Dark World

Ruth Howes

We're physicists. Numbers tell us stories. We recognize the human implications of numbers in tables. This crude sketch of the life of a typical American family applies a bit of imagination to the facts underlying the hard numbers.

On an early February morning in 2030, Darrow, Pennsylvania lay quiet under a thin blanket of snow. Charles Smith shivered as he crossed the family room on his way to the kitchen. A warm, wet January had suddenly given way to subzero February temperatures and unusual draught.

Television pundits attributed the strange weather to global warming. At least the U.S. had been spared the famines that swept Asia when monsoon patterns changed. Local crop failures in the midwest were balanced by bumper crops in the Dakotas and Canada. These days, nobody except The Old Farmers Almanac claimed to predict the weather accurately.

Stepping carefully around his sleeping children, Smith turned up the heat. The family mostly lived in the kitchen during the winter cold to reduce crippling oil bills for heating. Using only one room reduced expenses for electricity. In warmer weather, the family expanded back into three bedrooms and the living and dining rooms.

While Smith started breakfast, his wife and two children gradually assembled near the kitchen stove. Patricia who was 17 had bitterly protested the fur lining in her new bathrobe, but Smith noted that she huddled into it looking warm. Furs might be cruel to animals, but artificial fabrics based on petroleum products were too expensive for everyday use. The family carefully preserved their metal cookware and stoneware dishes since plastic was so expensive that it was used mainly for decorative objects. Smith almost laughed out loud when he read a report from the 1990s about landfills crowded with plastics and even artificial diapers that were covered in plastic sheets.

As usual, Patricia begged to use her hair dryer, an energy guzzler if there ever was one. Her friend Sally used hers every day. Sally's mother worked as a housekeeper for one of the OPEC industrial managers, and her family lived in company housing with free energy. As the cost of energy increased, OPEC dumped its petroleum profits into American industries. Their managers lived very well compared to the American employees.

Smith wished that somebody had thought carefully about energy at the start of the twenty-first century. The coal plants that sustained the national electrical power grid were devouring the U.S. coal supply. The country had decided not to deplete its coal as the U.S. had depleted its petroleum and natural gas. Electric power prices were kept high until new energy sources could be brought on line.

In the first years of the 21st century, Congress saved money to meet the growing demands of Social Security by cutting research on renewable energy sources. Nuclear fission and fusion programs were canceled in 2009 because of massive public protests against them. Ten years ago, the Department of Energy restarted the research, but the decade without funds had killed the programs. Bright scientists turned to other, more lucrative fields. The U.S. still led the world in developing special effects for movies, but the country trailed Europe and Asia in energy research.

The Smith family settled quietly to eat their breakfast. Smith was grateful that their relatively rural environment guaranteed a supply of fresh milk and eggs for the children. Periodic fuel shortages meant sudden cut offs of fresh food in cities. Both Los Angeles and New York had had major riots in December when the inner city poor demanded a supply of basic foods. Even in rural areas, meat was prohibitively expensive because diesel fuel, agricultural chemicals and fertilizer had become very costly. Smith thought the low fat diet that most Americans currently consumed was healthier for them than the meat rich food of their parents' generation. Still, it would be nice to have a real steak on special occasions.

The family washed quickly, conserving hot water. They bathed only on Saturday nights which saved enormous quantities of water. Patricia complained, but all her friends did the same. Bundled in furs, the family set out for work and school. Fortunately the children could walk. Many students in rural areas had become boarding students, returning home only on weekends to save expensive gasoline. Fourteen year old Chuck knew his basketball team did not have enough gasoline to go to the state tournament although the team had worked hard for its winning season.

Mary, Smith's wife, walked to the local clinic where she worked as a nurse. The clinic did not have a resident physician, and few people could afford the gasoline to travel the ten miles to the next town which had both a hospital and a doctor. Mary's clinic was linked to the hospital and its staff through the world wide web so she could refer questions to experts when she needed help. For cases requiring hospitalization, the clinic had a special supply of gasoline paid for by the town taxes.

The fuel had to be used very carefully if it were to last through the year. National gasoline supplies were so limited that the hospital could not obtain extra fuel at any price. All government supplies were dedicated to the military. Even though the U.S. no longer stationed soldiers abroad and training exercises had been cut to the bone, planes still had to be fueled, and tanks needed oil and gasoline to run. National security came first.

Charles worked for a subsidiary of OPEC Industries which provided transportation for its employees. He walked to the bus stop, and as usual, admired the expensive energy efficient van developed and produced by the French. It got nearly 150 miles per gallon when it was fully loaded.

The American automobile industry had made huge inefficient luxury cars and massive SUVs until its demise in 2015 during the petroleum crisis caused by the Triangular War. Israel, Iraq and Iran had battled over Saudi Arabia effectively decimating their own populations with chemical weapons and also cutting off the flow of oil from the Middle East. Oil supplies had recovered faster than the devastated nations because of the fast action of the OPEC cartel. In spite of such industrial casualties as the automobile industry, the U.S. had rapidly returned to business as usual, lulled into false security by cheap and plentiful oil for energy. A few industries had switched to domestic natural gas, and the exponential increase in consumption quickly depleted what had seemed to be a large supply.

The van travelled as fast as it could while dodging the ever-present pot holes. Road repairs cost petroleum. Climbing to the ridge, it passed a series of elegant summer homes now boarded up for the winter. Most of the homes belonged to wealthy Japanese who had adopted this rural corner of Pennsylvania because they liked the cool hills in the summer and the wildlife that still lived there. They bought up American farms as increasing energy prices drove family farmers off the land. Beside Smith in the van, George Jones coughed painfully. Asthma had increased to epidemic proportions during the winter cold exacerbated by the ever-present dust from the nearby power plant which burned low-grade coal.

Smith worked as a supervisor. He had not been able to travel to a university or afford to live near one. Instead he had taken courses delivered over the web. By hard work and doing every problem in his text books, he had managed to pass the examinations for his engineer's license. He felt lucky to have the steady work, and the salary that went with it. High school classmates who lacked his determined work ethic found themselves migrating from factory to factory as labor demands shifted.

An optimist, Smith realized that Congress had finally recognized that the U.S. faced severe problems with its energy supplies. Bills to construct mass transport systems and to tap the energy of nuclear fission had passed seven years earlier, and the public works projects had begun to make life easier. Genetically engineered crops fought insects and weeds without the need for petroleum-based fertilizers and insecticides. Smith felt confident that the America of 2050 would regain the industrial leadership and quality of life of the late twentieth century.

With a final glance at the country side, shining in the morning Sun, Smith turned into the factory to begin his shift.


Ruth Howes

Dept. of Physics and Astonomy

Ball State university, Muncie, IN 47306