Predicting what comes next isn’t a skill that humans are particularly good at. Yet, being able to cognizantly look to the future and remember the past simultaneously is a trait that differentiates us from the rest of life on Earth. As the world responds to the agreement that emerged from December’s Paris climate talks, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Media Consortium asked some of the nation’s biggest thinkers and creators to write letters for six generations hence. Hope or despair. Or a little of both.
Reporter and Radio Producer
Dear Future Nuevo Mexicanos,
About a decade and a half into the 21st century, our politicians—and economy—had become a national disgrace. Our educational, criminal justice and behavioral health systems had fallen into disrepair.
Despite advances in renewable energy and efficiency, we suckled madly from the leaden teats of the fossil fuel and mining industries. We gouged open the earth, and then each time the price of oil, natural gas or coal dropped, we’d lower our economic expectations once again.
At the time, we overturned or fought against rules that protected our water, skies, landscapes, wildlife and communities.
Some chortled and quoted a lawyer from Indiana, Gov. Lew Wallace: “Every calculation based on experience elsewhere fails in New Mexico.”
It’s silly to think that in 2016, after more than 130 years, we still lugged around that tired quip, shrugging as though failure were our destiny.
But we did.
And then, the signs of climate disruption blinked too bright across the globe for people to ignore. In New York City on Christmas Eve, the mercury hit 72 degrees. Tornadoes and floods ripped through the central swath of the US. And at the start of 2016, the Arctic Circle warmed to above the freezing point.
Thanks to El Niño, 2015 had been a bountiful year for precipitation in New Mexico. But scientists warned that when the rains slowed and snows diminished, we’d again experience drought—“hot drought.” As the region continued warming, they explained, those higher temperatures would accelerate the drying of our riverbeds, forests, grasslands, orchards and fields.
At the time, life was already hard for many New Mexicans. As you probably know, our history is a bloody one, at times full of cruelty and violence. And as the climate crisis deepened, it seemed unlikely we’d act with grace.
And then, we started to prove that we really are an adaptable species.
We started listening to people who had dedicated their lives to wonder and science and solutions, rather than those bent on amassing money and power. We heeded advice from those whose ancestors had walked and worked the lands for generations. We watched out for one another and lifted up the most vulnerable among us.
We remembered to treat our lands and waters with respect and enforced policies that protected them. We put people to work building and rebuilding infrastructure, restoring riverbeds and public lands, and caring for our forests. We revamped agricultural practices to be gentler on the landscape, less wasteful of water and better at feeding hungry mouths. We transcended outdated economic models and busted energy monopolies. We dreamed up and designed communities that were walkable, livable and lovable. We made ourselves proud.
Because at the time, we had only one choice: Take care of this place and one another. Or not waste time writing letters to the future.
Paskus is an Albuquerque-based independent journalist who last year launched a series with New Mexico In Depth called “At the Precipice: New Mexico’s Changing Climate.”
Author and Essayist
Dear Future Inhabitants of the Earth,
I was speaking with an environmental scientist friend of mine not too long ago, and he said he felt extremely grim about the fate of the earth in the hundred-year frame, but quite optimistic about it in the five-hundred-year frame. “There won’t be many people left,” he said, “but the ones who are here will have learned a lot.” I have been taking comfort, since then, in his words.
If you are reading this letter, you are one of the learners, and I am grateful to you in advance. And I’m sorry. For my generation. For our ignorance, our short-sightedness, our capacity for denial, our unwillingness or inability to stand up to the oil and gas companies who have bought our wilderness, our airwaves, our governments. It must seem to you that we were dense beyond comprehension, but some of us knew, for decades, that our carbon-driven period would be looked back on as the most barbaric, the most irresponsible age in history.
Part of me wishes there was a way for me to know what the earth is like in your time, and part of me is afraid to know how far down we took this magnificent sphere, this miracle of rock and ice and air and water.
Should I tell you about the polar bears, great white creatures that hunted seals among the icebergs; should I tell you about the orcas? To be in a kayak, with a pod of orcas coming towards you, to see the big male’s fin rise in its impossible geometry, 6 feet high and black as night, to hear the blast of whale breath, to smell its fishy tang—I tell you, it was enough to make a person believe she had 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 who gathered 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.
EO Wilson says as long as there are microbes, the Earth can recover—another small measure of comfort. Even now, evidence of the Earth’s ability to heal herself is all around us—a daily astonishment. What a joy it would be to live in a time when the healing was allowed to outrun the destruction. More than anything else, that is what I wish for you.
Author of short stories, novels and essays, Houston wrote the acclaimed Cowboys Are My Weakness, winner of the 1993 Western States Book Award.
Author, Educator and Environmentalist
The first thing to say is, sorry. We were the last generation to know the world before full-on climate change made it a treacherous place. That we didn’t get sooner to work slowing it down is our great shame, and you live with the unavoidable consequences.
That said, I hope that we made at least some difference. There were many milestones in the fight—Rio, Kyoto, the debacle at Copenhagen. By the time the great Paris climate conference of 2015 rolled around, many of us were inclined to cynicism.
And our cynicism was well-taken. The delegates to that convention, representing governments that were still unwilling to take more than baby steps, didn’t really grasp the nettle. They looked for easy, around-the-edges fixes, ones that wouldn’t unduly alarm their patrons in the fossil fuel industry.
But so many others seized the moment that Paris offered to do the truly important thing: organize. There were meetings and marches, disruptions and disobedience. And we came out of it more committed than ever to taking on the real power that be.
The real changes flowed in the months and years past Paris, when people made sure that their institutions pulled money from oil and coal stocks, and when they literally sat down in the way of the coal trains and the oil pipelines. People did the work governments wouldn’t—and as they weakened the fossil fuel industry, political leaders grew ever so slowly bolder.
We learned a lot that year about where power lay: less in the words of weak treaties than in the zeitgeist we could create with our passion, our spirit and our creativity. Would that we had done it sooner!
An author, educator and environmentalist, McKibben is co- founder of 350.org, a grassroots climate change movement. He has written more than a dozen books and, in 2014, won the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the “alternative Nobel.”
Read more letters and write your own at letterstothefuture.org
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