Being Green

Chapter 22

By the time official word of Jacques Lehmann’s death reaches Pierre, he’s already known for a week. Jacques’ son Leon let’s Pierre know within hours of his father’s death. Jacques and Pierre, childhood friends in a Montreal community of French Jews, moved to Halifax and even roomed together when they first moved to the city. Pierre’s father Leonard had arrived in Halifax earlier, where a community of Vajrayana Buddhists established themselves. Pierre’s mother, Julia, stayed in Montreal; she and Leonard divorced not long after Pierre entered high school, and Julia died of cancer a few years later.

Jacques Lehmann was a close to a brother as Pierre had. Both were scientifically bent, curious and hard-working. Jacques’ social skills far better than Pierre’s, he advanced within the bureaucracy of the scientific community of Halifax in a way Pierre would never master. Pierre is just as happy to be a loner. When called upon to make a presentation or attend an event, Pierre masters what it takes, but now nearly 100 years old, he rarely leaves the Gittleman home. Public appearances are a thing of the past. Were it not for Len, Pierre would be alone indeed, except for periodic visits from physicians.

“You’re doing excellently, Pierre,” William Banes, his personal physician exclaims. “I don’t know how you do it, all alone in this big house by yourself. Are you sure you don’t want to move to a facility where you have help?” Banes is unaware of Len, who keeps himself to his room when Pierre gets visitors. “I mean, how do you keep up with it all? The house is clean, you’re well fed and, well, you don’t look a day over…ninety!” They both chuckle.

“What can I say Bill? it’s you I must blame. You take too good care of me, with your newest drugs, joint replacements, dietary supplements, and all. You guys at the Health Institute are amazing,” Pierre begins getting dressed. “At this rate, we’ll all live forever.”

Banes’ expression drops, and he suddenly looks serious. “Can I share something with you, Pierre? You’re one of the few I feel I can tell.” “Of course, Bill. We’ve known each other for a long time. You can tell me anything.” Pierre hikes his pants. “What’s up?”

Pausing, Banes seems to have trouble getting started. “Hmmm,” he says, “where to start?” “Take your time. Want a cup of tea?” Pierre offers. “That would be nice, thanks,” replies Banes. Pierre walks over to his electric kettle, fills it with filtered water and turns it on. Almost immediately, the kettle gets hot.

“Well,” Banes begins, “I don’t have to tell you about how low our birth rate is, right? I mean, you know that, right?” Pierre nods his head and passes Banes a cup of tea. “Sugar?” Pierre asks. “I’m good,” Banes shakes his head and holds up his hand palm forward. “Pierre,” he begins, “the birth rate in Halifax, as low as it is, is nothing compared to the rates in other cities. In Boston, for example, there have been no births this year at all. Zero. And it’s the same in other places. The bottom seems to have dropped out, and nobody knows why.” He sips his tea. “This is good. Thanks.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised, Bill,” Pierre offers. “I’ve seen it coming for a long time if you want to know. Our planet is changing, has changed enormously since we were born. When forecasts were made in the mid-twentieth century about the effects of burning fossil fuels and adding carbon dioxide and methane to the atmosphere, people, which is to say governments, didn’t pay attention. But the time the twenty-first century arrived, the die was cast. We’re now suffering a trophic cascade, the planetary-wide collapse of ecosystems. Global feedback loops are already in action, and climate change is unstoppable. Efforts to reduce emissions were too small, too late. You know all this, of course.” Pierre sets his cup of tea down.

“What was not paid attention to, what was forgotten, was the nature of interdependence; just tracking temperatures alone tells us little,” Pierre continues. “The sum of parts is greater than the whole, and while any single indicator provides information, it also hides the greater effects of totality. This is, I believe, why extinctions cannot be traced to a single event or cause. They are the effect of the sum of the parts, multiple facets that when combined produce wholesale ecological change.”

Banes listens, while sipping his tea. “Please go on. I’m not sure what this leads to, Pierre,” he says softly. “I’m getting there, Bill. Be patient.” Pierre continues, “The other thing we see when we study extinctions is the nature of life that then arises after, which it always does. Life on earth seems to be inextricably bound to the ecology of the planet, no matter how radically changed that ecology appears or becomes. It takes time, of course, usually a great deal of time, and the types of life that arise vary enormously. So, considering the extinction of Homo sapiens, and that’s your concern, right, the question is: will humanity, in some form, survive?” Banes is silent, waiting. It seems to him that Pierre is building up to something. “OK, go on. What’s your point?” he asks, somewhat impatiently.

“My point, Bill, is that this is the problem I have been working on for well over a half-century.” Pierre leans back in his chair. “The survival of humanity. I’m not talking about ways to keep us alive as we are, but ways to adapt humanity that are in sync with a changed planet, one hotter with a different atmospheric make-up and an entirely new food chain, or lack of a food chain as we know it.”

“Yeah, yeah, Pierre,” Bill seems annoyed, “this is all fine, theoretically, but nature takes millions of years to adapt and for new species to arise. That’s the way it works!” “Yes, that’s been true, Bill. Very true, Pierre smiles, “until now.” Pierre pulls on an old-fashioned embroidered servant’s call cord hanging on the wall. “I want you meet someone, Bill.”

After a few minutes, there’s a knock at the door. At hearing it, Bill looks apprehensive. “I thought you live here alone. Don’t tell me you’ve had help all this time!” Pierre moves to Bill and placing his hand on his shoulder, holds him down in his chair. “Come in,” Pierre says, and Len enters the room. He’s wearing one of Leonard’s dress shirts and a red bow tie, and for the occasion, an old Harris Tweed sports jacket and dark gray pants; no shoes, however.

“Bill meet Len. Len meet Bill, my physician William Banes,” Pierre introduces his two guests. Len strides towards Bill, the green skin on his face rippling with colored excitement and sticks out his hand. Bill’s mouth drops open in shock, but he stands, and his hand reflexively reaches towards Len’s. They shake. “A pleasure to finally meet you, Bill,” says Len. Bill, says nothing, his jaw slack, and drops back into his chair, visibly shaken. “Yes,” he stammers, “yes. Ok,” all the while staring at Len’s green face in utter disbelief. His eyes shift to Pierre, who looks like a proud father, grinning and nodding his head. “Bill, meet the future of humanity.”

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