World leaders from more than 190 countries will convene in Paris during the first two weeks of December for the long-awaited United Nations Climate Change Conference. Will the governments of the world finally pass a binding global treaty aimed at reducing the most dangerous impacts of global warming … or will they fail in this task?
Letters to the Future, a national project involving more than 40 alternative weeklies across the United States, set out to find authors, artists, scientists and others willing to get creative and draft letters to future generations of their own families, predicting the success or failure of the Paris talks—and what came after.
Some participants were optimistic about what is to come—some not so much. We hereby present some of their visions of the future.
SEIZE THE MOMENT
BY BILL MCKIBBEN
Dear Descendants, The first thing to say is, sorry. We were the last generation to know the world before full-on climate change made it a treacherous place. That we didn’t get sooner to work slowing it down is our great shame, and you live with the unavoidable consequences.
That said, I hope that we made at least some difference. There were many milestones in the fight—Rio, Kyoto, the debacle at Copenhagen. By the time the great Paris climate conference of 2015 rolled around, many of us were inclined to cynicism.
And our cynicism was well-taken. The delegates to that convention, representing governments that were still unwilling to take more than baby steps, didn’t really grasp the nettle. They looked for easy, around-the-edges fixes, ones that wouldn’t unduly alarm their patrons in the fossil fuel industry.
But so many others seized the moment that Paris offered to do the truly important thing: Organize. There were meetings and marches, disruptions and disobedience. And we came out of it more committed than ever to taking on the real power that be.
The real changes flowed in the months and years past Paris, when people made sure that their institutions pulled money from oil and coal stocks, and when they literally sat down in the way of the coal trains and the oil pipelines. People did the work governments wouldn’t—and as they weakened the fossil fuel industry, political leaders grew ever so slowly bolder.
We learned a lot that year about where power lay: less in the words of weak treaties than in the zeitgeist we could create with our passion, our spirit, and our creativity. Would that we had done it sooner!
An author, educator and environmentalist, McKibben is co-founder of 350.org, a planet-wide grassroots climate change movement. He has written more than a dozen books.
SORRY ABOUT THAT
BY T.C. BOYLE
Dear Rats of the Future: Congratulations on your bipedalism: it’s always nice to be able to stand tall when you need it, no? And great on losing that tail too (just as we lost ours). No need for that awkward (and let’s face it: ugly) kind of balancing tool when you walk upright, plus it makes fitting into your blue jeans a whole lot easier. Do you wear blue jeans—or their equivalent? No need, really, I suppose, since you’ve no doubt retained your body hair. Well, good for you.
Sorry about the plastics. And the radiation. And the pesticides. I really regret that you won’t be hearing any birdsong anytime soon, either, but at least you’ve got that wonderful musical cawing of the crows to keep your mornings bright. And, of course, I do expect that as you’ve grown in stature and brainpower you’ve learned to deal with the feral cats, your one-time nemesis, but at best occupying a kind of ratty niche in your era of ascendancy. As for the big cats—the really scary ones, tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar—they must be as remote to you as the mammoths were to us. It goes without saying that with the extinction of the bears (polar bears: they were a pretty silly development anyway, and of no use to anybody beyond maybe trophy hunters) and any other large carnivores, there’s nothing much left to threaten you as you feed and breed and find your place as the dominant mammals on earth. (I do expect that the hyenas would have been something of a nasty holdout, but as you developed weapons, I’m sure you would have dispatched them eventually).
Apologies too about the oceans, and I know this must have been particularly hard on you since you’ve always been a seafaring race, but since you’re primarily vegetarian, I don’t imagine that the extinction of fish would have much affected you. And if, out of some nostalgia for the sea that can’t be fully satisfied by whatever hardtack may have survived us, try jellyfish. They’ll be about the only thing out there now, but I’m told they can be quite palatable, if not exactly mouth-watering, when prepared with sage and onions. Do you have sage and onions? But forgive me: of course you do. You’re an agrarian tribe at heart, though in our day we certainly did introduce you to city life, didn’t we? Bright lights, big city, right? At least you don’t have to worry about abattoirs, piggeries, feed lots, bovine intestinal gases and the like—or, for that matter, the ozone layer, which would have been long gone by the time you started walking on two legs. Does that bother you? The UV rays, I mean? But no, you’re a nocturnal tribe anyway, right?
Anyway, I just want to wish you all the best in your endeavors on this big blind rock hurtling through space. My advice? Stay out of the laboratory. Live simply. And, whatever you do, please—I beg you—don’t start up a stock exchange.
With Best Wishes,
P.S. In writing you this missive, I am, I suppose, being guardedly optimistic that you will have figured out how to decode this ape language I’m employing here—especially given the vast libraries we left you when the last of us breathed his last.
A novelist and short story writer, T.C. Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.
BY JIM HIGHTOWER
Hello? People of the future … Anyone there? It’s your forebears checking in with you from generations ago. We were the stewards of the Earth in 2015—a dicey time for the planet, humankind, and life itself. And … well, how’d we do? Anyone still there? Hello.
A gutsy, innovative, and tenacious environmental movement arose around the globe back then to try lifting common sense to the highest levels of industry and government. We had made great progress in developing a grassroots consciousness about the suicidal consequences for us (as well as those of you future earthlings) if we didn’t act pronto to stop the reckless industrial pollution that was causing climate change. Our message was straightforward: When you realize you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the very first thing to do is stop digging.
Unfortunately, our grassroots majority was confronted by an elite alliance of narcissistic corporate greedheads and political boneheads. They were determined to deny environmental reality in order to grab more short-term wealth and power for themselves. Centuries before this, some Native American cultures adopted a wise ethos of deciding to take a particular action only after contemplating its impact on the seventh generation of their descendants. In 2015, however, the ethos of the dominant powers was to look no further into the future than the three-month forecast of corporate profits.
As I write this letter to the future, delegations from the nations of our world are gathering to consider a global agreement on steps we can finally take to rein in the looming disaster of global warming. But at this convocation and beyond, will we have the courage for boldness, for choosing people and the planet over short-term profits for the few? The people’s movement is urging the delegates in advance to remember that the opposite of courage is not cowardice, it’s conformity—just going along with the flow. After all, even a dead fish can go with the flow, and if the delegates don’t dare to swim against the corporate current, we’re all dead.
So did we have the courage to start doing what has to be done? Hello … anyone there?
A national radio commentator, writer and public speaker, Hightower is also a New York Times best selling author.
BY ROXANA ROBINSON
Dear Descendants, Already I know some of you, with your quick liquid eyes, your supple movements, the way you look and listen in your world. I’ll write to you, and to your descendants, the ones I will never know, you whose lovely quick shapes and minds will illuminate their own world.
Let me tell you what this world is like, the world I grew up in, about its beauty and variety.
Let me tell you about the miraculous Monarch butterfly, a shimmering flicker of amber that alights in our meadows, and feeds on our ragged milkweed plants. It lays eggs on the leaves, eggs that become fat striped caterpillars, which become tiny glowing gold-rimmed jade urns. These, magically, contain the butterflies, which turn dark and vivid as the moment of their emergence approaches. The butterflies themselves, flimsy, erratic, fly thousands of miles to a place they’ve never seen, to spend the winter. This quick amber miracle has been mine to admire every summer of my life.
And let me tell you about the polar bear, the largest land mammal, a bear of unimaginable size, with a pelt of pewter-white, a color to freeze your blood, and well it might, because they live at unimaginable temperatures, cold so deep it will freeze your breath inside your chest, freeze the salt sea, freeze the wind in the sky, but not the polar bear. Vast and unstoppable, the polar bear will swim through the frozen seas, pad over wrecked floes, slide in and out of water, fog, ice and snow. He is an apex predator, 12 feet high and weighing 2,000 pounds. He has 42 curved ivory teeth, and his paws are 12 inches across, armed with curved, lethal claws. Beautiful, wild, invincible, he has no animal enemies. It took 100,000 years for the polar bear to evolve from their nearest cousins, the brown grizzly, and now polar bears rule the arctic, with their lazy gait, their deadly black stare, their great majestic presence.
Let me tell you about the little brown bat, a small nocturnal flier that kindly eats our insects, flickering wildly through our evenings in pursuit of our mosquitoes. Bats flooded out of those louvers in our old barn—you’ve seen the pictures of it—every evening, all summer, hundreds of them, speeding out into the quiet dusk. We watched them, standing on the lawn: it was like a natural fireworks show, the silent, darting glimpses of wings flashing against the darkening sky.
Let me tell you about the frogs, leopard-spotted, with dark spherical marks ringed with gold, green frogs with round black eyes, that sat motionless beneath a leaf, waiting for an insect. Or the gray tree frog, the tiny one that climbs into the tall eupatorium plants in the garden, disguising its tiny mottled body among the leaves.
There are more I could tell you about, thousands of animals and birds and insects whom we are lucky to have now in our lives. But I think you won’t know them, dear descendants. I think that by the time you read this many of them will be gone. There is always a reason to kill a creature, it turns out, and it always makes money for someone to do so. That’s how it is in our world.
I wish I could show you these quick and beautiful creatures who were entrusted into our care, and not just describe them. I wish I could show them to you.
A novelist and essayist who writes often about the natural world, Robinson is current president of the Authors Guild.
To read more letters or to write a letter of your own, please visit LettersToTheFuture.org. This is a collaborative effort between this newspaper, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Media Consortium. You can also like us on Facebook.