In a striking new novel, John Feffer imagines a dystopian yet all too familiar future in which the world’s superpowers have fractured, global temperatures have soared, the global economy has collapsed and violent nationalism prevails. Order Splinterlands today by making a tax-deductible donation to Truthout!
In this excerpt from Splinterlands, written in the form of a fictitious journal from the year 2050, the narrator offers his account of how the world unraveled.
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Water boils most fiercely just before it disappears. And so it is, evidently, with human affairs.
Before all hell broke lose in 1914, the world witnessed an unprecedented explosion of global trade at levels that would not be seen again for more than six decades. Before the Nazis took over in 1933, Germans in the Weimar Republic were enjoying an extraordinary blossoming of cultural and political liberalism. Before the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, Soviet scholars were proudly pointing to rising rates of intermarriage among the many nationalities of the federation as a sign of ever-greater social cohesion.
And in 2018, just before the great unraveling, the world still seemed to be in a frenzy of what was then labeled “globalization.” The volume of world trade was at an all-time high. Facebook had created a network of 3 billion active users. People on every continent were dancing to Drake, watching the World Cup final, and eating sushi. At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, more people were on the move as migrants and refugees than at any time since the end of World War II. Borders, between countries and cultures, seemed to be crumbling everywhere. Once divided into a relatively stable mosaic of nation-states, the world was becoming liquid, a rainbow swirl.
Before 2018, almost everyone believed that time’s arrow pointed in the direction of greater integration. Some hoped (and others feared) that the world was converging on ever-larger conglomerations of nations. The internationalists campaigned for a United Nations that had some actual political power. The free traders imagined a frictionless global market where identical superstores would sell the same products at all their global locations and happy consumers would sing the same jingles in the universal language of commerce. The technotopians prophesied a world united by Twitter and Instagram: a republic of social media. Officially, more and more countries were committing themselves to diversity, multiculturalism, and the cosmopolitan ideals of liberty, equality, and individualism. Pundits had already proclaimed the advent of a flat world, a borderless world, a McWorld….
Everything began to change in the mid-teens of this century, a phenomenon I first chronicled in Splinterlands. That book, it turned out, would be the foundational text for a new discipline that came to be called geo-paleontology. I shouldn’t have been taken aback by my book’s success. Everyone likes a good scary tale, even one dressed up in statistics and footnotes. And the best horror stories are never about zombies or vampires or bug-eyed aliens. They’re always about the everyday terrors right in front of us. I was the first to point out what should have been obvious to anyone with a modicum of realism: the world was falling to pieces — and not in slow motion either.
As a middle-aged scholar in 2020, I practically created geo-paleontology. (We used to joke that we were the only historians with true 2020 hindsight). What we geo-paleontologists do is dig around in archives to exhume the extinct: all the empires and federations and territorial unions that have gone the way of the dinosaurs. We’re interested in how the mighty are brought low. We look at the small fragments that remain and try to reconstruct what were once giants. During the twenties and thirties, when the modern-day giants were falling left and right, we were all the rage, less because of our acuity as historians and more because of our supposed prescience as prognosticators. As a result, we received a fair share of criticism for our supposed twist on Whig history. But such controversies have long since become academic. Now that everyone is accustomed to the world as it is, they are less interested in how this world came to be. As a result, my profession is becoming as extinct as its subject matter.
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Today in 2050, ever fewer people can recall what it was like to live among those leviathans. In my youth, we imagined lumbering dinosaurs like Russia and China and the European Union enduring regardless of the global convulsions around them. Of course, at that time, our United States still functioned as its name suggests rather than as the current motley collection of regional fragments fighting over a diminishing resource base.
Empires, like adolescents, think they’ll live forever. In geopolitics, as in biology, expiration dates are never visible. As a result, it can be hard to distinguish growing pains from death rattles. When the end comes, it’s always a shock. Consider the clash of the titans in World War I. Four enormous empires — the Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, and German — went into that conflict imagining that victory would give them not just a new lease on life, but even more territory to call their own. And all four came crashing down. The war was horrific enough, but the aftershocks just kept piling up the bodies. The flu epidemic of 1918-1919 alone, which soldiers unwittingly transported from the trenches to their homelands, wiped out at least 50 million people worldwide. This, too, was globalization — of death. It would have been impossible to imagine such an outcome in 1913 when the silkworms of modernity — the telephone, the ocean liner — were spinning gossamer threads to enclose the world in a cozy cocoon.
When dinosaurs collapse, they crush all manner of smaller creatures beneath them. Who today remembers the final throes of the colonial empires in the mid-twentieth century with their staggering population transfers, fierce insurgencies, and endless proxy wars — even if the infant states that emerged from those bloody afterbirths gained a measure of independence?
Copyright (2016) by John Feffer. Not to be reprinted without permission of the publisher, Haymarket Books.