David Boyle

2020 vision of the future

Your Environment (Environment Agency magazine), Autumn 2003

It is 30 October 2020. The alarm clock bleeps at 7am in the Dumill household, as the light seeps into the sky above the new village of Hamstreet in Kent. The cock crows a few streets away in one of the small-holdings of one of the part-time farmers.

He washes his face and the water whirls down the plug-hole. In the distance, he can hear the hum of the household water purification plant starting its work for the day.

He flushes the toilet, which automatically analyses his sample. Richard's cholesterol level is slightly high, after a heavy dinner of chips and farmed cod, and the toilet sends the information digitally to his doctor's surgery computer, which ignores it.

On the way back into the bedroom, he taps the electricity meter in the hallway with a glow of pleasure. He likes seeing it in credit - their household windmill and solar panels on the roof are generating surplus electricity, and this is being pumped onto the grid, earning a little money.

As he does so, his wife Sarah is in the kitchen turning on the oven, and he sees the needle change into negative. They are now taking power off the grid, via the combined heat and power plant that is installed in a small hut in the middle of the estate.

"Can you get the milk!" shouts Sarah as he comes downstairs in his work clothes, white trousers and a strange orange tie that his daughter Britney bought him for his birthday.

He spends some seconds remembering the codes for the digital locks - the crime rate in Hamstreet is worrying - and peers outside. There is the box of local vegetables and groceries brought round by the social enterprise that connects local farmers with local customers. But no milk.

"Damn!" says Sarah, looking hopefully into the fridge. "What's wrong with this thing? We've been out of milk for two days now: it should have ordered four pints by now."

"I told you we shouldn't have bought a Korean smart fridge." Since Korean re-unification in 2009, the northern half of Korea has transformed itself into a cheap manufacturer of smart appliances.

This smart fridge automatically sends a message to the grocers when they need more bread, milk, yoghurt or butter, and it is brought round early in the morning by a very nice girl from Tuvalu - most people who serve the Dumills these days are very low paid, and born elsewhere in the world.

Luckily for Sarah and Richard, there is a fridge repair shop just in the centre of Hamstreet. European regulations about recyclability and repairability have meant that many household appliances have a much longer life - since manufacturers were made responsible for their disposal - and a whole service industry has grown up to service them.

As for the girl from Tuvalu, Sarah has an especially soft spot for her. He homeland disappeared beneath the waves finally in 2017. Isn't it extraordinary, she thinks to herself - and not for the first time: some countries have too much water, and some seem to do nothing but fight over having too little.

Sarah checks the house electro-magnetic shield - with a child in the house, she is very concerned about the effects of telephone and internet masts - and is reassured by the green flashing light.

Then she shouts for 11-year-old Britney - it is now only 30 minutes to the school bus (successive governments have manage to cajole and tax parents off the greenhouse gas-producing morning school run) - and settles down for breakfast.

High oil prices have made long-distance transport prohibitively expensive for fresh produce since Richard and Sarah were young - especially given the clampdown on preservative chemicals since 2010 - so they have in front of them local milk, local eggs and local bread.

But they also have produce from other parts of the world, like this packet of Greenpeace/Kelloggs corn flakes and these fair trade Oxfam/Nestle biscuits, ordered from the internet and delivered by the nearest Sainsburys-Wal-mart hypermarket.

The Dumills have used a mixture of Hamstreet dollars - earned by hiring out their mowing machine to neighbours and giving music lessons - and pounds to pay for their breakfast. The euro also circulates around the area, and Richard is paid in euros for some of his work: but these are put in a separate travel and investment account.

"I saw old Marjorie Dawkins yesterday, poor thing," says Sarah, reminding the family that not everybody in Hamstreet is as well off as they are. "Her pollution filter keeps breaking down. It really is a scandal."

Marjorie Dawkins is one of the unfortunate local population whose genetic predisposition to a variety of possible future diseases means that - to qualify for any kind of insurance or mortgage - she has to live in the equivalent of a bubble that screens out any chemical to which she is susceptible. Every breakdown has to be reported to her insurance company. She has very little income for anything else.

Still the chemicals in the environment are so much less pervasive than they were, say, in the 2000s. The campaign continues though - and the bankruptcy of many of the big food companies in 2012, thanks to successful class actions against them for promoting obesity and using dangerous chemicals, is testament to the power of the campaigners.

"We are winning the war on cancer," said the Prime Minister only a decade before. It is true, as Sarah points out, that we know so much more about the genetic predisposition to cancer, but the cancer rate is still rising.

As if we didn't have enough to worry about what with the new malaria scare in Tunbridge Wells, she thinks.

Her mother was cured of cancer by a new technique known as 'proteomics', based on targeting proteins, and she lives in a special old people's 'village' on the edge of the next town. She worked until she was 75, but is not very well off.

More people live within 30 minutes of their parents these days. It's the antidote to globalisation, say the commentators.

Apart from her mother's brush with cancer, Sarah and Richard's experience of hospitals in recent years has been mainly - like so many of their contemporaries - the fruitless struggle for pregnancy (sperm count is now below 30% of 1940 levels).

This is one of the key political issues, because the low birth rate is causing even more difficulties for pensions. Britney is, in fact, adopted. Many of her schoolfriends are as well. Like them, she has had both gene therapy and two different bouts of cosmetic surgery.

She is now in danger of missing school, as she sits upstairs at her compuTV screen allowing her collection of virtual film stars to interact online - she particularly enjoys the encounters between her parents' favourites like Sean Connery and new game stars like Leo Blair.

"Come on, Brit!" shouts Richard as he sweeps past the foot of the stairs. "Haven't you got your Creativity GCSE exam next month?"

There is no reply. "Call me old-fashioned," he remarks as he heads for the front door, "but I really don't see how you can have an exam in creativity - but I suppose if that's what the employers want."

As Richard sets out for work - this is one of his two days a week in the office of the waste and recycling brokerage where he is a manager - he passes the game demonstration centre that replaced the local music CD store, where Britney spends rather too much of her time.

The rest of the time, he works from home, which makes it hard to restrict the number of compuTVs in the house. In work time, he has to wear he phone in his ear at all times, powered by the electricity generated by his head, and connected to the office line all day.

He has some doubts about whether being on touch the whole time really makes him more productive, but it does mean his boss is able to take absolutely every decision.

But both he and Sarah have to work full-time to pay the 55-year mortgage they required to pay for their home, in a brick-built estate just outside Thames Gateway City.

His hydrogen-powered car snakes through the suburbs with their newly-planted trees - Dartford Forest now covers areas that was once an series of industrial estates, empty since 2008 - this is overwhelmingly a service economy here these days, covering a market that extends into northern France (only 9% of the UK workforce now work in manufacturing).

Richard also wants to avoid his car clocking a congestion charge on the motorway or any of the towns in between. It is shared with other families on the estate, but the charge is redirected automatically to his account.

He normally makes this journey by train, but he needs to go to meet Britney's teachers this evening (they are from the Ukraine, but speak tolerable English).

The tiny office has been in Greater Ashford since the company disposed of their London headquarters in 2012, and making the journey twice a week is expensive - both in money and his domestic greenhouse gas allowance, debited automatically from a smartcard.

It is vital work, trading large blocks of tin or waste plastic or the 'green' aspect of green energy - sometimes just trading the right to sell it at a fixed price in the future - to other brokers who will eventually pass it on to the new generation of enterprises launched with government support, who will use it as raw material.

It is increasingly difficult work too. Even though they don't actually see the waste, they are responsible under international regulations for its provenance. There is paperwork that must be filled in, just in case of a spot check by a WTO inspector.

During lunchtime, he drives a little nearer the coast - glancing up at the familiar sight of the great wind machines and the pylons bringing electricity over from France (the UK now imports 75% of its energy needs), and the armed police guarding them.

Then it's home dodging the traffic on the un-charged roads. It's a clear evening: since petrol cars have been all but driven off the crowded roads, the air is at least cleaner than it was in Richard's youth.

Sarah, meanwhile, has been hard at work as an advisor to the hard-to-insure. She is funded direct by the insurance companies - who have been running the scheme for some years now after outrage at the plight of those whose genetic profile makes life particularly hard.

It is satisfying work, but it fuels her political party work - training people to make their views clear, running 'Democs' discussion meetings on knotty local topics.

She can't remember what she voted at the last Westminster election - they don't have much power there - but she is determined to get her party elected to the south east regional assembly and to Hamstreet Council.

Both she and Richard feel European and Kentish, as well as British. They go abroad when they can afford it, to unspoilt areas of Poland and Hungary by high-speed train.

The energy tax has made it expensive to fly, and flying has become a more exclusive business since the no-frills airlines ran up against the air traffic control limits. Heathrow Terminal 5 was turned into a reception centre for migrants flooded out of coastal zones before it was completed.

As she separates the household waste into four different colour-coded boxes that evening - the teachers advised her to encourage Britney towards a preliminary career in programming - she looks ahead to their next holiday by the Black Sea.

But there is also tomorrow's Halloween dinner party to look forward to. Richard Dumill especially enjoys evenings with his friends debating the future.

He has been fascinated by the idea ever since someone pointed out that he had the same surname as the man invented by the geographer Peter Hall in his 1963 book London 2000 - where he predicted congestion charging and the Channel Tunnel.

Hamstreet isn't quite as Hall predicted - it isn't a new town for a start - but you can't get everything right. What futurologists don't understand, Richard will say, is that just extrapolating trends isn't nearly enough - the future is made up of trends but also reactions against trends.

Sarah is more sceptical. "Didn't the scientist Lord Kelvin dismiss radio as pointless, airplanes as impossible and X-rays as a hoax?" she will remind them, sweeping her hand around the room. "When we were 21 in 2003, could we have predicted all this?"

 

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title: books by David Boyle
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