If you’re anything like me, you’ve asked yourself how we could do so much damage to the planet. And this is the part where I’m supposed to tell you we didn’t know, right? Except…I can’t. Because we do. That’s perhaps the most monstrous thing about our actions toward the environment in 2019. It was different in the past of-course, at its conception. The Dutch didn’t know they were hunting dodo birds into extinction, people didn’t realize they should be planting as many trees as they were cutting down, and I’m sure the English didn’t know the detrimental effects coal could cause when they switched over to it as their primary source of energy during the Industrial Revolution. But now we do know.
Now we know and still there’s so little being done. You see it in history books and I see it all around me.
What I don’t know is what your world looks like. Whether there are still coral reefs in the Coral Sea or trees in the Amazons. How many species in our zoos or safaris are extinct in yours. I imagine there are some that only exist in captivity while environmentalists desperately try to restore their habitats. What does agriculture even look like in the future? Already we have record heats in the summer and record colds in the winter and animals starting to migrate and hibernate later in the year because the seasons are changing.
How many cities have drowned? Osaka, Japan with Kyoto and the Osaka Castle? Alexandria where the Light of Alexandria and the most famous library of the Classical Age once stood? Rio de Janeiro where the Olympic Games were held in 2016? New Orleans and Houston have already been devastated by hurricanes in my time, they’re surely gone. The entire state of New Jersey might have drowned. Capital cities like London and Shanghai might not exist anymore except in pictures. I don’t know how much of the world I know today will only be memories in your world.
I don’t know, but I wish I did. I wish I could show people. Although I guess there’s still a possibility that they wouldn’t care. There is a persistent tug of war between what is right and what is convenient in our life today. And while the importance of creating a habitable world for future generations is not disputed, the correct way to do that often is. While we argue, the Earth gets hotter, sea levels rise, more species go into extinction and the already insurmountable problem gets even bigger.
Maybe there’s still people like that in your future. People that carelessly light matches and are still surprised when something catches fire. I hope not. I hope this is treated like the problem it is in your future.
See, through it all, I can imagine what you’re feeling. Anger, at the selfishness of our generations. I feel it too. Sadness, for all the living beings that were driven to extinction due to us. I feel it too. Wistfulness, when you see the pictures of monuments and festivals held in grand cities that are now underwater. I feel it too. But you can’t imagine how I feel. Maybe you don’t care either, that’s certainly fair, but you don’t know.
When I was eight years old my mother was diagnosed with a treatable disease and yet for the next fifteen years of my life I watched her deteriorate from this disease until she died. That anger, sadness and wistfulness exist within me in the wake of her death. But they don’t drown out the memory of the helplessness, of knowing there was nothing I could do. I feel similarly helpless when I read headlines of all the ways the Earth is getting sick, deteriorating, dying by causes that were entirely avoidable. And while I know in this case there are things I can do, they feel so minute.
There’s also guilt. Because while I try not to add too much to the increase of the amount of damage humankind is imposing on the Earth, I can’t pretend that I’m not as much to blame as everyone else. I benefit from this broken world. The tug of war I mentioned earlier between what is right and what is convenient doesn’t just exist out there in the offices of politicians and industries, it exists first and foremost in our homes.
At the end of the day, everyone has to accept a certain amount of culpability. I know that if everyone in the world started boycotting plastic right now, then tomorrow every company in the world would begin the switch to paper or biodegradable plastic by next year, maybe sooner. If we only bought organic goods, produced in our countries, industrial farming would collapse. If everyone stopped buying and using cars that burned fossil fuels, electric and/or cars that run on alternative methods of fuel would come out next year. If everyone switched to electric companies that used renewable sources of energy to power their homes, electric companies that use coal would go bankrupt.
If everyone chose what was right instead of what was convenient, we’d make so much progress. Before long the question would change from how can we stop hurting the world to how can we neutralize the damage we’ve already caused.
And yet, the last emotion, and possibly the hardest to empathize with, is understanding. Because you have to live in this world to truly understand what it’s like. If you isolate the choice between what is right and convenient, it is merely difficult. Combined with all the other challenges we face in today’s world however, difficult becomes impossible. Even the most environmentally conscientious people can’t eradicate the damage they’re causing, they can only minimize it.
That’s why I’m writing this letter to you. It is an apology, truly, but it’s also an explanation. There are probably solutions that are so obvious to you, but they aren’t to us. People are trying to find the solution, there are people that care. All of us are mostly aware of the damage we’re causing and a lot of us are trying to improve. Yet even though I know I’m trying, it is hard to hold other people to those standards when I know how hard those standards are to comply with.
For example, I take public transport. Honestly, though, I live in a metropolitan city where public transport is both available and affordable. But I still remember what it was like to live in a small town where driving was necessary to get to work, to see family, and to hang out with friends. I also can’t blame people for the cars they drive, because they often buy what they can afford.
I buy pre-packaged food as little as possible. But I’m a twenty-six year old single female. I’m not juggling a full time job with a family. I have time to cook. I have time to boil beans instead of buying them in cans or jars. If I barely had time to sleep, then I probably wouldn’t think the importance of saving the Earth was more imperative than making sure I could feed my family at a normal time.
Similarly, I’m not a vegetarian, but I do try to limit my consumption of meat and fish. Plus, I buy organic foods whenever I can. That largely depends on my salary, though. There are some cases where if I can’t buy organic, then I just don’t buy it. But mostly, if I can’t buy organic food, I buy normal food. And I tell myself that the effort to buy organic whenever I can is important, it makes a difference, and I truly believe that. I believe that lessening my impact, even if it feels insignificant, is more important than doing nothing. But I do it with the knowledge that people who can barely afford to feed themselves probably aren’t going to spend extra money on organic food. And how can I blame them? I wouldn’t either. I only do it because I’m privileged enough to be able to do so.
I also save and reuse plastic bags. But I live 100 meters away from the closest grocery shop. If I forget my bag, it’s not a huge inconvenience for me to go home, get the bag, and then go to the grocery shop. But the thing is, that’s only for grocery shopping. I don’t take the same bag to other shops when I need to buy something that’s not food. And sure, I reuse the bags as trash bags, but I know that they end up in a landfill somewhere.
This all goes to show, that it’s hard. I reduce the amount of waste I create, I reuse things whenever possible, and I recycle. However, I also wrote the draft to this letter on non-recycled paper with a plastic pen that will take 500 years to biodegrade. I buy clothes made of cotton, probably normal cotton, not organic cotton. I’m not sure even sure where I could buy organic cotton. But it’s not like I’ve looked. I’ve bought things that I’ve later thrown away. I’m a teacher, so the amount of paper I go through is unbelievable even to me. I’m conscientious of the burden I’m placing on the environment, but I don’t think of it every second of the day. I do try to choose what is right, but I know that I choose what’s convenient a lot more than I would like to admit.
Again, I don’t expect you to totally understand. I just wanted you to know, I’m sorry, truly sorry. I know that the world we’ve left you isn’t the same as it is now, even if I wish it were. And I know what you must be feeling, but I also know why we’re not doing more. Yet I hope that there are people in the future who are willing to do more to help the Earth heal.
Note: I wrote this last year as a piece for a competition on Scribophile asking us to write an ancestral letter to someone in the future hundreds of years from now explaining the environmental problems we’re causing without blaming politicians or industries. I wrote this, and I decided to republish it here for Earth Day.