What Will Our Climate-Ravaged World Look Like by 2049?

An author imagines how our lives will have changed in 30 years—and what we will have lost.

Meera Subramanian April 24, 2019

(Shutterstock)

I had just flown from an envi­ron­men­tal human­i­ties con­fer­ence in Ari­zona on Craft­ing the Long Tomor­row” to a fam­i­ly gath­er­ing in South India, where my father is from, when In These Times invit­ed me to imag­ine what a zero-car­bon soci­ety might look like should we achieve it by 2050. I decid­ed to write a spec­u­la­tive let­ter to a close cousin, step­ping into our shared, imag­ined future.

What nimble creatures we humans are, for better and for worse. We have adjusted to the ever-shifting weather and stronger storms, our go-bags at the ready and battery backups always charged.

Dear Har­ish,

Hel­lo, my sweet, far­away cousin-broth­er! As we approach our — gasp! — 80th birth­days, I felt inspired to res­ur­rect the old tra­di­tion of let­ter writing.

It seems like yes­ter­day we were sit­ting on your par­ents’ rooftop, tak­ing in the night sounds of Besant Nagar, in the days when I would impul­sive­ly buy a tick­et from Boston to Chen­nai with­out much of a thought beyond my bank account balance.

Remem­ber when a tick­et cost a few weeks’ pay instead of six months’? Has it real­ly been 20 years since I last flew to India? I have for­got­ten the smell of the jas­mine flow­ers women sold along the streets. Remind me again of their fragrance…

Do you see more stars now that the coal plants have shut down? Are the streets qui­eter with­out the roar of motor­bikes? I sus­pect the elec­tric vehi­cles still honk just as fre­quent­ly and dri­ve as wildly.

Per­haps every­thing is a lit­tle calmer, with­out the over­whelm­ing crowds? But I imag­ine there’s an eeri­ness to that calm, know­ing the cost at which it came.

When last I saw you, the future seemed so dark. Would we ever have believed that the Unit­ed States and India would actu­al­ly be poised to meet the 2050 zero-car­bon goal? The Great Tumult of the 30s still lay ahead, when all those cli­mate report warn­ings start­ed to play out like week­ly cin­e­ma releas­es, when we final­ly aban­doned the word nor­mal” when talk­ing about the weath­er, when the (un)natural dis­as­ters and the spread of dis­ease and the tick­ing up of tem­per­a­ture for­ev­er silenced the songs of so many, from the gold­en bush robins of the Himalayas to Nilakaran’s kids, and our dear aunt Deva­ki. It breaks me again, just think­ing about that time.

We Amer­i­cans played such a big role in the prob­lem. Man, did you and I lead the good life those years in NYC! Real­ly, Har­ish, did we even real­ize how deca­dent our lives had become? Every oth­er month we were on a plane some­where. I felt par­a­lyzed about how to change the mas­sive oil-infused infra­struc­ture that made every­thing pos­si­ble. I want­ed to believe buy­ing eco-friend­ly prod­ucts and recy­cling would be enough. How fool­ish. Remem­ber how I used to joke about using up the car­bon foot­print of the chil­dren I decid­ed not to have? The joke falls flat now.

Speak­ing of the next gen­er­a­tion, let me put aside my dark rumi­na­tions and bring you bright tid­ings of my step­kids. Their gen­er­a­tion has made me recon­sid­er my cyn­i­cal belief that it’s human nature to con­sid­er your own needs first. I swear their brains are wired dif­fer­ent­ly, like they can see the future in a way we just couldn’t.

The girls” are mid­dle-aged now. The eldest is still lawyer­ing, fight­ing for cit­i­zen­ship for inter­na­tion­al cli­mate refugees. My younger stepdaughter’s eth­i­cal cloth­ing line is doing great. She nev­er left Char­lotte, N.C., where she went to school, one of those bustling inland cities. Her main store there teamed up with a shared work­space and a café, so the build­ing is a com­mu­ni­ty space as much as a shop. India’s mod­el of small auto­mat­ed fac­to­ries pow­ered by a solar micro­grid has real­ly caught on here, and that’s what her com­pa­ny does. Every­thing they design, make and sell is sourced and man­u­fac­tured local­ly. With every­thing so local, the kids can tell where someone’s from just by their clothes — her line has defined the Car­oli­na look.” And when the fab­ric is spent at the end of its life, her store wel­comes returns, and they plug the mate­r­i­al back into the pro­duc­tion cycle.

Remem­ber when cousin Pavi was work­ing on this cir­cu­lar econ­o­my” stuff in Mum­bai, way back in the teens, when it was still kind of new? Around the same time Chi­na stopped tak­ing the world’s plas­tic scraps2018, was it? ear­li­er? — and the glob­al recy­cling sys­tem collapsed.

Some­times I think this is the biggest change in our day-to-day lives since you and I last met, since we emerged from the dark­ness of the Tumult: Not only are peo­ple vast­ly more aware of how frag­ile human life is, and the slen­der skin that keeps this plan­et hab­it­able, but we’re also so much more aware of all the things around us, these objects of our lives that are born from some form of life some­where, be it a cot­ton plant or sub­stances dug from the Earth’s stra­ta. You always had a healthy rela­tion­ship with your stuff,” giv­en your Bud­dhist ten­den­cies, but you were rare in that respect. Now we’re all a lit­tle Bud­dhist, I guess, forced to detach from so much and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly com­pelled to pay clos­er atten­tion to what remains — human and non­hu­man alike.

So the girls are doing great, but I have to admit I am glad I didn’t bring chil­dren into the world myself, despite my fear of regret. At first it was because I want­ed to put my ener­gy and lim­it­ed mon­ey into non­prof­it work, then jour­nal­ism, and always trav­el. But even­tu­al­ly I felt like I couldn’t, in good con­science, look into the eyes of a child I knew would face a dimin­ish­ing world, one with­out the old-growth forests I fell in love with as a girl, one so trans­formed by cli­mate change. It was such luck to have met S— and his so-love­ly daugh­ters, to get to taste such fam­i­ly life beyond my own role as daugh­ter-sis­ter­cousin. Back then, there were so few exam­ples of how not to have chil­dren. It was seen as sub­ver­sive instead of mere­ly anoth­er way to be part of soci­ety. We didn’t real­ize we were set­ting a trend, did we?

S — s youngest has a child, though, doing well as she stands on the thresh­old of adult­hood. Of course, like her entire gen­er­a­tion, she’s trau­ma­tized by all she saw grow­ing up dur­ing the Tumult — the flood­ing and drought, wild­fires and storm surges — but some­how, she is still root­ed in what I think of as the place of pos­si­bil­i­ty.” The young lit­er­al­ly envi­sion worlds we old­er folk can scarce­ly imag­ine. Some­times I hear them talk­ing about how this new econ­o­my will bring back the abun­dance of the last cen­tu­ry (I’m remind­ed of the 1950s eupho­ria when a gen­er­a­tion that grew up dur­ing the Depres­sion expe­ri­enced the post-WWII boom), and I wish they would lis­ten when we tell them that we failed to buy our way into hap­pi­ness, even as the Dow Jones shot up for two decades straight.

But I think they’re right to dis­miss what we say. It is clear we failed them, failed to con­sid­er their futures, when we were young. They know this. And they’re try­ing hard­er, con­cerned with what they’re leav­ing behind, from cloth­ing rem­nants to car­bon diox­ide. Does it feel that way in India, too?

This old lady is exhaust­ed, Har­ish. I’ll con­tin­ue tomorrow. …

Next day …

Ah, refreshed, at least as much as a 79-year-old can be.

So the move to Ten­nessee was a smart one. It took a few years, but we’re set­tled in now. We lost a lot of mon­ey on our old place in Cape Cod. It was just chang­ing too fast, reveal­ing itself to be the sand­bar it always was with each new storm from the ever-length­en­ing hur­ri­cane sea­son. But, with friends, we were able to scrape toget her enough to make it to the mec­ca that is this high plateau of the South­ern Appalachi­ans. There are 10 of us in the clus­ter home, built with the now-stan­dard mod­i­fied con­crete and wood, designed to sequester car­bon in the walls, along with solar roof tiles, a solar water heat­ing sys­tem and only hyper­ef­fi­cient E+ appliances.

It can be chal­leng­ing liv­ing with oth­ers — we were so used to our pri­vate sin­gle-fam­i­ly homes — but we have our own space with­in the build­ing and the shared elec­tric vehi­cle works well enough. And it saves all of us mon­ey. The best part, hon­est­ly, is the shared meals. Last night, some­one made a deli­cious meal with veg­gies from the green­house and a hearty chick­pea stew. We take turns cook­ing, and less cook­ing for each of us means more ener­gy to exper­i­ment with all the new foods. (Are the strict veg­e­tar­i­an Brah­mins try­ing out all the new beyond-beef prod­ucts that are so pop­u­lar here?) I don’t even miss meat any­more. Well, except for bacon.

S— is not as mobile as he once was, but when we do man­age to go to vis­it the girls, the new nation­al rail sys­tem is … wow, it’s just incred­i­ble. It’s slight­ly out­ra­geous that it took Amer­i­ca my entire life­time to devel­op a train infra­struc­ture that India had in the 1970s, when you and I were chil­dren and you could get any­where in the coun­try (even if it took days). To trav­el that last bit from the train sta­tion to wher­ev­er you’re going, there’s the FinalMile sys­tem, loaded with the self­driv­ing giz­mos that still remind me of India’s auto rick­shaws, minus the buzzy sput­ter­ing sound of the gas engine (well, and the miss­ing driver).

Though there is a deep ache about not get­ting to wrap my arms around you and see all our rel­a­tives in India, or to smell the jas­mine, there is, I admit, some part of me that feels almost a sense of relief now that I don’t need to spend the time, ener­gy and mon­ey zip­ping my way across the world. I sus­pect oth­ers who jet-set­ted our days through the ear­ly part of the cen­tu­ry might feel it, too, now that we sim­ply can’t afford to fly. Screen vis­its feel so nor­mal now. You can sense the shift in com­mu­ni­ties, too. There’s more focus on the local places we inhab­it and the land we rely on togeth­er, like Wen­dell Berry was telling us all along.

Just writ­ing all this, my mind is tum­bling back again to when we were young, as it does so often these days. Remem­ber how, in my ear­ly days of report­ing, I wrote about the vul­tures that were on their way to extinc­tion in India, back at the turn of the cen­tu­ry? It was then I first real­ized what nim­ble crea­tures we humans are, for bet­ter and for worse. We have adjust­ed to the ever-shift­ing weath­er and stronger storms, our go-bags at the ready and bat­tery back­ups always charged. Back then I wrote, The vul­tures’ dis­ap­pear­ance is cat­a­stroph­ic, yes, but the abil­i­ty to adapt is stun­ning. Or ter­ri­fy­ing. Or both. No mat­ter how bad things get, how many species get wiped from the Earth … the liv­ing go on.”

And we do. But not all of us. It’s like a phys­i­cal weight, my mourn­ing for those who didn’t make it through the Tumult. Though we have found some plan­e­tary tran­quil­i­ty, we have done so at immea­sur­able cost. Forged by fire, eh?

It’s time to sign off, my dear Har­ish. There’s only one place to get this actu­al let­ter on a boat to you, which should depart tomor­row. I’m sav­ing my pen­nies (so to speak — remem­ber pen­nies?) so maybe I can book pas­sage on that ship some­day to see you, just once more. (Or there’s a place for you here, if you want to return). Should I make it, I’ll bury my nose in a bun­dle of jas­mine and we can hob­ble up to a rooftop and remem­ber a time when we thought the world couldn’t change, and then it did.

With Love,

Meera

Meera Sub­ra­man­ian is an award-win­ning free­lance jour­nal­ist whose work has been pub­lished around the world. Her first book is A Riv­er Runs Again: India’s Nat­ur­al World in Cri­sis From the Bar­ren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farm­lands of Karnataka.
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