“Have you heard of the GSA?” the park service representative asked.
“No. I don’t think so,” Madison replied.
“Let’s see how I can explain this. Do you have a job? I mean, besides this reporter one?” he asked.
“Yes, I work in a store in the mall,” she replied.
“Right. Good. So when corporate sends you a new window display or something, what do you do?”
“We take down the old display and put up the new one,” she replied.
“Exactly. Well the GSA is the General Services Administration, and they do all the purchasing for federal agencies. Like the park service. So we get a coffee station and some plastic stirrers, we put them out. I get what you’re saying about the environmental impact, but honestly, that’s just not something we have any influence over.”
“Oh, well I guess that makes sense,” Madison replied.
“But really, none of this matters.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I assume you honed in on our coffee station because of the plastic straws, right? Everybody is obsessed with plastic straws these days because of that video,” he said.
“With the sea turtle,” she confirmed.
“Right. That one. You know what percentage of the garbage in the ocean is plastic straws?” he asked.
“Two one hundredths of one percent. Basically, none of it. And anyway, we’re in the middle of Illinois. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where our straws end up in sea turtles,” he said.
“Oh wow. I thought it would be more, since everyone is making such a big deal about it,” she confessed.
“You know what fully half of the plastic garbage in the ocean is?” he asked.
Madison jotted that statistic down in her notebook. “Well this all makes me feel kind of dumb,” she said.
“It’s not your fault,” he replied. “My big problem with the straws thing is that it’s pretty easy for most people to stop using them. And so they do, and they feel like they’ve done something important for the environment. When in fact, they’ve done next to nothing. Some billionaire is using a metal straw on his private jet that’s dumping tons of CO2 into the atmosphere and patting himself on the back like he’s making a difference.”
“So if it’s not the straws, what do you think we should be doing?” Madison asked, trying to wrest control of the interview back.
“Voting,” he replied.
“I’m only seventeen,” she said with a little smile.
“Next year, then. But if you think about those fishing nets, the only way a problem like that gets fixed is through global government cooperation. And an individual can’t do that themselves. But they can vote for people who will make that happen.” He paused, but before Madison could ask another question, he continued. “You know what, though? What you are doing right now, spreading the word, educating people—that’s a way to influence a lot of votes. So doing exactly what you are doing—investigating and reporting and bringing the truth to the surface—that’s a huge way to help fix the environmental problems we have.”
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m trying! What do you think is the biggest environmental problem we should be addressing? What keeps you awake at night?”
The phone went silent. Madison waited. “All of it,” he finally said. “Global environmental collapse. An E. L. E.”
“E. L. E?” she asked.
“Extinction level event. Like when a comet took out the dinosaurs. Except the comet is us, and the dinosaurs are also us.”
“I see it every day in my work. We are losing biodiversity. The wholesale destruction of habitat. The long-term insidious effects of pollution. And then there’s global climate change. It’s getting worse, faster. Droughts leading to wildfires that span entire states. Multiple category 5 hurricanes every year. Sea levels rising and taking out entire coastal cities. Worldwide famine. Mother Earth is resilient, but we humans are relentless. We never let up to let her catch her breath.”
Madison was writing furiously in her notebook. She let the silence build while she caught up.
“You still there?” he asked.
“Yes! Yes, I’m sorry. I was writing all that down. This story isn’t going the direction I thought it would.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Once you get me on my soapbox, I tend to get a little carried away. I guess I’m frustrated.”
“By what?” she asked. “I mean, other than the end of days,” she added with a little laugh.
He laughed in response. “I’m frustrated that the government isn’t doing anything about it. The Paris Agreement was a baby step. Too little, too late. And even that is falling apart now. By the time things are bad enough for governments to really act, the horses are going to be out of the barn.”
“Meaning, we can’t fix it?”
“Right,” he said. “We can delay it, I think. But global environmental collapse isn’t a matter of ‘if’ anymore. It’s only a matter of ‘when.’”
“That’s absolutely what I believe. Yes.”
“You know this is all on the record, right?” she asked. “Are you going to get in trouble for this? I know the current administration isn’t a big fan of environmentalism.”
“Fuck it,” he said. “If you’ll pardon my French. I’m too old to sit in my corner and mind my manners. People need to know this. If not from me, then from who? You know?”
“I appreciate that,” she said. “It’s just the school paper, anyway. I don’t suppose my story will be finding its way to the President’s daily briefing.”
He laughed. “You never know. Anything else?”
“I don’t think so,” Madison said. “This has been really interesting. I have a lot to work with here. I’ll email you the story once it’s done, so you can check my quotes and stuff.”
“Sounds good. Good luck!” he said, ending the call.
Madison went back through her notes. She was excited to get started on the story, but she had a lot of homework from her other classes to deal with first.