The Mandate of Heaven
'The outriders of the Apocalypse have already crested the horizon'
Ensconced high in a stylish office in Camden, the Mandarins work diligently. Their task: saving the world.
Such a dramatic purpose obscures the intense bureaucracy of the role. Scientific auguries must be consulted. Reference to established ritual observed. The various notaries consulted and appeased. Occasionally it will require delving into the vulgar material world of artisans and merchants. But enlightenment is usually found in more rarefied forums, in the world of labyrinthine codices and abstract mathematical games.
This is the world of the symbol, of the finely crafted word. A turn of phrase can direct (or divert) billions to one purpose or another. Even a single word, subtly inoculated into a sentence, can be the difference between a million tonnes of carbon and none. The delicate brush stroke of the mandarin steward’s order through change.
Their acumen can fractionate the identical, separating undifferentiated atoms into a complex system of banners. Green, blue, grey and black, each is saddled with virtues, vices, duties, and prohibitions. Commerce and law bends around them — even the paths of nations may be tied to these banners. If the mandarins ascribe someone’s allegiance to one over the other, they may be cast as destroyers — agents that hate all which is good and green. All this can be true when, to the unlearned masses — even to nature itself — the atoms and their impact upon the heavens are identical.
The Mandarin is thus master of an art without beauty. The workings of their reportage are confined to hard, granitic formulae; algorithms that can only be chipped and shaved at delicate points. It is through this winnowing of the stone that fate gradually emerges into the firmament.
The result of their monastic dedications is the production of missives that travel out into the provinces, directing the empire from afar. Few are followed assiduously, and most are perverted. Yet their thread of power, the spirit that lies beyond any individual word, remains. It is faint, and it alone cannot tip the scales towards the Mandarin’s goals: Sustainability, decarbonisation, or some other, unfathomably grand purpose. Rather, each is a like grain of sand. Bearing an infinitesimal weight of fate that can do nothing but accumulate.
For such a process to work, the world must remain ordered. As decentralized as the Mandarins consultancies may be, they are allied upon shared principles. Principles that require order in trade, state, and society — even heaven and earth must pertain.
One Mandarin steps up from his desk. Walking to the glass wall that separates him so delicately from the outside world. He is tense. He feels unease. He can see the whole of London’s skyline from his perch. The Shard — in all its monumental glory — seems eternal, godlike. But he knows it is a mirage. For every missive he painstakingly crafts, a flood of ill tides washes through his screens. There is trouble in the provinces. Empire is losing its grip upon the Sahel, and the Grand Canal is choked with ships. The harvests are poor, and many princelings have begun to horde, others to fight. Merchants and prophets are growing in power. Mercenaries rove the hinterlands. The plague still lingers.
Even the heavens seem displeased. Floods wash away whole towns, fires burn entire provinces. Droughts proliferate, and hurricanes attack prosperous cities on the coast. Sacred wildernesses shrink to poisonous paroxysms of their former glory. The sea and sky are discontent, hot and torrid with rage. Wherever he looks, the Mandate seems to be slipping. The order which the Mandarins work so delicately to maintain is being pulled apart, thread by thread. Like someone tugging at the loose strands of a grand, fading tapestry.
Riders on the Horizon
The outriders of the Apocalypse have already crested the horizon. Probing out from the early, even curve of exponential change. Blind scouts of a mindless menace.
The apocalypse’s outriders are from a future more rugged and cunning than the present. They rove and probe at their prey. In the core they slink like phantoms. Lashing out at the lonely and wretched, melting the skin from the tramps who collapse in the heat. They throw fuel upon conflicts they did not spark, and instigate grinding attrition in the long, vulnerable silk roads that crochet the earth. River barges run aground, and workshops swelter beyond productivity.
In the frontiers, small parties of riders coalesce into rampaging hordes. Where the negligent eyes of the Mandarin are turned, the riders launch great chevauchées that can level cities and cripple nations. Drowning breadbaskets and burning pasture. Then they scattered to the winds. Sometimes hibernating till the next season, sometimes doubling back like Parthian shots.
Myriad migrants flee their wake, streaming out from the hidden and uncared-for corners of the earth. The riders drive wretched nations ahead of them, like the braying herds driven off by cattle raiders. Some flee thirst and hunger in baking plains, others the saline soils of a subterranean tide. Salmon spawn in the arctic as southern seas boil. Entire forests embark on creaking migrations to cooler climes. Geochemical orders are disturbed in their slow, steady cycles. The humors of the earth bubbling up from the thick black mud of the northern wastes and ocean depths. The riders gallop faster, scenting blood.
They have not yet struck a killing blow. Not yet resolved to storm the metropole. They are, after all, just the outriders. Raiders cutting supply lines and burning stockpiles. Nomadic akinji, parasitic forerunners of the steep curve to come.
The Mandarin watches the outriders, tracks them. He alters his literature. He leads debates. He reaches out beyond his caste, to merchants, princes, and even the commoners on the street. More complex rituals are added to an already titanic bureaucracy. Journeys yet to embark on are mapped in ever finer detail. The signals of nature are consulted. The heavens watched.
In idle hours, he wonders. Wonders if his missives — designed to adapt order to change — are what is inviting the riders in. They are, after all, fed by that order, nourished by it. Scavengers attracted by the stinking emissions of his empire. Invasive predators that sneak through the cracks of an ailing biosphere. The mandate of heaven is a document not written in words, or code. Do the mandarins truly understand it? Are their efforts to maintain the mandate of heaven instead unraveling it?
The Mandarin is not tasked to ponder such questions. His profession is predicated upon the fact that he does not.
Ben Shread-Hewitt is a Polycrisis researcher who studies the feedback between changes in ecological, political, and economic systems. He currently works at the Climate Bonds Initiative, where he is building financial networks to drive forward climate action and combat fossil fuel proliferation.
WE WILL BEAR WITNESS to this moment in history. This media project features stories from earth's citizens, recording climate destruction, devastation, resilience and hope. Tell your story.
Bear witness with us.