In 1936 Things to Come, a film adaptation written by H.G. Wells based on his book, The Shape of Things to Come, foretold of apocalyptic wars followed by the thuggish rule of a warlord (played by Ralph Richardson) put in power by an angry, fearful mob. This warlord would ultimately be overthrown by a technocratic movement, known in the film as Wings Over the World, that had banded together in a remote location in anticipation of the apocalypse. These technocrats, who prized intellectual achievement and peace, would go on to usher in a golden age, though not without further uprisings by angry mobs.
As is often the case, H.G. Wells is eerily prescient, at least in regards to the early-21st century United States. But instead of raging wars, the devastating effects of accelerating climate change are coupling with the decline of low-skill, US manufacturing to bring an apocalypse down upon rural America. The desperate residents of this bleak landscape have reacted by electing a President who, like the aforementioned warlord, panders to the mob using racially-charged rhetoric coupled with empty economic promises.
An example of these empty promises came shortly after his election, but before his inauguration. Donald Trump boasted he had saved hundreds of jobs in largely-rural Indiana by persuading Carrier Corporation to refrain from moving to Mexico. However, Carrier still planned to move more jobs to Mexico than it was keeping in the US. That’s in spite of a large subsidy by the state of Indiana, home of Vice President-Elect Mike Pence, to stay.
A lack of manufacturing employment means rural populations must rely on agriculture. But agriculture is vulnerable to climate change. Temperatures are now rising in the Midwest, a region known for agriculture and a large rural population. According to the US Global Change Research Program, greater heat in southern areas of the Midwest will decrease summer precipitation by an average of about 8% in 2041-2062 versus 1979-2000.
That lack of precipitation impacts crop yields. According to Wolfram Schlenker of Columbia University and Michael J. Roberts of North Carolina State University, “…area-weighted average yields are predicted to decrease by 30 – 46% before the end of the century under the slowest warming scenario and decrease by 63– 82% under the most rapid warming scenario…”
While rural communities dependent on agriculture face an economic threat, those dependent on tourism face a potentially existential threat as vegetation dries out due to extreme drought. Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a vacation retreat nestled in a valley at the northern entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, was surrounded by lush forests fed by a plethora of streams and rivers. That was until it burned.
In late 2016, a devastating and extremely unprecedented drought converted the lush forests into a vast source of fuel for a fire that swept from the center of the park into Gatlinburg. Hundreds of homes and businesses were destroyed with the death toll rising into the double-digits. The local economy, which depended on tourism, was shattered. But this was only one fire in a broad outbreak that spanned six states. Climate change experts anticipate more such fires, as extreme drought in the interior of the US due to global warming is as likely as a widely-anticipated rise in sea level.
History shows how Americans will react to such hardship: by embarking on a mass migration such as that last seen in the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The Dust Bowl was a semi-arid region in the central US that included parts or the entirety of Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, and other states. During periods of heavy rain, the region could seem deceptively friendly to aggressive agricultural exploitation. But when the rains failed, that exploitation resulted in a rapid loss of topsoil to high winds, making it virtually impossible to farm. In the 1930s, the rainfall failure led to a mass exodus from the Midwest to California. These climatic/economic refugees were often derisively known as Okies, famously depicted by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath.
A repeat of this migration is now underway, as census data shows that eight out of ten US counties that are losing population are rural. An early indicator of a region’s duress is where the children end up. If there’s prosperity, they might remain in familiar environs. But in rural America, young people are fleeing for the cities in search of employment. As economic conditions back home collapse due to population decline, their extended families may join them, as has happened in other countries. Economic weakness and sheer numbers will obligate them to seek the cheapest housing available. That will be in the suburbs of major cities.
In December of 2016 the Wall Street Journal reported that suburban population growth outperformed that of central cities. In the fifty largest US metro regions, the suburbs accounted for 91% of the population growth over the past 15 years. According to the Urban Land Institute (ULI), many households cite lower housing costs as a key reason for moving to the suburbs. Demand in the suburbs therefore isn’t a function of desirability, but of necessity.
Who are these economic and climatic refugees? According to US Census figures, the rapidly-emptying rural America from which this migration originates is nearly 78% white. Thus it is one of history’s great ironies that after the race-based rancor towards Latin American migrants during the 2016 Presidential Campaign, a mostly white, mid-21st century refugee migration has begun.
Troublingly, many of these new migrants are very capable of fomenting serious political instability. According to Gallup polling, rural Americans are twice as likely to possess firearms as those living in cities. Most of these gun owners are white men who are buying guns at a higher rate than at any point in the past quarter-century: over 500,000 per year. Alarmingly, in 2010 this rate was still as low as 70,000 per year, meaning most of the surge came in the last decade.
Economic duress often leads to civil violence. Runaway inflation and unemployment was a cause of the Yugoslav Civil War of the 1990s. Germany’s slide into extreme militarism and fascist rule was exacerbated by the Great Depression of the 1930s. A mass of armed refugees clustering at the edges of major US cities is not a recipe for peace and tranquility. One need only look at the banlieue of Paris or the favelas of Rio de Janiero to see the shape of things to come.
The blasted landscape envisioned by H. G. Wells hasn’t manifested itself yet, but avoiding that future is looking more difficult. There is no Wings Over the World to save the American people from themselves. Technocrats and intellectuals are frowned upon by a celebrity and athlete-obsessed culture. As Notre Dame professor Gary Gutting observed in The New York Times, “…in the United States, there is a strong strain of anti-intellectualism that undervalues intellectual culture and overvalues athletics.”
That anti-intellectual bias is already showing up in the rising wage inequality between those with and without advanced degrees. According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, demand for those with advanced degrees exceeds the supply. That drives up their salaries. Those without such degrees must compete for an ever-dwindling number of jobs. In effect, anti-intellectualism is making the poor more numerous, more vulnerable to economic and climatic change.
Only if this basic anti-intellectual cultural flaw is undone will there be any hope of finding a way to avoid catastrophe and restart American progress. H. G. Wells’ dialogue sums up the choice:
“All the universe or nothingness? Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?”