A Foreseeable Future
Brooklyn, New York
2017, High School, Prose
“So? What do you see?” asked Johμnn avidly, though he seemed to already know the answer.
“I don’t believe it! Are you certain Professor ßåçå gave the proper celestial coordinates?” inquired Gøråsh, Johμnn’s colleague, not turning away from the telescope’s eyepiece.
Both scientists were garnering as much information as possible on a planet 42 light years away, as part of their Professor’s teachings. Their mentor did not state the nature of this investigation, nor the reason why it was so imminent. Yet, they did not question her. Not yet.
“Of course, I am – (18h54m23s,66°49’11”). Why, what’s the matter?” Johμnn replied, his confidence suddenly diminishing.
A long pause lingered in the cool, fresh air of Soreso, their home planet. It was a serene world, devoid of much artificial presence, and blossoming with nature. The lush vegetation of the archipelagos scattered along Soreso’s surface were picayune compared to the shallow, but omnipresent, clear, blue waters that drifted at the miniature islands’ bases.
“This does not make any sense. None of ßåçå’s descriptions match!” yelled Gøråsh, confounded.
“Well, what is the visual?” Johμnn now genuinely asked, fully engaged in the conversation.
Gøråsh was observing with an incredibly powerful telescope, capable of delineating with unprecedented detail any planet in a 50-light year radius, even bugs and insects there.
“From afar, the descriptions match precisely. 71% of the planet’s surface is covered in water . Yet, when I increase the resolution, I see, well … I believe the planet is … dead.” He could hardly pronounce the last word, agony swelling in his voice, though he knew not why.
“The azure oceans from the descriptions are actually greenish-yellow! Zooming in further, I see abandoned architecture and a desolate landscape.” Gøråsh continued. He strained his eyes as he began turning the magnification nob.
“But ßåçå specifically stated: heavy traffic in metropolitans, skyscrapers that remain lit even at night, large pedestrian populations, fireworks, celeb –” Johμnn interjected.
“And yet I see empty streets, grayish landmasses, and oceans engulfed in layers upon layers of clear plastic and waste. Marine life lies strangled in plastic rings, mammals poisoned from contaminated diets, and plastics are everywhere ! This is not a planet, it is an unearthed landfill! ßåçå’s descriptions must be wrong. No planet can change so radically. We must present this to her immediately!” Gøråsh concluded. Johμnn concurred without hesitation. They left the observatory with all necessary evidence and entered the laboratory of Professor ßåçå. She was conducting biochemical experiments on the indigenous planets of Soreso when the door opened.
“Ah, finally you have arrived. How were your observational proceedings with the telescope?” ßåçå remarked, taking off her reusable, biodegradable gloves. The economic hospitality of the laboratory was perceptible. Everything here was made of natural material, nothing synthetic.
“We’ve encountered some … complications. Upon observing the planet, coordinates (18h54m23s,66°49’11”),” Gøråsh started, ascertaining proper coordinates, “examining each detail of the planet’s surface, we concluded the planet is deserted or lifeless.”
The professor’s bushy brows shifted upward, like waves spreading out on a pond.
“How can you be certain?” inquired ßåçå, speaking slowly, anticipating each of his answers.
The two students presented the images of the telescope’s field of view to the professor. She sat down slowly, staring deep and long at each one. It was as if ßåçå knew each detail on the photos personally – each face, each animal. Seconds felt like minutes, minutes like hours.
“I feared it would end like this,” ßåçå inhaled slow as she spoke. She looked up at a point in the room with unyielding focus, her gaze sharp but lost and hopeless.
“Professor, we don’t understand … Why are the visuals so different from what you described?” Johμnn finally asked. He realized his mentor was concealing much from them.
ßåçå stood up, turned her back toward her protégés, folded her arms behind her back, and began.
“I do not belong to this planet,” she paused, anticipating gasps from behind before continuing, “The planet you have seen through the telescope – Terraria – is my true home world, which I left decades ago. Before leaving, I was an oceanographer monitoring marine debris and ocean pollution worldwide. Unfortunately, the dominant population there, the Muhans, have led the path to their own destruction. I had no choice but to escape decimation.”
“What forced you to leave?” both students asked concurrently.
“The Muhans, such as myself, were a water-based species. Water – clean water – sustained us, from the warm showers we cleaned ourselves with to the stew we used to make soups with. You would think that with over 300 million cubic miles of water on the planet, we would not have to worry about it . We were so wrong …” She paused, wiping the forming tears from her cheeks.
“It began with industrialization. Our society, in a giant country called ASU, took the leading position as an affluent nation. The concerns of its denizens were paramount above all else; their “survival needs” dwarfed the interests of the environment. And the companies and the politics were happy to oblige. But with these demands came something far worse – ocean pollution. Have any of you any idea what that is?” ßåçå queried, expecting only one answer from them.
“No. We have heard you mention it, but we have not seen –” Gøråsh replied on behalf of both.
“Good. Let’s make sure we keep it that way. Nevertheless, I must inform you of the danger. Any intelligent species will encounter ocean pollution – it is as inevitable as the Moons rising. Let me demonstrate what it means. See this small rubble?” she holds small plastic pellets with tweezers.
“It is called plastic – composed of synthetic polymers . They were invented centuries ago to be cheaper and more efficient . Unfortunately, they have proliferated in production well into my time [5, 6]. This sample is called microplastic, and it is the most threatening form of plastic due to its millimetric size . We believed we were saving the animals by creating this synthetic plastic found nowhere on Terraria, eliminating the need for poaching and hunting . Instead, they became the toxins that chipped away the food pyramid from the bottom up. Well, here is what results from marine debris by plastic,” ended ßåçå, putting on lab goggles.
She dropped the plastics onto a large model of what seemed to be the water cycle Gøråsh and Johμnn studied under her tutelage, as well as coastal streets on Terraria. She switched a lever, and the entire model sprang into action. Water began seeping along the streets as rain poured heavily from the model sky, with the ocean some scaled distance away.
“Picture yourselves as this insignificant polypropylene microplastic . You were created as a piece of a bottle cap, among the 300 million tons of plastic produced each year, focused solely on satisfying the demands of Muhans . Suddenly, your masters betrayed you and dropped you and the bottle onto the street after a single use. Don’t worry – around 50% of your plastic peers suffer the same neglect . Your priority now was to settle into a stable setting. Months and months passed, and with more and more rains, your plastic house began to chip away – biodegrade naturally. Yet plastic does not degrade so easily, taking up to 400 years ! But you were fortunate to escape from your bottle peers, while they continued to wait for their turns.”
“After swimming through sewage pipes and evading the irritating filtering systems, you seem to notice others like you – polyesters and nylons, racing to the same finish line, with the same goal in mind . You are relieved. Finally, you are on your way to the destination – the one and only global ocean of Terraria . There you will find peace and rekindle with your ancestors.”
The microplastic jet out of the miniature pipelines, plopping into the model ocean.
“And so, the journey of the microplastic is over. Now multiply these travels by billions of times, and you have a glimpse at plastic pollution of oceans. In fact, this plastic pellet had so many friends that in some areas, there was six times as much microplastics as there was plankton !”
“What resulted from this was a catastrophic eradication of the marine life. The problem became so prevalent that a third of the found marine mammals were strangled in litter ! It disguised itself as fish food, clogged up their intestines, did not digest, and accumulated there. Eventually, they died slow and painful deaths from starvation and poisoning . And this filth circled under the eddies in giant vortexes from decomposed bags, clothing, bottles, and even furniture for God’s sake!” ßåçå breathed deeply, calming herself .
“However, there was an even more sinister problem – oil spills and land runoffs. The Muhans were so careless, they allowed a third of all oil to travel the same path as the microplastic ! Pesticides, household chemicals, and even pharmaceutical drugs fell in step . They do worse than kill off fish – they rob the waters of oxygen, creating deadly algal blooms that form voids – dead zones – no fish dare enter .”
“But why didn’t the governments do anything about it? They must have known!” Gøråsh asked.
“Well, they did, enacting many laws like banning microbeads in cosmetics or redressing radioactive contamination and containing its spread [7, 11]. But it was society that reacted most. Some published books in hopes of raising awareness of the issue. One book was so successful, it convinced the contemporary president of ASU to pass many environmental laws . In other cases, directors of movies propagandized a gruesome image of plastic, which in fact it is, resulting in an ephemeral repulsion of this material by many people in the public .” The two students felt a sudden relief from ßåçå’s answer, like a cool ocean breeze.
“As decades passed, the global situation kept getting worse and worse. The government was no match for the adversary that I call the pollution-industrial complex – the most treacherous enemy you will ever hear or know of. It was the root of pollution. It flourished when our ecosystem crumbled, exchanging the health of the environment and the lives of marine and land animals, for money and profit. Every year, 1.4 billion pounds of trash entered the oceans, and many times more in flowed into its greedy pockets . As an oceanographer, I warned them many times to steer away from this course. Little did they know that most of the oxygen they inhaled came from aquatic plants, or that most of Terraria’s water, including the water they drank, was contained in the oceans, or that the mercury poisonings, the toxic seafood, and some neurological diseases sourced from this ocean pollution . Little did they know that there was no such thing as 5 oceans, or national territories, or regional problems. There was only one planet – Terraria – with only one ocean, and only one problem – pollution.”
“As a scientist, I grieved most for how many secrets in the ocean were never discovered, and for the future generations that wound never see the beautiful planet. You know, it was estimated that more than 95% of the global ocean had never been explored, in the depths as you would imagine . We’d only begun to scratch the surface of what lay within the deep aphotic zone . We have known for a while that the deepest point on Terraria was over six miles deep, yet hardly had any understanding of what creatures lurked in the pitch-black setting . Now, we will never know.” ßaca paused for several minutes. She was squeezing her gloves with incredible force before continuing.
“My previous attempts to communicate with the policy-makers on Terraria failed. The ecosystem turned to ruin as plankton began to die suddenly. Then came the fish, the algae, the aquatic plants, the ocean predators, and swiftly, the Muhans – the pinnacle of the food pyramid, became extinct as well, dragged down by their uncontrollable greed. We are the only survivors. The pioneers of a quest to revitalize our species.” She turned toward them. The professor now stood firm and resolute, like a statue, unyielding to any physical threat.
“But we must vow to not fail this time. That is why I have trained you, students. You will lead the recreation of Muhans, except now on Soreso, as parts of nature, rather than its owners. You must safeguard this planet, as its pioneers. Johμnn, you will lead our civilization as the first president, while Gøråsh will be vice. And so, this is what you must do …”
It was already nighttime. The three moons of Soreso glared bright at the town of Soreso’s only Muhans. ßaca’s laboratory dwarfed all other settlements, for now at least.
Many decades have passed. ßåçå’s duo students became prominent leaders of the society, both as scientists and as policymakers. The population grew exponentially, easily passing the hundreds of thousands. Surprisingly, the planet remained as pure and raw as it had been under the first pioneers. The entire ocean was as clear as the indigo sky, with schools of fish, groups of algae and aquatic plants, and a multitude of large predators coexisting and thriving. Technology progressed radically, yet was under the scrupulous surveillance of climate control – quotas placed on all types of companies. It was the neo-Muhan’s mindset that set them apart from their extinct predecessors. They finally became the bona fide apex of the food pyramid, meaning not only dominating other species in terms of power, but rather thinking of each level in the pyramid as an equal. Parts of the same whole.
In school, every neo-Muhan was presented with the history of Terraria and its food web, written by Johμnn and Gøråsh the Architects. Ultimately, ingrained into everyone’s minds was a cause and effect understanding of nature. With such a mindset taught ever since their birth, pollution was no longer an easily solvable problem. It was practically a non-existent problem. Almost every Muhan had an innate repulsion from contaminating the oceans. They used and reused biodegradable bottles, bags, cups, furniture, and any other utility. They followed safety protocols and guidelines provided by the Global Committee of Climate Protection (GCCP). They understood that pollution on land indubitably lead to pollution of the waters, and vice versa.
“Also make sure to clearly mark off instructions on signs should any evidence of pollution appear,” Gøråsh instructed the members of the GCCP in a private conference.
“Vice president,” remarked a junior member of the meeting.
“Since we estimate there are billions of potential ocean worlds like Soreso, what is the point of preserving this one ocean on one of billions of planets, when we could simply move on to another when this planet becomes unusable?”
“Remember to your previous teachings. Who were our extinct predecessors, who failed to see the long-term consequences of their behaviors?”
“They were Muhans as well! On the planet Terraria, 42 light years away. Their mass consumer culture destroyed them from within, believing they were above the oceans and nature itself.”
“Very good. I have long considered your question in the past, under the tutelage of ßåçå the Founder. But then I came to realize that our predecessors were so focused on advancing technology, on finding other worlds to replace Terraria, that they would only delay the inevitable. It does not matter how many worlds we have explored. If we do not ensure our own survival, through the survival of other species around us, beginning with the oceans, then our extinction will be as inevitable as the Moons rising.” Gøråsh exhaled in relief, satisfied he could answer the question himself. I foresee a promising future, he whispered, gazing at the purple sky.
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My description of a possible future for humans was not accidental. By showing what lies at the end of the dangerous tunnel we are pursuing, through the depiction of a tragic futuristic outcome, I hope to convince the readers to reevaluate their habits and attitude towards nature. By inducing a science fiction theme, I intended to demonstrate that science could develop with climate control in tandem. And, most importantly, it is to alter the mindset of the readers just as the two apprentices have done on Soreso, by showing that the Earth is one complex organism, and regardless what part of it is harmed, the entire system will react to these impacts. As marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle once stated, “No water, no life. No blue, no green.” .