“Sea pirates” named this land “America” back in 1492. They then proceeded to plunder, pillage, and poison it in the name of progress, as pirates will do. Four hundred and seventy-eight years later, a large group of these so-called “Americans” gathered in New York City for an event meant to send the message that in regard to all that plundering, pillaging, and poisoning, enough was enough.
On April 22, 1970, Fifth Avenue was shut down to traffic from 59th to 14th streets. Flyers urged “Come on foot, bicycle or roller skates … but leave your car at home!” People were sincere. They were angry. They were hopeful. They meant it! It was the first (soon to be annual) Earth Day.
At high noon, beloved social satirist, science fiction writer, humanist, and self-proclaimed pessimist Kurt Vonnegut faced the optimistic crowd from a stage at the feet of Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions that guard the New York Public Library, in midtown Manhattan. Mayor Lindsay was there, as were Leonard Bernstein, Paul Newman, Ali MacGraw, and many visionary scientists and pandering politicians. The general sense seemed to be that if corporations and regular people just understood the unprecedented damage we were doing to the planet, they would immediately want to change their behavior. (This was proved wrong.)
The night before, Village Voice writer Anna Mayo had asked Vonnegut whether the environmental movement was a “granfalloon” or a “universal karass,” the former being a false and meaningless association of people, the latter a much more sincere group (both terms coined by the author in his 1963 novel Cat’s Cradle). “Everybody knows the answer to that question,” he replied, as Mayo reported in her Voice article. “But that’s not for publication.” On the stage on Earth Day, Vonnegut abstractly addressed her question when he used the red-hot tip of his Pall Mall unfiltered cigarette to pop the bubble of optimism the crowd had been bouncing around in: “Now polluters are looked upon as ordinary Joes just doing their jobs. In the future, they will be looked upon as swine.… Will the president do anything about pollution? Probably not.”
He went on deflating the mood before ending with a faint glimmer of encouragement in these words: “Those who try their best to save the planet will find a loose, cheerful, sexy brass band waiting to honor them right outside the Pearly Gates. What will the band be playing? ‘When the Saints Come Marching In.’”
I’ve often wondered why Vonnegut doubled down on pessimism on that monumental day. After all, as he told Mayo back in 1970, “I’m very funny. I’m the funniest writer in America.” And humor always suggests a light at the end of the tunnel. It alleviates the pressure we feel about the things we’re most terrified of, and lets us know we’re not alone.
Vonnegut wrote and spoke for decades about our relentless, merciless destruction of the earth, long before “climate change” was in common parlance. I was sure a man this dedicated to the subject could offer gleaned knowledge and concrete advice.
So I was thrilled to secure the following interview with Kurt Vonnegut’s … ghost? … spirit? … time-traveling doppelgänger? …
Ali Smith: What is it you’d like me to call you, Mr. Vonnegut?
Kurt Vonnegut: I am a space wanderer named Kurt who has become unstuck in time.
OK, then. With your permission, I’ll call you Kurt-Vonnegut-Space-Wanderer. I’m not sure where you are right now or how much time we’ll have, so I’ll cut right to it. In your 1970 Earth Day speech, why didn’t you feel compelled to offer positivity to young people about their future on this planet?
Well, young people have been swindled. Persuaded that it is now up to them to save the world. It isn’t up to them. They don’t have the money and the power. They don’t even know how to handle dynamite. It is up to older people to save the world. Young people can help them. I thought somebody ought to tell it to them straight.
Do you believe that we—older people—can still fix the planet?
All that is required is that we become less selfish than we are. The planet is being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what is being manufactured is lousy, by and large. Something we have never had but desperately need is a Secretary of the Future, who can come up with concrete plans to help my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren. We also have to stop choosing abysmally ignorant optimists for positions of leadership. They were useful only so long as nobody had a clue as to what was really going on—during the past seven million years or so. The sort of leaders we need now are not those who promise ultimate victory over Nature through perseverance in living as we do right now but those with the courage and intelligence to present to the world what appears to be Nature’s stern but reasonable surrender terms.
What are those terms?
Mother Earth hasn’t told me directly—not even on this spectral plane where I currently reside. But she’s been sending very clear messages to the still-living in the form of hurricanes, sinkholes, failed crops, burnt-to-a-crisp forests, and her continued cosmic joke of producing psychopathic personalities, hell-bent on attaining leadership roles so they can kill as many of us as possible in as many ways as they can dream up.
Here are a few of the things we must do:
• Stop poisoning the air, the water, and the topsoil.
• Teach our kids, and ourselves, how to inhabit a small planet without helping to kill it.
• Stop thinking science can fix anything if you give it a trillion dollars.
• Return all the automobiles to their home planet of Lingo-Three, where they can live and reproduce freely, rather than poisoning our atmosphere.
• If the government is really waging a war on drugs, let them go after petroleum. • Reduce and stabilize our population.
• Stop thinking our grandchildren will be OK no matter how wasteful or destructive we may be since they can go to a nice new planet on a spaceship.
On that note, did you know that billionaires have recently been hurtling themselves into space inside rocket ships that look like giant penises? What do you think of them for doing that?
Kurt-Vonnegut-Space-Wanderer’s translucent hand draws, in glowing light in the air in front of him, his signature symbol—a 12-point asterisk meant to be an asshole.
Don’t you agree, though, that Earth Day was a step in the right direction? After all, since the first one, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, the modern versions of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were enacted, the first U.S. wind farms went up in New Hampshire, New York closed the Indian Point Nuclear Facility, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established, electric cars were invented, the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list, Fridays for Future marches have mobilized youth worldwide, and the Green New Deal is being discussed seriously (at least by some) at the highest levels of government. Aren’t these reasons to be optimistic?
KVSW’s image is glitching wildly now and I sense my time with him is coming to a close. The desperation in my own voice surprises me:
WAIT! Please don’t go. WILL THIS ALL WORK OUT?
Surely he’s learned something out there in the great beyond. Surely, like me, he’s only a pessimist because he cares for creation so deeply he can’t bear to watch it destroyed. Surely … there’s hope.
But already he’s just a floating set of lips, a mustache, and a pair of wire-rimmed glasses obscured by smoke, with a static-laced voice that sounds like it’s being transmitted over a thin radio wave from outer space.
There is hope as long as you poison the minds of the young with humanity and encourage them to make a better world. Apologize to future generations for mortally wounding this sweet life-supporting planet. Tell them we were roaring drunk on petroleum. Possessions didn’t help alleviate our loneliness as much as advertisers said they would. We were Planet-Gobblers. Hopefully, they will forgive us.
And with a “pop,” he’s gone, and I’m left feeling abandoned and sad. But wait. Vonnegut’s given me all the advice needed for this descendant of what he described as “sea pirates” to stop huffing on the tailpipe of the American dream. Let the billionaires float away in their penis-shaped evacuation zeppelins. I’ll stay here, feet rooted firmly to this beautiful, wounded planet, with its mess and suffering, alongside others who aspire to give more than they take. I will work hard to become less selfish.
As for all the obstacles in my way? I can hear his voice now:
So it goes. ❖
•• Disclaimer and credits ••
For anybody wondering, the Voice did not actually speak with Kurt-Vonnegut-Space-Wanderer anywhere outside of the writer’s own mind. Vonnegut’s answers above, as well as parts of the intro, were taken directly, closely paraphrased, or imagined from the following sources: Conversations With Vonnegut, edited by William Rodney Allen; Vonnegut’s 1973 novel, Breakfast of Champions; David Brancaccio’s 2005 PBS interview; Vonnegut’s speech at the first Earth Day; Anna Mayo’s 1970 Village Voice article; Vonnegut’s commencement speeches at Bennington College, 1970, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges, 1974; Vonnegut’s 1988 collaboration with Volkswagen on an ad campaign for Time magazine, a letter to the future population of humanity in the year AD 2088; Drew DeSimone, 2021 honorary chair, the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library; and Robert B. Weide’s documentary Kurt Vonnegut: Unstuck in Time.
Native New Yorker Ali Smith is a photographer and writer who focuses on women’s lives, human rights, and the environment. Her work has appeared in the Village Voice, The New York Times, the Guardian, and others. Her most recent book is Momma Love: How the Mother Half Lives.