- Words by Lev Bratishenko
Timor the traffic engineer, third class, wakes up coughing. The smoke in the room is so thick he can barely see the cigarette cart nudging its way through the next row of seats. It has left samples between his fingers, a different brand wedged between each one. He picks a Zhong Nanhai and lights it. In front of him sleeping delegates are silhouetted against the lit podium. The rest of the room is a black sauna, only cigarette tips burning like fireflies. Hundreds of people are crammed into United Nations basement hall B-18, their sweating faces appearing in circles whenever somebody checks their phone. To his right, a Swedish toxicologist naps sweetly in a gas mask. It’s like Lascaux when the last handprint was painted.
Junior undersecretary for human resources, Cheekbones Argyle, is speaking. His tie is Hermès, his smile is enormous; ‘… incredible opportunity, the historic choice of humanity’s great gift to the Earth. We are at a crossroads of awareness and ability!’
Electric fans sob in the darkness. The undersecretary is undeterred. ‘Whose plan will go to the Assembly as the best of the worst?’ He winks in the direction of the Russians, then leans forward and grabs the podium with both hands. ‘Let nothing influence your objective scientific opinions. You are here to give unbiased technical input. Now before we welcome the professor back, I want to say again how sorry I am that we couldn’t get the big room. The Optimists were more numerous.
‘And let’s not forget to thank our hospitality sponsors for the smokes and the aloe tissues. Okay, professor. Come on up.’
The front row of grad students frantically applauds as Dr Trosbag Windpucker, wildlife management consultant, walks onstage. His huge hands hang by his sides as he stares into the darkness and speaks, measuring every word.
‘Dear colleagues, we already live in the most genocidal society in history, and this is our last chance to rationalise it. Our collective project began 12,000 years ago, when grain domesticated us, and today, we are in a unique position in the history of life on Earth as the first species that can both predict apocalypse and avoid it. The Human Impact Rapid Reduction project is already underway, but without our help, its disorderly deaths can only continue to reflect the injustices of life. Suffering will be distributed as equally as profits have been.
‘Consider that we have had all the tools needed to eliminate epidemic disease, hunger, and poverty for over a hundred years. We preferred not to. The issue was never capability, it was organisation. It is in our power now to create a world without pain, without want, drudgery and disease, by creating a world without people. As I wrote in if there’s one thing we have been striving for with true shared purpose as a species, if a bit unconsciously at times, it is the radical redistribution of suffering.
‘Our progress has been, frankly, astonishing: we went from flinging plague carcasses over city walls to the hydrogen bomb in only a few hundred years. We should see this unprecedented acceleration in organised destructive power as a source of comfort, not fear. We have the tools we need to achieve a permanent egalitarianism.
‘You are here as representatives of the international planning community, and you have heard from the world’s leading experts on strategic reductions of human populations. It is very easy to die, but some nations have more relevant experience than others, and we thank them for accepting our invitations.’
The room shuffles in its seats. Most delegates are here because their supervisors declined to attend a conference they would not put on a CV. And most delegates feel uneasy about the really enthusiastic speakers, but if talk in the basement is pessimistic, at least it is sober. Upstairs they have detailed and glossy schemes for colonising Mars, pumping the ground full of CO2, and building microclimatic megastructures, but here in the darkness they are thinking without pleasure or profit. Somebody has to design a way to avoid all that pain. Just in case.
Windpucker motions for the climate modelling specialist, Kiszombora Krai.
‘Thanks, Trosbag. Colleagues, hey! This will be quick, since you’ve all seen the research binder. The first thing to understand is that this crisis doesn’t have a before and an after, like a car crash. It’s more like choking a little bit more every day. We have to leave the problem of determining when it began to future archaeologists, if there are any. Our challenge is to make accurate predictions now. So here are some numbers: 85 per cent of our carbon emissions, as a species, have been made since World War Two. Half since 1992. The thawing Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 billion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as in the atmosphere today. Then, the ice caps: because white ice reflects light, just the melting of the ice caps will have the same heating effect as the last 25 years of emissions. So, even if the targets of the Paris Accords are met, we still expect 4 degrees of warming, which is a green Sahara and an 80 metre sea level rise.’
She clicks through slides, graphs that all show the same curve launching off to the right.
‘At 3 degrees we enter a global food deficit. That’s total calories, but the protein, calcium, and iron content of food crops has already declined by a third since 1950. Four degrees of warming will produce double the economic impact of the Great Depression, which led to a world war, and remember, these new resource reductions will be permanent. We know that air pollution and heat correlate to violent crime, so every half degree of warming is predicted to increase the risk of armed conflict by 15 per cent. By 2030, global water demand will exceed supply by 40 per cent. At 7 degrees, daily life will include temperatures that we are not evolved for, at which we literally cook ourselves to death sitting in the shade. At 8 degrees a third of the planet becomes uninhabitable from heat. We estimate a billion additional migrants by 2050, which will be like everyone in North and South America looking for another country to live in. Our latest models predict a tipping point for condensation: clouds could disappear. If that happens, we predict warming of 12 degrees.
‘Avoiding all this is possible and I guess that’s what they’re talking about upstairs. We would have to reduce emissions by half in 12 years and completely decarbonise in 30. Implementing negative emissions technology at the necessary scale would use a third of all arable land, and it would be the greatest transformation in human history because it would be cumulative: we have to remake the agricultural, urban, industrial and computer revolutions, all their infrastructures and supply chains. We have three decades to do it. At the current pace we will finish in 400 years.’
Windpucker takes back the microphone.
‘Thank you, Dr Krai, for putting our project in perspective. Even scientists can forget to think of ourselves as subject to the natural laws we discover. And yet, here we are, part of the history of nature again. Now let us run into her indifferent embrace.
‘Climate change is total, as total as our environment, as total as modernity was. We all learn about the evil camps that were built to exterminate millions, but their guards went home at night. Today we are all inside a camp and we are still, at this very moment, building it together. We are its guards and its prisoners. The barbed wire does not run along the walls, it runs through our guts like roots.’
Windpucker’s voice trembles with emotion, though Timor can’t identify which emotion.
‘We are not the first civilisation to see this coming, but we are the first ones to be right. History is littered with apocalyptic binaries that implied people would come to their senses and in enough time: architecture or revolution; socialism or barbarism; anarchism or extinction. What if we don’t? Nobody deserves an accidental apocalypse, and no species has ever faced such a menu of ends. But without careful intervention the human impact reduction of climate change will fall on those who have contributed the least to its cause. This is wrong. Shouldn’t the most guilty die first? Shouldn’t the least guilty at least die pleasantly? The dinosaurs had no say when the asteroid arrived. Cyanobacteria’s own life processes produced the waste oxygen that suffocated most of them. The Neanderthals could not calculate the beginning of the Little Ice Age – they just froze to death, ignorant and afraid. We alone have both the foresight to anticipate unacceptable suffering and the organisational and technical capacity to avoid it.’
The undersecretary emerges from the smoke, smooths his hair and recites the competition design brief.
‘Before the teams come up and give their summary pitches, I want to remind everyone of the criteria developed by the UN Wellness Institute. A really good death is physically pleasant – that means as painless and as instantaneous as possible – and globally 100 per cent effective. However, since the alternative is a century-long descent into suffering from malnutrition and preventable diseases, with escalating violence, our minimum solution has to outperform this baseline: four generations of radical material simplification. Of course, the best solution will also be fun and briefly create a tremendous sense of community.’
Social modelling indicates a 78 per cent chance of cultural and religious exuberance. Like Woodstock, with 100 per cent mortality.
‘The most basic solidarity is the solidarity of pain,’ calls Windpucker, from outside the spotlight.
The French go first. Dark circles under the major’s eyes can’t diminish an impression of barely controlled vitality. Here is somebody who gets things done. He presents a biochemical castration agent. Total elimination: six months after introduction to the water supply. ‘Our completely ethical testing shows that the necessary exposure is very low, so an aerosol vector is possible.’ The major stresses the strategic advantage to this, given the recent droughts. He adds that exposed individuals get depressed, but this should not be the case if all individuals on Earth were equally exposed. ‘Social modelling indicates a 78 per cent chance of cultural and religious exuberance. Like Woodstock, with 100 per cent mortality.’
A tailored Swiss executive steps up: ‘Excuse me, our time began three minutes ago.’ The major nods and smiles into the gloom. ‘Thank you. The Schwarzes Loch meets all the brief’s criteria for an efficient and total conclusion to humanity. Our Large Hadron Collider has produced only tiny and unstable black holes due to self-imposed limits, since we were afraid of what might happen. But the Collider is theoretically capable of generating a singularity big enough to turn a planet inside-out after blinking into existence outside Geneva. Since tests are impossible, we can only speculate what it would feel like, but it would be the quickest of extinctions: much faster than pain signals could reach the brain.’ The room stirs at the elegance of the proposal.
‘Humanity has never invented a weapon we did not use,’ declaims the Russian senior engineer Ahuyakovich, smoking two cigarettes at the same time, and staring, Timor is certain, directly at him. ‘Coordinated global thermonuclear explosions have been in development since the mid-20th century and it is time they got their chance. Contemporary weapons are robust and precise, and produced with sustainable manufacturing processes. Charges can be shaped in orbit to produce radiation blasts in specific frequencies and create microwave conditions. The colours will be spectacular’, she says. Nuclear holocaust is available immediately, globally dispersed, and highly economical.
The Japanese assemble quickly but their video-heavy presentation crashes and has to restart several times. It is a complicated plan and Timor struggles to follow the details, which are explained through an interpreter. Many diagrams describe a civilian-led proposal to infect and take control of online domestic appliances, the Internet of Things. ‘A majority of these devices were not designed to cause harm, only frustration. But a careful tuning of Wi-Fi frequencies and power outputs has shown weaponisable potential.’
Bodies shift in discomfort at the oversight. The uneven global distribution of connected devices means an elevated risk of survival in low-tech regions.
The German representative, Morgling Von Conway, begins with a protest. ‘We are deeply uncomfortable with this entire project and I ask that this be noted.’ After it is noted in the minutes, he gives an enthusiastic presentation on German gamma ray technology. The system replicates natural phenomena caused by star deaths, quasar pulses, or what happens when matter enters black holes. ‘Our sun does occasionally emit gamma rays but we do not have time to wait for a burst of the necessary intensity and size to correctly align to the Earth. A single sufficiently powerful terrestrial device would instantly wipe out all cellular life.’ Grunts of approval sound in the room.
Team USA rolls a white plastic drum on stage, leaving a smear of glitter. ‘We’d like to thank the Sackler family for their generous support.’ Announces Dr Fomo Coumo III, as four young men in lab coats and short shorts chuck handfuls of pills from the barrel into the darkness. They clatter off sleeping heads. The fit young doctor explains how a similar compound could be delivered into the atmosphere by rocket and cover the planet in two weeks. The drug cocktail meets all design criteria, with multiple euphoric, relaxed or contemplative exits possible. ‘There are some risks in relying on distribution by wind currents,’ he adds, ‘but we have solved this problem by making the drug addictive.’
The room listens to Dr Xin Ma in impressed silence.
‘Our work is based on the mega-death incident of 2015, when 200,000 saiga antelope died in two days. We discovered that the bacteria responsible lived peacefully on the saiga’s tonsils until, for some reason, they had suddenly multiplied, moved to the liver and become fatal. So we looked for false friends already present in the human body.’ The Chinese team identified thousands of suitable bacteria and genetically modified a virus to trigger one of them. ‘Sorry about the bird flu while we figured it out.’ Activated bacteria produce designer toxins that induce a multi-day orgasm followed by a sudden and painless death. Results are so consistent that their research has shifted to increasing post-mortem decomposition rates to leave the planet ‘with a high nutrient compost layer’. Individual customisation is built-in, since the viral DNA contains multiple payloads that are selected by consuming one of three internationally available beverages: coffee, tea, water.
‘This is the friendliest option for a world of people used to selecting between competing products’, says Dr Ma. ‘They won’t have to choose between the end of the world and the end of capitalism.’
A sheaf of white voting slips falls into Timor’s lap. The undersecretary waves the green briefcase he has handcuffed to his wrist. ‘Don’t forget, the winning team gets the Last Avocado – and can do whatever they like with it.’
Windpucker takes the microphone for the last time. ‘Has anyone seen Team UK? Visa issues? Too bad. Colleagues, the window for action is closing on our plans, just as it did for plans to stabilise the climate. Panic will make coordinated action impossible and the longer we wait, the more likely we will have to consider options that today seem insane. When you vote, leave problems of politics and implementation to the Assembly and consider the situation purely as scientists and engineers. The statistics are clear: people prefer to kill themselves rather than to kill others. That is enough. Our project offers courage not hope.’
This story is taken from Gross Ideas: Tales of Tomorrow’s Architecture, a compilation of short science fiction stories exploring the economies and cities of the near future published by the Architecture Foundation and the Oslo Architecture Triennale.