By Eliot Peper from Anthropocene and Long Now Foundation ‘Climate Parables’
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 >
There’s a large stone spiral at a lookout point on Seaview Trail in Tilden Park. Hikers have been maintaining it for centuries, replacing stray rocks and clearing away windblown debris. It’s one of those places along the ridge where the world opens up in front of you like a picture book—you can’t help but stop and stare.
I stop and stare.
Across the wind-ruffled Bay to the west, San Francisco sits on its peninsula, the Pacific Ocean stretching out to blue-gray infinity beyond. This is how I explain the local geography to folks who haven’t been here before: Hold out your right hand and make a backward “C” with your thumb and index finger. The Bay fills the middle of the C, the spiral where I’m standing right now is on the knuckle of your index finger, San Francisco sits on your thumb, and the Golden Gate Bridge connects your two fingertips.
Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge still stands—one of the few historical artifacts outside the city’s gleaming walls. Of course, the bridge no longer serves the purpose for which it was built: to offer vehicles efficient passage up and down the California coast. Now, it’s primarily a wildlife crossing for wolves, grizzlies, antelope, jaguars, coyotes, and elk. People visit too. Pedestrians walk the span to take in the spectacular view, and schoolchildren arrive on field trips, admiring the orange towers rising into fog and fingering the steel rivets and struggling to imagine a world where this was a piece of critical infrastructure, where human settlements covered the land for as far as you could see in every direction, where people chose to live so far apart that they needed to burn dead dinosaurs just to come together.
When I stroll across the Golden Gate, I like to invert the thought experiment. Salt on my tongue, wind in my hair, I pivot on my heels at the crown of the gently arched deck and look back at San Francisco, trying to see it through the eyes of my great-grandmother, who used to commute past this exact point in bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Gran loved this city, but she hardly could have imagined the single vast treelike structure that now rises from what was once the Fillmore District, its base reaching from Pacific Heights to Civic Center to Haight-Ashbury. Glass, steel, cement, laminated graphene, and living wood twist into, across, and around each other like individual twines woven into a thick bundle of rope. Higher up, the main trunk splits into narrower and narrower branches that themselves produce offshoots that overlap and intersect, shafts of sunlight beaming down through complex interstices in the wide urban canopy. Each branch contains thousands of apartments. Junctions house parks, schools, hospitals, community gardens, restaurants, coffee shops, bars, and commercial districts. Jasmine, honeysuckle, and bougainvillea vines drape from vertiginous edges. Narrow pedestrian bridges arc from branch to branch. Birds and drones hover and dart through the tangle. Clouds form and dance around the crown—from which you can glimpse the glittering expanse of Tulare Lake in the Central Valley and, on clear days, the snow-capped Sierras. Roots extend from the industrial core at the base of the trunk deep into the bedrock.
The Vikings told of Yggdrasil, a sacred tree that connected the Nine Worlds, encompassing the cosmos. This building is our Yggdrasil. It is my home, and home to 20 million fellow travelers. This building is the City of San Francisco, and the City of San Francisco is this building. In fact, the words “city” and “building” have come to mean the same thing, the distinction an anachronism appreciated only by historians.
I think modern San Francisco would surprise any visitor from the 21st century, but I think what would surprise Gran most are the notable absences. If she circumnavigated the Bay in a kayak, she’d fail to find Berkeley, Oakland, Alameda, San Jose, Palo Alto, San Rafael, the once bustling Ferry Building, or even her childhood home of Sausalito. In place of these settlements, she’d encounter rich vernal pools teeming with fairy shrimp, hills covered in redwoods, laurels, and oaks, and valleys once dubbed “Silicon” turned to gold by California poppies. If she found a safe mooring for her kayak and ventured inland on foot, she’d soon discover evidence of what was there before the rewilding: a sunken network of cracked asphalt half-obscured by forest groundcover, tide pools swirling in the exposed foundation of an IKEA, a weathered stop sign angling up from dense clumps of deergrass, mushrooms colonizing the upended bronze bells lying in the ruins of the Campanile.
I look back at San Francisco, trying to see it through the eyes of my great-grandmother . . . she hardly could have imagined the single vast treelike structure that now rises from what was once the Fillmore District.
I begin to walk the spiral. An onshore breeze blows across the ridge, teasing mist rising from the valley into ragged tendrils. It’s good to feel the sun’s warmth on my back as I put one foot carefully in front of the other.
Can you believe that in my 140 years on this blue-green marble of a planet I have never once left the Bay? This wasn’t a philosophical decision or some stubborn idiosyncrasy. I’ve had plenty of good reasons to travel to Los Angeles, Tokyo, Addis Ababa, New York, Taipei, Bilbao, Colombo, Vancouver, Amsterdam, Beirut, Montevideo, and more of the world’s great cities. It’s just that I’ve always had better reasons to remain here in San Francisco. Perhaps that’s because I was, and am, obsessed with what San Francisco is becoming, what the next step in its evolution holds in store. Or perhaps it’s because I intuited early on that everything important about reality can be learned from any arbitrary point in reality—that depth is just as useful as breadth in offering fresh perspective.
That’s not to say I haven’t ranged widely, just that I found breadth in puzzles rather than geography. Fresh out of school well over a century ago, I was mystified by the nonsense that governed public life. A dysfunctional healthcare system. A housing crisis. Skies choked with wildfire smoke. Funding for prisons exceeding funding for education. Cratering biodiversity. Skyrocketing geopolitical tension. Brutal droughts and violent floods. Crises flocking like starlings—a murmuration of catastrophe. I had a long list of complaints, but I knew that if we wrote better rules, we could fix society. So I became a grassroots activist pushing for reform. We even managed to get some laws passed that wove the first few strands of a new social safety net.
But activism presented a new puzzle: better policies only work if politicians implement them. That’s why hot takes about how things should work do little to change how things actually work. I very badly wanted to believe that the best idea wins in the end, but in the end the idea that wins is the one that matters, no matter how little you like it. So I ran for a seat on the Board of Supervisors, and even served a term as mayor. People were fed up. In response to the mounting uproar over that flock of crises, we granted emergency powers to a federation of Bay Area municipalities, enabling us to make decisions as a region and encourage high-density reconsolidation in the San Francisco core. Attracting more and more people with better social and physical infrastructure spun up a flywheel of economic growth and eliminated homelessness.
Politics is all about refactoring resources and incentives to make a better world today, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how to make a better world for tomorrow. So I left City Hall and went back to school to study physics. After bouncing around a few labs, I wound up at Lawrence Livermore working on an early prototype of the fusion reactors that power all modern cities, including San Francisco—our pet star burning in the heart of the great tree.
After bouncing around a few labs, I wound up at Lawrence Livermore working on an early prototype of the fusion reactors that power all modern cities, including San Francisco—our pet star burning in the heart of the great tree.
Have you ever grabbed drinks with a group of scientists? The conversation always seems to circle around to grants. In a world of publish or perish where peer review renders scientific journals inherently conservative, radical ideas that challenge existing paradigms tend to perish. Because most grants go to whoever has the longest CV, this conservatism bubbles up, calcifying science. If so many scientists were working on the problems they thought they could secure funding for instead of the problems they thought were important, then changing funding was the way to fund change.
If I wanted to change the world with money, I needed to earn it first. The reconsolidating core of the city was growing fast but awkwardly—picture me in seventh grade!—as it absorbed surrounding neighborhoods. I knew we could do better by applying promising research that had been languishing in universities’ tech transfer offices, so I started developing real estate projects. We bought a long-dead factory and, tapping my old network at City Hall, converted it into an open public market with community housing using self-healing biobricks, carbon-sucking cement, and mycelium fireproofing. Even more important than the new building technologies were the new incentives we baked in: safe and beautiful public toilets, lifelong learning workshops, and kitchen gardens were just the start. The project caught the attention of the City Architect, and we leapfrogged into larger and larger developments, each one attracting more economic, cultural, and creative energy to San Francisco.
I didn’t start the company to build a fortune. I started the company so I could invest the proceeds in people pushing San Francisco forward. The mark of a true leader is to render yourself irrelevant, so as soon as I saw that my team could hum along without me, I devoted myself and our profits to funding scientists researching desalination, artists creating diverse visions of possibility, founders bringing life-saving nanotech therapeutics to market, programmers building AIs that would eventually provide the cognition underlying San Francisco’s vast and intricate operations, genetic engineers adapting crops for a changing climate, and housing activists organizing to support dense, thriving neighborhoods.
When your hand is on the money spigot, everyone wants to be your friend. They work to fit into your world, instead of showing you theirs, so you wind up staring into a golden mirror. Gazing into that mirror, my life slowly drained of color. Obligations multiplied. Days stretched out in front of me like desert highways. Nights rarely blessed me with the sweet relief of sleep. My contributions had grown shallower and shallower until they became fully commodified as pure capital—shuffling numbers between spreadsheets. If money is all you have to give, it’s time to give up money.
There was a common thread running through the various mantles I’d donned. When I was a kid, I was often bored. And when I was bored—say, sitting in a dentist’s waiting room—I’d transform the banal space into an imaginary world full of mystery and wonder. The coffee table was a mesa towering above verdant plains. The uncomfortable chairs were mountains with thunderheads gathering around their peaks. An opulent palace covered the receptionist’s desk, and whenever a new patient opened the door, an invading army clustered around their ankles, swords glittering under the fluorescent lights and banners flapping in the air conditioning. There is the world as it is. And then there is the world as you envision it. As an activist, politician, scientist, entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist, I’d been pushing the world to conform to my vision for what it could become.
But no matter how smart you are, how open your mind is, or how much you learn, the world is always more complex than you can imagine. Reality is a downpour that each of us are trying to catch in a thimble. I was done chasing raindrops. I finally realized that, instead of seeking to influence the future, I needed to empower others to invent their own.
That’s how I became what I am today: a teacher. If you want to understand someone, figure out their theory of change.
Midway through the spiral, I kneel to push an errant stone back into place. High above, a golden eagle wheels up a thermal. Across the water, San Francisco buzzes with life: how many weddings, how many funerals, how many births, how many betrayals, how many discoveries, how many first kisses and new beginnings are taking place as I take in this view? I push myself to my feet, and my joints complain bitterly. I don’t blame them. They didn’t evolve to spend this many seasons above ground.
If there’s one thing I’m proud of as an old woman, it’s avoiding nostalgia’s honey trap. Memory is a warped lens. No, that metaphor gives it too much credit. Memory is a Lego set you reassemble again and again without instructions, your current state of mind influencing the increasingly divergent results.
If I were born today, I’d quickly write a list of complaints at least as long as the one I drafted in my distant youth. We live on the brink of apocalypse. We have become so adept at manipulating bits and genes and atoms that only fragile systems and human judgment prevent any Yggdrasil from triggering Ragnarök. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is riven by internecine conflict over ballooning maintenance expenses for the space elevator that traces a delicate line from the Alcatraz Spaceport all the way to its counterweight beyond geostationary orbit. Environmental groups can’t agree on which extinct species to resurrect, how far back in the genetic record is too far. New designer drugs hit the street daily (don’t tell my students, but some of them are extremely fun). Cradle’s renowned coffee really has deteriorated under the new management. You still have to sit in a waiting room before enduring the indignity of a dental checkup. Just last year, two million residents lost their life savings to Yuko Atherton’s Ponzi scheme. Oh, and our security service is convinced that spies from Toronto have penetrated San Franciscan counterintelligence.
I could go on forever, but I won’t, because that’s no way to live. A friend once told me about a trip she’d taken. I don’t remember anything about the overall experience, or even the destination, but one detail in her story stuck with me. As the drone leapt off the launchpad, the little boy in the seat behind her screamed “YES! YES!!!!!” Everyone laughed and applauded. When they reached cruising altitude and every other passenger had returned to whatever they were doing to distract themselves from the monotony of air travel, she realized the boy was the only one who understood how miraculous their flight really was.
There is the world as it is. And then there is the world as you envision it.
Whenever life feels impossible, I try to channel that little boy. I remind myself of the fleeting smiles on my students’ faces. I remind myself how much I love the fact that the view from my apartment changes a little everyday as the city grows and bends and twists and reaches. I remind myself how incredible it is that San Francisco became an archetype for urban reconsolidation, that the shape of modern civilization has converged on diverse, monolithic cities surrounded by lush wildlands. I remind myself that despite the painful absence of a few lifelong friends, the light minutes separate us because those friends chose to embark on spacefaring cities that humanity is blowing across the solar system like dandelion seeds.
Long ago, Gran introduced me to a game she’d loved as a child. It was called SimCity 2000, and we played an emulated version because, of course, the computers it was built for had given up the ghost many decades earlier. This wasn’t the kind of game you win or lose. The goal was to build a city, developing residential, commercial, and industrial zones, collecting taxes, responding to disasters, and increasing the general standard of living. You started small, with little houses and office buildings. But over time, whether through honest struggle or—my preference—cheat codes, you’d gain access to better and better infrastructure: skyscrapers, universities, wind turbines, and the like. Finally, when you reached the game’s most advanced stage, you’d be able to build arcologies—beautiful, massive self-contained human habitats. Sometimes I like to imagine the civilized world as a bouquet of those bright, pixelated domes.
The difference is that anything bright casts a long shadow, and there are no cheat codes, only struggle, honest or otherwise.
I reach the center of the spiral.
A spiral is the simplest form of labyrinth. Do you know the difference between a maze and a labyrinth? A maze has an entrance and an exit. To run a maze is to make your way out the other side. But a labyrinth has no exit, only a center. To navigate a labyrinth is to quest within, facing whatever monsters slumber in your heart of hearts.
My monster is that when I see a problem, I need to solve it. I know that sounds like a cop out, like answering a job interview question about your weaknesses by saying you care too much and work too hard. But when I’m confronted by a puzzle, it consumes my life until I forge a new identity in search of a solution. My thoughts spiral just like this path. I can’t escape it, even in dreams. Worse, every time I solve a puzzle, it reveals itself to be a piece of a much larger puzzle called San Francisco—and puzzles like San Francisco can’t be solved, only reinvented.
Maybe that’s the deepest problem of all: there is no victory condition, no ultimate triumph, no endgame. Life can get infinitely better while remaining endlessly problematic.
Hold up your hand again. Make the backward C. Now, bring the tips of your thumb and index finger together. Lean forward and peek through the circle you just closed. See that? That’s your world. You can’t make it perfect, but you can leave it better than you found it.
Eliot Peper is the author of ten bestselling novels, including Bandwidth, Cumulus, Veil, and, most recently, Reap3r. He also works on special projectscrafting stories that create change. The best way to follow his writing is to subscribe to his newsletter.