Madison put the notebook in her lap and picked up her tea. It had cooled and she didn’t want to drink it, but she felt more comfortable talking to Mr. Black with something in her hands. “Read me in?” she asked.
“I’m an old man, Miss Johnson,” he started. “When you get to be my age, you spend a lot of time thinking about your legacy. What have I done? Will I be remembered? What did I do to make this world a better place?”
“As it happens,” he continued, “my departed wife and I never got around to having any children. There always seemed to be more time for that, until suddenly there wasn’t. I believe Miss Gold—Judy—had a similar experience.” He looked to her, and she nodded slightly and smiled softly. “And so for me, my legacy couldn’t be my children or my grandchildren. It had to be my work. Are you familiar with the EPA, Miss Johnson?”
“I’ve heard of it,” Madison said. “The Environmental Protection Agency, right?”
“Yes. The EPA is a regulatory agency,” he said. “While Congress and the President get all the glory for passing laws, we are the ones who implement them. It’s an agency of serious, hard-working people, doing their best to create regulations that meet the intent of the laws, while balancing myriad factors. In our case, the environment, economics, fairness, state’s rights—the perplexities of the regulatory process can be overwhelming. And when we have done our very best and created regulations that we believe balance all those factors, we publish them. And other serious, hard-working people in academia, industry, and various interest groups then read and comment on those regulations. There can be thousands of comments. And we read every one of them, and weigh what they are saying, and we update the regulations in response.”
“That must take a long time,” Madison said.
“Indeed. Often years. But eventually, we have crafted the best regulations we can craft, and then we help ensure those regulations are enforced and applied fairly.” He paused to sip his tea. “For a long time, I believed that my work at the EPA, from my early work with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, through the superfund work in the eighties and nineties…” His eyes drifted to the bookcase behind Madison. She waited silently for his attention to return to her.
“Sorry,” he said. “Reminiscing. That’s another thing people do at my age. Where was I?”
“Superfund?” she said. “I’ve never heard of that.”
“Oh, basically we were tasked with helping to clean up some of the worst environmental disasters, caused by decades of bad industry behavior. Pollution, you know.” He shook his head. “Anyway, for a long time, I believed that my work would be my legacy.”
“And now?” Madison asked.
“And now, having retired and gotten some perspective from the outside, I’ve watched as the executive branch does everything it can to dismantle all the good I helped create. And I see that no matter what we do in this country, there is a whole planet of countries, many of whom are way ahead of us in protecting the environment, but most of whom are way behind.”
“I’m sorry,” she said. “That must be difficult.”
He sipped his tea and nodded. “Very difficult. Disheartening. And so I started casting about for a new legacy.”
“And?” she asked.
“My undergraduate degree was in geology,” he said. “Before I got interested in law and government, I thought I was going to be a scientist. And if you look at the geological record, you’ll see that this planet of ours has been through a lot. Periodically, something completely catastrophic happens and wipes out almost all the life on the planet. But she shakes it off. She starts over, creating new life, new species. No matter what we humans do, I’m confident that this planet will be just fine.”
“That’s comforting,” she said.
“But we won’t be here to see it,” he said. “If you get a cold, your immune system gears up and fights that virus. You suffer a while, get a fever, cough and sneeze a lot. But in the end, you wipe that virus out. The earth is the same way. Humankind is acting like a virus. Our relationship with the earth was symbiotic for millennia, but since the industrial revolution, we’ve been totally out of control. Pollution, over-population, destruction of habitat. Mother earth is very sick right now, and her immune system is gearing up to solve the problem.”
“How?” Madison asked.
“So many ways. The sea level is going to rise and take out all the coastal cities. Wildfires will rip through entire countries, leaving nothing but ash. When we destroy habitat, viral pandemics jump from the distressed species and have staggering death tolls in their new human hosts. We are heading for a total environmental collapse. An extinction level event that will remove the virus of humanity from this planet, so that her healing can begin.”
“That’s really dark, sir.” Madison said. “You believe all that? It sounds like science fiction.”
“It’s science. But not fiction,” he said. “We had a chance, forty or fifty years ago. We could have changed course and fixed this. But greed got in the way. The rich just wanted to be richer, and they did that by exploiting the planet for profit and externalizing all their costs. It’s the tragedy of the commons.”
“So what do we do?” she asked.
“I’m glad you took the time to learn about the Red Cross,” he said. “It’s a lovely organization. All they want to do is help people cope. They are there to relieve suffering. But they are not anywhere near big enough to handle the amount of suffering we will see in the coming years.”
“The warehouses,” Madison said.
“The warehouses,” he repeated. “My legacy will be that I helped to create a network of relief centers that helped humanity cope with the extinction level event. Extinction level doesn’t mean extinction. Humanity will survive. But not all of us. Not even many of us. My legacy is helping those who are left.”
“It’s a noble goal,” she said. “I don’t understand why it needs to be a secret.”
“We are privately funded. There are a lot of rich, old men like me who are thinking the same legacy thoughts I’m thinking. They have the resources to make this happen, but it’s a balancing act. Their wealth derives from a lot of those same industries that have caused this problem. Industries that will not survive these events. If they cause a panic, their wealth could disappear overnight, and then they’d be powerless to do anything. It is very important to them, and to the chances of this whole operation, that nobody knows about it.”
“I guess that makes sense,” she said. “And that’s why you’re telling me? To convince me to keep my mouth shut?”
Judy laughed. “She’s good, Richard.”
Mr. Black smiled. “That’s exactly why I’m telling you. We didn’t take you seriously before. That was my mistake. But I now know that you will not stop once you get hold of a story, and… well, frankly, we need you to stop. The fate of humanity literally depends on it.”
Madison nodded. “I should go,” she said, standing abruptly. “Goodnight, Judy.”
Mr. Black walked her to the door and held the notebook while she put on her boots and her coat. She took the notebook and her bag and walked to her car, her mind reeling from what she’d heard. She started her journey home, but when she was out of sight from Mr. Black’s house, she pulled over. She opened her bag and placed Mr. Black’s notebook next to its twin.