Tony’s Story, take three

Another week and I’m back with another iteration of Tony’s Story, my little effort at an enticement to get people interested in The Road to Environmental Armageddon.

I’ve pushed Tony’s post-apocalypse story along to the point where he abandons Vancouver, hoping to find a refuge from the calamity that’s fallen on the world. I plan to add to this little saga in the coming weeks, but for now it has come to a good point to pause and consider where I go with it.

I could proceed as I originally planned and put this out there on this website as an inducement, or I could consider it as a Prelude at the beginning of The Road to Environmental Armageddon. With that in mind I added a final sentence to this weeks rendition of Tony’s Story. It would lead directly into The Souring Seas, part one of my three part saga about humanity’s inability to deal with climate change. If I keep Tony’s Story as a standalone, that last sentence will disappear.

Tony’s Story

My name is Tony Atherton. The story of my life as a scientist and climate change crusader began thirty years ago, in 2019, when I arrived in Halifax to begin work on my Master’s degree in engineering. My timing was poor. The infamous coronavirus pandemic of 2020 hit us six months after I arrived. It delayed the completion of my degree, but brought with it a life-altering benefit. The research project I’d chosen became unachievable, and I fell back on my second choice. I designed and constructed an automated system for controlling chemicals added to a large aquarium in the oceanography building.

Jacinta Lopez was the first to use my system. She made an important discovery in May 2022. Phytoplankton productivity in our future low pH ocean would be far greater than productivity in our current one. Her simple observation inspired my twenty-seven-year career as an oceanographer.

In a strange way, Jacinta’s discovery brought Beth Manville and I together. She became the love of my life, mother of my children, and a dedicated environmentalist. Over the years, she reinvigorated my interest when it flagged and led our fight to convince everyone we must take the climate change threat seriously.

Our efforts, and those of thousands of other crusaders, came to naught in 2049. Our blighted planet spiralled into chaos caused by our inability to control climate change.

Millions died. The survivors found themselves transported to an earlier time. They struggled to cope without the technical infrastructure we’d become so reliant on.

Carl Linnaeus, the father of the modern system of nomenclature for organisms, gave our species the name Homo sapiens. This Latin term translates as wise or discerning man. Some would call him, thinking man.

Our thinking ability served us well for millennia. Great discoveries were made and cultural achievements recorded. Longevity and the quality of life improved. In recent centuries, our expanding industrial capacity overwhelmed the natural environment. We became technological marauders, bending nature to our will.

We became obsessed with making anything we could, seldom considering our need for it or our ability to build and use it without destroying our environment. ‘Do it and ignore the consequences’ became consumer man’s mantra. That, I would contend, led to civilization’s demise and consumer man’s inability to cope after the collapse.

And how did it end? How did civilization come crashing to a halt in the spring of 2049?

We know almost nothing. The conflagration that hit North America by May twenty-fourth, 2049, spread around the globe within days. Electronic communication ceased, and we were left groping for answers but managed to piece together the following murky picture.

On the twenty-second, nuclear explosions ripped through America’s largest cities. The powerful devices were hidden in buildings and triggered in quick succession. Initial damage was massive, and heat from the explosions produced fires that spread rapidly from the cities to the surrounding countryside. The Americans blamed Brazil, a rogue state, tormenting America for years with China’s support.

The US launched massive missile strikes that allowed no time for diplomacy. They didn’t generate retaliatory strikes from China or Russia. Brazil was abandoned to its fate, and presumably, little remained of its major cities.

We also learned that a more limited number of seemingly similar explosions occurred in European capitals. On the other side of the globe, incoherent reports described attacks by China on several southeast Asian neighbours.

When communication channels disintegrated, we found ourselves dependent on old-fashioned technologies like short wave radio. The overriding message for North America was the realization that the whole east coast, including eastern Canada, was on fire with millions of people fleeing from the encroaching flames. Two days after the initial explosions, Montreal and Toronto joined the list of North American cities targeted by the nuclear-bomb-wielding terrorists.

Our daughter Hannah and her baby were home with me in Vancouver when chaos erupted. Our son Michael, his wife, and family were at their home in the Pemberton valley, nestled in the coast mountains one hundred and fifty kilometres to the north. Beth was in Ottawa.

No nuclear blasts occurred in Vancouver, but it wouldn’t escape the effects. Fires emanating from nearby Seattle, an American city that was targeted, were spreading north and approaching the international border. They were also jumping through the San Juan Islands toward Victoria and southern Vancouver Island. Refugees fleeing ahead of the fires were streaming across the border.

My thoughts were fragmented. I worried about the relentless fires. Massive efforts were being made to inhibit their progress, but no one appeared confident anything could halt their spread. I worried about the university, and efforts we’d made to establish early warning networks. Those well-meaning efforts seemed pointless, a hopelessly inadequate response to the disaster we’d encountered. More than anything else, I worried about Beth. She was closer to the epicentre than we were and faced tribulations we may never understand. The lack of communication channels meant we couldn’t discover her fate.

Two things sapped everyone’s will. The first was the absence of communication with Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, and Winnipeg, four other cities that weren’t targeted. Did a massive electromagnetic pulse destroy the communication systems? Or was it global integration of everything web based? The second was our feeling of hopelessness in the face of relentlessly encroaching fires. People’s thoughts were on escape and finding safe havens.

I had several advantages when it came to developing escape plans. I’d worked for several years on a series of stations monitoring environmental conditions along BC’s outer coast. Bill Robertson, an indigenous man and an ex-student, returned home to Haida Gwaii to manage a station. He was a survivalist and a ham radio enthusiast. At his suggestion, I set up a shortwave radio transmitter in our Vancouver home. I was now one of the few people with radio communication capability.

I also had the inside track on a potential refuge area. Our son, Michael, was living with his wife and family in the Lillooet River Valley. Could the narrow valleys in that heavily glaciated and snow-covered area of the BC Coast Mountains escape the ravages of the relentless fires?

Less than a week after the disaster struck, Hannah and I decided she and little Alice would be safer with her brother in Pemberton Meadows. We could hit the road before the inevitable exodus, and I could return to Vancouver if it was still safe. With the batteries fully charged and our SUV crammed with non-perishable foodstuffs and other necessities, we departed at dawn on Friday, May twenty-eighth.

The road wasn’t too congested. We made the one-hundred-and-fifty-kilometre trip in four hours. After recharging the car’s batteries, I returned. The most notable feature of that trip was the increasingly congested traffic struggling toward the north. Back in Vancouver, I determined why. Fires to the east of Vancouver had crossed the Fraser River and were spreading westward. That meant they directly threatened Vancouver and the Sea to Sky Highway to Pemberton. Vancouverites would soon be trapped between the fires and the Salish Sea. Many decided to flee.

I made immediate changes to my plans. As the batteries charged, I reloaded our SUV with more food, more clothes, my ham radio, and more data from my office at the university. At 3 a.m., when they were completely recharged, Zeke Barlow, Alice’s father, appeared. Soot from days fighting the fires advancing from Seattle covered his face and clothes.

“I came to tell Hannah to escape. We’ve lost the battle with the fires. In days, Vancouver will be unlivable.”

“They’ve already gone to her brother’s place in Pemberton Meadows. I’m heading that way in a few minutes. You want to join me?”

“I can’t leave until tomorrow, but you should go now. Tell her I’ll get there, somehow, someday. I’m not abandoning them. I just can’t leave for several hours. Go now, before it’s too late.”

I tried to convince him to join me, but he was adamant, and a few minutes later I joined the slow-moving exodus. Along the way, I thought about Zeke, and how he couldn’t live with Hannah and Alice, but always appeared when they needed him. He’d done it again, and I was sure he’d fulfill his promise.

I also thought about Beth. Our relationship also started out rocky, but we overcame our difficulties and had a loving and sometimes exciting life together fighting the opponents of climate change. I feared I’d never see her again, but at least I’d be with our children and grandchildren.

I relived our years together as I crawled north in the erratically moving convoy of refugees.

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