Letters to the Future

Scientists, authors and activists predict the outcome of the upcoming U.N. climate talks in Paris

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. Visit www.LettersToTheFuture.org to read their visions of the future.

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 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.

—Geraldine Brooks

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.

Brief Opportunities

Dear Great-Great-Granddaughter,

Do you remember your grandmother Veronica? I am writing to you on the very day that your grandmother Veronica turned 7 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 dryer, 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.


Great, Great-Grandma Jane

—Jane Smiley

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres, Smiley has composed numerous novels and works of nonfiction.

I Am Sorry I Have Been Sorry

I am sorry.

As I sit here early in the morning and think about my great, great-granddaughter, living in a climate-changed world, I am sorry is the main thought that keeps coming to mind.

I am writing this letter to you for a newspaper project, but it is not remarkable for me to think so far ahead in time because, as a historian, I have made a life of thinking far into the past. My grandmother often told me of her grandmother. I was always struck at how different my life is from hers, and I wonder how different your life will be from mine. My great, great-grandmother came to this country with great hope and confidence in the future. That is where we part. I know too much about the devastating effects of climate change.

I am sorry.

I am writing in advance of the Paris climate talks, round 21 to be exact. The hope of the talks is to produce binding CO2 reduction commitments between countries, but I know that those “commitments” are really between people, and I don’t see the people around me committing to reducing their CO2 emissions. The city of Chico, where I live, committed to reducing their greenhouse gas production in 2008 and in the time since residents have increased their energy use by 20 percent.

I know you don’t want to hear about all the petty issues like plastic bag bans that kept us from making meaningful change. You don’t care that the city was broke and didn’t have the staff to see that we met our “commitments.” You can see from your vantage point that we did nothing to avert your future simply because it was easier for us to not think about it, to not think about you. That you won’t care about any of my excuses makes it hard to write this letter.

Realizing that I am glad that I do not have to see this happen to you makes me feel even worse, but thinking about you has changed me in one way, and maybe that was the point of this exercise. I am going to stop acting in ways that make me feel sorry. I am going to act and speak in ways that matter, no matter whom I have to apologize to, and maybe some of my great-grandmother’s hope will return.

—Mark Stemen

Stemen is a Chico State professor and president of the Butte Environmental Council board of directors.

We Just Didn't Realize …

We didn’t realize what we were doing. We just didn’t. We didn’t realize how bad things were getting or how bad they were going to get. In my time we lived in a world of such plenty; plenty of food, plenty of clean water and air, plenty of stuff to enjoy. Everything seemed to be going so well that most of us never looked at what our lifestyle was doing to the planet on which we depended.

Everything was so shiny, clean and new that we never imagined the ugliness it took to create it. At some point some of us started to become aware but by then it was too late. Our entire way of life was built on destroying the Earth and we didn’t know how to stop it. So we kept making and buying all that stuff.

The only way to prevent the impending chaos would have been to immediately reverse course. But by then we were in so deep and so far removed from a “natural” lifestyle that we just didn’t know how to live without the stuff. And unfortunately we didn’t have time to learn how to make the stuff in a way that wouldn’t ruin our home.

Our last chance came in 2015, when our “leaders” gathered to discuss it. We hoped they’d do everything they could to turn things around. But they weren’t willing to make the sacrifices required for us to continue. They didn’t realize either.

See, we had this thing called money. It became the most important thing in the world to us. It became so important that we forgot the importance of air and water and food. We forgot about the intricate and finely balanced ecosystem of which we were a part. We forgot that without those things the money meant nothing. Turned out, you couldn’t eat money.

And so we sealed our fate and yours. I’m so sorry. I wish we’d done things differently. But we just didn’t realize …

—Jake Davis

Davis is a community volunteer and co- organizer of Chico 350, a local offshoot of 350.org.

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 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 rocket ride, shocked me.

If you look at Earth’s atmosphere from orbit, you can see it “on edge”—gazing toward 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.

Do Not Rebuild

Binyon Family Survivors,

I lived in a time of staggering arrogance, when humanity was mentally ill. Since we discovered oil, our numbers have multiplied sevenfold, we’ve destroyed half of the world’s forests, poisoned the oceans, and changed life on Earth forever.

We mined rare minerals in sites all over the world at horrific costs to the Earth and built thinking machines out of all of it in energy-sucking factories. We connected all of the thinking machines with an enormous electrical grid and used that network to communicate to each other so we wouldn’t feel alone, all while barely knowing our neighbors. I know this all must be hard to believe but it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Icebergs were ice mountains in the sea, by the way.

We are infected by the normalcy bias, a phenomenon that makes us believe that whatever happens in our lifetimes is normal. I write to you from the middle of the greatest mass extinction in the history of life on Earth, and soon there will be a meeting of our leaders to discuss saving the planet. The Earth is half destroyed already, and its ability to sustain our civilization is near the end. Yet we cling to this belief: Our civilization can and must be saved. Many believe we are evolving to become demigods powered by technological miracles that will save us all. But for every technology we’ve developed, we have damaged the Earth more. For every efficiency we create, we consume more than we save. We so desperately want a loophole, a way to feed our infinite appetite on a finite Earth. We are deranged.

Fossil fuel civilization was an orgy. The intoxication of that opulence brought us to the alteration of our planet and the ruin of our civilization. But what we will call calamity, you will call normal. I’m sure by the time this reaches you, humanity is living within its means again, in the dirt, under the shade of the new trees in the recovering forests.

Do not rebuild what we lost. Our lives weren’t as good as it may sound when the stories are told around your village fires. Remember that you are one of the lucky few alive to read this only because your forefathers weren’t afraid to return to the dirt. Through their meekness you have inherited the Earth.

With Love,

Your Great, Great, Great-Grandpa Binyon

—Alec Binyon

Binyon is a father, poet and entrepreneur from Chico.