Beyond the Tipping Point

by Juliana Ariffin

Author’s Note:
What if our efforts to stop climate change are too little too late? The way we live would change drastically if we are forced to abandon fossil fuels and utilise all the renewable resources and energy we have just to survive. In this story, each reference links to a technology that we currently have or are developing in real life, which may help to reduce waste or provide energy. So read on, imagine living in a harsher world, and see how many of these technologies you recognise and may want to use yourself, now or in the future!

 

You come home early for once and ride the elevator up to your quadrant of the Hive. As you walk down the corridor to your apartment, you hear yelling from the neighbours. You glance in their direction and note that the plastic bricks [1] along the hallway are degrading again, the adobe flaking off and the plastic unraveling into confetti that litters the corridor. You sigh, resigning yourself to weeks of poor soundproofing until the Authority commissions replacement walls.

At your touch, the door of your apartment unlocks and slides open. When you step in, the lights switch on and the windows swivel open [2], revealing magnificent views of the Cell—the vertical farming [3] core of the Hive. You take a deep breath and relish the fresh, ozone-free air [4] tinged with the hint of seawater [5,6] from the spiraling farm and plant beds.

Then you remove your phone from your pocket, wondering if you’ve received any messages. The screen is blank, and the battery sign flashes. You’ve forgotten to connect it to your thermopack! [7] Hurriedly, you start charging it and soon a beeping sound alerts you to the presence of several messages.

Joelle, we’re running low on our energy quota, could you plug some packs into the generator? Also, I’ve pre-programmed dinner so please eat something before you run off to Ida’s. Love, Mom.

Accompanying it is a picture of Mom by the seaside, pulling up a lantern net of scallops, seaweed, crabs and shrimp [8]. The caption reads: Perks of working at an algae bioreactor [9]! You can barely see her face under the screen of her filtration helmet but you’re glad she’s getting to eat real food out there and taking proper precautions against the ozone and PM2.5-rated[1] polluted air [10].

The sight of the precious seafood makes your stomach grumble but first, you disconnect the thermopacks [7] that you’ve carried all day, pressed against your skin to capture body heat and convert it to energy. You check that they are charged, slot as many as you can spare into the generator, then head to the food dispenser and select the evening meal for your profile. Moments later, the food dispenser prints a gazelle steak [11] then drops it onto a plate stacked with Cell-grown vegetables, and pills for iodine and heavy metal decontamination. The meal is exactly proportionate to your caloric needs and though the steak has been grown from stem cell lines cultured decades ago from the last surviving gazelles, it’s juicy and satisfying. It might not be as appetizing as freshly harvested crabs, but it’s still a year or two before you’ll be allowed out of the Hive to work on the algae, wind or solar farms and get to finally taste naturally grown food.

As you scrape the leftovers into the biomass chute [12] another ping alerts you to the arrival of a video call. You sit by the video screen on the wall and accept it. It’s wonderful to see Dad’s face coalesce on the screen, backed by a view of steaming columns of water from the deep-sea hydrothermal vents. You have a short conversation with him, in which you learn he and his team will be evacuating soon before a predicted sea storm on the Icelandic coast, and that they are progressing in their research on a promising new thermophilic bacterium [13]. Unfortunately, they’ve also identified the vent as a black smoker and unsuitable for installing subsea turbines and generators to harvest deep-sea geothermal energy [14.15]. Before you end the call, a notification of the pending arrival of climate refugees [16] fleeing a Hive brought down by earthquakes and nuclear catastrophe flashes across your screen [17]. Dad sees your panicked expression and cautions you to remain calm—it would not do to question the Authority’s decisions, whatever they might be. You nod obediently, but a deep sense of foreboding fills you at the prospect of the new arrivals.

Illustration by Kong Yink Heay

After the videocall, you make your way to Ida’s dance studio near the Cell. It’s normally slightly warmer here, but your breath still mists as if you were back home. You check the stats on the doorway above the exercise chambers while waiting for Ida and the other students and note that the Hive is several thousand steps below normalcy. It explains the lack of heating, although you can see a few dozen people running intensely on the treadmills in the adjacent gym [18]. When nobody arrives, you put on your tap shoes and start practicing the dance routine anyway on the kinetic tiles [18]. A half an hour later, Ida has yet to arrive. You are not too disappointed as you still feel tired and achy from yesterday’s class.

Just when you remove your shoes and are ready to call it a day the door swings open, but it’s not Ida. Instead it’s an AuthBot [19]. At first, you feel curious about its presence, but when a thermometer and swab extend in your direction, fear begins to grip you. The test is done quickly enough, and you wait on tenterhooks while the AuthBot computes your results. The ten seconds it takes seems like an eternity. Then with a pleasant beep, the AuthBot informs you that your results are negative for the new flu [20]. The flood of relief that overcomes you feels like pure joy—until you notice other Authbots leading a group of people from the gym next door.

You glance up at the stepcounter above the door and see that the stats for the day has been tallied. The Hive has performed 5% lower than normal today. You know that if this continues till the end of the week the colony will start energy rationing, and if the stats drop any lower after that, the precious emergency generators will have to be plugged in. Then in the worst-case scenario, if the storms and haze continue beyond their season and prevent sufficient energy harvesting from wind and solar, the whole colony will be at risk of collapse. With a heavy heart, you pick up your tap shoes and put them on again. Maybe someone in the group of new refugees knows how to tap dance, you hope.

[1] Air that has particulate matter that is of 2.5 micrometres in diameter or smaller

About the author

JULIANA ARIFFIN is a postdoctoral fellow researching liver inflammation at Beth Israel Deaconess, Medical Center, Harvard Medical School. Prior to this, she completed her PhD on human immune responses at The Institute for Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland. In her spare time she reads and writes fiction, dabbles in photography and considers genetically engineering a zombie propagating virus to repopulate the earth. Check out Juliana’s Scientific Malaysian profile at http://www.scientificmalaysian.com/members/julianna/

References

[1]        Plastic bricks for building: http://www.curbed.com/2016/8/1/12335500/recycled-plastic-bricks-byfusion-replast-ocean-trash

[2]        Smart homes save energy: http://www.safewise.com/blog/what-is-a-smart-home-and-how-does-it-support-green-living/

[3]        Vertical farming: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vertical_farming#Energy_use

[4]        Plants purify indoor air: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/09/090908103634.htm

[5]        Farming using sun seawater: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2108296-first-farm-to-grow-veg-in-a-desert-using-only-sun-and-seawater/

[6]        Seawater air conditioning: http://www.makai.com/sea-water-air-conditioning/

[7]        Body warmth https://news.ncsu.edu/2016/09/wearable-teg-heat-harvesting-2016/

[8]        Seaweed as most sustainable food: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/02/a-new-leaf

[9]        Algae biofuel: https://theconversation.com/can-we-save-the-algae-biofuel-industry-58518

[10]  World Health Organisation on Air Pollution:  http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/air-pollution-estimates/en/ and http://www.who.int/phe/health_topics/outdoorair/en/

[11]  3D printed meat: http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/food-wine/69606846/The-future-of-food-Lab-grown-meat-and-3D-printed-meals

[12]  Biomass: https://www.nrel.gov/workingwithus/re-biomass.html

[13]  Thermophilic bacteria:  http://www.divediscover.whoi.edu/hottopics/bacteria.html

[14]  Ocean floor Geothermal Energy: https://pangea.stanford.edu/ERE/db/WGC/papers/WGC/2015/37011.pdf

[15]  Demonstrated harvesting of hydrothermal energy: http://www.mapcorp.com/mapc-demonstrates-hydrothermal-vent-energy-harvesting/

[16]  Climate Refugees: http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/01/28/the-making-of-a-climate-refugee-kiribati-tarawa-teitiota/

[17]  Climate change triggers earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanoes: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/16/climate-change-triggers-earthquakes-tsunamis-volcanoes

[18]  Footprints power electricity: http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/30/tech/innovation/tomorrow-transformed-energy-harvesting/

[19]  Evolution of robots: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/innovations/wp/2015/09/08/the-strange-link-between-global-climate-change-and-the-rise-of-the-robots/

[20]  Climate change and infectious disease: http://www.who.int/globalchange/climate/summary/en/index5.html