Looking Back at What Lay Ahead
by Robert Earle
part 1 of 2
Back in 2013 if I had been asked to predict the most significant events that would transpire over the next twenty years, I gladly would have taken a shot at it. As an intel analyst, my gloomy specialty was the future, although I admit it was hard to be wrong bearing bad news about tomorrow.
That could be why they asked Callista Morellos to forecast the next two decades instead of me, of course. She was quite the vogue in those days, ever the ingenious optimist. “You watch,” she’d say. “The 21st century is going to be better than you think.” Really? Events proved her wrong. Year after year the sweet things she cooked up turned sour.
Still, I was surprised when the historian in the Office of Global Assessments called to offer me a tidy sum to look back twenty years — what were the ten most significant events that really had happened since 2013? — as a way of documenting how much of what Washington had expected turned out wrong. The guy specifically wanted someone who had been around in 2013 but now was out of the loop, uncorrupted by having had to rationalize one mistaken forecast after another.
I was out of the loop all right. Eighty years old. Spent my days reading, watching movies on my projector glasses, listening to Brahms and Penderecki and other threnodists while reclining in my sound chair, and walking a bit on my rebuilt hips down to the corner and straight home again. All I could handle.
But I said yes, of course. To me the only thing worse than not facing the future is not facing the past. My only condition was that the list didn’t have to be in ranked order, which would invite too many nitpickers to dismiss my findings with quibbles, not substance.
“Just the ten most significant events,” I insisted.
The Global Assessments guy agreed. But fast. Draft in a week.
I looked out the window across the ragged tree tops in Rock Creek Park, transecting Washington. Still vaguely green, the decades notwithstanding. Then I looked at the nicked windowsill and my bottle of Mont Blanc ink collecting dust on its shoulders. How long since I’d written anything? I pulled open my desk drawer and extracted a pad of legal paper that had gone from yellow to brown, so that long... really long.
Sally heard me rustling and stepped into my study. “Everything all right, Trace?”
“Sure, fine. Tiptop.” Maybe there was a certain youthfulness in that “tiptop” of mine. Let’s put it this way: I’d been worn down but wasn’t quite blunt yet.
“I heard you on the phone. Is something up?”
“Little project the State Department wants me to take on.”
“Oh, good.” Sally was always glad when I had something to do. Otherwise she told her friends I just sat there listening to the saddest music ever composed by people who used to be called Hungarians, Poles, and of course, Germans. All those Germans.
“I’m going down to meet Terri in the lobby. She’s got William and Robert with her. We’re going out for coffee and cake. Want to join us?”
“Wish I could, but I’ve got to get on this right away.”
“You don’t even have time for cake with your grandchildren?”
“Buy an extra piece for me and let them eat it. Those fatties always gobble my dessert because I’m so slow anyway.”
“That’s not true!”
“Look at me and then look at them. I’m sure not eating their cake.”
Sally knew there was no point in arguing. Either kid could sit on me, and I’d be gone forever. So off she went, and I waited for the apartment door to click shut.
Good. Great. Now...? Come on, buddy, get with it, I urged myself. Well, seems like it wasn’t going to be so easy, attacking an assignment again. Twenty years, what a miserable twenty years, how could I sort them all out? The truth is I spent hours every day drifting on the surface of civilizational decay. I seldom dove deep into the pools of disaster below. Too scary.
Then, boom! Suddenly the old horse was out of the barn and his wobbly mental legs — my wobbly mental legs — offered me a few reminders of what it was like to run. I’d written analyses and assessments my entire professional life. Goddammit, I knew how to do it. 2033, I wrote, and drew an arrow backward to the year 2013. What had really mattered on this planet, not just to U.S. “national interests,” during that period? The truth, lay it right out there.
#1: Worldwide water shortages led to fifty million dead from drought across Africa and Asia. All those poor people expired in searing deserts where no one could reach them with potable water. They just marched along, fell by the wayside, covered themselves from the sun, and died. Somalia, of course. Then Rajasthan, maybe the second worst place in the world. Who knew if it was really fifty million? That’s what was said. But who knew? Who counted every single soul? Didn’t matter. There were enough to make my list, that’s for sure.
#2: Irony of ironies: sea levels driven by climate change submerged Bangladesh. One flood struck after another. Before you knew it, Louis Kahn’s masterpiece national assembly building, the Jatiyo Sangshad Bhaban, just melted, sinking a bewildered parliament in tons of sludge. The only thing that saved sea-level Washington was a New Orleans-style levee the Bangladeshis couldn’t afford. The crust of Bangladesh that survived was annexed by India more out of pity than greed, but no good deed goes unpunished.
#3: Pakistan attacked India for having helped itself to the remaining four million Muslims of Bangladesh — who had “belonged” to Pakistan until 1971 — and the two countries had their long-awaited nuclear exchange. This Indo-Pak conflict enveloped Kabul, where the Indian-backed government fell and Pakistani Pashtuns did their own submerging, seizing southern Afghanistan. Eighteen million were dead after three rounds of nukes incinerated Islamabad, Karachi, Mumbai, Delhi, Hyderabad, and of course, poor Kabul, already an ashtray. These places still made Geiger counters crackle like popcorn.
So there you had water’s absence and presence triggering death in horrific numbers. On balance I would rather have died of thirst. There’s just something more personal about dehydration as opposed to being penetrated by radiation, or pieces of buildings, or other people’s hurtling bodies knocking you dead.
#4: Well, Africa again in a somewhat more positive light because I definitely had to put the creation of the Southern Union of Africa on the list: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, and Botswana all carved up and restitched together with the capital in Cape Town. Endless war about this seemed more incidental than the ultimate consequence: a fierce giant hoarding its natural resources — including water — at the tip of an otherwise failed continent that was being consumed by the Sahara plunging south at two hundred miles a year like a freight train made of sand.
I had to take off my titanium head unit. Weighed too much to wear while I was looking down at the desktop so long. If I had a stroke without it, I had a stroke. Let thinking kill me if it wanted to. I was really into this, still fascinated by the way you don’t know what you think before you think it.
No one had figured that out yet. Where were your thoughts before they became your thoughts? Who the hell knew? You just had this lifetime of reading and brooding and memo writing and inconclusive conversations and childhood memories and general impressions flying hither and yon, and out they popped. What next?
#5: Arab-Israeli reconciliation. Big, big deal: the destiny of demography. The youth in Arabia toppled the House of Saud and the youth of Israel echoed them by toppling the ultra-Orthodox religious-right regime. Not Saudi Arabia anymore, just Arabia. Not Israel anymore, Judeo-Palestine, a one-state solution with walls falling exactly the way the Berlin Wall fell in... What was it, 1989? Hey, I remembered I was there in 1989 and had a piece of the Berlin Wall somewhere, sort of like a moon rock.
But lots more walls toppled on the West Bank, and they were tougher and taller, to boot. Those Israelis were terrific engineers, but the power of social media and countless voices rising to a roar were up to the task. The two monotheisms finally agreed to agree on God and set the rest aside.
Well, you could say they had no choice. Had to cooperate as Arabia’s oil dwindled in importance and the kids messaged each other into a frenzy of cross-marriages, joint ventures, and anti-Iranian solidarity. Come and join us, Lebanon. Syria, we can be friends. Probably going to happen. A lush quiescence still prevails in the Levant. Who would have thought it? Great food, sun, seashore, and this modulation of millions in cyber-touch with one another keeping things calm.
Now, #6: I wasn’t quite sure how to say it, hadn’t ever been deeply technical. Perhaps like this: quantum engineering doubled the efficiency of electricity while natural gas in North America and Russia neutered the Middle East, helping to bring it to its senses. Was this a significant development if not an “event?” Absolutely. Events qua events weren’t the point. Significance an sich was what mattered.
But #7 certainly was an event, a quintessential event: a solar storm in 2018 incapacitated Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay by frying their electrical grids. Helio-physical hell, a thick wave of force battering half a continent like a tsunami. Oh the darkness! Oh the confusion! Where were my Dante, Milton and Blake? I could dial them up, but no one cared about the truths of poetry anymore, so I focused on the ensuing anarchy, vandalism, guerrilla actions, and that magnificent quote when the three blighted countries restored order through loose but effective bilingual cooperation: “Never has tragedy brought humanity such a great gift” — Ricardo de Funestre Carrillo, father of the LusoLatina Pact. You bet this was significant: southern Africa and southern Latin America both strong, influential and dynamic.
Copyright © 2012 by Robert Earle