TIMERIDERS: THE PIRATE KINGS - The Prologue
2050: TED Talks – Montreal, Canada
‘How did we end up here? In this time; in this horrible mess?’
Waldstein studied his audience, rows of pale ovals receding into the dimly lit conference hall. The question of course was rhetorical. He was going to tell them. ‘Greed. Greed and complacency. Back at the turn of the last century, when we were busy being very excited that we were all entering a new millennium, back then…we assumed oil was going to last forever. We now know of course, with hindsight, that as the clocks and calendars ticked over into the new century and everyone was celebrating that at a party somewhere, we quietly hit the ’peak oil’ moment. The moment that mankind finally reached the halfway mark of this world’s fossil embedded fuel store.’
He paused for effect. The holographic autocue waited for him.
‘The ’tank’ was half empty. There were a few geologists back then, sounding the alarm, telling all who’d listen that we better get a move on and find something to substitute for oil. But of course no one did listen. Why? Because oil was still coming out if the ground easily enough, it was still cheap. Why upset the apple cart, right? Let’s face it…at a fantastic party, who wants to listen to the guy in the corner muttering about the end of the world?’
‘We did nothing to wean ourselves off oil-addiction. And so, fifteen…twenty years into the new century when the big oil producing nations started finding their oil well’s drying up, one after the other, things started to turn nasty. That was the first Big Problem we should’ve fixed…and we didn’t. The second…? Back again at the beginning of the century, there were economists calculating what the global population figure was likely to be for the middle of the twenty-first century…ten billion. Ten billion.’
His audience stirred.
‘As it happens, turns out their estimate undershot by about a billion and a half. But who’s perfect, eh?’ Waldstein’s laugh sounded dry and hollow. Certainly no laughs coming back from his audience. ‘Once again warnings were raised. Ten billion? There’s no way the Earth’s ecosystem could be leveraged to feed ten billion mouths indefinitely! But were people listening? Of course not. You’re telling me I can’t have more than two children!? How dare you! How dare you tell me what I can and cannot do! So that problem was never dealt with and not long after ‘peak oil’…we had ‘peak food’….‘peak drinking water’…a world desperately struggling to provide at least fifteen hundred calories every day to over twelve billion hungry mouths.’
Waldstein sighed. ‘So we had two big problems facing us. Both could have been prevented, neither were. And these two problems were compounded by a third and final one.’
He thumbed his palm and a giant animating holograph appeared above his head, as large as the round stage he was standing on. An image of the earth playing through fifty years of gathered data; polar caps shrinking, the blue of the ocean swelling, expanding, like ink spreading across blotting paper.
‘We let this world warm up too damned much. Some of that was down to burning all that oil. Sure, that didn’t help things much. But what really did it for this planet’s fragile ecosystem was the sheer number of people on this planet. So…just when we needed as much land as possible to grow enough high yield crops to feed us all, that low land, that farming land, was being swallowed up by the advancing oceans. Farmland…and of course, many of our great cities.’
He tapped his palm and flicked through shimmering slides; New York, now just the island of Manhattan protected by giant levee walls; New Jersey, Brooklyn, The Bronx, Queens…all now a mottled patchwork of submerged streets and rotting rooftops. London; a city of tenement blocks crowding each other like weeds straining for sunlight, emerging from a fog of pollution. The Thames a menacing swollen river held at bay again by enormous levee walls.
‘The first fifty years of this century, we should have devoted to fixing these problems. Instead…what did we do? We fought like children. The First Asian War in the late 20’s. Fifteen years ago. The start of the various Pacific Oil Wars. The ten year anniversary last week of the Thirty Day war between the Arabian Coalition and Israel…and God help us, that one wasn’t even over oil…but something as archaic, as irrelevant as religious ideology! Over what name we should call a God that doesn’t even exist!
The hologram above Waldstein played a montage of images; the rusting wrecks of tanks and mech-walkers, the irradiated ruins of Jerusalem and Damascus.
‘Now…we are where we are. Living in a world that we’ve exhausted. Poisoned. A world that some say is quite rightly turning against us. But this, in the much larger context of time is merely another cycle. It’s happened before. The dinosaurs had their time, and now we’ve had ours. The world is simply rebalancing itself. Wiping the slate clean ready to start again.’
Now he was no longer reading the auto-cue. The conference organisers had been given an advanced copy of his talk; some uninspiring, meaningless fluff about ‘responsible entrepreneurialism in difficult times.’
What he wanted to say this morning – what he was going to say – was memorised.
‘But ladies and gentlemen…unlike the dinosaurs, we almost certainly won’t be rendered extinct. We will though, in the latter half of this century, inevitably, experience a resource starvation that will whittle our numbers down to perhaps a few tens of millions. Perhaps even a few hundred thousand. And those that survive will adapt. Will hopefully be wiser and understand this fragile world of ours must be treated with respect.’
Waldstein noticed his audience stirring uneasily. He smiled. ‘Yes…I’m sure you’ve figured out I’m no longer reading the text that was approved for today’s lecture. But there is something that needs to be said…’
His gaze settled on the back of audience. The bank of cameras was back there. This was going out on a dozen news streams. He knew this was going to be seen live or re-streamed by virtually everyone on the planet. 2050; the last TED Talk. The very last of them.
A perfect platform for him.
’I’m afraid things don’t look so good for us. Changes we can’t avoid…are happening whether we like it or not. But, here’s the thing. I believe The Big Die Off will not be an end for us. It’ll be a transition. A difficult one. A terribly hard one, but a transition not an end.’
Off to one side he could see movement, someone attempting to attract his attention.
They want me off the stage. They want me to finish.
‘Mark my words; the next twenty years will be hard years for all of us. Bloody hard ones. As things worsen there’ll be those who will say that we could wind time back, use displacement technology to learn from all our stupid mistakes and have another go at these last fifty years; at making this a better world. To those people who will argue for that, I say this in response now…’
He wagged a cautionary finger towards the cameras out there in the auditorium recording him. ‘If we do that – if we actually are reckless enough to meddle with time – that foolishness will end up being the biggest of all our many mistakes.’
One of the event organisers – Dr Rajesh – was making his way across the stage towards him. Waldstein nodded at the man. ‘So let me then finish….’ It was going to look foolish if they attempted to coerce him off stage. Foolish for him. Foolish for the organisers. The news story would be all about some undignified scuffle…and not the message itself.
‘In conclusion, I’ll finish with this…’ Dr Rajesh acknowledged that. He stopped where he was and allowed Waldstein the courtesy to wrap things up.
‘Ladies and gentlemen we’ve made so many, many mistakes and in the coming years we are going to be relentlessly tempted to go back and try to undo them, for ourselves, for our children. But…time travel is an open door way onto Hell itself; a Pandora’s Box that cannot be closed once opened. If we dare to play God with this technology…then that really will be the end of absolutely everything. Quite literally…everything; this small, remote isolated blue ball of life we call earth and everything on it.’
Waldstein hadn’t expected much in the way of applause.
And he was quite right not to.
He walked off stage, past an ashen-faced Dr Rajesh, amidst a deafening silence.