This flash-fiction story (1000 words) was shortlisted in the Systems Change Alliance 2020 international climate-change flash-fiction competition. It was given an honourable mention. I was pleased to get that far, especially as I’m unwilling to write a feel-good story where everyone on Earth decides they need to save the planet, then does it. Sadly, I think this idea is wholly unrealistic, delusional, counter-productive, complacent and naive. The truth of the matter is that we need to get realistic and pragmatic, because climate-change is now on a runaway course. We must start planning to save some of our species from what is to come on Earth, because in fifty-years time, it will be a hell-hole. For more on that, please read my article how we can survive climate change.
Here’s the story.
It didn’t happen with a fanfare – it couldn’t – but it changed everything. The last wave of Covid-19 was the culprit, that final strain that swept through a world population already exhausted by lockdowns and the virus’s terrible lottery. It left widespread devastation but it also left a strange legacy; heightened auditory sensitivity.
At first, many people didn’t believe the virus had done anything. They thought that the sudden avoidance of noise had been caused by the lockdowns, the restrictions, the loss of traffic, that the grounded flights had created a prolonged quiet to which people had become accustomed. When the virus finally died out, and the countries’ rulers announced the all-clear, praised the doctors and ordered a return to normal activity, the truth became clear. The virus had left a physical effect; it had altered the auditory nerves of the majority of people. No class, clan or rank was exempt from this effect. Covid-19 had never cared if someone was in a mansion or a hut; it was an entirely egalitarian plague. That final strain, officially type-F, became known as the Tuning Fork because of the single note patients would hear when it infected them. That final strain had switched its attack. Instead of removing its host’s sense of smell, it gave them an amplified, hair-trigger cochlear. Everyone reacted. Instead of meek acceptance of the return to noisy normality, they gave the billionaires and politicians a firm, implacable ‘no’. There would no return to the old, noisy, angry grind, to the hubbub, rush and cacophony of twenty-first-century Earth. A comprehensive revolution took place. It wasn’t a revolution of barricades, of megaphones and chants, it was a revolution of silent action. Nobody could take the old noise, nobody would take the old noise. The changes were swift. Roaring, six-cylinder cars were abandoned en-masse. Bicycles were cleaned up and brought out. A few, electric buses and vans were allowed to travel but any sports car or SUV, driven by a petrol-head-in-denial was stopped, in its tracks, by barricades manned by resolute citizens wearing ear-protectors and implacable expressions. Train speeds were lowered until they could only purr along the rails like happy cats. Planes were grounded, or moved to remote airstrips. A quiet descended upon the world, a peace unknown for over a century. Human-generated noise became the sound of cycle-bells, the closing of a door, the sweep of a broom, the high staccato of laughter. Bird song filled the air, an orchestral accompaniment to every day. With the gas-guzzlers and Jumbo jets gone, the air cleared. Sounds travelled further. Everyone’s sensory world expanded. The old world they’d experienced, a brown tunnel of clamour, became a sky-blue amphitheatre, miles wide.
The new situation scared the billionaires. They told their TV and newspaper friends to talk of imminent breakdown, of economic collapse, to explain that everyone in the world had to just plug their ears and return to normal. It didn’t work and it wasn’t true. The economy didn’t collapse and no one starved. Instead, the Quiet did the opposite. Local artisan work flourished because the international freighters had stopped. Delivery jobs ballooned in number because huge trucks were banned. Health costs plummeted in the clean air and quiet nights. People’s aspirations changed. They no longer desired international travel or four-litre cars. Instead, they found bliss in tranquility, their daily lives, in their community and their environment. The pace of life slowed. ‘Just in time’ became, ‘in its own time’ but work was still done. Collectively, the world’s population transformed the energy sector. Fossil-fuel consumption dropped to zero. The scream of jet-engines was replaced with the low whoop of wind turbine blades, of waves lapping against the booms of tidal-power systems, of solar-panel arrays humming as their transformers drew their gathered energy on to a distributed grid. The Quiet had never officially been an environmental plan but it had succeeded where so many previous, noble environmental campaigns had failed. Earth had changed for the better.
Time passed. Many people lost their auditory sensitivity; they were healthy again, in a way. A new generation appeared that had no experience of Covid-19, but it was one that had gestated, been born and grown up in Quiet. They did not want the return of fossil fuels. To them, the idea of burning oil and coil to get energy, when renewables gave them all the power they needed, was nonsensical. Their aspirations, their driving aim, was the opposite; to reduce the ecological damage of their forebears, those earlier generations that had merrily burnt and polluted to power high-decibel lifestyles. They needed to do it immediately. Time was dangerously short. Negative feedbacks were already established, in the Amazon and the Arctic. These were driving more melting, more heating and more release of warming gases. It was no longer good enough just to pump less carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. A vast amount had to be removed as well, as fast as possible, to stop Earth’s climate spiralling downwards into atmospheric Hell. It was all hands to the pumps. The response and collective effort by everyone was both astonishing and heart-warming. Some wondered if the Tuning Fork had changed people’s minds, physically, but others believed that it had been the silence, the clean air and the calmness that had made the change. Humanity had just needed a moment of reflection, of uninterrupted thought, to realise what was important and what needed to be done. In the end, it didn’t matter exactly how the change had occurred; the result was the same. The world was working together.
For half-a-century, it was touch-and-go. The human race’s near-silent, global effort of carbon-capture, atmospheric cleansing and marine-seeding ebbed and flowed. Positive signs were seen, then a calamity would send everything back a step. Finally, in the 2050’s, earth’s scientists could see significant progress. Earth’s climate was finally shifting in the right direction. The worst had been avoided. The people of Earth rested, hugged, gave silent thanks, and smiled.