When I was twelve I imagined a future full of sleek spaceships, visits to beautiful alien worlds, and endless wonders. A peaceful, verdant, healthy Earth was not a concern for me. I presumed it simply would be. We couldn’t get to that other great stuff I was anxious to see if we had to worry about the condition of our home. I presumed the future was a better place and I could not wait for it. Humans, I believed, were ever capable of so much more.
My daughter’s thoughts now, at that same age, are of a very different kind.
This morning, after my daughter headed off to school, I sat down to work on the sequel to ALL RIGHTS RESERVED, my novel about a dystopic future. Instead of my most recent save, I found my daughter’s homework waiting for me. She’d been given an assignment about what she would put in a time capsule to be opened in 500 years. I knew about her assignment. We briefly discussed it. I could imagine putting in all sorts of wacky things to send to the future. But she didn’t. She imagined something different and the more I read, the sadder I felt.
She choose a beautiful book by photographer Joel Sartore called: RARE Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.
“This book would show any humans still left on Earth the animals that would almost certainly be extinct, and maybe they would mourn what they had lost.”
There is a lot packed into that sentence. She thinks we — all of us — may not make it. And she thinks that if we do we might, finally, get around to appreciating what we had. Maybe.
The book she chose is part of a larger project Mr. Sartore has created called PHOTOARK. He is essentially creating a time capsule of animal images — animals we very well may lose. But she doesn’t share his optimism that humans will be around to see it. She goes on to say this:
Who knows if humans will even exist? We might kill ourselves off for some stupid reason. And if humans are still around then they might have a society that destroys anything from their past to hide some wrongdoing on their part, or they may just be too incompetent to try to discover anything from their past, or they may be too busy warring and driving themselves to the brink of extinction, or maybe America was completely destroyed and the only living people live on the island of New Guinea and can’t leave it because the rest of the world is toxic.
Believe it or not, my twelve year spends the better part of each day happy. I’m not sure how she does it. Thinking about the future, she has imagined a dystopia more grim than than the one in my book.
I want to tell her everything will be okay, things are not that grim, but I can’t say she is wrong. Her love of animals — any love of animals — leads to a reckoning with the health of the planet and the reality of how we humans impact our world.
Along with my daughter’s love for animals comes a love of animal documentaries and T.V. shows. She delights in watching the diversity of creatures the world is blessed with. Her current favorite: The Pangolin. But no animal documentary is complete without a moment she and I have come to refer to as the “but-the-humans” moment. You probably know this moment. The music in the documentary will change so you can prepare. She used to hide her eyes, because these moments are grim, heartrending, and sometimes bloody. It is that moment in a dolphin special where they show dolphins stranded on beaches because their sonar has been knocked wonky by human submarines, or the moment in an IMAX movie on sea-birds where you see them glossy and black and dripping with leaked oil, or the moment in a show about elephants where the poachers leave behind a bloodied elephant’s body so they could take the tusks.
These creatures all would have been doing just fine, but the humans messed it up.
Elephants, I should point out, know how to mourn.
My daughter’s hero, Sylvia Earle, who she met last year, has spoken time and time again about how our oceans can’t withstand our continued assault, but the humans have refused to listen for as long as either of us has been alive.
Think about it: My daughter’s best case scenario is a future where many, or most, or all of these creatures are gone but the humans remain to mourn them. Is that really the best we have in us? Worse: do we not even have that? I can almost hear her thinking: I’d put something in that time capsule, but the humans will be gone. Why bother?
She will read this tomorrow and I hope she knows I understand; at this moment in our history it is difficult to muster optimism about human beings. Humans can be, as a whole, awful, shortsighted and selfish, but the humans can do better. I saw it when I was her age and I still believe it can be.