t see the massive investment needed util well after the effects of Peak Oil were felt, and solar in particular had to wait for the development of more efficient industrial-scale capacitors and batteries before it was a real contender.
The world�s �green revolution� agriculture model was based upon cheap transport, to move food from where it was grown to where it would be eaten, often overseas, and on cheap production of fertilizers and pesticides which were often petroleum based. The power for the pumps that moved increasing scarce freshwater to fields also too often came from oil-fired power plants. The agricultural system that had so well served the late 20th century, already under huge strains, simply failed. In the two decades to 2030, the cost of staple foodstuffs more than doubled, causing food riots and insurrection worldwide. Only post 2040 has the world�s ability to feed all of it�s 7 billion population begun to recover, with urban �vertical farming� facilities for the elite and new innovations in gene-tailored algae and soy bean texturing for the poor.
Transportation also saw a fundamental change. The Western ideal of commuting to work from the suburbs in your own car and the late 20th century corporate ideal of shipping goods produced cheaply in one place to another where they could be sold for maximum profit became far less attractive, even for the rich. Suddenly, it was more cost effective to do administration work from home � for the new, small, almost fully automated factories producing goods locally for local markets, with �just in time� delivery and minimal warehousing.
Even as alternative fuels like methane, methanol, hydrogen and electricity came online fully at last, many of those technologies also relied on oil in their manufacturing process. In the corporate-controlled zones and �burbs that were being created in the First World�s partial post-Crash recovery, mass transit was the norm rather than the exception. In the long haul transport industry, dirigibles and hybrid solar/wind powered ships, albeit hi-tech ones looking little like their predecessors, became an attractive option for some. In the U.S., the dustbowl is back with a vengeance � much of the American Southwest and is uninhabitable without expensive piped-in water. Ghost towns proliferate by their hundreds, making the entire center third of the U.S.A. an arid wasteland punctuated by wandering bands of nomad migrants and cities hanging on by the skin of their teeth. Wildfires devestate millions of acres every year. In the Midwest, massive corporate agrifarms are sucking up water for irrigation, and the Ogallala Aquifer, on which the entire region depends for water, is nearing total depletion. Worldwide, over 60% of the world�s previously most productive farmland is nonviable.
�War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.� Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler, USMC
Despite brushfire conflicts on almost every continent, the first decade and a half of the Twenty-First Century were fairly peaceful, historically speaking. Even as Americans focused on their own wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and their involvement in Libya, fewer people worldwide were dying as a result of armed conflict than during any comparative period in two hundred years. Deaths due to war were only a half the rate in the nineties, and a third that of the Cold War years, mostly because the kind of guerilla wars being fought were nasty, but weren�t between equally-matched and massive mechanized armies. If the world felt more violent, it was because there was more information about wars � not more wars themselves. Once-remote battles and war crimes now made it onto TV and computer screens, and in more or less real time.
The decline in wartime deaths, and a general decline in the number of conflicts being fought, gave rise to the thought among some observers that perhaps world peace wasn�t all that far away after all. Even the decline in influence of the world�s policeman, America, wasn�t expected to change trends greatly, with one expert writing in 2011: �The best precedent for today�s emerging world order may be the 19th-century Concert of Europe, a collaboration of great powers that largely maintained the peace for a century until its breakdown and the bloodbath of World War I.�
Unfortunately, that great power collaboration never had a chance to coalesce. With the economic crash in 2016, the West was bankrupt. The U.S., already less co-operative in foreign policy than it had been since before World War Two, could either fund its military might or all its other federal obligations � not both. With massive domestic unrest fuelled by the economic crisis and turmoil abroad fed by peak cheap oil and the beginnings of climate catastrophe, it chose to fund the legitimacy of military power at home and abroad. The UN was cut off and collapsed, as did other international bodies and several major humanitarian charities. There was no money for the kind of Peace Corps operations that won hearts and minds and could have headed off some of the worst, nor was there federal money for domestic security and law enforcement, or for the over-burdened welfare system.
At home troops were increasingly seen on the streets doing riot suppression and disaster management, abroad the military concentrated on rapid strike and power-projection capabilities. Other nations followed suit, though none could match the U.S., which by now was spending well over half of the world�s total defense budget. Suddenly, the military was government�s only tool in the toolbox, and when all you have is a hammer�
The catalyst was, as ever, the Middle East � to be specific, Iran. The Islamic Republic announced in 2014 that it had achieved a �virtual deterrent� � the same capability as Japan or Belgium to construct a nuclear weapon rapidly in response to an attack. The West and Israel had been muttering about attacking that nuclear program for over a decade, with never any action taken because Iran always carefully stayed below the threshold of causing outright public alarm. Now, however, any Western attack would be met by a nuclear response. Like Pakistan and North Korea, Iran had moved into new geopolitical territory and the new Grand Ayatollah, an Iraqi brought up in Iran who had swiftly moved to unify Shiite Islam, didn�t waste time in taking advantage of the economic crash. He used Iraq�s hoard of oil cash to fund Unification in full with Iraq in 2017, despite a Sunni insurgency, and cut the Kurdish North loose as an independent nation and a divisive thorn in Sunni sides. Then he turned to Western Afghanistan, to Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Yemen and other nations with large Shia populations, fomenting rebellions and civil war. The objective was no less than a new Safavid Empire.
While Israel sat worried on the sidelines and the West looked on from afar, the Sunni nations of the region � led by Saudi Arabia � pushed back hard. They funded insurgencies and backed incumbent rulers whenever necessary, depleting their own hoards of oil cash. Brushfire proxy wars sprang up across the region, meeting global warming and failing oil incomes head on in a recipe for geopolitical disaster. The wars escalated until, on 11th August 2020, Saudi Arabia revealed it too had nuclear capacity � by striking Tehran, Basra and Tabriz with nuke-tipped cruise missiles believed to have been bought from Pakistan. The U.S. and Europe were dragged in, all unwillingly, and the Iranian counterstrike a month later aimed at Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Muscat was intercepted by Western missile defenses. A coalition of European nations put troops into the region as peacekeepers, mostly to secure remaining oil reserves and the Suez Canal, but too late to stop Israel being largely overcome by a tide of refugees who turned that small nation into a terrorist nightmare.
To the East however, Iran�s shakeup of Shia/Sunni rivalries had even more horrific consequences. As the East rebelled against the still-shaky and notoriously corrupt Kabul government, it appealed to Pakistan for help and troops were dispatched. There was no way India was ever going to be happy about that, and several rounds of increasing rhetoric and �incidents� culminated in relations between Pakistan and India breaking down entirely by 2020. In late April of the following year, Indian intelligence captured agents from Pakistan who were reportedly planning a repeat of the 2001 attack on India�s parliament and on May 1st India launched a massive pre-emptive conventional strike across the border into Pakistani territory.
India was by now a superpower with the technology Pakistan lacked and advances were rapid. The Indian military had been re-designed across the last decade through technology-transfer deals with Russia and Europe and that paid off as pinpoint air strikes swept away much of Pakistan�s defenses � including most of its substantial nuclear force. In desperation, Pakistan used its dwindling nuclear arsenal. India lost Bangalore but Pakistan lost Faisalabad, Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi as well as most of it�s military in the field in retaliatory strikes, as the superiority of India�s homegrown anti-missile defenses became obvious. Pakistan�s long-term military ally China made a few light probes on India�s flank and rapidly transitioned to watchful non-involvement. In all, over 12 million died.
It was as if events on the sub-continent brought the world to a boil. Over the next three decades the planet saw War retake it�s place alongside Pestilence and Famine, which were riding high on climate change, as a major cause of fatalities. The Middle East has continued to be a bloodbath of Sunni-Shia feuding, with almost as much resentment and violence directed at European forces and corporate mercs in North Africa and the Suez area. Barring South Africa and Kenya, Africa is the Dark Continent again as plagues and famine have wiped out whole societies and created wars between tribes, between religions and between nations all across the continent. In the gaps created by failed states, terrorism and piracy thrive � as do corporate corruption and malfeasance. In Europe and North America, the Haves must keep the Have-Nots in place by near totalitarianism, creating police states to stop social unrest destroying the very fabric of civilization. The Militia Wars of the late 30s in the U.S. are the textbook example. The West has even seen at least one nasty and quick war which was only between corporate combatants � the infamous conflict between Armatech and LMB corporations which only ended when the U.S. government used it�s own military might on both.
Asia isn�t in any better shape. Even the two regional powers, India and China, are a mixture of grinding civil insurrection in rural areas and police state responses in urban ones. In Latin and South America, climate change had created both winners and losers. Brazil is the regional power now, while Argentina and Mexico are failed states. In fact, Mexico has become Texas� own Iraq � only this time just across the border � following the Free State�s deployment of troops there in 2024 as �advisors� to the corrupt Mexican government. Elsewhere, drug cartels, revolutions and corporations willing to pay enough in bribes carve their own little kingdoms out of what remains of the previous national structures. All across the globe, arms manufacturers and security contractors are reaping tidy profits.
In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. Dwight D. Eisenhower