Once upon a time the only thing people could see was doom. Of course the time in question has been literally every moment of human history. All the earthquakes and sunsets and high tides; every fire falling from the sky, or giant rock hurtling towards earth, or the solar eclipse that gave birth to the terror that the sky was falling; with all the inexplicable monsters and diseases roaming the land, stomping and eating everything in its path; the greater storms, the colder, or the melting ice. Everything was always getting worse. But for all of the valid things to fear, for every hole in the universe that would some day suck everything inside, there was still a debate over what might come at the very end. Some people chose God (or whatever idea of such an entity they devised to give their lives meaning), while others proposed theories based in cryptic science, ancient mythology, barbaric philosophy and, worst of all, ‘alternative history.’ Each of these ideas could be stripped down to “the obvious order of things. The natural evolution of the rise and fall of life. Everything was connected. Everything must have a beginning, a middle, and an end, we all know. But it’s the middle that really matters. The polar extremes are simply death and birth, some endlessly reincarnating cycle. It is only in the middle that we might come to an understanding of why.
Damien Cooper believed that he knew everything there was to know. Growing up a single child in far northern Wisconsin, Damien always tried to identify himself as different from everybody else. He had been telling his peers that he had superpowers since first grade. Now, fifteen years later and still a sophomore in college (he was presently attending his third school in the third state over the past three years, his composite grade point average 1.25), he was still trying to convince people. He would tell the younger kids who lived in the dorm that he could read their minds. This was pure parlor trick because, if nothing else, Damien had enough experience with stoners and wannabe cool college kids to know that their thoughts were generally very limited: love, sex, death and worry.
The latest craze that had caught Damien up was ‘environmentalism,’ which started out as a dense, through, and very difficult to understand ground zero science, but had since expanded into a hip social movement that would make a 21 year-old with a car into a legitimate pussy magnet to all these doubtful and uncertain girls looking to forget who they once were.
Damien had never really cared about the environment prior to arriving at the University of Southern Connecticut. At his other schools, frozen wastelands in Wisconsin and another in Minnesota, the only people who cared about the environment were the outliers, or the right-wing fuckers who intentionally pretended not to care. Each of them were serious groups of very angry people and, even if he were fucking one of them, Damien knew that there was no fun to be had. They were cold, dry, humorless. They would not listen to him reading their minds. When he told them they were worried about the apocalypse, they even took this seriously, at first condemning the very idea of a religious reckoning, or shouting down his blasphemy, before styling environmental catastrophe as a conspiracy theory or the actual cause for the end of the world.
“But is it really,” Damien asked one time. “I mean, sure, humanity won’t survive any of these changes, but the earth? Won’t the earth still be fine? It really isn’t the end of the world then, is it? It’s just the end of us.”
Remarks like this were not taken kindly. It was almost the same as if he had thrown a Styrofoam cup out of the window of his moving car onto a compost heap, poisoning everything. Or maybe he asked aloud what the Christians would do if Jesus came back with a hunger for black cock. Damien was slapped in the face. He was told to “GET OUT!!!”
At an environmental revival meeting on campus, however, Damien was truly born again. It was almost like being baptized by a rotten gas fire that was water, and coming out having seen the deepest meaning of the world. The hurricanes were rampaging, and the extreme hot and cold was certainly ravaging the earth. Wildfires were spreading, oceans were rising, and sinkholes were swallowing up whole towns. Soon there would be no safe place left on earth. We would devolve and return to the caves. How could we ever battle this terminal cancer we had unleashed on the planet?
In the beginning Damien had tried to take it with a sense of humor, perhaps not yet understanding just how dire and immediate the consequences of climate change were. He would snidely say things like, “I’m gonna buy land in Antarctica and be the last billionaire on earth,” or, “I bet there will be about a hundred trillion more flies growing out of the mounds of filth.” But no one was laughing. No one could see anything to laugh at. Nothing in life was funny when it was nearing its end, all the young people believed.
What made Damien most crazy was these stupid fucking holy roller assholes who denied the existence of the danger. Even worse were those giddy motherfuckers who kept chanting nonsense like “God’s plan,” and “Second Coming,” as though they were happy we had ruined the world because at least their thousand year old prophecies would come true. He could not understand how anyone could be so stupid to deny the existence of their doom. All the science was there, easy to read and laid out in front of them! Were we all so fucking lazy?
The answer was yes, at least as far as we might consider Damien Cooper. He had taken numerous environmental studies out of the school library (and was presently failing Environmental Sciences at school, having shown up to class twice). He had watched at least part of a handful of documentaries on global warming. He had even bought a book once, which sat uncracked on the desk in his dorm room, something extreme and very urgent called The Earth Dies Screaming: Our Ten Thousand Year War Against Mother Nature. This was an independently published pamphlet, the author’s name ‘Anonymous.’ Anonymous purported to be a high level staffer at the EPA who had been censored and told not to talk about the devastating truth any longer.
Damien never read any of these studies. He found science very boring. Why not just get high and watch horror movies and never grow up? And what did he need facts for anyway? Didn’t he already know the truth? Wasn’t the truth so fucking obvious that only a complete moron wouldn’t see it?
The day came when the campus environmental club organized a protest outside of a nuclear plant two and a half hours away in Salem, New Jersey. The place even had the arrogance to name itself Nuclear Testing Site. Damien perfectly expected them to be blowing up bombs, and they would probably kill them all before they even got in sight of the place, at least making them martyrs to the cause. But this time he was wrong, the van slowly crawling over the highway, seeing the ominous fat towers puffing irradiated smoke into the atmosphere, killing everything.
When they arrived the guards were friendly. They said that they had received the group’s permit to protest, and that if they could wait a few minutes they would show them to the authorized site. When they finally arrived they were not the only people there. An elementary school class, clearly on a field trip, stood around in a circle holding crayola protest signs, flowered and delicate as the mind of innocence. This notion came from the naive, childish capacity that could even see a friend in the worst monster on earth.
“Puff, the Magic Dragon,” one little girl was singing, shortly thereafter being joined in by a few other students and one of the teachers, taking charge.
There were also a few chapped hippies, grown over like tumbleweeds, rolling awkwardly around and muttering slogans they had been saying for at least the past forty years. There were two food trucks, one selling tacos and egg sandwiches and milkshakes, the other an Asian truck that was at least half vegan fare. There were picnic benches. There was even a cordoned off area near the parking lot that was meant to be a smoking lounge. Three in Damien’s group has already beelined over there, firing up their vaporizers with cherry-lemon danish, and resuming their righteous chatter.
As the outing went on, they were greeted by some mid-level PR guy from the plant, who gave them a lecture on what he called “the safety of nuclear energy,” and spoke, also, and perhaps most affectionately, of just how much money could be saved.
“What about pollution,” Damien finally said. “What about all the toxic waste?”
The man smiled and spat out what was clearly a prepared answer. He said, “Perhaps the greatest mistake people make about nuclear power is that it’s dangerous. There is nothing cleaner, no source more efficient, and definitely nothing cheaper or more easy to use to heat your home than nuclear power.” He pointed to the two food trucks. “Know what those cheeseburgers and gyros are made from? Nuclear energy. The cows and the lambs were raised in a farmhouse lit by a nuclear generator. There is nothing you cannot do better with nuclear power than we used to do with coal and gasoline. And I have to say this–because I gather that all of you fear for the environment. As long as this and every other power plant is left to its own devices, and run how our industry leaders and shareholders see fit, there is almost zero percent waste. Zero!”
“But . . .” Damien and a handful of others who looked and sounded and whined exactly like him said in drowning cacophony, all at almost the exact same time, “What about the planet? What about mother earth? All this pollution is killeg her!”
The executive grew thoughtful for a moment, moving his right thumb to his chin, then scratching. “I suppose we all have to die sometime anyway, I mean eventually,” the man said warmly, philosophically. “As for me, I would much rather die in comfort than by facing the ravages at the far end of time.”
The protests broke up just before three o’clock that afternoon. There had been no television crew to record them, although several of the children had had their picture taken with Atom, the spiraling geometric costume on an intern, waving and smiling and forming memories that would soon be forgotten.
The rest of them, Damien, they all slowly went home, waiting in traffic, stuck behind gas guzzling SUVS and people flicking ashes and juice boxes out of their windows. Pretty soon they would be safe, safe back at home, snug and warm. They might never have to worry about drastic climate change, at least while they were young. Fuck it, Damien finally thought. I’m never having kids. Why should I bother caring about the future?
The following week Damien shaved his head into a mohawk and got matching tattoos of the grim reaper with its fingers bent into heavy metal devil horns on each side. His friends told him that he looked like a punk rock professional wrestler. Then they all went off, scattered in different directions, to find something else to do to help them pass the time.
©2018, 2020 Lance Polin