You’ve found my letter! I know I sent it along a rather circuitous route, but such is the whimsy of your long dead grandfather. I imagine you have many questions, like why I’m writing to you and what a “letter” is, but the first answer is simple; I’m sorry for the world I’ve left you, and wanted to explain how it came to pass. But first, if it helps, a few lighter things.
A letter is a form of personal communication once written on paper using pens and cursive and sentences. I’m sure paper is still around in some form, and pens as well. Cursive was a form of writing used for speed and aesthetics, basically loopy words, and sentences were like this; long sequences of words used to convey ideas. I’m assuming all of your communication is by videos and holographic memes, so I hope you’ll forgive this archaic message and have the patience to read it.
You might also be wondering about your name. I have no idea what your actual name is (sorry), but I figure after my humorous naming of my beloved but resentful children, whichever one is your parent would have picked something more…conservative. I’ve just always liked the name Jenny. Whatever your real name is, hello, it’s nice to meet you.
I’ve been thinking a lot about you. I’m in a coffee shop right now but all I can see is your face. I know it seems strange, but I love you. Love can reach across generations and even the barriers between life and death. You are in my heart every day. The thought of you fills me with joy, but also a deep and painful sorrow. Mostly that I’ll never meet you in the flesh, but also that I have done nothing to make the world the place you deserve. This letter is an attempt to purge some of that sorrow with an apology. Even if it doesn’t work, at least you’ll know we didn’t get here blindly. This world, your world, was made by men and women. We are not ignorant or lazy. We simply haven’t found a way to solve the problems that matter.
Obviously, we did nothing to prevent the overpopulation of our planet. There are just so many damn people everywhere. Do you know who Thanos is? Well, he wasn’t wrong. Conservatives of our time are aligned with Christians and thus unwilling to embrace population control because it conflicts with religious beliefs about family planning and fertility–though I think it’s more to ensure a cheap supply of disposable labor. And liberals can’t do anything for fear of offending people in the developing world, who are by and large POC and thus untouchable. For whatever reason, in your time the world is forecast to have well over ten billion on the way to nearly eleven. I can’t imagine that many people. Where do they all sleep, walk and breathe? How can you stand the press of other bodies, the constant noise and distraction? How do you get away from it?
But I suppose those are aesthetic issues. I’m sure technology has found a way to feed everyone, but has it found a way for the planet to survive them, or are we still heading toward that final collapse, when Nature finally says, enough?
I’m sorry if I sound maudlin. I feel a bit like a ghost speaking from an uncertain past. I want to apologize for all the things we didn’t do, and for more those we did. But I also want to know that things are okay for you. That life is more good than bad. If I’m sad, it’s because I can’t be sure that’s so. Our time feels heavy, like a weight pushing us down to lower places. When I think of you, I want to look up at the bright morning sky and watch you soar out of the sun.
There’s a homeless man crying in the corner. He’s one of the reasons I decided to write this. He’s trying so hard not to be seen, but it’s impossible not to notice. I want to help him, but I’m not sure how. Okay, he seems better now. I need to stop staring. I don’t want to make him uncomfortable.
One of my favorite books as a young man was Last Chance to See. Do you still have books? No matter, I’m sure you know what they are. This one was by Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While still humorous, Last Places was about his travels to parts of the world to see animals on the verge of extinction. There’s another book, A Walk in the Woods about a failed hiking trip that’s also about the fading of the natural world. What I felt after reading these and many others was what all children feel when they hear stories about skies blackened by passenger pigeons or mussel shoals where ships could run aground. Vast schools of fish, trees thousands of years old, elms the size of a small town, birds that could carry off a man. I felt awe at the beauty and power of creation, and sadness that so little of it was left. I would never see those things. What can you see in your time but a lesser world, a gray and denuded place? Or maybe you never go outside anymore. The small screens are so pretty even now; maybe you don’t even have windows.
I’ve read that between 1970 and today, more than half of all known species have been extinguished or exterminated, gone forever. I hope that in your time you’ve brought some back using genetic engineering, but I doubt they’re little more than amusement or food despite the warnings of Jurassic Park. To understand nature, you have to be in it, part of it, be a tiny thing in a vast system that has no use for you. Humanity hasn’t been there for generations. On the positive side, perhaps you’ve gotten rid of mosquitoes. Even in our time, they were a plague without purpose.
Speaking of animals, do you still eat them? I hope not, even if they are delicious. I was a vegetarian for nearly two decades and one of my great regrets is that I didn’t persist. Taking a life out of convenience is surely a travesty if not a sin, and even if neither the production of meat is an environmental disaster. How many steaks did I eat so that you could live in a world without forests? How many fish so that your sea could be filled with little more than jellyfish and refuse? They say that by 2050 there will more plastic in the sea than fish. I found a picture about this online. I can’t imagine how old this will look to you, like me looking at a cave drawing:
There were many things we could have done, of course, but as you might suspect we did what was easy and left the rest to you. I hope that wasn’t too much to ask.
Then again, you may not have noticed. With the onset of global warming and the rising seas, most beaches will have been partially submerged and will soon be gone. You may never see sand outside of a desert. There’s an old saying, “Never bring sand to the beach” that probably sounds ironic. I think the problem with global warming or climate change is that it’s so slow. We are all the frog (look it up) in the pot (look it up) on a stove (look it up). We knew it was coming, but we couldn’t see or feel it until it was too late. And now you’re the one boiling.
Fortunately, you probably live in a wealthy country above the rising waterline. Global warming was always going to impact the poor more than the rich, so perhaps you have at least benefited from the privilege of being born in the right place at the wrong time with a nice conservative name. You’ll see glorious storms, surging seas and sail to the north pole year around. I imagine the northern lights are beautiful from the decks of a ship on a plastic sea.
An older woman bought the man a cup of coffee. He seems grateful or ashamed, or afraid, but he takes it. She says something quietly and goes back to her table. Others watch. The man looks around and then back down, pulling into himself, folding inward like an accordion to a shrunken version of himself. He clearly needs help but doesn’t want it. I’m not sure what the answer is.
Sorry, Jenny, I’m not sure why I’m telling you about him.
We were adrift on a petrochemical sea, but I’m not sure that’s right. Maybe that’s too expensive. One of the great changes of our generation was the onset of automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI). Given all that’s happened over the last fifty years, are there any jobs left for people? Does the word jobs have any meaning? Was there a revolution when the markets failed, or did you end up quietly sliding into poverty as wealth concentrated more and more into the hands of a corporate few? They are so clever, those in power, dividing us against ourselves while consolidating all the wealth of the world. I’m not sure what I hope for: that you are one of them, hateful but well, or just poor and blameless.
I do have this one hope. As you surely know, in our time there was a perennial debate about capitalism versus socialism, as if they were real or reasonable choices. In truth, we all capitalism is the only way we know to create wealth (along with massive inequality), socialism the only way to redistribute that wealth, and socialism on its own a farce meant to guarantee poverty and tyranny. Which is to say, we have two terrible ideas being treated as the only options, and no new ideas to fill the gap. It’s admittedly pathetic. The sad thing is, we know it, and it’s driving us insane.
Have you ever seen reruns or remakes of Star Trek? It’s an old and often silly show, or shows, or obsessions. What all versions have in common is a world without an economy. They have wonderful moral people, none of whom are financially compensated for anything. It is neither socialism nor capitalism. It is also never explained. This is one of the many things I love about science fiction, the idea that things can be better even if we’re not sure how. It’s also one of the things I hate, an intellectual cop-out disguised by distracting technology and metallic winks. We owe you something better, more than a false binary; a world that works and serves everyone without some mystical godly government telling us all how to live. Maybe despite AI, inequality and our apparent inability to have a single new idea, you’ve figured it out. God, I hope so. More than anything, I wish that for you. Because our world is a terrible place, and none of the isms make it better.
One thing I’m sure you haven’t escaped is the dangerous whimsy of human genetic engineering. We’re acting like children, injecting ourselves with stem cells, genetically engineering babies, pretending our real goal is to cure genetic diseases. As with all disruptive technologies, we are desperately eager to see what we can do and rather less concerned with whether we should. Within a generation of this writing, the rich will be traveling to foreign destinations to select their designer babies, and class will become inextricably linked to genetics. The rich will truly be better, built better, live longer and I’m afraid I don’t see any way around it. Are you even truly my grandchild, or something else, more, superior, other? Would you recognize my frail body as the origin of your own, or turn away in shame? Should I apologize or offer my congratulations?
I accept neither. You are what you are because of me, at least in some small part, and that part connect us across half a century of accelerated time. You are of me and I of you and that will continue generation after generation until the last ion of our shared history joins the singularity or fades into the dark annals of future time.
Less seriously, do you have a boyfriend? Are you in love and is love still an important thing? Is he kind to you? Why is this man crying again? It’s heartbreaking to watch. I can hardly concentrate.
Wait, do you still you still have men? They seem to be going obsolete in my time; they are tired, archaic things full of despair and explosive rage. I hope there’s at least a hardy breeding stock or seed bank. Maybe a zoo? Do you still have zoos, or is that considered cruel? It was always a curious trade-off, imprisoning animals to preserve them. Maybe now they’re animatronic or virtual, meaning the animals not the men. Or both. I’m not sure it matters.
Now, back to serious things. I could go on about the debt our generation left to my awkwardly named children, the social devastation of our current President, spreading tribalism, nationalism, antibiotic resistant diseases and so on. There’s no shortage of things for which to apologize, but it all comes down to one thing, the penultimate thing.
I want to apologize for the nature of us.
For my entire life I read and thought and hoped we could become something better. That some child somewhere would rewrite the story of humankind to focus on the kind, that our grand aspirations and tragic reality might meet at some future point. But now dreams and reality run in parallel, lines that never meet, ideas that never coalesce into a tolerable world. Even science fiction, the escape of my childhood, has become derivative and dystopian. Our visions of the future are like expensive snuff films.
He’s crying again. He’s clearly hungry and alone. The pain’s leaking out of him. Tears are falling into his coffee, plup, plup, splashing on the table. People are look away again. I’m trying to imagine his story. Was he born into poverty, or did he fall from some great wealthy height? Had he done something horrible to be cast aside, or was this just the nature of things?
I think it’s just the nature of things.
Nobody helps. I doubt anyone could help. A man has a right to cry in peace, or so I tell myself as I look away. There’s nothing I can do. Nothing anyone can do. Which is the heart of it. He gets up to leave, and I’m relieved. If I can’t help him, and least I don’t have to look at him.
I’m tired now. I find I’m tired all the time. Some mornings, I open my eyes and flinch. The coffee helps, but not for long. There’s too much, and yet too little at the same time.
Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean to sound so maudlin. I love you, Jenny, but you can see how it is. I love you with all my heart, which brings us to the last thing.
I’m so very sorry you don’t exist. There’s no place for you in this world. No place for whimsically named children or more children at all, really. What right do I have to father a family when I can’t help a poor man in a coffee shop let alone solve global warming?
I wish you were here, that you could reach back from the future to tell me if I made the right decision. Because maybe you were the solution The one to answer all the questions, or some, or even one. Maybe you just deserved a chance to be.
Whatever the case, I hope next time I’ll be the one to buy the coffee and whisper something to the man in corner, to at least try.
I know that’s what you’d want.