creative nonfiction by Sasha Vivelo
If a time traveler had told me in 1985 that thirty-five years later I’d be a scientist studying the fundamental biological processes underlying one of the largest fluxes of carbon between the biosphere and atmosphere, I’d have said they needed to reset their time travel coordinates, because they were talking to the wrong twelve-year-old kid. The boys were the ones who were going to grow up to be scientists—something my classmates didn’t let me forget.
“Action Is Urged to Avoid Global Climate Shift” -- Headline in The New York Times, 1985
Let’s say our imaginary time traveler is me. A woman you’d hardly notice in a crowd. She visits a school housed in a brick building. She walks through gray hallways she knows well, where she once pretended she was walking through the belly of a whale. She finds the door she’s looking for and waits outside. Adolescents spill from the classroom door. A boy rasps, “Don’t touch me, toilet scum!” to a girl whose coat brushes his sleeve on her way out. Several kids corner a smaller classmate, slam him into the wall, and shout insults at him before letting him go. A boy casts a final slur over his shoulder at the one girl who remains in the emptying classroom. As he passes me, he catches my gaze by accident, with raw hollow fear in his eyes. The fear isn’t of me, this non-threatening stranger passing through. No, the fear is always there, the burden he can’t shuffle off no matter how much bravado he spills.
The time traveler walks into the classroom where young me gathers her belongings. She’s still all child at that age, already over five feet tall but not yet 80 pounds. Young me glances through the window at the buses lining up outside and hefts a twenty-five pound pack onto her slim shoulders. I, the traveler, tell the girl, You’re beginning to suspect: this is humanity. We humans are many things. We’ll walk through fire to protect our loved ones. We’ll give up our dreams for a cause. We’ll even travel back through the years to let you know you’re not alone. But we’re also vicious. Careless. Destructive. Your life will get better. But some things will never change.
She walks right through me. To go home. To do her homework. To play a few rounds of board games with her parents. To chase the family dog in joyful circles under a darkening sky. And to come back the next day for another eight hours of steady harassment. In a year’s time, she’ll fight to stay in this school, even though she agrees with her parents that things have fallen apart, that life would be better elsewhere. Because she doesn’t want to let the haters drive her out of her school. In the end, she’ll agree to leave. But she’ll know she never gave up. She never hid under the covers and refused to go to school. She never even gave the abusers the satisfaction of an emotional reaction.
“Global Warming Resumed in 1985, Climate Data Show” – Headline in The New York Times, 1995
In reality, I haven’t visited the belly of the whale in decades. Yesterday, I spent the day in an otherwise deserted lab, manipulating tiny quantities of liquid in inch-long tubes, extracting RNA from fungal tissue. From RNA we can learn which genes were expressing proteins at the time the tissue was harvested. And, from this, maybe we’ll one day be better able to predict how much carbon decomposer fungi release to the atmosphere when they break down dead plant material. It’s one of many thousands of pieces of the climate change puzzle. We’ll need to put all the pieces together to get accurate climate predictions.
But the reason I do this isn’t that I think it will help stop global warming. I think it won’t.
It doesn’t surprise me that world leaders have been ignoring the crisis for decades. It doesn’t surprise me that those who stand to profit from fossil fuels pour dark money into lobbies against climate action. It doesn’t surprise me that many of those people know the truth yet sacrifice the greater good in service to their short-term personal gain. By twelve, I understood how evil can take over a social system. How casually, how remorselessly, a few petrified souls, terrified of losing their advantage, can trample others’ present and future.
“'Bleak' U.N. Report on a Planet in Peril Looms Over New Climate Talks” –Headline in The New York Times, 2019
I don’t expect the voices of thousands of scientists, activists, and concerned general citizens to sway those in power. I don’t think the urban centers on this planet will switch to green energy, adopt low-carbon food production, or shift to sustainable transportation infrastructure in time to avert the brunt of the temperature rise that lies ahead. Global change is now inevitable. But it matters that we don’t give up. Or hide under the covers. That way, even in a warming world, we can build a future on a foundation of optimism instead of bleakness.