“It was really a sad day. I took the camera out and I was going to take some pictures. And then I said, well, he deserves more than that. So I skinned him. I skinned his whole body. It took me all day. It was raining. So it was a really sad time. I’d skin a while, then cry a while. I was just like a baby,” a rancher named Ralph spoke softly out of the speakers of Steven’s car. A re-run of This American Life he guessed.
Steven had tuned in late, but the story seemed to be about a gentle and famous showbull that had passed away…that was then stuffed. He turned out of his driveway and drove towards work. Steven veered around a broken down truck. He rocked back and forth in his seat – a symptom of a disease his wife called ‘restless head syndrome’ – as Ira Glass explained that the bull had been cloned to create Second Chance; they were physically identical and shared the same mannerisms. His owner Ralph fell in love with him as if he were the original. An emotionally rattled producer of the show narrated watching Second Chance brutally maul his owner Ralph.
The section about the bull ended and some girl, who sounded like a propagandist for The Daughters of the American Revolution, began prattling on with patriotic rhetoric about the Marquis de Lafayette. He turned off the radio and drove in silence. His eyes watered with weltchmerz as he thought about the twisted parable. Steven pulled into the parking lot at work. He stopped as he was about to open the door to his office and winced. He had forgotten, again, to stop by Comcast. He wished he could just tell Nancy that he wouldn’t do it – that he felt like he died a little bit inside each time he went there. Like a conscientious objector.
He took a deep breath and swiped his card. He then hurried towards his office, avoiding eye contact with the security guard – or was he a secretary? – whose name he had learned and embarrassingly forgotten. He made it to his desk without incident. He had just returned from a few days in Miami Beach doing a site visit and didn’t want to be there.
He got out his computer and began giving a cursory reading to the many articles that news aggregators had piled into his inbox. He felt like seeing a hundred articles on the same issue, day after day, for years, made it all seem so trivial and futile. When viewed from a meta-perspective they just looked like trends, rumors, hearsay rippling through the internet. 31 stories one week about how climate change might affect chocolate production, 14 on how the tourism economies of remote small island nations were likely to suffer in the coming decades, 19 on the meaning of the dropping price of oil for global emissions, 15 articles vociferously supporting or rejecting various outlandish geoengineering proposals. Climate change was the perfect news story in a way: no data to parse, not location specific, no characters, no beginning or end – pure echo chamber.
One article announced that the drought in California was not caused by climate change. This, confusingly, came on the heels of months of articles touting it as a tangible manifestation of climate change. Apparently climate change models did not show drought in California as a probable outcome in their projections. Steven could no longer understand what was meant by climate change; it just seemed too nebulous. Computers would decide what was climate change and what was not.
He clicked another email: Meeting with Tim moved up to 9:15. He chuckled mirthfully, thanking the lord that there is Tim Connelly to remind us why we are doing our jobs. Steven grabbed his notebook and walked quickly towards the conference room. The air conditioning made it feel as if he walked into a cryogenics lab. He was convinced that Tim probably had some Californian theory about how cooler temperatures decrease aging and that he was doing the world a favor. Steven grabbed a seat at the middle of the table.
The room gradually filled. Tim entered the room last, as usual, with a flurry of activity that made him seem like a circus performer or some sort of magician.
“Good morning. Thank you all for coming.” He took off his glasses with an exaggerated motion, aware that everyone was watching him. “We have a big week this week. A lot happening. I am hoping that we can all work out our individual schedules on our own time and that we can use this collective space to do some conceptualizing. I mainly want to share some ideas that I am going to discuss at a TED conference later this week. It is just a primer.” He smiled and then said “I’ll send you the link to the talk so you watch a master at work.”
He squared some papers officiously; papers that Steven imagined were blank.
“Climate change is not a tangible thing. It is a set of ideas that are driven by technology. Computers and networking have enabled us to amass information regarding our planet in a way that was completely impossible several decades ago….and to analyze it. In this way we have built an image of a planet in flux, one that is warming due to increasing c-oh-two concentrations. We all understand this point, but bear with me as I am going to explain how this is the theoretical basis for our business.”
“The next step in our field was to build computer models that projected these trends into the future. Then we were able to conceive the possible impacts that these broader trends could have upon different economic sectors, different nations, different locations. We saw more powerful storms, coastal inundation, droughts, and feedback loops. The calculation done by the models is beyond the capability of a human mind. The volume of data and the complexity of the interdependent variables are too vast.”
Tim took a dramatic pause, looked around the room, and then resumed.
“The propagation of these ideas has been advancing almost lock step with the rise of computers as a platform for communication, entertainment, education, and professional work. We have spent decades now working to get people to integrate the theoretical reality of climate change into their thoughts and actions. Call it education, sensitization, scare tactics. We are, in effect, asking people to substitute a computer model for their personal reality, to subjugate their personal decisions to a reality that is not intelligible to them as individuals. Stop and think about this for a moment. This is how we will save this planet. If people do not integrate these ideas into their thought, we are in trouble.”
Stephen looked out the wall of windows at the contrails crisscrossing the sky and had to constrain a rising urge to yell. He wasn’t sure what, but something. Maybe just a primal scream.
“The models describe and prognosticate, but they do not serve to explain. They model a reality given certain initial conditions and project them into the future. They do not adequately model the human economic or political responses – they are in fact intended to inform these responses. We are presented with this model of an almost helpless mass of humans… seven billion of us. Particles in an algorithm. You could log stack seven billion people into a cube two kilometers by two kilometers.”
For a few moments there was nothing but the hum of computers and the click of keyboards. Steven could not tell if people listened with rapt attention or were wracked with boredom. He hoped that nobody was listening or taking notes, and instead writing poetry or sexting.
“The important part for us is that people take this step of internalizing a reality that is anything but intuitive. Our business exists in the space created by this form of thought. The more people are willing to accept this computer generated reality and picture of humanity, the more of a market we will have.”
“Basically,” he boomed in a voice that brought everyone to attention as they knew it signaled a conclusion, “what I would like to emphasize for our business and the protection of this very planet, is how important it is that we continue to emphasize the models. We are in the business of selling solutions to this model of mankind, insurance against these potential realities. We sell ideas and peace of mind.”
One person awkwardly ventured to clap and then the room erupted.
Tim looked around the room briefly. “Any questions? I have to run, barely fit this meeting in today. Thank you for your time.”
Steven wondered if there were never any questions because nobody ever had any fucking clue what Tim was talking about. Tim put his glasses back on, grabbed his papers, and left. Everyone followed suit and hurried back to doing whatever had just been explained.
Steven opened up the information that he had gathered while in Miami Beach regarding the luxury condo building Faena House. He had met with an engineer and an actuary. He looked at similar policies they had written in the area. He felt good about his research and the numbers.
While Steven had been there he saw the streets flooding during high tide. It felt surreal looking up at the shimmering glass and steel as water burbled out of the sewers. Everyone knew the area was devastated by any tropical storm that hit the south of Florida. Yet buyers lined up for some of the most expensive real estate in the world because it could be insured. Steven’s company would not truly insure it, the state would underwrite the policy. Steven, along with the other parties in the transaction knew that the state would not be able to pay out the policies on their books, but as Tim had said, this was the space that they existed in.
His head was awash in numbers and projections. He sighed in relief when he had plugged the necessary information into an algorithms and it spit out a yearly projected cost. He started typing up the contract. He repressed ideas that assailed him about whether this was responsible and ethical. He didn’t get food for asking questions. He wondered if humans could learn to do any task, no matter how illogical and unethical by Pavlovian training? Were there limits?
He nearly completed the contract, but his mind felt frayed and he decided he was done. He had put a meeting on his calendar for the afternoon anticipating that he would need to get out. He got into his Prius and drove south towards the redwoods outside of Santa Cruz.
He parked at the trailhead on a trail that he had hiked often in college. He changed into some shorts, a UCSC t-shirt with holes in it, and his flipflops. He tossed water, snacks, and a book into a small backpack before setting off. The trails were spongy with pine duff, he could hear its murmurs underfoot as he walked in solitude. This park had always been his refuge, a counterbalance against the grinding logic of work and school…or more lately the grinding illogic. Everything in the forest was tangible, it was in order. He laughed at this thought, but it was true. He felt like he was at home there, like he fit into the order of things.
He walked off the trail and started wandering. He passed scattered, rusty iron logging equipment. He stood with his back against the trunk of a towering redwood and stared up the ridges of bark that led towards the upper stories of the tree. He sat down on a felled tree and felt the deep ridges with his hand. He relished the fecund smell of the forest. He snapped a carrot between his teeth and then progressively ate the root down.
He could not properly savor his pear as Tim’s voice kept repeating phrases from the meeting that day; they arose like ripples and swells in his mind. He wondered how much time anyone in his office, each of them likely a self-identified environmentalist, spent in nature. How can we expect people to be proper stewards for something they minimally interact with and therefore have only a rudimentary understanding of, these people who are merely concerned with how resource scarcity or natural variability will impinge upon their lives? Tim’s whole idea of an external, technology-based reality seemed to be driving the problem that it was now striving to solve. He realized that anyone living completely abstracted from nature is unlikely to lead humanity in the right direction. It seemed simple to Steven: there was only one reality, in which man was an integrated part of an environment that he effected and that effected him in turn. How could it be any other way? He shook his head. He wondered whether he should just confront Tim Connelly and ask him whether he was a cyborg. Maybe he kept the air conditioning so low to keep his processors from overheating? A rain drop burst upon his hand and sent him scrambling.
He shouldered his pack and got back on the trail. The sound of the rain grew into a hushed roar. He ran quicker. Suddenly one massive drop struck him in the forehead and he stopped in his tracks. He peered straight up and let his eyes follow individual drops as they seemed to emerge out of the ether hundreds of feet above. Birds were chattering about the rain. Banana slugs slimed their way across the trail. He laughed, remembering in college when his friends had convinced him, on a backpacking trip to the Lost Coast, that licking one would make your tongue go numb. He put one in the palm of his hand and everyone huddled their faces around his hand. He grinned and then ran his tongue down the entire length of the banana slug. It didn’t work, but he demanded a bottle of cheap red wine to rinse out his mouth and that started off an incredible night. They howled at the nearly full moon, swam naked in the surf, and laughed at the rest of the world that Jess kept calling ‘a mere simulacra.’ Everyone drifted off to sleep as the fire burned out and the bottles went empty. The heavy bag of weed from a friend’s farm was Steven’s only company as he passed hours transfixed by towering, moonlit waves that seemed to shake the earth as they broke.
He set off running again, this time with a feeling of boundless joy. He reached his car and took off for home. He swung by the co-op on his way and bought apples, walnuts, fresh greens, goat cheese, wine, and chocolate. He was going to make a feast for everyone in celebration of living.
It was twilight when he got home, that meant Nancy and the kids should be there. He intentionally burst into the house still wearing his filthy, soaked clothes. He hoped they noticed and asked him about his day. Nobody was in the kitchen, but there was an assortment of nearly empty takeout boxes from PF Chang’s and white rice scattered about the counter.
He heard voices and saw colors from the television flickering against the windows in the living room. Nancy was watching one of her sitcoms about miserable wealthy people.
He waited a moment. “Hey Nance.”
She continued watching TV and responded distractedly with, “Hey hun. We already ate dinner. I left some out on the counter for you.”
“What are you watching?” Steve was trying to make conversation.
“Oh just that show Revenge. I know you don’t like it, but you could make yourself a plate and come watch.”
“Maybe in a bit. I bought some things to make a salad. What are the kids doing?”
“You know them. School work and talking to friends.”
He walked up the curving staircase towards the kid’s bedrooms. Mika was sitting on her bed wearing headphones. She was rocking back and forth just like Steven – restless head syndrome. She reached for her Iphone and saw Steven in the doorway. She smiled and waved.
He continued on to Stevie’s bedroom. He was at his desk, but saw Steven in the doorway out of the corner of his eye. He quickly closed a few windows on his computer and awkwardly turned around.
“Stevieeee – what’s going on?”
“Oh just doing some trades on fantasy baseball. Too bad the Giants suck so much. We need to bring back steroids.”
“How was school?”
“The same shit that always does. You went to school didn’t you?” Stevie said dismissively.
“Well there were beautiful girls, and fights and I failed tests. We greased pigs and released them and had massive food fights.”
“Well it is great that you got to be an extra in Dazed and Confused, but we stare at Powerpoint presentations all day and use Facebook to do our bullying and courting.”
“Yep times have changed,” Steven calmly answered in jest. “I am going to make a salad – with goat cheese and I’ll make a dressing. You want any? I got some chocolate too,” he asked hopefully.
“No. I gotta get a few things done. Enjoy though.”
Steven went downstairs and ate his salad in a house that felt vacant.