[A short work of enviro-fiction (partly), written to mark Earth Day].
In the run-up to Earth Day 2019, I was once again reorganising my belongings and trying to create a little more living room for myself. Not that I have much in the way of worldly goods, you understand, but there are three families sharing the same lodgings in this run-down Manhattan tenement, so arranging one’s meagre stuff to occupy the smallest possible space has become something of an obsession.
Shifting a battered and ancient chest of drawers, which had not been moved in years, I happened upon what looked like a bunch of newspaper cuttings, and blowing the dust off these yellowed, fragile pieces of newsprint, I was surprised to find these were old indeed, dating back to the winter of 1971.
All of the cuttings were of stories that revolved around the events of one particular weekend (Friday 12th to Sunday 14th February, to be precise) when a rather unusual social experiment called the “Hunger Show” took place in Louisville, Kentucky. Intrigued, I sat down in the dust and clutter of the apartment, and started to read.
According to one article:
Sixteen volunteers gathered in an empty store Friday to learn whether they can go without food for 56 hours and remain calm under the constant bombardment from a loudspeaker. They will be exposed to the glare of lights 24 hours a day and be restricted to one water tap and one lavatory. The experiment was organized by Charles Aylworth, a psychologist, to show the effects on overpopulation and food shortages he expects in the year 2000. “It isn’t going to be pleasant,” Aylworth warned the group as it entered the four-room building at noon. “We’re expecting at least 50 more persons by evening. It is going to be a harrowing environment.” He then laid down the ground rules: “Any inhabitant of this closed-life system can leave at any time but will not be allowed to return. Those who cannot go without eating or leave for any other reasons will be declared ‘dead.'”
Aylworth explained that “we will be simulating the overcrowded, socially abrasive, privacy-less, hungry world we will be forced to live in if nothing is done about the exploding population.” Each volunteer received a “survival manual” which decreed that all disputes “will be settled by boffing until honor is appeased… Mind your manners or you may get boffed.” A boffer, he explained, is a four-foot styrofoam sword that is relatively harmless and fun to play with.
“I want to see If I have the will to survive in 2000 year conditions,” said Georgia Denk, a mother of four children who volunteered for the experiment. “If I can make it through this weekend, then I know I won’t be a quitter,” added Mrs. Denk, 33. Shirley Schetler, a University of Louisville employee, declared that ”women are stronger than men and should be able to withstand the stress better.” Aylworth said he is hoping to create a “hard core of people who think of themselves as dedicated to changing the environment.” He was permitting visitors to enter the rooms but may change that rule by this morning. “People are going to start getting tired and irritated,” Aylworth said. “I don’t want any new fresh people who don’t have those loads on them. It wouldn’t be fair.” Aylworth is working toward his doctorate in psychology at Louisville.
Another article had this:
An experiment in which volunteers were jammed into an office to simulate living conditions that the organizer says will prevail in the year 2000 claimed its first “casualties” today. A participant in the 56-hour experiment is considered a “casualty” if he is driven out by the hunger, the light, the noise, or the crowding. A 30-year-old mother of two small children left because of the constant noise and lights. A 15-year-old youth left at the insistence of his parents. A teenage girl followed after being persuaded to leave by her boyfriend. And another woman left after becoming nauseated. Few complaints about hunger were voiced during the first day and a busy 24-hour restaurant directly across the street and in full view of the participants received little notice. However, dissatisfaction with lighting, noise, lack of privacy and a variety of social and physical discomforts was beginning to be voiced.
The 47 original participants, ranging from teenagers to mothers of teenagers, crowded into a downtown office building at noon yesterday. Visitors during the early hours swelled the number of people in the four small rooms to more than 70. Those involved in the experiment have no food, one water tap, one lavatory and noise and lights at all times. During the first night, one Sunday school teacher tried to promote silence in the crowd. Another volunteer wore a paper bag over his head to blot out the glare of lights. But during the early hours, most participants sat up talking, playing guitars or reading. Some watched television. Others listened to a radio. Sleeping bags and shag carpets littered the floor.
“I’d like to leave right now,”, said Vicki Gordon, an 18-year-old high school senior. “But I have to prove something to my mom and dad.” They had tried to persuade her not to volunteer. Charles Aylworth, a psychologist, organized the experiment to show the effects of overpopulation and food shortages, he predicts in the year 2000. “It isn’t going to be pleasant”, he warned volunteers at the outset. “It is going to be a harrowing experience.” Paul Hawkins, a 19-year-old University of Louisville student, was visited by his father, who gave him a toothpick. “We were just returning from dinner and I thought you might want to participate,” he told his son. Mrs. Gwynne Harpring said she was participating to gather information for her women’s club. She snuggled into her sleeping bag and confided: “I don’t know if I’ll make it. I’ve never gone this long without food. But the noise – and the lack of privacy – it would be a combination of these things.” Another volunteer, the wife of a social worker, wasn’t sure of her stamina. “I’ll just take it an hour at a time,” she said.
And a third article had this:
Four dozen people jammed into an office for a 54-hour fast and test of what they think the world will be like in the year 2000. Only 36 of them made it all the way. The other 12 fled to get food or to escape the other hazards simulating overpopulation and pollution. “You really don’t get hungry – you just get real tired,” said 12-year-old Sam Biegelsen, one of those who stuck it out from last Friday noon to Sunday night. Rosie Embry, a switchboard operator in her early 20s, couldn’t agree less. “I am shaking all over with hunger,” she declared as she emerged from the scene of the experiment.
The participants, ranging in age from 12 to their mid-30s, went into four rooms of a downtown office building. There was no food, no privacy, only 20 square feet of living space per person, constant noise and light and one lavatory for the entire group. Rosie’s husband Ron, a cook, one of the “survivors” said it was hoped the simulation would “make people aware of the ecological disaster facing the world.”
Charles Aylworth, a graduate psychology student and one of the organizers of the experiment said: “We’ve found people can adopt to stressful conditions. We will be able to keep living – miserably.” Aylworth, during a debriefing session just before the end of the test, said: “I firmly believe we have five, not more than 10 years, before we see irreversible changes in the environment. If we don’t do something in this time to stop it we might as well pack up and forget it.” In one room where 14 persons were lying head-to-toe and shoulder-to-shoulder, a vote was taken on whether to turn off the overhead lights. There was an overwhelming majority in favor of dousing the glim, but no one could summon the energy to do it.
At that point, I was shaking my head in utter amazement. What a find! And how prescient had this experiment been… Because indeed, by the millennium, we were living out the “Hunger Show” for real, across the United States and the entire planet. By the late 70s, of course, runaway industrial pollution had blighted the lives of billions – cancers and other illnesses had skyrocketed, with genetic deformities horribly multiplying. Poisonous smog had gathered over much of the northern hemisphere. Numerous atomic power stations had suffered meltdowns, releasing clouds of radioactive waste into the atmosphere and adding to the toxic disaster.
And then came the global famines of the 80s and early 90s, when hundreds of millions had perished, unable to grow enough food to sustain themselves and unwilling to enforce strict birth-control laws. Acidification had meanwhile killed much of the life in the oceans, including all of the great whales. About 80% of the world’s species had vanished during these years, from the elephants and polar bears down to the humble honey bee. All gone, by the millennium.
And even with the mass die-offs, the human population had continued to breed out of control. By the year 2000, we survivors were crammed into urban hives, forced to live in crowded, noisy and unsanitary conditions, just as the great man had predicted in 1971.
I’m scribbling this journal entry whilst sitting on the ground here in Times Square, amongst the thousands gathered in front of the giant TV screen. It is Earth Day today, and we’re waiting for the World President to give his annual State of the Planet speech. It will be the usual three hours of fire and brimstone, but no doubt we will leave feeling chastened and purged of our environmental sins – temporarily.
And yet… Somehow I cannot shake off the feeling that this isn’t real. It’s difficult to describe. Of course, on one level, it all feels totally real. The smog-dimmed New York sunlight, the sound (and the smell!) of the crowds, the stale taste and gritty texture of the soylent wafer I’m nibbling to assuage my hunger pangs. On the physical level, it convinces.
But here’s the thing. For some time now, the thought has been creeping up on me that this is not the actual, “real” world. That the real world is another place, lost in a parallel dimension, perhaps, and that I’m living in some sort of fake or counterfeit domain (let’s call it Earth Two) that split off from the real world (Earth One), like an amoeba dividing into two separate entities. Maybe I’m going mad, but this idea is starting to haunt me.
When could this hypothetical parting of the ways have happened? I’m supposing some point in time after 1970. 1971, perhaps? Just occurred to me – could it have been around the time of the “Hunger Show”? Yeah, it actually fits, kind of. So maybe that’s where it started.
If enough people start to believe something is true, and we’re talking many millions of people eventually as the idea spreads like crazy, could that thing somehow come to life – no matter how insane it might seem, objectively?
What had gone before had seemed so – normal, I guess. But what came after was like a fever dream or the worst kind of acid trip. Disasters piled on catastrophes heaped upon apocalypses. For almost forty years, we have been living in a sort of nightmarish Biblical epic, right out of Hollywood.
I wonder what would make this place – the fake world, Earth Two – different from the original. The alterations might be subtle – a tweak here and there, some minuscule variation in the laws of physics favouring positive rather than negative feedbacks in the weather systems? Little changes to the way people think and make decisions en masse, and thus to the way that whole economies behave? I can only speculate. I’m not a scientist.
That other world – Earth One – still continues somewhere, I feel sure, but can’t say how I know. I glimpse it sometimes in my dreams. Like everyone else, I would have a counterpart, a doppelgänger living there. What would it be like? It wouldn’t be perfect, because nothing ever is. Slowly but surely, people even in the poorest countries would become wealthier over time and better fed. There would be pollution and disasters like oil spills and nuclear accidents, but not on such an overwhelming scale. Species might still go extinct, or hover on the brink. Some years would be hotter, others cooler, and there’d be medium-term and long-term trends. They’d still get droughts and fires and occasional bad storms like the hurricane that battered New York in 1938 or the one that almost destroyed Miami in 1926.
But there would not be the ever-escalating catastrophes of this world, the global pandemics and famines, the constant craziness and emergencies, the perpetual smoggy twilight, the food rationing and travel bans, the radiation, shortages and grinding poverty, billions of us “living miserably”, as the great man put it.
I imagine it would be a world of threats and hope in roughly equal measure, and the hope might well outweigh the threats. There would be predictions of doom, which would hardly ever be justified by events as they turned out – unlike here. On balance, it would be an optimistic, resilient place.
What a wonderful universe it would be! How I wish I could live there.
The PA system is crackling and the big TV screen is starting to flicker into life.
“Citizens of Earth, your attention please. Will you all rise for our World President, Secretary-General of the United Nations and much-loved dear leader…”. Well, they didn’t in 1971, but everyone knows his name now.
So here it is. Happy Earth Day – I guess.
[Alert fellow SF fans will have spotted my several nods to noted writers of dystopian 20th century fiction – Harry Harrison, Philip K Dick and Paul R Ehrlich. But the “Hunger Show” was real, and you can discover fragments of newspaper articles describing it in various online archives. If Charles Aylworth ever wrote up a report about his 1971 experiment, I haven’t found it – but it would certainly be an interesting read.]