The mid-term elections are over, and the Democrats have regained the House, but the rest of American political reality remains intact. Meanwhile, the campaigns barely touched on some of the most important issues of our time: war, climate change, and the fracturing of the international community.
So, let’s consider these larger issues from a different angle.
Let’s step from the voting booth into a different space altogether: an escape room. This is, however, no ordinary escape room like the ones that have become so popular in cities around the world. Here, the stakes couldn’t be higher: life or death. You might want to give it a pass, but you don’t have a choice. There’s only one door and you have to go inside…
You’ve done enough escape rooms to know the drill by now. You are escorted into what seems like an ordinary room. There’s a table and a chair. On the table is a book. As soon as you step across the threshold, the door closes behind you. You hear the lock click into place.
You are now trapped in a room with four strangers. Three of them look as concerned as you are. The fourth is nonchalant.
The instructions this time are a little different. As with other escape rooms, you have a certain amount of time to figure out how to get out. Also, you know that clues to the puzzle are hidden somewhere in the room. Figure them out and you’ll be able to unlock the door.
But here’s the difference: the temperature in this room will go up a degree with every minute that passes. If you and those four strangers can’t figure out how to stop it from rising, you’ll succumb to heat stroke. In other words, if you don’t escape in the allotted time period, you’ll die.
You immediately set to work looking for the clues. Maybe one or two are in the book on the table or maybe a code is carved on the underside of the table. Maybe you need to use the chair to climb up close enough to scrutinize the crown molding near the ceiling. Three of the strangers are doing what you’re doing: trying to uncover clues.
The fourth is leaning against the wall, looking relaxed. “It’s just a joke,” he says to no one in particular.
“I already feel it getting warmer in here,” you respond.
“It’s just your imagination,” he replies. “Power of suggestion. Fake news.”
The clock is already ticking. It can’t be your imagination. It’s definitely hotter in the room than when you first entered. You’re sweating. Everyone’s sweating, even the leaning man. “Temperatures naturally fluctuate,” he comments. “It might be going up now, but it will go down again. Count on it.”
“Don’t listen to him,” says the teenager in your group. “He’s just a jerk.”
She’s right and there’s no time to try to persuade him either. The four of you are now uncovering one clue after another, which brings you to the truly challenging part: cracking the code. Each of you contributes something: the teenager quickly solves a quadratic equation, the stay-at-home mom translates that Japanese phrase, and the aging literature professor recognizes the quote from Dante’s Inferno.
And once the four of you use this code to open a panel you’ve discovered beneath a loose floorboard, you finally get the chance to apply your engineering knowhow to the situation. You personally figure out how to reset the thermostat hidden inside it and so manage to slow the rise in temperature. It’s not much perhaps, but it’s a start.
You’re working smoothly together now. Only through cooperation have you been able to get this far. Problem is, it’s still too warm in the room. The 70-something professor is now crumpled in the corner, breathing heavily. You only have one bottle of water to share and a couple of nutrition bars and there are still more puzzles to solve. The teenager is urging you on — and little wonder, she has her whole life ahead of her.
But here’s the catch. You’re getting tired, all of you.
This Hot Room is only the latest and greatest challenge you’ve faced. You’ve been doing escape rooms now for what seems like decades, each challenge evidently more urgent than the last.
You were relatively young when you first stumbled into this craze. In the War Room, you were trapped with two heavily armed men pointing high-powered weapons at each other. In the Pandemic Room, you were all infected with a deadly virus and had to find an antidote. Most recently, you were locked in the Autocrat Room with a man who believed he was the king of the world and who had his finger on a very real button that could destroy you, him, and everyone else.
Yet somehow you managed to extricate yourself from each of those rooms — only to find yourself trapped in this one. You should be tired!
You can’t even believe it: Only now is the reality of it all beginning to dawn on you — that you’ve been proceeding through a series of nested escape rooms, boxes within boxes, that have led you here, to the ultimate box.
In this Hot Room, time is running out, resources are scarce, and you have to listen to an idiot leaning against a wall doing nothing, and acting as if this were a delightful sauna, not a potential coffin.
You suspect that this is the human condition, this endless succession of crises. Civilizations have risen and fallen throughout history. One culture after another has failed to figure out the riddle inscribed in its environment. Some didn’t even realize that they were on the verge of collapse until it was too late.
But this is different. Each previous time, it was just one part of the globe — the Mycenaeans, the Khmer, the Mayans, the Romans — that grappled with its communal fate.
Now, you’re addressing the fate of the planet. This Hot Room, you’ve come to realize, is Earth itself. And there’s nothing on the other side of the door except the cold, cold void.
To solve the riddle of this ultimate escape room means performing a genuine miracle. You have to stop the temperature from rising. You have to multiply the water bottles and the nutrition bars. Most challenging of all perhaps, you have to prevent everyone from giving in to despair.
So, you take time out to do what you’ve always done in such situations. You did it at work to rally your discouraged colleagues. You did it for your children at bedtime to dispel the nightly terrors.
You tell a story.
A Matryoshka of Dystopias
My novel Splinterlands was an exploration of one particular dystopian path: the nationalist fragmentation of the world into ever-smaller splinters. This was no far-fetched fantasy when I wrote it, just an extrapolation, circa early 2016, from ongoing trends: tensions within the European Union, the polarization of politics in the United States, the rise of far-right parties, the widening global gap between the rich and the poor.
Unfortunately, those trends only intensified after I finished the manuscript. It hadn’t actually been my intention to predict. Like any politically engaged dystopian novel, Splinterlands was meant to be a warning. I knew things could get that bad. I just didn’t think they would — not so quickly anyway.
Even before the book came out, Britain had voted to leave the European Union and then, more improbably yet, Donald Trump managed to win the 2016 presidential election. Instead of being weird exceptions, the Trump-Brexit developments turned out to be part of a terrifying trajectory. Since then, the far right has assumed positions of power in Austria, Italy, and now Brazil. It has done well in elections in Germany and Sweden. In France, the extremist National Front is now, according to pollsters, the country’s most popular party.
Get on a train today in Poland, heading for North Korea, and you’ll pass through an enormous swath of territory ruled by fake democrats and authentic autocrats. An illiberal axis connects this great expanse of Eurasia to Turkey, Israel, India, the Philippines, Colombia, and Nicaragua. The military or one-party governments hold sway over much of Southeast Asia. Religious zealots and strong-arm leaders rule the greater part of the Middle East. Democracy is weak in most African countries and non-existent in others.
Together, these illiberal forces are deeply suspicious of any transnational authority that demands they adhere to global human rights norms and international standards.
The international community, never a particularly robust entity, is beginning to evaporate. Countries are withdrawing from international agreements like the Global Pact for Migration and organizations like the International Criminal Court. With its high-profile exits, Donald Trump’s America has done its best to undermine the Paris accord on climate change and the UN Human Rights Council. It’s not quite a rush to the exits, nor is this retreat into sovereign parochialism irreversible — not yet anyway. But the Splinterlands scenario of the total collapse of the international order and the fragmentation of countries like the United States and China has become incrementally more likely.
Meanwhile, global inequality continues to worsen. According to Oxfam, “82% of the wealth created last year went to the richest one percent of the global population, while the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity got nothing.” Facilitated by financial deregulation, corruption has become rampant, registering as a serious problem in two-thirds of the world’s countries, according to the latest Transparency International report. The media are under attack even in traditionally liberal countries like the United States.
And surveillance by the state and corporate conglomerates like Facebook has become commonplace. In China, the two forces are working hand in hand under the auspices of the phone app WeChat. Chinese people use the application to shop, listen to music, and exchange messages. But the app also assigns users a score based on everything from online behavior to how they drive their cars, and if that score is too low, they’re locked out of certain jobs, travel opportunities, and schools. The system should be fully operational and exportable in a couple of years.
These various real-world dystopian scenarios are not discrete. They are indeed nested in one another, like one of those Russian matryoshka dolls that open only to reveal smaller versions of itself, each inside the next. Just as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill once characterized Soviet Russia as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma,” think of the current reality as never-ending wars wrapped in nuclear proliferation inside nationalist fragmentation enclosed in climate change.
This last challenge is, of course, the most urgent, transcending politics as it does. Governments of every political flavor have contributed to it and continue to dither in the face of an obviously looming catastrophe, while economic greed prevents any sustainable solution. In other words, we’re heading for a true existential reckoning. Heat up the planet enough and there won’t be any more politics or economics. It will be the real end of history, not the triumphalist one that Francis Fukuyama thought up in 1989 in anticipation of the end of the Cold War.
In Splinterlands, I still saw climate change as one part of an overall ecosystem of threat. In my new dystopian novel, Frostlands, climate change takes center stage. A stand-alone sequel set in 2051, the moment when Splinterlands ended, it focuses on Rachel Leopold, an aging climatologist, living in Arcadia, a sustainable community in what was once part of Vermont. Arcadia is now under attack by unknown forces and Rachel is worried that those attacks are directed at her. She’s been conducting experiments in secret to regenerate the Arctic ice cap in a desperate bid to enclose the remaining methane gas trapped in the permafrost. But (as in our world today) not everyone shares her urgent desire to stop climate change.
As with Splinterlands, the dystopia of Frostlands is, in fact, unspooling in real life on an accelerated basis. As environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a recent New Yorker:
“Arctic soils contain hundreds of billions of tons of carbon, in the form of frozen and only partially decomposed plants. As the region heats up, much of this carbon is likely to be released into the atmosphere, where it will trap more heat… In the Arctic Ocean, vast stores of methane lie buried under frozen sediments. If these stores, too, are released, the resulting warming is likely to be catastrophic.”
Kolbert then quotes Peter Wadhams, an ice specialist: “The risk of an Arctic seabed methane pulse is one of the greatest immediate risks facing the human race.”
Why wait until 2051 when you can experience apocalypse now?
A climatologist, a nuclear physicist, and an epidemiologist walk into a bar.
The bartender gestures to the three tiers of bottles arrayed behind her. “Pick your poison.”
The three professionals laugh ruefully. The climate scientist links arms with her two colleagues and says, “Why don’t you pick your poison?”
It’s no joke.
In a culture that emphasizes free choice — among political candidates, breakfast cereals, and Internet avatars — we now face the ultimate choice. We can choose our dystopian future. We can cut funding for medical research and emergency response and increase our vulnerability to the next plague. We can elect leaders who have itchy nuclear fingers and increase the likelihood that we go out with a bang. Or, if we somehow make it out of those particular escape rooms, we can drink the ultimate poison and heat up the planet until it can no longer sustain anything but cockroaches.
For some, the inexcusable slowness with which the international community is addressing climate change — along with the other apocalyptic scenarios — is yet more proof that humans, like dinosaurs, have outlived their evolutionary usefulness. It’s hard not to feel that all of humanity deserves a Darwin award when you see the effects of recent superstorms, the vanishing of polar ice, the heedless drilling for oil and gas everywhere, and the dilatory efforts of even sensibly led countries like South Korea to reduce their carbon footprint.
Dinosaurs, of course, couldn’t put up much of a fight against the asteroid that slammed into Earth 66 million years ago and the cataclysms that followed. You, however, can still tell the bartender, “Thanks, but no thanks, on the poison tonight.” You can still solve the riddle of the Hot Room and hope that the next challenge won’t be quite as apocalyptic.
Remember: there’s always going to be some guy leaning against the wall, making light of your efforts to save the world. It’s maddening to have to listen to him. So, like Odysseus, you must close your ears to the siren songs of what passes for pragmatism today. The politics of the possible don’t stand much chance in an impossible situation.
In that Hot Room, everyone but the skeptic is back to work, even the aging professor. Your story has inspired them to attempt the impossible: to work together, to solve the riddle, to overcome the resistance. They know the odds. They understand that they’re already living in a dystopia.
But now you’ve given them reason to believe that even dystopias can have sequels.