“Big oil companies are either slowly dying out, or adapting […] Slowly, for the first time in two hundred years, CO2-levels in the atmosphere are falling.”

— a quadripartite prelude —

The crisis is big, my children, so big that the distinctions between reality and imagination, impression and expression, even between fantasy and science fiction are dissolving —

The stranger is a presence, an epiphenomenon, an emergent property yet his followers prefer to visualise this ephemeral quadrilaterality as a person, an androgynous icon in zazen, floating in mid-air.

The four of you must bear witness to the upcoming shift, the change of mental seasons. Short-term blindness, incessant greed, false conservatism and fear are the four hard truths we must face. You must go the East, the West, the North and the South —

Four young adults are listening intently to the Swami of the four new Vedas. Chika Wu from Chengdu, her unruly black hair all but covering her amber face and glasses; João Incanna from Lima, his wiry frame and auburn skin weathered from years of fishing; Grace M’Boku from the Limpopo floodplains, her stature a study in empathy, ebony and elegance; and Saaki Sami from Lapland, his springy red hair complementing his ivory face.

Sow the seeds of change. Implement the memes of co-operation & entrepreneurship, innovation, long-term thinking & sustainability and hope. Remember the fourfold path — the four new Vedas, if you like — to dharma:

  • the only constant in the chain of life is change;
  • the protection of the weakest is the new way forward;
  • like biodiversity, multiple strategies need not be mutually exclusive;
  • greatness determines a people’s karma, so find a way to improve yours; —

Off they go. Wu to the East, Incanna to the West, M’Boku to the South, Sami to the North.

— a quadruple overture: four hard truths —

Chika Wu comes down in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, perched right between the Sichuan Basin and the fertile lands of the Chengdu Plain, a transit area from the Longmen and Qionglai mountains, the Min River convergence area and the extremely crowded cityscapes. The extremely polluted cityscapes.

Like Incanna, M’Boku and Sami, she has to form a team, a team that must focus on one big problem, a hard truth. The hard truth in China’s cityscapes is impossible to miss. Pollution, eye-watering pollution everywhere. Breathing masks are as popular as smartphones, and more indispensable.

People are plentiful, perhaps too plentiful. Finding the right people might take too long. Yet almost everybody is connected to the internet in one way or another, with profiles, interests and surfing behaviour readily available to those who know how to mine all that data. Wu dives in, searching for the right people, knowing that Chengdu is already a research & development centre for new energies.

João Incanna remigrates to Lima. In the fishing villages of his youth, an immense hard truth is staring them right in the face. Through a combination of overfishing, pollution and climate change, the Pacific Ocean — the largest body of water on the planet — is slowly dying. Coral reefs are bleaching, fish stock are heavily depleted, huge amounts of plastic — in particular the plastic broken down to small pieces — are disturbing the food chain, biodiversity is suffering and the acidity of the water is rising.

Compared to that, the poverty and lack of job prospects of the Peruvian coastal communities seem like minor problems. Yet Incanna wants to gather a team that aims to solve it all, step by step, little by little.

Grace M’Boku moves to Gaborone, then to the agricultural communities in the floodplains of the Limpopo River. There are many hard truths in her part of the world, but the hardest are hunger, disease and destitution. Over the last few centuries, her people have been introduced — often forcefully — to new ways. So far, these new ways have mainly helped the already rich and well-to-do, and failed to improve the lives of the most destitute ones, like her community.

Returning to the old ways is not an option. There must be better new ways, ways like the waves of a tide that lifts all boats. Even if they have to invent those themselves, even if it means they have to work harder than ever before.

Saaki Sami shifts down in Luleå. Over there, the winter often covers nasty problems under a blanket of snow. But the winters aren’t as long and severe as they used to be, and the blanket of snow is getting thinner by the year.

On top of that, some of the Scandinavians feel guilt about being a part of the problem. Companies like Ericsson and Nokia helped launch the mobile phone revolution, and the billions of discarded phones form garbage patches and landfills the size of small provinces. They helped deplete the Earth of many of its rare metals. It’s time to clean up the mess and re-use those precious metals.

— circle the quadrangle —

Chika Wu’s team is a weird mix of biochemists whose interests are restless, leaping from topic to topic like magpies chasing anything that glimmers; and physicists whose interests are so singular they almost forget there exists a world outside of it.

Both researchers wish to create their own Shang-tu, while also trying to improve upon already existing products and results. The biochemists wish to develop a thin, organic polymer film that acts like a solar cell. A film that’s easy to produce, from materials that are widely available. A film that has a higher efficiency than the current best solar cell technology, and that is as maintenance-free as possible.

The physicists want to develop a room-temperature superconductor. Not only that, the material should ideally consist of parts that are readily available. On top of that, a material that can easily be produced as very long strands of wire, to stretch from mountain or countryside (or desert) to city.

As she doesn’t want the two teams to be fully isolated, Chika Wu hires a number of interdisciplinary people who shift between the two core teams in an effort to provide both with fresh insights and ideas. The exchange proves so fruitful that a small group splits off from the other two and starts developing a new type of battery with record-breaking levels of power storage density.

João Incanna has introduced the fishermen of his port to a mixed group of University researchers, start-up entrepreneurs and idealists. While the practicality of the fishermen often clashes with the lofty goals of the idealists, and the can-do spirit of the entrepreneurs often raises doubts with the researchers, a common goal binds them. They wish to clean up and reseed the Pacific Ocean so that its biodiversity can recover — and the starkly depleted fish stock with them — and deliver raw materials to the space-elevator-to-be base floating several hundred kilometres west of the Galapagos Islands.

So they work on a bio-active mega-net. An anti-fishing net of sorts, as it tries to catch the plastic floating around in the Pacific while leaving life — plankton, nekton and fishes — alone. To counter the acidification of the ocean they seed it with novo-plankton, a rich mix of genetically engineered algae, diatoms and protozoans provided with single-celled, alkali-producing algae. The algae will only produce alkali if the seawater’s pH rises above seven.

The first prototype of the megabionet has plastic-detecting sensors that err on the side of caution, to be certain no actual living organisms are caught by accident. It lowers their effective catch ratio, but there is so much plastic in the ocean that it’s better to launch the first vessels with the original megabionets than waiting and doing nothing. Later generations will be supplied with improved versions.

The first vessels with anti-fishing nets set out on carefully calculated trajectories, from the Peruvian coast to the North and South Pacific Garbage Patches — invisible from space, yet rife with plastic mini-, micro- and nano-particles — and onwards to deliver the captured plastic to the base of the space-elevator-to-be, west of the Galapagos Archipelago.

Grace M’Boku moves to Gaborone, where she goes after fresh University graduates, innovators young and old and those willing to put in hard labour. In the agricultural communities outside the capital, she looks for experienced hands and those well in the know about ages-old cultivation methods.

Her team — her ‘agricultural advancers’ — a mix of experienced and young people, needs to be wise enough to know what’s right, then brave enough to choose it. They dance to the beat of the old world man with the heat of the new world woman. They have to be sharp enough to win the world, and wily enough not to loose it. Above all, as they try to move forward, they need to keep their nature pure.

Grace M’Boku’s agricultural advancers must first face five years of hardship. Near the floodplains of the Limpopo River, the land is all but barren, and grand new techniques, together with ceaseless toil, can make it fertile. They must make agrichar and biochar — taking the best from chitemene — use new ways of mound cultivation to make the land, square metre by square metre, fertile again.

Not only that. After the land is fertilised, a careful mix of produce must be planted to maintain not only the fecundity, but the re-implemented diversity, as well. Beyond that, they have to make sure that the super-symbiotic neo-agricultures they’ve developed are also drought-resistant. Otherwise, one single super dry season will undo all their hard work.

She needs initial investments and — like other women, who form ninety percent of all successful applications — gets a microcredit for her project. She fully intents to be among the ninety-five percent who actually pay their loan back. After which she wants to uplift others in her region.

Saaki Sami gathers people from Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia — with a few stray Icelanders — to form his research & development team. Reining them in like reindeer, he lures them with the carrot-and-stick approach of old guilt and new challenges.

His team is making something huge that incorporates immensely small parts. Not as big as an iron ore smelter, nor as large as Oulu’s paper manufacturing plant, but still very substantial. Small enough to be easily constructed in other places, but large enough to take on big loads.

In their premises overlooking the snow-covered plains of the Scandinavian Arctic Circle, they’re developing a high-temperature nano lubricant-cum-dissolver, a grey goo that’s extremely resistant to high temperatures, able to penetrate the smallest of chips and circuit boards, with the ability to extract the rare metal needle in the discarded computing equipment haystack. Billions upon billions of computers, smartphones, tablets and other gadgets have been made, used and discarded in quick succession as Moore’s Law ran its course. Enormous, polluting landfills where precious metals lay inert as current ores are running out. At some point intricate, intensive recycling will become economically viable. Saaki Sami’s team wishes to be ahead of that very curve.

— the eightfold path —

Chika Wu’s test project in Chengdu succeeds beyond her team’s wildest dreams. Large panels covered with the solar nanofilm cover many square kilometres of the mountain- and countryside near Chengdu, and are interconnected with the cuprate superconducting wires. These same superconducting wires have been laid all the way to Chengdu, supplying the city with over ninety percent of its required energy. A coup emphasising the solar nanofilm’s efficiency considering the mostly grey weather of the area.

They also developed a more powerful type of battery. These batteries, implemented both in electric cars and houses have become plentiful enough to store the peak electricity production at day in order to keep supplying everybody with electrical power at night.

The test project is so successful that the Chinese government wants to implement it at a much larger scale in the Gobi Desert, to supply solar power to Beijing, Shanghai and other megacities. Private entrepreneurs are already looking to implement the technology in cities outside China like Tokyo, Seoul, Bangkok and Taipei, among many others.

Five years after the successful test project, the Chengdu Jintang coal power station has been shut down. Chengdu has now the best air quality of any municipality with more than a million people in China, and proudly calls itself the ‘green revolution city’.

After the first five years, João Incanna’s fleet is expanding rapidly. Simultaneously, the novoplankton-growing basins of his team are popping up everywhere along the Peruvian coast, even expanding into Chile and Ecuador.

The good they’ve been doing is surfacing gradually. Fish stocks are, slowly yet inevitably, picking up from their all-time lows. The novoplankton is thriving, both re-invigorating the food chain from the bottom up and countering the acidification of the ocean. Coral bleaching has come to a standstill, and a few coral reefs are steadily recovering. The plastic pollution levels are decreasing, albeit at a rate slower than they wish. His team keeps working hard to improve the efficiency of their megabionets.

The plastic they deliver to the space-elevator-to-be base is fully recycled into graphene and several organic by-products. The graphene is shot into orbit through a double railgun. The first railgun shoots up magnetised ice, most of which (flash-)evaporates in the atmosphere. Right behind it, in the magnetised ice’s slipstream, is the real payload that does not burn up in the air. There, in geosynchronous orbit, is where the quadruple-redundant ribbon of the space elevator is produced.

Over time, they gather more plastic than is needed for the manufacture of the space elevator’s ribbon, and they deliver the surplus to plastic recycling plants in North and South America. Big oil companies are either slowly dying out, or adapting, modifying their refineries into plastic recycling facilities. Crude oil production dwindles as renewable energy starts providing the majority of the world’s energy needs and increasingly intricate recycling methods become competitive alternatives to crude oil’s refined products. Slowly, for the first time in two hundred years, CO2-levels in the atmosphere are falling.

In Botswana, five years of toiling are followed by five years of feeding the people, modifying both their recharring methods and their neo-agricultures to different types of lands and climates. In the original implementation areas — the floodplains of the Limpopo River — hunger became a thing of the past, and people slowly became better off as they were producing more than they could eat, and subsequently found willing markets for their inherently sustainable food.

The hard labour required to set up such a neo-agriculture provides much-needed work. Increasingly, people aren’t complaining that they’re working so hard, but that they’re proud to do such good work for the future of their family, friends, community and — in the long run — for their country and continent.

Their knowledge is made open source, but it doesn’t spread as fast as Grace M’Boku and her people like, even as it’s made available on every smartphone in Africa. Language remains a huge barrier, and they set up a quick translation app — at first manned by many human translators, more automated as machine learning catches on — that’s sponsored by voluntary donations through moola from Mxit and other forms of electronic money. As their livelihoods increase, people are increasingly willing to pay their dues.

As a fortunate by-effect, sub-Saharan Africa starts to develop infrastructures old and new that need less original investments and maintenance such as vacuum Zeppelins for long-distance transport, electric quads for short-distance transport and Electrified Trees for data signal transport, all increasingly powered by renewable energy. Their economies are growing in a highly sustainable manner.

After a series of increased fine-tunings, the prototype MaNa — Macro/Nano — Smelter in Luleå achieves recycling efficiencies of over ninety-nine percent, while being energetically self-sustainable and carbon neutral. The refined blueprint, which has been open source from the beginning, remains available to all. Siblings of the Lapland MaNaSmelter are popping up everywhere, worldwide. In a mere five years, the production of the newest device is truly green, sustainable and fair. Fairphone in Amsterdam declare themselves obsolete and start a new project called ‘Fairspace’. Landfills are rewilded after their soil has been purified by modified versions of the MaNaSmelters. Most of the mines are closed, their premises re-purified if possible, and rewilded, as well (even if a few are refurbished as appartements nouveaux). Eco-diversity is recovering, previously thought extinct species tentatively make a return, and Mercury and other heavy metal accumulation at the top of the food chain are diminishing.

On good days, the MaNaSmelter produces a small surplus of energy. Part of it is fed back into the grid, yet part of it is used for the sauna set up by Saaki Sami’s team. After cleaning their minds and refreshing their bodies in the cleansing steam bath, Sami’s people roll around in the snow, sky-clad and earth-bound. Is it psychosomatic, or are the winters slowly becoming colder?

— a coda of four kōans —

—If the strength of a chain is determined by its weakest link, how can the chain of life stretch endlessly long? —

If the survival of the fittest was the grand design behind Darwinian evolution, what’s the strategy in the Anthropocene? —

How is the karma of a people determined? How can you strengthen your own karma? —

Is it wise to explore another environment while you do not fully understand your own? Is it wise to remain in your own environment forever? —

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Jetse de Vries
Jetse de Vries — @upbeatfuture — is a technical propulsion specialist by day, and a speculative fiction reader, editor and writer by night. He's also an avid bicyclist, total solar eclipse chaser, single malt aficionado, Mexican food lover, metalhead and intelligent optimist. His debut novel Forever Curious is available at https://bit.ly/jdvForeverCurious.