2017, High School, Prose
I want to leave this planet.
It’s easily possible, you know. In the century since the moon landing, space travel has become almost commonplace. I’ve already said heartfelt goodbyes with friends and family who have left for the skies. However, it’s not possible for me. It’s not a matter of physics or engineering—it’s a matter of economics. A ticket to the so-called “miracle planet,” exoplanet 14171-A, is a hundred thousand units. Someone in the upper-middle class could afford that after a couple decades of saving up, but for someone of my origin, the sum is too far off to comprehend.
I snap out of my daydreaming and stare out the window of my second-floor seaside apartment. In the distance floats a murky mixture of blue-green algae and yellow liquid that used to house a variety of diverse wildlife. In a day’s time, I will never see these sights again. I feel a mixture of relief and nostalgia. In the distance, boat horns sound forlornly, signifying the end of another unsuccessful day of fishing. I haven’t had fresh fish in months. And how could I have, when our fisheries support only one percent of what they used to?
A century ago, my people learned to use chemicals for fishing. A simple solution to a simple problem, really: If you poison the water, the fish will float to the surface. Since then, fish have enjoyed the luxury of swimming in the tanks of seafood restaurants across the country. And for every fish caught this way, a square meter of its coral reef home is destroyed as collateral damage (“Fishing Problems”). I remember eating out with my parents on the night of my eighth birthday, when sodium cyanide fishing had already become a common practice. I had read about it at school. The waiter had sat us down next to the fish tank. As a smiling cook scooped up a grouper fish, I looked at it head-on. Its bulbous eyes seemed to be asking a question; it was almost as if it were pleading with me. It was a moment that I don’t think I’ll ever experience again. I didn’t eat dinner that night.The budding of my inner environmental activist had just begun in those years.
Twenty years after chemical fishing was first invented, innovation after innovation had led to machines that could pulverize the rocky ocean bed as if it were clay. This was the advent of the huge, lumbering agglomeration of metal known as the Rockhopper trawl. A single Rockhopper can dismember 25 tonnes of boulder 2,000 meters under water level, causing lasting damage to coral reefs (“Fishing Problems”). After three generations of overtaxing nearby fisheries, the fishing conglomerates finally hit our secluded riverside town when I turned 12. They drove in with large trucks carrying their fishing gear. Then they set up their equipment and drove around on the water, crushing the seabed underfoot for a chance of profit. Even now, I have vivid memories of swimming among the batfish near the yellow, orange, and pink invertebrates we call corals. Back then, I spent my free time floating in a sea of varied color, and all I could do was stare in captivated childish wonder. These days, I don’t go into the water anymore because the coral reef I once marveled at is now a distorted skeleton of chalk-white bones. It reeks of death.
And then there’s the damage you can’t see. What society as a whole is barely beginning to realize is that with every plastic water bottle tossed aside, there are consequences. Plastics readily break up into invisible microplastics, which are consumed by animals such as turtles, whales, and birds. Sea birds are found dead from starvation all the time, each with stomachs stuffed full of plastic. On a smaller scale, zooplankton species swallow polystyrene beads, and afterwards, can no longer eat as much algae as they used to. This cuts their energy intake in half. As a result, they have less healthy offspring, which disrupts the entire ecosystem. Finally, as this plastic moves up the food chain, more and more plastic is accumulated and stored into an animal’s tissues. What you give, you get. What goes around comes around. The poison we dump in the water is reabsorbed into our organs (Stevens). Some people would call microplastics an invisible killer, but I beg to differ. The effects of microplastic oversaturation are as plain as day—and yet, they will always be unseen as long as we avert our eyes from the truth.
Nobody used to care, but now, it is clear that the prevalence of plastics in our waters affects all of us. The danger of microplastics comes from the embedded toxic effects of lead, cadmium, and mercury. These toxins are found in ocean fish, which are then consumed by us. Toxic carcinogens in plastics have caused a sudden growth spurt in the rates of cancer occurrences worldwide. That’s not all, though: besides cancers, plastic toxins cause birth defects, immune system problems, and childhood developmental issues (“Plastics in the Ocean”). It’s become so prolific that in recent years, a new catch-all term has entered the mainstream: Plastic Disease. In certain isolated populations, people are dying before their time at worrying rates, all because they are inadvertently fed particulate plastic from birth. The rest of the world is also on the brink of a widespread Plastic Disease calamity. It’s affected people in my life as well. In recent years, my father’s lungs have shown early signs of plastics-related tissue deterioration. Now whenever I visit, there’s a tension in the air that neither of us can penetrate. It has to do with the inevitable. The gradual decay of our kind over time. That’s something that I’ve always wanted to fight to prevent.
By the time politicians committed to a functional global initiative to reclaim our environment, the average global temperature had already risen 2.5 °C higher than a century ago. This led an increase in ocean acidification, which in turn led to a dramatic increase in coral bleaching. Across the globe, coral reefs were starved until they withered away. At the same time, the thousands of species of aquatic inhabitants that depended on the corals died off with them. This, coupled with disrupted fish migrations, made fishing increasingly impossible (“5 Ways”). Forget about having to go halfway across the world just to catch healthy produce, now the fish market is so inflated that fish are a delicacy to be enjoyed by the abnormally wealthy exclusively.
Having said that, the global initiative has finally led to some changes. More and more jobs nowadays have to do with conservation of natural resources. Perhaps this was what led to my promotion to the Aquatic Task Force’s executive team six years ago. As you might expect, I’m a huge proponent of keeping our aquatic ecosystems and environments safe and sustainable.
Ironically enough, my first assignment as a Task Force executive was not to promote ocean life, but to eradicate it. Before you get me wrong though, this is getting rid of HABs that I’m talking about. HABs—otherwise known as Harmful Algal Blooms—rob coral reefs and sea grasses of sunlight. Since I wake up every day to the sight of the local HAB, I was motivated to tackle this issue hands-on. We have some nasty, powerful weapons to deal with HABs, including catchments, biomanipulation, algicides, and planting trees. They could have come up with a cooler name for the last one, but I’ll let it slide, because just recently, we’ve reached the grand conclusion of our five-year plan. Through the control of nutrients such as phosphorus and nitrogen, and the use of chemicals that kill algae and cyanobacteria, we’ve seen a marked decrease in the volume of HABs in recent years (“Prevention and Control”).
Another piece of uplifting news has to do with our success in oil spill prevention. Our research and development team had synthesized a new dispersant to separate clumps of oil (“Oceans”). This groundbreaking innovation can break up oil spills of any density. I saw it in use the other day, cheering with my co-workers at the sight of the crude brown filth dissolving into diluted, manageable droplets. The sight of a patch of viscous dirty brown being replaced with a crystal-clear blue ocean brought tears to my eyes. In that moment, the payoff of our countless all-nighters, strategy sessions, and practical failures solidified. It was like seeing a statue of your own successes being erected in front of your eyes. Mesmerizing.
On my thirty-third birthday, I celebrated the success of my five-year plan at my parents’ old place. I rubbed the bags on my eyes and walked up the rickety old steps with a yawn. It looked like my parents hadn’t renovated in the 15 years I’d been gone. It was to be expected, since our neighborhood had always been poor. A low booming shook the sky for a moment, and I knew without looking up that it was a transport ship heading out. Rich elites setting sail for fresh new seas on a different planet. That was the worst part about living there during my childhood: The SpaceBase was so close that we would see spacecraft flying overhead every single day, appearing tantalizingly close and yet totally unreachable. I envied the people born into wealth, who could leave for a fresh start while I had to stay grounded to fix the errors of our past generations. Still, it’s a responsibility I’m proud of fulfilling.
My parents sat me down and mounted a grey-and-red party hat on my head, for old time’s sake. We laughed about childhood stories and viewed 3D holographic visuals of memories we’d shared in this house. Running, climbing, telling stories, playing games. These are experiences that won’t change no matter how technologically advanced our society gets. These are the reasons that our people have risen up to reclaim our planet as our own.
I sliced my cake and passed out the pieces one by one. My mom nagged at me for still not settling down with a family, and my dad complained that I was working myself to death. However, they know what kind of person I am. I will not rest until I have found a solution to a problem, especially not one so important to our species.
After the last bite of cake, my mother tidied up the table while my dad sat in silence. For the moment, we had run out of things to say. My dad coughed and stood up. His eyes beckoned me towards him and so I stood as well.
“Hold out your hand, son.”
He passed me a folded slip of paper. I immediately noticed the black-and-gold insignia printed on the backside, and opened the document with shaking fingers.
INTERPLANETARY TRANSPORT TICKET
DEPARTURE DATE : 127-04-5-2
DEPARTURE TIME : 2802
DEPART FROM : SB31
DESTINATION : EXO 14171-A SB9
UNITS RECEIVED : 133270u 4v
He patted me on the shoulder.
“You deserve this, son.”
I forced myself to meet his gaze, but looked away when he started coughing violently. His expression betrayed his effort to hide the pain. He wiped his mouth, but not before I spotted a trace of dull crimson on his mouth. A shade of red that didn’t belong on his face. All I could do was pretend to not have noticed. I cleared my throat.
“I don’t understand. Where did you get this money?”
My mother came back to my father’s side. She pursed her lips and blinked repeatedly.
Then she embraced me tightly.
“We’d decided ever since you were a baby that we would put all our savings towards this. We promised each other that one day we would get you off of this planet.”
I pushed her away gently.
“This is impossible. I’m in the middle of planning a phase two for my project. People are relying on me. I can actually make a difference here! I can’t just leave!”
“And what about you two? I can’t just leave my parents here!”
My father smiled. Unexpected wrinkles appeared on his face. A complicated smile. One with more emotions behind it than seen on the surface.
“Son. Live proudly for us.”
I feel the weight of his words even now. It feels as if I am being dragged into a pool of quicksand.
“Your hands will be full on the other planet too, you know. You’ll be doing important work. Instead of recovering a planet, you’ll be protecting one.”
I shook my head violently as the tears began to flow.
It’s been a week since then, and I’m currently sprawled over a hotel bed researching exoplanet 14171-A. A thousand years ago, it was in the same situation as our planet; maybe even worse, and for all the same reasons. However, through the cumulative effort of a dozen generations of humans, their marine ecosystems returned to a healthy equilibrium.
The reclaiming of 14171-A began with an agreement to limit the increase of their global average temperature to well below 2 °C (“Long-Term Climate Strategies”). Then, there was a complete overhaul of the treatment of wastewater so that pollution would not reach the main flow of water. It started with simple things like charcoal filters and chemicals that could neutralize pollutants (Kent). After several decades of persistent research, these simple means grew into something truly great. Innovation in sectors of renewable energy, sustainable fishing, and climate-neutrality were all vital to kickstarting the regeneration of 14171-A.
They had taken an extreme approach to their oceans as well. The efficiency of their recycling was exponentiated, and almost no new plastics needed to be made. They developed new ways to collect microplastics out of water. The environmental organizations got a firm handhold in the government with the support of a growing majority of everyday citizens. With the cohesion of many helping hands, the culture of exoplanet 14171-A changed as a whole. I close my laptop and set my alarm for tomorrow morning, which is when I’ll leave for the cosmic shuttle. It’ll be a long six months on the spacecraft, but I’m sure there will be a lot to do in preparation for my new life. Finding a job. Making new friends. Embracing a new culture.
People think that having a new beginning is refreshing, as if it’s exciting to cast off your old skin and try something new. To me, it’s devastating. Like being ripped apart from the inside. Still, it’s not all bad. I’m feeling more passion than ever because I’ve been assigned the biggest project of my life: I will make sure 14171-A never relapses into its pre-recovery state. And to be honest, I’m also looking forward to experiencing a world of lush greens, brilliant blues, and an entire spectrum of vibrant colors that can only be found in the kingdom of nature. The idea of experiencing a world that has not been trampled underfoot by our species feeds the romanticist inside me. I’ll admit it: I’m interested in this new planet. Everything about it is appealing, from the towering verdant forests to the brilliant sand dunes, from the unpolluted sapphire sky to the magnificent crashing waves of the ocean.
It even has a beautiful local name —
“5 Ways Climate Change Is Affecting Our Oceans.” Environmental Defense Fund . N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2017.
“Fishing Problems: Destructive Fishing Practices.” WWF . N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2017.
Kent, Mavis. “Can the Effects of Pollution Be Reversed?” Sciencing . N.p., 24 Apr. 2017. Web. 18 June 2017.
“Long-Term Climate Strategies.” World Resources Institute . N.p., n.d. Web.
“Oceans.” Oil Spill Prevention and Response . N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2017.
“Plastics in the Ocean Affecting Human Health.” Case Studies . N.p., 14 Nov. 2016. Web. 18 June 2017.
“Prevention and Control.” Prevention and Control – NSW Office of Water . N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2017.
Stevens, Alison Pearce. “Tiny Plastic, Big Problem.” Science News for Students . N.p., 16 June 2015. Web. 18 June 2017.
I wrote this story as a cautionary tale—a plea for immediate action to protect the bodies of water around the world. Everyone can help, by choosing sustainable seafood, using less plastic, and supporting ocean protection organizations. I also wrote this story to inspire readers who want to go a little further. For them, I designed a protagonist that they would see as a role model. The main character in this piece demonstrates that protecting the ocean is a great career choice, and ignites a burning passion towards keeping our seas safe. I have always wanted to visit a coral reef at least once—and yet, the beauty of the reefs as we knew them decades ago is “likely to disappear from the Earth” forever—which would prevent all future generations from experiencing their natural beauty, their splendour, their warmth. Here’s hoping we can all visit the coral reefs many more times in the future.