It’s Too Late to “Save” the Climate, But Not Too Late to Save Ourselves

Paris_VistaYet another United Nations climate confab is about to commence, this time in Paris, France, where the tragic backdrop of terrorism, war, and a growing immigration crisis now grips the country. It’s fitting that global warming talks should happen here, considering the role that climate-induced drought in Syria has played in worsening the wave of the violence and desperate migration that’s spread throughout the region. Perhaps the gravity of the moment will weigh more heavily on UN delegates as they ponder a world where extreme weather, rising seas, and punishing droughts become the norm, leading to ever more conflict and misery.

Still, we’re unlikely to see a plan emerge from the Paris talks that truly stems the tide of rising carbon pollution, much less any binding agreement to ensure that meaningful climate protection goals are met. Those who’ve pinned their hopes on a global accord that ramps down carbon levels are singing from the same songbook as they always have, year after year, from Rio in 1992 to Kyoto in 1997 to Copenhagen in 2009. Time and time again the refrain is always: “It will be different this time.”

Environmental commentator Brian Tokar has outlined each of these progressive failures in his painfully incisive piece, Is the Paris Climate Conference Designed to Fail? With excruciating detail, Tokar provides a behind-the-scenes look into why these global processes have perpetually missed the mark, concluding that “progress toward a meaningful climate agreement has continued to be stifled by big-power politics and diplomatic gridlock.” That appears unlikely to change anytime soon, certainly not in the 20-30 year timeframe that climate activists proclaim is critical to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels to stave off massive climate disruption.

Recent news from climate scientists isn’t encouraging. Earlier this month, the World Meteorological Association (WMO) released a bulletin noting that the Earth’s climate will soon enter a new “permanent reality” when concentrations of atmospheric CO2 are almost certain to pass 400 parts per million (PPM) — already 50 units higher than the 350 PPM ‘safe’  threshold advocated by climate scientists and activists alike. “It means hotter global temperatures, more extreme weather events like heatwaves and floods, melting ice, rising sea levels and increased acidity of the oceans. This is happening now and we are moving into uncharted territory at a frightening speed,” said WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud. What’s more, researchers at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research just concluded that a major section of West Antarctica’s ice sheet has destabilized, the melting water from which is likely to raise global sea levels by three meters. It’s worth noting that more than 150 million people globally live within just one meter of the sea; at 3 meters, the number climbs to at least 300 million. In the United States alone, a 3-meter sea level rise would inundate many of the East Coast’s largest cities, including huge metroplexes like Boston, Miami, and New York.


Climate justice rally, Nov. 21, 2015, Oakland. Credit: Aaron Lehmer-Chang

And that’s just a sampling of the climate impacts that are already in the cards. Even if we look optimistically at what we can expect a global agreement to achieve, there’s simply no way it will stave off massive climate disruption. Independent researchers at Climate Action Tracker project a global temperature rise between 2.2°C and 3.4°C by 2100 if all current country-by-country pledges are fully implemented (emphasis mine). Those who are still committed to making the most of the UN talks in Paris, to push global leaders to ratify the boldest, most equitable climate agreement possible, deserve enormous praise and respect. May their efforts bear fruit, in spite of the odds. But given all the well-established impacts of the pollution that has already happened — let alone all the gigatons of carbon and methane releases to come — it’s simply irresponsible not to refocus our efforts on preparing for the worst.

To date, only about $57 billion in annual funds have been mobilized globally to mitigate and adapt to climate impacts, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. That pales in comparison to the $6 trillion needed for infrastructure transformation over the next 15 years alone, according to the Global Commission of the Economy and Climate Change. And even that figure sounds woefully inadequate when the costs of shifting from a fossil fuel-based economy to one based entirely on renewables are factored in — roughly $60 trillion to maintain current world per-capita energy use, or $150 trillion to achieve European per-capita energy use, according to Searching for a Miracle, a joint study by the International Forum on Globalization and the Post Carbon Institute. The UN climate negotiations thus far have settled on a goal of just $100 billion annually in adaptation financing — a mere fraction of what’s needed to truly prepare communities for what’s coming.

Of course, were we to downscale our overall energy demand, opt for radical conservation measures, phase out private automobile use, relocalize our economies, and shift our food system away from animal agriculture — then modern society’s energy requirements would be far less than they are now, our lives would be far more fulfilling, healthy, and connected, and our impact on the climate would be drastically reduced. And rather than scramble in vain to maintain unsustainable levels of consumption — albeit through supposed “green” technologies, nearly all of which require extensive fossil fuels and toxic chemicals to produce — we could instead focus on bracing our communities for climate change’s inevitable impacts, simplifying our infrastructure, and moving population centers away from rising waters. Unfortunately, in terms of overall investments and socioeconomic trends, we’re doing precisely the opposite: building more and more energy-intensive infrastructure, sprawling networks of roads and highways, vaster trade routes and shipping fleets, and ever-larger cattle, pig, poultry, and fish production facilities.


Climate justice march, Nov. 21, 2015 Oakland. Credit: Aaron Lehmer-Chang

Still, while global climate talks and dominant trends are falling far short, a rising tide of local actions around the world to push governments, institutions, and communities toward climate sanity are providing a glimmer of hope for the future. To name but a few noteworthy developments:

On the weekend of November 28-29, the Global Climate March will take place in hundreds of cities around the world to coincide with the start of the Paris talks. The breadth and tenacity of the global climate movement has already made impressive strides, having forced governments to take bolder stances than they clearly would have otherwise, and shifting popular consciousness largely away from the deniers and diminishers of our day. But the vital task of shifting trillions away from fossil fueled infrastructure, oil wars, and wasteful consumption toward a just, regenerative, balanced way of life for us all remains the most critical unfinished challenge of our time. It’s too late to “save” the climate as we know it, but it’s not too late to save ourselves.

If we can face the gathering storms, the rising seas, and the social turmoil that’s coming with honesty, humility, and boldness, we may just make it to the other side. How that “other side” shapes up is still largely up to us, depending on whether we continue to squander this planet’s abundant natural wealth or harness its remaining bounty toward a life-affirming future. The costs of fossil fuels on our world have been staggering, to be sure, to our health, to our communities, and to the biosphere at-large. But whether by design or some fantastical quirk of geological fortune, the endgame is nigh for fossil fueled industrialism. The mad dash for more, more, more into the furthest, most remote corners of the globe will eventually fade into distant memory, replaced with cultures and economies that flow with the rhythms of sunlight, water, and wind. Why not get started with the exciting work of recalibrating ourselves to the natural cadence of life on Earth?

Destination Antarctica 3015 (Part II)

» Read PART I, New Beginnings, here.

PART II: The Journey

Pacific Ocean, Off Upper Mehico’s Northwest Coast — The first several weeks of our journey went by rather smoothly. My leg healed nicely, and none of Jin’s confidants got wind of our departure early enough to stop us, or cause any trouble for Dredge and his crew. Yasmin and I have spent many nights in our cabin reminiscing about the good times on Sutro Isle, knowing full well we’ll never see it again. It’s just as well. Adventure beckoned. And we responded.

Of course, we’ve only just begun to realize what that adventure may entail, or what awaits us when we finally reach Antarctica. Maybe we’ll find a way to jump ship early. Time will tell. For now, we’re well-fed, welcomed, and needed more than ever. Yasmin has taken to training some of the deck boys on how to handle a sword, and I spend most days at the helm.

I peered over my shoulder to the western shores. Desolate mountain ranges hugged the coastline as far the eye could see, mostly covered in brown and black. Could these have once been blanketed with forests? An old fishing buddy from my youth once said his family had lived near the southlands, but skirmishes along the slippery border with Upper Mehico forced them northward. From where I stood, I didn’t see much worth fighting over.

Two pairs of footsteps grew louder from below deck. They rose up the stepladder towards me. “Afternoon, mate!” said Dredge in his customary jovial fashion as he entered the control room. He stood to one side to make way for the captain, whose dress was far more formal than the rest of us. I’d chatted with Captain Damien in passing, but she had yet to pay me a personal visit. Maybe she’s starting to wonder about the new guy at the helm. I know I would.

She held out her hand and looked me squarely in the eyes. I stiffened my posture and put my arms at my sides. “At ease, helmsman,” she said. “Dredge has been singing your praises ever since you came aboard. I hear you’ve steered us flawlessly for the past three weeks.”

I relaxed a bit and managed a grin. “Well, I appreciate that, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to steer a class-A ship than most of the beat-up rigs I’m used to,” I said. I looked over at Dredge and noticed his usual wide-ass grin was woefully absent. The captain wasn’t smiling either.

“Still, we’re very grateful for your efforts — especially your stamina through these long days,” she said. Her gaze shifted past me to the passing shores. “See all those webs pitched along that ridge over there?” I turned to see huge arrays of thinly woven nets, spread far and wide along the ridgeline. Enormous mast-length poles jutted skyward, holding the webbed walls tightly against the rushing winds. Gusty imprints danced along the webbing for miles on end. Truly breathtaking. But they wouldn’t stop anyone trying to get through.

“What you’re seeing is probably the longest water catchment system on the West coast,” the captain said. “On some mornings, the incoming fog layer creates enough droplets to fill the locals’ cisterns to the brim. Of course, there can’t be more than a few thousand souls living in these barren lands now. Legend has it this zone was once home to millions of Tech Ancients. Would you believe they even believed they were living in a city of angels?”

I’d heard the same thing about the San Frisco Isles and our bay-delta zone. Creeping deserts, rising seas, and vanishing fresh water must’ve forced most to find new lives elsewhere — or die trying. I can’t imagine living among millions of people, all in such a small space. Must’ve been insane. In the distance, several tall grey structures began to take shape along the shore, and large plumes of smoke rose up behind them. A dozen or so other vessels were anchored at a small port directly ahead, but no one was wandering the docks.

“Are we stopping here?” I asked, tacking the rudder slightly to keep a respectable distance.

The captain looked over to Dredge, then back to me, clearly apprehensive about something. “I’m afraid we are,” she said. “But we must be very careful. On our way up, we tried off-loading some cargo on order by a local merchant. But we were turned away by the portmaster. A passenger representing one of our most wealthy clients insists that we try again.”

Dredge chimed in: “Seems there’s been a change-o’-the-guard ‘round here. From the looks of it, whoever’s taken over doesn’t take too kindly to visitors.”

Just as I was about to ask him a question, Dredge’s arm was struck by a long arrow, pinning him to the handrail. Blood shot from his forearm as he screamed in pain. We ducked for cover. I helped free Dredge and wrapped his puncture wound as best as I could.

Whooosh! Another set of arrows whizzed past the back door of the control room.

Smash! Several more pierced the window, spraying shards everywhere and slicing my cheek.

“Defense formation!” yelled the captain, as she rose to sound the alarm. Several seconds later, another hailstorm of arrows rained down on the upper deck. I could hear guttural sounds from crewmen who must have taken a hit. Now was my chance. If the intervals between barrages continued apace, I had just enough time. I sprang for the steering wheel and made a hard turn starboard. The captain shut the back door to the control room for protection. Overhead, the masts groaned in rebellion to the sudden shift in course. But our sails caught the southerly winds nicely and began pulling us to safety.

I peered out the front window to see Yasmin dragging an injured crewman to shelter. She looked at me with worried, but determined eyes and yelled: “Raise the speed sails!”

Of course! I had totally forgotten. This ship had spare sails for picking up extra velocity in times of need. The captain quickly snuck out the back door and rounded up several crew. They opened a front compartment and cranked open the booster sails. The captured winds quickly gave us a few more knots, and soon we were out of our attackers’ reach.

“That was a close one!” Dredge grunted, clearly in agony. He patted my back and collapsed.

That night, we licked our wounds and vowed to sail on, but much further from shore. “I can help guide our way by the star patterns,” said the captain. “Let’s not take any chances.”

We had a few more months until our next stop at the southern-most reaches of Mehico. Our rations could keep us well-fed until then, as long as our nets pulled in enough fish. Of course, we didn’t know it at the time, but our nets would pull in far more than that.

§   §   §

Pacific Ocean, Off Upper Mehico’s West Coast — The protein stores were nearly empty. Today’s mission: pull in as many fish as humanly possible before the stink of mutiny filled the air. Lucky for us, there were plenty of well-stocked schools in these parts. A half-dozen crew spent the morning casting nets astern, and hauling in some killer catches at that.

Only problem was, some awfully threatening storm clouds were determined to keep us company along the western horizon. Occasionally, they lashed down blazing whips of lightning and rumbling thunderclaps just to scare us. I could make out a few torrents here and there kicking up waves, but only for brief spells. Good lord, I hope we can keep clear of those.

No such luck. A heavy set of whirling gusts began pushing us dangerously close to the storm fronts, forcing us to cut our fishing expedition short. “Haul in the nets!” ordered the captain. Some predictable whining followed. Hungry bellies rarely show good manners.

I was at the helm doing my best to steer us away from the worst of the oncoming waves. Yasmin was keeping me company, along with one of her newest friends, Amuria. The two of them hit it off a few nights ago in the game room. They’d struck up a contest to see who could last the longest as the ship’s resident python slithered around their necks. Amuria lasted for at least 15 minutes. Yasmin, about 15 seconds. Needless to say, my sweet’s pride was knocked down a peg or two, until she caught wind of why she’d lost so badly. Turns out, Amuria’s a Seer — a rare, but growing group of folks who can communicate with other creatures, especially those with similar senses as we have. Pythons are a bit different from humans than most animals, but she could catch its gaze nonetheless, calming it into submission.

“You could have won hands-down,” Amuria was saying to Yasmin. “You just need to channel that raw focus of yours toward connecting with our animal cousins.” I could tell Yasmin was a little irritated. It was, shall we say, yet another ability that escaped her grasp.

“You’re too kind,” she responded. “I could never tame those wild beasts like you. Besides, if I spent too much time with bobcats and snakes, this hunky helmsman might get jealous.” She threw me a wink and a smile, and snuck her hand around the wheel for a quick grab. I focused ahead to stop from being too distracted. We’re already in enough danger as it is.

Several waves struck us hard, nearly knocking us off our feet. Or at least they felt like waves.

“Guth!” Yasmin exclaimed. Her eyes widened as a look of terror came over her. I followed her gaze out the back door of the control room. I could hardly believe my eyes: three enormous tentacle arms were slithering toward us from the ship’s stern. One of them had completely enveloped a crewman who’d been reeling in the fishnets. This gigantic octopus must have got caught in the netting as it was being pulled in. Judging from its behavior, it was none too happy about it either. The crewman screamed in horror as his helpless body slammed into the gunwale, snapping one of his legs under the sheer force of the impact.

My nerves shot through me like wildfire. I knew these creatures existed from tales that legendary sailors had told for generations. But I never imagined seeing one myself! Some say they used to be far smaller, but that long ago the Tech Ancients had hunted down all their competitors, clearing the way for their own gluttonous feeding frenzy at sea. Whatever the reason, we were now face to face with this massive beast’s hungry rage.

I began tacking us back and forth in an attempt to shake our visitor loose. Yasmin collected herself and pulled out her prized dagger, scanning the deck for a heading. She darted for the captured crewman, screaming as she ran. I peered over my shoulder and saw her lunge for the octopus’s arm. She stabbed it deeply enough to cause it to release the crewman. Its undulating arm recoiled in pain, slithering back overboard. Yasmin pulled the crewman aside.

The lightning flashes were getting closer, and the waters increasingly rocky. It wouldn’t be long before we were hit by the torrents. Meanwhile, the octopus had lifted two more of its arms on deck, and began pulling its bulbous head overboard. Dredge and Captain Damien brandished their swords and sliced through the air in an attempt to scare it off. But that only seemed to make it angrier. It tilted its head back, revealing a hungry, gaping mouth.

Before the captain knew it, she was coiled from behind by one of the octopus’s tentacles. Its suckers latched onto her body with a deathly grip. She gasped for air as her sword slammed to the floor. The creature lifted her toward its mouth, and gooey slime dripped onto the deck from its snapping beak. Dredge and Yasmin leaped to the captain’s defense, but both were swept away by another of the octopus’s powerful arms. The creature made quick work of the captain, puncturing her chest with its sharp-toothed tongue, tearing loose several ribs, and disemboweling her with its beak. We lost the captain! Her lifeless body slammed mercilessly onto the deck. But before the beast had a chance to begin dining on her, Amuria stepped in.

I could barely believe my eyes as I saw her: Amuria carried a basket of fish in one hand, and held out a fish in the other, gliding its flapping body along the suckers of one of the octopus’s tentacles. She walked slowly toward its giant head, staring ahead with calm determination. It retracted its snapping beak, and pivoted face-forward for a better view. Amuria set down the basket of fish near the octopus’s mouth, and carefully placed a hand on its slick, reddish head. It began snapping up the fish in clear appreciation. Slowly, the octopus’s skin around Amuria’s hand began to change color, mimicking the light brown of her palm. Amuria smiled, and caressed its frontal lobe. The creature opened its eyes widely, scanned the deck to see that no one was attacking, and then slowly retracted its tentacles and slid back to sea.

What a relief! My arms ached. I’d been steering us frantically away from the storms for at least an hour. I’m not gonna brag, but I think I saved our asses. Along with Amuria, of course. She and Yasmin were busy putting a tourniquet on our injured crewman. It’ll be a miracle if he makes it. Several other crewmembers circled the captain’s body, and stood in silence over her. Dredge approached the circle, placing his hands on two of his comrades. “Never forget the bravery o’ this hero, mateys,” he offered, and placed his cap over his heart.

After a few minutes, Dredge approached the control room, sporting a look of astonishment. “You, matey, are a godsend!” he belted, patting me hard on the shoulder. “I’ve never seen anyone keep their cool like that while poundin’ through storm waves, let alone navigatin’ through that.” He looked out the back toward Yasmin. “Your firebrand partner’s also provin’ to be quite the badass.” He looked back at me and waited until he had my full attention. “Only question is: now that I’m cap’n, who’s gonna be my first mate?”

§   §   §

Pacific Ocean, Off Lower Mehico’s West Coast — Bahía Nica was only hours away now. I’ve only heard of a few places that are home to ten thousand or more, and this was one of them. Much like Californ’s huge inner bay that stretches for hundreds of miles, Lower Mehico’s southernmost bay stretches for at least a hundred, and even offers safe passage to the Atlantic Coast, if that’s where you were headed. I’ll admit, the thought had crossed my mind. Lord knows how much longer I can take being out at sea, especially with all the new duties now on my shoulders. Being a first mate and first helmsman isn’t for the faint of heart.

“What if we just keep an open mind?” I asked Yasmin, hoping she might consider scoping out new horizons with me while we took shore leave at Nica Bay. “We’ve got valuables to trade, and plenty of skills to offer. Do you really want to spend the next twenty months or more cooped up on this ship?” I actually didn’t mind our quarters, which had expanded quite nicely ever since my promotion. But I knew Yasmin enjoyed her freedom to explore.

“Love, I know you haven’t had as much time to get to know our fellow travelers as much as I have.” She cupped my chin and looked deeply into my eyes. “I’ve seen how joyful they are, how proud they are to call Antarctica their home, and how excited they are to return.”

I caressed her arms and pulled her to my side. Smiling, I asked: “Then why are they spending four years away from their beloved homeland? And risking so much?”

She leaned over to me, and planted a wet kiss on my cheek. “Don’t you see? They’re adventurers. Just like us. Many don’t even live in settlements.”

Fascinating. The idea had never occurred to me. “You mean, they’re wanderers?”

“In a sense,” said Yasmin. She sat back on our bed and pulled back her hair. “More like they simply don’t dwell in permanent structures. I’ve heard some of the eastern valleys are so lush and fertile that people can feast off the land for weeks, even without hunting.”

“Amuria’s one of them, isn’t she?” I asked.

“Yes, and many like her, though none here with her keen abilities,” Yasmin said. “Most of the craftsmen and women on board are ‘freelanders’ like Amuria. They’ve spent a lifetime honing their skills and making some of the finest arts and crafts the world over.”

I shared Yasmin’s desire for a new home. And Antarctica did sound promising. I just couldn’t bear the thought of hunkering down at sea for another 20 months. We’d already been attacked twice in under four months! Who knows what danger lurks in the Southern Pacific?

Yasmin gave me an encouraging clasp on my shoulders, and rose to change into her nightgown. As she dressed, she looked back to me and smiled. “We’re going to be fine here, Guth. I promise to take good care of you.” She paced herself slowly back to our bedside, shedding her nightgown as she walked. “And tonight, I promise you won’t be getting to bed early.”

§   §   §

Bahía Nica, Lower Mehico — We awoke to the bustling sounds of Nica Harbor. Horns from ships going to and fro, people chattering as they walked the creaking docks, and seagulls squawking overhead. We dressed, grabbed our bags, and headed up top to disembark.

The view of Nica Bay from on deck was simply stunning: glistening blue-green waters formed a serene pool of stillness as far as the eye could see, bordered by orderly fishing villas built from wood and earthen clay. Horse-drawn carts and people carrying baskets and nets filled the seaside thoroughfare, and a local food market marked the entrance to the main port town of Managua. The morning sea breezes kept the tropical heat at bay for now, but judging from the scantily-clad throngs, it was clear we were in for a steamy stay.

“Lookin’ forward to a lil down time, no doubt!” Dredge said as we approached the off ramp. He handed us a crib sheet with some local phrases for getting by at the food stands and inns. “You won’t get far with ‘ol English in these parts. Just Mehican Spanish, and some ‘ol native dialects, if you happen to know any o’ those.” He winked and tilted his cap forward.

“Thank you,” I said, feeling a bit anxious all of a sudden. We shouldered our belongings and stepped onto the ramp. Then, Dredge abruptly blocked my path with his arm.

“Just one thing,” he said. “I’ll need yous to leave that precious golden dagger wit me.”

“Why?” asked Yasmin, as she pulled it from her sheath. “We might need it for protection.”

He shook his head in disappointment. “Come on. You’ve got half a dozen deadly knives stashed away in those pants ‘n’ boots. And Guth’s hand sword oughta scare off any attackers foolish ‘nuff to try anything. Yous got some dangerous plans I should know ‘bout?”

I bristled at the accusation. But he clearly had his suspicions. “Listen Dredge, I don’t know what this is all about, but I would think we’d have proven ourselves to you by now.”

“Oh you have,” Dredge responded. “I just can’t take any chances right now, mate. Hand ‘er over Yasmin. I promise you’ll see ‘er again as soon as I see your gorgeous self and this fine fella traipsin’ back up this ramp. Yous got three days o’ leave. Enjoy ‘em.”

Yasmin unclipped her sheath, and handed Dredge the dagger. “I’ll hold you to your word.”

“You have my word,” he said, stashing the piece in his handbag. He nodded and walked off.

We descended the off ramp and walked up the docks without speaking. I could sense Yasmin’s glare. She finally broke the silence: “He’s onto you, Guth. What did you say?”

A burning anger came over me. “Oh, so now it’s my fault Dredge is getting paranoid?” I barked back. “You think I’m stupid enough to give him reason to worry?”

Yasmin pulled away. She was clearly hurt, her growing frown crowding out any other emotion. “But you must have given him reason to suspect something,” she said. Her tone grew shrill. “Honestly, Guth, I can’t believe you’d be willing to risk our future like this!”

What future did she mean? Our long slog at sea? Our murky life in Antarctica? “And what future would that be, exactly?” I asked. “You have absolutely no idea what’s in store for us. Except that it’ll just be you and me, scrabbling for some sense of place and purpose!”

Tears began welling up in Yasmin’s eyes. I’d said too much. Or perhaps I simply hadn’t said enough before today. She looked down at the dusty ground, wiped her eyes, and slowly lifted her head. “I didn’t know I was so hard to be with, Guth,” she finally said, sobbing through her words. She collected herself and said calmly: “Maybe you should go find another luckless lady in town to ‘scrabble’ around with. I’m sure there are plenty here who’d be more than willing. Who knows? She might even give you that son you’ve always wanted.”

I stepped towards her, arms outstretched. She turned away, waving me off, and began walking briskly toward the main drag. “Yasmin!” I shouted. “Wait! Please wait!” But it was too late. What had long been unsaid was now suddenly a gaping wound. My rising anger had morphed into festering sadness. She knew full well I deeply wished to be a father — a father to my own flesh and blood. Worse, it was a wish she could never hope to fulfill.

Perhaps it’s best we spend some time apart. Clearly, our emotions are getting the best of us. I wandered through the produce and spice stands, taking in the heavy aromas and beautiful faces. Children ran around a small tree in an open circle, as chickens waddled freely among them. I walked toward a long row of inns, stables, and merchant shops.

I know I could be a good father, I thought. Would it matter if my child was mine from birth? Yasmin was willing to join me in raising a child. And she would be a wonderful mother. Why couldn’t I find solace in that future?

The next three days were harrowing. I wandered the streets in search of Yasmin, frequenting the main drag, the markets, and the docks. There was no sign of her anywhere, and worse, no word from the crew. Could she have left, abandoning our journey? How ironic that would be! Each night I slept alone, recounting my words to her, and regretting my overreaction. I couldn’t imagine continuing on without her, at sea or anywhere else for that matter. In a couple hours, I would need to make a decision.

I packed up and headed over to the local blacksmith. Whatever I do, I’d better sharpen up my hand sword. As I entered the shop, I overheard a familiar voice. My heart began racing as I rounded the display cases. Yasmin was browsing some knives and daggers, of course. She turned and caught my gaze. I was smiling uncontrollably as I waited for a sign.

“Guth!” she responded, smiling with forgiveness. I dashed over to her and gave her a long embrace, whispering: “I’m so sorry, my sweet. I should never have said what I did.” I lifted her chin and kissed her deeply. We both cried for several minutes as we held each other close.

“I’m here to sharpen my sword for our journey,” I made sure to say. She laughed and held up two gleaming, newly forged daggers. “Looks like we’ll both be ready for the next attack.”

We grabbed some fresh produce on our way back to the ship, and headed up the ramp. At the top, Dredge grinned and pulled out Yasmin’s pride and joy. “Good to see the two o’ yous!” He patted my shoulder hard, nearly knocking me off balance. “Oops! Sorry mate!” he said.

After we settled back in, napped, and grabbed some grub, dusk had settled over Nica Bay. With Dredge at the helm for our departure, we decided to take in the view from on deck. Several other crew and their families had the same idea, making for a bit of a deck party.

One family of three sat across from us, with the mother breastfeeding her newborn. “Your daughter is simply a gem, Jornatha,” said Yasmin. Jornatha smiled back. Tears suddenly began streaming down her face. Yasmin leaned over to comfort her, taking her hand.

“I’m sorry,” said Jornatha through her sobs. “It’s just, well, I can hardly believe this day has come. Torm and I had been trying for so long. It wasn’t until years after we’d moved to Antarctica that we got pregnant. I always thought folks like me couldn’t have any of our own.”

“Folks like you?” asked Yasmin. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

Jornatha looked at each of us, searching for a sign of trust. “I thought you knew. I’m a third, like you, Yasmin. But somehow, somehow, that unspoiled land holds healing powers. I’m fertile.”

Chills coursed through my spine. Yasmin gasped for air. I put an arm around her as the news sank in. Could it really be? Could we actually have a chance at our own children? New possibilities raced through my mind, and feelings of excitement suddenly consumed me.

“That’s so wonderful!” Yasmin managed, fighting back her own tears.

She faced me, grabbed my hands, and stared lovingly into my eyes. No words were needed. We kissed and cried, holding each other under the brightening stars. Nica Harbor receded into the background, and the dark, misty night replaced the warm glow of Managua.

Although we wouldn’t reach Antarctica for well over a year and a half, it had already become our new home. In the months to come, tales of its rich cultures, its glorious mountains, fresh waters and bountiful valleys would only add to our conviction to carry on. But it was only on that night, as we left Nica Bay, that our journey to Antarctica had truly begun.


Destination Antarctica 3015 (Part I)

Destination_Antarctica_3015PART I: New Beginnings

Presidio Point, San Frisco Isles — The sea mists landed gently on my face, tickling my nostrils as I rounded the sedum-lined path. It was an atypically foggy morning at Presidio Point, with only a hint of sun piercing the billowing haze. Behind me, the last towering remnants of the once-mighty citadel broke through the clouds. I heard a growing murmur up ahead as I came closer to the lighthouse. I must not be the only one with the same idea.

And then I saw them: a crowd before me unlike anything I’d ever witnessed. The pier was packed with onlookers, all jostling back and forth along the ropes. People streamed onto the docks like army ants, just to catch a glimpse of it. What “it” was, I wasn’t exactly sure. All I knew was that a giant seafaring vessel was coming in before noon, bringing wealthy traders, craftsmen, and other folk from faraway lands. Quite a few swindlers too, no doubt.

I was mostly just curious. As of yesterday, I’d finally finished a major rigging job over on Sutro Isle for the island master’s security fleet. So I had some time to kill. Master Jin’s a paranoid pain-in-the-ass — and a low-balling cheapskate at that — but I can’t turn down two steady meals a day, plus a private dorm for myself and my sweet. A small ship of my own would be nice someday, but I knew that wasn’t happening anytime soon.

Jin would no doubt flog me if he knew I was here. “Don’t ever think you can get a better deal working for some other master ‘round here,” he’d always say. He was probably right, but I couldn’t help but wonder. Thankfully, he was out sailing to Merced Shores right about now, and wouldn’t be back ‘til nightfall. He’ll never even know I was gone.

The throngs roared as I elbowed my way onto the main walkway. And then I saw it: its soaring masts catching the morning gales as its massive bow sliced through the waves with barreling fury. Well over a dozen windows lined its starboard side just below deck, signaling that this was no ordinary passenger ship. Eventually, the sea colossus slowed, came to port, dropped anchor, and extended a wide ramp down to the pier’s edge.

I kept my distance, waiting patiently for what everyone had come to see. After a few minutes, four security guards emerged, decked out in full-plated armor, each carrying a broadsword and shield. Two-by-two, a parade of men, women, and others followed, some dressed in leather vests and pants, others in elegant earth-toned robes. Almost all of them were adorned with jewels. Around a dozen porters carried chests, burlap sacks, and boxes of varying sizes. These folks expect to make a killing.

With some help from the pier patrol, the security guards cleared a path for the well-heeled visitors, and began escorting them up the embankment to their horse-drawn chariots. Halfway down the line, one man stood out from the rest. Outfitted in sleek deck clothes and a sailor’s cap, he carried himself with a youthful swagger and a confident smile. He scanned the crowd intently as he strode up the walkway toward me. Admittedly, I stood out a bit, being one of the last remaining islanders whose ancestors hail mostly from West Eurasia.

“G’day mate! Where can a sea bloke find some knock-out grog ‘round here?” he asked, pulling on his cap. “Not the new stuff. Those ‘ol brews yous West Islanders are famous for!”

“Are we now?” I asked. I hadn’t heard that one before. The guy’s got good taste though.

“No question.” His smile widened, revealing several golden teeth. “’Course, yous all got a few centuries on us. Where I’m from, so many different folks are brewin’ all sorts of new crap. It’s hard to find anyone who’s perfected the art.” He held out his hand. His palm was weathered and dry. He must already have a couple decades of experience on the high seas.

“Nice grip,” he said. “You’ve done some sailing yourself, matey, am I right?” He looked at me intently now, his smile widening even more.

Maybe I should keep quiet. Word could get back to Jin. So I punted: “Well, I can hold my own at the helm, but not like the guys ‘round here at Presidio. Far more experience than I.”

“Name’s Dredge,” he said, laughing under his breath. “First mate of this fine beaut. Brought her all the way from ‘Ntarctica along the Western shores. And who might you be?”

“Jorel,” I offered, though not my real name, of course. Better safe than sorry.

“Good to meet ya, mate” he said. “Turns out, my crew’s lookin’ for another helmsman. No one too cocky, ‘course. You strike me as a strong, honest fella. We could use a bloke like you.”

Taken aback, I tried to mask my excitement. “Well, I’m just a local rig hand, and well-tended to by my master. My meager skills are being put to good use.” Those words were hard to say. I’m one of the best in these parts, as most sailing folk around here could attest.

“I’m sure all dat’s true,” said Dredge, sizing me up from head to toe. But this time, the smile faded. “And yet, here ya are, wit no master ‘round, sniffin’ out opportunity.”

He had me there. “Well, it’s not often that we see such a magnificent sight pulling into Presidio Harbor,” I said. “If you really want some of that ale, I suggest you make it out to Sailor’s Lair at Land’s End. But hurry. Their stock won’t last past sundown.”

His smile beamed now, his eyes meeting mine with an eerily familiar gaze. “Thanks mate,” he said, patting my shoulder as he darted further up the path to rejoin his entourage.

I’ll admit: I haven’t felt that tempted in a very long time. I’d best be back to meet Yasmin before she starts wondering where I’ve gone off to.

§   §   §

She peered at me with scorn and worry as I entered our tiny bungalow. Even with her frowning lips and furrowed brow, Yasmin was still the most beautiful being I’d ever laid eyes upon. Her face bore smooth, golden-brown cheeks, pearly whites in perfect order, and fiery, auburn eyes. Of course, none of that compared to her graceful, yet powerful demeanor, which has held me captive since the moment we met.

“Where’ve you been, love?” she squawked, tying her wavy, silky black hair behind her back.

There was no point in lying. She could see right through me. “Across the sound,” I said. “Up Presidio way. Heard there was a trade ship coming in. Bigger than usual.”

I saw her upper arms tense up and her jaw tighten at that. A reminder of her masculine side. Yasmin, it should be said, is not fully female. She’s a feminine “third,” as most call them in these parts. Definitely a woman in appearance, voice, and manner, but not born with the same set of parts you’d normally expect. Other thirds can be mostly masculine as well, and some have found a way to straddle the line, expressing a range of both genders in one. No third has ever given birth — a source of great sadness for Yasmin. Me too, truth be told. Apparently, all the chemicals and toxic soup left behind by the Tech Ancients spoiled the land and water so much that thirds became commonplace. Incredibly beautiful people, if you ask me, but the end-of-the-line for each and every one of them, at least reproductively.

“Why?” she screamed, clasping her hands over her head in desperate confusion. “You couldn’t wait for one minute after finishing a job to go traipsing off? And for what?”

Oh no. Here we go again. I’d better reassure her somehow. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing to worry about. No one saw me. And here I am, back early to see you before Jin returns.” I stepped closer, reaching my arms out to embrace her.

She turned away, her backside facing me in defiance. It was hardly a punishment, however, and she knew it. I continued my approach, resting a hand gently on her shoulder. She turned to face me, revealing a small tear escaping from the corner of her eye. Her sobs were hard to take. I curled my arms around her and guided us to our bed.

As we lay side by side, her eyes met mine. “I can’t bear the thought of losing you, Guth. You’ve seen what the masters do to disloyal hands.” It was a dark truth I’d buried deep within me, mostly to cope. I held her tight, caressing her arms and wiping her tears.

I sighed, and said what needed to be said. “I’m sorry, Yasmin. I know you’re right. Curiosity got the best of me. It won’t happen again.” I held her tight, praying for forgiveness. I knew the prospect of my passing tormented her at times. And her infertility made her feel even more vulnerable to a life of solitude. So far, we had weathered those storms quite well.

Eventually, the sobbing stopped, and she turned to look me in the eyes. “Promise me?”

“I promise,” I said, planting a kiss on her cheek. She came at me with full force after that, her tongue darting for my mouth. Our bodies slid into heated rhythm soon afterward, and it wasn’t long before we were writhing back and forth beneath the sheets. Thankfully, I’m able to hold my own for longer than most men I know, which is no small feat with Yasmin. Nothing beats resolving an argument with sexual abandon.

We fell asleep in each other’s arms, exhausted from our passions. An hour later, we awoke to the sound of our front door bursting open and several dishes smashing to the ground.


One of Jin’s henchmen charged into our room, brandishing a club in one hand, and a long wire whip in the other. Behind him, Jin entered slowly, arms crossed. “GUTH!” he roared, looking at me with an angry, piercing stare. “Where have you been? I scored a big job this afternoon, and had no rig leader to introduce our new client to. You made me a fool!”

The henchman smashed several candle pieces and plates on our table, then stomped over to the bed, lashing his whip. Yasmin clutched me from behind, covered in blankets. I’ve seen Jin upset many times before, but he’s never brought a punisher. I took a deep breath.

“Jin, you know I’ve served you well. I was merely taking a break after a hard day’s work so I’d be in prime condition for our next job. I had no idea it would come so soon.”

His eyes narrowed as he grunted in response. “You know, part of me thought you would be wiser than to lie to me. I was so hoping we could continue to trust one another.” He looked over to his henchman. Then came the sharp, searing pain of the whip as it sliced deeply into my right leg. Blood splattered onto the sheets. Yasmin screamed, and quickly backed away. I bit my lip, and covered the gushing wound, hoping to stop the flow.

Jin leered over me, calmly watching my suffering. “My Presidio watchman had you at the docks right around noon, longingly peering at the southern trade ship, and then chatting up its first mate no less. Pardon me if I find your tale of innocence less than convincing.”

Another look. Another lash. And the rest was mostly a daze. Except for one thing: Yasmin had stepped over to the prep counter and grabbed two of our sharpest and longest knives. She’s defended herself quite well in the past, and today was no exception. Before a third lash could come my way, each of those knives found its way squarely between the eyes of Jin and his henchman. They both dropped instantly. And so did I.

I awoke gasping in pain. Lucky for me, Yasmin had stopped the blood flow with tightly wound rags just above my knee. They covered a gash nearly a half-foot long. Feels like a half-foot deep as well. “You all right, love? Can you move?” she asked, caressing my hair.

I grabbed her hand and pulled myself up. Pacing around the room, I tested my stride. It’s not too bad, actually. Thank the maker! Looks like I can walk just fine, as long as I’ve got a helping hand to steady me. I glanced over at the two lifeless bodies on our floor. I had never imagined it would come to this. We’ve got to get out of here. And quickly.

“My sweet, I know you did what you had to. Thank you for that. But the island masters won’t let this go.” I sighed and said: “They’ll have my head for this.”

Yasmin’s eyes met mine. A look of determination and acceptance came over her. “I won’t leave you Guth!” she exclaimed. “We can finally get out of this forsaken place. Start a new life somewhere.” The idea had always held some appeal, and now it had powerful urgency.

My thoughts quickly turned to Dredge and his offer. Was he serious? Would he really just let me join his crew? Could Yasmin earn passage as well?

“I know it was reckless, but my visit to Presidio Point may have bought us the ticket we need,” I explained. “The first mate of that big ship practically offered me a helm job this morning.” I went on to describe our encounter and the potential opportunity. “Of course, I have no idea if the guy was serious, or where we’d end up.”

Yasmin examined my leg, adding another layer to my dressing. She kissed me and said: “At this point, mister, I’m ready for whatever. Let’s get out of here.”

That’s my Yasmin. Always ready for adventure. It’s hard to describe the love I feel for her.

“Okay then,” I said, managing a smile. “Let’s hide these poor fellows in the cellar. That’ll buy us maybe a day or so. And grab what you need. We’re heading to Land’s End.”

§   §   §

Sailor’s Lair was bustling and rowdy as usual. Rig hands like me often outnumbered helmsfolk or upper ranks, which was why I liked coming here. I only hoped Dredge was as much of a drinker as I pegged him to be. Yasmin and I scanned the place from front to back, but to no avail. Friends and mates patted me on my back or nodded their heads as we wandered through. I grabbed us a couple sunset mixers and found a cozy nook across from the bar.

Yasmin has only joined me here maybe a handful of times, mostly due to her own demanding schedule, but this time felt particularly liberating. I was first to say so: “Why do I feel so damn excited right now?” I should feel scared shitless.

She grabbed my hand, and guided it slowly to her cheek, glowing in the lantern light. She peered at me lovingly and whispered: “Because you’re finally free, my love. We both are.”

Crash! Clank! Thud.

I turned around to see Dredge’s limp body attempting to sit up, from what must have been a pretty hard fall. Two fellow rig hands from South Sutro were angling for another blow, clearly incensed with my newfound friend. I shot over to them before Dredge’s face became a bloody pulp. “Gents, please!” I shouted, as I held out my hand to block their advance. “I’m sure this cocky mate gave you good reason to be angry, but he and I have some dealings to work out. Let me take him off your hands.” They grunted in agreement as I pulled him over to our table. Dredge was smiling the whole way, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth.

“I’d advise you to watch yourself,” I told him. “These guys don’t take kindly to off-islanders starting brawls on their turf.” We all plopped down on the benches, facing each other.

“Who says I started it?” he responded, smiling through his bloody teeth. He straightened his collar and tipped his cap to Yasmin, eyeing her with obvious interest. “But seein’ as how yous rescued me from a nasty beating, I s’pose I should say thank ya.” His brow furrowed with curiosity as he leaned forward. “Kinda s’prised to see ya here though, Jorel.” The smile widened. “I thought you were such a busy, ‘well-tended-to’ bloke.”

I bristled at the presumption, but couldn’t blame him for calling me out. “Let’s just say I’m now quite interested in your offer,” I said, hoping to refocus the discussion.

“Glad to hear it!” he yelped. “But I can’t help wonderin’, ‘What’s changed?’ Your master catch wind o’ your wayward ways?” His smile lingered. I tried not to let it bother me.

Should I tell him the truth? And jeopardize our chances? I opted for a half-truth: “We’ve had a falling out. I’m no longer in his service.” I grabbed Yasmin’s hand and continued: “My partner and I are both seeking a fresh start. Somewhere we can both apply our skills where they’re truly appreciated. You seem like the kind of guy who could offer that.”

From the look on his face, Dredge was pondering all this very carefully. He turned to Yasmin: “And why would a lovely lady like yourself wanna leave one o’ the most beautiful, bustlin’ island chains in da world? This bloke really worth hitchin’ yourself to?”

I was half-tempted to punch him myself at that. But Yasmin calmed the mood: “Not only is he worth it. I’m worth your while every bit as much. My defense skills as head of security for several island companies will no doubt come in handy as pirates threaten your vessel.”

Dredge raised his eyebrows. “We could shore up our defenses, dat’s for sure. Ran into a nasty pirate ship on our way up just past Santiago. Killed two o’ ‘em myself.”

“All we’re looking for is safe passage, and room and board,” I said. “In exchange, we’ll both work under your command. Diligently and loyally.” Yasmin and I shared a hopeful glance, knowing full well that we could make good on our promise.

Dredge leaned forward again, and looked us squarely in the eyes. “You do understand we’re returning to ‘Ntarctica? Ya know, the new land as far south as the winds’ll blow us. It takes nearly two years.”

I remember him mentioning that before, but the length of time it would take hadn’t dawned on me ‘til then. Yasmin’s nod gave me her assent, but I was still processing what it all meant. I knew Antarctica had opened up over the past several centuries as a new realm with uncharted possibilities. Its once-vast ice sheets had mostly melted into the sea, and its glaciers had receded, unveiling spectacular mountain landscapes, fertile hills, and valleys. “But what would we do in Antarctica?” I asked. “You’d need us for the whole trip?”

“Yep, the entire journey. What ya do when ya get there’s entirely up to yous,” Dredge said. “’Tis a free land with no masters, no servants, and plenty o’ open space for wide-eyed couples to start a new life. Granted, it’s now a popular destination for all sorts o’ scoundrels, refugees, and opportunists from far ‘n’ wide. But so long as you’re willing to put in an honest day’s work, yous’ll do well for yourselves.”

It sounded like a dream. I’d spent all my days growing up, fishing, boating, and rigging all over San Frisco’s main islands, never imagining I would leave. But my time had come. Our time had come. Yasmin was giddy with excitement. We’ve been given a second chance.

We shook hands with Dredge, promised our allegiance, and made way for a nearby inn. As we headed out the door, he called out: “We load up at mid-day tomorrow. Don’t be late.”


Google: Renewable Energy Won’t Stop Climate Crisis

Google Renewables Won't Save UsIt should go without saying that there’s no silver bullet solution to the climate crisis. Indeed, it’s simply too late in the game for anything resembling a “solution” at all. Industrial civilization’s slavish devotion to economic growth-at-all-costs, coupled with its fossil fuel-strapped infrastructure, have already dealt a body blow to our atmosphere’s stability — promising centuries of harrowing conditions ahead for humanity and countless other species on Earth, regardless of how we respond.

The latest climate news has only confirmed the worst fears of scientists. Weather Underground bloggers reported last week that Antarctica hit a record-breaking high of 63.5 F (17.5 C).  Even more disturbing is a recent discovery by an international team of scientists who found that the Totten Glacier of East Antarctica is now melting. The Totten, it turns out, is the last line of defense against the melting of a vast catchment of ice that would raise sea levels by more than 11 feet. And that’s on top of a 10 feet rise predicted by another finding last year showing massive glacial thawing well underway in West Antarctica. To underscore what even a 10-foot sea level rise will mean for coastal cities, researchers at Climate Central have produced a jaw-dropping interactive mapping tool called “Surging Seas” that shows which coastal areas and cities will be flooded with alarming clarity. Their findings demonstrate that the United States would lose 28,800 square miles of land, which is home today to a mere 12.3 million people. Among the most threatened cities: New York, New Orleans, and Miami.

Since global climate protection summits have thus far produced more photo-ops than agreements, it’s understandable that many would pin their hopes on technological advancements in renewable energy systems, along with their scaled-up deployment, to stave off catastrophic climate change. It’s become something of a sacred belief among mainstream environmentalists that if only we could shift society’s investment in dirty fossil fuels toward cleaner, safer energy that all would be fine in the world, and we could all continue to happily consume our way to industrial nirvana, powered by solar, wind, and geothermal electrons, of course. All that’s needed, it is typically argued, is massive education about the problem of climate change, and a massive redirection of funding and policy favoritism away from the bad stuff toward the good stuff.

Well, despite their own deep-seated belief in such a vision, a well-funded team of researchers at Google have concluded that even if we could muster enough momentum toward a future powered by renewables, clean energy systems simply cannot and will not save us from devastating climate impacts. Known as RE<C, Google’s initiative launched in 2007 with the aim of developing renewable energy sources that could generate electricity more cheaply than coal-fired power plants through a combination of investments in clean energy start-ups and its own internal R&D program. By 2011, however, as it became increasingly clear that RE<C was not on track to meet its stated goals, Google shut down the initiative, according to program engineers Ross Koningstein and David Fork.

In the words of Koningstein and Fork: “At the start of RE<C, we had shared the attitude of many stalwart environmentalists: We felt that with steady improvements to today’s renewable energy technologies, our society could stave off catastrophic climate change. We now know that to be a false hope — but that doesn’t mean the planet is doomed.” They’re right, of course. Even though climate instability will make life increasingly difficult for us humans — as droughts, storms, killer viruses, creeping deserts, tsunamis, and floods devastate population centers and force tens of millions to migrate to more welcoming climes —  most will learn to adapt, improvise, and devise new lifeways in the face of chaotic conditions. The most successful will learn to reconnect with this magnificent world’s vibrant, life-giving rhythms and cycles, and ever more deeply with one another, perhaps even without — gasp! — more and more high-tech, energy-intensive devices.

And the planet? Doomed? Nah. It will simply adopt a new “normal” of an increasingly warmer climate and tumultuous water cycle, balancing itself back to a recalibrated equilibrium. Eventually, even the excess carbon that we’ve so carelessly ejected into our atmosphere will filter out of the skies and return to the oceans, the land, and subterranean realms. In the process, industrial civilization will become yet another layer in the fossil record of geological time.

Of course, in all fairness to the Google research team, their project was doomed from the start. The underlying assumptions were that industrial society will grow forever using ever more energy (thus requiring the replacement of finite fossil energy with renewables) and that some sort of “radical” technological breakthrough can save the day (thus demanding ever more investment in clean energy R&D). It was never imagined that industrial society must face up to its own end, dependent as it is on cheap and abundant fossil fuels — fuels which just so happen to be declining in quality, quantity, and accessibility each and every day. No, the Google team’s efforts never stood a chance against ecological or geological reality, much less the deep-seated denial that pervades the industrial mind.

And yet, they deserve praise for making such a bold and gallant effort. For through their failure, they’ve helped to illuminate a critical blind spot in our thinking about energy: that no matter how much we may wish to believe in the value of renewable energy systems (I, for one, am a strong proponent), they’re not our saving grace. We are.

Weathering the Storms, Planting the Seeds

plant-in-handThe recent mass marches for climate justice in New York City and around the world were truly historic. It’s no small feat to inspire 400,0000+ Americans to take to the streets for anything these days, much less global climate change. Spearheaded by and an incredibly diverse range of environmental activists, labor organizers, indigenous peoples, and social justice advocates, these actions represented a watershed moment for the climate protection movement.

For social change artist and CultureStrike co-founder Favianna Rodriguez, the People’s Climate March was unprecedented in the ways that immigrants, youth of color, and women took on leadership roles in shaping the message and connecting social justice issues to the growing call for climate sanity. “Climate change is inextricable from social issues like feminism and immigration policy,” she recently told Time Magazine. It’s deeply heartening to witness this evolution of climate change activism. Indeed, it offers real hope for a more promising future.

And yet, a haunting question remains: “Isn’t it too little, too late?” Despite the momentum that organizers have built in recent years, it’s not yet strong enough to win the grand prize: binding commitments by the largest polluting nations to make the deep emissions cuts needed to stop global warming — at least 80% by 2050 — let alone slow its predicted impacts. Despite the massive demonstrations worldwide, the current round of climate talks scheduled to yield a new global pact in Paris next year have thus far shown little prospect of curbing emissions enough to stabilize the climate. Indeed, the much-talked-about position of the European Union to reduce emissions 40% below 1990 levels by 2030 is still, in the end, woefully inadequate. “The EU 2030 target is 10 years too little and too late,” said Claudia Salerno, chief climate negotiator for Venezuela.

What’s more troubling is that few funds are materializing to help our economies transition from fossil fuels to clean energy or to protect people in harm’s way from the worst climate impacts. Of the $10 billion promised by the end of 2014 for the Green Climate Fund, a UN bank to finance efforts by developing countries to address climate change, only $2.3 billion has been pledged. What’s really needed is more like hundreds of billions annually.

Let’s be real: climate instability is already here with a vengeance in the form of ferocious storms, extreme droughts, rising sea levels, supercharged diseases, mass migrations, and drowning communities. Of course, we can and must build on growing popular momentum to help stave off even worse conditions, but the reality is that we’re simply going to have to weather the storms. Those storms are gathering strength on the horizon just now.

Gathering Storms on the Horizon

The situation in Iraq and Syria has become particularly precarious, as Islamic State forces terrorize local communities, seize control of northern oil fields, and advance ever-closer to Baghdad (frequently, with U.S.-made vehicles and weaponry). President Obama has been forced to ramp up military involvement yet again, exposing the oft-repeated lie that the U.S.-led invasion there has done anything to stabilize the region. Indeed, the real goal of ensuring long-term control over the planet’s second largest proven oil reserves remains as elusive as ever.

Here in California, the state’s punishing drought is entering its third consecutive year (see NASA satellite imagery of worsening conditions), prompting massive cutbacks in water use by agriculture, municipalities, and industry. Some Central Valley communities are now literally running out of water, resorting to portable toilet service and relying on subsidies for bottled water just to survive. State officials warn that even if significant rainfall returns this winter, drought conditions would remain for most of the state. A high-pressure ridge off the West Coast is preventing most rain from making landfall, the same phenomenon that occurred during an even worse regional drought in 1934, according to atmospheric scientists.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, the specter of ebola spreading far and wide now haunts the modern world, with near-panic conditions setting in among some American cities. And while the average Westerner’s chances of contracting the disease are currently slim to none, the virus in its present form nonetheless has a gruesomely impressive death rate, killing around 70% of those who contract it. According to the World Health Organization, there could be as many as 10,000 new cases per week in west Africa as early as December. It doesn’t help that the virus is constantly mutating and adapting, or that nearby war-torn landscapes are suffering from inadequate sanitation infrastructure and broken health systems. Some countries, most notably Nigeria, have made impressive progress against ebola’s trajectory, but if it spreads to Egypt or other major international population epicenters, the prospect remains that the current outbreak could very well become a global pandemic.

Hospicing the Old World, Planting Seeds for the New

“How do you stay positive with all that’s going on?” asked a close friend of mine recently. We were sharing some quality time with our giddy toddlers after dinner in a local park by the lake, painfully aware that the serenity we now take for granted is by no means guaranteed in our sons’ futures, much less our own. Both of us are long-time environmental and social justice activists, so we’re no strangers to the horrific devastation being wrought against our planet’s life support systems or the violence and gross inequities still plaguing our world.

Still, it’s a fundamental question, and one for which I have no easy answer. My friend and I both know the old, fossil-fueled industrial world is dying, but that there are critical things worth saving along the path to laying it to rest. As she so eloquently puts it, we have to “hospice what’s left of the system we’re leaving behind, while planting the seeds for the future we’re building.” For me, it’s the planting part that holds the most promise.

By planting seeds, I mean far more than gardening — though that act alone can be a profound act of resistance to the buy-consume-discard economy that’s severed our once-sacred relationship to land’s natural rhythms. Even in the face of knowing that much trauma awaits us — personally, socioeconomically, ecologically, and yes, civilizationally — there is still so much we can do to create joy, justice, and possibility in our world.

I used to think that activism wasn’t worth doing if it wasn’t focused on making large-scale impacts. Now that I see macro-level challenges bearing down upon us faster than we can effect, I actually take strange comfort in knowing that the smallest, most localized actions may now be the most vital. From lessening your dependence on fossil-powered machines, learning new permaculture skills, to even something as simple as meeting your neighbors, there are innumerable changes we can all make in our day-to-day lives that will help prepare us for the turbulence ahead. In their own right, such changes can also have a powerful effect on our outlook, our health, and our fundamental happiness.

Coupled with a commitment to working with others toward common cause, possibilities abound for building a more resilient, hopeful future. In the short time that I’ve lived in my diverse, economically distressed neighborhood in Oakland, I’ve witnessed incredible commitment to strengthening neighbor-to-neighbor ties and improving community life. Local parents have formed vibrant learning and activity centers and daycare coops for their children. Each of the corner medians that border my block are now spiritual sanctuaries adorned with ornate Buddhist shrines, flowers, and altars — creating a sense of calm, respect, and beauty in an otherwise drab sea of concrete. Several entrepreneurs have tapped into their own culinary skill sets to start up delightful new establishments specializing in Filipino comfort food, Burmese cuisine, and delicious baked goods. Groups have formed to organize community picnics, launch greening projects, plan neighborhood cleanup days, host public forums on local elections, and run workshops on rainwater harvesting and installing greywater systems.

Will such efforts be enough to meet the combined impacts of an unforgiving climate, a dying empire, and a viciously unequal economy? Not even close. But maybe, just maybe, they’ll allow us the space to reconnect, to reimagine, and to rebuild the kind of communities we truly yearn for in our hearts. In the end, those that can let go of fear and face the future with honesty and poise will be the most able to weather the storms — and best positioned to plant the seeds for a new world. That’s easier said than done, of course. But it’s a path that keeps me positive, each and every day.

Top 10 Signs of U.S. Empire’s Passing

Lady_Liberty_UnderwaterIt’s not fashionable to talk about American empire these days, much less our empire’s coming demise. Our status as the world’s preeminent superpower remains largely unquestioned (at least domestically). Politicians and media pundits still portray our military as the world’s last great hope against tyranny and global terrorism.

And yet, despite the U.S. military’s clear planetary dominance — its hundreds of thousands of troops deployed in more than 150 countries, its growing interventions in Africa and the Middle East, and its vast network of bases and installations across the globe — our empire’s days are indeed numbered. Like other past empires, the unraveling of our empire is shrouded in denial, masking the fraying foundations of our once-prosperous nation.

Ironically, the seeds of America’s decline were planted with its founding, marred as it was by the brutal conquest of the native population, the rapacious destruction of the natural environment, the shameful enslavement of African peoples, and the hypocritical disenfranchisement of women and non-property-holding immigrants. These traumatic beginnings have echoed through the centuries that followed, in the form of aggressive military interventions, deepening social divisions, and ecologically ruinous relations to the country’s land, air, and water. Together, these festering dynamics now threaten to upend the great American experiment.

Of course, they’ve also provided the backdrop against which most Americans have struggled to secure their place in the social order, their human rights and dignity, and the protection of their precious lands and watersheds. America’s central animating ideal of “liberty and justice for all” may have been poorly instituted in practice, but the hopeful movements it inspired have gone a long way toward creating a more equitable and democratic union.

Today, as compound stresses and fractures undermine the foundation of U.S. empire, the central question remains: will the forces of hate and domination prevail, hijacking today’s crises to justify an authoritarian state and continued aggression? Or will enough people and communities willingly abandon the vision of empire, and reassert America’s cherished values of freedom and democracy?

The answer to that will depend on how we respond to the multiple signs of empire’s passing that are increasingly coming to a head. Here are ten (in no particular order) that are especially worth noting:

1. SKYROCKETING INEQUALITY: It’s now a popular truism that the rich are getting richer while the poor are getting poorer. President Obama often derides the fact that the middle class is shrinking, that average wages are barely keeping up with inflation, and that more and more American children are going to bed hungry. But neither he nor his allies in Congress have been able to halt these trends, much less slow them. According to a 2014 report by the Economic Policy Institute, most recent economic gains have gone to the top 1 percent, who took home more than half (53.9 percent) of the total increase in U.S. income over the past several decades. “Over this period, the average income of the bottom 99 percent of U.S. taxpayers grew by [only] 18.9 percent. Simultaneously, the average income of the top 1 percent grew over 10 times as much — by 200.5 percent,” stated the authors. And that’s just income. Distribution of total wealth when one includes stocks, property, and other assets has also widened to levels now resembling a new gilded age. Indeed, the wealth gap has become so obscene that billionaires themselves are starting to sound the alarms about the stability of American society. One tech billionaire recently wrote a scathing article in Politico arguing that unless something is done to redistribute wealth more equitably, we can expect everyday people falling between the cracks to foment a pitchfork rebellion.

2. DETERIORATING INFRASTRUCTURE: Decades of neglect and underinvestment have left America’s roads and bridges, its waterways and sanitation systems, its power plants and electrical grids (most of which are hopelessly outmoded and geared mostly to run on diminishing fossil fuels), and its harbors and transport hubs in severe disrepair. According to a report by The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), our nation faces an infrastructure investment shortfall of $1.1 trillion by 2020, possibly increasing to $4.7 trillion by 2040. If sufficient investments fail to materialize, Americans can expect increasing risks associated with using deteriorating infrastructure, lower standards of living due to rising costs, and a less and less hospitable climate for commerce, given that businesses also rely heavily on smoothly functioning infrastructure. Shifting even a fraction of the $500+ billion spent annually on the military would be a wise investment in our future.

3. HOLLOWED-OUT DOMESTIC INDUSTRY: It’s little surprise that high-wage U.S. manufacturing would suffer in a race-to-the-bottom, über-competitive global economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. manufacturing employment fell from 19.6 million in 1979 to 13.7 million in 2007. The decade of 2000-2010 was particularly devastating, according to a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation: “Not only did America lose 5.7 million manufacturing jobs, but the decline as a share of total manufacturing jobs (33 percent) exceeded the rate of loss in the Great Depression.” A misplaced faith in so-called “free trade” agreements that favor corporate offshoring of jobs while sacrificing much-needed tariff revenue has contributed mightily to this decline, along with a reluctance to boost training and skills-building among our nation’s growing underemployed and unemployed. The consequences of this “hollowing out” of domestic manufacturing are already being keenly felt in terms of wage stagnation, a shrinking middle class, and diminished consumer spending capacity. Perhaps even more tragic is the growing dependence Americans now have on imported goods, and the fact that we’re rapidly losing our capacity to make tangible goods of real value.

4. THE U.S. DOLLAR’S DECLINE: The status of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency is quickly eroding. Between 2002 and 2012, the dollar declined 54.7% against the euro, which coincided with a near tripling of the U.S. debt, from $5.9 trillion to $15 trillion. Meanwhile, rising powers like Russia, China, Brazil and other emerging economies are separating themselves from the dollar-based global financial system, either by trading in other reserve currencies or actively proposing replacements. All told, foreign countries own more than $5 trillion in U.S. debt, with China alone owning more than $1 trillion. If enough major debt holders started dumping their Treasury notes on the open market, this could cause a panic leading to a collapse of the dollar, and along with it a major decline in the standard of living for most Americans. At this point, the biggest holders of U.S. Treasury notes also rely on American markets for the sale of their products, minimizing the likelihood of any major dollar sell-offs. But with consumer buying power declining, infrastructure deteriorating, and America’s ability to repay debt diminishing, the U.S. dollar’s future standing as the global currency of choice is in doubt.

5. DOMESTIC ENERGY SCARCITY: As recently as 2012, the International Energy Agency (IEA) was predicting that the United States would overtake Saudia Arabia in oil production by 2020, and that North America would be a net oil exporter by 2030. Now, the world’s leading energy agency has done a 180 degree about-face, predicting in its latest report that the United States will have to rely more heavily on Middle East oil in the years ahead, now that North American sources are starting to run dry. Probably the most damaging news to the industry came earlier this year when the U.S. government’s own Energy Information Administration (EIA) recently downgraded its earlier assessment of the Montery Shale “tight oil” fields by a whopping 96%. Admittedly, U.S. energy production has had a “boomlet” recently, with much of it coming from oil and gas extracted from shale. But the IEA now says U.S. production will start to lose steam around 2020, putting more bargaining power back in the hands of OPEC countries like Saudi Arabia and diminishing our influence abroad. Sadly, the search for energy in ever-more remote and sensitive locations has also ravaged the environment, endangering sensitive waterways, gulf zones, the arctic, and even the stability of the global climate.

6. DIMINISHING U.S. INFLUENCE ABROAD: From the end of World War II and throughout the Cold War, U.S. imperialism moved into overdrive. Following the devastating U.S. nuclear bombardment of Japan, American presidents began using the “fight against communism” to justify interventions throughout the globe, most notably in China, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Brazil, Cuba, Indonesia, Chile, Greece, Nicaragua, Grenada, Libya, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and Haiti, among others. Almost always, the actual “threat” was the desire of the local populations in these countries to decide their own economic destinies, rather than submit to open exploitation of their markets by U.S. or Western-based corporations. In recent decades, however, as U.S. debt has grown and popular uprisings like the “Arab Spring” and new populist movements in Latin America have gained traction, American influence has diminished. A resurgent Russia under President Putin has rebuffed U.S. attempts to encircle the country with new NATO members, bases, and pro-Western regimes — even brazenly annexing Crimea with only symbolic protest from a largely helpless United States. American empire is also waning in parts of the Middle East, especially in Iraq where previously deposed Sunni militants have taken control of much of the country’s northern cities and towns, and may even bring down the pro-Western government in Baghdad. The most recent presidential election in Afghanistan has also revealed the growing limits of American influence, with the losing candidate threatening to set up his own parallel government rather than honor the much-lauded democratic process the U.S. military spent so much effort supposedly trying to establish. But perhaps the most telling example is the growing instability in Israel, arguably the U.S. empire’s most beloved ally. In its grossly lopsided conflict with the occupied Palestinians, the Israeli government has increasingly defied attempts by Washington to sit down and hammer out a workable peace agreement, even though time and time again the terms are mainly in their favor. Instead, they use any provocation by Palestinians as an excuse to launch merciless air strikes and invasions of their territories, ensuring a nightmarish future for all concerned. Once the lavish U.S. military subsidies begin to dry up, the state of Israel will have a very difficult time maintaining peaceful conditions, much less its own survival.

7. DEMOCRACY FOR SALE: The high esteem that public officials once held in America seems little more than a quaint memory today, as democratic “contests” for seats from City Hall to the White House now appear more like auctions than elections. Recent Supreme Court decisions, most notably Citizens United, have undone even the most basic restrictions on special interest contributions to political candidates, opening the floodgates to private donors seeking special favors and legislation from candidates once they’re elected to office. Sadly, the trends are only getting worse. In 2008, spending on the U.S. presidential election almost doubled compared with 2004. In 2012, it nearly quadrupled compared with 2008. What’s worse is that as inequality worsens (see above), it’s largely the super-wealthy who are now providing the most donor power. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a mere 0.01% of Americans in 2010 accounted for one-quarter of ALL money given to politicians, parties and political action committees. Little wonder most Americans think the system is rigged.

8. THE RISE OF CHINA: Ever since it shook off its British and Japanese imperial chains and reunified under the banner of Communist revolution, China has been a resurgent global economic superpower. Under Communist Party rule, the country established universal education and health care, modernized its rural agrarian economy, and invested heavily in technology and infrastructure. Decades of internal development and policies that protected domestic industry combined to provide the foundation of modern China’s world-class economy, which has been averaging unrivaled growth rates of 9% each year. Of course, since the 1980s, China has also opened its economy to more direct foreign investment, privatized much of its industry, and slashed its social safety net, creating a new elite class of wealthy capitalists alongside an increasingly exploited class of landless rural peasants and urban poor. As the U.S. has encircled China’s borders with pro-Western governments (Pakistan, South Korea, the Philippines, etc.), China has largely taken a non-aggressive approach, favoring a strategy of developing ever-greater economic relations with countries around the world. Initially, it pursued investment mostly in developing countries for resource purposes, but has recently ramped up investments in industrial regions like Europe and North America. This still leaves China vulnerable to imperial attacks on its investments by the U.S. and other powers (i.e., the U.S./NATO military strikes on Libya, which forced the evacuation of 35,000 of its oil workers and engineers). In response to this threat, Chinese military strategists successfully called for a 19% annual increase in military spending from 2010 through 2015. And while this will still amount to a fraction of what the U.S. empire spends militarily, it foreshadows a new era in Chinese determination to back up its meteoric economic rise with increasing military muscle.

9. THE GROWING SURVEILLANCE STATE: In recent decades, with the dramatic advances in computers, communications, and information technologies, U.S. intelligence and security agencies have developed intricate systems of monitoring and assessing “threats” to American assets both at home and abroad. A shift is happening toward increasing surveillance of the U.S. domestic population, growing numbers of whom find themselves on the margins of society, whether through sudden unemployment, downsizing, or existential angst in a meaning-starved, conflict-ridden materialistic age. Much of what the security apparatus was actually doing remained shrouded in secrecy until very recently, when the heroic actions of former National Security Agency specialist Edward Snowden helped reveal the full extent to which Americans’ civil liberties were being routinely violated. Perhaps most disconcerting among these revelations was the indiscriminate, sweeping process by which virtually every citizens’ phone records, e-mails, purchases, and other important data were being collected, analyzed, and vetted – not solely to assess potential “terrorist” activity, but also to target those deemed “radical” by the NSA. According to The Huffington Post, the NSA recently hatched a plan to discredit a group of “radicalizers” who merely held “extreme” views based on their Muslim faith, a tactic that FBI and NSA officials have employed over the decades against civil rights leaders, environmental activists, and labor organizers. Clearly, the security state is getting nervous. The fact that increasing sums of taxpayer funds and expertise are being used to spy on U.S. citizens doesn’t bode well for the future of American democracy.

10. APOCALYPTIC DREAMING: Rarely does a summer blockbuster season now pass without several mega-budget motion pictures hitting theaters that feature catastrophic, apocalyptic, or wrenchingly dystopian themes. Almost all of the recent super hero flicks have seemingly required that major U.S. cities be bombarded, thrashed, or completely devastated, almost with a feeling of cathartic glee. The zombie genre has also made a powerful comeback, with scores of films released in the last decade alone, including such widely popular flicks as 28 Weeks, I Am Legend, and World War Z. Fantastical, supernatural themes have also been accompanied by increasingly realistic accounts of a world in chaos. Children of Men depicts a world experiencing a plummeting human population due to sudden universal infertility, Contagion tells of a merciless virus that kills millions upon millions in only a few days’ time, and Elysium portrays a world divided where the wealthy elite have fled the earth to live on a luxury satellite while the rest of the planet wallows in squalor and environmental devastation.

All of these signs of U.S. empire’s passing may, at face value, seem deeply disturbing. To be sure, most Americans will face increasingly hard times as the disproportionate wealth that now flows freely through military force to our shores finally begins to slip from our reach. There will be demagogues (indeed, there already are) who will call for more campaigns to reclaim our imperial birthright. They will conjure tales of lost glory to enlist us in more futile wars to maintain our “rightful place” as the world’s greatest superpower. We must ignore their call.

The passing of empire affords us all with an incredible opportunity to reclaim those values that once inspired America to true greatness, and lifted the spirits of all who call this beautiful country our home. Virtues like self-reliance, democratic self-government, and conservation of our land. Current and future generations deserve much better than being saddled with crushing debt, being conscripted into wars in the Middle East and beyond, or wasting away in meaningless jobs hawking more and more needless consumer products. Our nation harbors a wellspring of talented, hardworking, and passionate souls who yearn for the chance to do right by their families and their communities. Rather than bemoan empire’s loss, we can rebuild our cities and towns to work with nature’s cycles rather than against them; we can reforge lost arts, crafts, and industries that were so carelessly discarded in the rush to globalization; and we can revitalize our local democratic institutions and practices that were once the lifeblood of community life, ensuring that everyone has a voice in the great transformations ahead.

We can create a better future. It won’t come without serious challenges. Indeed, it may only come through them.


Clash of the Citadels, Part III (Finale)

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is part three of a three-part sci-fi series chronicling the adventures of several leaders in a post-petroleum, climate-ravaged San Francisco Bay Area in the early 22nd century. It was inspired by John Michael Greer’s cli-fi, post-industrial anthology, After Oil. Read Part I or Part II.

ImageMarch 15, 2115, 0530 Hours, St. Francis Citadel, San Francisco, California Autonomous Region

Bryce couldn’t sleep. Battle strategy was all he could think about. He was set to help lead the armada attack in a little more than an hour. He turned to his sleeping lover, tracing his index finger along his neck, down his spine, and slowly to his buttocks. Would he see him again? Bryce planted a gentle kiss on his neck, and rose to greet the dawn. He dressed and quietly exited his quarters, heading down the corridor to Main Defense. “Morning Chief,” he heard repeatedly from the stream of officers and soldiers he passed. He entered the central planning chamber where Premier Alito, along with more than thirty commanders and captains, had gathered for their final briefing.

All ears were tuned in to an East Bay radio program. The broadcaster said:

“… Some fear an attack could take place as early as this morning. In a statement released yesterday, Council President Nesalla Imani vowed to use all means necessary to protect East Bay residents. She praised Hayward Councilor Brandon Lee for rebuilding ties with Piedmont Citadel. Lee is widely credited for brokering regional water-sharing agreements between many of the Bay Area’s competing citadels, cities, and townships.

In an interview with Oakland Prime Radio, Lee extended his thanks to Piedmont Citadel Premier John Stewart: ‘The premier has not only committed ships to help protect our shores, he has vowed to release a quarter of his citadel’s water flow to East Bay communities in greatest need. We are deeply grateful for his partnership during this crisis. Now is the time for us all to unite in common cause to defend our coastland.’ The premier could not be reached for comment …”

Alara cast a menacing stare at Bryce. She was clearly incensed by this latest development. “Isn’t that sweet? Premier Stewart thinks he can buy his way into the hearts and minds of East Bay lowlanders,” she said. “What a fool. He and his fleet of latecomers are in for a big surprise.”

The SF Defense team poured over the details of their plan, double-checking their weapons inventories and cross-bay attack formations. Their hidden fleet of some 50 ships had already sailed from Baker Beach to Fisherman’s Wharf, where SF soldiers were boarding by the hundreds

“Is each frontline attack vessel fully equipped with bayonets and canon balls?” asked Bryce.

“Every one,” answered his fleet commander. “Once we’ve breached the weakest section of their wall, we should overwhelm them in less than an hour.”

“Just be sure you take out Piedmont’s so-called defense ships first,” said Alara. “We’ll stand watch at the overlook with the solar reflector ray, in case you need an assist.”

“To victory!” Bryce announced, signaling his command team to depart. They marched single file to the northern exit chutes, and caravanned to the waterfront to take command of their vessels.

A thick fog blanketed the wharf, providing a welcome cloak to their armada. Hints of sunlight began piercing the night as the fleet’s 3,000-strong contingent waited for their cue to launch. Bryce wondered what Piedmont Citadel’s new “partnership” might mean for them in the minutes and hours to follow. It was only a matter of time before their “unity” would prove too little, too late.

A deep, reverberating horn sounded from the shore. The pier lighthouse suddenly came to life, its radiant beam slicing repeatedly through the fog layer. It was time. They disembarked, sailing southeasterly in perfect V-formation, with their heavy attack vessels leading the charge. Sailing five ships behind the main attack cruiser, Bryce peered through his eye scope toward the eastern defense wall along Oakland Inner Harbor. Strangely, there was no sign of any ships.

Not in front of them anyway. SF’s lead attack cruiser was showered with flaming canon balls, a dozen of which slammed into the hull, ripping two gaping holes into its port side. Walls of fire consumed the main sails, while dozens of burning soldiers quickly jumped overboard. Bryce hadn’t anticipated such a maneuver: a group of six East Bay attack ships had been waiting for them under the bridge by Yerba Buena Island, and were in perfect position to bombard their offensive line. They continued their deadly volley, managing to sink several more SF attack vessels. Before long, however, return fire from SF’s front line laid waste to their small contingent.

By now, the sun began to rise above the East Bay hills, thinning what remained of the early morning fog. The SF attack fleet reinforced their frontlines, and Bryce lit a signal flare to continue their approach. Once again, he peered through his eye scope, scanning their northern and southern flanks for any more surprises. He refocused on Oakland Inner Harbor. Something was different this time. A hint of motion. And then he saw them: a fast-moving line of defense-class cruisers, sailing one-by-one toward their position. Piedmont Citadel’s fleet. He began counting. Surely, there couldn’t be more than 20, he thought. As the number breached 40, however, he knew the game had changed. They had clearly requisitioned more vessels from the inner delta. This would be a bloodbath.

Still, if they maintained formation, they just might be able to breach the wall. And if Alara can see Piedmont’s expanded fleet from her position, she’ll know to offer her assistance, he thought. They sailed on at full speed, veering northeasterly toward Uptown Harbor, which SF intelligence agents found had the weakest barrier walls. They also just happened to block off an underground “tube-like” corridor leading straight to Regional Hall. This would be their pathway to triumph.

Bryce started to make out the oncoming ships’ masts as their distance rapidly closed. In seconds, they would be within range of Piedmont’s catapult arcs, exposing their fleet to enemy fire. At this point, however, they had no choice. An instant later, Piedmont’s lead vessel was hit with a blistering circle of bright light. Its path cut a deep swath of searing heat through the ship’s central mast, loosening the ropes. They snapped free of the rigging, lacerating several crewmen on deck. The solar ray worked! The blazing circle adjusted itself, burning through the bottom crossbeam and bursting the mast and sails into flame. The ship slowed, veering sharply off course. The vessel directly behind crashed into its stern, starting a pileup of crashed ships. One by one, the solar ray seared through them, turning Piedmont’s frontline ships into little more than smoldering ruins.

Bryce regained his confidence, and his smile. Now they must move quickly to breach the wall.

*   *   *   *   *

March 15, 2115, 0800 Hours, Oakland Central Plaza, Oakland, California Autonomous Region

Desirae mingled among her newfound allies, doing her best to assure them that their bravery would make a difference. As Brandon had predicted, she had made significant strides yesterday, trekking around town from one community hub to the next, listening to people’s hopes and fears, and slowly bringing them into the fold. Once word of Premier Stewart’s water-sharing offer spread amongst the lowlands, people’s sense of optimism grew, as did the number of those willing to join their cause. By last count, over 2,700 citizen recruits had signed up with the defense corps, nearly a thousand of whom now stood guard in front of Regional Hall at Oakland Central Plaza.

Brandon dashed over to her, his CB radio blaring. “They’re breaching the Uptown wall!” he said. “Commander Dolman’s fleet has been decimated. Only about twenty of our defense ships are still in the game.” He took Desirae’s arm, and lowered his voice. “You worked miracles yesterday. I know it’s not easy to hear right now, but because of you, we may still stand a chance.” He kissed her cheek, and rushed off to consult with several field commanders.

The sound of gunfire roared in the distance. Why had SF forces chosen Uptown Harbor to make their way through? It made no sense. Desirae looked around at her comrades, wondering how many of them would survive this day. A feeling of pride overwhelmed her now, as she took in the faces of all the selfless, committed souls standing by her side. In the corner of her eye she saw something strange: a small plume of billowing smoke, rising from the far end of the plaza. The area appeared to be an abandoned stairwell. Where it led, she had no idea. She wandered over for a closer look.

As she came within yards of the stairwell, she noticed a crack in the sealed entryway from where the smoke was coming. “Desirae!” she heard Brandon yell from behind her. “Come back!”

But it was too late. A firestorm of flame, metal, and stone blasted towards her. A flying metal panel sliced into her lower torso, and the impact tossed her 50 feet from the blast zone. She laid under a tree bordering the plaza, wheezing from pain and losing blood rapidly. “Noooo!” she heard Brandon yell. Her vision was fuzzy, but she could make out his likeness moving towards her. Then came the shots, firing mercilessly toward the citizen soldiers assembled in the plaza.

“Focus your fire on the stairwell!” pleaded one of the field commanders. “They’re coming up from the old train tunnels!” Bullets whizzed past her through the air. She saw the SF forces emerge, seemingly in slow motion, as dozens stormed into the plaza, guns blazing. East Bay forces held their ground, showering the invaders with their own punishing fire. But SF soldiers were now half-way across the plaza, flanking the defense bunkers as they made their way toward Regional Hall.

It was too late now to stop more loss of life. But perhaps she could do something to stem the conflict. Desirae fought the pain as she grabbed the grenade from her belt. She held it to her mouth, pulled out the safety pin with her teeth, and threw it as hard as she could toward the stairwell. Metal clanked on stone, becoming fainter as the grenade bounced down the stairs. Moments later, she saw dozens of SF forces blown into the air, along with streams of rock, dirt, and metal. A deep rumbling sound followed as huge swaths of the entryway collapsed, blocking the flow of SF forces.

Desirae managed a slight grin, and slowly turned her head toward the plaza. Fighting continued, but SF forces were now on the run, vastly outnumbered by the East Bay defense line. Brandon ran towards her in shock, yelling something she could not understand. “Thank God you’re alive,” she finally heard him say as he approached. He leaned over her and checked her pulse. “You’re going to be fine, Desirae,” he said calmly, smiling as he took her hand. Several medics arrived to remove the metal section and dress her wounds. She had never known so much pain.

“How many did we lose?” she asked. He looked her in the eyes, trying to hold back the tears. One tear escaped anyway, cleaning a narrow line down his soot-stained cheek.

“Too many,” he said, caressing her shoulder. “But we prevailed. Alito will think twice about ever attacking these shores again. Who knows? She may even face new resistance on her side of the bay.”

“Councilor, are you there?” crackled Commander Dolman’s voice from Brandon’s radio. “If you can hear me, they’re retreating. I repeat, SF’s ships are retreating from Uptown Harbor!”

Brandon turned off his radio, and leaned forward to kiss Desirae’s cheek. She grabbed his neck and moved his lips to hers. They took each other in, soothed by the warmth and wetness of their kiss, if only for a moment.

As they looked around the plaza, they saw hundreds of people laying down their guns and embracing one another. Joy. Relief. Hope. Sadness. All these emotions and more flowed through the East Bay citizen defense corps. For now, the foreboding fear of a pending attack was over. For now.