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.”
Writer, Filmmaker and Radio Producer
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.
Grandpappy Donnell *The NFL will be around forever, like herpes.
A former staff writer for ESPN The Magazine and LA Weekly and freelancer for other publications, Alexander wrote the memoir Ghetto Celebrity. His audio narratives have formed the basis of two documentaries.
Philosopher and Novelist
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 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.
Author, Journalist, Activist and Professor
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 and 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 policymakers 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 to 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.
Adapted from an interview in Vice Magazine. Pollan is a teacher, author and speaker on topics that include the environment, agriculture, the food industry, society and nutrition.
Novelist and Biographer
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, you 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.
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 whom 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.
Robinson, the winner of a James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction, is the author of nine books. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Read more letters and write your own at letterstothefuture.org