October 16th, 2207. A single slug slides along a damp, rocky outcrop overlooking a grey, brown bay where one can still barely make out the grids, structured lines and order of the former metropolis. The landscape that once was western Canada is now empty and desolate. The city is gone. All the cities are gone. Abandoned, overrun, polluted. A raven circles, crafty bugger, eyeing the slug.
On the seaward side of the Rocky Mountains the changing tide of the oceans has heated the climate and the temperate rainforest that was almost entirely logged out has been replaced by a kind of jungle scrubland. Low-lying vegetation clings to the ground amid swamps cluttered with the rusted out, deteriorating remains of the last great North American cities. There is little drinkable water or arable land. Everything is still polluted.
On the eastern slope of the mountains the warm Chinook winds have given way to interminable winter. It is never warm here. This place looks even worse than the marshes where the raven and slug live. On the surface nothing is alive. The earth has been raped, utterly destroyed. Monstrous machines have turned the land inside out, leaving a toxic wasteland where nothing can grow. Only spotty patches of living soil with small shrubs and mosses persist, interspersed here and there amid the canyons of noxious muck. 
And yet, a few humans have survived, many more than one would think on lands like these. Small groups eke out a meager existence, among them the two dramatis personae who tell share their stories below. John Lark and Karen Buyer live on opposite sides of the mountain. Tonight they have both found their way into a small cave high up in the mountain. Karen stumbled upon John sitting by a small fire in the cave as she and her small band look for a warmer climate. John has been drifting through the lower elevations of the mountain on the swampy side. His memory has returned now, but he still does not remember how he made it to the cave so far up in the mountains.
K: It’s still so cold here.
J: Winter’s not through yet; it’ll warm soon enough.
K: That’s good; we’ve been looking for somewhere warmer.
K: Oh yes, ‘we’. I’ve been living with some others. But I lost them last night in the mountains. Or rather, maybe they lost me. They’ve not much use for an old woman anymore. Sad stories and bit of help around the camp don’t add up to much. And anyways what does it matter, it doesn’t look any more hospitable on this side of the mountains than on the other. It’s just not as cold. We were all really hoping for better.
J: Better? You were hoping for better? Better than what, what did you want? What are you looking for?
K: What do you mean, ‘what do we want?’ We want to survive. I’m an old woman but some of us, we, they want to make a life.
J: A life. Hmph. What for? You’ll never make a life out here; our part in life is over.
K: What do you mean ‘our part’?
J: I mean that humans, we’re done. We’ve no longer any rights to life on this earth, we really never did you know. Anyway, look at it out there. Life cannot exist with us. Have you seen this place, have you seen the swamps and the bareness that’s left out there?
K: Yes I’ve seen it. It’s worse where I’ve just come from.
J: Well then you know. We did this. I’ve heard about the pits on the other side.
K: Yes, it’s terrible. We needed what we got from there though.
J: Needed, what did we need? How can you say that, that what we needed justified ripping the earth up like that? You’ve seen it?
K: Yes I’ve seen it and I know that there’s a price to pay for the things that we need in this world. But that doesn’t matter anymore. We’ve lost everything that was worth anything in this world. We’re barely hanging on to our humanity now.
J: Humanity?! Ha!
K: You shouldn’t scoff at what keeps us above the filth and grime that was out there then and is all around us now.
J: We’re not above any of this; we’re not above it because we did it. We did this and now its time to let go of any claim we may have ever thought we had. Humanity doesn’t deserve this: not a drop of water, none of the plants. Not after what we did. We ruined any shot at ‘humanity’ we had when we destroyed all the trees and attempted to subdue mother earth. Look what happened. Look at what we did.
K: I didn’t do this. This isn’t my fault… And, wait just a minute, ‘mother earth’?, ha, like the globe was some kind of living thing with a mind of its own . Are you daft? We did all we could to stop what happened. I did what I could to stop this from happening, to perpetuate, to sustain the way of life that we had. I lost everything in the war against people like you.
J: People like me? You don’t know me old woman.
K: Oh, I know you with your ‘mother earth’ and your, ‘we don’t deserve any of this planet’. It’s people like you who ruined what little semblance of civilization, or goodness, we had left before this all ended. It was people like you who helped spread those flues from the east and supported those crazies who wanted to bring an end to humanity because “it was all too out of balance”, because we had “cut Gaia too deep” and it “was time to mend the wounds perpetrated by humanity against the earth.” I know you, they called you ‘terrorists’, ‘scoundrels’, ‘cowards’ and they were right.
J: Oh yes, people like me did help to end humanity’s terror against the planet, but it was for the better. I was young then. You were right many died for the balance to be put back. But believe you me we had no place on this earth.
K: You’re a mad man. Look at this now, people, humans, we’re all done, we’re done for. We had something good and its been smashed. All we have left is filth, and death and the end. I had a family once. They all died so soon after that first flu. Those plagues that people like you started. There’s nothing natural about sickness that kills like that, nothing natural about the violence you inflicted on me and my children.
J: What do you mean, ‘it’s not natural’? We didn’t make the flu. We may have done our best to help them spread around the globe, but that flu came from the imbalance that humanity created on this earth. Those flues, and the earthquakes, and the walls of water, and the rising tide, all of it was nature’s way of showing us how what we were doing was wrong.
K: You’re wrong, nature didn’t do that, the rising tide and those hurricanes were our own fault and we were finding ways to fix our mistakes. My husband and I, we were making a difference. We were giving people what they needed to survive and we were making a difference. Making it better for everyone.
J: What are you talking about? It was too far-gone before either of us was born to make any difference . We were merely being shown the door.
K: No, no, no you’re wrong. We were trying to do better. I know how desperate it was, believe me I did, but we had some hope. We were finding more and more ways to sustain what was good and pure  in this world. We were trying to keep our humanity for the love of God! If it weren’t for people like you we could have developed on what we had and perpetuated some kind of existence that meant something, that was more than just eating, and sleeping and surviving. Look at us now, what do we have? We’re barely human anymore.
J: Calm, old woman, calm down.
K: I will not, everything has been taken away by the likes of you. You mongrel! Cheering on the downfall of all our progress, trumpeting the way for this wasteland. You think nature has taken back over. Ha! I haven’t seen anything that looks very natural since we stopped caring for what we had on this planet. Look out there. Look at the swamps and the barren land on the other side of the mountains. Nature hasn’t taken back over. It hasn’t righted the wrongs of our past. Only we could do that, old man . Listen, I know as well as anyone who has survived the fall that not everything about the way we lived worked, but had some things that made this world better.
J: You are wrong. Holding on to your ideas of good and progress, that’s what did this. Humanity and its glorious excess! Art and science, travel. Give me as many examples as you like and I’ll give you just as many ways that these Ideas ruined our chances on this planet. You can’t civilization, humanity without wealth. Wealth and inequality that’s what did it. Too many people with too much, and too many more with so little.
K: But it was getting better we were making a change for the better. I know it. No matter what you say I know that if we had had half a chance things would be different.
J: No matter how things might be old woman. You need only look out the mouth of this cave in the morning to see things as they are. There’s nothing you could have done to stop this, and me, I only helped along the inevitable, I didn’t make it happen.
K: It makes little difference now either way…
The descriptive introduction to the dialogue is presented for a number of reasons. Firstly, I hope to ground the forthcoming discussion in current, local events to give some salience to the discussion between John and Karen. The example of the mining of oil sands in Alberta is a local occurrence that will likely have global ramifications within my generation. The reference to the ever-rising sea temperatures and likely adverse effects of global warming further gives current relevance to our dialogue. Finally, the introduction is intended to serve as something of an overture to the upcoming discourse between the two dramatis personae. A view of the future landscape leaves one feeling dark and hopeless, much the view taken by John Lark and Karen Buyer.
The discussion produced here is an attempt to highlight two divergent ways in which the future inhabitants of this planet might think about their pasts if many of the predictions about the planet’s environmental future come true. Clearly, there is an exorbitant amount of induction being done on my part. However, this view is not so fantastical if one does not attended to scrupulously to the details of the picture I paint but more to the feelings about humanity’s downfall displayed by Buyer and Lark.
A conversation between a wealthy-elite Greenlander and a later-arrived peasant farmer set sometime around Columbus’ arrival in the New World could just have easily have filled the pages of my paper. Indeed, my treatment of these two characters flows directly out of Thomas McGovern’s proposal that culture can play a significant role in the downfall of a civilization (1991). John Lark (in a slight twist on the hegemonic theme of “feminine nature”) heralds the downfall of civilization as a return to a more “natural” order. He is unconcerned with the near “nuclear holocaust” conditions that surround him on the warmer side of the mountains (future BC). Lark’s (possible) previous membership in an eco-terrorist organization leaves him partially satisfied with the devastation he now observes. He believes completely in the power of nature to do justice to the wrongs caused by humanity. Clearly such an idea of equilibrium is not only problematic but one that has been “environed” on to nature and does not necessarily exist.
In a second twist, I have presented Karen Buyer as something of a developer of sustainability. She is a champion of humanity’s right to life, and a proponent of sustainable development. Here I have invoked Fricker’s treatment of sustainability and some of its measures and possible shortcomings (1998). I am very interested by the idea that sustainability today is merely a means to perpetuate development unchanged. Buyer truly believes that she was going to be able make an impact on the problems caused by humanity’s very existence. Her view invokes the current problem we are facing with regard to sustainable development and what may be some significant pitfalls therein. As the mother of family she was deeply invested in what was offered to her by society (and the belief structure supporting it) and she fought vigorously to defend its existence.
This is not an exposé on hope against hopelessness in our current situation. Rather, it is an examination of the ways in which our current belief may shape the future in which we live. Albert Einstein said that “we cannot solve the problems that we have created with the same thinking that created them” (quoted in Fricker). My hope above has been to highlight and possibly tease apart some of the ways in which divergent views of “nature” and “civilization” (and the constructed beliefs we have about them) have and will effect our future on the globe. There is no remedy proscribed above, only examples of points of view on an imagined past (our future), presented in the hope that we may think creatively about the solutions to our current problems so that the thinking that created our current situation is not the one that used to get us out.
1. This is not necessarily the view I take of humanity’s future. However, such a scene of western Canada after the “collapse” of civilization following massive environmental change is plausible (Wright 2004, Kaplan 1994) and even likely given the current trends.
2. Gaia Hypothesis. Proposed by James Lovelock in New Scientists, Feb. 15, 1975.
3. See Tainter’s “Runaway Train” metaphor for civilization collapse (Wright 2004:107).
4. Fricker 1998
5. The concept of nature or environment as a verb is highlighted here. “To environ”: the use of the concept of nature or environment as verb rather than a noun. In this case perhaps more of an entity with the ability for action than the actual action itself (Wyndham Class Notes October 3, 2006).
Fricker, Alan. “Measuring up to Sustainability” in The Environment in Anthropology: A reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living. Ed. Nora Haenn and Richard R. Wilk. New York University Press. 2006.
Kaplan, Robert. Quoted in “The Environment as Geopolitical Threat: reading Robert Kaplan’s ‘Coming Anarchy’” in The Environment in Anthropology: A reader in Ecology, Culture, and Sustainable Living. Ed. Nora Haenn and Richard R. Wilk. New York University Press. 2006
McGovern, Thomas H. Management for Extinction in Norse Greenland in, Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscape. Ed. C.L. Cumley. Santa Fe: School of American Research.
Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. House of Anasi Press. 2004.
www.wikipedia.com. “Gaia Hypothesis” entry.
Wyndham, F. Alexi A. Bergeron Class notes for Anthropology 360. UBC. 2006.