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The Lucilius Parables, Volume I


December 15th, 2019

This episode is dedicated to David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming






“Mythology does not hold as its greatest hero the merely virtuous man.  virtue is but the pedagogical prelude to the culminating insight, which goes beyond all pairs of opposites.”


-Joseph Campbell, Hero of a Thousand Faces






Tiny piled flakes of snow collapsed, as though pushing into a cloud, but the shattering crystals of water beneath Lucilius’ boot gave way their intricate space in a cascade until the mess of ice and water grew packed into a layer that could support his weight.  He took another endless step along the white sheet of land, this time in the track of a friend who up ahead pulled a sled like the one Lucilius pulled.  Lucilius was not as well accustomed to the extreme cold of this polar piece of the world: the Antarctic. 


The two trundled on beneath the brilliant light of the sun - a white hole in a sheet of blue.  The infinite horizon held no cloud of trouble, and behind them Lucilius could still make out the outpost.  So concentrated on the effort was he that he nearly walked into his friend who had long stopped.  Lucilius stumbled at the surprise, the sled’s tiny inertia pressing his hands forward as it drew to a heavy stop. 


“Thanks for making the walk with me.”


“Aw man, you kidding?  How often does this kind of opportunity come around.” Lucilius said.


“Well, perhaps too often when it comes to my team mates.  Everyone wants to take a buggy, even when the weather is beautiful.”


“All novelty gives up it’s novelty by default, I guess.” Lucilius said.


The scientist laughed.  “yea, I guess so.”



The two got to work, unpacking the sleds, and within no time they had a drill set up on an enormous tripod.  Lucilius unpacked some lunch while the scientist calibrated the drill and logged the position.  He took the protein bar Lucilius handed him and initialized the drill.  A small cylinder above the snow began to spin and lowered almost soundlessly into the white ground.


“How deep can this thing go?”


“Not too deep, but deeper than we need.  We’re just getting a surface sample, and if the weather holds –“ the man said looking up and around at the sky “-we should have enough time to get a dozen along this fault.”


“Fault?” Lucilius prompted.


“More like the top of a crack.  I’ve been monitoring this shelf for a few years now, looking for weaknesses.  It wasn’t until we got the remote submersibles that I realized what the sea water was doing beneath.”


“What’s that?”  Lucilius asked further.


“Eating away at the ice.  Like a beaver at the bottom of a tree.  And ice bends, so I’ve been monitoring the top side for expansion, in order to get an idea of when this thing is going to part.”


“What do you mean?”


The scientist held one arm out in the direction of the outpost and swung his other arm in a giant arc in front of him until he was pointing at the far horizon.


“Everything in front of me will one day turn into an iceberg.”


Lucilius looked at the vast expanse of white land.  He looked back and forth between the horizons the scientist indicated.




The scientist nodded with a numb expression.  “All of this is going to fall into the sea one day.  But probably by then we’ll already be suffering quite a few of the consequences of our cocktail climate.  But this will be like the cherry on top of the cupcake nightmare if you know what I mean.”


“Pretend I don’t,” Lucilius said.


“Well, this will raise sea levels by quite a lot all around the world within the course of a day or two, and we’ll already be struggling with a lot of other climate-induced issues.  This will just add to it by putting a lot of the world underwater, but probably by then it’ll be way too late to do anything.  Might even be too late now.”


“Is there any chance that this ice sheet won’t break off?”


The scientist sighed.  “If the world got it’s act together right now, then maybe?” the man said, scrunching up his face with doubt.  “Problem is, humans don’t do anything until the consequences are right smack in their face, and by the time this one comes, there’s no reversing it.”


The scientist thought for a moment.  “Think of cancer.  We don’t do anything about it until it shows up, and then we treat it, we cut it out.  People are far far less likely to live in a healthy way before hand that makes the cancer less likely.  But the thing about a giant ice sheet falling into the ocean and raising sea levels is that it’s not a tumor you can cut out and throw away.  It’s the sort of cancer that stays for good once it shows up.  And honestly the state of society will be so stressed that our ability to respond in anyway whatsoever…. well, I severely doubt it’ll be meaningful. ”


Lucilius watched the slowly spinning arm of the drill as it pushed farther into the ground.  He knew all of this, but each time he thought about it deeply, attempting to imagine the millions and billions of individual stories that would take such horrific turns in the coming years.  Each time it was as though he were realizing it for the first time.  He looked up at the bright blue sky, trying to see it as though there were in invisible growing layer of cancer up there.


The scientist continued on..


“If people could see –right now- what is coming, I bet they’d change.  I think we’d change overnight to be honest.  We’ve done it before: look at the U.S. when it entered WWII, or hell, the way technologies spring up and then overnight everyone is using it, and it’s changed the way we work…


Problem is this climate problem is all theoretical, it’s all intellectual.  And people are emotional animals.  Our emotions only get pushed around by what’s right in front of them, like when the Iphone is introduced and we want it, or when there’s this evil growing in Europe and the US economy is trash, the incentives are bright and clear and immediate, so we suddenly change because they speak to our emotions..  But our partnership between our intellect and our emotions is finicky and pretty unreliable most of the time.  Extrapolate that across millions and billions of people and you get a big organism that is going to ignore what it knows is going to happen.  And in this case ignore it until it’s absolutely too late.”


The drill stopped and the adjoining computer beeped.  The scientist shifted and narrowed his eyes on the screen.


“Yea, what I expected” he mumbled.


“What’s that?” Lucilius asked.


“It almost fits my worst-case scenario, but there’s variations that are too complex for me to render.  But I won’t be surprised if it gets there – to the worst-case trend that is.”


“What’s the worst case?”


“This thing becomes an iceberg in 14 years.”


“And what does it look like right now?”


“Well, we have to drill a few more sites, but right now it’s 14.2 years, just based off the data from this one.”


Lucilius merely blinked.


“Any chance it could be sooner?”


“Sure, there are so many new things that are starting to happen around the globe, there’s no way I can account for them all.  Thing is, from what I know, I’m pretty sure there’s already enough carbon in the atmosphere to make this thing break off, even if we stopped everything tomorrow, it just takes time for the full reaction to unfold.  The real problem is how much more we’ll put into the atmosphere between now and the time when this thing breaks, and what sort of place that will turn the world into.”


“So sea levels are going to rise no matter what.”


“Oh yea. Definitely.  This thing is a ticking time bomb.”


The two began packing up the drill to take it to the next site.  They managed to drill a dozen different places along the fault and all of showed similar results. 


“I admit it’s still a guess, but it’s based off of all the data from hundreds of other breaks I’ve studied down here.”


They were back at the outpost.  Lucilius watched his cup of tea fill as his friend topped it up.  The sun was setting.  The sky would remain bright as the sun only dipped below the horizon this time of year.  It would be back soon as the season for study was still strong.


“Can I see the fault line again?” Lucilius asked.


The scientist spun the laptop towards him.  On screen there was a map of their section, and a red dotted line zigzagged across the white land.


“Why is it doubled and tripled up in some spots?”


“Think of a river that splits and then rejoins itself.  Multiple places with equal probability of breaking,”


The scientist tapped a few buttons.  “Here check this out.  This is all probable lines of fracture.”


The red dotted line was suddenly joined by hundreds of adjoining lines in different colors that created a thick band across the land.


“Each color is a different probability of fracture based on ice thickness and a few other factors.  Obviously red is the highest probability.”



Lucilius’ mouth fell agape.  “It’s so uniform,” he said, surprised.


The scientist nodded.  “My guess is that it has to do with temperature change in specific currents that converge on this area, but I’m still collecting data to make the theory airtight.”



“But you said this will still take another decade, so even if this band is a weak spot, it’s still pretty strong for the time being, right?”


The scientist thought about this for moment.  “Yes and no.”


“What do you mean ‘no’?”

The scientist bobbed his head to a side staring in the distance with imagination.  “Well, hey, if you just chucked a few pounds of C4 in the holes we drilled today and detonated them, it would probably create a chain reaction along these high probability lines and you could turn this whole thing into an iceberg tomorrow.”


He looked at Lucilius.  “When ice cracks, it cracks.”


Lucilius’ gaze fell to his cup of tea.  Steam curled up from the hot liquid and through the tiny sheen of mist he could see his own saddened eyes reflected.


“And you think if we somehow put all our energy into turning things around, we’d be able to stop all this from happening?”


The scientist shrugged.



“Yea, I think we could save it all right now, but we’d need a huge slap in the face to realize it. . .


 And I don’t think that slap is going to come until it’s the real thing, and by then it’s simply too late.”


Lucilius stared off at the purple horizon and closed his eyes, thinking of the billions of people around the world.  It was hard to imagine.  In fact it was impossible.  He realized he simply couldn’t imagine those people.  It was like the whole problem they’d been talking about.  It somehow exists, but not in a way that he could feel, as when he felt something when he thought of the people he actually knew and loved. 


The scientist went to pour himself more tea but the pot was empty.


“I’ll get some more,” Lucilius said.


“I think we’re out.”


“I have some in my room,” Lucilius said.



The two friends started a game of chess with the next pot of tea but the time grew late despite the bright purple sky.  The scientist stared at the chessboard. 


“I’ve got to call it quits.”


“Sounds good,” Lucilius said.


They left the chessboard as it was and cleaned up the table and the kitchen.  Then the two went off to bed just as the sun was beginning to rise again.


Many hours later the scientist slowly regained consciousness.  His head was filled with a thick pain as though he’d been drinking heavily and as his mind began to pierce through the pain in order to get a sense of reality, he realized something was tied around his face.  He’d been gagged with a pillowcase.  He tried to take it out but his hands were bound and he found that he was sitting tied to a chair.  Electric impulses of fear and alarm shot up through his body and mind as he tried to struggle, and then he realized what was before him.  He was sitting in the little mess hall and at the table Lucilius sat surrounded with equipment.  A tiny cloud of smoke rose from the tip of a soldiering iron as Lucilius pushed metal into a tiny silver dot.  The scientist watched Lucilius sit back and pick up a small circuit board.  Lucilius pressed a button and a dozen different red lights lit up across the table.  They blinked as Lucilius tested the button a few times in rapid succession.  The scientist then realized that each red light was paired with a small box.  Each box was labelled with a sticker that said ‘explosive’ and next to each was a brown lump like clay that had been molded into the shape of a rolling pin.  The scientist was still groggy from the sedative Lucilius had spiked his tea with, feeling as though he still wasn’t in control of his own body, struggling to even figure out how to stir his own voice.  Feeling slowly seeped back into his body to discover ach and pain as he watched Lucilius attach each circuit board to each torpedo of C4.  He watched Lucilius carefully arrange them on a small sled and then check the fault map on his own laptop before he folded it closed and packed it.  When Lucilius was done he got up to put on his coat and finally noticed the scientist.


“I’m sorry,” Lucilius said.  “But you said it yourself, humanity needs a slap in face, and I’m not going to stand by and let it come too late when there’s an answer right here, right now.”


The scientist tried feebly to struggle, but it was in vain as he watched Lucilius drag the sled out into the cold. The knots that bound him were solid and there was no way he’d be able to get out.  He watched Lucilius in the window slowly grow small with distance.  Then he could barely see him at all.  The drug was wearing off and all of it seemed so wildly surreal.  He thought of everything he’d told Lucilius, running over everything in his mind until he realized he was staring at the unfinished game of chess they’d played the day before.  It had been his move when they’d stopped, and now, staring at the board, hour after hopeless hour, he slowly realized that of all the moves he might have made to continue were hopeless, no matter his choice, Lucilius had one move to checkmate.

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Podcast Ep. 609: A Lucilius Parable: Cold Move

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