It might have gone this way. If we’d not burned up all the leftover dinosaurs and tree ferns, it might be about time for this inter-glacial period to end. Imagine climate change without fossil fuels.
It began with a few cold summers. The early ones were written off to variously benign causes. Volcanic eruptions. Changing ocean currents. Strange theories about precession and solar cycles. But mostly, people went about the business of living without giving much thought to the changes in the weather. Because weather changes every day, and yet real change happens slowly, punctuated by years that can seem to be a return to normal. There would be a string of crop failures, but then nature would turn about and shower them with a decade of plenty. In fact a bit over a century ago, the worry had been that the world was getting too hot. Then global temperatures took a dive and never recovered. It was hard to measure precisely, hard to tease the signal from the noise, but the anecdotal evidence was unquestionable and mounting.
Shorter growing seasons. More ice that never melted.
As the winters lengthened, it became evident that the changes were part of a package deal, a suite of conditions far more sinister than short summers. Strange and extreme weather became commonplace. Blizzards that lasted for days. Deep freezing winds that could crack glass. Cold snaps in spring and hard freezes even after trees were in leaf. Early frosts reaching cold fingers as far as the tropics. Vicious polar storms that ripped down forests that came raging out of a summer sky. And as the ice built up in the perpetually cold places of the world, rain stopped falling.
Now it was over half a millennia since the weather had conformed to any kind of reliable pattern for more than a generation. Funny how change sneaks up on you like that.
When the cold began to creep down from the poles, humans shrugged it off. Cold. Warm. Life happens that way. Agriculture had plodded on as it had for thousands of years. Farmers planted seed, watched it grow — or die — and then harvested what they could before winter came knocking. As the summers shrank to mere weeks, harvests declined, but the world got by with less. Humans were ingenious nomads. Fertile land was abundant. If crops in the homeland failed and did not recover, then humans would follow the warmth to new lands. This had been the pattern for generations.
But then the glaciers started growing about a century ago. Yields plummeted all around the globe and did not recover. The combination of cold and drought led to famine more years than not. And this came at the very time that humanity had encompassed the globe, when there were no new lands to seek. As it became colder and drier, humans were forced into narrowing rings about the planet — the last places where the summer sun held back the autumn winds, where the summer rains still fell. Humans were tied to their food crops, and their food crops would only grow with sufficient water and light.
Life is now a game of dice. And the dice are loaded.
Humans tried to adapt to their new food resources. In cities, there was a vogue for changing diets even in relatively temperate regions — eating more rye and dried beans, less bread, less meat. But many formerly common foods were truly scarce, not merely a matter of urban fashion. Greenhouse vegetables often failed in the winter months because most of the structures were heated by the sun, an increasingly inadequate heat source in the face of deepening cold. Wheat flour was difficult to obtain when the winter wheat crops fell to a late frost. While fish and seafood were still abundant, all other meats were dwindling because there was just not enough grass and grain to feed the animals. And then some foods were already memories. Granted, many tropical fruits had always been difficult to obtain; they were special treats and all the more delicious for their seasonality. But now a shipment of oranges could cause a riot, so rare had they become.
Caitlin grew a small harvest’s worth of dwarf citrus trees in her greenhouse — and locked the doors at night.
But lifestyle changes were not enough. Even rye needed moisture, and more than what fell in the growing season these days. It was almost impossible to contemplate — because surely humans are meant to survive, we harbor and nurse that innate idea — but as things were going, soon there would not be any food. Hunger without end. Or maybe, hunger until the end. Millennia ago, humans had taken wild plants and animals and bred them into food stuffs. These crops and herds were adapted to life as they knew it, not to this new world. The foods that humans relied upon were increasingly unreliable. So if humans were to survive, it seemed to be necessary to repeat the grand experiment of domestication — to find new cold-adapted dry-land species that could be made to serve humanity. Or to force the adaptation of traditional crops and beasts.
©Elizabeth Anker 2021