Letters to the Future

LettersToTheFuture.org Scientists, authors and activists predict the outcome of the upcoming UN Climate Talks in Paris

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Illustration by Don Button

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.

MY ENDLESS SKY

by Stephen K. Robinson

Dear Future Robinsons: Back around the turn of the century, flying to space was a rare human privilege, a dream come true, the stuff of movies (look it up), and an almost impossible ambition for children the world around.

But I was one of those fortunates. And what I saw from the cold, thick, protective windows of the Space Shuttle is something that, despite my 40 years of dreaming (I was never a young astronaut), I never remotely imagined.

Not that I was new to imagining things. As you may know, I was somehow born with a passion for the sky, for flight and for the mysteries of the atmosphere. I built and flew death-defying gliders, learned to fly properly, earned university degrees in the science of flight and then spent the rest of my life exploring Earth’s atmosphere from below it, within it and above it. My hunger was never satisfied, and my love of flight never waned at all, even though it tried to kill me many times.

As I learned to fly in gliders, then small aircraft, then military jets, I always had the secure feeling that the atmosphere was the infinite “long delirious burning blue” of Magee’s poem, even though of all people, I well knew about space and its nearness. It seemed impossible to believe that with just a little more power and a little more bravery, I couldn’t continue to climb higher and higher on “laughter-silvered wings.” My life was a celebration of the infinite gift of sky, atmosphere and flight.

But what I saw in the first minutes of entering space, following that violent, life-changing rocketride, shocked me.

If you look at Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, you can see it “on edge” — gazing towards the horizon, with the black of space above and the gentle curve of the yes-it’s-round planet below. And what you see is the most exquisite, luminous, delicate glow of a layered azure haze holding the Earth like an ethereal eggshell. “That’s it?!” I thought. The entire sky — MY endless sky — was only a paper-thin, blue wrapping of the planet, and looking as tentative as frost.

And this is the truth. Our Earth’s atmosphere is fragile and shockingly tiny — maybe 4 percent of the planet’s volume. Of all the life we know about, only one species has the responsibility to protect that precious blue planet-wrap. I hope we did, and I hope you do.

Your ancestor, 

Stephen K. Robinson 

After 36 years as an astronaut — with a tenure that included four shuttle missions and three spacewalks — Robinson retired from NASA in 2012. He is now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Davis.

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 mouthwatering, 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, 

T.C. Boyle 

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.

INCREDIBLE PEOPLE

by Annie Leonard

It’s hard to imagine writing to the granddaughter of my own daughter, but if you’re anything like her strong, smart, occasionally a little stubborn — then I have no doubt the world is in good hands.

By now your school should have taught you about climate change, and how humans helped to bring it about with our big cars, big homes, big appetites and an endless desire for more stuff. But what the teachers and textbooks may not have passed on are the stories of incredible people that helped make sure the planet remained beautiful and livable for you.

These are stories of everyday people doing courageous things, because they couldn’t stand by and watch communities poisoned by pollution, the Arctic melt, or California die of fire and drought. They couldn’t bear to think of New Orleans under water again, or New York lost to a superstorm. Right now, as politicians weigh up options and opinion polls, people are organizing and uprising. It’s amazing to see and be a part of.

In the year that led up to the 2015 meeting of global leaders on climate change in Paris, kayakers took to the water to stop oil rigs. Nurses, musicians, grannies, preachers and even beekeepers, took to the streets. The message was loud and clear: “We want clean, safe, renewable energy now!” 

Were it not for this glorious rainbow of people power, I don’t know whether President Obama would have stepped up and canceled oil drilling in the Alaskan Arctic or the sale of 10 billion tons of American coal, that were set to tip the planet towards climate chaos. But he did. This paved the way for an era of unprecedented innovation, as entrepreneurs and academics fine-tuned the best ways to harness the unlimited power of our wind, waves and sun, and make it available to everyone. We’ve just seen the first ever oceanic crossing by a solar plane and I can only imagine what incredible inventions have grown in your time from the seeds planted in this energy revolution we’re experiencing right now.

I want to tell you about this because there was a time we didn’t think any of it was possible. And there may be times when you face similar challenges. Generations before you have taken acts of great cour age to make sure you too have all the joys and gifts of the natural world — hiking in forests, swimming in clean water, breathing fresh air. If you need to be a little stubborn to make sure things stay that way, so be it.

Onwards! 

Annie 

Currently the Executive Director of Greenpeace USA, Leonard made the 2007 film, The Story of Stuff, which chronicles the life of material goods and has been viewed more than 40 million times. She also wrote the 2010 New York Times bestseller by the same name.

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.

THIS ABUNDANT LIFE

by Geraldine Brooks

I just flushed my toilet with drinking water. I know: you don’t believe me: “Nobody could ever have been that stupid, that wasteful.” But we are. We use air conditioners all the time, even in mild climates where they aren’t a bit necessary. We cool our homes so we need to wear sweaters indoors in summer, and heat them so we have to wear T-shirts in mid-winter. We let one person drive around all alone in a huge thing called an SUV. We make perfectly good things — plates, cups, knives — then we use them just once, and throw them away. They’re still there, in your time. Dig them up. They’ll still be useable.

Maybe you have dug them up. Maybe you’re making use of them now. Maybe you’re frugal and ingenious in ways we in the wealthy world have not yet chosen to be. There’s an old teaching from a rabbi called Nachman who lived in a town called Bratslav centuries ago: “If you believe it is possible to destroy, believe it is possible to repair.” Some of us believe that. We’re trying to spread the message.

Friends are working on genetic editing that will bring back the heath hen, a bird that went extinct almost 80 years ago. The last member of the species died in the woods just a few miles from my home. Did we succeed? Do you have heath hens, booming their mating calls across the sand plains that sustain them? If you do, it means that this idea of repair caught on in time, and that their habitat was restored, instead of being sold for yet more beachside mansions. It means that enough great minds turned away from the easy temptations of a career moving money from one rich person’s account to another’s, and instead became engineers and scientists dedicated to repairing and preserving this small blue marble, spinning in the velvet void.

We send out probes, looking for signs of life on other worlds. A possible spec of mold is exciting — press conference! News flash! Imagine if they found, say, a sparrow. President addresses the nation! And yet we fail to take note of the beauty of sparrows, their subtle hues and swift grace. We’re profligate and reckless with all this abundant life, teeming and vivid, that sustains and inspires us.

We destroyed. You believed it was possible to repair.

Brooks is an Australian-American journalist and author. Her 2005 novel, March, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. She became a United States citizen in 2002.

ROCK, ICE, AIR AND WATER

by Pam Houston

Dear Future Inhabitants of the Earth: I was speaking with an environmental scientist friend of mine not too long ago and he said he felt extremely grim about the fate of the earth in the hundred-year frame, but quite optimistic about it in the five-hundred year frame. “There won’t be many people left,” he said, “but the ones who are here will have learned a lot.” I have been taking comfort, since then, in his words.

If you are reading this letter, you are one of the learners, and I am grateful to you in advance. And I’m sorry. For my generation. For our ignorance, our short sightedness, our capacity for denial, our unwillingness or inability to stand up to the oil and gas companies who have bought our wilderness, our airwaves, our governments. It must seem to you that we were dense beyond comprehension, but some of us knew, for decades, that our carbon-driven period would be looked back on as the most barbaric, the most irresponsible age in history.

Part of me wishes there was a way for me to know what the earth is like in your time, and part of me is afraid to know how far down we took this magnificent sphere, this miracle of rock and ice and air and water.

Should I tell you about the polar bears, great white creatures that hunted seals among the icebergs; should I tell you about the orcas? To be in a kayak, with a pod of orcas coming towards you, to see the big male’s fin rise in its impossible geometry, 6 feet high and black as night, to hear the blast of whale breath, to smell its fishy tang — I tell you, it was enough to make a person believe she had lead a satisfying life.

I know it is too much to wish for you: polar bears and orcas. But maybe you still have elk bugling at dawn on a September morning, and red tail hawks crying to their mates from the tops of ponderosa pines.

Whatever wonders you have, you will owe to those about to gather in Paris to talk about ways we might reimagine ourselves as one strand in the fabric that is this biosphere, rather than its mindless devourer.

E.O. Wilson says as long as there are microbes, the Earth can recover — another small measure of comfort. Even now, evidence of the Earth’s ability to heal herself is all around us — a daily astonishment. What a joy it would be to live in a time when the healing was allowed to outrun the destruction. More than anything else that is what I wish for you.

With hope, 

Pam Houston 

Author of short stories, novels and essays, Houston wrote the acclaimed Cowboys Are My Weakness, winner of the 1993 Western States Book Award.

OUR BEST ACHIEVEMENT

by Kim Stanley Robinsonby

Dear Great-Great-Grandchildren: I’ve been worried about you for a long time. For years it’s seemed like all I could say to you was, “Sorry, we torched the planet and now you have to live like saints.” Not a happy message. But recently I’ve seen signs that we might give you a better result. At this moment the issue is still in doubt. But a good path leading from me to you can be discerned.

It was crucial that we recognized the problem, because otherwise we wouldn’t have acted as we did. A stupendous effort by the global scientific community alerted us to the fact that our civilization, by dumping carbon into the air, and disrupting biosphere processes in many other ways, we were creating a toxic combination that was going to wreak havoc on all Earth’s living creatures, including us. When we learned that, we tried to change.

Our damaging impact was caused by a combination of the sheer number of people, the types of technologies we used, and how much we consumed. We had to change in each area, and we did. We invented cleaner technologies to replace dirtier ones; this turned out to be the easiest part. When it came to population growth, we saw that wherever women had full education and strong legal rights, population growth stopped and the number of humans stabilized; thus justice was both good in itself and good for the planet.

The third aspect of the problem, our consumption levels, depended on our values, which are always encoded in our economic system. Capitalism was wrecking the biosphere and people’s lives to the perceived benefit of very few; so we changed it. We charged ourselves the proper price for burning carbon; we enacted a progressive tax on all capital assets as well as incomes. With that money newly released to positive work, we paid ourselves a living wage to do ecological restoration, to feed ourselves, and to maintain the biosphere we knew you were going to need.

Those changes taken all together mean you live in a post-capitalist world: congratulations. I’m sure you are happier for it. Creating that new economic system was how we managed to dodge disaster and give you a healthy Earth. It was our best achievement, and because of it, we can look you in the eye and say, “Enjoy it, care for it, pass it on.”

A writer of speculative science fiction and winner of the Nebula and Hugo awards, Robinson has published 19 novels including the award-winning Mars trilogy.

WILD THINGS

by Alexis Bonogofsky

Dear Future Montanans: I have asked that you not open this note until 2115. There is a place I want you to go to read this letter, the place where I wrote it. It is a river valley in southeast Montana that thousands of people fought to protect from a massive coal mine in my time. We won. For centuries before me people cherished and protected this land you are sitting on and I have no doubt they are still doing so in your time. I know this because people will always come for what is underneath the ground in the Tongue River country. Our fights do not have an end; they are passed down from one generation to the next.

Your Montana, no doubt, is a much different place than my Montana. Although you are a hundred years and thousands of miles away from the 2015 Paris climate summit, what happened there was consequential to your life. The climate treaty that emerged was historic but it did not save us.

Decades of political timidity and inaction put things into motion that could not be undone. The treaty did not save the glaciers in Glacier National Park (have they renamed it yet?) or the wildlife that could not adapt or the people that live on the coasts.

I never put much faith in the idea that pieces of paper produced by governments create change. I have faith in the land. I have faith in people. I know promises made by politicians only have meaning when the people make them have meaning.

If you are living in a world where we have managed to mitigate the most severe impacts of climate change it isn’t because governments agreed to reduce climate emissions at Paris; it is because while world leaders were negotiating in board rooms, citizens were shutting down coal plants, stopping coal mines, protecting their homelands and taking control. It is because we took what they gave us, said it wasn’t enough, and demanded more the next year, the year after and the year after.

We mourned deeply for what we knew we had already lost and yet had the courage to move forward. It was our only option. Only you know how we did.

Be still for a moment, the wild things might let you see them.

A young Montana goat rancher, writer and climate change activist, Bonogofsky is featured in the new documentary This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s book of the same name.

MORAL MONSTERS

by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein

Dear Descendants: If you are reading this, then you must exist, and so my greatest fears haven’t been realized. We didn’t manage to eradicate our kind from the universe. In my darkest hours, routinely arriving at 4 in the morning, that’s what I feared, a universe in which our species had disappeared, taking along with it many other life forms that had once flourished on earth. I’d lie awake mourning all those life forms, but — call me anthropocentric — most especially the humans. A universe emptied of humans, with all of our fancies and follies, seemed to me an immeasurably reduced universe.

So at least you exist — only under what conditions I can’t begin to imagine. I don’t know whether you’re reading this on earth and, if you are, whether you’re huddled inside an artificial environment to protect yourself from deadly radiation. Or perhaps you’ve colonized another planet or built a system of space stations, using your human ingenuity to adapt to an alien environment for which evolution didn’t naturally equip you. Perhaps you only know about what it was like to welcome each changing season on earth — smell the fecund moist earth of spring, feel the silky sultriness of summer nights, listen to the silence of snow falling heavily in the forest — by reading the writings of us ancients.

Wherever you are, struggling with whatever hostile conditions constraining the choices that we took for granted, you must look back at your ancestors — us — with outraged incredulity.  How could we not have cared about you at all, you wonder? You are our kith and kin. Didn’t we consider that you deserved the same rights to flourish as we presumed for ourselves?

It’s ironic, because we often looked back at our ancestors with outraged incredulity, wondering how they couldn’t have seen, say, that slavery or misogyny were wrong.

Were they moral monsters, we’d wonder? 

Do you wonder exactly the same about us? Well, we weren’t monsters. Really, we weren’t. We were human, all too human.

And being human we tended to prioritize our own lives, our own self-interest, over those of others. It’s not that other selves meant nothing at all to us. But our own selves always meant so much more.

And here’s another feature of our evolution-shaped human nature that, through no malice at all, conspired to doom you. (You understand, I’m not justifying our behavior, just trying to explain it to you.) We discounted the future. The future seemed so hazy, so uncertain, while the present … well, it was present. The now was vividly pressing on us, always, real and fully formed.

Our psychology evolved out of a past when human life was “nasty, brutish, and short.” And because we weren’t able to overcome that psychology, to think in ways larger and more generous, the future we’ve bequeathed you is at least as precarious as the past out of which we emerged. I fear it is unimaginably nasty.

You just weren’t very real to us, you others who didn’t even enjoy the privilege of existing. How could your claims, so ghostly as to be ungraspable, constrain our choices, reign in our desires? And we were so inventive in our technologies, which pelted us with more and more things to want, amusements to distract us from what we should have been thinking about — which was you.

And now it’s we who no longer exist. Perhaps you’d just as soon forget about our existence, as we forgot about yours. If only you could, I imagine you thinking. If only you could blot us out of your consciousness just as thoroughly as we blotted you out of ours.

If there are still storytellers among you — if that’s a human capacity that you can still indulge — then do a better job then we did in making the lives of others felt—each and every life, when its time comes, a towering importance.

May you flourish. May you forgive us. 

A philosopher and novelist, Goldstein won a MacArthur “Genius” grant and was recently presented the National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama.

I’M FIGHTING FOR YOU

by Rhea Suh

Dear Grandchildren: I can only imagine the wonderful world you are growing up in. I think of that world — your future — almost every day. I think about how to make sure it is a place where all your hopes and dreams can come true.

A long time ago, my parents traveled across the world from Korea to the United States in search of a brighter future for me and my sisters. Today, I am writing you from Paris, a city that I have traveled across the world to get to, in order to make sure the world does the same for you. I’m fighting for you, for everyone in your generation across the world, to ensure that you have more than a fighting chance at that bright future. A world without the dangers of global climate change is the world that you will inherit.

What is climate change? Never heard of it? I’m so very glad if you haven’t. Let me try to explain. I warn you though, this can be kind of scary.

When we first started building up our cities, roads and towns in what was called the Industrial Revolution, we burned all sorts of fuels — coal, oil and natural gas. While these things helped us heat our homes, drive our cars, and expand our cities, we didn’t realize that they also clouded our air, dirtied our water, and made us sick. More than that, the burning of all those fuels made our planet sick. All the other animals and plants that we share this world with were getting sick too. The planet became warmer, which created a mixed up chaos of terrible hurricanes, tornadoes, raging wildfires, drought and increased hunger, growing rates of asthma and lung disease, and the extinction of animals at an unprecedented rate.

So my dear grandchildren, we faced a choice. We could keep doing what we had been doing, or we could make the choice to take a stand for our future — your future and the planet’s future — by creating the framework to begin to move away from this scary legacy.

The wind turbines and solar panels that power your world, electric cars, highspeed trains and solar airplanes weren’t so commonplace in my time. They required a revolution in how we think about energy, about our relationship to the world, about our faith in our own capacity to innovate and change.

What took us so long? Sigh. It’s a long story, but like many of the children’s books you grew up with, it was a story of greed, short-sightedness and wizards with too much gold. But against these challenges, sometimes with great bravery, people — young and old from every nation — stood up and demanded that we take the steps to curb this terrible scourge.

I hope you will know this to be true. I hope you will remember that many years ago, your grandma and many others across the world stood up and demanded that we make the world a better place. I hope you know that it was a difficult path, just like my parents so many years ago. And I hope you know we did it thinking of you and the future you now inherit.

Rhea Suh is the president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization.

POLITICAL BONEHEADS

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 shortterm 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.

To read more letters or to write a letter of your own, please visit www.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 at www.facebook.com/LettersToTheFuture. ParisClimateProject.