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If Polar Bears Were Sousaphones

Waiter! The Reality Check, Please

by BEN TRIPP

It seems like only yesterday that today was tomorrow. It makes a fellow think about the future. I think about what kind of future we would have if there were no short Japanese people, or if everybody woke up one morning and we were all made of gorgonzola cheese. Would we have to wear shoes?

The future scares me. The future scares a lot of people, especially the alert ones. For instance, we must all die eventually, some less eventually than others. I’m not afraid of death, although I’m hoping they find a vaccine for it. I do worry that if there’s an afterlife, the parking will be like in Boston. The good news about death is it’s much less expensive than life, and you get far more of it.

What scares me isn’t the cold embrace of eternal oblivion, because then at least I don’t have to answer the phone. What scares me is the part before I die, when I have to come to grips with the cumulative effects of the last hundred years of human activity.

People who feel guilty about historic cruelty need to get over it, if only because there’s hardly anyone left alive to apologize to. The crimes of the past-we could include genocide, slavery, gender oppression, and Tyrolean hats-belong to the past. Unless we happen to keep slaves ourselves, for example. I’m addressing the more progressive-minded reader.

Of course all of these things are still going on to some degree. But when I say ‘crimes of the past’, I mean those dreadful institutions that were generally accepted at one time, such as laying waste to Armenia, but are now regarded with abhorrence. The oppression of women or fags still goes on, but normal people, meaning Northerners, believe that it is wrong.

Milty Zimmerman, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, wrote that "the wrongs of the few cannot cast doubt on the good will of the many". Really I wrote that and Milty Zimmerman didn’t, but I wanted to quote someone so I didn’t sound fatuous. Forgive us the crimes of the past. There are new crimes of which we are accused, and the bad news is the jury has just reentered the courtroom and they’re not laughing and high-fiving each other. Our latest victim is not humanity, but nature. And just like slavery or genocide, we have to figure out new ways of living before mankind will give it up.

This would be a good time to start thinking about not burning fossil fuels any more. The kind of scientists who don’t make this stuff up for chuckles have recently announced that one third of all species on Earth will be extinct in fifty years, no matter what, because we didn’t knock it off during the last fifty years. Our bad.

But wait, maybe you didn’t catch that. One third-three of every ten-species on this planet. Extinct, which means gone for good. Dinosaur time. It was funny when it was just losers like the dodo or the Tasmanian wolf. But we can’t spare three out of ten species. The destruction won’t be proportional, as in, we lose three marsupials, three reptiles, and three fish out of every ten. Certain neighborhoods will take the brunt of the punishment, just like in Chicago.

Do you like songbirds? They’re going to get their tiny little clocks cleaned. Butterflies, frogs, maple trees, and all those cute arctic species like polar bears are sca-hrood. Already. Irrevocably. Too late. Apologies to the missus. So what can we do?

A good start, as I mention, is to stop with the oil and coal and other Cambrian byproducts. If we stop burning fossil fuels next week, not only will we never have to explain to the deaf man behind the bullet proof glass that we said pump seven, not pump eight, but we’ll save the Earth from further degradation of its living skin. We still lose a third of all species, but the rest of them can breathe a sigh of relief. Or at least breathe.

But it’s unlikely we’ll stop with the petrochemicals anytime soon, so maybe we could just try to taper it off over time. If we taper our fuel usage the way a pencil point is tapered, as opposed to the way Nelson’s Column is tapered, we could get away with something like forty percent of species on Earth going extinct. That’s not so bad, is it? I mean it’s kind of bad, especially if you happen to be a mongoose or a birch tree and your ticket gets punched. But at least there will be a few things left around, here and there, that aren’t strictly domesticated.

There have been mass extinctions before, after all, and as in the case of the thirty-foot-tall carnivorous reptiles, there were upsides. Try having a barbecue with a gigantosaurus in the neighborhood. But mankind wasn’t responsible for the other mass extinctions. Just the occasional individual species.

It’s bad enough we’re in for a third of all species, but what if we just say to hell with it, let’s keep on partying? I’m glad you asked, though I can’t imagine why you would be. We could lose sixty percent of the other species on Earth. Entire ecological niches would vanish, entire classes of animals and plants gone for good so we can live in comfort and not learn to ride horses. Oceans devoid of life. Vast regions scorched into deserts. Every coastline, every island, every river, lake, and spring drained of water and life. Silent dawns and wildernesses clad only in stone. It’s enough to make a guy wear Tyrolean hats.

So let’s start living a little more responsibly. Let’s elect leaders who don’t have people in the oil business. Let’s not commodify fresh water, because then it’s worth more if there’s less of it. Let’s try to stop logging our forests and paving our soil and generally bashing the hell out of an already overtaxed biosphere, because it will bash back. We will be judged not by a jury of our peers but by ourselves, in the future, which is where we are all inexorably headed. If we accept responsibility for what has happened in the past and reform our behavior from now on, we will still have done a terrible thing that will cloud the future, like breaking wind in a crowded elevator. But we will be like those brave souls who fought slavery, who defied the slaughter of innocents, who uplifted the oppressed. We will be remembered not for the destruction we wrought but for the efforts we made to end it. That’s pretty good.

If somebody can be remembered fondly for inventing the sousaphone, surely it is a far nobler thing to have halted the greatest catastrophe of the last fifty millennia? Or maybe we should all be inventing new kinds of brass instruments, what do I know. What matters is this: today is the yesterday of tomorrow, and what’s past is prolapse. If we can just look at the future as the other end of the present, only sideways, we will know that now is the time to change our ways. Unless somebody can tell me how to change our behavior yesterday. On the other hand, maybe we’ll all wake up next week made of gorgonzola cheese, in which case, problem solved.

BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: credel@earthlink.net