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SLOW TRAIN, SLOW CHANGE


PERSONAL JOURNAL May 4, 2023 I was selected to travel to the year 2036, in Washington, DC, a city I have lived near for almost forty years. What could change in just 13 years?


Best case is all of our wicked problems are solved and the world is living in complete harmony.


The worst case is that I don’t exist in 2036, in which case it would be a very short trip!


We talk about the risks of not being prepared for change. When I look back thirteen years, the change we experienced never really seemed particularly drastic or sudden, but slow and gradual. Then again, nothing is ever as bad as it may have seemed at the time once you get through it. I try to extrapolate 13 years out and cannot convince myself that things will be much more different than today.


Where should I look for change? There might be some noticeable changes, but there could be just as much change that I couldn’t see and might not be able to find in a brief trip. What I tried to focus on were trends that we see now and where they are in 2036. Politically and socially where would we be in thirteen years? Would political stalemate and gridlock still be the name of the game? What about climate change? Would we have taken any action to stem the increasingly rapid change we are noticing now from global warming? Would some coastal cities already be underwater? Would the number of severe weather events continue to increase? Finally, how would technology affect us thirteen years from now?


My assigned time travel scientist was a young Doctor Emily Anderson. Emily is a recent graduate in the field of environmental science with a passion for saving the planet. She traveled with me to collect samples of the air, soil, and water, and provide scientific perspectives and insight on what we encountered in 2036. Because of our age difference, she also made it her personal mission to continually challenge my values and perspectives on life, as well as my taste in music.


The time machine looked very much like an elevator. We didn’t have to dress in any special way or need any type of space suits or helmets. I carried a backpack with some essentials – water, energy bars, a compass, and a device they gave us that would bring us back to 2023. Emily carried a kit that included all the equipment necessary to take the environmental samples. We entered the time machine and the doors closed behind us. As the lights faded into pitch black, music started playing to drown out the whirring of what sounded like electric motors. As the motor noise increased, the music got louder. We couldn’t be sure how long the process took, but when the doors opened, we were in the Union Station in Washington, DC. The large clock in the station showed that it was 8:15, and the light coming from the large windows behind the clock let us know it was morning. There were very few people out and about, which was interesting given it was still what we consider to be rush hour. We headed outside to find a place where we could collect the air, soil, and water samples to bring back to 2023. Outside, it didn’t appear things had changed much from 2023. There was a slow steady flow of traffic that included taxicabs and buses. The traffic noise was at a noticeably lower volume than we remembered from 2023. As we moved closer to the street, it was obvious there were more electric cars than 2023, and we even saw several cars with tags that read “hydrogen powered.” There were still many gas-powered cars, but mostly older models, models we were familiar with from 2023. The air and earth samples we could get almost anywhere, it was the water that was a challenge. So, we hopped in a taxicab – hydrogen powered – and made our way east down Massachusetts Avenue towards the Anacostia River. We initiated a conversation with our driver, Oliver, hoping he’d be able to give us some insight about life in 2036. Oliver was in his late 20’s and worked fulltime for the U.S. government. He worked remotely for his entire five-year career with the government. When I asked how he liked working remotely, he commented that it was the standard these days for government jobs to be 100% remote. He needed to report a certain amount of work each week, so with proper planning, he could earn additional money as a cab driver. Oliver explained that the government took the initiative to set the example with a 100% work-from-home policy for a couple of reasons. First was the environment. Fewer commuters basically meant reduced carbon emissions. The other was security. The United States global status had waned recently, so dispersing people was a measure to mitigate the risk of a large- scale attack on any one location, especially a city of importance like Washington, DC. Also, the instability within the U.S. was rising because of continued tension from different points-of-view among citizens. A dispersed workforce reduced the risk of a takeover or insurgency. Oliver went on to explain that even Congress and the Supreme Court were mostly working from remote locations for the past few years for similar reasons. Oliver dropped us off at a spot near the Anacostia, right by the Washington Nationals ballpark. There was a kind of walkway/boardwalk that ran along the river, similar to the one there now in 2023 where spans of it were made up of wood planks; other parts paved walkways. In 2023 there were several small shops and vendors and even a restaurant or two along this walkway, but I noticed in 2036 that there were none. This seemed a bit strange since there was typically a lot of foot traffic through here and the shops and vendors always seemed to do quite well. Emily grabbed the samples, and we headed back towards M street. The ground was noticeably damp, and there were very few people around. We stopped and asked a middle-age man walking his dog about the shops and vendors that used to be here. He explained that in the past three years the Anacostia had risen higher than anyone anticipated on several occasions, flooding several of the shops. Store owners grew tired of paying higher insurance premiums and having to clean up after several unexpected severe storms, so they moved to other parts of the city. He mentioned that he lived in an apartment nearby and couldn’t help but wonder how soon it would be before his building would be affected by the rising water. Time traveling made me hungry. In 2023, nearby M street had several restaurants since the waterfront area was revitalized, and that hadn’t changed. We chose a Chinese restaurant that had a counter where you ordered food and sat yourself. The menu was raised up on the wall behind the counter. At first, what was most notable was the increase in prices for the dishes listed. The increases were considerably more than what you’d expect from inflation. Underneath the menu there was a sign that read, “all menu items include mandatory carbon tax.” There were no human servers in the restaurant, only several screens that people were walking up to and placing orders through. I asked the screen to explain the carbon tax. In a friendly female voice, the screen said that the carbon tax was fee added on the different dishes served based on an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions emitted in preparing the dish – from farm to table. It described how the tax was less on some dishes, like a salad, but higher for different meat dishes and some desserts. A young man in his late 20’s or early 30’s stepped up behind me and told me that the tax went into effect about two years ago after an increase in severe weather events. He said that even after all of the talk and warnings of climate change over the years, there were no significant measures implemented and global warming was worsening as warned. What’s more, the U.S. was singled out as the country responsible for the most carbon emissions on a per capita basis. To make reparations, the U.S. self-imposed the carbon tax to improve its global image. Money collected from the tax would be contributed to the world effort to slow global warming and preserve the planet. It was the only legislation Congress could agree on over the last seven years, and it only passed as a result of international pressure. I turned to look for Emily when five large men armed with shotguns and sledgehammers stumbled into the restaurant shouting, “AI and automation took our jobs, China is taking our freedom!!” I heard a shot fired and saw a man with a sledgehammer swing at one of the screens. I ran out, yelled for Emily and grabbed the return device from my pack and pressed the “GO” button. For the moment, 2036 would have to wait. __________________________________________________________________________________


Jim Murray


Jim Murray graduated from the University of Houston Masters in Foresight program in December 2022. He is a part-time/aspiring futurist working full-time as the Packaging and Distribution Manager at The Washington Post. He retired in 2017 as a Colonel in the US Army Reserve. He currently resides with his family in Lorton, Virginia, and can be reached via his LinkedIn page at https://www.linkedin.com/in/jimmurray-7106655b/.

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