The Bottleneck

“You don’t have to explain what a god-damned bottleneck is – I get it!” the President said.
But did he? General Hanson wasn’t sure. He leaned back in the leather chair, two seats down and across from where the President sat in the middle of the long table; slightly curved so that everyone seated could easily see everyone else. The table could comfortably accommodate twenty, but there were only ten occupants now. When the President called meetings down here in the bunker – the fortress that remained unseen by television cameras and the eyes of visiting dignitaries, and of the vast majority of the workers in the building upstairs known as the White House – there would be a full contingent of soldiers and citizens: generals and advisors, experts and assistants. But the President had not called this meeting; the generals had.
All the time he’d watched this kid playing politics, running for the job he’d just been sworn into, Hanson had never been sure he got anything. Ever since the new generation of halfwits they called citizens had decided that old people were just too boring, and young politicians were a lot snappier and cuter in their Websnap videos, – streamed onto their phone screens on a constant basis between shoe advertisements – than anyone over forty, and had started electing their so-called leaders on that criterion over an ability to understand shit about the world, Hanson had had trouble trusting to common sense. Instead, he repeated sentences, pointed out the obvious, and forced his superiors to prove they had been listening to what he’d just said.
Even lifting the voting age back to twenty-one, after the Supreme Court ruling that age was not a valid basis on which to gauge adulthood – given the conclusive evidence that the offspring of the country failed to garner enough knowledge and/or understanding of history or civics in school to help them distinguish between two political views, no matter how polarised – had done little to keep the young-but-dumb out of office.
In one way, it was lucky that the world had become ever more simplified and easy to sum up. On the other hand, that summary was damned scary: there were troubling times ahead.
You had to close your eyes to the inevitable if you were to function in any way at all. That allowed you to ignore the pessimism that hovered over your shoulders, ready to whip you like the tornadoes now whipped the Mid West in the middle of fucking winter. If you stopped to think about it, you sometimes stopped, literarily, stock still in the middle of whatever you were doing, frozen with fear.
General Hanson had handled fear before. His job was to keep the goddamn elected officials moving too, once they’d heard just how bad it was going to get. If they kept going, the rest of the population would. It was propaganda, the old fashioned way.
He got up from the table and stretched, then began to pace slowly. They’d been talking for hours, and he was getting tired. Of the ten, he had been doing the majority of the speaking. Though they could have easily fit in the conference room off the Oval office – in the Oval office itself – the generals, like always, had wanted to conduct this first meeting with the newly-inaugurated President down here – a room he’d never entered, or even heard about before. The recently-vacated incumbent had not mentioned this meeting, or the bunker, when the President-elect had visited in November. The generals had brought him down here for this talk before they even let him into the Oval Office, so the President hadn’t yet got the feeling of power that every one of them got when they looked out on the rose garden, and strode round the curve of the room. It helped to manifest the notion that he was not quite in charge yet, that he had to prove he was up to this portion of the job he’d not known about until now. Here, the generals had control. This was the time and place where the people who ran the show, who kept the balls in the air between Presidents and behind the scenes, made themselves known to the new President, explained some policy issues that were not apparent, that might have been misunderstood, or mistaken by, and misrepresented to him and the people he’d just sworn to lead.
Hanson had been laying out the reality of life in the Job, the cold facts about what the kid could hope to change, and what was just better to let go, allow continue as was: the things there was no point fighting. One of those was the decision, taken back in the Nineteen Eighties, about global environmental problems and population growth.
The rest of the issues had not made the kid quite so irritable. He’d shrugged, nodded, raised his eyebrows, but not said he felt it was a bad policy, or a lie, or just plain stupid. They’d left this one until last, though, because they knew it would be a little harder for this man, regardless of his new title, to swallow. He’d been a surfer and snowboarder in his youth – not that he was old, now, by any stretch of the imagination. If there had been any ski mountains left to board, or decent breaks to surf, maybe he’d still be the professional he had been, and Hanson would have been explaining things to some other kid. But the kid here had turned his athletic celebrity to political ends and was now President – on the back of promising he’d do something to reverse the warming that had taken his beloved sports away. Hanson guessed that any hint of real emotion in a politician was by now a hallowed thing, not to say opiate, to the voters – the few that were left who gave two shits. The majority of the population only worried about their new shoes: the real opiate of the masses these days. Ironically, half of the dumb bastards were only ever likely to notice foot fashion in the few seconds they glanced away from their screens as they shuffled from car to elevator, breathing out ever more carbon dioxide.
“Then you know that it’s a case of kill them before they take our space, sir.”
This issue of population growth was always sticky. Hanson searched for an analogy that would make the issue clear to the kid, who looked like he was about to stand up. Something to do with snow, perhaps? But there was no snow.
That was it – polar bears. The last few polar bears, despite being on the endangered list all these years, were currently being shot in Alaska. Not by big game hunters – as recommended by one ex-VP as a final way to make the NAARP profitable after the oil ran out – but by their old buddies the Inuit. As the bears wandered south, and appeared in people’s back yards out of sheer hunger: skinny and gaunt like some cartoon caricatures of the creatures they were supposed to be – supposedly had been, according to what Hanson had always been led to believe.
“Let me give you an example, Mr President. The polar bear. A tragedy, sir, yes. However, if the Eskimos had let the bears take over, kill the caribou herds, well, there’d be no Eskimos, no Eskimo culture. It was a difficult decision, but the Eskimo culture survived, albeit at the cost of the bears. There are always priorities, and we have ours.”
The President did stand up; fairly incensed too, it seemed.
“What fucking culture do the Inuit have left, General? The image my Cartoon fucking Network long showed me was a little guy in a fur hood, fishing out of a hole in the fucking ice! Ain’t no hole in nothing now.”
He sat back down again, and, after an ingratiating pause – suggested by a look from Hanson’s immediate superior, who sat on the President’s right – Hanson continued in a softer tone.
“You get my point, sir. The people, their stories, their music: all that survived, so far.”
The President leaned back in his chair, clearly also tiring from the drawn-out meeting. Hanson felt no pity. The kid would have to get used to long meetings.
“But we’re trying to save the animal world, the natural world,” the President said, also in a friendlier tone, back to trying to negotiate. “To get as much of it through this bottleneck you so adequately explain, so that when the human population drops, there will be something left people to enjoy, to give them some reason for life, something to live on.”
“But what part of the human population will remain? Will it be mostly American? Or Chinese? Or Russian? Will some of them disappear altogether, like the good polar bear? No more Swiss, no more French?”
“I hardly think…”
“But you never thought of it before.”
Hanson’s superior shot him another glance, but Hanson shrugged. It annoyed him how many presidents came into office with the belief that they were actually in charge, that they could change the way business was done. The guy two assholes ago had actually gone up against his administration, against the generals and the civil service. Hanson well remembered the guy having a shit fit in this same office, adamant that he’d just up and fucking storm out, bar himself into the Oval office and demand to speak to foreign leaders. It had been Hanson’s job, as usual, to set him straight.
“If you walk out of here,” he’d told him simply, “then you’re on your own. You don’t have the least idea of what to do.”
“I can hire new people,” the guy had exclaimed, to the literal guffaws of the other generals in the room.
“You can’t even call a press conference by yourself,” Hanson had had to point out. “They won’t believe that it is you making the call. If you try to go out of this building on your own, you will be told that you’re not yourself, and the secret service will simply restrain you. They only follow your orders because they are told to do so by their actual superiors.”
That President had crossed his arms defensively, not wanting to believe it, his mind working furiously to figure out a way around his own impotence.
Hanson had quickly headed off one train of thought: “And if you make so bold as to tell the public this when you are on television: that you’re hostage to your own administration, a captive in the White House, then see how long they let you stay in that bedroom of the west wing – the public, that is. You’ll be turfed out by Joe Soap in no time. The great unwashed have never heard of such a thing. They’d laugh you out. But don’t feel bad. Every other guy in the Office has had to go through the same shit.”
The guy had simmered down soon enough after that, and had been allowed into the actual Oval Office a few weeks later.
This new kid was not quite so difficult to work with – perhaps because he was even younger than that guy had been. Hanson reckoned they’d let him have the keys within twenty-four hours, if he didn’t screw up before the end of the briefing. With another look to his superior officer to say he’d try to make it as easy to swallow as he could, Hanson leaned on the back of his chair and smiled amiably.
“What I mean, sir,” he went on, “is that we’ve been thinking this through since the Eighties. There are simple truths,” he said expressively, walking up and down again, getting into the flow of his monologue.
“There is going to be a lot of conflict, over shit that we all take for granted now – including water, and the right to hold onto land we thought we’d fought for and won two and three centuries ago, and wouldn’t have to fight for again. Lives will be lost. Many lives. And by ‘many’ I mean a significant fraction of the human race. We don’t want to lose American lives, and the more of us there are, then perhaps the fewer we’ll lose. By the same token, the more we have, the more we can afford to lose, without losing our whole culture. And, Mr President, with all due fucking respect, we aren’t about to let our culture – no, our civilisation – disappear from the face of the earth. Not without the god-awfullest fight you can imagine. The work the Founding Fathers did for us is too precious, the two hundred-fifty plus years of work that’s gone into the making of this nation, making it great!”
“But,” the kid interrupted, more to ascertain the facts than to piss Hanson off, “if I understand it correctly, it’s a zero-sum game. If we win, the others lose. There are only so many people the planet can sustain. The Chinese are entitled to their culture, too. Perhaps even more entitled, since they have seniority by about two thousand years? As for the Europeans: the Swiss, the EU, they might be of the opinion that we are a mere hybrid of their pure cultures. Anything we have to preserve culturally will be preserved if their members survive the bottleneck. And, also, it was my understanding that the Chinese and many other nations have been lowering their population for some time.
Hanson liked this kid. He’d obviously read more than pod-thoughts on his Webmaster, and had not completely addled his brain by the intravenous injection of International Idol webcasts.
“All due respect, sir,” he replied without irony, “but the god-damned Chinese have a pretty fucking big head-start on us. And they’re not reducing their population levels out of any concern they’ll fuck up someone else’s back yard. The shit they spew across the Pacific is testament to that. No, sir, that’s just fucking timing. They’re about to run out of food, and they don’t want their own population crashing before everyone else’s – jump the gun, so to speak. They want to keep the citizenry healthy enough to fight when the fight comes. No, don’t you worry about the Chinese, sir. When the conflict happens, in fact, just you watch all the Chinese emigrants settled in every corner of the world. See how quick they’ll be to jump a boat home to join the hordes battling for another land. Most of the planet will be doing the same. That’s why we’ve been so tough about immigration all these years. We need real Americans here.”
The President seemed to search for words for a second as General Hanson’s words sank in.
“But weren’t there some international agreements to avoid this necessity? If everyone does the same as us, we’ll all be screwed.”
Hanson nodded, but then shrugged. “Take the European Union, a group that supposedly pursues a common destiny. They can’t even agree on the same policy. For all their talk about climate change and carbon taxes, they’re no more conscientious than anyone else. Half those fucking hypocrites are pursuing their own individual goals. The Germans have been giving their womenfolk money to breed more little Germans.”
“Surely that’s simple economics…”
“It’s not about the economy! They aren’t paying young Turks to come in and become citizens, to get to work straight away without the need for free education and healthcare, because they know that Johnny Turk will be back across the Bosporus as soon as the shit really hits the fan, and the glorious German culture will be in danger of going the same way as the Third Reich. The Irish are doing the same. The god-damn Irish culture is probably the safest one in the world. Half the planet could be killed off, the Asians taking over everything, and you’ll still find a fucking Mick grinning while he pours a pint of Guinness in some pub in Nepal.
“Still, they’re not too sure everyone will go back to the island and defend the old sod from invaders. Whether it’ll be worth defending, in the sense of being able to provide food for many, even fucking potato-eaters, is another story. If the Gulf Stream shuts off, then it’ll be another famine for the poor fucks, and that looks increasingly likely.
“Nonetheless, they’re filling up their little impoverished piece of green with plenty of Micks just in case, even after exporting millions for the last two centuries. They want someone doing jigs on the other side of this bottleneck.”
“So you’re saying that nobody’s going to slow population growth, then – bar the Chinese, and that’s just to stay fit?”
“Not a one. Not even the Pacific Islanders. They’re popping sprogs goodo on their sinking sand pits. They hope that, even as their plots of land wash away, they can establish a beachhead on New Zealand, or wherever else they’re allowed land their canoes, and keep their culture alive. Or, that the more of them that come ashore, the more likely they’ll win a fight and at least some can gain a foothold on what will be someone else’s turf.”
The president looked fairly aghast at this information. However, to Hanson’s reluctant admiration, he didn’t go to pieces; he wouldn’t have been the first.
“But why bother?” he asked after a pause, staring squarely at Hanson. “If the planet is so messed up that it won’t be able to sustain us? How much worse will this bottleneck be if we all go to war into the bargain? We’ll wipe out the crops, at that rate.” He shook his head and snorted wryly. “The fucking Norwegians will be holed up, held siege in their seed banks.”
General Hanson held his stare. “Why bother, if there is no us to sustain?” he replied. “You’re not beholden to the planet. You’re beholden to the people of this great nation.”
“And if there’s no planet for the people of this great nation to live on?”
“Then that’s something you couldn’t control.”
Hanson shrugged, let the sentence settle before continuing. “However, if, on the other hand, there is a planet, living and breathing, with seed banks intact, and perhaps one or two healthy herds of wildebeests and zebra and all those guys in the Serengeti – hell, maybe even a few polar bears in some zoo – then it wouldn’t be that bad a place to live. The survivors might even enjoy all that, instead of having their eyeballs glued to their webscreens.
“Well, Mr President, if that optimistic scenario comes to pass, and there is no United States of America left to lay claim to some of that, then you’ll have earned your place in the history books as the stupidest fuck ever to be elected President in the history of this great nation. And that’s one hell of a statement right there, believe me.”
General Hanson retook his seat and leaned toward the President, who now stared at him in something approaching disbelief, mixed with realisation and acceptance that what Hanson was saying was not untrue. Hanson went on, knowing that the kid would nod his assent, agree on the facts and that soon they’d be giving him the keys to the office upstairs.
“In fact, if those bison and grizzly bears in Yellowstone park become the greatest attraction in the new great nation of fucking ‘Chinamexico’ or whatever place they name it, well then, you just might become the most vilified bastard in history, perhaps more than Hitler, Nero and Pol Pot put together. Never before will one man be directly responsible for the death of his own people. At the best, you’ll be a laughing stock.”
He paused again, and let the weight of his words rest upon the President before finishing his speech. “Although, it is also true you might be considered a hero to the rest of the world, for having sacrificed your own people so that everyone else could more easily make it through the bottleneck.”
The President sat back in his chair and played with his pen, looking around at the generals. They all stared back at him without expression. Finally, his gaze returned to Hanson and he nodded almost imperceptibly. “It would be remiss of a President not to help his people pursue their manifest destiny, despite the problems they may face.”
Hanson smiled and nodded. “Yes, Sir, Mr President. I do believe that’s true.” He glanced at his superior officer, who nodded back.
He cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr President. I think it might be more comfortable for all of us if we were to continue this meeting in the Oval Office later this evening. Right now, I think we could all use a break.”

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