The underpass

Joseph Cohn updates our visions of biblical floods.

The storm raged all night. The refugees trembled as the wind howled beneath the bridge. Soon the water rose. For two hours it roared through the underpass. Along the concrete walls black shapes writhed in the primordial darkness. The underpass became a vault of screams to echo the agony of the dying earth. By dawn the flooding had ended and thirty-three people had died.

In the morning the refugees climbed down to scavenge and search for the dead. They cleared the ground and sent the dead into the sea, and then they gathered to eat out of cold, dented cans. Afterward they rested against the walls and watched the world with mute eyes. Their figures faded into the gloom, until they were no more than shadows of anguish. No one spoke, and no children ran at play. The last child living beneath the bridge had died three weeks ago.

Around midday a wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair stood at the center of the underpass. From a ragged book he read to the refugees of prophets and dead kings and a time when the earth burned. But above all else he spoke of an empire called Babylon. Of how it fell at the height of glory, its towers and walls crumbling to the earth. The refugees heard him, but they did not listen.

A month later the underpass was silent and the people were gone. Whether they fled to some distant Elysian field or perished beneath the bridge was unknown. Their fates like their origins were lost, their existences forgotten. All was still but for the ocean. It loomed just beyond the bridge, gray and calm and ever shifting. A mercurial plain beneath whose surface lay the ruins of Babylon. A sepulcher fit to house all human folly.


Joseph Cohn [email] is a high school student from Southern California. Growing up close to the ocean, he has seen how all human activities —ranging from fishing to littering — can have harm our oceans.

I don’t like these storms anymore

Ben Ruddell’s view on storms has changed, is changing and will change…

As a kid in the Midwest, the distant rolling thunder of a summer soaker was soothing, and the lightning bolts were exciting, bursting with neon light and color. Those storms were beautiful, with their sunbursts, whipping winds, and towering black clouds sweeping across the flat open land.

Those storms changed, flooding fields and towns but leaving withered crops and dry riverbeds in the summer. Those tenacious farm towns survived fifty years of depopulation, but collapsed as the groundwater ran out and the corn moved north to Canada. We followed so many others when fled the economic blight of the Midwest for greener pastures in the Mountain West. There were jobs, and the reservoirs had enough water for the dry spells.

The Southwest was so beautiful: pristine pine forests ringing towering mountains, vistas and red rocks, deserts and flowers. I never saw anything like it, and once I came I never wanted to leave. We had storms here, too, but they brought the most welcome rain to the arid hills. And rainbows- so many rainbows in these desert storms. No wonder these mountain towns are so popular. Everyone wanted to come here.

The kids felt the fear before I did. We tried to calm them when the lightning struck, but they felt a fear too deep for a parent to reach, a fear I didn’t understand. My oldest piled rocks around a tree to keep it safe from the lightning. It was cute. I thought he would grow out of it, but he didn’t; we did. Us older folks fooled ourselves with a lifetime of false experience.

When I first smelled the smoke, I felt that same fear- ominous, imminent, unavoidable. The fires were all over the summer news. A million acres here, a hundred houses there, year after year. Fort McMurray burned in Canada, but it was always far away. Still, my subconscious mind was catching on. When I caught myself hugging the kids because I was scared, I knew didn’t like storms anymore. The lightning made me jumpy, and if nobody was looking I would walk nervously to the window to check for smoke. I wrote my Congressmen about funding for the Forest Service after I read they only had money to manage a tiny fraction of the public forest in these mountains.

Every year the fires were worse than the last, and Congress finally funded the overdue thinning project out here. It was ten years of work, Billions of dollars. It was too late for us. That big, dry monsoon storm came in at the wrong time, and the lightning set the forest ablaze in a thousand fires. A hundred years of overgrown fuel went up in smoke, along with the power transmission lines and half of the town. It was all the fire service could do just to keep the highway open for evacuation.

The mountains burned, leaving a charred and sediment-choked moonscape. The power and water were out for a long time, and most of us had nothing to come back to after the evacuation. The tourists and students vanished, and with them my job. We moved back east to live with family, and figured out how to make ends meet. We survived, but things aren’t the same. I heard that a few of the mountain towns are recovering, but only rich vacationers can live there now. These fires woke middle class folks like us from our Southwestern dream.

Now, on those the terribly hot Chicago summer nights when the rain falls, I tell the kids these storms are as beautiful as I remember from my childhood, and we’re lucky to be here. But to tell the truth, I don’t like these storms anymore.


ruddellBen Ruddell Ben Ruddell is from the Midwestern U.S., works on the faculty at Northern Arizona University, and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife Jennifer and their children. This vision published in Life + 2 meters is vaguely autobiographical.

School Run

John Sayer helps his kids prepare for school in future Hong Kong

Good morning girls. Have you packed your lunches? We have some papaya from the tree beside our house, take that too. The tree’s doing better since we joined the Compost Compact. We need more home-grown fresh fruit since they put that quota on air-freight food imports to Hong Kong.

You can bring your sandwich onto the ferry. That new electric boat is more stable than the old one, and nice and quiet when I feel like a nap.

Yes, you can carry your parasolars today. Don’t stab other pedestrians in the eye while you’re playing with them and don’t damage the cells or the fans. Use them, though; the UV forecast is ‘extreme’ today. Wear your evapocool undershirts as well. You’ll look like the plastic bottles they’re recycled from!

I’ve got to stay in this morning, they’re fitting our home air-and-water temperature system later today. Yes, hot water and cool air from the same machine. It will run off our own roof panels on a sunny day, and we sell extra electricity to Hong Kong Electric . . . to get a lower power bill.

While the engineers are here I’ll ask when the salt water flushing water is going to be installed on the island. We are among the last districts to be fitted. Yes, most of Hong Kong’s toilets were converted years ago to use sea water.

Convenient to stay home; they’re doing a ‘floor lift’ at the office this month; moving everything out of the ground floor of our office block and knocking the walls out to allow water to pass under in case of street floods. Not too big problem for our work, I mean who in Hong Kong isn’t used to the best use of small areas? Just better sharing of desk space? And perhaps more working from home.

Actually the opened up street level under our office will be made into a walk-though public space, with improved air circulation. It will probably become part of the ‘cool spots’ initiative – that’s right, those places where people can sit in a mist breeze for a minute or two if they overheat on the streets. Yes, I do like them. Have you tried the new scented mists? Menthol, lemon, mango? I think the cosmetic companies should sponsor them! We could have an Issey Miyake mist stop, a Burberry breeze break. Perhaps Body Shop could produce a mosquito-repelling mist.

They have mist fans in the school playground don’t they? All the recreation areas are covered right? When you play on the fields you wear those Foreign Legion hats don’t you?

I do hope this Great Harbour Wall will help keep water levels down when it’s finished. I’m glad they covered the cycle track along the top with a solar panel roof. You can cycle anywhere along the whole waterfront without getting bleached in the sun. A clever idea to add that tidal energy trial into the wall over by the old airport too – they’ve nicknamed it “the steel dragon” because of the bendy bits.

Did you see that the Mandatory Provident Fund are offering higher returns to anyone who cycles or walks to work? That’s because they think we’ll use less money on medical costs. They call it nudging I think – so know your being nudged! Well, I’ll let you cycle to school when they have completed the separate track, I don’t want you to go under a bus – those electric ones are a bit quiet.

What’s your after-school CAS* activity today? Weather outreach for old people, so that they can respond to extreme weather or flood warnings? Some use smartphones and some need a young person to go round and talk to them. That’s nice for them anyway, you should plan to visit them even if they do have a smart phone; even when the weather is safe.

The school is helping with flood probability surveys? I see, you make a record of the types of doors and windows in low-lying houses, and the direction the doors face and then this is combined with a GPS flood map to work out overall vulnerability. Do they fit those flood shields? They block the doorway, it slots into the door frame, for about half a meter. Mostly plastic, very strong, made over the border in China.

And how about your CAS? Mozzie watch? That’s looking out for standing water isn’t it? You can report people? Sounds a bit tough, they can get fined can’t they? Well I suppose they’ve had enough warning about the rules, and the drainage services are free if work is needed. Still, children reporting adults . . . make sure you don’t start behaving like Red Guards and tormenting adults whose minds are not as sharp as yours.

Don’t forget that this weekend we’re doing the Really Really Free Market in the village. You’re working on ceramics, clothes and cloth. I’m on wood and furniture. I also agreed to do an hour on the Green Cottage stall with veggie breakfasts for everyone in aid of the help the Village Circular Economy initiative.

Have a nice day today. There’s a typhoon out beyond the Philippines, but you’ve downloaded the Water Watch app right? Why do you call it ‘turds’? Typhoon, tide deluge and surge; very funny – not. Alright, phone charged right? Use the elevated walkways okay! Sunblock please, parasolas or no parasolas.

Goodbye, stay safe

Bye . . . haven’t you forgotten something? Water bottles, water bottles. Remember the trouble you got into with that plastic bottle!

No, the typhoon’s still a couple of days away. You may have to have a day’s skypeschool if it arrives.


John SayerThe Really Really Free Market is real – operated by young people in Hong Kong for free exchange of unwanted goods. Already, over 80% of toilets in Hong Kong flush with sea water. The Green Cottage is a vegetarian Café on the car-free Lamma Island in Hong Kong. John Sayer (email) is Director of Carbon Care Asia, and lives on Lamma Island with two daughters who travel to school by public ferry.

* CAS stands for Creativity, Activity and Service in West Island School.

Climate change and childhood dreams

Usha Nair channels gratitude from a girl living in 2030. Thanks to prompt action at the turn of the 21st century, her life is not nearly as bad as it could have been.

Harsha looked out of the window. She could see a gale building up. Trees were swaying in the wind. The noise of waves crashing against the shore some distance away could be heard clearly. She sighed and tried to keep down the fear building up inside her. This could be the beginning of yet another bad period when they would be restricted within the four walls, scared to step out and forever weary of the giant waves and sea surge that had marked previous instances of such weather. She had read in her Class VI textbook that sea levels were predicted to rise by two meters by end of the century.

The year was 2030. Harsha recalled how her mother recounted stories of her own childhood when they enjoyed the rains, running out to get drenched in the downpour and get scolded on return. Rains were regular and moderate. There was a pattern in weather events and events round the year could be predicted fairly accurately. Schools reopened after the summer vacations to torrential monsoon rains. Festival season was filled with flowers, fruits and pleasant weather. Summer was hot and humid but not too hot to run out and play through the day. What fun they seemed to have had when the whole extended family assembled at the family home in the village for school vacations!

Her father regaled them with stories about his feats in the village pond and river. He and his friends used to spend hours splashing in the water and racing each other across the wide river. But the river she saw was only a small trickle of smelly water, waylaid with lumps of unfriendly grass and mounts of sand and rock.

The family had paid short visits to their village when she was a little girl. But the journey always left bad memories, plagued by water scarcity, swarming mosquitoes and inclement weather. Over the years they had stopped undertaking those visits, much to the regret of her mother. Harsha particularly remembered the vibrant colours of the butterflies her aunt had told her about. She had only seen a rare butterfly in the park, that too in dull monotonous colours. Where have the colours disappeared. How dull and dreary her childhood seemed when compared to the lively, peppy childhood of her parents and grandparents! Who had taken away all the fun and frolic? She wished something could be done to restore the old life.

Harsha ran to her grandfather and plagued him with questions and doubts. He explained to her how Man’s reckless activities over decades and centuries had destroyed the environment. Chasing the dreams of riches, comfort and enjoyment, Man went about exploiting Nature’s resources without giving anything back. Slowly, ominously, the balance of Nature crumbled. Natural resources were plundered and fragile species made extinct. Natural protection for lands and seas (such as, coral reefs and mangrove forests) were destroyed in the name of development, leaving them open to danger and destruction. Climate changed all over the world. The world now faced extreme events, unprecedented heat and cold, destructive deluges and fearful sea surges.

“But, Grandpa,” exclaimed Harsha, “if Man is responsible for all this, surely he can try to undo the destruction too, can’t he?” Her grandfather nodded his head, “Some of the damage is unfortunately irreversible. But the good news is that Man has realised his grave mistakes and is already trying to restore some element of harmony and beauty in nature. ” He explained that all the countries of the world got together at the turn of the century to discuss the serious implications of the recklessness of Man. There were scientific studies and political negotiations. Before too long everyone realised that climate change is the biggest threat ever faced by humanity. It respected no divisions of prosperity, education, social status or religious belief. All people and all countries were equally affected and were destined to suffer the consequences. They realised that unless everyone joined hands and worked really hard, this calamity could not be avoided. Good sense prevailed upon the leaders of all the countries – developed, developing, under-developed – who resolved to take urgent steps necessary to keep the threat of global destruction away.

Countries took urgent steps to reduce their carbon emissions through safe energy, improved designs of buildings and vehicles, managing and protecting water resources, altering luxurious life styles with huge carbon footprints, making towns, cities and villages safe and healthy for people, ensuring sufficient food for all etc.

Now scientists say that all this has helped in bringing down emissions of harmful gases. They were looking forward to a carbon neutral world very soon. The years leading upto 2030 had seen countries pursuing development in more responsible ways, taking care to keep the methods safe and nature friendly. Of course, developing and less developed countries had to pursue some traditional methods and patterns, but they too had crossed the level of peak emissions and had started showing a sloping trend.

Harsha smiled with relief. She felt assured that her generation could look forward to a better world, a world in which there are colourful butterflies and meandering rivers. A world in which they can run around and enjoy the rains and play to their heart’s fill in parks and gardens. In her heart she thanked the elder generation who had shown the wisdom and good sense to arrest the journey to doom by taking action with unity. At the same time she felt a sense of responsibility. It is up to children like her to make sure that the world does not fall back into the crevice of destruction and degradation of nature. They have to be vigilant and caring, to keep Mother Earth from again facing the inhumane treatment she had been subjected to in the past. She resolved to talk to her friends and spread the word about our precious earth and its bounty, and the need to preserve and protect them at all costs.


Usha Nair (email) is a voluntary social worker who is engaged in climate change related work. She is the Member-in-charge (Climate Change) at All India Women’s Conference, a 87-year old national women’s organisation in India. In this capacity she is in charge of organising awareness, advocacy and project-based activities on climate change across the country through more than 600 branches of AIWC. Till June 2016 she held the position of Co-focal Point, Women and Gender Constituency at UNFCCC. She has been attending UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP) since 2011.