“Mars,” he announced, his voice booming over the PA and filling the cavernous auditorium, “is a warning.” He let a silence follow the last echoes of his pronouncement, just long enough for unpretentious drama. “Venus,” he continued, “is a warning.”
“This fuckin’ guy,” Slack said, groaning. “I swear to God he wishes he’d been an actor instead of a college professor.”
Shelly elbowed him in the ribs. “Quiet.”
“We were not always the only life-bearing planet in this solar system. Once, there were three, with thriving civilizations filled with sentient minds who lived, dreamed, and died much as we do. They made the same mistakes we do, too, and this is what led to their eventual demise and the destruction of their worlds.
“I see many skeptical faces, and so it should be. Question what you are told! It is your inalienable right to think critically, and you should do so at every turn! Yet my job here is not to provide proof, only create reasonable doubt. In the trial of this solar system’s past, there is much evidence that can supply ample evidence to the dead histories of Mars and Venus.
“Do you know what a billion years looks like? Can any of us truly fathom the far-reaching effects of such a vast expanse of time? How much erosion would a billion years of wind cause? What would a billion years of tectonic movement do to the surface of a planet? How many mountain ranges would rise, and coastlines fall? And if we compounded these grinding, agonizingly slow natural processes with our own contributions, what then? What would a billion years of stripping the ozone layer look like? A billion years of oil spills, rising sea levels rising, melting ice caps, trash accrual, devastating warfare, overpopulation, overfarming, drought, famine… what would billions of years of these things do to a world?
“I’d only ask that you look to Mars, where we have evidence of water, and therefore the potential for life, but a thin atmosphere and nothing but dust. I ask you to envision that planet once sustaining an ecosystem as lush as ours has been, and then having thousands and thousands of years of sentient hands reshaping it. Harvesting it. Burning its resources and eroding its protections at rates unparalleled in nature. What would it look like then?
“And if it were to die in the process? If the minds of the populace couldn’t be swayed in time to find better ways to sustain their ways of life, and everything crumbled around them while the sky broke open and rained down deadly radiation that obliterated any hope of recovery? Where the protective shield of the atmosphere cracked and vanished, allowing planet-crushing asteroids to beat the surface with hammering fists more powerful than all of our own weapons combined? What would be left then but dust and ashes, to be blown across dead plains and eventually dispersed into nothing?
“Look to Mars as a warning,” the professor said, placing his old hands on the lectern, and leaning out over the audience. “We must change our ways, before it’s too late.”
Slack had fallen asleep. Shelly wanted to beat him up for his inattention, and she realized that he represented the majority of people who went about their daily business without any real concern for the things the professor was talking about. She wanted to weep.