By Aaron Fernando
Professor Jay Gusmão wanted to stretch his legs before office hours and hadn’t yet had lunch. He decided to gather and make his own since he had the time. There were never any tomatoes left to pick on the rooftop garden of his building, so he chose to take the longer walk. He made sure to take a tortilla from the fridge before setting out, folding it in a cloth and placing it in his basket. He scooped some beans into a container for some protein, too. After cutting across a corner of the food forest to see an oriole or two, and watching a couple of students checking a sensor on a small eastern hemlock, Jay eventually stepped into the community gardens by the Systems Sciences building to gather the ingredients.
It was quiet out there, except for the cicadas. The humid heat seemed to have kept most people indoors, making them drowsy. As the professor smoothed the coarse fibers of his cloth on the picnic table and then scooped, sprinkled, arranged, and chopped the ingredients over the wrap, he found himself grateful for the solitude.
He rolled the wrap tight and bit into it. He had a heightened appreciation for the sweetness and scent of the cherry tomatoes and the crunch of cucumbers ever since they had returned to being a fleeting summer treat. Chewing, Jay wondered what he would do next; he wondered if next was even something that needed to be considered at his age. He would turn seventy next year. Not a wise time to make life changes, but he could still move to Brazil. He could settle down in the town just outside Recife. It would be expensive, with shipping and travel costs the way that they were. But it was possible if he finally decided to retire. His daughter and grandkids might miss him a lot, but he felt something yet-unfulfilled was calling to him. Maybe he could rekindle something with Ellie. She was still doing good work, still full of passion — just not getting arrested as much anymore. Something to consider. A happy dream.
Jay winked his left eye, then rapidly flicked his eyes to the left, then up. His oCu contact lenses displayed the time and his schedule, appearing about a foot away, visible only to him. He still had forty minutes before office hours. Left wink, left flick, down, and his oCu closed the information.
He relaxed, allowing his eyes to soften their focus, and found himself mesmerized by the kinetic sculptures that girded the asymmetrical Systems Sciences building. It was a curving, single-story structure made primarily out of clay, straw, and glass and nestled into the side of a small hill. He remembered being surprised by how much bigger it was inside, as it was mostly hidden behind trees, shrubs, and tall-grassed areas.
The whole area had been soy fields and lawn just two decades ago before construction on Chelydra-B Legislation, Administration, and Research Campus (C-BLARC) got underway. C-BLARC had become the main learning-and-legislating campus for Chelydra-B, the bioregional governance body. Almost two-thousand permanent or semi-permanent faculty, administrators, and legislators now spent their days at C-BLARC. Like Jay, most lived in on-site communal housing. The campus was also filled with fifteen to twenty-thousand graduate students and trainees, depending on the year, involved in various training and research programs.
C-BLARC was responsible for the deployment, maintenance, and retirement of millions of microsensors collecting health and behavioral data on countless species of animals, insects, plants, and other life in the bioregion, as well as troves of data on things like air quality, soil health, and water mineral content. The data informed and regulated all full policy and test policy in the bioregion. The legislators themselves were elected, full-time staff. It was a massive operation, one of many deployed with impressive speed as a necessary response to the uncomfortably close call with ecological collapse in the ’30s.
Jay gazed at the kinetic sculpture nearest him, staring into its open core as the wind caused its nested spinning layers to spiral continuously and glint in the sunlight. He felt a breeze, and seconds later, the sculpture’s coils and discs whirled and spun faster, without a sound. Something about those kinetic sculptures offered an almost mystical, spiritual comfort with that rate of change. An understanding — a demonstration — that nothing remains static for long and that change can be accepted with beauty and grace. It was never known what the future would hold, what the day would bring, or what might be asked of you.
Back in his office, Jay held a book open in his hand but stared out the window, twirling the strands of his beard in his finger. The thick summer air flowed into the room and evoked something deep, a longing for a place or a time. It wasn’t just the dwindling communication with Ellie or the nostalgic filter his mind had tinted the small town with. It was something more elusive — the sensuality of a specific, limited set of moments frozen in the dead past. It was that strange allure of responding to existential catastrophes, the reckless fury and radical trust of working with those forced to grapple with those crises — organizers, students, parents, and workers. Not bureaucrats.
A face appeared in the open door of his office. Saria.
“Hello, Professor. Are you busy?”
“Not at all, Saria. Come in, let’s chat. What’s on your mind?”
She dropped her canvas bag into one chair and lowered herself into the other, taking a moment to sip from her bottle and wipe her face.
She had large eyes and a round face the color of rich earth — her family was Thai and Malay, he remembered. Saria’s high cheekbones, a simple septum ring, and unbroken gaze added to the intensity of her look, which made it apparent she was always absorbing, processing, and forging thoughts anew. Once formed, she’d unleash an observation or idea like a sharpened arrow that always found its mark. Jay initially mistook her quietness for shyness or timidity, when he’d first met her in his agricultural economics course. But soon, he came to admire that she only spoke about what she knew and was willing to admit it without shame or apology when she needed more information. At times, this could seem abrasive or blunt, but he still wished he could teach this quality to other students. It was why he had invited her on a research trip with some others, and it was what got her hired as a research associate by Chelydra-B shortly after that trip. She now worked on food security research and had a hand in crafting the administration’s food and land-related policies.
“I wanted to bounce some ideas around with you. Regarding my research with Chelydra-B, and potentially resulting in some collaboration. If you’re interested.” Saria explained. It was common for bioregional researchers to get funding to work with professors like Jay across disciplines on their policy proposals. “Specifically, about your research in Brazil and the different philosophies of greenhouse gas management between regions in Brazil and places like here.”
“What do you mean by the different philosophies?” He asked, “I have a sense of what you mean but want to be sure.”
“Well, I mean that Brazil — like India and others in the Global South — has taken a lower-tech, relationship-based approach to greenhouse gas mitigation and sequestration. Lots of behavioral changes and collective shifting of norms. Whereas here, we’re more about technological carbon capture technologies, fusion power generation, planting fast-growing bamboo, grasses, and vines, and so on. We still have energy-intensive homes, storage, and transportation. But we’ve greened the energy infrastructure. Basically kinda always doing more on top of, instead of changing what we do at the core.”
Jay nodded. “The Indian Model of avoiding high-energy technologies, rapidly retiring outdated energy facilities, and incentivizing things like no-till, small stakeholder agriculture. It’s quite different from what we do here and in Western Europe.”
“Yeah, so maybe there’s something to learn from the Indian Model. I’m specifically looking into what might happen if we broke up the remaining large, monoculture plots of land, allowing smallholder farmers to practice agroecology. This would pull in greenhouse gasses, sure. But it’d also build economic resilience, distribute wealth, decentralize food security — all good during these turbulent times.”
“Well, yes. I do think we have something to learn from them to some extent. Our cities and urban farms have already internalized what India, Brazil, or whoever else has shown us. It would be excessive to just take people’s land, chop it up, and just redistribute it, though.”
“I mean, settlers redistributed land to themselves a couple hundred years ago using force. And now, as civilization still hangs in at the edge of destruction, and we are able to create the policy tools to redistribute it without violence, we just say we won’t? You and I both know we need to take more action to avoid climate collapse.”
There was that fire again, Jay noticed. He smiled. “Well, listen, Saria. I think just as we could learn from the Global South, they could learn from us, too. Other countries could take even further steps to slow climate change. For instance, I’m doing some work for a pilot project with a company called WorkingSoil — by applying a certain type of bacteria to existing agricultural areas just before tilling, methane gets captured. Farmers even get paid for doing this because keeping methane out of the air helps everyone. Studies indicate that this might increase crop yields, too.
“You mean spraying a liquid with bacteria that feeds on methane released from tilling, right? I read a little about it.”
“Exactly. Methanotrophic bacteria,” he explained, “Responsible for preventing methane from entering the atmosphere. And remember, as a greenhouse gas, methane is many dozens of times worse than carbon dioxide. What this bacteria does is called High-Affinity Methane Oxidation or HAMO. WorkingSoil has been calling it HAMO-tech. It’s got a ring to it, don’t you think?”
Saria laughed politely. “It does. Although I’ve heard India has already legislated against things like that, in part because the WorkingSoil bacteria is genetically modified to be more aggressive?”
“Ah, the boogeyman!” Jay exclaimed, widening his eyes, holding his hands by his head and shaking them. “Genetically modified. I think ‘aggressive’ is an uncharitable way of putting it. Scientists have made the bacteria less delicate, to handle a bit more temperature fluctuation and different soil conditions. Cold winters still make the bacteria go dormant, which is good.”
Saria let out a sharp laugh. “You sound like you’re selling it to me, Professor.” She smiled and waited.
“I apologize,” Jay said, realizing that he had brought the conversation back to himself. “This is about your research. So you’re less interested in the new flashy fixes, more interested in land distribution and management practices?“
“Sort of. My research looks beyond technology and policy. I think we can agree that we would be in a much worse place if it hadn’t been for action outside those domains. Activists, climate strikers, obstructionists, and even those called saboteurs or ecoterrorists — they had a very real effect on policy decisions and even the formation of the bioregional governance that we have now.”
“That they did. They certainly did.”
“There’s one group, in particular, Bhūmipāla, that I’m looking into. They had a significant impact on getting farmers and agricultural companies to shift away from older, pesticide and herbicide-focused practices and tillage-centered farming — usually through acts of sabotage. Originally they directly destroyed agricultural equipment. In the late twenties, they shifted over to cyber-sabotaging equipment and machinery.”
“I remember some of this in the news, but the name’s not ringing a bell.”
“The media calls them Deep Green Jackal because that’s what a cybersec firm called them, and the name stuck.” She scanned his face as he nodded, recognizing the name. “But internally, they call themselves Bhūmipāla. Apparently started in India. Most likely now a decentralized global movement.”
“Ah, yes. Deep Green Jackal. They were responsible for the cyberattacks on the refrigerated warehouses and distribution centers, right? Millions of pounds of meat spoiled. Trashed. Seemed like an ideological temper tantrum to me.”
“Yep, that was them. But have you read into the effects of those actions? They changed the calculus of risk and profitability of the meat industry. It’s why Bhūmipāla continuously attacked the cold supply chain over the years. Investors and lenders started seeing industrial meat as high-risk after ongoing, devastating sabotage. Higher borrowing costs and spooked investors increased the industry’s expenses, causing many of the meat processing plants to shut down. When companies tried to push costs onto farmers, the farmers collectively defaulted on their debts, then shifted practices and started selling into less-vulnerable, localized food systems.”
“I think I may have seen a couple of papers on the effects of that.” He hadn’t. But the idea was interesting and seemed highly plausible.
“I’m interested in getting Chelydra-B to understand that impact better — to appreciate that the environmental and climate impact of our food system wouldn’t have been mitigated without groups like that.” Saria inhaled and sat up straight, her chest expanding. She leaned forward, resting her elbows on her thighs with her dark eyes widening, staring at him intently. “What do you think of that idea, Professor? Do you think our food system would have modernized without actions like the ones taken by Bhūmipāla? Would understanding that impact be something you’re interested in working on? I feel like there are many professors who wouldn’t even be able to entertain this as a possibility, but your beliefs always seemed intellectually honest and discerning.”
“Well, I can say that at any moment in time, any systems in place are not inevitable,” Jay replied. He felt a prideful glow in his chest from the compliment. What she mentioned seemed like an opportunity for him to finally get to work on policy proposals more directly. “The systems we have are always a result of policy, widespread behavioral choices, social ideas in vogue about what’s good, what’s ethical, what’s not risky, and so on. So yes, perhaps this Bhūmipāla changed the financial calculus. If you want to create change quickly, you still need to appeal to the logic of the market. It seems they understood that.”
“Isn’t that the problem, though? Just because we’ve priced carbon and given huge financial values to the health of the oceans and the skies, we haven’t really solved the problem of only being able to value things if they have a price tag on them.“
“I mean, we have new, robust metrics for understanding the health of ecologies, societies, online communities, the mental health of entire demographics. And as you say, the oceans and rivers and the sky! We’ve come a long way since even twenty or thirty years ago.”
“And what about the things that we don’t yet know are valuable? It’s an important question to ask when dealing with the food web and all complex ecological interactions. In reading into Bhūmipāla so far, there’s evidence they’re sabotaging some new technologies and processes preemptively and continuously. This seems important to discuss and research.”
“Why’s that? I don’t know if I find it particularly novel or insightful. Technophobia and Luddism certainly aren’t new things.”
“Well, sure. But again, contrasting the Indian Model or philosophy of climate mitigation to ours, both might be able to have similar outcomes in terms of measurable things — carbon parts per million in the air and so on. So in terms of what can be measured, the two might seem equivalent.”
She continued, “But under our philosophy of progress, any interactions that can’t be quantified or observed with existing tools are treated as if they do not exist at all. This is core to the scientific paradigm that we operate under. Countable things — quantifiable metrics — hold an outsized importance. So we keep seeing widespread projects, especially in tech, that destroy the qualitatively good for the quantitatively more. As long as we continue like this, everything we don’t yet know how to count — don’t yet know how to value — will get sacrificed to make room for all the things we can count. All the abundance of the Earth becomes nothing but numbers or externalities. We’ve put sensors on so many things that we might truly feel we understand the ecologies that surround us, but we only understand the things we can measure.”
Jay nodded. “I would actually agree. Yet, in my field, we work around this issue. When we see that something has value, we find ways to internalize those things into our economic models and policies, from the value of the blue sky above or the groundwater below. We’re making good progress. Leaps and bounds, really. It just takes time. It’s a part of living in a structured society — getting ideas ossified in law. And in economic and financial models.”
“But, Professor, time is a luxury we don’t have. Law is slow and reactive. It only responds to problems. It legislates after harm has been done. But our world changes at a breakneck speed and on industrial scales. Harm is done on massive scales, rapidly. Ecologies get destroyed quickly, but they take generations to heal. There must be something else. A complementary mechanism — one that foresees harm and stops it before it happens. I mean, lead was added to gasoline for decades, and still today, soils remain contaminated with it because it took decades for policy to prohibit it as an additive. How many were harmed by that lag between the development of the technology and policy catching up? How many are still harmed?”
It was almost as if he got a pungent whiff of diesel, drawing him into the past. But there was no smell of diesel, only the grass and fragrant pollen from outside. “That’s precisely why we’ve created policy campuses like these. To align legislative decision-making with the latest research across disciplines. To avoid pitfalls like that one exactly,” Jay responded.
“And yet the policymaking process is still reactive, still quantitatively-arrogant. I came to see you today because I wanted to ask if you’d considered the unforeseen consequences of applying these methane-eating bacteria — the HAMO-tech project you’re working on.”
Jay blinked, taken aback. “Well, as far as the scientists have seen, there’s an extremely low risk of any kind of ecological disruption. And the HAMO-tech bacteria live symbiotically with the existing biomes in each and every soil ecology we’ve tested.”
“And yet, don’t you think that in many previous instances of wide-scale harm being brought about by a technology, the people deploying it were totally unaware of the potential harm they were about to cause? People want to do good. But we’re all prone to doing systemic harm because of our arrogance. Because we overweigh what we can know.”
“Does that mean progress must stop? You said, yourself, we need to do more to avoid climate catastrophe.”
“And you already know how smallholder farming, abolishing monocropping, and moving away from tilling creates lush soil ecologies that lock in greenhouse gasses. I’m willing to bet that spraying remaining industrial ag fields with this HAMO-tech won’t have a bigger effect than if we just made better use of what we already have — adopting the Indian Model. What you’re calling progress is just a way of using a new technology narrowly to avoid land reform. To further whitewash centuries of violent land-based injustices. HAMO-tech can only make industrial ag look less bad, perpetuating it instead of allowing it to die as the failed, warlike food production paradigm that it’s always been. On top of it, no one will be able to control this super-bacteria once it’s been sprayed on countless acres of land. The imaginations of scientists, technologists, and economists are always lacking when it comes to novel forms of harm on an industrial scale.“ She inhaled and sat up in her seat. “Do you see that it’s possible that carelessly transforming ecosystems on this scale can have unforeseen interactions for other species of bacteria, birds, insects, plants, trees, and all other life?”
“Of course. That’s why …”
“And …” she interrupted, putting her finger up, her nostrils flaring but still speaking carefully, “that there’s actually no incentive at all for WorkingSoil to exhaustively map out all possible ways these interactions will be affected. In fact, it’s impossible to do so. Even without being an ecologist, you appreciate that the impacts of this are unknown — because they’re unknowable. And that’s inherently different from other forms of progress.”
Jay sighed, “Yes, fine. I get it.”
“Does that not strike you as profoundly dangerous to the food web?”
“Theoretically, yes. But potentially quite beneficial.”
“Just like lead in gasoline was potentially beneficial for the sake of engines, when there was a less-convenient alternative — ethanol. And then that irreversible decision harmed millions.”
“Look, Saria, I don’t understand what you want me to do. I can’t just tell the company to stop developing the technology they were founded to create.”
“Mhmm, as you said, it always comes back to the logic of the market. They don’t have to stop. In fact, we know they won’t — can’t stop. WorkingSoil is a startup that exists to develop HAMO-tech. Yet the logic of the market can decide that even though HAMO-tech is interesting, it just isn’t a viable solution at scale.”
“What do you mean?” Jay shifted in his seat.
Saria leaned back with intention, opened her shoulders and arms a little, and breathed in deeply. Her face appeared serene. “I think you’re a good man, Professor Gusmão. I know your heart’s in the right place and that your work is guided by it. Your daughter — the one I met years ago, Cassia — she has a couple of kids, right?”
“Yes, seven and three.”
She smiled, scanning his eyes with hers. “You describe them with numbers. But your concern — your love for them is greater than seven and three, I’m sure. I hope. You’ve been in this world a long time,” she said, pointing her fingers up and twirling them in the air.”
“It’s just an expression,” he retorted. But in a strange way, he saw she was right.
“At your house years ago, I could see that you wanted to do right by Cassia, her family, and all the generations to come,” Saria continued. “And that’s why you always spent countless hours doing all you could to help avert climate catastrophe, just like so many of us. Am I right in thinking that’s a driving force of why you do the work you do?”
“Absolutely.” Jay peered at Saria but thought of his family. The buzzing of cicadas and the sound of distant laughter could be heard through the window. That sense of longing returned for a brief moment. He had always felt it was only right to leave the world better than he found it. It’s what all the risk-taking and activism of his youth had been about, and yet it never felt enough. “What’s this about, Saria?”
On the wall of this building, it says, “‘A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they shall never sit.’ And yet once the trees have already been planted and it’s one’s job to steward them, people have difficulty.” She paused. “You’ve been consulting with the WorkingSoil team running projections and analysis for their HAMO-tech. I know you have access to all their research data, which you use in your models. As long as the market decides what has value and what doesn’t, the market must — will see that the methane sequestered in the soil just isn’t enough to warrant the costs and risks of doing it. As you said, the systems in place are not inevitable. If we need to find other ways of containing methane — or just produce fewer greenhouse gasses — we, as a society, will find ways to do that. Just like South Asia and Latin America have already found those ways. Through land redistribution and small-scale, diversified ag.”
“What are you saying?”
“I didn’t just bring up Bhūmipāla because of my research. There’s a great deal of interest in WorkingSoil’s HAMO-tech in our movement. It’s one of many that we must bring to a close. We’re all deciding the nature of the future right now — are we going to infect the biomes of soil on millions of acres? Or are we going to achieve similar outcomes by reorganizing land and the economy? It might be less tidy, less flashy, but we can and will choose the latter.”
“You’re with Bhūmipāla.” Jay swallowed, questioning if his old student — a friend, even — was actually a dangerous person. Yet he felt more surprised than afraid. “What exactly are you proposing?”
“I need to put some software on your computer. I have it here on my oCu. We’ll never have to discuss this again, and we can forget this conversation happened. The software’s totally unknown, can’t be traced back to you. It’ll just get uploaded to WorkingSoil databases when you interact with them, and run in the background. The people I work with are brilliant, actively searching for vulnerabilities in corporate software, and then developing exploits like this.”
“And this software … it’s going to make some bacterial tanks explode or something?”
Saria gave a reassuring smile. “Not at all. What’ll happen is some data will change ever so slightly, running costs up and pushing the methane-capture effects of the HAMO-tech down. Just enough to get investors and institutions to lose interest and pull funding. WorkingSoil collects so much data and partners with so many third-parties and software providers that it’s impossible for them to fully audit their own data. Since we’ll only change a small percent of the data — and change it ever so slightly — no one will notice. There are many actions like this going on already. Successfully. We stay out of the limelight. Gone are the days of wiping the control centers of storage warehouses.”
“Though as an alternative,” Saria continued, leaning forward, “this doesn’t have to be it. You can have a say in what happens — maybe even leaking information WorkingSoil is hiding. You can stay in the loop, have an influence. And be a part of a community protecting the earth and sky in ways policy just can’t.”
Jay’s heart was racing, it was a sensation he remembered, one he had once loved — back when he understood that a life worth living was one with a certain level of risk. He knew that she could be lying; once she had access, he would have no power over her. Control would permanently shift into her hands, and into the hands of those like her. “I can refuse, and then what? You could get arrested, and the project will proceed unobstructed?”
“Not at all. We have backup plans — two or three others at WorkingSoil we can recruit instead of you. You were just the first choice … at my request.” She said with a gentle smile. “If you decline, you can be happily oblivious, although the data you’ll be using will be doctored. And I’m not worried about myself,” she continued. “I’ll delete the software if you refuse, and my colleagues’ real identities are unknown even to me. I can’t betray them even if I wanted to.”
Jay leaned back, considering his options. Was she lying about having other options? Had Saria’s team dug into his past? Did she really think he was the right one to ask?
He asked, “Why are you asking me instead of just doing it secretly?”
“I need you here. Your oCu’s got to validate your biometrics as I access your computer, or I won’t be able to escalate privileges and hide our software properly.”
Jay’s body was shaking, his mind ablaze. “I’d be putting a lot on the line. I’d be risking just about everything.”
Saria seemed to weigh her possible responses. “Yes. You would.”
Jay stared out the window, watching the tall grasses sway in the breeze, shimmering in the mid-afternoon sun. He thought about Brazil, about the town. He remembered the scent of the sea and that elusive feeling of return that it brought. The way it flooded into his lungs — into his bones — as he stepped out of the plane each time he’d returned since childhood. He thought about how the Brazil of his childhood and the Brazil of his youth were both gone forever, transformed into something else. Developed, as they say. Perhaps he was just a sad, nostalgic old man. There was no way to return to the place that was home — another place lost to the past. Perhaps the feeling of return would need to be found elsewhere.
He sat up straight, slowing his breathing, holding his head high. “I’d like to have a say in how the data is altered. I’d like to know about WorkingSoil’s other data, and if they’re hiding anything, too. I’ve had my questions about them.”
Saria smiled once again with what he hoped was kindness in her eyes. “Of course, Professor. Today, you’re a part of Bhūmipāla.”
His body felt hot and jittery, but it was not how he remembered fear. Would Ellie be proud? She could never know. He hid his urge to smile. “OK,” he said. “What do you need to do?”
That evening, Jay gathered his bag and set out on foot again, toward the professors’ residencies. Strangely, he wasn’t disturbed by the potential consequences of the afternoon. He didn’t feel like a hero either. Would this alter the course of history? He would never know. He would need to accept the not-knowing.
He stopped by one of the ponds and observed the frogs and the fish, and the dragonflies in their slow staccato play. After some time, he turned toward the food forest, walking slowly toward the young trees. He felt their arches were beckoning him inward. He still had some time before sunset. Unworried, Jay decided to walk without a destination, letting the earth guide his footsteps until it got dark, when he’d go back home.