I’m writing this “Dear Tomorrow” letter to you on October 25, 2020, imagining that you will open it 30 years from now, in 2050. By then you will be middle-aged – 55 years old – and I’m not sure whether I’ll even be around! It’s a daunting thought, but one to bear in mind in a world that is changing so quickly, politically, environmentally, physically, technologically. Who knows what it will look like? But in this letter, I’d like to muse a bit about the past and what some aspects of life were like before we became a family, and to think about what our planet – and we (wherever we are) – will be like in 2050.
So first, I want to backtrack. I’ll never forget my first visit to China in 1981, on the first ever bicycle tour there organized by American Youth Hostels. You weren’t even a figment of my imagination at the point; I was attending journalism school and freelancing, and avidly bicycling around New York City as part of the burgeoning alternative transportation movement. Bicycling in New York City wasn’t nearly as popular as it is now, in 2020, and New York was still mainly a city of motorized transportation and mass transit. In fact, some of us were thought of as weirdos. But New York was also a polluted city, just five years out of a terrible period of near-bankruptcy; street crime was a key concern. I can remember what it was like to fly back into New York City from a trip away and descending through a filthy brown cloud of smog and dirt.
In those days, China was not yet an economic superpower, and tourism there was still relatively underdeveloped. When we traveled there, Guangdong, the city where we did most of our cycling, was dominated by bicycles – thousands of them clogging city streets. The mechanical clicks of rotating wheels and pedals were predominant. Instead of car horns, we heard bells. Private cars were sparse, and I ‘m pretty sure the bikes had to share the roadways with trucks. It was chaotic. We Americans – I believe there were about two dozen in our group – were viewed as curiosities, with our fancy multispeed bikes and outfits and the safety helmets we wore. Helmets were not intrinsic to China’s bicycle culture. In addition, the idea that bicycles would be ridden for pleasure rather than a principal means of transit to get to work, to school or go shopping, was alien to them. The local bicycle industry was limited. A popular brand was called “The Flying Pigeon” -not exactly an appealing name! The hotels we stayed at were not yet “ready for prime time,” with amenities a bit crude and simple. I’m sure there were five-star hotels for diplomats and senior executives, but for tourists like us, the surroundings were not very inviting. Infrastructure was just so-so – China was then a developing country. Hands-down, the US was the place to be. I don’t want to sentimentalize the China of the early 1980s – it was not a progressive place to be, and the “glory” of seeing so many bicycles actually reflected the poverty of a city where individuals had to spend hours using bicycles to get where they had to go.
By the time I returned 15 years later, in 1996, to adopt you, China had already transformed. You and I became a family in October. It was a special day, of course, but the city of Suzhou, where you’re from, was in the throes of a normal business day, bustling with businesses and automobile traffic. The air smelled. The population then was about 1.6 million. The city was then developing as a business center, and the hotel where the adopting families stayed was essentially a business hotel. I cherish Suzhou for its rich history, including its unique network of classical gardens and canals, which earned Suzhou – sometimes called the “Venice of the East” – the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is my impression that China appreciates this distinction because it also brings tourists. The model of a Chinese garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art is based on the Suzhou gardens, and the Chinese garden at Snug Harbor in Staten Island was built by artisans from Suzhou.
But Suzhou is rapidly industrializing. When you and I visited in 2005, when you were nine, the hotel I’d first stayed was now second string , and the agency that arranged our trip put us in a fancy Sheraton, with a pool. High-rises now predominated. The population had almost doubled, to 2.9 million. The heat of summer was such that we could practically hold it in our arms – I remember that. To this day, I cannot say if the heat was normal or a result of both global climate change and changes within Suzhou itself. I know that the highway system expanded, and these days bullet trains connect Suzhou to Shanghai. We spent much of our visit in air-conditioned vans – and were grateful for the air-conditioning, despite whatever harmful effects were being caused by its use. Without it, I doubt we could have moved! But I recognize the paradox of relying on impactful air-conditioning to get us around.
We have not traveled back to China since then, and I fear we would not recognize it. Suzhou’s population now exceeds 7 million (although a tourist Web site I saw said it has 10 million!). That’s just since 2005 – only 15 years! Imagine if New York City’s population, which has been stable for decades at seven million to eight million, were to triple! Based on photos I’ve seen of China’s cities, I imagine today’s Suzhou to be a forest of high-rises, surrounded by vast networks of highways and railways, ringed by industrial parks and factories. The old town, with its gardens and canals, has been preserved: It’s an economic draw for the city, and perhaps the only real reason so much energy has been exerted in making sure it’s intact. During our visit, I bought several books about Suzhou and bought souvenirs of various sorts, so the gardens and canal rides you can take (we, of course, too, one) are income-generators.
When New York City lost many of its industries, some people bemoaned the loss. Others praised the positive changes in our environment. Legislation also changed the composition of automobile, bus and truck fuel, heightened air-quality standards for measuring fuel use, and pushed the use of electric vehicles. China had a dreadful record of air pollution and in 2013 introduced a wave of measures to reduce it, such that within about three years, according to the British Guardian, pollution-related deaths were lower than they’d been in 1990.
What does all this have to do with climate change and why I’m writing this letter? Because leaders worldwide – especially youth leaders – are acutely aware of the threat to human life and stability being caused by climate change.
You are young and have a rich future ahead of you. I am retired and aiming for a high quality of cultural life and comfort with whatever time remains to me. I do not want to see a world whose elders sacrifice your future for their short-term needs and personal gain. So it’s up to you and me to speak out. We must also adjust our lives to be more responsible.
It seems that we have all gone full-circle in an ironic way. I still bicycle all over New York City, and during the pandemic period, thousands more people in New York City are cycling. You bicycle to your job in New Haven, and when you’re with me in New York City, we have a second bike – a folding bike – so that both of us can ride together. It’s efficient, clean and fun – and practical.
Most of all, though, there must be a common conscience and goal to save the planet.
As I mentioned, I’m writing this on October 25, 2020. In just nine days, our nation will conclude a voting period for president. One of the issues at stake, quite literally, is the future of our planet, since on candidate, Donald Trump (now the president), is a climate-change denier, and the other, Joseph Biden, is acute to the concerns of climate change. The world will change in 30 years. It could change more dramatically in just nine days!
My promise to you is to live ethically and responsibly, to continue to live modestly and within our means, and to encourage a respect for our environment. Knowing who you are and the choices you’ve made in your life, I know you will, too. After all, you have a profession as a chemical and biomolecular engineer that embodies the use of science to promote well-being. You are the future!