Data Recovery Unit – Subsection Culture

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors


I have no tattoos. Life is not like a post-apocalypse Hollywood movie. This is not a world full of marauding, tech-savvy gangs with a penchant for body piercings and cannibalized vehicles.

Nor do I milk goats. I don’t live in some back-to-the-land Arcadian community of simple, smiling hard-working folk making yogurt and tending organic gardens.

I live in a monochrome world of sadness, defeat and resignation; filled with too many moments for reflection.

We accept the indefinite suspension of democracy. Those who have taken control in present circumstances could be worse. The government is tough and authoritarian, but who can blame them? Human rights don’t seem like such a priority so soon after billions have perished in The Extremes. Some claimed the right to do nothing as the elements grew fiercer. Our tired-sounding leaders do not seem overly corrupt or privileged. They are ruthless and abrupt in the pursuit of survival and recovery; in pursuit of “not letting us make the same mistakes over again.”

We do what we are told without much rancor or complaint; like a nation getting its head down and rebuilding after defeat in a war that it deserved to lose. But of course we are not a nation, we are the world, and the authorities rule across all the scarred and fragmented lands that still stick out above the water.

Funny really, but the proportion of people who have turned to God, or gods, remains about the same as before The Extremes. Believers suggest that the punishment, or the lessons from human hubris, are obvious and that God hopes we have learned to respect His creation through this mighty fall. I don’t know, but perhaps believers are comforted by the thought that God has received the billions of souls lost in our epic catastrophe. The Extremes certainly brought plagues and floods of what used to be called “biblical proportions.”

The religious and the non-religious alike blame people for the mess. In our mood of remorse, those who find no inspiration in the spiritual world are not of a mind to criticize those who find comfort in a divine gaze, a power who would hear their confession as miserable climate sinners.

Of course some wily and zealous cult leaders have set themselves up to forewarn us of the past, explaining that so many died for not following their particular rituals and strictures. But they remain small and predicable. Most of us who have lived through The Extremes might be quite docile, but we are also sharp witted.

Traumatized and chastened, we all more or less get along. The authorities squash any group that tries to stir things up. We all learned too late that pointing fingers at “others”, fanning fears and attributing blame for a worsening situation can distract humanity from the “central task.” Right now, our “central task” is the long slow road back to sustainable civilization. There is little point in disagreeing too much. There is not a lot left to squabble over.

I often wish I worked for the Flora and Fauna Recovery Department. Those people have interesting and heartening work. They scratch around for surviving beasts which could possibly mate, matching up unlikely animals from across the planet. On their travels they grab DNA samples from nearly extinct and recently-dead animals in case we ever achieve the technology for cloning animals in labs. They also carefully examine seed banks around the place to see which seeds might have survived The Extremes and might still germinate.

The least happy cohort work at the Steady State Population Group. Their job is to coerce the rest of us to breed at a steady rate: not too much reproduction, but also not too little – the Goldilocks birth rate. Their target is to work out ways to build the population gently to peak at about two billion. They are known as the “more sex police.”

I work in a Data Recovery Unit. Most parts of this unit are concerned with technology: mainly for essentials like agriculture, transport and communications. We have lost such a great amount of knowledge, and yet we know the basics about how far we got in electronics, chemicals and communication before The Extremes. The job is as much about trying to find knowledgeable people as it is about trying to find data and equipment. It will be quite a while before we restore the systems – the clean rooms, the pure materials – sufficient to begin such sophisticated microchip production and chemical manufacture again. The electronics that we now run use circuitry from before The Extremes: repaired, reused, and recycled. Gadgets from the times of mass consumption are patched and pimped. Software is hacked and cleverly adapted.

I belong to a small sub-section: Cultural Recovery. After the technical people breathe new life into old server farms and extract all the “productive information” we are sent in for the “non-essential” data that sprung to life when electricity was restored: the music, the films, the pictures, the stories.

We are allocated a little bit of storage space to ensure fewer social and cultural collections are lost, but we screen the stuff and decide what art and culture can be consigned to extinction.

Late at night, we sometimes sit around and watch movies from before The Extremes. People often bring in home-made wine and a few cold snacks to make an evening of it.

We watch movies set in vast traffic-bound cities. These usually involve heroes jumping onto aircraft to rush around the world in a carefree sort of way. Pleasure boats and jet skis skim over sunny seas. There are car races and stranger events where large vehicles are deliberately crashed in front of howling audiences. There were lots of car chases, usually ending in explosions as strange orange balls of fire roll skywards from vehicles or buildings.

Sometimes we watch earlier stuff. There are Hollywood epics in which Roman gladiators kill wild beasts, and wild beasts kill innocent Christians in amphitheaters of stone. We wonder to ourselves, “how did ordinary people feel at the time? Did they look forward to the spectacle?”

In recovered documentaries we witness real events from the past. Humans cut the tops off mountains and carried the ore away to refineries. They dammed valleys and strung the world with powerlines. They cleared land for farming with fields that stretched out of view over the horizon. Vast garbage tips called “landfills” flapped with plastic along with scavenging birds and children. We listen with respect to the warnings of experts who hold endangered baby animals in front of the camera, or take us under the sea to point at dying coral. The warnings of the documentary presenters were accurate of course – all dead now. You can see people believed these sincere commentators, but they looked round in confusion in the face of such dire predictions. They looked for leadership.

These sights diminish the beauty of the art we have also recovered. All the flowing music, vivid pictures and clever writing seems distorted somehow, because we were cutting the natural inspiration for all this creativity from under right our feet. Like noble utopian philosophies built on the shoulders of a slave society, all that blinkered artistic inspiration seems somehow tainted or escapist.

Sometimes one of us starts to cry. The forests and the seas look so beautiful. Colleagues usually encourage them to drink a bit more wine.

We survivors sit in this austere and shabby room, knowing our lives will never, should never, achieve the strange excitement of the TV heroes who raced through city streets and circled tropical islands in helicopters. That’s okay. We have the record. We can watch those times and wonder. What times those must have been. What thrills people experienced. What glittering palaces they built. What heights they scaled. What were they thinking?


John Sayer is a Director of Carbon Care Asia, a company that works to reduce carbon emissions and increase preparedness for climate change impacts in Asia. He lives, walks and writes in Hong Kong.

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