THE CLIMATE PARABLES  | FICTION

Dodging the Apocalypse

Episode 99: “How I Saved the World”

By Mark Alpert

The Climate Parables series engages the powerful imaginative forces of science fiction to explore what it’s like to live in a future in which humans have discovered creative ways to mitigate climate change—and live well. Learn more here >

This podcast originally aired on April 22, 2047

 Mark Alpert: Yo, fellow defenders of our beautiful planet, happy Monday and happy Earth Day! What a crazy week, right? I’m guessing you’ve heard about my adventures in New Mexico; they were all over the freakin’ news. So first let me send a shout out to you, my loyal listeners, for your amazing support of this graying environmental correspondent. Without you, I’d probably still be in jail.

Now that I’m safely back in our Brooklyn recording studio, I can tell the full tale of what went down at Spaceport America. CNN’s “Showdown in the Desert” coverage really just caught the final act. Like every other mass uprising, this one has an amazing backstory. But the final chapter has yet to be written. This saga might still have a happy ending.

So settle in. Ready?

(Theme music plays)

Announcer: Support for “Dodging the Apocalypse” comes from our 200,000 subscribers… the Exxon Mobil Reparations Fund… the Thunberg Foundation… and from our sponsor, Mycelial Materials. From carbon-negative homes to LEED-Platinum-certified office towers, Mycelial’s bioengineered mycometals bring buildings to life.

(Theme music concludes)

Alpert: The story of how I may have just saved the world really starts six years ago, in 2041, when this podcast was brand new. I was in South Florida, reporting on the evacuation ahead of Superstorm Wayne. Out of nowhere, I get a call from Eric Steele.

Yes, that Eric Steele, founder of Stellar Technologies, billionaire bachelor and tenacious TED talker. Long-time listeners might remember how I got a little obsessed with him, swept up with all his other fanboys. The guy pontificated like an environmental prophet, using all the right buzzwords — he was all sustainability this and carbonomics that, blah, blah, blah. He proposed dozens of eco-friendly initiatives, and I believed every word of it, I’m ashamed to say.

In hindsight, of course, I should’ve been more skeptical; none of his proposals panned out. But Steele fooled me because he was so smart. He’d made his fortune by inventing a new cryptocurrency that was even more complicated than all the other kinds of digital money. He named it KierkegaardCoin—the most pretentious brand name in the entire history of capitalism—but the crypto speculators loved it. They called it K-Coin and went into a buying frenzy.

So anyway, Steele calls me, all flattering about my podcast, saying he’s a huge fan and blathering about his love for long-form journalism. Then he invites me to come out to Spaceport America, the enormous rocket-launching site in New Mexico, for an exclusive sneak peek at his latest “bold venture in cutting-edge carbonomics.”

It was an absolutely nutso project. Steele said he’d bought the launch site from Virgin Galactic and was gonna use it to build gigantic solar farms in space—literally, in geostationary orbit 22,000 miles away from Earth. Each orbital station would generate enough power to run a big city, 24/7/365, without burning a single hydrocarbon. Then they’d beam the energy down to giant microwave antennas on the ground.

Like I said, it sounded bonkers.

solar power from space

A rendering from a video about the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research Project produced by the US Air Force Research Lab

Just imagine 5,000 of these mirrors out in deep space, each reflecting light from the Sun onto a huge disk of perovskite photovoltaic panels, two kilometers wide. It’s continuous power, always on—exactly what we need to get rid of gas and coal plants forever.

 But you long-time listeners also know that I kinda love nutso projects. I mean, we’ve spent the past 200 years systematically screwing up the global climate—now we have to undo all of that in just, like, a couple of decades. Any plan that doesn’t involve humongous solutions isn’t really a plan, right?

Besides, I used to be an astrophysics editor at Scientific American before I switched to environmental journalism, and I’ve had a soft spot for science fiction since I was a kid. So I didn’t have to think too hard—I was like, “Damn, let’s go!

I’m gonna play a snippet of that episode from 2041 now, and you can hear for yourself how Steele mesmerized me. But first, let me set the scene.

It’s July and 115 degrees outside when I arrive at the spaceport in the middle of the New Mexican desert. I go into the biggest hangar and see a giant hexagonal mirror, at least a hundred feet across. It’s actually a really thin, reflective film of U-carbon stretched over a space frame made from the same kind of recycled-carbon composite that’s used to make auto parts.

Standing next to the mirror is Steele: tall, red-headed, and athletic, sporting aviator sunglasses, cowboy boots, and a tight black T-shirt that shows off his pecs. You’d never know he was in his mid-50s; pricey stem-cell treatments must’ve shaved 20 years off him.

My producer, Imani Locke, found that interview in our archives. Okay, Imani, let’s play the clip.

(Excerpt from Episode 5)

Eric Steele: Hey, Mark, welcome to the next great leap in the energy transition!

Mark Alpert: Wow. So is this one of the mirrors for the reflector array?

Steele: Yep. Now just imagine 5,000 of them, each reflecting light from the Sun onto a huge disk of perovskite photovoltaic panels, two kilometers wide. Out in deep space, the sun is up to twice as intense as it is down here on the ground—and there’s no nighttime, except for a brief eclipse by the Earth on the spring and fall equinoxes. So it’s continuous power, always on—exactly what we need to get rid of gas and coal plants forever. It’ll be the closest thing yet to fusion energy. Actually, it kinda is fusion power, if you think about it: The fusion’s just happening 93 million miles away. How awesome is that?!

Alpert:  Pretty wild. When I was a kid, I read Isaac Asimov’s story “Reason” about this idea. But how many of these orbital stations would we need to really—

Eric Steele: Wait, here’s the best part! See that antenna hanging from the ceiling? That’s a piece of the wireless power transmitter that will convert all that solar energy into microwaves and beam two billion watts of power straight down through the atmosphere, with practically no transmission losses. I bought the old Llano racetrack, just fifty kilometers from Los Angeles, for our receiver station. We’re putting up an antenna array six kilometers wide that will stream all that clean electricity into the local grid—rain or shine, because the microwaves pass straight through any weather.

And that’s just the beginning. The big power companies in Australia have already signed up for four of these babies, a $40 billion deal. By 2050, we’ll have orbital stations powering hundreds of major cities across every continent. Stellar energy is the Holy Grail of sustainability, Mark!

(End of excerpt)

Mark Alpert: I have to admit, Steele got me pretty excited. And the NASA engineers I talked to said the technology seemed doable and maybe cheaper than earthbound solar farms, assuming that Steele could fix the kinks in his reusable heavy-lift rockets.

But then I contacted the execs at those Australian power companies. On background, they denied having any firm deals with Stellar Technologies. So was Steele really serious about the renewable-energy business—or was he just another greenwasher trying to get some good PR? I started to think there was a real story here, but not the one Steele wanted me to tell.

 

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After some more digging, I found a source at Stellar willing to talk—off the record, unfortunately—about the unbelievable amount of energy that Stellar’s data centers were using to mint KierkegaardCoins, the cryptocurrency that made Steele’s fortune. Turns out it’s based on an algorithm so goddamn complicated that mining a single K-Coin guzzles enough power to run my apartment for ten years. Steele was posing as an environmental savior while Stellar Technologies burned up twice as much energy as New York City. And because his data centers were in Eastern Russia, virtually all that electricity came from coal-fired power plants. He was angling for billions of dollars to clean up the big carbon mess that his own company was making.

I confronted Steele about all this, and he didn’t even flinch. He just denied everything as “laughably absurd.” The next day, my anonymous source called me back, pissed as hell, because Steele had figured out that he was the leaker and fired his ass. The guy said he was mailing me a flash drive containing software that would blow up KierkegaardCoin and bankrupt Steele, if I could somehow run it on a computer inside Stellar’s corporate firewall.

I told him that, while I sympathized, sabotaging capitalists wasn’t my style. So then he promised to come to my studio and repeat his accusations on the record. But he never showed. I tried to track him down, but the guy just disappeared.

Well, Steele’s deals with the electric companies never did materialize, so he moved on to other projects and halted work on orbital solar power—but not until the first station was almost ready to launch. I got preoccupied as well with the endless disaster stories—the California Dust Bowl of ’42, the spread of underground peat fires across the Arctic in ’45. Every year or two, Steele would try to get me to cover his latest cockamamie scheme, I guess because he hoped that would win him some points with the high-minded philanthropist crowd.

But I wasn’t so naïve anymore. I mean, I still love big, brilliant planet-saving ideas, but without binding commitments and full cooperation and real enforcement, we’ll never get out of this climate disaster.

Anyway, that’s where things stood until a week ago, when Eric Steele unveiled his Sky Cove project. He made the announcement at Spaceport America, and it was live-streamed to virtual-reality headsets around the world. You probably saw highlights on the news—Steele at the podium, a crowd of fawning employees at his feet, his long red hair waving in the wind. He looked like a Viking warrior rallying his troops before a good pillage. Imani, let’s play that clip to remind listeners.

(Steele on PA at podium)

Eric Steele: Today it is my privilege to announce Stellar Technologies’ most ambitious project to date: Sky Cove. We plan to build a lifeboat for humanity in low-Earth orbit. A magnificent toroidal residence in the stars, a 200-meter-wide, ring-shaped space station that can permanently house almost five hundred pioneering inhabitants, but with daily shuttle service to Spaceport America.

If you’ll put on your HoloLenses, we’ll start the VR walkthrough.

As you can see, we will spare no expense to deliver all the luxury you would expect from a five-star resort—plus shielding from all forms of radiation. Resident suites and common spaces will enjoy full artificial gravity, thanks to the rotation of the ring. That second sun you can see through the windows is actually a giant umbrella of thin-film mirrors that will light up massive perovskite PV panels in the station hub, generating virtually unlimited clean electricity. Water and air recyclers, as well as hydroponic gardens and cultured meat tanks, will ensure plentiful supplies even in the event of interruptions in resupply services from the ground.

Sky Cove will be the ultimate vacation home for adventurous investors—and the ultimate haven from ecological catastrophe. With a hospital, school, and recreational facilities onboard, owners can remain indefinitely and even raise their families there, in perfect safety and comfort, until life on the planet’s surface becomes tolerable again.

(End of clip) 

The helpful salesman clarified that “cabins starting in the low fives” means the minimum buy-in is five billion dollars—and you’d need 15 billion to secure an extra-large suite on this gated “Sky Cove” spinning in space.

Alpert: At that point, I realized what had happened. Steele couldn’t persuade the electric companies to invest in his giant solar-power array, so he’d shifted gears and devoted his engineering resources to building a giant orbital enclave for the superrich. He didn’t take questions at his announcement, and nobody had the chance to ask the obvious: What’s the price for one of these space chalets? So I called the customer service number hidden at the bottom of the Sky Cove website. Imani, let’s play that recording.

(Phone rings, picks up)

Answering Service: Thank you for calling Sky Cove, the most exclusive and secure home in the world—or above it. With cabins starting in the low fives and suites in the mid-tens. To connect with our concierge sales team, please press 1…

(Message fades out)

Alpert: I told the sales agent I was a broker for a well-known heiress. The helpful salesman clarified that “low fives” means the minimum buy-in is five billion dollars—and you’d need 15 billion to secure an extra-large suite on this gated “Sky Cove” spinning in space.

If you heard last week’s podcast, you know how I reacted. It’s maybe not my best work, but easily the most ferocious episode I’ve ever done. It enraged me that Steele was giving his fellow billionaires an excuse to do nothing about global warming. They could continue slow-roasting the Earth for the rest of their lives, and if things got really bad—say, they ran out of water for their swimming pools, or the masses started storming their estates—then the plutocrats could simply blast off to their orbiting Mount Olympus and slurp down stem-cell cocktails while they watch civilization collapse from above.

Well, like they say, nothing sells like outrage. My rant and that five-billion-dollar price tag went viral and even made it into editorials by the Washington Post and the New York Times. That was unexpected—but not half as surprising as what happened next. Dozens of activists started camping out at the front gate of Spaceport America and raising hell through megaphones. The protest was all over the TV news in New Mexico.

Then, wouldn’t you know it, I got a call from Steele. He wasn’t angry; in fact, he sounded bizarrely casual… friendly, even. I’d gotten the wrong impression, he said. He invited me back to New Mexico for a firsthand look at his project and an exclusive interview so I could “set the record straight.” He said he was sure he could change my mind—and you know, he’s so used to getting his way, I think he actually believed that.

I’m not sure why I said OK, but the next day I flew to Las Cruces. A fancy black limo picked me up at the airport, and the driver—this giant bearded Russian named Oleg with a Glock 22 on his hip—drove me through the desert to the front gate of the spaceport.

The protesters’ camp had metastasized into a tent village just outside the gate. Hundreds of people swarmed the limo as we pulled up. Through the tinted windows, I could see them shaking their fists. They must have thought it was Steele in the backseat because they whacked their signs against the hood and howled like crazy.

But then the gate opened, and an entire regiment of security guards came marching out, armed with goddamn assault rifles. I was pretty freaked, but my journalistic instincts kicked in, so I opened the limo’s door and stepped outside to get a closer look. Somehow I had the presence of mind to turn on my recorder. Imani, let’s play that clip.

(Sounds of protesters shouting, guards ordering them to get back) 

I’ve always tried to use truth-telling to make positive changes. But even the most hard-hitting investigative exposé is no match for a rich man determined to grab his next buck. So, I decided to try something new.

Alpert (yelling): Yo, people! It’s me, Mark Alpert, from Dodging the Apocalypse! Can someone tell me—

Unidentified Protester: Holy shit! Those guards have guns!

Alpert: I’m here to listen, people! Please, calm down and tell—

Oleg: What are you doing, Alpert? Get BACK in the car!

(Sounds of gunfire and screaming. Sound of a car door slamming shut as Alpert gets back inside the limo. Engine revs and tires squeal as the car careens into the spaceport.)

Alpert (panicky): Jesus Christ! What the hell’s going on here?

Oleg (disdainful): You’re one to talk. You started this mess.

Alpert: Me? It’s Steele’s fault! Why do you even work for that bastard? He doesn’t—

Oleg: I’m getting paid, that’s why. And paid in K-Coins, which go up in price every day. All right, we’re at the hangar. Get out.

(End of clip)

Alpert: I was still trembling when I staggered out and saw Eric Steele, cool as a cucumber, smiling that triumphant grin of his beneath aviator shades. His cocksure hubris focused my mind. I shook the jerk’s hand, and we took an elevator to his executive suite on top of the hangar’s dome.

His office had an incredible, 360-degree view through floor-to-ceiling windows. The desert plain was sprouting with runways and launchpads and dozens of rockets and orbital modules in various stages of assembly. Clearly more than a few billionaires had already put down deposits; the pace of construction seemed frenetic. All I could think was: I have to stop this madness.

Steele eased into a swanky black-leather chair and motioned for me sit down too. But I just set up my microphone on his desk and stood there. Here’s how the interview went:

Steele: I’m truly delighted that you’re here, Mark. I know you don’t—

Alpert: Let’s cut to the chase, okay? This space station is the worst idea you’ve ever had. It’s a freakin’ disaster for the planet.

Steele: I’m sorry, I don’t understand what—

Alpert: I’ll lay it out nice and simple. Right now the climate shit is hitting the capitalist fan. Property values in the flooded cities are plunging. Insurance companies are going bankrupt, the stock market is tanking. The filthy rich are finally realizing that if they don’t do something fast about global warming, the devastated poor are gonna tear them apart. But you’re giving the elites an easy way out. A way to save themselves without lifting a finger to help the rest of humanity.

Steele: With all due respect, I disagree. The Sky Cove project won’t stop anyone from pursuing new ventures in sustainability and—

Alpert: Don’t give me that. The trillions you’re planning to spend on your orbital torus? That money could go to carbon sequestration instead, or to renewable-energy projects.

Steele: Please, calm down, Mark. You clearly don’t understand the role of entrepreneurs in our economy. We make investment decisions based on the potential monetary return. As you know, I’ve proposed renewable-energy projects in the past, but the risk/reward ratio just wasn’t attractive enough to investors.

Alpert: You want to talk about risk/reward? The risk now, the immediate risk, is that global warming will cause billions of people to starve. That’ll be a nice sight for you and your fellow tycoons to gaze down on while you’re swilling champagne on your space station.

Steele: You have a true gift for high moral dudgeon, Mark, but you’re aiming your righteous fury at the wrong target. It’s not my job to slow down global warming. That’s the government’s responsibility.

Alpert: My God, I’m gonna scream! You plutocrats control the government! You can make it do anything you want!

Steele: Now you’re being hyperbolic. We live in a democracy. If the public really wanted to make sacrifices for climate-change mandates, they’d have voted for it by now.

Alpert: They didn’t vote for it because capitalists like you corrupted our democracy! You used your lobbyists and propaganda and campaign war chests to convince half the world that global warming isn’t a problem! And when that lie didn’t work, you insisted that the only solution was voluntary mitigation—and not government rules!

Steele: Well, I think we’ve strayed from our agreed-upon topic. Do you have any specific questions about Sky Cove?

(After a long pause, the sound of Alpert slapping his hands on Steele’s desk)

Alpert: Nope, no questions. Thanks for the interview. I’ve got everything I need for my next podcast. Can I use one of your computers to upload the audio files to my website?

Steele: Uh, sure, I suppose. But I do have more to say about—

Alpert: No, we’re done here.

(Click)

Alpert: Now, dear listeners, let me tell you why I cut the interview short. During that long pause in my conversation with Steele, I was thinking about the limited power of my profession. In all my years as a journalist, I’ve always tried to use truth-telling to make positive changes. But even the most hard-hitting investigative exposé is no match for a rich man determined to grab his next buck. I could broadcast a hundred fiery podcasts about Eric Steele’s perfidy, but that wouldn’t stop him from building his billionaires’ club in outer space. During that long pause, I realized the futility of trying.

So, I decided to try something new. I left Steele in his suite, and a secretary led me to a an unused workstation. But instead of removing the memory card from my audio recorder, I reached into my pocket and pulled out an old flash drive I’d labeled “Plan B.” While the secretary wasn’t looking, I slipped this drive into the computer and uploaded the software that an anonymous source had sent me six years before.

Behind Steele’s corporate firewall, the software worked its magic. It automatically decrypted a message hidden in the network archives and forwarded it to an online forum for cryptocurrency traders. This message told the traders how to use a mathematical shortcut to create new KierkegaardCoins almost instantly, without any complicated calculations. By the time I exited the building, millions of new K-Coins—indistinguishable from the old ones—were appearing every second. And just like that, the value of every K-Coin in circulation dropped to zero.

As I walked back to the limo, I noticed workers and security guards gawking in horror at their phones, which buzzed with notifications about their now-worthless crypto accounts. News of Steele’s ruin spread like a tsunami. Some of the guards abandoned their posts at the fence; others converged on the hangar, probably looking to break Steele’s legs. Protesters poured through the open gate and started hammering the half-built rockets and orbital modules.

If you’ve seen the CNN coverage, you know the rest. The governor of New Mexico, a golfing buddy of Steele’s, called out the National Guard to rescue him. They stopped me at the airport and arrested me on charges of corporate sabotage.

But many of my listeners also happen to be lawyers. The next day, several showed up at the federal courthouse in Las Cruces to pay my bail and file the motions that got me sprung. According to the lawyers, all I did was inform the public of a flaw in the K-Coin’s code, and that’s not a crime.

But here’s a tidbit of news you may not have heard yet. Just yesterday financiers in Germany and Japan announced that they’re forming an international consortium to purchase—at bargain-basement prices—the rocket and spacecraft parts left lying on the ground at Spaceport America after Stellar Technologies’ bankruptcy. They want to resurrect Steele’s original plan to build giant solar-power arrays in orbit. Because Germany and Japan shut down all their nuclear plants, they need another reliable source of clean power to replace the coal and gas they’re still burning to stabilize their electrical grids. And just this morning someone at the consortium called to ask me if I would join them as an adviser. Apparently, they want me to “guide them through the sociopolitical minefields of these perilous times.”

I’m thinking it over. Can I work with these financiers? Overall, capitalists have a terrible track record on the environment. Should I take a leap of faith and trust them anyway?

What do you think, listeners?

Let me know in the comments—and be sure to hit the subscribe button to stay up to date with our latest episodes.

_________________________

Top image: SPS-ALPHA concept and illustration courtesy of John C. Mankins of Mankins Space Technology Inc. 

About the Author:
A former astrophysics editor at Scientific American, Mark Alpert is the internationally bestselling author of eleven novels. His latest climate-fiction book, The Doomsday Show, will be published by Severn House in October 2022.

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