We live in consequential times. “What we do over the next 10 years will determine the future of humanity for the next 10,000 years”, is how former UK chief scientific advisor Prof David King put it recently.
There is no shortage of scientific evidence presaging the grim price our civilisation will pay for failing to prevent climate breakdown while in the process inflicting near-fatal damage on the natural world. What is however most striking in 2019 is just how rapidly the climate system is unravelling. For instance, scientists had not expected the permafrost within the Canadian Arctic to begin melting at depth until the 2090s. Instead, it is happening on a wide scale right now, 70 years ahead of schedule.
The scorching European double-heatwave of June and July saw all-time heat records smashed right across the continent, with temperatures approaching 35ºC within the Arctic Circle in northern Finland. Both these heatwave are considered to be once-in-500-year events, yet six such episodes have now occurred in Europe since 2003.
Nor is this restricted to Europe. Heat records have been smashed this year from Australia and the continental US to the Philippines and across the Middle East, while much of India has suffered with temperatures above 50ºC. Meanwhile, millions of acres of boreal forests from Alaska to Siberia are burning out of control.
All this climate disruption, keep in mind, is already occurring at just over 1ºC above pre-industrial temperatures. On current trajectory, Earth will be committed to 1.5ºC within little over a decade, with the spectre of a calamitous 2ºC global average temperature rise almost within touching distance after that.
The scale and urgency of the swingeing changes required to avoid disaster may, from the narrow standpoint of the present, seem all-but-impossible. However, hindsight can offer another perspective. With that in mind, suspend your disbelief for a moment and join me in a ‘Letter from 2029’.
“IT’S HARD to believe that barely a decade has passed since the Irish parliament declared a climate emergency in early 2019. Looking back at the footage of that fateful night, what is most striking is the almost empty Dáil chamber, with just six TDs present.
For a year or so after that, all that really changed was the rhetoric. Yet, by the end of the decade, Ireland has been transformed economically, politically and socially in ways we could have scarcely imagined back then.
After three years of relentless summer heatwaves in Europe and beyond, the wild winter of 2021 brought several months of devastating flooding across much of the northern hemisphere. No sooner had the flood waters began to recede than an intense drought, lasting nearly 10 months, took hold. The cruel summer of 2022 changed everything. For the first time since the 1940s, food shortages and fuel rationing were everyday facts of life for Europeans as agricultural output plunged, international trade faltered and prices rose sharply.
In Ireland, at the very end of international supply lines, real hunger was a fact of daily life, as supermarket shelves and filling stations remained empty for days and weeks at a time. The public mood wavered between anxiety and outright panic as politicians and authorities struggled to retain control and populists tried unsuccessfully to take advantage of the disruption.
“All them things that seemed so important, well, mister, they vanished right into the air”, went the old Springsteen tune, and so it was with life in Ireland. In just a handful of years we got back to basics, by necessity, not choice.
In early 2022, the new all-party Emergency Government set up the Department of Food and Energy Security. Since the top national priority was actually feeding people, the amount of land under tillage and horticulture increased sharply. Local food co-operatives and allotments sprang up all over the country and gardens became vegetable patches. The government sequestered vacant land to be made available for food production at a nominal cost.
With beef a luxury well beyond the reach of most, and foreign animal feeds too expensive to import, the national herd shrank by around 90 per cent. It turned out we also got by with a lot less dairying, as this was now focused on domestic needs rather than powered milk for export.
This shift meant huge amounts of land was freed for horticulture, permaculture, wind farms, agroforestry and rewilding projects. The difficulty and expense of importing chemical pesticides and herbicides as well as artificial fertilizers meant they were largely eliminated over the last decade, as farmers re-learned their grandparents’ skills in working with, rather than against, nature.
By the end of the decade, the Census recorded some 480,000 people who identified as being in farming full time, while upwards of two million were involved on a near-daily basis in growing food in their back gardens or local plots.
In a symbolic move, president Higgins and his wife Sabena converted the front lawn at Áras an Uachtaráin into an allotment, echoing the Victory Garden planted by Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn in 1943.
By the late 2020s, the private car had become largely a thing of the past. Back in 2019, the government boasted about having a million electric vehicles on the road by now. That of course was a pipe dream. New combustion engines were banned in 2024, and as liquid fuels became ever more expensive, the cash-strapped public finally gave up on owning their own car.
The government had anticipated this, and a five-fold expansion of the public transport network based on a fleet of electric buses and more on-street light rail was able to meet most people’s needs. And, as cars disappeared from the roads, bicycles and cargo bikes, proliferated.
There was no need for expensive cycling infrastructure after all, now that the roads were largely emptied of traffic. Local shops sprang up and town and village centres were rejuvenated. The big losers were the mega shopping centres; by 2029 our towns and cities began to resemble the simpler, more austere 1950s or 60s.
Ireland now imports a lot less energy. The national retrofit programme is still ongoing; the money we once spent on imported fuels is now funding jobs in every community, and state companies like Bord Na Móna and Coillte are now employing more people than ever in their new sustainable enterprises.
Today, four in five children are either cycling or taking the bus to school. Rural electric car pooling supplements the public transport network and has proved both cheap and popular. Reversing decades of rural decline, many families are now choosing to move to the countryside and live simpler, physically more demanding but also more food-secure lives.
Dutch experts were brought in to help oversee the construction of thousands of new glasshouses, many fitted with solar panels and irrigation systems. These buffer farmers against ever more extreme and unpredictable weather conditions, and have greatly extended the growing season.
Unlike in 2019, we are now basically food-secure as an island. We export our considerable surplus, mostly to the UK, and the prices are better now that food is once again truly valued.
International air travel is strictly rationed, as is online shopping, but nobody seems too bothered. Overall tourist numbers have tumbled, but people holiday at home and use the internet to keep in touch with the wider world.
So, is the Ireland of 2029 a better or worse place? Economists will tell you we’re a lot poorer. Hundreds of thousands of jobs, many in the multinational sector, simply vaporised as global trade contracted. But, while we have far less cash, we now choose to buy a lot less, and mostly repair, share and re-use what we have. Consumerism is dead, but few mourn its passing.
Ireland is no Utopia but our social capital has grown as our funds have diminished. We’re also a good deal leaner and fitter than 10 years ago; we’ve lost an average of 12kg each during the decade. Growing food is hard work, but it’s better than going hungry.
Many of the teenagers who took to the streets for the 2019 ‘school strikes’ are today’s new wave of community and political leaders. In the media and public service, much of the Old Guard have since retired, clearing space for radical new thinking to confront the escalating challenges of our climate-changed world.
We now understand why they say that civilisation is just three meals deep. We are also relearning what it means to be human and to co-exist with nature as we face into the Long Emergency.
- This article was first published in the August 2019 edition of ‘Village‘ magazine.