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 forty 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.[image-14]
Stephen K. Robinson
My Endless Sky
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 forty 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 rocket-ride, 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.
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 UC Davis.[image-12]
Do you remember your grandmother Veronica? I am writing to you on the very day that your grandmother Veronica turned seven months old — she is my first grandchild, and she is your grandmother. That is how quickly time passes and people are born, grow up, and pass on. When I was your age — now 20 (Veronica was my age, 65, when you were born), I did not realize how brief our opportunities are to change the direction of the world we live in. The world you live in grew out of the world I live in, and I want to tell you a little bit about the major difficulties of my world and how they have affected your world.
On the day I am writing this letter, the speaker of the House of Representatives quit his job because his party — called “the Republicans,” refused absolutely to work with or compromise with the other party, now defunct, called “the Democrats.” The refusal of the Republicans to work with the Democrats was what led to the government collapse in 2025, and the breakup of what to you is the Former United States. The states that refused to acknowledge climate change or, indeed, science, became the Republic of America, and the other states became West America and East America. I lived in West America. You probably live in East America, because West America became unlivable owing to climate change in 2050.
That the world was getting hotter and drier, that weather was getting more chaotic, and that humans were getting too numerous for the ecosystem to support was evident to most Americans by the time I was 45, the age your mother is now. At first, it did seem as though all Americans were willing to do something about it, but then the oil companies (with names like Exxon and Mobil and Shell) realized that their profits were at risk, and they dug in their heels. They underwrote all sorts of government corruption in order to deny climate change and transfer as much carbon dioxide out of the ground and into the air as they could. The worse the weather and the climate became the more they refused to budge, and Americans, but also the citizens of other countries, kept using coal, diesel fuel, and gasoline. Transportation was the hardest thing to give up, much harder than giving up the future, and so we did not give it up, and so there you are, stuck in the slender strip of East America that is overpopulated, but livable. I am sure you are a vegan, because there is no room for cattle, hogs, or chickens, which Americans used to eat.
West America was once a beautiful place — not the parched desert landscape that it is now. Our mountains were green with oaks and pines, mountain lions and coyotes and deer roamed in the shadows, and there were beautiful flowers nestled in the grass. It was sometimes hot but often cool. Where you see abandoned, flooded cities, we saw smooth beaches and easy waves.
What is the greatest loss we have bequeathed you? I think it is the debris, the junk, the rotting bits of clothing, equipment, vehicles, buildings, etc. that you see everywhere and must avoid. Where we went for walks, you always have to keep an eye out. We have left you a mess. But I know that it is dangerous for you to go for walks — the human body wasn’t built to tolerate lows of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and highs of 140. When I was alive, I thought I was trying to save you, but I didn’t try hard enough, or at least, I didn’t try to save you as hard as my opponents tried to destroy you. I don’t know why they did that. I could never figure that out.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for A Thousand Acres, Smiley has composed numerous novels and works of nonfiction.[image-13]
Sorry About That
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, Boyle has published fourteen novels and more than one hundred short stories.
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 who 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 toward 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.[image-15]
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 courage 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.
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
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.[image-16]
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 powers 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 lays: 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
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 usable.
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 eighty 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.[image-17]
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 US citizen in 2002.
Rock, Ice, Air, and Water
Dear Future Inhabitants of 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 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 that 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 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, the 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 toward you, to see the big male’s fin rise in its impossible geometry, six 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 led 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, Earth can recover — another small measure of comfort. Even now, evidence of 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.
Author of short stories, novels and essays, Houston wrote the acclaimed Cowboys Are My Weakness, winner of the 1993 Western States Book Award.[image-19]
Kim Stanley Robinson
Our Best Achievement.
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.[image-18]
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 nineteen novels including the award-winning Mars trilogy.
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 who 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.
The Home Office
Good day, my beautiful bounty. It probably feels redundant to someone rockin’ in 2070, a year that’s gotta be wavy in ways I can’t imagine, but. …
Your great, great-grandpappy is old school.
And when my old-school ass thinks about how the backdrop to your existence changed when the Paris climate talks failed, it harkens to the late-20th century rap duo Eric B. & Rakim. Music is forever. Probably, it sounds crazy that the musical idiom best known in your time as the foundation of the worldwide cough syrup industry could ever have imparted anything enlightening. You can look it up though — before the Telecommunications Act of ’96 such transformations happened not infrequently.
But that’s another letter. MC Rakim had this scrap of lyric from “Teach the Children” — a pro-environment slapper that hit the atmosphere closer to Valdez newspaper headline days than when the web gave us pictures of death smoke plumes taking rise above Iraq. For you, these are abstract epochs. Alaska still had permafrost, the formerly frozen soil that kept methane safely underground. The domino that fell, permafrost. And I could tell you that humans skied Earth’s mountains. Yes, I know: Snow. An antique reference, no question.
That Rakim verse. It went: Teach the children, save the nation/I see the destruction, the situation/ They’re corrupt, and their time’s up soon/But they’ll blow it up and prepare life on the moon.
My bounty, it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback* from my 2015 vantage point. But I did not do an adequate job of teaching the children about what our corporate overlords had in store for them. Didn’t do it with Exxon or Volkswagen. Didn’t do it when Rakim initially sold me on the premise. And to be honest I haven’t done a bunch of it this year, as sinkholes form and trees fall in parts of the Arctic that Mother Earth could only ever imagined frozen solid.
Make no mistake, I want these words to function as much as a godspeed note as one of confession. Good luck with your new methane-dictated normal, and the sonic pollution and spiritual upset of those executive flights to colonized Mars. Or, as the President calls that planet, the Home Office. Conditions should have never come to this though. And we’ll always have Paris, to remind us of what might have been.
*The NFL will be around forever, like herpes.
A former staff writer for ESPN The Magazine, LA Weekly, and freelancer for other publications, Alexander wrote the memoir Ghetto Celebrity. His audio narratives have formed the basis of two documentaries.
Shift the Food System
Dear Future Family,
I know you will not read this note until the turn of the century, but I want to explain what things were like back in 2015, before we figured out how to roll back climate change. As a civilization we were still locked into a zero-sum idea of our relationship with the natural world, in which we assumed that for us to get whatever we needed, whether it was food or energy or entertainment, nature had to be diminished. But that was never necessarily the case.
In our time, the US Department of Agriculture still handed out subsidies to farmers for every bushel of corn or wheat or rice they could grow. This promoted a form of agriculture that was extremely productive and extremely destructive — of the climate, among other things.
Approximately one-third of the carbon then in the atmosphere had formerly been sequestered in soils in the form of organic matter, but since we began plowing and deforesting, we’d been releasing huge quantities of this carbon into the atmosphere. At that time, the food system as a whole — that includes agriculture, food processing, and food transportation — contributed somewhere between 20 to 30 percent of the greenhouse gases produced by civilization — more than any other sector except energy. Fertilizer was always one of the biggest culprits for two reasons: It’s made from fossil fuels, and when you spread it on fields and it gets wet, it turns into nitrous oxide, which is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Slowly, we convinced the policy makers to instead give subsidies to farmers for every increment of carbon they sequestered in the soil.
Over time, we began to organize our agriculture so that it could heal the planet, feed us and tackle climate change. This began with shifting our food system from its reliance on oil, which is the central fact of industrial agriculture (not just machinery, but pesticides and fertilizers are all oil-based technologies), back to a reliance on solar energy: photosynthesis.
Carbon farming was one of the most hopeful things going on at that time in climate change research. We discovered that plants secrete sugars into the soil to feed the microbes they depend on, in the process putting carbon into the soil. This process of sequestering carbon at the same time improved the fertility and water-holding capacity of the soil. We began relying on the sun — on photosynthesis — rather than on fossil fuels to feed ourselves. We learned that there are non-zero-sum ways we could feed ourselves and heal the earth. That was just one of the big changes we made toward the sustainable food system you are lucky enough to take for granted.
Pollan is a teacher, author, and speaker on the environment, agriculture, the food industry, society, and nutrition. His letter is adapted from an interview in Vice Magazine.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
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 four 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 than 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
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, high-speed 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.
Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Don’t Lose Faith
My dear great-granddaughter, I wish my bequest to you could be the childhood I had, lazy afternoons playing baseball or hopscotch in the sunshine, long walks through fields filled with butterflies and birds. Instead, you live indoors, breathing air that tired old filters are hard-pressed to scrub clean of radiation, coal dust, and the molds that grow a hundred feet underground.
When your grandmother, my daughter, bought the condo in the old missile silo, I wouldn’t join her: the thought of living underground with a hundred other survivalists turned my stomach.
By then the average daily temperature in Chicago was 127 in the summer, 101 in winter. We were all scrambling for ways to avoid the killing heat, but I was too old to give up life above ground.
We couldn’t keep up with the daily dead and bulldozed them into pits, where we didn’t dare burn them.
I wish I could bequeath you the wonderful fruits and vegetables we used to eat, which I used to carelessly overbuy and discard. Now I wonder how long the water will last to grow enough cabbage to feed your little commune — cabbage being nutrient rich and easy to grow even in hydroponic tanks. I hope somewhere a few birds found shelter, so that if the earth ever recovers, you will hear birdsong.
And, dear God, even as the temperatures rose and the crops died and the glaciers in the Himalayas melted with a flood that drowned 700 million Chinese and Indians in a single week, we couldn’t agree that human behavior caused the problem and human behavior needed to change. Our American billionaires and their sycophants in pulpit and statehouse kept claiming human responsibility for climate change was a myth; they blocked any acts that could have reversed the damage in time.
As the heat rose, and the death tolls, blame and furious accusations rose with them: it was the Jews, the capitalists, the infidels, the Muslims, the communists. We’ll never know who dropped the first bomb, but little was left to sustain life by the time the last one fell.
I don’t ask your forgiveness — my generation doesn’t deserve it. I ask you not to lose faith or hope that you can solve these problems. I ask you to do the hard work we never did. I ask you to remember poets and music to sustain your spirit.
Your loving grieving great-granny,
An award-winning author from Chicago, Paretsky is best known for her detective novels and infamous female protagonist V.I. Warshawski.
Nitanju Bolade Casel
For My Children
As we move toward the 2015 UN climate talks in Paris, my prayers are for you, your children and your children’s children’s children. May the outcome be in your favor; for your future. I pray that you will be blessed not only with a better world than we have today, but also the courageous wisdom to nurture and respect all living things. It is a privilege to inhabit the Earth; a gift we share with all other forms of Life. I pray that you will honor and protect this special treasure. I pray that you will see yourselves in one another, understand that we are all connected and move forward with love for humankind; for all living things. And although we have not always been kind, you can begin. Be kind. Humanity has repeatedly moved against itself toward destruction throughout history; rarely seeming to learn from past mistakes. Learn. Please know that there were also visionaries who worked endlessly for positive changes in this world — changes to benefit the many, not just the few; you may have to do the same. Work.
And remember to pray for your children’s children’s children. Your prayers will be waiting for them when they arrive. … Pray.
Bolade Casel is a member of the Grammy award-winning troupe Sweet Honey in the Rock, an all-woman, African-American a cappella ensemble.
We Are Sorry
We are sorry, so very sorry. You are living in a wrecked world, those of you who have not already perished, but you did not wreck it. We did, we of the early 21st century.
The great nations of our day knew that climate change was their greatest enemy and that no military could defeat it. They knew that no invading enemy could do them the terrible harm that climate change had already begun to do. But despite this knowledge, our leaders continued to squander their wealth on massive military establishments rather than on what they well knew could have been done to defeat the climate change enemy.
As you now know all too well, the climate change enemy won, and though we are gone, you are living in the ruin that we created. India against Pakistan, America against Russia, China against Japan, Arabia against Iran — how silly, how almost trivial these conflicts must seem to you in retrospect. Alas, we chose to arm against one another rather than uniting against the enemy that has now defeated us all.
We are sorry, so very sorry.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for biography or autobiography in 1996 for God: A Biography, Miles is professor of religion at UC Irvine.
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, 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.[image-10]
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 that 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 president of the Authors Guild.[image-11]
Hello? People of the future … Anyone there? It’s your forebears checking in with you from generations ago. We were the stewards of 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.
Push Your Parents
Dear Children of Oil Lobbyists and Lawyers,
I am sure your parents were very nice people, but they stole much of the future from all of us. I wish you had told them to stop.
Back in 2015, The New York Times ran stories with these headlines — “The Pacific Ocean Becomes a Caldron” and “Greenland is Melting Away.” Sea level rise caused repeated and unprecedented flooding along America’s southeastern states. The East Bay was facing future flooding of the Oakland Airport and rail lines leading to the Port of Oakland. In California, forests were shrinking. Even though it was clear that Big Oil companies were the prime culprits, many, like your parents, served those companies and cynically blocked any attempts to get them to stop their harmful ways.
Your parents worked in support of ExxonMobil and Chevron and the Western States Petroleum Association. In 2013, Chevron spent more than $5 billion to look for new fossil fuel. In 2015, California’s legislature was faced with a choice about trying to do something about the harm to our planet. But your parents, with the Western States Petroleum Association, helped gut a bill that would have cut oil use in California. Your moms and dads helped spend millions to defeat the bill. They won, but we all lost.
In 2015, your parents worked at two Bay Area law firms that protected polluters. A major lobbyist for the Western States Petroleum Association was Steven Lucas from San Rafael. His law firm, Nielson Merksamer, protected many oil companies. Another firm, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw & Pittman in San Francisco, was the main outside law firm for Chevron. They bragged that they “have influenced and shaped not only the law, but also the geopolitical landscape, helping to set policy” on “energy and the environment.” I know you are proud of all the accolades that your parents have received. But their actions played a role in destroying our planet.
People can change — even those who make bundles of money from bad works. Tom Steyer is one example. He was once associated with large coal projects in Australia as a private equity mogul, but he began putting his money and his mouth in service of confronting climate change.
Kids in the United Kingdom also started an organization called Push Your Parents. It was part of a movement there to get those with the most at stake, the youth of the planet, to make their parents stop their destructive ways.
I wish you had joined them — and pushed your parents.
Youngdahl is president of the Express. He is also a labor attorney, an author, and an expert on socially responsible investment.