Yellowstone National Park was the natural re-entry site, for emotional as well as practical reasons. Stable conditions for human life had re-established themselves there more quickly than elsewhere on Earth: the varied geography meant a profusion of resources and habitats for the thousand bridgehead pathfinders on arrival.
Symbolically, though, the Park would represent a fresh start. Its protected status in the past provided a scene of fresh promise from humanity. This time the pristine landscapes would be free from systemic and irreversible change.
The horrendous effort humans had made to evacuate Earth in the late twenty-first century had left scars that the succeeding 500 years had scarcely been able to heal.
In its war against the environment, humanity had won – and ended up on the losing side. The economic system had herded half the world into luxury, and the other half into destitution. Defending that luxury led to perverted policies of exclusion and containment.
Unheeded, the thresholds of nitrogen, phosphorous and carbon dioxide had been crossed, and tipped the living conditions of the comfortable humans over the edge. The race for the Titanic’s lifeboats began, and colonisation of the moon became a reality.
As had been foreseen, leaving Earth meant a complete cessation of new human impacts on water, air and land systems. No-one was left behind; the evacuation had to be total if it was to be effective.
“Survivor’s guilt” hardly covered the psychological wounds of those who escaped. As they watched the slow recovery of Earth, there was time to forge new resolutions.
Humility had been hard won. Unfortunately, not all species back on Earth would be convinced.
Increasing intelligence had been noted amongst the bears in the Park, and they certainly represented the most significant natural threat to the pathfinder arrivals.
Accordingly, a mock Council was held on the moon for those pathfinders travelling on earth, to prepare them psychologically for the responsibility they bore.
But none of them could have predicted the impact when the bear’s representative addressed the Council.
“Fellow beings, we are asked to welcome humans back to earth.
I ask you all, in the name of the future survival of us all, to refuse that welcome. And indeed, to do all in our power to prevent humanity’s return.
After all, we have long memories.
They created too much toxicity for themselves to endure, and caused mass extermination of other species. And then they fled for their own safety.
What right do they have to return? What residence rights can they claim? They have been gone 500 years; is this not evidence that they have renounced all claims to Earth being their home planet?
There are a thousand who wish to return at first. How soon before they become nine billion again?
Their technological advances have been preserved intact, and indeed have advanced still further. They are capable of repeating every single mistake from last time. What guarantees do they offer, except their claim of new-found humility?
They need our cooperation to return. They’re at the border, ticket and passport in hand. Again, what right do they have to seek entry? As ‘top’ species, their intelligence puts every other species at risk. And now they wish to return as if nothing had happened. As if they’re innocent.
Resist. Oppose. Fight. To keep them out must be our collective goal; and be assured, bears will play our part in this.”
“All this we cannot deny. We do claim that humility; and we understand your scepticism.
We evolved on Earth, as you did. We are bound to Earth, by blood, by culture, and by history; 500 years cannot break those claims.
Not everything that humanity did resulted in imbalance.
Our ancestors left Earth to enable their mistakes to be remedied. None of us alive today were responsible for those mistakes. We are doing the best we can for our children and our species. This is all that can be said of you too, in the course of ordinary survival.
Whatever level of intelligence we have is our blessing, and our curse.
We offer ourselves as collaborators for the future. We urge you to set binding controls on our population, our pollution, and our use of resources.
Will you not give us a second chance?”
Thus the Council concluded.
And shortly afterwards, the pathfinder ships began their descent to Earth.
John D Gray, 26 March 2018
This piece sprang out of a Terra Two workshop at the Quaker meeting house in York.
In particular, I drew inspiration from the prospect of two species (bears and humans) connecting in some way; and by the idea that if NASA is thinking about colonising Mars, what if humans were to re-colonise Earth one day?
I’m a fan of Arthur C Clarke and the non-violence of some of his space encounters (e.g. The Songs of Distant Earth); I’m interested in everyday environmental changes that we in the early 21st century can make in our lives; and I drew on my experience of advocacy and debate in creating the Council pleadings.
My earlier drafts had imagined a genuine dialogue between bears and humans once humans had settled in Yellowstone. But these versions seemed forced, and required too much stretch of the imagination – that bears could talk, and that they could remember why humans had left Earth 500 years previously! So in the end I chose what seemed a more plausible scenario; perhaps if I write more sci-fi I might get more confident about proposing the not-yet-possible.
But the title “Conditional” from those earliest drafts still feels relevant. It’s a “what-if” story; the ambiguity of the ending leaves it open as to the chances of humans mucking it up a second time; and the bears’ attitude to humans would be conditional on their behaviour.
My hope is that readers’ sympathies get pulled each way – pro-bear, pro-human – as they read each side’s argument. I hope the ending leaves readers tantalised and wondering whether the pathfinders truly have learnt humility. And I hope that readers can imagine what needs to change in today’s society to avoid this imagined scenario ever becoming fact.
After all, Ray Bradbury commented that he didn’t so want to predict the future, as to prevent it.
John D Gray is an executive coach, trainer, and part-time lecturer at the University of York’s Centre for Applied Human Rights. He writes for work, and for pleasure. He is a member of a local York green group Planet South Bank; he’s a Quaker; and he’s a parent, husband, reader, walker and music-maker.