Eleven years ago, I published Soft Apocalypse, a novel about a group of twenty-somethings trying to survive the long, slow collapse of civilization. They don’t realize that civilization is collapsing until halfway through the book, because it’s happening so slowly. They’re convinced it’s just a bad time that’s going to turn around.
The characters are not survivor-types with stockpiles of food and experience handling weapons. They’re just regular people, and early on—before they realize civilization is collapsing—they still care about things like makeup and mouthwash.
A lot of things are going wrong in their world. Viruses run rampant, climate change and overpopulation lead to starvation in parts of the world, resulting in wars and refugees flooding into various countries.
I added some less mundane elements to make the story more interesting, including an engineered virus that puts people on a permanent LSD trip and renders them nonviolent, and a virulent strain of bamboo that chokes out huge swaths of land to slow armed conflicts. These weren’t meant to be specific predictions as much as an acknowledgment that if civilization were collapsing, things would probably get weird.
And then Covid arrived. It’s probably not a human-engineered virus like the ones in Soft Apocalypse, but it provided a glimpse into how the modern world reacts when a worldwide catastrophe occurs.
To be honest, when I wrote Soft Apocalypse, I didn’t think the odds were high that we’d really reach such a dire point. I wrote it as a thought experiment. Back then, I honestly felt optimistic about the future. After Covid, combined with a decade to observe the world’s reaction to the growing threat of climate change, I no longer feel at all optimistic.
What I learned from the pandemic is that a lot of people don’t care as much about reality as I had thought. To be fair, there are powerful media forces perverting facts and fermenting hatred for their own reasons, but right now I’m not concerned about where to fix the blame. What’s important is that thirty percent of the U.S. population refuses to be vaccinated against a virus that could potentially kill them, and will surely kill others if they’re available as conduits. Rumors run rampant about the supposed danger of these vaccines, and evidently those rumors are held as more valid than data provided by the world’s scientific and medical communities, and the sheer fact that the billions who have received the vaccine are overwhelmingly fine. I honestly thought when it came down to flat-out life and death delivered from an utterly apolitical source, a good ninety-eight percent of the population would be on the same page. For me, learning the truth was like a bucket of ice water in the face.
There were hints leading up to the pandemic. In 2014-15, I wrote a novel titled The Future Will Be B.S. Free, about a group of teens who invent a foolproof, portable lie-detector, and the corrupt President who tries to stop them from releasing it to the public. When it was released in 2018, a writing friend pointed out that reality had already rendered the book fatally flawed. Donald Trump’s Presidency had made it clear that many people will simply deny incontrovertible, easily proven facts. Last summer, I overheard a woman in our neighborhood pool explaining to a friend that the world is flat, that the government is just telling us it’s round so NASA can get funding. One way you can tell the world is flat, according to my neighbor, is that if you jump in the air, you land in the same spot. If the Earth were a sphere rotating at a rapid rate, you would land in a different spot. Seriously, I actually heard this from one of my neighbors.
I didn’t include much about government and politics in Soft Apocalypse. In the book, the government is fractured and almost powerless. The main force driving the apocalypse is chaos. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. Some politicians (and the media outlets that serve them) will help (are currently helping) the apocalypse along, and their supporters cheer. The problem, as others have pointed out, is that most of the people attracted to political power are narcissistic, and some are likely sociopaths. They’re also mostly quite old, so a slow-forming apocalypse doesn’t concern them, because they won’t be around when it happens.
The “heroes” in Soft Apocalypse are scientists, and I stand by that assessment. If the future doesn’t include a massive die-off, it will be scientists who save us. I continue to be stunned by just how effectively science and medicine have assessed and tackled this pandemic. A vaccine was developed in less than a year! And many versions of the vaccine are incredibly effective to boot! It’s remarkable. If only enough people would listen to them.
I should qualify that I don’t think all life on the planet is going to die out, or even most. A lot of people (and other living creatures) survive in Soft Apocalypse. But I now believe billions of people will die due to apocalyptic factors by the end of this century. As is usually the case, they will likely primarily be people who are poor, and who live in developing nations. You know, the ones who overwhelming have not had access to those wonderful vaccines I mentioned.
For most scientists, the coin of the realm is to be accurate, to discover something new about reality. So, when scientists in a certain field are almost unanimously shouting the same thing, I listen, because they’re usually correct. Not 100% of the time. Sometimes scientists get it wrong, even if most of them are saying the same thing. But they get it wrong way less often than politicians, or people with opinion shows on news channels, or the average dude on the street. What they’re saying right now, and what they’ve been screaming from the rooftops for decades, is that there’s a shit storm coming. They’re saying, You know the pandemic we’re going through? You think that’s bad? Just wait.
And we’re essentially doing nothing. Various nations have plans to cut carbon emissions to zero by 2035, or 2050, or 2060, yet they’re not cutting them at all right now.
I remember learning about climate change as a theory in my seventh-grade biology class in the late 70s. Since then, pretty much everything has unfolded just as climate scientists have predicted. When someone says, “Here’s what’s going to happen,” and then that’s exactly what happens, those are the people I’m going to listen to, not the ones making up explanations after the fact.
This is a bleak assessment, I know, but this is what I see coming. I hope I’m dead wrong.