Putting the life back in science fiction

A Panglossian Cli-Fi Alt-History, for the holidays
December 14, 2019, 10:54 pm
Filed under: alt-future, science fiction, Uncategorized

Just some positive thinking–what’s happening to me?–for the holidays.  This is another in my series of alt-histories I wish someone else would write, and it’s kind of in the spirit of DC’s famous Watchmen comic.

The idea is pretty simple: how do you write an alt-history where people take climate change seriously enough to do something about it?  I’ve butted heads long enough to know that most people in the Baby Boom and Gen X (at least in Middle and Upper Class America) are not interested in dealing with climate change if it causes them any serious inconvenience.  I sympathize with the kids of “generation omega” (they’re now hitting college, and I hope the GenO doesn’t catch on).  They’re scared and furious, and they should be.  I’m getting sick of how many ways I’ve heard people find ways to not do anything.  Either we’re all going to hell anyway, or there’s no problem, or there’s a problem but nothing we do as individuals matters, or –look, squirrel/nuclear power/don’t eat meat/distract/disrupt/distract/bullshit….–I get this a lot when I talk with people.  Trump’s rubbing off on everyone.

So anyway, I’d suggest a different take on cli-fi.  It was sort of done in Watchmen, but it could be done better.  The idea starts with someone leaking all the research the petroleum companies did on climate change back in the 1950s and 1960s, with the document leak happening in the 1970s if not before.  At the height of the environmental movement, Boomers start taking climate change seriously, putting us decades ahead of where we are now.

I don’t think it would necessarily be blue skies and blooming roses, but it might be pleasant for writers and environmentalists to think about what might have been, had we given a shit when we had the oil to really rebuild global infrastructure instead of going on a mad, metastatic building spree as we did in the real world.  Heck, if you’re interested in writing this story universe, have Timothy Leary get run over by a hippy’s bus, so that LSD becomes legal too, while you’re at it.

As with any of my crazy ideas, feel free to take it and run with it.  I’m working on something entirely different.



8 Comments so far
Leave a comment

In the 1970’s high oil prices were moving people in teh right direction. Smaller cars, insulating buildings, solar thermal panels, etc. If oil prices hadn’t collapsed in 1986, there might have been a good transition to renewable energy and some of the global heating might have been avoided. Add in a China that was hobbled and we would have a poorer, but far cleaner environment and a hot future much farther ahead in time.

Comment by Alex Tolley

Good points. My thoughts on this so far have gone along lines of:
–Plastics. I’m willing to bet that oil companies would repurpose themselves as feedstock suppliers for industrial chemical plants, rather than just going away. That is apparently their plan now.
–Nuclear power. I’m not conversant enough in how the chip-making part of the computer revolution affected modern solar technology, nor do I know the background of the rare earth element research that led to today’s wind turbines and motors. But I’m not sure that modern solar panels and wind turbines could be built in the 1980s. Thus, I’d bet that a decarbonized world starting in the 1970s would have many more nuclear power plants. This leads to:
–Effective alternatives to conventional warfare. One of the biggest uses for petroleum is keeping the various militaries moving. Getting off oil thus implies that there are alternatives to conventional warfare that are equally potent, this without the internet. To me that sounds like nukes and irregular warfare, but I don’t know. For this world to work, there has to be some critical innovation that fundamentally changes the way wars are fought. It could be something as simple and counter-intuitive as the US getting bogged in Vietnam, China getting bogged in Vietnam, and the USSR getting bogged in Afghanistan, all far worse than we saw in our timeline. This leads to a general disgust with conventional war and an increase in nuclear diplomacy or something. Maybe more nuclear carrier groups, or bigger boomer fleets? Or I suppose the US and USSR could get into a space arms race (flying crowbars and so forth), making much of conventional war impractical.

In contrast to this grimness, we do know that most world leaders during the Cold War developed a strong aversion to the idea of actually using nukes. If one assumes that the alternate leaders have a similar aversion to nukes, it might be possible to have a survivable, decarbonized, cold war.

Comment by Heteromeles

I’ve been writing in such a universe for the last couple years, and got bogged down by story, characterization, and the question of how our society can make the necessary political changes.*

I can send you what I wrote if you want, but it’s very much unfinished – probably not worth a read at the moment except as a curiosity.

* The solution I came up with was “kill all the Republican politicians,” but I don’t see that happening in the real world (and certainly wouldn’t do it myself, though putting them in jail might be another matter.)

Comment by Troutwaxer

Thanks for the offer. I’m face down in my own fantasy, as well as dealing with stuff in real life. In addition to the stuff I wrote above (A hyper-nuclear Cold War that stays stable because absolutely nobody is stupid enough to actually push the button), you could add some other elements.

–Depending on when people get serious about climate change in the 1960s, you could re-spin the whole course of America’s Vietnam war, install other Presidents, and rejigger the US political parties around different constituencies. Then you could squelch the Reagan revolution thing in the 1980s that gave the rich much more power than they’d previously had. I actually grew up in a Republican household (although they went Democrat with Bush, for reasons), and the whole Neo-Con thing really only dates back to the 1990s. Worse, it’s an outgrowth of the 1950s Southern Democratic bigots. The 60s and 70s were a pivotal time for the bigots switching from the party that lost the Confederacy to the Party of the Rich Industrialists. Depending on how things like VIetnam, voting rights and so forth play out in the 1960s (for example, fewer assassinations? G. Edgar Hoover dies mysteriously of ciguatera poisoning on vacation in San Diego?) you could have very different parties, with perhaps the Republicans being the party pro-solar, pro-conservation party of Teddy Roosevelt and the Democrats being the party ofSouthern Fried Big Nuke.

–If you wanted to go for goofy, have Timothy Leary get run over by a bus or otherwise taken out of the public eye. Then have psychedelics become legalized for treatment of addiction and depression (there was serious research on this in the 1950s and 1960s, with excellent results). Then have the psychedelics leak out of the clinics and into the tech sector in perfectly legal microdosing, leading to all sorts of creative technologies that would have taken many years to develop otherwise.

–If you accept the notion that conventional military prowess is one of the central drivers of our dependence on fossil fuels, then figuring out who the military genius is who comes up with the decarbonized alternative to this kind of warfare is a central conceit of the story. Perhaps it’s the founder of the Space Force in the 1970s, who revolutionized the use of missiles AND LEO, and made Europe safe against Soviet land invasions. Or something. There were plenty of space visionaries in the 1960s and 70s, so making one up is not impossible, and hooking in the old Space Race memes is certainly reasonable. Having militarized space ironically save the Earth from climate change might be useful. Or not.

Anyway, those are thoughts pulled out of random orifices. Hopefully you come up with something better on your own!

Comment by Heteromeles

My novel was conceived prior to the last three sets of revisions of climate estimates, and so did not involve an alternate reality. Instead, for reasons, the Constitutional Convention of 2036 ended up getting blown up, which killed mostly Republicans, then two weeks later the insurance companies decided to punt on any further insuring of areas less than 10 feet above sea level. The resulting crisis ended up with a government that had to make a decision about whether they wanted to have an officially racist nation or address climate change, and the realization that doing both was impossible.

The bulk of the book takes place forty years after that, and is intended to be optimistic.

Comment by Troutwaxer

Here’s the point I would jump off from if you wanted to imagine how the military could have lead efforts to trim fossil use:

“Pentagon officials have told the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee a gallon of fuel costs the military about $400 by the time it arrives in the remote locations in Afghanistan where U.S. troops operate.”


Put American troops or “advisors” in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It wouldn’t be that far off from how the US actually supported anti-Soviet forces back then. The Reagan administration supports full-speed-ahead research for solar, battery, and electrification technologies because it’s making remote military outposts less vulnerable to supply line disruptions.

The monocrystalline PERC cell technology was first published in 1989:

“22.8% efficient silicon solar cell”
Appl. Phys. Lett. 55, 1363 (1989)

Finally in 2019 monocrystalline PERC technology grew to be the leading PV technology by market share:


It took 30 years from lab scale demonstration to leading the industry. There is significant what-if wiggle room in an alt history for getting solar technology scaled up faster. You don’t really need to make solar “breakthroughs” much earlier. You do need sustained incentives for deployment much earlier.

Comment by Matt

Thanks Matt!

Comment by Heteromeles

I don’t know how well this would’ve worked in the real world, but I nominate the USSR for your magic plot device. A world where the Soviet Union pulled out of Afghanistan before it bankrupted them into collapse could’ve helped with that, maybe.

The massive conventional army buildup and deployment all over the world during that never-ending dick measuring contest was matched by both “superpowers” engaging in dirty-trick arms supply to all the dissidents they could find that didn’t like the other side, their allies, or their protectorates and proxy-regimes. Anti-communist warrior Osama Bin Laden being armed and funded by the CIA to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan was far from an anomaly for either side. Modern communications and information technology has empowered non-state forces, and in that sort of geopolitical environment the level of threat they present to things like pipelines, fuel shipments and oilfields would’ve similarly increased notably. This presents a clear and undeniable motivation for everyone in that clusterfuck to invest heavily in unconventional (“renewable”) energy technologies, for both economic and strategic purposes.

Also, in the real world the USSR embarrassingly failed to exist and play “red team” for the usual spy games. This left a similar gaping hole in the justification of budget requests for spy games and internal security forces. That lead to the “red hunter” assholes of the security establishment pivoting to doing the same kind of brutal repression against harmless (and “mostly-harmless”) environmental movements out of a combination of boredom and a need to pretend to justify their paycheques. Without that, the FBI wouldn’t be hunting Greenpeace, PETA and all the rest as vigorously as they have in the real world. With the security establishment suitably distracted by actual existential-threat foes to fight instead, the civic-minded climate change activism may have been both oppressed less vigorously, and also paid more media and governmental attention from 1990 onward.

Last and definitely not least, I think it’s no coincidence that US civil society and government has broadly atrophied in its ability and willingness to deal fairly with each other and with foreigners in the absence of the USSR to serve as their bogeyman, to unify against in opposition. Look at the timeline for when the Montreal Protocol on CFCs was negotiated and implemented: 1987, and 1989, years when the Cold War had not ended and during which the US cared about internationalism because they were opposed by a red team they felt genuinely threatened by. That perceived threat lead to the US government and civil society carefully building and maintaining an international consensus that was motivated by more than just merely the greed and oppression of its native (and “multinational”) aristocracy. Speaking of that bogeyman, the USSR was well known for large and embarrassing environmental catastrophes. The “free world” working to be better stewards of the environment of today and tomorrow in contrast to “the locust red plague” is exactly the sort of stupid, us versus them nonsense that could’ve led the greedy and disinterested people of the world into a genuine-effort counterpart of the green new deal in the 1990s and 2000s.

Comment by anonymous coward

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: