Author’s note: if you are having suicidal thoughts or feelings, do NOT read this. Get help. I am completely serious. Go here instead: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
The first time I saw a Greenlight pod in person was yesterday. It was glossy white with an eye-catching vertical green stripe, cool pine tree green, subtly illuminated by inset LEDs. There was a portrait on the side of it at eye level, a pretty blonde woman holding a young boy, smiling down at him, tranquil and content. The boy had brown hair, and he was also smiling, warm pink cheeks, blue eyes. The woman looked a little like me, like she could have been my cousin. Underneath the portrait was a single Helvetica block cap word: HOPE.
I was on my way home from work and I passed through a public square next to my bus stop. There was a busker playing a guitar, and there were some food trucks; plant.BASED & Bread-Filled, Soy Meats Girl, and my personal favorite, Grub One Out. The food smelled good, and as I was considering an indulgent dinner, I noticed the pod. It looked futuristic, like something out of a sci fi utopia. The doors slid open silently, invitingly, retracting into a hidden compartment like the doors on Star Trek. I know I imagined it but I swear I heard a voice from inside say my name.
Did you know the average person produces a carbon footprint of 20 metric tons per year, a lifetime of 1,600 metric tons? We’ve cut our emissions a lot in the past decade and they say we probably won’t see the worst case scenario for anthropogenic climate change, but it’s still looking grim. Already we’re starting to see more frequent heat waves and tropical cyclones caused by changes in air pressure and ocean currents far out at sea. As the oceans absorb more carbon and gradually acidify, fish and coral reefs will die. The loss of coral reefs will cause extreme tidal waves that will ravage coastal cities. The sea level will rise due to thermal expansion as the earth’s cryosphere slowly melts. At this rate the Netherlands will be under water in twenty years, and many of the great port cities of the world will follow.
Anyway, I couldn’t stop thinking about the pod on my way home, with its rounded edges and the low-power E-Ink display on the front. 34,674 Tons Saved. To be honest it was making me feel uncomfortable in a way that’s hard to explain. I kept trying to figure out how many people had entered the pod already. Could we assume the average person who went inside was in their 30s? That would put the number at about 34. I felt I owed it to those people to appreciate what they’d done for the earth, but it wasn’t the most pleasant thing. With a tinge of guilt I flipped on my AirPods and tuned in to the latest episode of my favorite podcast, Galaxy Brain, hosted by Chandan Varadkar, whose soothing, mellow voice always makes me feel relaxed, even if I don’t listen to exactly what he’s saying. But before the cast there was an ad, and of course it was for Greenlight.
“Redemption is real, it’s here, it’s today. Greenlight is inspired by the idea of total atonement—total forgiveness—for all of your debts. Cut your carbon footprint to zero. Go green today, go green for life. Become a hero for the earth.”
It didn’t even stop there! Varadkar’s topic for today’s show was all about how the Greenlight pod works. I resigned myself and flipped through Instagram while I listened. He began talking in a sleepy, even cadence: Becoming a hero is painless and eco-friendly. The chamber contains a comfortable and ergonomic reclining chair designed by nu-mid century modern pioneer Yaamisi Nosowitz-Ga, and built out of fully recycled materials. Once you are situated in the chair, you verify your ID on a touch screen and designate a beneficiary. After you check in, an aerosolized opioid gas is released inside the chamber, designed to alleviate all feelings of anxiety and stress. It’s gently perfumed to smell like a green forest. They say when you breathe in the gas you may have feelings of euphoria, and Varadkar noted here that there have been anecdotal reports that some people even had orgasms. He said this in with his usual middlebrow modesty, affecting a slight demeanor of scandal.
The co-host interjected here. “Are there any restrictions on this? Can anyone just walk in?”
“You have to be at least 18 in order to use the pod, with a verified ID.”
“There’s also been some criticism that this program may be taking advantage of people who are neuro-atypical or who have psychiatric disorders. The opioid gas almost seems like an enticement to people who suffer from drug addiction.”
“That’s a good point, yes. There was some initial concern about this, but ultimately a special commission appointed by the FDCJ—The Federal Department of Climate Justice—decided that the moral opportunity to become a hero for the earth should not be denied to anyone, and that ultimately it was ableist and discriminatory to block people on the basis of socially constructed ‘deficits’ of mental health.”
“That makes sense. I can see how they’ve really taken the time to treat these issues with the gravity they deserve. But let’s get back on track. After the happy gas is dispersed…?”
After the happy gas is dispersed, you are prompted to leave a final message for the world, which will be viewable forever at the Greenlight website. Optionally, you can have your picture taken and uploaded along with your message. When your statement is finalized, the pod emits a second round of gas designed to put you in a deep, peaceful sleep. Biometric monitors in the chair verify that you are fully unconscious, and the pod activates a powerful solar-powered incinerator, releasing you in mere moments. An industrial fan airs out the pod and your remains are collected in an air filter and compressed into a commemorative token of your sacrifice, leaving a perfectly crisp and sterile interior.
I got home that night and my three roommates were all gathered around the TV, watching some kind of reality show. I made a point not to look at the screen so the facial recognition in the TV wouldn’t ID me and add to my carbon debt. Starving and exhausted, I pulled a meal from the freezer and popped it in the microwave. Cricket tikka masala made with soy cream. Zero net carbs, because I’m trying to lose weight, and zero net carbon, of course. We’re all intimately aware of these things ever since they rolled out the L/ACC, the Ledger of Actual Carbon Costs.
Money is carbon. That was the slogan. In 1971 the US abolished the last remnants of the gold standard in favor of a discretionary monetary policy in which the value of a dollar was backed solely by government authority. This enabled the central banks to steer currency flows and maintain a relatively stable period of economic growth, less a few relatively short crashes. Only in the 21st century did we start to realize that the key externality of the new Keynesian system had turned out to be a failure mode that was entirely invisible to economists’ models; the gradual accumulation of carbon emissions in the earth’s atmosphere.
Under the post-new Keynesian synthesis, as elaborated by the eminent Swedish economist N’Buqu Muguwata, the true backing of any unit of currency is the expected carbon footprint of its expenditure. Government fiat was therefore offering money at a steep and unsustainable discount, and the next step in the evolution of money was to move from money as a debt owed by the bank (gold) to money as pure unit of exchange (fiat) to money as a debt owed by each individual person to the earth.
The ledger of actual carbon costs was computed in a private government-maintained carbon-neutral blockchain, and every dollar transaction would result in a carbon debt issued to the spender. The carbon debts could not be paid down using dollars, but only by actions deemed as carbon-negative by the new FDCJ. Failure to pay down carbon debts was punishable by confiscation of assets, credit score penalties, and restricted economic statuses that placed limits on a person’s freedom to purchase plastics, petroleum products, and unnecessary transit costs.
This is going to sound a little weird, but have you ever been up somewhere really high, looked down, and had the urge to jump? Part of me just wanted to know what was inside the pod, not to hear about it, but to see it for myself. What was it like to go into that box? There’s a comic by Junji Ito about a man who finds a hole in the ground that was made just for him, long before he was born, some kind of ancient secret. He has to go in the hole; as soon as he sees it, it becomes an object of fixation, an unbearable compulsion. If I’m honest, the pod is like that. Like I totally know what is inside the pod but I also feel like it’s a mystery, a gateway to somewhere new and exciting, like the door will open again and I’ll walk out into a new world.
And after all, the planet is dying. It’s almost too late. We have to radically cut our carbon emissions, and what it comes down to is this: there are too many people on this planet, and even if we cut down everything, it won’t be enough. The only way to save the earth is for there to be fewer people, and even if we cut until we bleed, it won’t be enough. Even if everyone goes back to living in huts and and we shut off all the power it won’t be enough, because the smoke from ten billion campfires will be as bad or worse than all of our jets and our cars.
The oceans are heating 40% faster than our best science predicted. Even a small increase in average global temperature will cause a domino effect of changes in precipitation patterns, which will lead to excessive sediment deposition, nutrient pollution, and concentration of minerals in aquifers. Arid and semi-arid regions will experience more severe and more frequent droughts. Periods of increased dry heat are predicted to lead to increases in the number and size of wildfires.
One fourth of the world population already faces severe water stress which will be aggravated by shocks to our fresh water supplies. Half of all freshwater is used in technological and industrial applications;. Increased water stress will retard scientific advancement and industrial development. 20-30% of existing animal species are projected to go extinct. Even worse, higher temperatures and elevated CO2 levels will increase the pest, weed, and pathogen pressure placed on agriculture, especially in developing countries. Food production will collapse in the developing world, leading to famines, riots, starvation, death, and violence.
After dinner, I got a FaceTime call from my mom. Bandwidth takes its toll on the earth, too, so it’s good to keep it brief, but my parents are kind of old-fashioned and they don’t really seem to feel any urgency.
“Honey I’m sorry to bother you but we need to talk. It’s about your dad.”
“Oh no. Is it…?”
“Yes, it’s his heart again. He had another heart attack, I’m calling you from the hospital.”
“Will he be ok?”
“Well, the doctors don’t know. They say he needs surgery, but even with our insurance it’s going to be very expensive. The carbon footprint of heart surgery for a man his age…”
I lost my temper a little bit. “Mom! I keep telling him he needs to eat less red meat and more plants, or at least lean protein.”
“I know, dear, I tell him too but he doesn’t listen to me. And you know he hates the mealworms.”
“OK but they’re good for him, especially with his heart.”
“I know, I know.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just I get frustrated with him because I care. You know I love you both.”
“We know, we love you, too. Anyway, I’ll let you go.”
“Please text me as soon as you have any updates.”
I went to bed with indigestion but in the end, I slept like the dead. It felt like as soon as I closed my eyes, my digital assistant woke me up with a jaunty pop tune by c̵͓̒̌o̶̳̽̈́̔d̴͚̝̭̄̋̈ĕ̵̲̟̝i̴͓̅n̴͎̒ḛ̷̈̀̃_̶̘̏̑d̵̥͕͇̄̅ï̵̥̣̠ḽ̷̦̋͌d̵̲͋́͝ő̸̘̅͋, the latest rapper to reach back from the future to assemble himself in the fetid swamps of social media. The song was called Carbon Pimp and it was bragging about how he sent “bitches” into the Greenlight pod after he was finished with them, and then flew first class to Europe and Asia with their credits. “Spendin’ bitches like I’m on one / Spendin’ bitches by the metric ton.” I knew I’d be humming that hook all day. To be honest I’ve never understood why rap music is so crass towards women, but damn it was a catchy tune. That bassline was totally worth the CC needed to drive the premium speaker in my Narcissus Plus.
I grabbed a breakfast bar and a caffeine pill on my way out, took my bus to work, and got off at my usual stop. None of the food trucks had set up for the day, but the Greenlight pod was still there, still glowing its enchanting glow. It was a crisp fall day and it just so happened that there was a man going into the pod just as I got off the bus. He was tall and wearing formal clothes, almost like he was going to church: brown blazer and slacks, leather dress shoes, fresh shave, hair combed and shined, parted on the side. His face betrayed no trace of emotion, stoic. I wondered what was going through his head in his final moments. I made a mental note to look for him on the website later today.
It also got me thinking about what I would say to the world if I went into the pod. Would I say something silly, flippant, try to be funny? Would I be melodramatic, serious, somber, hopeful? “It is with a grave sense of duty that leave these words to all of you…” That wasn’t really me, but it was still interesting to think about. A chance to be heard. A chance to really make an impact on the world.
On my commute, I got to thinking about the day when they first announced the Greenlight project. Three months ago, after the national Pride day parade in Washington DC, President Rishika Rakshe had held a press conference. Her wife, Fareeda, stood behind her on the stage in a vibrant rainbow hijab with an extra green stripe to represent the earth. Rishika and Fareeda, the daughters of Indian and Pakistani immigrants respectively, had won the hearts of the nation with their unlikely love story, having transcended the bitter and war-torn ethnic rivalry between their parents’ home countries. President Rakshe gave a moving speech about how we would overcome climate change together through heroic acts of love, just like how Harry defeated lord Voldemort. She couldn’t quite hold back her tears in the middle of her speech as she announced that the very first climate hero would be her adopted daughter, Emma, who would selflessly donate her carbon offsets to the Greenlight project itself, to help promote climate justice across America.
The 19 year old girl looked beautiful and dignified as she walked into the Greenlight pod, and as the door closed behind her, the camera cut to a streaming video feed of her smartphone. “Mom, Mom, I love you both and I am so glad to have the opportunity to give this gift to the world. Together we can fix the earth before it’s too late.” A blissful, almost indecent smile seemed to spread across Emma’s face before the feed abruptly cut off. Later, online bigots tried to say that her arm seemed to be moving rhythmically just off camera before it cut, and they said “he was fiddling while Rome burned.” Tasteless euphemism, what do you expect from trolls? Of course they even made the extra effort to misgender her, that’s how you know they were full of shit.
And we all agree that saving the planet is the most important thing, but the other big draw of the Greenlight pod for the hero (an appellation used throughout the Greenlight promotional campaigns) was that any extra carbon offsets leftover after paying off their personal debts could be applied to any other person’s carbon ledger of their choice. The total value of the carbon grace is based on your age, since younger people are effectively mitigating a larger lifetime carbon footprint. Those same bigots who talked about Emma like to spread stories about people supposedly forcing their kids to go in the chamber so they can get a payout. The way they tell it, it’s always a black or Jewish family, that’s the kind of racist crap you hear on the internet. And anyway, I don’t believe it, it’s just scaremongering. They also say there are demonic runes hidden in the circuitry, a pentagram in a secret, inaccessible compartment at the base of the chamber. They say the pods sacrifice you to Satan. They harvest your soul. The gas isn’t soporific, it’s paralytic, you’re awake the whole time, and it’s agonizing. It irritates your skin and makes it feel like you’re covered in a million points of searing pain, it feels like you’re breathing hot sulphur, it feels like a hot iron being pressed against your face, it takes your breath away so you can’t even scream.
How can people be so selfish to spread lies like that? Is it just for attention, for likes on social media? It’s disgusting.
At the office I couldn’t focus on work at all. I just kept thinking about the pod, about this sense of it as almost a frontier I needed to conquer. I got wrapped up in a long email chain where another team in my org was trying to push some work onto me and I had already gone back and forth with them for like thirty emails and they kept CCing more managers and PMs and adjacent stakeholders as if they could intimidate me by making our argument more visible. To be honest it was working. The woman who was arguing with me had a way of twisting and turning everything I said to make it seem like I was the unreasonable one. Compared to all this, the pod just seemed so simple, so pristine.
And then, on my lunch break, I had a sudden realization. I know it seems obvious when I explain it this way, but at the time it felt like enlightenment, a zen-like flash of insight: I could be free. Free of everything, free of all rules, free of all obligations, free of all debts, free of all my stupid little tasks that my boss had set for me, free of all my worries. In a way, I’d never been so elated. The moment I had this thought, I was free, so I decided to take my time.
I called an Uber Black and had them take me to a fancy hotel where I knew they had a fancy restaurant. I ordered the wagyu beef, I ordered the yellowtail crudo, I ordered potatoes dauphinoise, not even knowing what I would get. I ordered wine. I ordered a chocolate lava cake and it came with two juicy red raspberries and a mint leaf and a scoop of ice cream, and I ate everything, down to the last bite. I felt giddy. I was alive.
In the lobby of the hotel there was a barber, and I decided I wanted a haircut and a straight razor shave, like the man I had seen that morning. The barber brought me warm towels that smelled like eucalyptus and camphor to wrap around my face. As I walked out of the shop, I kind of wanted someone to smell me. Another Uber took me back to work, but I didn’t go back to the office. This was my day, and I didn’t owe anything to anyone, not anymore.
I walked up to the pod and the doors opened. Admittedly there was a feeling of constriction in my throat as I approached, a certain anxiousness that one feels before any public performance. I thought about the people who would see me walking into the pod. I thought about the man who I had seen earlier that morning, and I thought about Emma and how brave she was on Pride day.
I thought about the people who would read my final message on the Greenlight website. I knew exactly what I was going to say; I was going to tell my parents how much I loved them, and wish for blessings on future generations. Mom and Dad would be so relieved, and Dad would be able to get his surgery. I knew they’d feel proud of me.
Find me on Twitter, @0x49fa98