The Bad News? The current U.N. report on climate unequivocally states that global warming is happening, that we are causing it, that it will be much worse than previously projected, and that we need to reduce damaging emissions to near zero. Also, the U.S. has just catapulted into congressional and state leadership a political party committed to rejecting these scientific findings and expanding our use of fossil fuels. The Good News? Actually—right at the moment I can’t think of anything.
Forecasting the future is typically impossible. However, here are two scenarios of our future: as the oil eventually runs out, as the storms and droughts and social disequilibrium vastly increase, as so much of what we thought was guaranteed fades away, what will life be like?
I haven’t been outside for 2 days, and I’m getting pretty hungry. But the wind just won’t let up. Every time Grandpa shuffles up what’s left of the stairs and pokes his head out, I can hear it—howling, whining, pulling at everything it touches, trying to get in here. So he just slams the hatch door shut, and shakes his head, reaches over to pat me on the shoulder. “Soon Adam, soon. Then we’ll go out and see if the berries have ripened; and maybe some kind of fish is in the flood plain. We sprout old seeds, the ones that aren’t too moldy, and that’s mainly what we eat when we can’t get out.
But I also see what he doesn’t think I can see—that look in his eyes. Like what I saw in a dog once, that we chased down because it had lost a leg, just before we killed it. We roasted it slow over a fire. Grandpa’s eyes look like that dog’s—fighting till he couldn’t go on anymore, but knowing it was hopeless.
If it wasn’t for the boy I would have killed myself years ago. He’s lucky, he doesn’t remember what it was like before…It had been happening for years. But the early stuff seems like nothing—a few tornadoes, hurricanes, long droughts, typhoons in Bangladesh, and vicious heat waves in Moscow and Texas.
We thought that was bad. We didn’t know. Or we knew and we didn’t care.
How many of us are left? No way to know. The planes, the grid, the cloud, the cell phone towers, the Internet—all gone. Everything we believed in, from local hospitals, to supermarkets where we bought all that food, to the gas stations—Ahh, all those gas stations, how we loved to “fill ‘er up” and whip out the smooth plastic card to make it happen.
We didn’t know we were just dreaming of a future that was about as real as some little girl’s fantasy of marrying a prince.
But when the bats and the bees started to die, that cut into the food supply. A hundred thousand pine trees in the Rocky Mountains were falling every day because some beetle really liked the warmer weather and could eat trees for an extra few months. Breast cancer was an epidemic. Spring was coming weeks earlier. There was a stew of plastic junk in the Eastern Pacific that was as big as fucking Texas, some said as big as the U.S.
We thought we’d ride it out. That someone else would take care of it.
We didn’t realize all this was kid stuff, like rolling down a little hill. And that we were about to fall off a cliff.
The wind is slowing down. Grandpa says we’ll go up soon. We’ll try to find something safe to eat. Grandpa says there used to be something called bread, which I can’t quite understand it. He even showed me a picture in an old magazine. But I’ve never seen anything like it and I can’t imagine. I only know this world. And there was fruit, all kinds of fruit, all year round, and so many different vegetables besides the seeds. And none of it was moldy; and you didn’t have to fight the rats or the roaches for it.
When the oil stopped, that was the worst of it. No cars, no planes, no ships, no fertilizer, no cars. Most of the alternative sources–wind, sun, hydro—depended on spare parts and machines and stuff that came by truck, or car, or were dependent on other stuff that came that way. And the damage was done. The climate had finally changed, no going back.
Someone told me they heard a last desperate message from Saudi Arabia, before all contact was lost. They had a secret reservoir of oil. And they were offering to trade it, straight up, gallon for gallon, for water. They were dying of thirst, finally realizing that you can’t drink oil.
Inland it’s worse than here: no rain, no water. Whatever oil they have left they use to truck in water, or to pump it in. But they can never get enough, and then the storms kick up and smash the roads, or the machinery, or the pipeline. We never did figure out how to desalinate ocean water—too busy building smart phones and tablet computers, I guess. All we’ve got now is hundreds of millions dead, refugees roaming the land hoping to find something better. And when they do, there are too many of them and then in a few years, or months, that’s gone too.
I guess this is just what it is. I’ll never understand what happened, what there used to be. Grandpa says all the trees broken by the wind used to be something called a forest, that you could swim in lakes that weren’t all choked with green slime; that there were things called beaches where people went into the ocean, which wasn’t with jellyfish and old plastic.
All those things that used to be.
Where did they go?
I love to go out into the garden before anyone else. The vegetables in their beds are just coming in now. If I push my fingers down just a little I can feel the carrots, and the lettuce just glistens (Oh I love that word) with the dew on it when the sun comes over the hillside. Of course I wouldn’t do more than look, and touch them a little, and say a blessing over each carrot I see and all the vegetables, thanking the goddess for plants, and sun, and water.
Of course I know I have to be back in the tree house before the sun really comes out. If I get caught in the sun in the middle of the day, Amanda says, something bad could happen to my skin. But I bless the sun anyway, because without it nothing would grow.
Eve is a good girl, and so precious after all those miscarriages. God knows what was in the food and water for her mother, even after The Change, and what it did to her. I’m very lucky to have made it to my age, not many do.
Death we will always have, but at least we have stopped poisoning ourselves and the others. We eat what comes from the Goddess, we don’t add and don’t subtract. And if there’s a bad year with bugs or storms, we eat less and thank Her for helping us understand our limits. Even if that means some of us die.
Some months, even one whole year a while ago, can be pretty bad. Nothing grows right, there isn’t enough rain, and we don’t eat much. But Amanda says that is just the rhythm of life. The Goddess blesses us with food, and then with hunger: to teach us to appreciate every day, every moment, every song we sing and breath we take.
How did we get here? I’ll tell you, I don’t know. All I can say is about the part I played, me and a few others I know. The rest of the world had to do it their way.
It was all going to hell but the people with the real power, from the networks to the politicians to the CEOs, were doing business as usual. God forbid we should just be satisfied with what we had right now, or double God forbid we should ever have less.
I couldn’t stand it. Neither could my friends. We said “it can’t go on” and “why don’t they do something?” and we saw that our the ministers and rabbis and school teachers and rock stars and really really pretty girls in movies and the team that won the Super Bowl—that they weren’t going to do anything for us. That the people who ran everything and owned everything, well they sure weren’t going to do anything.
So if anything was going to happen, it would have to be us.
At night sometimes I get up and leave the tree house oh so quiet and climb down and walk to the meadow. I can hear things—insects and small animals and bats in the night. And even more. I can hear the earth breathing, and the sky humming along being the night sky. And sometimes, when it’s perfectly clear, I think, I just think, I can hear the stars.
It was on the parkway, one morning going to school. I was driving, and my friends Sue and Rachel were up ahead. The traffic was horrible, so we were texting about, I don’t know, some nonsense or other.
So all of a sudden Rachel’s texts get a little crazy. There’s a guy in the car in front of her. He gets out. He stands on the hood of the car. He starts to yell so that people can hear him over their stereos and car TVs and IPhones. “This is crazy, this is suicide. We have to find something else. NO MORE CARS, NO MORE HEATING UP THE EARTH AND POISONING OURSELVES. We must tell them it has to change. We must be the change. NOW!”
And crazy as crazy as it sounds, he just leaves his car and starts to walk. Towards the state capital building, which don’t you know was about four miles away.
Well the craziest thing is, people started to follow him. They knew what he was talking about, and the word spread to the other cars of people who hadn’t heard him. They understood. We all understood. We’d just been too scared and too wrapped up in all the cars and phones and handy little gadgets to do anything about it.
So I joined up with Rachel and Sue and we started to walk too. What were we going to do? We didn’t know! Isn’t it wonderful?
I learned to read two years ago. Amanda and I had to walk for two days to the library.
Amanda taught me not just to read, but to savor (isn’t that a great word? It’s like you’re eating something with your mind) each word, each thought.
So we walked together, more and more of us. And then it spread. They went to the big office buildings where the oil companies were, and to the banks and the police stations and the mayor’s offices and every federal building.
Well the People in Charge got terrified. They called us communists and terrorists and whispered that we worked for Russia or Al-Qaeda or were all on drugs. But there were just too many people who’d lost their mothers to breast cancer or were freaked out about the weather. The police just smiled and asked us please not to break any windows. The National Guard put down their weapons and lined up right beside us.
A lot of people died because we were all so dependent on The Machine. And it got really cold and really hot and a lot of the time we were uncomfortable, or hungry, and things were harder than they’d been. But pretty soon it just became a kind of common sense. Don’t ride when you can walk; don’t burn something that doesn’t absolute need to be burned. Don’t use anything you don’t absolutely need.
And if a lot of people had to die…well, people were dying already: for war, for poisons in the food, for nothing. At least these people were dying for something.
We don’t go to the city too often. People bring us what we need—food and blankets, wool to make clothes, the news of what’s going on. Amanda says even though the cities are so much smaller, and so much cleaner than they used to be, if she is going to do her work, she needs to be out here—with just the garden for the special herbs she uses, and the forest nearby, and the animals, and the fish in the river. She is so good at being a healer that people walk or ride their bikes or if they are really sick the special cars for that will bring people to her. And that’s how we get the stuff we can’t grow ourselves.
The problem wasn’t oil, it was us—treating oil like some cheap throwaway junk, wasting it, my God how we wasted it.
And that was true of everything else—food and water, air, the climate.
Each morning I get up, and say my prayers to life. And I mean them, ‘cos where we would be without life? But Amanda tells me that life means death, just like death means life. That we come in one form, for awhile, and then become something else. I hope I become a butterfly, or a cardinal–I love their calls in spring. Of course I won’t be me when I’m something else. I’ll just be something else!
But in a way, I’ll still be me—not the me that says words and walks on two feet and wears clothes, but the me that breathes, and has a body, and lives on the earth.
That’s enough, I think.
Roger S. Gottlieb is professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. His newest book is Political and Spiritual: Essays on Religion, Environment, Disability, and Justice. [Read an excerpt here.] He has previously published Spirituality: What It Is and Why It Matters and the short story collection Engaging Voices: Tales of Morality and Meaning in an Age of Global Warming.