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.
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, 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) 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 and buildings that you see everywhere. 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.
Jane Smiley, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres, has composed numerous novels and works of nonfiction.
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 it did, out of some nostalgia for the sea that can't be fully satisfied by whatever hardtack may have survived us, try jellyfish. They'll be about the only thing out there now, but I'm told they can be quite palatable, if not exactly mouth-watering, when prepared with sage and onions. Do you have sage and onions? But forgive me: Of course you do. You're an agrarian tribe at heart, though in our day we certainly did introduce you to city life, didn't we? Bright lights, big city, right? At least you don't have to worry about abattoirs, piggeries, feed lots, bovine intestinal gases and the like – or, for that matter, the ozone layer, which would have been long gone by the time you started walking on two legs. Does that bother you? The UV rays, I mean? But no, you're a nocturnal tribe anyway, right?
Anyway, I just want to wish you all the best in your endeavors on this big blind rock hurtling through space. My advice? Stay out of the laboratory. Live simply. And, whatever you do, please – I beg you – don't start up a stock exchange.
With best wishes,
P.S. In writing you this missive, I am, I suppose, being guardedly optimistic that you will have figured out how to decode this ape language I'm employing here – especially given the vast libraries we left you when the last of us breathed his last.
A novelist and short story writer, T.C. Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.
Seize the Moment
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.
So many others seized the moment that Paris offered to do the truly important thing: organize. There were meetings and marches, disruptions and disobedience. 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 grass-roots climate change movement. He has written more than a dozen books.
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-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 imagine 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 and the LA Weekly and freelancer for other publications, Alexander wrote the memoir Ghetto Celebrity. His audio narratives have formed the basis of two documentaries.
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, rein 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.
To read more letters or to write a letter of your own, visit letterstothefuture.org. This is a collaborative effort between the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Media Consortium.