Story which contains the science of the greenhouse effect, the history of fossil fuels and the history of extinction events.
An alien struggles to understand Earth. We need an extraterrestrial visit. What would you say to humans if you were a concerned visitor from another planet?
Planet of the Climate Changing Apes
by Steven Faivus, 2015
We passed a swirling blue planet. Readings showed 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 chemical called concrete. Dwellings rose up, including artificial mountains with vertical glass cliffs and deep, extra-hard roots. Creative, insect-like apes swarmed to the cities. Pretending to be civilized, they reeked havoc.
They’re on the verge and amidst great achievement, yet they’re almost comically stuck in old technology. 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. Who knows how many plants and animals they will take with them. All Earth is hostage to their mass extinction event.
Why so bleak, almond cheek?
Science and technology are sticky. They’re tricky. 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 learned more about their planet.
* * * * * * *
I woke up. Just opened my eyes. Through the dull speckled light, with its faint yellow rectangles stretched by 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 see his face, the scene faded as if I 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 in front of the cage. Wide lavender strips hung from his neck and upper chest like thick feathery armor.
“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?”
In the corner behind the ape, I noticed a transparent light-pink jelly wriggle and float in the air like an octopus butterfly.
“Then perhaps you can explain a few, shall we say, incongruities which we are struggling to comprehend.”
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Let’s just say an explorer and her curious friend.”
He took my neutral stare as a sign to continue.
“Given all your advances in science and technology, especially over the last twenty years, why does Earth still use an old, dirty, toxic form of energy, the burning of oil, coal, and natural gas? Why are humans ignoring the urgent cry of its scientists?!”
“First of all,” I softly replied, “there hasn't exactly 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.”
“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 yours make far more sense than you do.”
I didn’t respond.
“We’ve contemplated simply leaving you alone,” he continued with a suddenly businesslike tone.
The floating jelly jiggled its tentacles. “Why should we help them?,” my captor sharply demanded in its direction.
“We don’t need your help,” I interrupted. “Thanks, but we’re doing just fine.”
This cracked him up. The ape laughed until he wheezed and coughed.
Regaining composure, the furrowed, leathery plates of his shiny face settled back into my gaze. “Your gift is turning into a tragic mess, and you know it.”
“Why tragic? We’re just another species on this planet doing what comes naturally.”
“Is that what you call it?”
“Why do you want to help us?” I weakly demanded.
Another pause. “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.
Is this a test? “Well, it’s a double-edged sword,” I groped.
“What do you mean? Explain yourself.”
Maybe this is my chance to get out of here. “Every advance is problematic. Einstein’s famous revelation about matter and energy lead to nuclear bombs and nuclear energy. Coal and oil have fueled technological advancement for hundreds of years. Yet the burning of fossil fuel has proven to be dangerous to the environment.”
Do they want to hear me lecture? “Fossil fuels were made hundreds of millions of years ago. Coal was made in the Carboniferous period, 350 million years ago. The earth was covered in swamps and thick ferns competing for sunlight. Some plants evolved a long sticky molecule called lignin. Lignin glued together the inner wood, allowing a hard trunk to climb into the air. Branches and leaves spread out high in the sky. Trees were born.
This was favorable. Warm, humid air-thick with CO2 and Oxygen-blanketed the globe. The tall tree ferns thrived from pole to pole. When they died, rolling to the bottom of murky swamps, the bacteria to decompose the sturdy lignin had not yet evolved. When a tree dies today, bacteria eat the wood, releasing back into the air the carbon dioxide that the tree had absorbed and used in its life. For 60 million years, back in the Carboniferous period, Carbon was sucked out of the air by early trees and buried in the mud without decomposing. These buried trees turned into coal.
Crude oil and natural gas were made when Earth had many shallow seas. Most oil was made during the Mesozoic period, from 250-65 million years ago. The warm shallow seas were filled with algae and plankton, especially tiny snowflake-shelled diatoms. This organic material settled to the bottom. Buried with mud, separated from oxygen, the great pockets of shallow seas became today’s oil fields.
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. Refining petroleum was a huge breakthrough for humanity, improving all areas of life from transportation to music and food. Unfortunately it is poisoning our environment and making dangerous changes to our climate.”
Now it’s the simian alien’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 again did you come here?,” I asked, weakening, getting defensive, challenging his authority to interrogate me.
“No real reason,” he lightly answered. “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?,” I interrupted. “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. So instead of waking up, we fight like we always have.”
“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 primate paused, giving me a chance to digest this 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 developed a hard symbolic system of exchange: money. This derailed you. Money is a tool and motivation for human’s worst tendencies-hierarchy, greed, and clan violence. Profit is more valuable than reason. Money undermines your evolution, perverting your instinct for reason.”
“Money also funds and motivates positive innovation and freedom," I pushed back. "C'mon, money must be everywhere.”
“No, it’s not. Not your style. Don’t you get it? Intelligent life figures it out. At an early point, intelligent species develop the technology to lift themselves out of tooth-and-nail hierarchy and competition. Humans already passed this stage. Everyone can be wealthy. You have that ability. Life on your planet deserves clean energy. You have that technology.”
“Our economics, then.” I somberly reflected. “Money has exacerbated our inherent struggle.”
Another pause, but this time the captain broke in unexpectedly, like a peekaboo, popping his face right up against mine.
“Your ‘economics’ have 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?”
“Why don’t you just stop using fossil fuels if it is causes so much damage?”
“It’s not so simple,” I replied.
“And why not?”
“We are addicted, and addiction is never so simple. The oil comes up from the ground. It’s free money.” I rubbed my eyes. “I’m dreaming. I don’t know what I’m saying.”
“Addiction? Is that what you call it? For twenty years you have been a scientist and policymaker studying the issue. Surely you can propose a simple solution.”
Flushed, I feel my chances slipping. Try as I might, I can never wrap my mind around a simple solution. I don't want to know what's next.
Okay, let me try. Give it thought; identify the problem. Let’s go. “As you know, humans are creating a major extinction event,” I began. “Let me try to frame this. Earth has had several extinction events in its long history.
Half a billion years ago, land blocked the flow of water across the equator. ‘Snowball’ Earth was covered in a thick layer of ice. Cells that couldn’t adapt to the harsh conditions went extinct. When the land finally broke up and the ice melted, plants and animals in the ocean exploded with the evolutionary diversity and ingenuity of the Cambrian explosion. Cells linked together to make multi-cellular organisms, differentiated, and began to sexually reproduce. Animals began to process calcium in the ocean water to make a hard substance called a shell, which later became bone.
Two-hundred-and-fifty million years ago, the Permian extinction decimated life on Earth. Carbon Dioxide from massive Siberian volcanoes caused the climate to quickly warm. The heated ocean water spawned bacteria which released methane, a greenhouse gas stronger than CO2. The greenhouse effect spiraled out of control. Roughly nine out of ten species became extinct. It took 10 million years for life to fully return, starting the reign of the dinosaurs.
All earth’s geological extinctions were caused by natural forces. But today’s major extinction event is caused by humans. As you point out, this can be avoided. Scientists predict over half the species of plants and animals will be extinct by 2050 due to human-created climate change.”
I decided it was time to show some remorse. “But why? How many of the plants and animals will we take with us? Due to our ignorance? Or worse, our willful neglect. We could drive ourselves and possibly even the planet to extinction. Are we going to leave this blue green planet a lifeless rock? What are we leaving for our children?
What should we do? I know there are many possible solutions. One part is this discussion.”
“Now you're making some sense, doctor. At least you're starting to think and question.”
“Again, why do you care?” I looked into his wide dark eyes. “What business is this of yours?”
A long strained pause, the alien’s chin tilted up and nose twitched open as if about to sneeze.
“Did you swallow a frog?,” I thought.
“Where did life on Earth come from?,” he continued/quizzed/queried.
“We’re not sure,” I answered. “Most scientists today think life evolved from elements blown out of volcanoes as the early earth cooled—methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water. The fossil record shows that life slowly emerged over Earth’s five-and-a-half billion year history. This theory is called Abiogenesis, or life coming from non-life.
Lipids formed fatty bubbles in ponds, leading to cells. Energized by lightening and frequent meteor collisions, nucleotides and amino acids, the raw materials of life, would be common to go inside the bubbles. Nucleotides and amino acids are even 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 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.”
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After leaving his home, I tried to pull a few strings with the Professor's 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 asses have tried to stir the pot, son? You think you know more than me? I'll have you know I am very well informed. You're trying to push your thin science. But it's not going to work around here, no sir.”
“Excuse me senator. I’m a Nobel-prize climatologist. I know the science. The International scientific community now accepts global warming as fact, like gravity. 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 based on your computer-generated fancy footwork? You expect me to let mamsy-pamsy fakes 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 really hate chicken.”
“I’ll tell you what this is about,” the senator weakly spat, ignoring my attempt at humor. “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 know-how. 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 ghost-like mystery.”
"You're crazy, sir," he softly murmured. 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 4.5 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 heck 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 you don’t doubt a ball will fall back down when you throw it up.
Think of climate change like that-it’s happening, whether we like it or not. Senator, global warming and climate change follow from the carbon dioxide humans are putting into the air. As I said, it’s a simple fact we need to respond to, not debate. Here is some simple science we all need to understand.”
Like a frog on a tray. He never would have let me lecture like this if I hadn't tilted him. The question was if any of it was making it passed his blank stare. Like hypnotized suggestions, I planted seeds of knowledge.
“Sunlight streams through the air and heats the surface of the earth,” I continue, acting out the words with my hands. "The heated ground releases infrared radiation up into the air. Some of the rising infrared radiation is absorbed and re-emitted by the greenhouse gases in the air, especially the Carbon Dioxide. About half of the re-emitted IR goes back down to earth. The returning infrared radiation turns back into heat. This causes the globe to warm and the climate to change in new and dangerous ways. Melting poles. Rising sea levels. Extreme storms. Drought. Record breaking temperatures. Fires. Acidification of the oceans. Extinctions.
You can think of the CO2 molecules like little springs. Frequency is how fast the springs vibrate. Greenhouse gases,” I explain to the senator, “vibrate at low, or slow, frequencies. Infrared Radiation vibrates at the same low frequencies. That is why the CO2 absorbs and re-emits the rising IR.
Nitrogen and Oxygen makes up 99% of the atmosphere. Their springs are too tight to jiggle with the low frequencies of the infrared radiation. Unlike the greenhouse gases, the IR passes right through the nitrogen and oxygen."
It was time to let him out of his trance. “Are you done?," he snapped awake. "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 ‘End Is Near’ sign?”
“Look Senator, this is about values we share. We all want safety and happiness for our children."
"We'll see son, we'll see."
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“So, commander,” asked the alien ape, “what are we going to do next? Let’s take a moment 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 of doing? Come on captain, I know 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?”
“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 ‘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.”
"How long you gonna give them?"
"Depends how things go."
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Forty years later, two robots are stranded outside.
“What is all this stuff?”
“I don’t know. (Pause.) Some kinda snow?”
“This is not snow. It’s not cold or wet.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s hard and crusty, kinda flakey. Reminds me of something...”
“No way. How could that be? Unless there’s some huge dog up there scratching its crusty behind.”
“You guessed it. You’re so smart.”
They both stopped talking and looked up into grey, nondescript sky.
“Like I know.”
“Like they always say, not every stick matches every line.”
“Who says that?”
“You know, everyone, 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 poo.”
“What does any of that have to do with this?” Clumps hit their head. Jagged white flakes piled above their boots.
“What is this?! This is seriously sick.”
“Right, like I said, this stick doesn’t fit any line.”
“How is that supposed to help us.”
“It isn’t. It's just something strange.”
“What is this?”
“I got a bad feeling about this... We should have listened back then.”
"Here's a better feeling. This is just one possibility, one road in the quantum harmony of probabilities."
"What are you talking about? Get the heck out of my way!"
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I’m not sure if any of this is working, but now that I know what I know I really want to keep trying.
I find a man sleeping tossed half out of a sleeping bag in the park.
I wake him up. Tell him about this, about what’s really going down. He doesn’t care. He already has ideas of his own, thank me very much. And he wants to sleep. He has a point.
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Recorded Conversation between the Ape Alien Commander and his Floating Jelly Superior:
“What do you think?”
“You know, what do you think about what we were talking about before?”
“I'm not sure. It's a pickle.”
“It is, sir. We don't generally interfere, do we?”
“No. Except in extreme cases such as this.”
“And what do you plan to do?”
“I'm not sure.”
“I think they can do it, sir.”
“What? Why would you say such a thing?”
“They’re still evolving.”
“It's not over, is it?”
“No, not yet.”
“Why did the monkey’s brains start to grow, sir?”
“I'm not sure. It was a direction the whole mammal family was going in, I suppose, becoming more social and able. Monkeys got it, then apes even more.”
“Now what, sir?”
“Now they've created artificial intelligence. Yet their animal instincts remain unchecked. Imagine; ape with a gun. What would happen? What to do?”
“It's not over yet, sir.”
The jelly quivered, flashes of silver reflecting within its interior.
The ape alien continued. “They're still reaching for the potential of this brain they inherited.”
This riled the commander. “Oh really? On what evidence? True I see culture, food, dance, art, music, poetry, story, conversation…all wonderful arts cultivating the potential of the human brain. And their art of love in all its forms. Yet cruel, endless fights for hierarchy of territory abound, covering the planet. Their intelligence. Why don't they apply their intelligence?! It's like I said, commander, ape with a gun.”
“No, sir, they are not just apes. Besides the arts and culture you mentioned, there is something else.”
“Sure. They have an extreme ability for destruction.”
“No, sir, something else. Something beyond the obvious.”
“They can love, sir.” There was a sniffle, and alien ape's nose quivered up to a beveled, tearing eye.
“So do the more intelligent monkeys,” the commanding jelly retorted, unmoved. “They are loving and compassionate to their injured family returning from battle. But this is often the other side of violence. And often their ‘love’ leads to violence.
Has there ever been an animal as vicious as humans on Earth? I don't think so. Not even close. And now, as might make sense, they lay slaughter to the very environment all life depends on.”
“True, true, sir. But none of this is anyone's fault, correct? It's just an arm of nature, their big, developing brain.”
“I think we'd better pull the plug, and I suspect you know it's true, too.”
“No, sir, I don't.”
“That's what I've been trying to tell you.”
“Come out with it, then.”
“This latest thing, about CO2 and the environment, is a new thing for humans. It's the first time something they all are doing will severely negatively effect everyone. So it's their first Collective Cause.
This is huge, sir. And their brain is developed enough to understand. Their greatest challenge is also their greatest opportunity, sir.”
“Don't throw cute jargon at me commander. What are you getting at? I'm about to pull the plug on this species to save their beautiful planet.”
”Don't do it, sir. It's the wrong thing to do!”
“What are you wailing about, commander?”
“It's not nothing. You’re yelling and crying. Now for God's sake, get to your point. Why should we just fly away from here?”
”They never had something to unite them, sir. This could be it. They all have to change together sir, to collaborate and solve this problem together.”
“What the devil are you blathering about? Humans prove themselves to be vicious, ignorant, and very dangerous.”
“In my studies, sir, I have found a hidden factor, sir.”
“Now you are yelling. Calm down.”
“All right. I’ll try to get to my point.
They are a young species. They have been touched with a magical occurrence, consciousness, intelligence, reflection, love. We know it well. It happened to us and so many we visit on our travels. Yet that doesn’t make it any less miraculous.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
”I feel it. I can’t explain. It happened when I took their form. I feel a connection, a potential, a love that I can’t ignore or turn from. If you decide to destroy them, I want to go too.”
“Commander, you've gone mad.”
“So be it sir. I've got the craze. I swear it's true. If you decide to exterminate them, I want to go too.”
“What has gotten into you?”
“As I said, I can't explain. They can do it. They can continue to evolve into a creature at peace with itself and its environment. They haven't been given the chance yet. Their environment has been favorable and accommodating for at least 15,000 years. Just now, due to their activities, the environment is tipping.
Now their brain has a real environmental challenge to surmise. And the solution is in collaboration, cooperation, further human evolution. They are still malleable. Their instincts and behavior are not stuck. Look at how their brain works. The complex connections and patterns are not fixed.”
“Commander,” the jelly said quietly, “you haven't a shred of evidence in their long history to support this presumption.”
“True, because this is new to them in their young history. But they can figure it out.”
“By the theory of evolution, the more peaceful minded would have to survive at a greater rate to pass on their genes. How do you envision this happening?”
“This will be a little different, sir. An evolution of consciousness, so to speak. It does not take some to live while others die. There are no enemies nor heros, but a need for ongoing cooperation and collaboration. No one can point fingers. This evolution can work with the brain that humans already evolved now several hundred thousand years ago. It's a re-calibration, if you will. A refocus.”
”Please, commander, speak in terms we know. Do not give in to their whimsical double talk!”
“I can’t help it, sir! I told you, this happened when I took their form.”
The two stood in a long silence, contemplating their words and decisions.