Once upon a time, there was a beautiful, cold country, where all the Christmases were white, and all the children were good.
As well as being cold and beautiful, the country was also very rich, and lots of people lived happy comfortable lives. Lots of them lived miserable uncomfortable lives too, but only a few of these insisted on living on the streets where the happy people could see them and feel a little bit miserable and uncomfortable too, for a minute in passing.
It was a country of nice people, who gave each other nice presents, and made tax-deductible gifts to charity every December, when reminded by their accountants. The believed in nice things, like peace on Earth and goodwill to all, but being very happy and comfortable they tended not to pay much attention when their government waged war and squandered good will around the world.
The happy comfortable people were very clever, and because it was a cold country they developed lots of good ways to keep warm, and to travel about in comfort. While other countries only knew how to get oil out of a simple well, the rich cold country learned ways to get it from the ocean, and out of tarry ground under its northern forests. This made the country richer, and the people more happy and comfortable.
And then one day, the world’s leading climate scientists announced that the world was getting steadily warmer. This sounded nice at first to the people in the cold country, but the scientists said no, it’s not nice: people in low-lying islands are being flooded out of their homes. Hurricanes are getting worse, there’s terrible drought and wildfires, and the polar ice caps are melting. Soon coastal cities will be flooded, polar bears and penguins will be extinct, and your rich, cold country won’t even be all that cold.
Hm, said the happy comfortable people. Will we still be rich?
Well, said the scientists, if you keep polluting the atmosphere with dirty oil and doing nothing to cut back on your consumption, you’ll be very, very rich in the short term. Your children will be poorer, and your grandchildren may face extinction, but for you, for the foreseeable future, it’s happiness and comfort all the way. The happy comfortable people thought this over for a while and said, sounds good. Let’s run with it.
Things went well for the happy comfortable people. They made lots of money, owned lots of toys, and consumed as much energy as they wanted. They cut down millions of acres of forest to get the oil out of the tarry ground, and sold it to the even richer country next door for oodles of money, which they spent on lots of fun stuff made in foreign factories where the people worked for next to nothing. It was a great deal!
Then something strange happened. When the happy comfortable people travelled around the world – and they travelled a lot because they could afford to – they were used to being greeted warmly. Foreign people knew that the rich cold country was a nice country, and the happy comfortable people were nice people. But all of a sudden, foreign people started saying not-nice things about the rich cold country. They started to call the happy comfortable people fossils, and to blame them for the floods, famines, droughts, wildfires and hurricanes.
The rich country’s government didn’t like being bossed around by a lot of poor countries that can’t even afford proper armies, so they got mad and said, if you’re going to be like that, we’re going to cut down even more trees to make even more dirty oil, and burn as much of it as we want, and get really, really rich.
And that’s what they did. They cut down all the trees that were on top of the tarry ground, took out all the oil, filled the atmosphere with carbons, and made the planet much warmer, which felt kind of nice to the happy comfortable people, who didn’t like having to shovel snow off of their pickups all the time. People in other countries got flooded out, or died from droughts, or had their houses blown down, but the happy comfortable people just kept getting happier and more comfortable.
Then one day the government of the rich not-quite-so-cold country announced that it had run out of tarry ground. There would be no more oil, and no more money to be made. The government had no money to spend to help keep the people happy and comfortable, because they’d given it all to big corporations to help them get the oil out of the tarry ground. The people had no money left to keep themselves happy and comfortable because they’d spent it all on giving each other gifts made by the unhappy uncomfortable people in foreign countries.
At the same time the formerly rich, formerly cold country started to experience drought, wildfires, and famines of its own. Now all the people were miserable and uncomfortable, and the Christmases were no longer white. But the saddest thing of all was that nobody in the world sympathized one bit. Get used to it, they said. We’ve been suffering for years.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.