An aerial photo of greenhouses in Almería, Spain
The greenhouses of Almeria, Spain (PMCARRENO / Shutterstock)

Future Shock in the Countryside

Earth’s rural areas are being transformed by climate change and technology.

In the opening scene of Blade Runner 2049, a flying craft navigates California over an endless expanse of solar farms and tessellated plastic fields on its way to a desolate farmstead. Watching it, I was struck by the dazzling futuristic spectacle, but also surprised to see the countryside at all in a science-fiction film.

Often in speculative fiction, the future belongs to the city alone. Rural areas are conspicuously ignored, as if urbanization will expand inexorably. When the countryside does appear, it mostly offers stark contrast to the technologically advanced metropolis. A lost arcadia, rural life falls into desolate ruin, populated only by scavengers and exiles.

We have had a century, at least, of visions of future cities. They come now as greenwashing corporate sales pitches and escapist fantasies. Shorn of its radical edge, cyberpunk has largely become a form of retro-futurist nostalgia. Even when civilization is obliterated in fiction, the stories offer reassuringly simple tales of adversity and heroism, in contrast to the intractable problems of the present. With notable exceptions (Afrofuturism is one), the countryside upon which all cities are reliant is largely disregarded.

What would it be like to take a flight like the one from Blade Runner, beyond the city limits, above the rural landscapes of the Earth today? Developments in motion—including climate change, technological innovations, and their side effects—already point the way to plausible outcomes. Those near futures show that the city’s fate is intimately tied to rural areas, and urbanites scorn or ignore country life to their peril.

Leaving the city behind, initially the Earth looks the same as it has for some time: terraced farms like contour lines on topographic maps, the arterial systems of rivers. Go high enough, and the view would be sublime. The sun would still glitter, even on disaster zones like the flooded areas of Cambodia and Vietnam, East Africa, the Ganges Delta. Life still goes on, fleets of boats and floating villages amidst the wreckage of washed-away infrastructure and destroyed crops. It would look almost peaceful from afar.

But not on the ground. Conflicting populations already struggle against the seasonal chaos of floods and droughts. The large industrial centers that power fossil-fuel pollution are at risk—the Pearl River Delta is one—but disproportionate consequences are poised to fall upon areas that did little to contribute (a 2015 Oxfam report showed that the richest 10 percent were responsible for 50 percent of global emissions). The nations least equipped to face the storm will face it first.

Signs of environmental decay are evident even from the skies. The Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death and, despite concerted efforts at revival, it will soon look like a petrified, skeletal mass off the Australian coast. Colossal hulks of glacial ice are dissipating in the Alps, the Himalayas, and the Rockies. What is for now called the Dead Sea is becoming a desert; eventually, it could sprout strange statues of salt.

Rusted ships line the ground in Uzbekistan, where the Aral Sea once flowed. The area is being redeveloped into a seabed forest to combat climate change in the region. (Anadolu Agency / Getty)

Despite grave warnings (almost 15,000 dead in France in 2003 and 56,000 dead in Russia in 2010), many societies are woefully unprepared for the heat waves and wildfires that will continue to blight them with increasing frequency. Australia, for example, long resisted links between climate change and the calamities visited upon the country long after its Angry Summer of 2013. India had been a heat-death forerunner, with much of its population having no access to adequate shelter or air conditioning as the country boiled, resulting in thousands of deaths.

As temperatures rise in countries of temperature complacency, infrastructure will begin to deteriorate. Electricity demands will cause brownouts, extinguishing the lights and the sight of eclipsed cities from the air. But it will also bring fans to a halt. The very young, the infirm, and the very old will die first, as they did in the European heat waves. In a rural setting, the story told from above will be one of absences: herds of animals missing from traditional migration routes and villages lying eerily still and silent.

A glare of bright light catches the pilot’s eye. In an effort to harness the forces we’ve unleashed upon ourselves and the environment, humanity has devised new means of sustainable power, although they are not yet in widespread use. On solar thermal farms such as those in California’s Mojave Desert, circles of heliostat mirrors direct and concentrate the sun’s glare to a single point, a sort of incandescent Eye of Sauron at the top of a power tower. The tower heats molten salt to more than 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is then used to create steam and generate electricity. Rings of panels cascade like ripples across the landscape, covering flatland and hills alike. Each can power hundreds of thousands of homes and save equal tons of carbon emissions. Unfortunately, birds (referred to as “streamers”) have a tendency to fly into the beams and catch fire, though acoustic lighthouses could soon be installed to reduce avian fatalities.

Our flying craft follows the solar roads and railways out to the edge of the desert, only to find that it is growing. Alongside the circles and rectangles of blue solar panels, mistaken by pilots and birds as mirages of water, other geometric shapes are visible. Shaped and colored like the sweep of old radar screens, pivot irrigation circles are arranged in bright-green rows and columns against the desert’s burning sands. They tap deep into ancient aquifers beneath the surface, underground oases used to make the desert bloom, helping to sustain the skyscrapers of the planned wonder-city of Neom in Saudi Arabia.

The blue circles are pivot irrigation systems near the city of As Sulayyil, Saudi Arabia. A central well dispenses water for farming in arid areas. (NASA / JPL / UCSD / JSC)

With up to 30 percent of land at risk of aridification, as a Nature Climate Change study warned in January, vast environmental engineering projects will be required to halt the encroaching deserts. Beijing has long been afflicted, not just with smog, but with devastating sandstorms, too. These gigantic clouds of dust blow in from Mongolia, swallowing buildings and streets. A similar plague struck Sydney in 2009—the opaque orange and yellow light it brought inspired the color palette of Blade Runner 2049. In both cases, the storms damaged property, paralyzed services, and had a ruinous impact on the population’s health. And in India, the dust waves were so destructive, they left bodies in their wake.

China has long been working on a solution. Passing over the Great Wall of China, you would arrive at the so-called Great Green Wall of China, or the Three-North Shelter Forest Program. With the Gobi Desert consuming an alarming amount of grassland (well over 1,000 square miles annually), the Chinese government initiated a forestation plan in 1978  meant to last almost a century. Woods and vegetation have been planted as a bulwark to keep the wasteland at bay, to bind the soil and act as a windbreak while hosting an abundance of wildlife. Rows of trees were projected to extend for miles in the plans, and even the dunes were shown bound with grids of desert-hardened greenery.

Other nations have followed suit. A Great Green Wall of the Sahara has been conceived, to extend from Djibouti to Senegal. The project aspires to become “the largest living structure on the planet.” In Pakistan, the successful Billion Tree Tsunami program was expanded to 10 billion trees to protect against deluge and desertification while absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen. Deforestation continued elsewhere—legally and illegally, but always in the interest of commerce under the guise of national sovereignty and economic liberalization. National parks in Southeast Asia and the Americas might soon be given over for timber, mining, and the production of rubber, palm oil, and soybeans.

They wouldn’t be alone. The former site of the Aral Sea, between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, was catastrophically allowed to dry up in the communist Great Plan for the Transformation of Nature. There, what was once a seabed is newly covered in 4 million hectares of freshly planted Saxaul trees, surrounding the remains of a ship graveyard with rusting landlocked boats.

With the world’s population on track to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, agriculture is already under extreme pressure. Those stresses are exacerbated by climate change. Attempts to double food production over the next half century are visible today from the air. The enormous tapestry of plastic greenhouses in Almería, which appeared at the beginning of Blade Runner 2049, might soon be found in numerous locations, such as Russia, stretching out to the horizon, visible from orbit.

Intensive farming is becoming imperative: Get more from less through hydroponics, LED lights, and biodomes. Multistory vertical farms stand like blind sentinels in the landscape, filled with rotating shelves of produce growing all year round and protected from pests and pesticides. While this is ideal for leafy greens, the staple foods that support the global population—rice, wheat, potatoes, and so on—have long remained resistant to growing indoors. Insects as an industrially produced source of protein also remain a hard sell. Smart cities cannot exist without smart agriculture, but shifting sufficient attention away from urban attractions of the future could take years. Life will become more precarious in the meantime.

The Khi Solar One power tower thermal power plant, in the Northern Cape of South Africa (Planet Labs (CC-BY-SA))

For all the startling advances in technology, humanity remains bound to basic but unsated needs—shelter, food, and most pressing of all, water. If warnings like Cape Town’s risk of running dry in 2018 are ignored, other cities will follow—Sao Paulo, Cairo, Bangalore. Advances in desalination might not keep pace with demand or keep costs low. Violence will likely ensue, as will political upheaval.

As you soar over the Tibetan Plateau, the cloud-seeding chambers that the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation is constructing would come into view. Each one would appear marked by a trail of clouds creeping over the land for miles, sown with silver iodide to encourage rainfall. Rumors of weather being used as a future armament have arisen, presumably intended to engineer droughts or deluge against enemy territories and populations.

Drought and food shortages played a significant role in fostering the Arab Spring, Syria’s civil war, and the Central American migrant caravan. But these are just the beginning. As rural areas deplete further, cities will buckle under the pressure. Extremist groups and opportunist politicians will take full advantage (as predicted by the German think tank Adelphi in a 2018 study, “Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate”). In the future, flying over these conflict areas could become too dangerous, but signs of strife’s consequences would be visible in the beleaguered refugee camps and the border-security infrastructure projects designed not to alleviate misery but to keep its victims at bay.

Heading along the coastline, the aircraft would pass over decaying fishing fleets near oxygen-depleted “dead zones” of water (partly due to fertilizer runoff causing algae blooms). Turning toward the sea, you might see other imprints of progress—tidal-stream generators and barrages to capture energy, bobbing wave-power buoys, and algae farms, which could offset proteins currently ingested through animal flesh. Further out, racing above the waves, you might find quixotic wind farms in rows.

Soon, ships may dump iron directly into the sea in the hopes of reviving phytoplankton, fish stocks, and the capture of carbon dioxide. The oceanic vortices filled with plastics will still be here, even if vessels and nets, and then robotic devices, try to tame them. Much of the waste has already sunk into the depths of the sea, depositing microplastics into the food chain.

The development of greenhouses in Almería (Andalusia, Spain), where much of Europe’s produce is grown under plastic shades, from 1984 (left) to (2017) right (© Google)

Skimming over the black-sand beaches of Iceland, you would catch sight of the birch forests cut down by the Vikings a thousand years ago but gradually regaining a foothold on the island. Signs would be less encouraging farther north, with a sea-ice-free Arctic every summer. A plan by Arizona State University to increase the layers during winter by pumping water onto the existing ice might remain on the drawing board. Exploration for oil and other minerals will not. Autonomous cargo ships, without a human on board, pass silently by one another, Frankenstein-like, borne away by the waves and lost in darkness and distance.

No city is an autarky. For their survival, they rely on the countrysides they conveniently ignore. Humanity has long pushed unsavory essentials outside city boundaries—tanners, abattoirs, garbage dumps, and graveyards, for example. But the relationship between the city and the country is symbiotic. Just as the urban nervous system extends over countries in terms of communications and transport, the rural reaches into the urban, bringing electricity, harvests, and fresh water, and taking away waste. For decades, ignoring the destruction of the environment was possible because it took place far from metropolitan centers. A major Living Planet Index study by the World Wildlife Fund highlights the devastation wrought on animals, many of which humans depend on for survival. We no longer have the luxury of turning a blind eye.

With climate change, humans are beginning to appreciate that cities are not separate from the environment. They are environments. We should also recognize that the rural is, at least in part, man-made. Cities approaching the changes already in motion with a sense of the Earth as a biological network, rather than adopting psychological siege positions, will be essential for survival. Technology and engineering will need to be deployed in what is currently regarded as wilderness. In turn, what seems rural will have to be deployed in cities: rooftop and vertical gardens, wetland buffer zones, greenery as a sponge for rising waters, and towers that channel polluted air into greenhouses, like the prototype in Xian.

Life will likely continue, and people will adapt, regardless of how catastrophic the conditions become. Sites of utopia and dystopia will scatter the globe. Some will even benefit short term. Proclaiming that “technology will save us” fails to acknowledge that technology got us to this catastrophe in the first place (contaminated Superfund sites were once a symbol of progress, too). For the foreseeable future, the dream of terraforming other planets is nothing but an unhinged aristocratic escape plan.

By that same token, doomsaying won’t help, nor will renouncing technology. Large-scale projects such as iron fertilization, albedo manipulation, and carbon capture may very well be necessary. Given the memory of the Aral Sea, such steps should be taken with caution. Even so, it may be too late for symbolic gestures. “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will,” the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci once wrote from his prison cell. Humans find themselves in such a state today, with no other choice but to navigate between delusion and despair. The film is already rolling, and we’re inescapably in it.