The next nine years will be a time of resilience, rebuilding and reinvention.
My dear friend,
I’m writing to you from Queens. I’m still here despite all my talk of getting out. The city looks a lot different in 2030. That’s still nine years away for you. Yet, a lot has happened in that time.
I know things are a little dark for you in 2021. To think your beautiful baby boy just turned 1, after being born in the worst year most of us can remember. We were already racing against time to protect our communities from climate impacts when the pandemic hit.
Some leaders ignored the 2018 report that said we only had until 2030 to stop, or at least slow, global warming. To jump-start their economies, they tried to resurrect coal and roll back environmental regulations. Then, the floods came. And the fires followed. The power outages didn’t help. You left New York before it got bad here, only to see how ferocious Mother Nature’s roar can be with the storms down South. Everywhere, our leaders were forced to confront reality: The old ways weren’t working anymore. They took the grief of that crisis and used it to spark joy and sow hope.
“It’s exciting to see so many glimmers of hope... The future has never looked brighter.”
In hindsight, we were lucky. Many creatures of this Earth didn’t live to see 2030. Humans could not save the animals we’d damned, but at least you and I are still here, right? Some people, though, couldn’t live with the destruction and chaos around them. Others had little choice when death came knocking. I remember the last time I saw you; we sat on your new deck, thinking of the world your sweet, curly haired boy was entering. A world plagued with death – deaths that lie at the feet of elected officials who ignored and denied the many crises we faced, and who took every penny the fossil fuel industry gave them.
But times changed, girl. Humans are finally learning to do more than survive. Humans are, at last, learning to thrive.
Illustration: Alexandra Bowman.
Later, Big Oil! The chains of the oil and gas industry still linger, but they’re off. I like to think the tipping point was the Oscar-winning documentary A Gallon of Lies. Streaming everywhere, it brought to light the way Big Oil manipulated science and advertising to deny climate change. More media, including TV news, finally began to make villains of oil company CEOs and showed the public that they were to blame for this crisis, not us.
The public perception of these companies changed overnight. The US federal government ended its annual $20 billion in direct subsidies to fossil fuel companies and diverted that money into clean energy and investments in communities of color where the oil industry used to do its bidding. Elected officials are no longer allowed to take corporate donations – especially not from the ones that created this mess. They’re now passing laws for people, not corporations.
A growing number of states created laws to punish polluters and their toxic legacies. State attorneys general wisely abandoned their respective wars on drugs and began looking toward the nation’s true criminals. Instead of imprisoning Black and brown bodies, they’re now throwing selfish corporate executives behind bars. Still, prisons aren’t what they used to be now that many cities direct some of the money for policing neighbourhoods toward mental health and rehabilitation services for those who are incarcerated. Even so-called criminals deserve their humanity. Even they deserve an ounce of freedom.
These days, utilities are no longer monopolising the energy sector because communities own their power. School roofs in the Navajo Nation are covered with solar panels, helping to finally power nearby homes where students only a few years ago did their homework by candlelight. Technology’s evolved beyond the solar and wind we knew a decade ago. Offshore wind has finally taken off in the waters of bougie southeastern Long Island. The Great Lakes will soon boast sophisticated, intentionally positioned turbines that shouldn’t harm any birds migrating across the region. They’ll bring clean energy to the heart of coal country where the mines are finally closed for good.
Coal miners – both young and old – now have fully funded government benefits to reward them for the sacrifices they made. They no longer have to foot the bill should they develop the miner’s curse of black lung. In fact, no one in America does anymore. Congress has passed Medicare for All, and the government is taking special care of the communities that have borne the brunt of health costs of the never-to-be-forgotten fossil fuel sector.
Many families now have disposable income, thanks to the thriving green economy paying them a living wage. Blue-collar workers are especially respected for their crucial contribution to our new world. I have friends who recently moved to Louisiana for work; they’ll be removing the abandoned smokestacks of plastics refineries in Cancer Alley. These are the in-demand jobs of the future. They don’t require college degrees or that people go into thousands of dollars of debt. The training programs and certifications teach them all they need. I’m so jealous we didn’t have something like this when we were growing up.
Illustration: Alexandra Bowman.
We Can Breathe Again
A couple of years ago, decaying pipelines, like the Dakota Access pipeline, started coming out of the ground. I witnessed the pipe removal and observed the ceremony to bless the land and repair the damage it had suffered. Led by Lakota and Dakota leaders of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and leaders from the Cheyenne River Sioux, Yankton Sioux and Oglala Sioux Tribes in their native languages – it was like nothing I had ever seen. Thousands who had come to protest almost 15 years ago returned to pay their respects to the land and sacred burial grounds the pipeline had desecrated. The ceremonial fires burned throughout the night, coughing bits of flying ash. I never got to visit Standing Rock during the 2016 protests, but I imagine the feeling in the air was a lot like that.
Steps like these have left the air so much more breathable both inside and outside of our homes, and not just for a select few. Cities are removing lead pipes and asbestos in buildings, and more mayors now recognise the financial benefits that come with good health.
Transportation once made up the bulk of US greenhouse gas emissions. Not anymore. Governments around the world have finally moved to ban gas-guzzling cars. We still don’t use our electric car much, though. Incentives exist, but leaders, both locally and globally, are finally investing heavily in public transit systems that work. We ride our local trains and buses whenever we can. The kids love to take trips on our e-bike. Many of the older people around here prefer the buses because they don’t like going underground too much. Plus, fewer stairs. Accessibility is still an issue on trains, but elevators are easier to come by than before. Baby steps, right?
“Food deserts are becoming rarer now that people are learning to grow their food again ... ”
Though rural communities are still more car-dependent than cities, even people in working-class agriculture towns in what was once the Corn Belt can hop on a bus or a bike to get around. E-bikes have become more common, too. We’re not the only family on the block with one. Public-private partnerships had plenty to do with that; local governments are helping employers purchase e-bikes for their staffs. Making space for bikes is cheaper than building a parking lot. Still, cars are essential to help elderly and disabled folks get around. There aren’t as many cars, that’s for sure.
One of my favourite changes is how easy it is to find nature nowadays. Trees and vegetation of all kinds are everywhere. Cities are covered by less concrete and rubble. Botanical delights, like blue violets, grow wild near tiny community plots where families grow their seasonal vegetables. In Paradise, California, where the 2018 Camp Fire killed 85 people, local residents have planted native flora, such as the purple-flowering western redbud.
Food deserts are becoming rarer now that people are learning to grow their food again – and without synthetic and toxic pesticides. Many of those, like chlorpyrifos, are finally illegal. Even larger farms are required by law to use regenerative agricultural practices that minimise tilling the soil and encourage them to use cover crops. There’s still not as much enforcement to hold the rule breakers accountable, but I now have faith that the justice system can work the way it’s supposed to. Not yet, but it’s getting there. Remember the days when US Attorney General Jeff Sessions focused federal efforts on undocumented people? The US is at last letting our people work essential jobs and contribute to the economy with the protections and payment and papers they deserve.
Finding My Peace Outdoors
With the death of the extractive economy came the rejuvenation of our public lands. The last of the uranium mines that once scarred the lands surrounding the Grand Canyon are now closed. Locals are being paid well – and are given the proper protections – to clean them up. Tribal nations, like the Hopi people, are now receiving royalties from mining companies that nearly contaminated their drinking water with greed.
The Bears Ears National Monument has been fully restored. That’s thanks to the hustle and undying vision from a historic coalition of sovereign tribal nations that never gave up on protecting their ancestral lands. The monument’s renewed protections in 2021 kicked off years of public land declarations – and a global effort to recognise and safeguard ancestral Indigenous lands. The public has never been more interested in visiting our national parks and monuments as a result. Yellowstone might not be a short drive away for some, but the expanding high-speed rail system and local electric buses make it easier to visit. I’m planning a trip to the Six Grandfathers mountain in South Dakota. After a battle between right-wing legislators and Indigenous leaders that seemed to last forever, the president renamed Mount Rushmore its Indigenous name: the Six Grandfathers (Tunkášila Šákpe). Congress members are still debating what to do about those haunting faces, but it’s clear something needs to be done.
Instead of names of Confederate leaders, outdoor spaces are taking on their traditional Indigenous names, chosen for them by some of their earliest inhabitants. Many Indigenous peoples have finally secured the rights to their stolen land, too, though many are still fighting in the courts for what’s theirs.
I see these changes when I drive north of the city past Bear Mountain where you used to love hiking. Along the Hudson River, the US Military Academy at West Point’s Lee Barracks (named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee) is getting a new name. Here, military leaders didn’t opt for an Indigenous name. They named the barracks after Simone Askew, the first Black woman to lead the academy’s Corps of Cadets. We need to see these name changes reflected everywhere, not just in outdoor spaces, and that includes where we house our soldiers.
It’s exciting to see so many glimmers of hope. They felt impossible even a few years ago. The new world is no longer on her way. She’s no longer a distant whisper in our ears. No, she’s here, loud and proud as can be. The future has never looked brighter. I can’t wait for you and the little guy to get here. We’ll need you all.
Con mucho amor,
This collective vision of the future was built with insights from Mustafa Santiago Ali, Elizabeth Yeampierre, Carol Davis, Hakim Evans, Daze Aghaji, Etsuko Nakanishi, Keith Shattenkirk and Alison Huyett.
The story was first published in the Patagonia Spring 2021 journal.