Last Thursday, Jan Zuckerman took six middle-school children to Portland City Hall to plead for the future of a warming planet.
Zuckerman, a former teacher, chaperoned the eighth-graders from Sunnyside Environmental School as they presented Mayor Charlie Hales and his colleagues with handmade certificates congratulating them for fighting climate change. They then sang a rendition of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" with modified lyrics.
"I look at these young kids," said Zuckerman, "and it breaks my heart. Somebody needs to listen to them. Because they're going to be cleaning up the mess that we make."
The City Council members listened.
They voted unanimously to make Portland the first city in the nation to block the expansion of fossil-fuel pipelines, tanks and terminals within city limits.
The resolution instructed city planners to rewrite building and zoning code so if a company wants to move more oil or coal through Portland, it will find city rules standing in its way.
The new rules have exceptions—mostly so Portlanders can continue pumping gas and turning on burners. (If a Shell station wants to add an extra gas pump, for example, that's still legal.)
The Nov. 12 vote essentially directed the city's bureaucracy to use its red tape in the same way Greenpeace protesters used ropes and pulleys in July to dangle from the St. Johns Bridge and block an icebreaking ship headed to an Arctic oil-drilling site.
The vote may not do much to discourage fossil-fuel exporters from using other places in Oregon as shipping hubs, and it may do nothing to reduce Portlanders' consumption of such fuels. But it's more than a merely symbolic gesture.
It permanently blocks the Canadian energy company Pembina from building a liquid propane terminal at the Port of Portland—completing a move by Hales, who yanked the terminal's permits in May. (City Hall sources tell WW that the mayor's office hurried the vote because Hales was worried Pembina had found a loophole that would allow it to start construction at the port.)
The mood at City Hall was raucous. Activists packed every seat in the gallery, waving chopsticks festooned with crepe-paper streamers—red and yellow, similar to the banners Greenpeace protesters unfurled below the St. Johns Bridge. When all five commissioners voted "aye," the crowd chanted, "Cities lead! Cities lead!"
For them, this is the first of many small, civic steps in obstructing oil and coal companies from further heating Earth's climate.
"If Portland will push against these elitist companies, things are going to change," said Cathy Sampson-Kruse, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. She traveled from Pendleton for the vote. "This is historic."
Next month, Hales will fly to Paris for the United Nations Climate Change Conference, joining more than 100 world leaders hoping to reach an accord to limit the emissions that cause global warming.
It's a gathering with potentially huge consequences for the future.
In anticipation of the Paris conference, the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (of which WW is a member) asked people across the nation to sit down and write to people living six generations from now.
In the following pages, you'll read just a few of these letters. (You can read the rest at letterstothefuture.org.)
Scientists, authors and activists—including two Portlanders—have penned notes to their great-great-grandchildren, explaining why the Paris climate conference was so crucial.
The writers offer their hopes for what the world might look like if the conference succeeds—and their fears of what will happen if the talks fail. —Aaron Mesh.
Sorry About That
Dear Rats of the Future,
Congratulations on your bipedalism: It's always nice to be able to stand tall when you need it, no? And great on losing that tail too (just as we lost ours). No need for that awkward (and let's face it: ugly) kind of balancing tool when you walk upright, plus it makes fitting into your blue jeans a whole lot easier. Do you wear blue jeans—or their equivalent? No need, really, I suppose, since you've no doubt retained your body hair. Well, good for you.
Sorry about the plastics. And the radiation. And the pesticides. I really regret that you won't be hearing any bird songs anytime soon, either, but at least you've got that wonderful musical cawing of the crows to keep your mornings bright. And, of course, I do expect that as you've grown in stature and brainpower, you've learned to deal with the feral cats, your onetime nemesis, but at best occupying a kind of ratty niche in your era of ascendancy. As for the big cats—the really scary ones, tiger, lion, leopard, jaguar—they must be as remote to you as the mammoths were to us. It goes without saying that with the extinction of the bears (polar bears: they were a pretty silly development anyway, and of no use to anybody beyond maybe trophy hunters) and any other large carnivores, there's nothing much left to threaten you as you feed and breed and find your place as the dominant mammals on earth. (I do expect that the hyenas would have been something of a nasty holdout, but as you developed weapons, I'm sure you would have dispatched them eventually.)
Apologies too about the oceans, and I know this must have been particularly hard on you since you've always been a seafaring race, but since you're primarily vegetarian, I don't imagine that the extinction of fish would have much affected you. And if, out of some nostalgia for the sea that can't be fully satisfied by whatever hardtack may have survived us, try jellyfish. They'll be about the only thing out there now, but I'm told they can be quite palatable, if not exactly mouthwatering, when prepared with sage and onions. Do you have sage and onions? But forgive me: of course you do. You're an agrarian tribe at heart, though in our day we certainly did introduce you to city life, didn't we? Bright lights, big city, right? At least you don't have to worry about abattoirs, piggeries, feed lots, bovine intestinal gases and the like—or, for that matter, the ozone layer, which would have been long gone by the time you started walking on two legs. Does that bother you? The UV rays, I mean? But no, you're a nocturnal tribe anyway, right?
Anyway, I just want to wish you all the best in your endeavors on this big, blind rock hurtling through space. My advice? Stay out of the laboratory. Live simply. And, whatever you do, please—I beg you—don't start up a stock exchange.
With best wishes,
PS: In writing you this missive, I am, I suppose, being guardedly optimistic that you will have figured out how to decode this ape language I'm employing here—especially given the vast libraries we left you when the last of us breathed his last.
A novelist and short-story writer, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 short stories.
The world you live in grew out of the world I live in, and I want to tell you a little bit about the major difficulties of my world and how they have affected your world.
On the day I am writing this letter, the speaker of the House of Representatives quit his job because his party—called "the Republicans"—refused absolutely to work with or compromise with the other party, now defunct, called "the Democrats." The refusal of the Republicans to work with the Democrats was what led to the government collapse in 2025, and the breakup of what to you is the Former United States. The states that refused to acknowledge climate change or, indeed, science, became the Republic of America, and the other states became West America and East America. I lived in West America. You probably live in East America, because West America became unlivable owing to climate change in 2050.
That the world was getting hotter and dryer, that weather was getting more chaotic, and that humans were getting too numerous for the ecosystem to support was evident to most Americans by the time I was 45, the age your mother is now. At first, it did seem as though all Americans were willing to do something about it, but then the oil companies (with names like Exxon and Mobil and Shell) realized that their profits were at risk, and they dug in their heels. They underwrote all sorts of government corruption in order to deny climate change and transfer as much carbon dioxide out of the ground and into the air as they could. The worse the weather and the climate became, the more they refused to budge. Americans, but also the citizens of other countries, kept using coal, diesel fuel and gasoline. Transportation was the hardest thing to give up, much harder than giving up the future, and so we did not give it up, and so there you are, stuck in the slender strip of East America that is overpopulated, but livable. I am sure you are a vegan, because there is no room for cattle, hogs or chickens, which Americans used to eat.
West America was once a beautiful place—not the parched desert landscape it is now. Our mountains were green with oaks and pines, mountain lions and coyotes, and deer roamed in the shadows, and there were beautiful flowers nestled in the grass. It was sometimes hot, but often cool. Where you see abandoned, flooded cities, we saw smooth beaches and easy waves.
What is the greatest loss we have bequeathed you? I think it is the debris, the junk, the rotting bits of clothing, equipment, vehicles, buildings, etc., that you see everywhere and must avoid. Where we went for walks, you always have to keep an eye out. We have left you a mess. But I know that it is dangerous for you to go for walks—the human body wasn't built to tolerate lows of 90 degrees Fahrenheit and highs of 140. When I was alive, I thought I was trying to save you, but I didn't try hard enough, or at least, I didn't try to save you as hard as my opponents tried to destroy you. I don't know why they did that. I could never figure that out.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her novel A Thousand Acres, Smiley has written numerous novels and works of nonfiction.
Shift the Food System
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 U.S. 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 contributed somewhere between 20 to 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 policy makers 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 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.
Pollan is a teacher, author and speaker on the environment, agriculture, the food industry, society and nutrition. His letter was adapted from an interview in Vice magazine.
A View from the Fireground
When I started my fire career in 2001, the West was at the tail end of an eight-year drought cycle. A trend was emerging: Fires were becoming larger, faster-moving and more unpredictable. Drought weakened the trees against bark beetles and other parasites, which made them still more vulnerable to fire.
Two points of access to Dutchman Peak lookout in Southern Oregon are normally blocked by snow drifts until late June. Mounts McLoughlin and Shasta are ordinarily loaded with snow, and wildflowers and kestrels dart about the mountain.
In 2009, a family of Steller's jays hatched in a stunted mountain hemlock 20 feet from the lookout. Cicadas hissed in the rose-gold light of the fading sunsets, and there were more deer, raptors and butterflies than I could count. Come late August, the wind-swept mountain mahogany bushes surrounding the cupola developed feathery filaments that the winds would carry off before the cold and rain would settle in for the fall.
In 2012, a TV station wanted to know the impressions my boss and I had concerning the coming fire season. The moisture readings were at low levels not normally seen until late August. We had never opened the lookout so early before. Once fire season began, the air filled with so much smoke from fires, I woke one night with my chest heavy and tight, wondering if I could asphyxiate in my sleep from lack of oxygen.
In 2013, the changes I noticed caused a hollow fluttering in the pit of my stomach. We opened the lookout two weeks earlier than the previous year. There were fewer flowers and butterflies than ever. The ladybugs and dragonfly hatches seemed erratic, and moisture readings were incredibly low. The mountain mahogany developed few seed filaments, and I could actually hear the rustling paper sound of foliage drying out in the wind.
In 2014, a month earlier than normal, the snow disappeared from Mount McLoughlin, and, to the shock of many, a glacier melted on Mount Shasta, creating flooding in the nearby valley. The deer, birds, flowers and butterflies were all but absent.
In 14 years in fire, I've heard much about the debate over the roles that fire suppression, forest management practices and climate change play in the trend toward more severe fire seasons. I doubt we will solve our climate-change problems, unless we learn to listen to what the land has to tell us.
Coughlin is a wildland firefighter from Portland.
My Endless Sky
Stephen K. Robinson
Dear Future Robinsons,
Back around the turn of the century, flying to space was a rare human privilege, a dream come true, the stuff of movies (look it up), and an almost impossible ambition for children the world around.
But I was one of those fortunates. And what I saw from the cold, thick, protective windows of the Space Shuttle is something that, despite my 40 years of dreaming, I never remotely imagined.
As I learned to fly gliders, then small aircraft, then military jets, I always had the secure feeling that the atmosphere was the infinite "long, delirious, burning blue" of John Magee's poem, even though of all people, I well knew about space and its nearness. It seemed impossible to believe that with just a little more power and bravery, I couldn't continue to climb higher and higher on "laughter-silvered wings." My life was a celebration of the infinite gift of sky, atmosphere and flight.
But what I saw in the first minutes of entering space, following that violent, life-changing rocket ride, shocked me.
If you look at Earth's atmosphere from orbit, you can see it "on edge"—gazing toward the horizon, with the black of space above and the gentle curve of the yes-it's-round planet below. And what you see is the most exquisite, luminous, delicate glow of a layered azure haze holding the Earth like an ethereal eggshell. "That's it?!" I thought. The entire sky—my endless sky—was only a paper-thin, blue wrapping of the planet, and looking as tentative as frost.
And this is the truth. Earth's atmosphere is fragile and shockingly tiny—maybe 4 percent of the planet's volume. Of all the life we know about, only one species has the responsibility to protect that precious, blue planet-wrap. I hope we did, and I hope you do.
Stephen K. Robinson
After 36 years as an astronaut—with a tenure that included four shuttle missions and three spacewalks—Robinson retired from NASA in 2012. He is now a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Davis.
Rock, Ice, Air and Water
Dear Future Inhabitants of the Earth,
I was speaking with an environmental scientist friend not too long ago, and he said he felt extremely grim about the fate of the Earth in the 100-year frame, but quite optimistic about it in the 500-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 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 shortsightedness, our capacity for denial, our unwillingness or inability to stand up to the oil and gas companies that 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 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 toward 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 about to gather 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.
E.O. 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.
Rise Like the Water
Dear Future Great-Grandchild,
I came of age as the scientific debate about climate change was coming to an end. For decades, fossil-fuel companies lied to the public about human-caused climate change. By the time I was in high school, the climate crisis was starting to unfold, and amid worry and fear, people started to rise up to try and shift the power of our political, economic and energy systems.
For some of us, our worry turned into hope that addressing climate change, the biggest problem humans have ever faced, is actually the best opportunity we have to build a more just and equal world.
While I was in college, scientists began to warn the world of the race against the clock of warming temperatures and rising seas, and predicted we had just 15 years to stop business as usual before it was "game over" for the planet. People like me began to take action in our homes, on the streets and in the halls of our elected officials. We worked tirelessly inside and outside the system to make the greatest change possible, with only our imaginations as the limit.
Now I'm in my early 20s. Climate change is starting to have devastating effects, igniting a mass people's movement that began turning the tide.
In 2015, we stopped some of the most devastating proposals from fossil-fuel companies, like the Keystone XL oil pipeline, propane export terminals and Arctic drilling. Yes, we really did hang from bridges and block boats in kayaks.
Visionary elected officials, powered by the grassroots marching in the streets, are leading the charge for no new fossil-fuel infrastructure and to begin an immediate and just transition to 100 percent renewable energy.
This is the song we sing:
"The people gonna rise like the water, we're gonna calm this crisis down. I hear the voice of my great-granddaughter, saying shut down fossil fuels now."
I am of the first generation born into this crisis, and yours will not be the last. But together, old and young, as we fight for survival, we can rise above our fears and make a better world.
L'dor v'dor (from generation to generation).
Mia Reback is a community organizer with 350 PDX, a volunteer activist group that organized the kayak blockade of the MSV Fennica in July and urged Portland City Hall to ban the expansion of fossil-fuel transport and storage.