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After my last essay, a ton of people reached out to me. Thanks to all the nice notes and fun conversations that resulted. Always much appreciated 🙏 Today’s essay is yet another climate sci-fi short experiment. This silly idea was born over a beer at a Climate Tech conference. I hope you enjoy it.
i Time Machine
By Art Lapinsch (all images are AI-generated)
"The future is made of the same stuff as the present." - Simone Weil
The future is never quite like we imagine. Many things are unlike anything we could have dreamed of, yet on the other hand, other things remain perfectly mundane.
One of those seemingly unchanged things is the human condition and naturally, we ended up in a situation where the world was facing climate catastrophe. We had run out of time and society was on the brink of collapse. People gleefully thought back to the “good old days” when there was a fighting chance still.
As a result, the global community started G.E.C.O. - the Global Environment and Climate Organization - a multi-national organization with the sole task of coming up with a last-minute miracle.
Think of a love child between NASA and the Manhattan Project. Pure ingenuity. Anything goes.
The smartest thinkers, the most persuasive policymakers, and the most courageous operators. All of them in one room.
And then there was the back office. This is where average folk spent their 9-to-5. Not because they contributed to this Hail Mary operation but because it was too difficult to get rid of them - legally speaking.
In the undergrowth of this administrative department, there was Jerry - the accidental hero of our story.
Maybe a balding middle-aged bureaucrat whose guilty pleasure was the Tax Code Gazette is your idea of a planetary savior. Look, who knows… I don’t judge, but most people would call that a governmental freak.
*Record scratch* *Freeze frame* You’re probably wondering how we ended up in this situation.
Let’s go back to the beginning.
i Time Machine
Initially, the organization gave the approval to launch many concurrent programs to save the planet. Most of those went after the usual suspects. Amongst other research areas, there was fusion energy, mass-scale DAC (direct air capture), and underground cities. But to no avail. Progress was too slow and salvation was not in sight.
Unexpectedly, a rag-tag crew - usually referred to as “the clown shop” - accomplished the unthinkable. They assembled a time machine and it worked.
Project Carbon Taxi became the Hail Mary of all Hail Maries.
Their fuzzy logic went something like this: If we can’t fix the present, let’s fix the past.
The Carbon Taxi could transport a subject 50 years back in time. Rumor had it that early animal testing was an immediate success and that Skippy - the courageous sloth - was ruminating somewhere in the past. Yet, given the energy intensity of this endeavor, the group only had one more shot. Hence, it was important to get everything right: the selection process, the time jump itself, and the operational plan.
Each G.E.C.O. project had full authority over its own project design and so no one outside the clown shop had any say in it. Project Carbon Taxi’s leadership assessed that policymakers and scientists had many decades to make a dent in the climate fight, but they didn’t. Ergo, it would be foolish to send politicians or scientists back in time.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. - Albert Einstein
And so they decided to try something different. A ton of ideas floated around: sending back an artist to inspire a whole generation, sending back a climate terrorist to instill action through fear, and so on. Eventually, the program’s leadership decided that the chosen one shall be a mere bureaucrat.
The goal was to influence leaders in the past to introduce a global carbon tax 🌍
It was a simple plan but maybe… just maybe it could buy us some time to fix the planetary mess we had gotten ourselves into.
No Place in the Present
Since he could think, Jerry gravitated toward numbers. He wasn’t particularly gifted in math but something about rates, ratios, and rules put him at ease. He was a born bureaucrat.
After graduation, he had dreams of working for a large tax consultancy but eventually realized that his lack of charisma would prevent him from climbing the ranks. Or so he thought.
The obvious choice then was to apply for a governmental position and get on with his life. He became a circumstantial bureaucrat.
Little did he know that all governmental agencies were just on the cusp of fully automating his type of work. He got lucky that the rollout of this program started a few weeks after he passed his probation period and so he ended up in a peculiar situation: he had no work to do but his employer couldn’t fire him. Since no one felt responsible for him, Jerry wasn’t reassigned to new work anymore.
On a side note: Jerry’s actual name was Gary - short for Gerbert - but at some point, people just started calling him Jerry and it stuck. He didn’t care as long as he could hide in plain sight.
Many years later, he still hadn’t worked a lick and was spending his days solving tax-themed crossword puzzles and sifting through esoteric commentary about tax code reforms. His idea of a lavish life was owning a subscription to the Tax Code Gazette. In his mind, he was a “Researcher in Residence”. This was not an official title of course but pretending helped him avoid the depressing truth: He had no place in this world.
He was out-of-date.
Funnily enough, out-of-date was exactly what Project Carbon Tax
i needed. Someone who is unassuming to a sad degree. Someone who wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. Someone who could blend in at any time. A temporal chameleon.
People in the organization joked behind his back that his clothing style was outdated by at least three decades. Would that make him a style icon 50 years in the past? Only time would tell. Anyway, I digress.
The choice was final and the project lead broke the news to our accidental hero. He concluded with:
Departure is in four days. Say goodbye to your friends - if you have any at all. Tomorrow at 0600, report to Operations! They will brief you on your one-way trip to save us all. Great people have always been called. The problem is we didn’t have anyone else. This is your calling. The pressure is on, Jerry!
Times Past Rodeo
On the day of the time jump, Jerry didn’t have too much to do besides strapping in and accelerating the Carbon Taxi down a straight line. Before he knew it, Jerry became the first human to travel back in time.
The past is never quite like we imagine. Many things are unlike anything we are used to, yet on the other hand, other things remain perfectly mundane.
Chief amongst those unchanged things was the human condition. And so after a bumpy start, Jerry found his stride in this new world. Two years in, he was a fully-integrated member of the target organization. He fit right in.
Who would have thought that a bit of time travel could reshuffle the deck? Out-of-date in his world. Ahead of the curve in this one.
Luckily, people mistook his informational advantage for genius. At least one person in the org referred to him as “the second coming of Tax Jesus” and so the legend took on a dynamic on its own. The word traveled as fast as he climbed the ranks.
Everyone started paying attention: the lead administrators, the fossil-fuel lobbyists, and the rest of them. Jerry was in demand.
To paraphrase a famous Disney song:
A whole new world A new fantastic point of view No one to tell him “No”, or where to go Or say he’s only dreaming
Attention brought opportunity. Opportunity invited money. And money led to bad choices. Jerry was spending more time attending cocktail parties than doing what he was sent to do. He never wanted to be a hero after all and what bad would one drink do?
After months of wasting precious time, he hit a wall.
He was tired, his body was aching, and his mind was dazed. Marching home drunkenly after yet another all-nighter, an oversized billboard caught his eye.
He couldn’t decipher the ad copy on this billboard but something about this scene resonated. The colors, the contrast, and maybe even a tiny bit of his own hallucination.
What has he become? Why was he even here? What was his purpose?
Damn… what was his purpose after all? Slowly but surely his mushy brain started giving him hints:
- His world - the future - was on the brink of climate collapse 🔥
- A global organization sent him back in a silly-looking time machine 🚕
- His purpose was to save the world - one implemented carbon tax at a time 🌳
It was time for him to finally stop dicking around and rise to the occasion.
Months after having his epiphany, Jerry was on a roll.
Having started as an internal trainer at the target organization, he became the de facto authority on the carbon tax. The largest conferences offered him to speak to policymakers from all over the world. Finally, his fanatical interest in taxes started to pay off.
He got booked for consultations, the topic of carbon taxes received more and more media attention, and a few countries in the North started adopting his gospel. It certainly felt like the momentum was swinging in the right direction.
Time would tell if Project Carbon Tax
i was a success.
First, Jerry noticed a reluctance to introduce carbon taxes at large. Then, he started seeing history itself repeat. Last, he realized that he had failed.
Time would replay itself and eventually merge into his base reality. Critics of the Carbon Tax
i program had always pointed out that changing the past was impossible due to the time travel paradox. But you can guess how it was… In those dark days, hope prevailed over reason.
As the years went by, Jerry came to the conclusion that the mission was destined to fail right from the beginning. Fighting the climate crisis could have not been solved by a single hero. It needed many helping hands. Systemic change only ever happened when many leverage points were pushed simultaneously.
He just hoped that people in a different timeline would be wiser and realize that “No one can do everything at once. But everyone can do something.”
It’s like people can choose their own adventure depending on interest and expertise:
- Inspiring people to get into climate action
- Communicating the magic of climate tech
- Saving energy this winter
- Building the utilities of the future
- Mitigating climate risks
- Mitigating policy risks
- Reshaping the world around us
- Molding the rules of the game
- Participating in the greatest game
- … and many many other things
And so our unsuccessful yet infinitely wiser hero reverted back to his equilibrium state: Solving tax-themed crossword puzzles while he was waiting for the world to end.
The present is made of the same stuff as the future. Don’t wait for a hero from posterity. Instead, be the hero that the present needs today. - Jerry mumbling to the barkeeper after one too many glasses of wine
As always, if you want to reach out to me, just reply via mail or ping me on Twitter.
I had a ton of fun coming up with this world but had to narrow it down to a simple idea. Otherwise, I know I would have spent weeks developing a storyline without sending out the newsletter.
I hope that at some point the other narratives in this world will get some more attention. Questions that I’m asking myself:
- What were the other G.E.C.O projects?
- What would have happened if Carbon Taxi would have sent back someone else?
- What else is interesting to explore in this world?
Anyway, if you have ideas, please get in touch 🙌
More and more Climate Buddies 🌳
It’s energizing to see that there are so many people who are interested in climate tech. 70+ new readers since the last essay.
Maybe that’s a sign that Jerry’s message is landing. People want to learn and see what they themselves can do to fight the climate crisis 🙌