Wisdom Tales from the Future

This is the first of the social science fiction stories in Miki Kashtan’s book Reweaving Our Human Fabric: Working Together to Create a Nonviolent Future. Introducing these Wisdom Tales in the book, Miki writes in small part:

What follows is my own attempt to imagine a world in which all of us could thrive. This vision stands in stark contrast to all that we’ve been told about ourselves and what’s possible for humans….

Each of the stories explores the way of life of the future world through a day in the life of one person. Each of the stories contains implicit and sometimes explicit references to the institutions and systems I describe later, in section two. I chose purposefully to write of these institutions and systems as though they are the most ordinary and commonplace occurrence rather than a thing of the future, because that will be the case in such a future society.

While each story illustrates how people might interact with each other under radically different conditions, my main hope is that you will receive a vivid image of what those conditions are…. Remember as you read these stories that there is no money and no exchange in this future world. That everything that is done is done voluntarily and coordinated with everyone else’s actions. That the resource allocation system is globally coordinated and locally owned. That there is no government as we know it, and no coercion except under conditions of imminent threat to life (one of the stories addresses this particular challenge). And that conflict exists and is an ongoing feature of life, and mechanisms for addressing it are abundant and robust.

To understand more than that, read the book! Here’s the first story (and two more are linked to from the book’s main page):


Collective Triage

“I know it’s being investigated,” Adimu said impatiently. “How on earth is it going to solve our problem now?” She stomped the floor in frustration as she paced the room. “I can’t believe this is happening. I just can’t believe it.” She wanted it to be a bad dream. It wasn’t. There were families waiting, each with a child, each with malaria. She only had enough artemisinin for ten of them. And this was not a temporary shortage. It was a global crisis. There wasn’t going to be enough, not this year, not anywhere.[1]

A system breakdown had resulted in an incorrect calculation of how much would be needed. Some flaw in the projection module. And no one caught it, either, because it had never happened before, and everyone had gotten lazy. On three different occasions the alert had been ignored. Any change in materials orders from a previous period that was larger than 10% in either direction was flagged for inspection. At least three different people had seen the flag and signed off on it anyway. The growers had responded to the drastically reduced request by shifting to other crops, or taking some time off from growing and doing more community service, or engaging in other activities.

And now there she was. With enough artemisinin to treat ten of 32 children. And with the long growing season it would take almost a year to fix the problem. What a nightmare.

She almost screamed: “How am I going to decide who lives and who dies?”

Wachiru was thinking about the people who were responsible for this terrible disaster. He realized they would have to face the consequences for the rest of their lives. There would be many circles and much talk to repair the lost trust. And there would be lots to learn about how to support people in detecting changes and intervening. The growers, too, could have noticed it. Wouldn’t they have been surprised to find such smaller quantities requested around the globe?

“We need to go out there and talk to them,” he said gently. “I’ll help.”

Adimu hadn’t settled yet. “It’s easy for you to say,” she was still agitated. “You’re not their doctor; you’re just a supply liaison. Do you even know what it’s like to tell someone you don’t have the medicine that could save their child’s life?” She was breathing heavily, then sat down, panting, and covered her face with her hands. When she looked at him again he could see her tears. “How are we going to make these horrible, impossible, awful decisions?”

“Together,” he said, almost inaudibly. “There’s no other way. None of us can decide for anyone else.” They both knew about the old days, where money, or connections, or status, would make the decision. She nodded, horrified at the thought. There was no alternative to telling them all the truth, involving everyone in figuring this out. “OK,” she said, “I’m ready. As ready as I’ll ever be.”

“Wait a minute,” Wachiru said as she was approaching the door to their office. “Don’t go out before you get some support. Please, sit down.” She did. He took her hand. They’d been good friends for years. Sometimes there was even a little spark of sexual energy between them, not enough to make a relationship. The friendship was too precious. He made sure to stay on this side of the line as he stroked her hand, touched her face, and pulled her closer to him.

“With a name like mine,” Adimu said, “I never, ever, ever wanted to be in any situation that involved scarcity.[2] It’s too cruel for me, I’m just too sensitive. I sometimes don’t even know how I survive treating sick and injured people all the time.”

Wachiru smiled. He knew what she meant, and chose not to speak about his own name.[3] The ironies were too strong. Instead, he said: “What touches me most is how much you care about people, that even with your sensitivities you chose to dedicate your life to healing the sick and the injured. That means a lot to me. I am inspired to see your courage.” He could feel her breathing deepen, and she was silent for a while, just breathing.

“It’s true,” she said dreamily. “It has to be true, or I am simply a masochist, which I know I’m not. I’m rare, but not that rare.” She laughed a little. “Thanks, pal.” She paused, unsure if she was really ready to face them. He could sense her hesitance. “I know it’s hard for you to take the time for yourself, especially knowing the people are out there waiting, desperate. Please stay. It could make a huge difference in what happens next.” She accepted. “It’s going to be rough, I know,” she continued, more confident. “And I know that we’re together and you’ll help. And the families will help, too.”

Ten minutes later she opened the door, walked into the hallway with Wachiru just behind her, and stood, preparing to talk. The noise was intense, with healthy children running around and everyone else singing or moaning, as the case may be. Then they saw her, and one by one the voices dropped, and a silence descended on the room.

“Let’s sit in a circle,” she offered. “We have some decisions to make together. This is not going to be simple.” Several people started speaking at once, raising their voices to be heard. Their children’s lives were at stake; of course they would be agitated. Still, she couldn’t hear a single word. She motioned them to be quiet, which didn’t help. She pulled out a whistle and blew it. The silence resumed.

“Thank you, all. I’m grateful for your presence. I can’t imagine how hard it is to have to come here for medicine you previously could get locally, knowing there isn’t enough for everyone.” The noise erupted again, and the whistle brought them back again. “We definitely want to hear from people, just not quite yet. Please do all you can to maintain your silence.” Maybe this time they will stick with it, she thought, not totally confident. “Wachiru here and I have talked about the situation, and all we know is this: there isn’t enough for everyone, and no more is coming this year. We want to make the decision about how to distribute what we have together.” She could see small signs of gratitude on some people’s faces, pained gratitude, for knowing the truth and being held with care. Mostly she saw panic. “I know you’re afraid for your child. All of you are. I am, too. I am afraid for every single one of these precious little beings.” Her voice was quivering when she said those last few words, and some of the mothers, in particular, looked at her more closely. She was glad for the extra time she took with Wachiru, for connecting with her own grief about losing a sister when she was younger. She felt present, despite the immense challenge.

“So, here’s the situation,” she sounded much more matter-of-fact than she felt. “There’s only enough for ten families, and there are 32 here.” Once again the voices rose, alarmed. This time she let them be for a moment before hushing them again. This was real human suffering, and she knew it had to be expressed. “I can’t think of any way that anyone can make these decisions for anyone else, so we will all need to do this together. I know every single one of you wants your child to survive this disease, and so do I.” She paused to survey the room. Everyone looked so anxious. Where to begin?

Wachiru stepped in next. “Let’s figure out the criteria first, and then apply them,” he said. He was always so sensible and clear; she admired him for that. Whenever there was any issue in the hospital, everyone asked him to come, even when it wasn’t his direct responsibility. “I have one to propose, and then I want to see who else has anything to offer. Anyone willing to take notes?” A girl, about 10, the older sister of a young boy who was clearly ill, raised her hand quickly. He smiled at her. “Thank you. What’s your name?” She smiled broadly, despite the dire circumstances. “I am Kanika,” she said. “Great. Here’s a pad of paper and a pen. Please write down all the ideas. Let me know if we’re going too fast for you.” He waited for her to get organized, and went on. The attention in the room was focused. “I would like to suggest that we give the medicine to those who are least likely to make it without it. Kanika, would you write this down?”

Immediately several people spoke. One said, “That doesn’t make sense. We need to support the strongest kids to make sure that at least some of the children survive. If we only give it to the weakest ones, then we might lose them all.” That man’s child was doing well despite the disease, and Wachiru wondered why he even came to get the medicine. And another: “Let’s do a lottery.” Adimu winced. Wachiru looked at her and blinked on purpose, slowly, so she would know he saw, and that he wanted her to remember to give room to all the ideas. She smiled, grateful. He then looked at Kanika to make sure she wrote lottery, too, even though it wasn’t a criterion.

Then an older woman got up and looked around. Everyone sensed her power. A few whispers and hushed questions floated around until everyone convinced themselves they knew enough about her. She stood like an elemental force of nature. Everyone was looking at her. Wachiru figured she must have come with a grandchild, as she was older than most. Later he and Adimu learned that she had no children, no one involved with malaria, and that she was going from place to place to be of help. She had short hair, evenly spread around her face, graying near her temples. Her hands had brought many little ones into the world. Her body spelled love. “This is for all of us, together,” she said. “Not each family apart. We can do this. Let’s let this man support us. We may be able to save everyone. I still know the old ways, passed down from generations, of supporting children and families to work with malaria. There are no guarantees. Not even with artemisinin, as you all know. I’m inviting anyone here to work with me. It’s a tough disease, but it’s not an automatic death sentence. Not even for the very young ones.” She stopped to breathe longer. It was the first moment Adimu could see she was aging. “I set up a healing place outside for those who are willing. I will work with everyone in the family. I know I can save many.” She looked around the circle, and said softly: “Let’s sing together.” Everyone joined, including Adimu and Wachiru. They sang together for a few minutes, still not knowing what would happen. When the song was over, the woman walked slowly through the circle, stood by the door, and looked back one more time: “I invite all to come. This is my sacred act.” And she walked out.

No one raised their voice again. People whispered to each other, and one by one several families went outside. A baby started crying, and someone comforted him. Those who remained seated bowed to those who left. Yes, it was a sacred act, thought Adimu. How she loved the people. When the commotion of people leaving ended, she counted again. Ten families went with the woman. Twelve more were not going to get the artemisinin. It was still far from done.

Kanika raised her hand. Wachiru called on her. “I don’t know what to write down. It didn’t sound like criteria to me. What shall I do?” Everyone smiled, and she laughed, still unclear.

“There was only one more thing to write after the one I named,” he said to her.

He was talking a little slower than usual, and she immediately jumped in. “You don’t need to speak slowly, I understand everything you’re saying.” She sounded irritated, and he let it go. They were all still learning how to treat children with full respect. He wanted her to lead the way. “I think I know what it was, thank you,” She said. “Carry on, I’m good.”

And then the list of suggestions for criteria followed. Those who are older, who are able to contribute right away. Those who are younger, who need the most care from others. Families with many children, where the loss might be mitigated, would not get it. Families with fewer children, where fewer will suffer the loss would not. Girls first. Boys first. Kanika was keeping up. Wachiru wasn’t, and Adimu was looking smaller and smaller over time. Would this group ever come together? From time to time they stopped and sang again, gathering strength together.

Then Kanika raised her hand. Wachiru called on her. “I think I have an idea,” she said cautiously. “I even calculated it. If we give one dose to the oldest girl, and one to the youngest boy, and one to the largest family, and one to the smallest family, and one to the sickest child, and one to the strongest child, that’s six. And we then have four more, and we divide them equally among all the remaining families. Every child will get a quarter dose. Maybe it will help, and some will make it.” And then she choked up. She couldn’t say anything for a moment, and everyone waited. “I want my brother to live,” she finally was able to utter. “I want him to get a full dose, and he won’t, not if we accept my idea.” She put her pen down, and wept. Many cried with her. No one said a word, as is common after truth is spoken.

[1] Artemisinin is currently the key component in the most widely used treatment for malaria worldwide. It is an annual plant, and even recently fluctuations in demand have resulted in temporary shortages in many places in the world. Recent developments of a semisynthetic alternative may make the specificity of this particular example moot in the future. I am merely using it as a plausible scenario of actual scarcity.

[2] Adimu is a female Kenyan name that means unique, rare, or scarce.

[3] Wachiru is a male Kenyan name that means son of a judge.