Photo by mari lezhava on Unsplash
The interview began. A small group of children wanted to know how they got there. Not where babies come from. Everyone knows that, even though pregnancies are now rare and births are even rarer. The children wanted to know why they lived in a world where nobody they’ve ever met lives past thirty.
And they wanted to know my story, who I am and how I lived so long. I’m 117 and certainly the last of my kind.
I was too tired to keep hiding. I was hungry and lonely and guilty. I just didn’t care any more so I turned myself in. But they didn’t want revenge. They just wanted to understand. I suppose they deserved that.
Before asking, they described their plight, as if I didn’t already know.
“We understand that people used to live a long time. People lived up to three times as long as we do. At least that’s what our parents told us. And we’ve seen some books and other writings although we aren’t too good at reading. But there are gaps. We don’t fully understand what happened. We’ve heard that there used to be many more people. We number in the thousands, but our species used to number in the billions. People didn’t die so frequently of hunger and disease. And people got pregnant much easier, and much more frequently.
This is all normal to us, but this kind of normal is only about a hundred years old. We want to understand what happened before and why things are now…the way they are.”
I didn’t know where to start. There’s so much to tell. I tried to imagine I was one of them. What would they really want to know? Knowing I was complicit in their fate, I felt a certain discomfort in answering their questions.
“There was a mistake, a big mistake. We had our way of doing things, our systems. Our ways had worked for us, at least for people like me, for a long time. I was one of the leaders.
We had lots of food, medicine, housing. We had heating and cooling. At least leaders like me did. Most people had more than people nowadays do. But they had to work a lot, all the time. They worked for the organizations that people like me led and owned.
They struggled, but people like me didn’t care. We thought we were helping. We provided things for them to do — jobs — and in return they got things that they needed. So, those people were tired and they spent their lives serving our needs, but they could largely do as they pleased when they went home.”
There was a murmur. Then a girl spoke up. She might have been about twelve, but she spoke with assurance, like an adult.
“Why would they work for you, instead of for everyone? And what was the mistake?”
It was hard to know, in advance, what would be obvious and what would be puzzling to them. I was beginning to get a feel for this.
“They worked for us because we had wealth. We owned factories and offices and land. And especially oil and gas and coal. Those were fuels that were burned to provide power. They made everything work.
But here’s our mistake: those fuels destroyed the climate, and turned the formerly moderate life-sustaining Earth into a deadly cruel planet inhospitable to life.”
There was more indistinct chatter. The group seemed to be having some amiable disagreements which they promptly settled. One boy nodded, and the girl spoke again. I don’t think any specific child was in charge, but she spoke for the group.
“We do not understand how anyone could own land. How would that even work? Could other people not walk on that land? Not climb a tree on it? Not lay down on the soil and watch the clouds?
As for your mistake, that is tragic. But how could you know that your actions would destroy the climate?”
At this point, I became very uncomfortable. I briefly considered running away, but at 117 — even with the genetic boost I had been given 70 years ago —that was simply not possible. Instead, I took a deep breath and answered.
“Ownership means control, exclusive control. So, yes, we could and did prevent other people from walking on our land, from climbing on trees. Actually, our land usually had no trees. We cleared the land for development.”
The girl nodded but I don’t think she actually understood. Then she brought up the subject I’d hoped to avoid.
“We assume you did not know that your actions would destroy the climate. That’s the case, of course. Isn’t it?”
I took another deep breath.
“Actually, we were warned. But the rules that were in place wouldn’t allow us to stop burning fossil fuels. We were required to continue doing it — our corporate charters, the laws, required that we continue.
If we chose to stop, we would have been sued. We would have been thrown out by shareholders and new managers would resume drilling. There was simply no choice.”
The children were silent for a long time. They didn’t speak. They didn’t look at each other. They stopped looking at me and lowered their heads.
Finally, the girl looked up and spoke.
“You were warned. And you destroyed the climate anyway. You obeyed rules — stupid, cruel rules. What about your conscience?
We are very sorry. We would like to forgive you but we cannot. Because we cannot absolve you of responsibility on behalf of the dead. There are many dead people, dead plants, dead animals, dead insects. We have long mourned those losses. We now know who was responsible.
You will go away now.”
They turned their backs and walked away. I am walking alone now, into the woods, accepting my fate. I have nowhere to go. I will simply keep walking until I can do so no more.