No Climate for Children
From the author: This fictional story was inspired by my very real experiences with extreme weather events during the summer of 2022 which had resulted from anthropogenic (i.e. manmade) climate change.
She awoke on the morning marking her tenth birthday, or so she thought. The Gregorian calendar so ubiquitously used in human societies for centuries had become nearly extinct. No one produced commercially printed copies anymore; and the sophisticated cell-phones, tablets, televisions, and other computerized electronic devices – which had given great convenience to the masses just a few short decades past – were now merely useless mementos of a bygone civilization. That’s not to say all such technology no longer functioned, certainly not; but, those who could still utilize it had secluded themselves away from the larger population. It was an unfortunate necessity, or so they said privately amongst themselves.
The sun was up, but its brilliant yellow sphere was obscured behind a peculiarly high white sky. It was already uncomfortably hot and the high humidity was oppressive. Jayla arose groggily from her cot in her grandfather’s living room. She wobbled out to the backyard and washed her face under the spigot of a large wooden water tank. The rough concrete platform hurt her feet. Her thick brown hair, which had grown unmanageably long, was a mess. She tried to brush the tangles out. Maybe she’d wash it tomorrow. A curious crow watched her mockingly from a fence-top.
“Well, you’re not so pretty either!” she retorted.
It squawked once in rebuttal and flew away.
She walked into the bedroom to wake-up her grandfather. The stale odors in there were unpleasant.
“Poppy! Poppy! It’s time to get up!”
The seventy-five year old graybeard grumbled and rolled over.
“Come on, now! Today’s my birthday. You promised to take me to the lake!”
“Alright, I’m getting up,” he mumbled. “Go make breakfast and I’ll join you shortly.”
Jason Everson Avela had been a delivery driver with a modest income before The Crash. He, along with most everyone else, struggled to survive in the aftermath. Four years later at age 56, he found a deserted home along the Cowlitz River in what had been Washington state. After making the residence somewhat livable (public power, water, and sewer utilities had collapsed in that region and in most other regions of the country), his 26 year-old daughter Mandy and 38 year-old stepson Leon moved in. Jason had never married, but he was very happy to have this family. Everyone worked to support the household and to defend it from occasional pillagers. In 2065, the family grew by one when Mandy gave birth to a beautiful little brown-eyed girl.
He arrived at the small table adjacent to the kitchen more spry than he usually was. Jayla had prepared some corncakes on the wood stove and topped them with fresh plums from their small fruit orchard.
“Wow, this looks good!” he praised. “You’re getting better at cooking every day, young lady!”
“Thanks, Poppy. I wish we had something more tasty than this cheap cooking oil though. What was that yummy cow fat you told me about? Bud…”
“Butter, and whipped cream too. Maybe one of these days I’ll find some for you. But, this meal is quite good. I’m enjoying it!”
A broad smile stretched across her bright face, then she paused.
“Things were very different back then, weren’t they?”
“Yes, darling. They were. However, we live in the here and now, don’t we? And, we must do our best.”
“Yes, Poppy. I wonder, though, why it had to change. Why did so many wonderful things like cars and eleck… treecity go away?”
“We have a car… err, I mean a truck.”
“Yeah, and it’s rusting away in our front yard! I’ve never even seen it work!”
“That’s because its fuel, gasoline, is hard to find and way too expensive to trade for… at least for us.”
“But why, Poppy?” she insisted. “Why did things change?”
Jason had dreaded this day. He knew she was growing up and would become inquisitive. He searched desperately for the right words.
“Okay. I was hoping to postpone this conversation for a couple more years, but the time has come.”
“Why are you hesitant, Poppy?”
“Because it’s not an easy subject to discuss. Where do I start? Perhaps the very beginning is best. Alright, here goes.”
Jayla’s eyes were as big as the corncakes she made.
“We human beings have lived on this earth for two or even three hundred thousand years. That means there have been at the very least ten thousand generations of people. In all of that time, we have made countless advancements as well as countless mistakes. Progress isn’t necessarily linear, I mean in a straight continuous line. It happens in fits and starts with great variability, and it is marred by tumultuous periods of severe setbacks. Are you with me so far?”
“Yes, Poppy. But if progress is so good, how can it be undone?”
“Well, the progress I speak of was almost exclusively technological. We are great at discovering new ways of building bigger and better tools. We have even landed men on the Moon! But, what we are not great at is advancing our social systems and our human potential. That…”
“Social systems and human potential?” Jayla interrupted.
“Our social systems define how we organize ourselves within local communities, cities, states, nations, etc. It governs us through laws so that we can cooperate with each other and so that we can resolve our disputes peacefully. Like our failure to advance these necessary social systems, we have also failed – quite miserably, in fact – to advance our tremendous human potential. Each of us are capable of remarkable individual achievement which can be enormously beneficial to all; yet, instead of encouraging its growth, we tend to inhibit it by erecting hidden barriers and by jealously ridiculing it.”
“Yes!” Jayla jumped in. “Like the time you suggested to the townspeople that we build an irrigation canal to turn the abandoned Hollis meadow into a collective farm!”
“Exactly. Their negative reaction, with the exception of the Darnell family and a few others, reflected their self-centeredness and their inability – or unwillingness – to appreciate the value of working together for a common cause.”
“I think I understand now, Poppy. You’re saying that it is difficult for people to get along with each other, that they’d rather only help themselves, and that they really don’t care about anyone else.”
“Yes, most people – in my personal opinion, anyway – do not want to see others suffer; but, at the same time, most people are either wary of cooperation or openly oppose it. That’s why having effective social systems is so important especially for larger populations. So, in conclusion, as our technology advanced in great leaps which allowed the human populace to expand as rapidly, our social cohesion did not keep pace. You might say that we lacked the wisdom needed to meet our increasing responsibilities.”
“Hmm,” Jayla pondered as she turned towards the graybeard’s aging bookshelf. “Is that why you make me read all those dusty old books Monday through Friday?”
“Yes, my dear. Since the public schools closed, I’ve been determined to provide you a decent education. It is vitally important. But, I am not a qualified teacher. All I have is my uncle’s books. Hopefully, it will suffice; and, you do ask many questions, so I am very encouraged. I am also very proud of you.”
“You teach me well, Poppy! I do have another question too. You explained ‘social systems,’ but you didn’t mention religion. The townspeople all go to church. We don’t. Why not?”
“That, my smart young student, relates to human culture; and, that is a topic for another day! Now, didn’t you want to go to the lake?”
“YES, I DO!!!”
The lake, a shrinking bend of narrow water nestled deep in a canyon between two rocky ridges, was nearly four miles away. It took them two hours to traverse the rough terrain. When they arrived shortly after noon, the temperature had already hit 96°F and the humidity – though falling – was still a wicked 84%. The old graybeard was clearly suffering despite his body’s natural acclimatization to a drastically warming world. He fell onto the gravelly beach at one end of the lake under the shade of some highly stressed conifers and drank from an army canteen. Jayla, who had rushed into the water splashing about like a joyful pet canine, quickly ran back to him with obvious concern.
“Poppy! Poppy!! Are you okay?” she panted.
“Yes, my dear. I’m okay. I just got a little dizzy. It sure is hot today!”
She rolled a rotting log over to him and lifted his back against it.
“Is that better? You scared me!”
“Yes, thank you. I apologize. I suppose I’m getting a little weak in my old age. Oh, I forgot… Happy Birthday!”
She hugged him tightly and kissed his cheek.
“Well, here we are!” he declared. “I’ve been coming to this place for…. let’s see… almost seventy years! But, back then it was surrounded by lush blue-green spruce and large pine trees. There’s not many left now.”
“You used to fish here too,” she added.
“I surely did! In the cool crisp mornings, rainbow trout would patrol so close to the shoreline that you could almost catch them with your hands. Around midday, they would breach the surface like whales as they fed on flying insects.”
He looked across the lake with dismay, “The bugs are still here though… lots of ’em.”
“Did you ever take mom here?”
“Yes, many times. Mandy was quite the fisherman… and a tree-climber to boot!”
Jayla suddenly became pensive.
“Poppy, you never really told me how mom and dad died.”
Disturbed, he stood on his feet, turned away for a moment, and sat on the log facing her.
“Does it matter?”
“To me it does. Please tell me. I promise I won’t cry.”
“Alright. Well, I don’t know the exact cause of death. No one does, I’m sure. You were almost two years old. They went to town one morning to get some staples, cornmeal and salt and such. They also said they had business to attend to there. Both were very active in the town’s affairs, you know. When they returned around sunset, I knew something was wrong because your father was visibly upset. Your mom took him into the bedroom where he stayed for several days. She ordered me not to go in there for any reason and not to take you in there either. I pressed her to explain. She only said that there was a big fire in town which killed several people and that your father had gone into one of the shacks to rescue a woman and her baby. He suffered some minor burns and bruised ribs. Then, one morning, she told me that he had died in his sleep. She didn’t look well and I knew she was sick. I buried him under that marker in the backyard. She locked herself in the bedroom. About a week later she died too. I buried her next to him. That’s about it, my dear.”
“Did you ever ask the townspeople what happened?”
“Yes, but they’ve been tightlipped about it ever since. It’s as if they’re too embarrassed or too pained to relive the incident.”
“You must have heard something!”
“No, nothing specific. However, I have heard rumors about an epidemic, and that’s what I suspected at the time. You see, without doctors to diagnose diseases, we are all in the dark about such things.”
“But, neither you nor I got sick?”
“Correct. I can’t explain why we didn’t. But, I remember from my early years that infectious disease outbreaks are caused by bacteria or viruses, and that some people are more susceptible than others. Also, scientists had predicted back then that climate change would increase the occurrence of epidemics and pandemics.”
“What is a pandemic?”
“That’s an epidemic that spreads rapidly across a large geographical region or even the whole world. One named ‘Covid’ happened in 2020-2021 which killed over seven million people. My father got it and survived, but my grandfather died from it in a hospital. The doctors gave me so many vaccines to fight it that my arms were sore for months!”
“Vaccines from a needle?”
“Ouch, I wouldn’t want that!”
“It saved many lives, maybe my own.”
“Whew, it’s really getting hot today, Poppy. What was the weather like before the global warming started?”
“Mostly cooler and much milder. But, climate change began long before I was born, perhaps as much as one hundred and fifty years before. But, the change in weather was very slow and gradual until about ten years or so before I came along. Then, each decade thereafter was progressively worse. When I was your age, my parents noticed that heat waves were getting more intense and more frequent and that storms were getting more powerful. However, it still wasn’t terribly bad yet. I remember this lake being flocked with playful kids under a bright blue sky. Now look at it. This is no climate for children.”
“We still get blue skies sometimes.”
“Not like back then. Many years ago, I read a news report about governments pumping aerosols – fine chemical particles, that is – into the atmosphere to reflect some of the sunlight back into space and therefore cool the planet. It was expected to turn the skies a whitish color. It was also expected that more water vapor would be produced from rising temperatures which would have a similar discoloring effect. Well, the discoloration happened but the cooling effect didn’t to any significant degree.”
“You took good care of me all these years. I love you, Poppy.”
“Aw, come on now! Forget that! Today’s your birthday! The water is cool. Let’s go for a dip!”
Jason and Jayla waited until the sun sank low in the sky to return home. The temperature was a brutal 108°F, but at least they weren’t being burned by ultraviolet radiation. They walked leisurely and stopped a few times to pick ripening blackberries and wild dandelion greens which still grew abundantly along the pacific northwest. That evening, the graybeard prepared a special meal for his adoring granddaughter.
The dog days of summer dragged on, but the heat even more so. August turned to September and then to October with little relief other than the shortening days and the modestly cooling nights. And, while the coming winter was both welcome and alluring, the frequently flooding rainstorms and infrequently bitter snowfalls which came along with it assuredly were not. Humankind had recklessly put itself into a climate vise crushing it between the jaws of extremes of weather. Before the crash of modern civilization, the world population almost reached nine billion. Now, it had been cut in half. No one knew the exact figure, of course, for global communication was virtually nonexistent save a scattering of shortwave radio operators throughout the world who could do little to disseminate news other than by word of mouth. Sometimes these independent operators picked up encoded transmissions from unidentified sources, but attempts to communicate with them were always met by silence. Nevertheless, Homo sapiens soldiered on as best it could as any species would. The survival instinct would not be denied.
One day, Jayla saw two young men in the front yard staring into the house as she read her book assignments. As per Jayson’s repeated instructions, she kept out of sight and whispered to him in the bedroom. He walked softly into the living room armed with a revolver and a double-barreled shotgun.
“Hide under your bed and keep quiet,” he ordered.
He opened the front door halfway and demanded, “Who are you, and state your business!”
“I’m Johnny Jenkins and this is my friend Al Cummings,” the smaller man said. “We’ve come north from Woodland looking for a place to settle down, nothing more.”
“You are far off the beaten path, Johnny.”
“Yes, I know. We veered up into the hills to escape the heat. I promise you we mean you no harm. But, we’re very hungry. If you could spare a little food, it would be appreciated.”
“Did you pass by the little town a few miles down the road?”
“Yes sir, we did. They gave us some clean water and told us to move along.”
“That sounds like them, alright. Okay, walk around the house to the backyard and you may pick some fruit from the trees. Then, you must leave. Please stay together and in sight of the house at all times. I’m sorry I can’t be more hospitable, but you understand how things are these days.”
“Yes sir, we understand; and, thank you.”
They did precisely what Jason said and were observed walking up the highly eroded asphalt road towards the high country.
“Johnny was kind of handsome,” Jayla remarked.
“I told you to keep out of sight, young lady!”
“I did, mostly…” she smirked.
“Oh, brother!” the graybeard exhaled.
Early in January, they watched in anguish as a turbulent downpour washed away the vital topsoil of their vegetable garden.
“Well, that’s that!”
“Don’t worry,” Jayla reassured him. “We’ve still got a big compost heap.”
“True, fertilizer is something we’ll never be short of!” he joked sarcastically.
She gazed at him inquisitively.
“My dear, do you remember what to do in case something should happen to me?”
“Yes Poppy, you’ve told me many times!” she answered angrily. “I will immediately go see Mr. and Mrs. Darnell! But, I don’t want to discuss this anymore! It makes me mad!”
“Alright, I’m sorry. I just want to make sure you…”
“I know. I know,” Jayla sighed. She then felt the weight of his depression. For such a solitary old man to provide for and properly raise a child under the dismal conditions the world was currently in must be a very stressful responsibility. She gave him a big hug, and changed the topic.
“Tell me about culture. You said you would.”
Suddenly, his spirits lifted.
“Oh yes, I did! Culture encompasses the prevailing beliefs, traditions, and values of a society or of a subgroup within. Religion exerts a strong influence; but, other ideologies can too such as political philosophy, ethnic identity, and even racial bias.”
In the olden days of complex societies, which had a bigger effect on people – the official laws of government or the prevailing culture?”
Jason was increasingly amazed by his granddaughter’s intelligence.
“Both were effective in different ways, of course. If you’re asking me which was more effective, that depended a lot on the overall health of society at a given time. In prosperous times of relatively high equity, culture usually played a secondary – though still important – role. This was also true during times of great crisis which had unified a nation, such as the U.S. during the Great Depression and World War Two. In contrast, times in which great disparities of wealth, equality, or perceived cultural identity, had torn a nation apart, then official laws and even government itself were either subordinated or destroyed outright. The American Civil War is a classic example.”
“The latter sounds terrifying. Is that what happened to our society?”
“Yes, the 2030s and 2040s were increasingly factious and traumatic. Except in that case, it wasn’t just a nation which was destroyed but the entirety of modern civilization.”
“But, why did that happen?”
“Climate change,” he answered. “Or, more precisely, the inability and/or unwillingness of government to stop it before the problem became unsolvable. Fresh clean water became scarce, crops failed and people starved, wars erupted throughout the world, the global economy collapsed, power grids failed, coastal cities were inundated by rising seas, and finally the remnants of government faded into oblivion. What emerged from the rubble was a primitive dog-eat-dog existence.”
Jayla stared out the window. One of their fruit trees toppled over from a gust of wind.
“Poppy, do you believe in God?”
“I did when I was a child. My mother was very religious, my father not so much. I asked Uncle Rick, who often took me fishing on our lake – when there were fish there, that exact same question. He replied that he didn’t know for sure because there was neither factual proof of God nor proof that gods didn’t exist. I then asked if his uncertainty bothered him. I’ll never forget his answer:
‘Why should not knowing something as profound as the creation of the cosmos bother me? I am not omniscient (all-knowing), and I am not omnipotent (all-powerful). Neither are you, by the way. We are simply human beings. We are aware of many things, and unaware of many more. I am comfortable with that. Are you?'”
“My goodness,” Jayla rejoined. “That is so true! But, the townspeople say we must believe!”
“That is their personal choice. You are free to choose for yourself. For me, I’ll accept the existence of God if and when the proof becomes evident. Until then, I’ll remain undecided like uncle was.”
“You’re so sensible. I guess there is something inside me that wants to believe.”
“You, my dear, are not alone. Life is so complicated. It is so full of mysteries, many of which are downright frightening. We all long for simplicity and surety. We are all lost in one way or another. However, the true measure of a person is how they face their fears. Do they confront it honestly, or do they run from it bathed in self-delusion?”
“Truth is important,” she admitted, “no matter what that truth may be. One must be brave to be real.”
“Well put, my granddaughter. From your studies, do you recall what the Founding Fathers of the United States of America wrote into the nation’s constitution concerning religion?”
“Oh, uh… it was in the First Amendment. Umm… yes, it was that government couldn’t be established upon religion, and that government couldn’t prohibit the free exercise of religion. Right?”
“Correct, and why do you think they wrote that?”
She pondered the question for a few moments.
“Because they knew that the spiritual beliefs of any religion, which could not be proved or disproved, could not be trusted to build a fair government upon; and, because government, which could not know the truth of the spiritual beliefs of any religion, could not be trusted to judge it.”
Jason looked at her in silent admiration.
“Well?” she demanded.
Nine years later in the early morning hours of an unusually pleasant spring morning, the old graybeard passed away. His granddaughter had been away at the time conducting her business affairs in town. She and Johnny discovered the body shortly afterwards. She was painfully distraught, but at the same time relieved that his long physical suffering was over.
The following spring, Jayla Amanda Mosley-Jenkins was democratically elected to be the first mayor of the newly incorporated municipality of Everton. After more than three decades of dramatically reduced greenhouse gas emissions subsequent to the crash of modern civilization, the global climate was stabilizing to a new normal. People had adapted out of necessity, and they now were hopeful of better days ahead. If humankind had learned anything or had developed any wisdom from this catastrophe remained to be determined. History strongly suggested that it wouldn’t; however, all species possess at least some capacity for change. Humanity’s fate hung in the balance.
Mayor Jenkins’ first remarkable achievements were the construction of a surprisingly well-equipped city library and the establishment of a rapidly expanding public school system. Above all of the buildings was inscribed a tenet dedicated to a special person:
“When you learn, teach; when you get, give.” – Maya Angelou
In loving remembrance of Poppy
No Climate for Children. Copyright © 2022 by Robert A. Vella. All rights reserved.