One way to understand the scope of the planetary crisis is how authors of speculative/science fiction deal with the problem of avoiding self-inflicted human extinction. Alastair Reynolds composed a page of (fictional) historical reflection in Blue Remembered Earth (2012).
Geoffrey (the primary protagonist) is returning to his home in Africa from a space flight to the Moon. Unbeknownst to him until she speaks, he’s accompanied by a “construct” of his grandmother, Eunice (a main protagonist).
“Look at that planet. It’s still beautiful. It’s still ours, still our home. The oceans rose, the atmosphere warmed up, the weather went ape-shit, we had stupid, needless wars. And yet we still found a way to ride it out, to stay alive. To do more than just survive. To come out of all that and still feel like we have a home.” (Eunice, p. 167)
Geoffrey and Eunice are in “the recuperation and observation deck . . . Africa lay spread out . . . in all its astonishing variegated vastness. The Libreville anchorpoint was actually a hundred kilometers south of its namesake city and as far west again, built out into the Atlantic. Looking straight down, he could see the grey scratch of the sea-battered artificial peninsula daggering from the Gabon coastline, with the anchorpoint a circular widening at its westerly end.
To the north, beginning to be pulled out of sight by the curvature of the Earth, lay the great, barely inhabited emptiness of Saharan Africa, from Mauritania to the Sudan. Tens of millions of people had lived there, until not much more than a century ago—enough to cram the densest megacity anywhere on the planet. Clustered around the tiny life-giving motes of oases and rivers, those millions had left the emptiness practically untouched. Daunting persistence had been required to make a living in those desert spaces, where appalling hardship was only ever a famine or drought away. But people had done so, successfully, for thousands of years. It was only the coming of the Anthropocene, the human-instigated climate shift of recent centuries, that had finally brought the Saharan depopulation. In mere lifetimes, the entire region had been subject to massive planned migration. Mali, Chad, Niger . . . these were political entities that still existed, but only in the most abstract and technical of senses., their borders still recorded, their GDPs still tracked. Almost no one actually lived in them, save a skeleton staff of AU caretakers and industrialists.
The rising sea levels of the twenty-first century had scarcely dented Africa’s coastline, and much of what would have been lost to the oceans had been conserved by thousands of kilometres of walled defenses thrown up in haste and later buttressed and secured against further inundation. But there was no sense that Africa had been spared. The shifting of the monsoon had stolen the rains from one part and redistributed them elsewhere—parching the Congo, anointing the formerly arid sub-Saharan Sahel region from Guinea to Nigeria.
Change on that kind of scale, a literal redrawing of the map, could never be painless. There had been testing times, the Resource and Reallocation years: almost the worst that people could bear. Yet these were Africans, used to that kind of thing. They had come through the grim tunnel of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and made it out the other side. And at least climate change didn’t ride into town with tanks and guns and machetes.
For the most part. It was pointless to pretend that there hadn’t been outbreaks of local stupidity, micro-atrocities. Ethnic tensions, simmering for decades, had flared up at the least provocation. But that was the case the world over; it wasn’t a uniquely African problem.
A million glints of sunlight spangled back at Geoffrey from the central Saharan energy belt. When people moved away, machines had arrived. In their wake they had left regimented arrays of solar collectors, ranks of photovoltaic cells and long, stately chains of solar towers, fed by sun-tracking mirrors as large as radio telescopes. The energy belt stretched for thousands of kilometres, from the Middle East out into the Atlantic, across the ocean to the Southern United States, and it wrapped humming, superconducting tentacles around the rest of the planet, giving power to dense new conurbations in Scandinavia, Greenland, Patagonia, and Western Antarctica. Where there had been ice a hundred and fifty years ago, much was now green or the warm bruised grey of dense urban infrastructure. Half of the world’s entire energy needs were supplied by Saharan sunlight, or had been until the fusion reactors began to shoulder the burden. By some measure, the energy belt was evidence of global calamity, the visible symptom of a debilitating planetary crisis. It was also, inarguably, something rather wonderful to behold.” (pp.165-166. Ace: New York)