“I don’t understand,” Madison said. “Are you saying all the pebbles are going to be failing at the same time? Is this like a Y2K thing?”
Judy kept her eyes on the road and seemed to be thinking about how to respond. “Do you remember when you visited with Richard, and he talked about his legacy?” she asked.
“Of course,” Madison replied.
“I’ll be honest with you. When he started in on that, I was concerned he was going to tell you too much. Because the core message he was delivering was the truth. The people of my generation have utterly failed you. We grew up protesting the establishment, but then we became the establishment. We allowed ourselves to become so obsessed with material wealth that we completely ignored the results of our actions. We pumped more than thirty billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. Thirty billion. We have dumped more than six billion tons of plastic waste anywhere we could think to put it. The scale of the damage we have done to our environment is incalculable. And the rate is increasing.”
“I know,” Madison said. “It’s refreshing to hear someone from your generation acknowledge it. My generation has been screaming this message from the rooftops, and everyone just shoos us away.”
“I’m sorry about that. About all of it. A lot of us are sorry. So when Richard approached me, I had to think long and hard about what he was suggesting. Eventually I decided he was right.”
“Right about what?” Madison asked.
“The problem our planet is facing is ultimately the result of one thing—industrialization. Humanity and the earth had a pretty decent balance until the industrial revolution. Then population growth exploded, and the pursuit of wealth through technology took off. We exploited all our natural resources at an unsustainable rate. The solution to our problem isn’t cutting back or slowing down. It’s too late for that, and besides, nobody is interested in slowing down. We make a landmark agreement like the Paris accords, and the next thing you know everyone is walking away from it.”
“Is there a solution?” Madison asked. “It all seems so hopeless.”
“There is. It’s simple, really. De-industrialization. When Richard and his benefactors at CLP learned about the nuclear pebbles, they immediately saw a shortcut to bringing everything back into balance.”
Madison stared at Judy, who had not made eye contact with her for several minutes. “So you are going to blow up all of the pebbles… on purpose?”
Judy nodded. “We are.”
“But…” Madison wasn’t sure where to begin. She sat in silence awhile. “People are going to die,” she said.
Judy took a deep breath and sighed. “People are already dying, Madison. In the developing world—the places that we send all our toxic waste—people are dying every day. We are killing people with our pollution, with our climate change, and in the horrible regimes we stood up to mine all the natural resources we need to feed our addictions. That phone you are so in love with… the minerals in that phone were mined in exchange for human lives.”
Madison turned in her seat and stared out the windshield. She watched the endless stream of traffic that she was a part of, and she watched the other stream heading in the opposite direction. It was the middle of the night, yet she could see dozens of cars and trucks. “So you are saying that by this time tomorrow, this stretch of road will be empty?”
“Mostly,” Judy said. “Nobody has tested an actual HEMP in more than fifty years. The kinds of electronics that are in cars today didn’t exist then. And nobody is really sure what kind of shielding the car itself might offer. But soon enough, the gas will run out. Even if the cars survive, they won’t be able to go anywhere.”
“And the grid? The grid will go down, right?”
“There’s no question about that. The grid will go down, and the transformers will be destroyed. And there will be no way to replace them, since the factories that make transformers need power. And even if they did replace them, it takes an enormous amount of power to start a power plant. You cannot feed the grid without already having the grid.”
“So the grid is just never coming back?” Madison asked. “There will never be power?”
“There will be power eventually,” Judy said. “It’s not like we will forget how to make things. It will just be a fresh start. Microgrids that provide power to just a small area, like a college campus or a hospital. Renewable power sources like solar or wind located right where the power is needed. Maybe even some version of nuclear power. Human ingenuity isn’t going away. We are simply changing the economics.”
“The economics?” Madison asked. “What do you mean?”
“The game has been rigged to favor fossil fuels as our energy source. Delivery systems already exist, giving those fuels an economic leg up that they would never have if they had to compete against renewable energy on a level playing field.”
“And you are leveling the playing field,” Madison said.
“We are bulldozing the fucking playing field,” Judy said with a little smile. “Have you eaten? We have a long way to go yet. I’m thinking maybe we stop and get some midnight breakfast.”
“I’m not very hungry. But I could definitely stop to pee,” Madison said.
“Maybe you’ll get hungry when you smell the food. Let’s stop up here,” Judy said, putting on her signal.