The Eastern Hemisphere, seen from space.
I’ve been obsessed with the end of the world for as long as I can remember. I wasn’t a morbid kid; I didn’t believe humanity was evil or deserved to be wiped out. I just liked thinking about what we’d do when everything that made us comfortable was stripped away, leaving us to fight for survival. And it was all a fantasy — I was a child of the prosperous Eighties and Nineties, and I didn’t really think my way of life was going anywhere anytime soon.
In my early twenties, I started writing a book about a climate-change apocalypse. By that time, things seemed a lot worse. The Twin Towers had fallen, the economy had crashed and rebounded and was about to crash again, and global warming was an ever more pressing reality. While I was working on America Pacifica, I told people I hoped the book came out before the world actually ended.
It was a joke, but as I wrote the book, I noticed something changing in the way I viewed the world. In America Pacifica, a second Ice Age destroys most of North America, and refugees flee to a tiny Pacific island that lacks most contemporary American conveniences. The inhabitants have no internet, no cell phones, and almost no metal of any kind. Most people live in crowded tenements and eat a diet of jellyfish and seaweed; a hamburger costs the equivalent of thousands of dollars. And the longer I wrote about this world, the more it began to invade my own.
It started with toilets. I was suddenly amazed that we had devices right in our homes that would instantly carry our waste away. Then it was hot water — I lived in Iowa City, where in winter it was frequently below 10 degrees for weeks on end, and yet I could still take a hot shower whenever I wanted. At first I just found myself shocked by these (for most Americans) everyday realities. Then I began to wonder when we’d have to give them up.
I expected the feeling to pass when I finished the book, but if anything, it’s gotten stronger. I struggle with the concept of saving for retirement not because I love to splurge, but because I’m not sure money will exist when I’m 65. I rarely use a bathroom without thinking about what we’ll do when plumbing stops working. And I’ve started thinking about which of my skills will be useful after the apocalypse. Basic HTML will get me nowhere once the internet is dead, and writing won’t matter when we’re struggling to survive. The best idea I’ve been able to come up with is parlaying my reporting experience into a job as a spy — maybe by carrying information from one tent city to another, I can keep myself in canned goods.
Frankly, I’m not sure I can hack it. Darcy, the heroine of America Pacifica is a lot more badass than I am. I wrote her that way on purpose — a story about me fighting my way through a corrupt and dangerous island city-state would probably involve a lot of crying, and possibly a lot of giving up. My biggest fear about the apocalypse isn’t the lack of indoor plumbing — it’s the possibility that when really tested, I might reveal myself to be a complete and total coward.
Of course, the real future will probably be less drastic than my book. It’s less likely that I’ll be eating rat when I’m 40, and more likely that fuel and water will be more expensive, that land will be scarcer, that the way of life I grew up with, already crumbling, will be a distant memory. Which would really just bring me in line with the rest of the world. Most of the conveniences I learned to think of as part of civilization actually aren’t realities for most of the world’s people — indoor toilets, for instance, would actually seem like a huge luxury to many people in Tanzania.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think this is a good thing. I’d rather see other people’s lives get easier than Americans’ lives get harder. But I also know that many of the things we take for granted aren’t actual necessities of life, and that we shouldn’t assume we’ll get to hang onto them forever. And ultimately, surviving may be less about fighting enemies and more about learning to live without.
In the real future, we won’t necessarily have to be brave, but we will have to be adaptable. And while I hesitate to ascribe much world-changing power to fiction, I do think the current vogue for dystopia might have some purpose: maybe it’s teaching us to think about what it would be like if our lives were very different, and how we might survive. Because the world is ending in little ways all the time, and we have to be able to rebuild it.
Anna North is the author of the novel America Pacifica, out in paperback this month.