A Letter to You in 2050
by vivian Hutchinson
Summer 2022 15 min read download as PDF
This open letter to the future is about our climate emergency.
It was originally written by vivian Hutchinson to his adult god-daughters, who are now in their mid-twenties and live and work in Auckland.
photo — Taranaki Mounga from Fitzroy Beach, February 2022.
WELL, IT KIND of crept up on us.
Of course that’s not true, but perhaps that’s what we would prefer to believe.
The real truth is much messier and shocking. There was a lot of money and energy going into keeping us all dozy and distracted and fundamentally damaged in our capacity to see and act on what was right before our eyes.
This Summer there has been a popular comedy film which has been one of the most-viewed movies on Netflix. It has cleverly captured this present moment.
“Don’t Look Up”, starring Leonardo de Caprio and Meryl Steep, is about a huge comet which is about to hit the earth in six months time and end all life as we know it. It milks its comedy from the inability of news organisations, politicians, celebrity culture, and tech billionaires to see beyond their immediate self-interest and appreciate such an existential threat.
The film hardly mentions climate change at all — but the belly-laughs coming from my activist friends are a little bit close to the raw nerves of their own frustrations and fears.
They know what is at stake right now. In 2022, we are already two years into what may be the most consequential decade of this century, where the climate crisis and biodiversity collapse is clearly also understood to be an existential threat to human life.
The Secretary-General of the United Nations last year declared this moment to be a “Code Red” for humanity. Yet, at a time when greenhouse gas emissions should be sharply falling, instead we are seeing the second biggest rise ever recorded.
There may be only five years left before humanity expends its remaining “carbon budget” to stay under the 1.5°C of global heating that was the primary objective of the Paris Agreement of 2015.
The last seven years have been the hottest on record, and climate change has intensified many natural disasters such as flooding, tropical storms and wildfires. We fear we may see the Amazon Rainforest and the Antarctic Ice Sheet pass irreversible tipping points of catastrophic change before the end of this current decade.
“Don’t Look Up” will already be an old movie by the time you read this letter. It may have made its way towards becoming an enduring cultural metaphor. The phrase “don’t look up” may speak to all those personal and collective acts of cognitive dissonance that enable us to keep pressing on with business-as-usual in the face of a very real emergency.
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IT’S FEBRUARY 2022 here at the moment, and I am writing this letter to the future as part of a group exercise amongst a small network of Taranaki active citizens who are trying to figure out what are our best contributions to make amidst this “Code Red” emergency.
I am writing while sitting in my car overlooking the Fitzroy Beach, which has been a morning thinking, walking and wading spot for me during this pandemic summer.
The beach today is strewn with the debris of storms — trees and branches and miles of wood chips and garden mulch hurled onto the foreshore out of the mouths of the Te Henui and Waiwakaiho rivers. Taranaki has just had a couple of its wettest weekends on record. There’s been major flooding out on the coast where rivers and roads have been turned into torrents as they have tried to cope with more rain in a day than we usually get in a Winter’s month.
Last weekend saw fierce winds as the tail end of a tropical cyclone also hit the west coast. Many trees fell over over, blocking roads. Roofs and verandas have been ripped off, and hundreds of homes are still without power.
I am looking out on the Tasman sea, and it is full of the cyclone’s fury with enormous spectacular waves. The steel three-legged Wave Tower near the end of the Lee Breakwater has been pushed over on its stilts as though it was made of driftwood.
We’ve had all these things before, and of course we have coped and cleaned up and moved on with our lives. But these weather events are not at all normal. What we are noticing is that they are happening a lot more frequently in our lives. The cyclones over warm seas are coming further south. Our Summers are regularly declared to be the hottest on record. The what and when of our own gardens, and the bird and insect life around us, is definitely changing before our eyes.
It’s not only the seas and skies that are in turmoil here in Aotearoa. As I write, there are protests entering a second week on Parliament Grounds. The protestors have set up an occupation with tents and blocked all the surrounding streets with their cars and campervans, and there are all the signs that it could last for quite a while.
You’ll know better than me how it all turned out, of course, from your viewpoint in the future. But to me, its like something we’ve never quite seen before. As you know, I have been part of several significant protests at Parliament, so of course I am taking a close interest.
But this is one that I will be keeping away from. It just feels like the madness and incoherence of America’s Trump, and Britain’s Brexit debates, are finally washing up here in New Zealand. And along with it, all the examples of menace and abuse and some very toxic versions of freedom and individualism.
It depresses me, and I see these protests as a very unwelcome omen. They are glimpse at what it will probably look like when we try to make any headway on the entrenched vested interests surrounding the oil and gas and farming industries, and on encouraging New Zealanders to make fundamental changes to their lifestyles.
If these protestors are so ready to “die in a ditch” on Parliament Grounds for the sake of Public Health mandates … then we probably know what to expect if they think we’re coming for their SUVs and their dairy cows.
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THIS IS THE story that was told by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac a few years ago. They were the diplomats who led negotiations for the United Nations during the historic Paris Climate Agreement of 2015. Here, they are describing the world in 2050 — your world — and are imagining that it is already on a trajectory towards a 3°C temperature increase by 2100.
“The first thing that hits you is the thick air. In many places around the world, the air is hot, heavy, and depending on the day, clogged with particulate pollution. Your eyes often water. Your cough never seems to disappear.”
“Extreme heat is on the rise. If you live in Paris, you endure summer temperatures that regularly rise to 44°C. Everyone stays inside, drinks water, and dreams of air-conditioning. You lie on your couch, a cold, wet towel over your face, and try to rest without dwelling on the poor farmers on the outskirts of town who, despite recurrent droughts and wildfires, are still trying to grow grapes, olives, or soy – luxuries for the rich, not for you.”
“More moisture in the air and higher sea surface temperatures have caused a surge in extreme hurricanes and tropical storms. Recently, coastal cities in Bangladesh, Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere have suffered brutal infrastructure destruction and extreme flooding, killing many thousands and displacing millions. This happens with increasing frequency now. Every day, because of rising sea levels, some part of the world must evacuate to higher ground.”
“Food production swings wildly from month to month, season to season, depending on where you live. More people are starving than ever before. [...] Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes. The tyranny of supply and demand is now unforgiving; because of its increasing scarcity, food can now be wildly expensive.”
“Places such as central India are becoming increasingly challenging to inhabit. [...] Mass migrations to less hot rural areas are beset by a host of refugee problems, civil unrest, and bloodshed over water availability. [...] Even in some parts of the United States, there are fiery conflicts over water, battles between the rich who are willing to pay for as much water as they want and everyone else demanding equal access to the life-enabling resource.”
“The demise of the human species is being discussed more and more. For many, the only uncertainty is how long we'll last, how many more generations will see the light of the day. Suicides are the most obvious manifestation of the prevailing despair, but there are other indications: a sense of bottomless loss, unbearable guilt, and fierce resentment at previous generations who didn't do what was necessary to ward off this unstoppable calamity.”
— The Future We Choose: Surviving the Climate Crisis by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020)
Yes, it is sobering. And you will be able to judge for yourself whether these predictions for 2050 are anything like the reality that you are experiencing right now. But these are the sorts of ominous tea-leaves that can be found almost everywhere here in my day, and are motivating our concerns and activism.
To be fair, in their book, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac argue for confronting the climate crisis head-on and they lay out another more positive scenario where we fend off disaster and halve emissions by 2030. I can only hope that some of the things we are doing here in this decade will indeed make such a difference — but all of this depends upon our collective level of commitment.
The latest projections coming from the COP26 conference, held in Glasgow 2021, tell us that our current global commitments will still take us to about 2.7°C of warming by the end of this century. Sadly, that’s pretty much in line with the more fearful picture being described here by these architects of the Paris Agreement.
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IT WAS AN old friend who really got me focused on this issue. Not by any particular argument, but by what I could see he was prepared to do.
Of course I already knew the basics of what we more commonly then called “global warming”. But it would be fair enough to say that I had filed all this information away in the “environmental issues” box in my mind.
Sure, I could see that it was important, but so too was the activism I was already involved with on major “social issues” such as unemployment and poverty, or land rights.
But what I hadn’t really taken on board was that this “environmental issue” was soon going to become a crisis that would change everything. I hadn’t thought through the implications that this anticipated calamity in the future meant that it was a definite “emergency” right now. And this was going to bring with it huge demands on our capacities as citizens to step up and meet this moment.
While my friend had been waking me up to the fact that this was an emergency, I was much slower in my response in figuring out the specific contribution I should and could make.
At the time, I had been running a Masterclass for Active Citizenship, and during the Covid lockdowns I had published a series of essays based on the sessions I had been leading in these classes.
In the final essay I quoted some comments from the climate activist Bill McKibben who observed that, at his public meetings, he was almost always asked the question: “What can one individual do?”
His reply was sharp and to the point: “Don’t be an individual.”
As important as individual action is, McKibben argued that it is not going to be the way we solve the climate crisis. This is because we are already long past the point where our personal and noble actions at home will be enough to make a real difference.
McKibben was arguing that the most important thing an individual can do now is to join together with others to create movements that will be big and broad enough to actually change systems and policies.
This is no easy ask in a world where the main economic and social policy drivers over the last 40 years have been emphasising our individuality and fortifying our acts of consumerism and self-interest.
In our world, the muscles of our active citizenship have largely been left to atrophy, and our capacities to step up to the necessary collective action have become weak and impotent. Acknowledging this has led to most of my community development work over the last decade.
But I could also now see that if we are going to address an emergency like the climate crisis – and address it at a structural and systemic level – then it is also going to take a much more creative sense of community than what we have right now.
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IN SPRING 2021, the American writer and activist Paul Hawken was about to publish a new book provocatively titled “Regeneration — ending the climate crisis in one generation”. He had already been a tremendous influence on my work and thinking over the last 40 years, so this book was coming at just the right time.
Of course I was obviously going to read it. But I also knew that I was being challenged to follow the advice I had passed on in my recent essay: “Don’t be an individual”.
So, instead of curling up on my big green chair and disappearing into Paul Hawken’s next book, I organised a group who would be interested in reading it together — a Book Club. I wanted to read it with people who would also choose to have some deeper conversations on what to do about this crisis.
This was new for me at the time, and especially had some challenges doing it mostly online because of the pandemic. The Book Club has already evolved into an Action Incubator. This process helps us get clear about the details of our best contribution to make, while sorting out what it is we already know, and the skills and assets and connections we already have, so that we can put them to good use over the next few years.
My own action details will obviously keep changing and evolving … but there are some things that I am sure about.
I will keep on participating in the disruption of the business-as-usual that is killing us. And I will keep on speaking up for our communities, for wellbeing, and for the common good.
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SO THIS ISN’T a letter of advice or instruction. It is much more simply a letter of connection.
You will be in your mid-50s by now and will probably be able to teach me a thing or two about the things I do not yet see or understand. In the long story of humanity, we are actually peers who have some very scattered ingredients to offer to one another.
Whatever the climate does look like in 2050 … I hope that it is never accepted as the new normal. Because it isn’t.
We are all the inheritors of a beautiful thriving planet with billions of miracles delivered around us every day by Life. We were also the inheritors of a community wisdom that has long known how to live with, look after, and regenerate this Life.
For this is now the renewed job description of all of us as human beings: to be the instruments of the Regeneration.
And, while we are at it, to remember and tell the stories of how we got to do some things well, and how we have also had an awful capacity to get it so wrong.
In writing this letter, I did not want to pass on to you an existential grief or guilt about the climate emergency and the loss of biodiversity around our planet.
But the fact of it is this: every generation is deeply flawed in some way or another, and all of us have led lives that have also had their own shadows. Yet none of this is any excuse not to step up to our own contributions to making a positive difference.
In making this connection, I naturally wanted to share some of my hopes for you and for the future.
I do hope you have loved Life enough to pass it on — in one way or another — and pass it on knowing all its problems and broken promises, as well as its dazzling brilliance and times of beauty.
I hope you also get to pass on the resilience to stay awake, the knowledge of how to heal, and the joy that will not stop thriving wherever all the varieties of love strike their light.
I hope that, amidst all this, you will fondly remember the times that we have shared together, and not judge me and my generation too harshly as you come to terms with what we have left you and yours in 2050.
Notes and Links
vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012) and How Communities Awaken — some conversations for active citizens (2021).
This open letter was first published online on the Autumn Equinox, March 2022
This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en