An alien struggles to understand Earth.
Planet of the Climate Changing Apes
by Steven Faivus, 2014
We passed a pretty, swirling blue planet. Readings showed it was covered in life. Curious, I landed.
I encountered a strange life form. A hairless ape had recently dominated the planet. They covered large areas with a hard, mixed substance. Up rose dwellings and a great variety of structures, including artificial mountains with glassy vertical cliffs and deep, extra-hard roots. Creative, insect-like apes congregated in cities.
They’re on the verge and amidst great scientific advances, yet they are almost comically stuck in the past. Socially too. Although the past fifteen years saw more scientific and technological advances than the preceding four-hundred years combined, these hominids edge ironically, stubbornly, and ignorantly to early self destruction. It looks like they will take many plants and animals with them. All Earth is hostage to their mass extinction event.
Why so bleak?
Why? What's the problem and reason?
Science and technology are sticky. I went to a science professor’s home, a top climate specialist, and froze him in time, taking his form to further investigate. As my brain synchronized with his, I realized more about what was happening on their planet.
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I woke up. Just opened my eyes. Through the dull speckled light, with its faint yellow rectangles stretched from distant streetlights, I calmly acknowledged a crouching figure.
“Hey, what do you want?” I heard myself murmur.
He started to look up, but before I could really see his chimp-like face, the scene faded out as if I had slowly closed my eyes. I guess I went back to sleep.
I woke up in a pale turquoise fiberglass cage. A meticulously groomed ape stood before the cage. He wore purple, lavender, and violet streamers. The wide satin and silk strips hung from his neck and upper chest like thick feathers.
“Doctor Bernard,” the ape said. “I’d like us to have a brief and important talk.”
“Am I dreaming?”
“No, doctor, you are not.”
A few suspended moments passed.
My fuzzy head cleared.
“What do you want to talk about?,” I finally ask.
“You are a climate specialist for the government, are you not?”
In the corner behind the ape, I saw a transparent, light-pink octopus jellyfish jiggle and float in the air like a butterfly.
“Then perhaps you can explain a few, shall we say, incongruities which we are struggling to comprehend.”
“Who are we?” I asked.
“Let’s just say traveler and curious friend.”
He took my dull, neutral stare as an affirmation to continue.
“Given all your advances in science and technology, especially over the last 20 years, why does Earth still use an old, dirty, toxic form of energy, the burning of oil and coal and natural gas? Why are humans ignoring the urgent cry of its scientists?!”
“First of all,” I softly replied, “there hasn't been an urgent cry.”
“Come doctor, the growing danger to life on your rare and beautiful planet has been well documented and publicized for at least 30 years now.”
“We've been busy.” I kept my tired stare.
“I understand…a strange species. You find intelligence only to deny its benefits and rewards. Believe me, doctor,” the ape scolded, “on other planets, beings far less intelligent than you make more sense than you do.”
I said nothing.
“We’ve contemplated simply leaving you alone,” he continued.
The floating jelly swayed its tentacles. “Why should we help them?,” my captor sharply demanded in its direction, as if answering telepathic communication.
“We don’t need your help,” I explained. “Thanks, but we’re finding solutions on our own.”
This cracked him up. The ape laughed until he wheezed and coughed.
After regaining his composure, the furrowed, black-whiskered face settled back into my gaze.
“The gift you have been given is turning into a tragic mess, and you know it.”
“Why tragic? We’re just another life on this planet doing what comes naturally.”
“Is that what you call it?”
Another pause. “Why do you want to help?” I weakly demanded.
“That’s a good question. No real reason. Strange and sad to see. You’ve been given such a great gift, yet you haven’t grown into it yet. If you met a child lost in the woods, would you help?”
My eyes opened slightly.
“In any case, doctor, here we are.”
A long pause. I looked at the blue-green tubes, wondering why they put me in a cage.
“What have you learned about your technology?,” he asked.
“Well, the burning of fossil fuel has proven to be dangerous.”
“What are Fossil fuels?”
“Fossil fuels were made hundreds of millions of years ago in the ground. Coal was made in the carboniferous period, which started 350 million years ago. The earth was covered in swamps and thick ferns. The thick ferns, competing for sunlight, evolved a long sticky molecule called lignin. Lignin glued together the inner heartwood, allowing the plant to grow a trunk and reach its branches and leaves into the sky. Trees were born.
This was a favorable adaptation, and given the warm climate which covered the earth to the poles, these tall ferns covered the globe. Only when they died, the bacteria to decompose the twisty lignin had not yet evolved. When a tree decomposes, the carbon dioxide it absorbed and used in its body gets released back into the air. It took 60 million years for the lignin-eating bacteria to evolve. For 60 million years, carbon was sucked out of the air by early trees and buried in the mud. All these buried trees made coal.
Algae and plankton buried with mud on rich shallow sea floors made crude oil and natural gas.
About 35,000 years ago, humans started to burn coal. Since the mid-1700s, we have refined crude oil to make highly carcinogenic gasoline, which we still rely on for energy, industry, and transportation.
Refining petroleum was a huge breakthrough for humanity, improving all areas of life from transportation to music and food.”
Now it’s monkey’s turn to suspiciously stare. “And you’re still using that same technology, hundreds of years later, well into your computer revolution?”
“We’ve known oil is highly carcinogenic. It poisons earth, air, and sea. A few parts per billion in water or soil is considered a toxic spill. ”
“So why do you still use it?”
“...and why did you come here again?,” I asked, weakening.
“No real reason. We were just passing by and my commander here got curious and wanted to stop. After getting a quick look, he just couldn't understand—”
“What's hard to understand? We got used to a better way of life, and now we can't give it up. We don’t even want to think about it. At any cost.”
“That you achieved marked intelligence is one thing. You spend one fifth of your body’s energy on the brain, making it your most expensive organ. That is not surprising. The universe is filled with creatures such as yourselves who donate at least one fifth of their body energy to the brain.” The smart alien chimp paused, giving me a chance to digest before moving on.
“That you discovered and clung to science is also understandable. Creatures all over the universe are developing their intelligence and discovering science and technology.
But you went on to develop a symbolic system of exchange. Your system is unusual. Money undermines your evolution, perverting your instinct.”
“Our economics, then.” I somberly reflected. “Money has exacerbated our inherent struggle with greed, hierarchy, and violence.”
Another pause ,characteristic to the conversation, but this time the captain broke in unexpectedly, like a peekaboo, popping his face right up against mine.
“Your ‘economy’, as you call it, has blinded you to insanity!,” he snarled against the cage.
“Okay, we have a problem.”
“You have created a system which stops you from making simple, crucial decisions.”
“Is it our system, or our nature?”
He backed away from my cage.
“Why did you put me in a cage, anyway?”
A long pause.
“Have you ever killed a spider, doctor? What would you do if you were me?”
I didn’t answer.
“Why don’t you just stop using fossil fuels if it is causes so much damage?”
“It’s not that simple.”
“And why not?”
“We are addicted, and addiction is never so simple.”
“Addiction? Is that what you call it? You are a scientist and policymaker studying the issue. Surely you can propose a simple solution.”
“As I believe you know, the burning of fossil fuels is creating a deadly situation. Scientists and now finally most people can see this has serious consequences for all life on earth. Humans are causing a major extinction event.
Earth has had several extinction events. Half a billion years ago, before the Cambrian explosion, land blocked the flow of water across the equator. Earth, called ‘snowball Earth’, was covered in a thick layer of ice. When the land finally broke up and the ice melted, plants and animals in the ocean experienced a mind-boggling explosion of evolutionary diversity and ingenuity called the Cambrian explosion. A major innovation was that animals began to process calcium in the ocean water to make a hard substance called a shell, which later became bone.
Another time, about 65 million years ago, a big meteor hit the earth in the Yucatan peninsula in southeast Mexico. This kicked lots of smoke into the air, which circled the globe and blocked out the sunlight. Without sunlight, plants died. Without plants to eat, herbivorous dinosaurs died. Without herbivores to eat, Carnivorous dinosaurs died. The passing of the very successful dinosaurs opened opportunity for small, rodent-like mammals to come out from under the shrubs and evolve into elephants, tigers, humans, and whales.
Today’s extinctions are from humans. You could say our downfall is our success. Scientists predict over half the species of plants and animals will be extinct by 2050 due to human-created climate change.
This would not be the first time a species’ success lead to extinction. After all, over 99.9% of all species that have been on Earth are presently extinct. Life forms come and go. That is the way of evolution and natural selection. Also, all the other hominids, about 20 that came before us, have gone. Why not us too one day?
The mind races. So soon? And how much of nature are we going to take with us? Due to our ignorance? We could drive ourselves and possibly even the planet to extinction. Is it possible we could leave this blue green planet a lifeless rock? Or maybe just make things very uncomfortable for our children?
What is true?
I know there are many possible solutions. One part is this discussion.”
“Well said, doctor. Now you're starting to make a little sense.”
“Again, why do you care? What business is this of yours?”
A strange long pause, looking like trying to not pass or pass a painful fart, or about to start to sneeze, chin tilted a little up and in.
“Did you swallow a frog?,” I thought.
“Where did life come from?,” he continued.
“We’re not sure,” I answered. “Many scientists think it probably just randomly formed from the elements that came out of the volcanoes as the early earth cooled—methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water—with lightening, frequent meteor collisions, and time. This theory is called abiogenesis, or life coming from non-life.
The raw materials for life, nucleotides and amino acids, have been found floating through outer space. Some scientists believe early earth was too harsh to allow for the chemistry of early life. They hypothesize that DNA and life came from outer space.”
“Okay, I'll tell you,” he said, face releasing, forehead tilted slightly to the right, eyebrows a little raised. “About 4 and a 1/2 billion years ago, back when Earth first cooled enough to have land, air, and ocean, we seeded the seas with DNA.
You are our children.” (Is this true/BS? If so, why is he saying it?)
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Back on Earth, I tried to pull a few strings with my mimicked body.
“Senator, why are you hesitating to act?”
“Excuse me, but who are you?”
“Let's just say a concerned observer.”
“You know how many assholes have tried to stir the pot, son?”
“Excuse me senator? I’m a Nobel-prize climatologist. I know the science. The overwhelming majority of the scientific community now acknowledges global warming. The evidence is clear. I'm sure you’ve heard–the debate is over.”
“How many times have scientists gotten it wrong? Every time. That’s the way science works, ain’t it? Science gives theories, not facts.
And you expect us to change everything based on your computer–generated junk? You expect me to let mamsy-pamsy assholes like you tell me what car to drive and what to eat? You're crazy son. This is America. The land of the free.”
“Listen Senator, it's not that complicated. It's not a matter of anyone telling anyone what to do. This is about things we all want. Security and safety for all. Okay, except maybe not our enemies and spiders and ants, cows and especially chicken. We fucking hate chicken.”
“I’ll tell you what this is about,” the senator weakly spat, ignoring my attempt to lighten the mood. “This is about you using your version of science to try to dictate public policy. You’re trying to take advantage of the general public’s lack of scientific literacy. You want to limit the free market, don’t you?”
“Is that what you think this is, someone trying to take away your rights and freedoms? Let's get away from debate senator, shall we? What goes up comes down, right? That's gravity. We trust it.
However, we can also ask questions about gravity. Imagine a rock moving away from the earth after I throw it into the air. What pulls it back down? The air? The earth doesn't grab or suck the rock down, so why does it fall? The word ‘gravity’ doesn't explain this ghostlike mystery.”
The senator let me ramble on. His droopy, passive yet attentive eyes gazed slightly up towards my hairline. It was a little magic trick from my planet, a way of gently hypnotizing through the eyes. Yup, he was tilted.
“Consider the moon,” I continued. “The big heavy ball wants to go straight out into empty space, but Earth's gravity pulls the moon into its orbit around the earth. But how can the Earth pull hard on the moon through a quarter of a million miles of empty space?
It seems impossible. No strings, no matter, but a consistent, strong pull. The moon acts as if it’s attached to the earth by a huge, thick cable. Only there is no cable.
The moon pulls on the earth, too. That’s why the oceans swell up under the moon’s tug, creating daily high and low tides.
Here's another strange observation. Even though they are not touching, there is friction between the moon and Earth. Friction happens when surfaces rub together and heat up, like a tire and the road.
When the moon began, scooped out of the early molten earth by an asteroid about 5 billion years ago, the moon was much closer to the earth and faster. Over time, the friction between them has caused them to slow down and move further apart.
Einstein’s general relativity makes extremely accurate predictions about gravity. It states that matter bends the space-time continuum, which creates gravity. Now what does that mean? There’s always room for question and doubt, but the theory works.”
The Senator snapped awake. “What the hell are you blabbing on about?,” he blurted. “What does any of this have to do with a hill of beans?”
“So for any theory,” I continued, “there’s room for questioning and doubt. We don’t fully understand gravity, yet we don’t doubt a ball will fall back down when you throw it up. Even something as simple as throwing a ball up and watching it fall poses deep theoretical questions.
Think of the theory of climate change like that-it’s happening, whether we like it or not. Global warming and climate change does follow from the carbon dioxide humans are putting into the air. It’s now a simple fact we need to respond to, not debate.”
“There/Here is some simple science, like gravity, we all need to understand and respond to.”
Like a frog on a tray, he would never have let me lecture on like this if I wasn’t tilting him. The question was if any of this was making it through his blank stare. Is he paying attention in any way? “Hey,” I thought to myself, “we plant seeds.”
“Sunlight streams through the air and heats the surface of the earth,” I lectured (on to) the senator, acting out the words with my hands. “Heat rises from the heated earth. This rising heat is reflected back down to earth by greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide. This causes global warming and climate change.
All atoms and molecules are like little springs which jiggle at their own frequencies. Frequency means how fast the molecule vibrates when it jiggles. It turns out that atoms and molecules each jiggle at their own unique speeds. Because of this, we can read the elements and conditions from starlight, and understand how light waves and matter interact. Greenhouse gases ,” I explain to the senator, “vibrate at low frequencies. These low frequencies match and reflect earth’s heat as it tries to rise.
The greenhouse gas itself, like a blanket or coat, doesn’t make heat. A coat is warm because it holds your body heat in.
Carbon dioxide, like all greenhouse gases, can jiggle at the low frequencies of the heat, reflecting it back down to earth. Nitrogen and Oxygen makes up 99% of the atmosphere. These gases are too tightly bound to jiggle with the low infrared frequencies of the heat rising from the earth. The heat passes right through the nitrogen and oxygen gases. However, the heat rising off the Earth, does not pass through the greenhouse gas. It is absorbed and readmitted–sent much of the heat back–bounced back down to earth. This makes a warming of the globe’s average temperature and climate change. Melting poles. Rising sea levels. Extreme storms. Drought. Record breaking temperatures. Fires. Acidification of the oceans. Extinctions.”
Again, the senator broke out of his trance as I allowed him to. “Are you done? Do you think I haven't heard this before? Since the invention of street corners, we've had folks preaching on their soapbox about the coming doom and gloom and why everyone must do things their way. Where’s your long dirty beard and ‘The End Is Near’ sign?”
“Look Senator, this is about values we share. We all want safety and happiness for our children.
Climate science is complex. The earth has been through many changes over the last 4-1/2 billion years. The Earth's climate has swung wildly. 750 to 580 million years ago, the glaciers covered the “snowball” earth. Earth used to tilt 50° with respect to the sun. This snowball Earth ended with the Cambrian explosion.”
“You already explained that,” the senator weakly protested.
“Today it tilts 21°. The sun varies how much heat it gives off. This shape of the Earth's orbit around the sun changes. Today, speaking of global warming, we are actually in an ice age face of the earth, where the CO2 in the atmosphere is low. Because of this complexity, people are able to confuse the central issue about the dangers of human CO2 in the atmosphere.
Plants take in carbon to build their tissues. Animals eat plants and each other. Carbon is the fundamental skeleton atom of all life. Carbon, with 4 outer electrons on its outer shell, a shell which holds 8 electrons, is a common, small act that is half full and half empty. For this, carbon connects.
“So, commander,” asked the alien ape, “what are we going to do next? Let’s take a minute and back up, explore the lay of the land and our options. We are dealing with a filthy and dangerous species. No one would judge us for squashing them. Is that what you’re thinking? Come now, captain, surely the thought’s crossed your mind.”
“Since when are we senseless murderers?,” the commander finally responded with vibrating shades of transparent jelly.
“But this would not be senseless,” the ape asserted. “They’re senseless!! Not only are they in the process of taking themselves down, it’s unclear just how much of their rare and beautiful planet they will take with them.”
“So you want to kill them because they might kill. Where’s the high ground there?”
“Sir, I’m talking pragmatic, not idealistic!”
“Not necessarily. We don’t know for sure what will happen next on this strange little planet. You seem more than a little curious. Why?”
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“There’s something else sir.”
“Along the lines of don’t be so sure, don’t pigeon-hole them.”
“They’re reality makers-shape shifters.”
“Oh really...how can that be, given their base struggles and addictions? They can not see clearly enough to shift.”
“It’s not like that, not a gift they study and earn. It’s something their brains do involuntarily, collectively, subconsciously.” He paused, then said wistfully: “I found them to be surprisingly creative and tender.”
“Don’t tell me you’re having second thoughts.”
“About exterminating those pests and saving the planet.”
“Ya...I’m not so sure anymore. They could pull a rabbit out of a hat.., you know, do something unexpected. There is a strange potential here, almost technological.”
“What do you mean?”
“What (do you mean, what do I mean)?”
“What do you mean ‘something unexpected’?”
“Truly sir, there are too many variables to be sure what will happen (next). Perhaps technology will come to the rescue. There is talk of far cheaper solar panels than anyone had thought possible. People could find a common ground based on survival.”
“You know what you’re talking is a bunch of bullshit?”
Years later, two robots are stranded outside .A strange new “snow” begins to fall.
“What is all this motherfucking shit?”
“The fuck if I know. Some kinda snow?”
“That ain’t no fucking snow. It’s not cold or wet.”
“Then what the fuck is it?”
“It’s hard and crusty, kinda flakey. Reminds me of something...”
“It’s fucking dandruff!”
“No fucking way. How could that be? Unless there’s some huge motherfucking dog up there scratching at its crusty fucking ass.”
“You guessed it. You’re so fucking smart.”
They both stopped talking and looked up in to grey, nondescript sky.
“What the fuck’s happening?’
“Fuck if I know.”
“Like they always say, not every stick matches every line.”
“Who the fuck says that?”
“You know, every motherfucker, like don’t judge a book by its cover and different strokes for different folks and dancing to the beat of a different drummer and all that shit.”
“What the fuck does any of that have to do with this shit?” Clumps hit their heads. Jagged white flakes piled above their boots.
“What the fuck is this shit?! This is some seriously sick shit.”
“Right, like I said, this stick doesn’t fit any motherfucking line.”
“How the fuck is that supposed to help us.”
“It isn’t. This is just some strange ass shit.”
“What is this shit?”
“I got a bad feeling about this... We should have listened back then.”
I’m not sure if any of this is working, but now I really want to keep trying.
I find a naked man sleeping fretfully half out of a sleeping bag in the park.
I wake him up. Tell him about this shit, about what’s really going down. He doesn’t give a shit. He already has ideas of his own, thank you very much. And he wants to sleep.
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