The boy settled down on the bench under the skydome. The long night was drawing to a close as his father began the story.
“Well son, it all started with SKALO, the Society for Kindness to All Living Organisms. SKALO was a group that made your garden-variety vegetarian look positively carnivorous. Not only did its members avoid all animal products in their diet, but they believed that wrenching a carrot from the ground was an unnecessary act of violence. The ‘fruitarians’ of SKALO limited themselves to fruits, nuts, and seeds, food freely given, involving little if any brutality or loss of life.”
The boy’s father paused, gazing up at the darkening skydome almost wistfully, before continuing his tale. “You wouldn’t have thought that fruitarians would be the kind of people who’d have a lot of money at their disposal, but then fortune went and favoured them with a windfall. Some obscenely rich old man in New Hampshire had decided to write the kids out of his last will and testament. Out of spite and a malicious sense of humor he left his multi-millions to the good folks of SKALO instead.
“Of course, as soon as the old man kicked the bucket his kids hired an expensive team of lawyers to contest the will, but their father had had some quality counsel of his own. The kids lost round one. Bound and determined to claim their fair share of daddy’s estate, the kids took their challenge as far in the courts as they could go. In the end they won back most of the family fortune, but the final judgment did leave SKALO with forty-two million dollars after legal expenses.
“Now forty-two million dollars may have been just a fraction of the original estate, but it was still about five more zeroes than the fruitarians had ever seen in their communal account. Being the bright-eyed idealists that they were, the fruitarians were determined to use their newfound wealth for the greatest common good. While the money sat gathering interest in a high-yield account, the Society held a series of brainstorming sessions. Some members argued in favor of mounting a high-profile media campaign to educate the ignorant masses, i.e., bloodthirsty omnivores like you and me. Others were eager to acquire real estate, to buy huge tracts of land to preserve as nature sanctuaries where birds and flowers and weeds alike could live in peace. Still others wanted to invest the money in organic orchards and other fruitarian-friendly agricultural projects.
“It was one of the younger members who ultimately stole the show, an 18-year-old who’d been consuming a few too many sci-fi stories along with his fruit salad. Young David Wotherspoon proposed that the Society fund a radical research project. He wanted to hire a team of scientists to see if humans could be genetically modified or surgically enhanced to meet our energy requirements directly from the sun, instead of going through the food chain. He generously offered himself as the first test subject.
“It was an outrageous suggestion, of course. For starters, SKALO already had a few bones to pick with the scientific community on the subjects of animal testing, terminator seeds, genetically modified crops, and a host of other crimes against Mother Nature. And then there were the legal, ethical, and moral issues, not to mention the sheer audacity of the idea. Could such a thing really be possible? Could humans really photosynthesise? If they could, young David argued, it would solve so many serious problems: world hunger, the environmental degradation of exhausted croplands, not to mention the needless suffering of billions of plants. If SKALO could break the food chain, find a way to allow humans to feed directly from the sun, the human race and all the other living organisms humans normally fed off would truly be free.
“All the Society’s previous suggestions were immediately forgotten once David’s proposal was on the table. As crazy and utterly fantastic as the idea was, it had everyone’s attention. Many of the Society’s younger members were convinced from the start, but even the most skeptical elder was intrigued by the possibilities. The fruitarians explored the issue of human photosynthesis for hours, arguing and questioning and debating until dawn. As the sun was rising, the issue was finally put to a vote. When the votes had been counted and it was revealed that all but a small handful of members were in favor of pursuing the idea, the Society struck up a committee on the spot to find out if such an ambitious project was scientifically feasible. David was appointed as the committee’s chair.
“Of course, in the beginning no one in the scientific community took them seriously. They approached biochemists and plant physiologists, geneticists and surgeons, but invariably the response was the same. The committee from SKALO was dismissed as at best a group of student radicals, engaged in some elaborate practical joke, and at worst a party of disturbed cranks. Their carefully worded letters were immediately deposited in wastebaskets and recycling bins. They didn’t make it past a single receptionist. No one bothered to return their phone calls.
“In spite of this resistance, David and his band of faithful companions remained undiscouraged. They had a vision, and they were determined to see it through. They worked their way through a list of important researchers in the field, and then turned their attention to the lesser-known research assistants. Finally, in desperation they set up camp on the grounds of the Arizona University Photosynthesis Centre, accosting every graduate student that entered or exited the building. They finally managed to get a meeting with a PhD candidate named Andrea Schilling from the biophysics department. Legend has it that it was the wad of bills they pressed into Andrea’s hand rather than the persuasiveness of their arguments that finally convinced her to sit down and listen to the SKALO proposal. She was very polite. She listened carefully, took lots of notes, and said she’d broach the subject with some friends of hers in related disciplines. She promised to get back to the committee within two months.
“The young graduate student was more than true to her word. When she met with the committee eight weeks later, she presented them with a thick binder that contained a summary of the findings of her brief feasibility study. The writing was of a very technical and academic nature, and David thumbed through it quickly before passing it around the table. ‘In a word,’ he asked Andrea, looking directly into her eyes, ‘is human photosynthesis possible?’ Andrea hemmed and hawed, explained that it was a complicated question indeed, that a tremendous amount of will and effort and resources of all kinds would need to be committed to undertake a project of such magnitude. But in a word, yes, it was possible. David nodded soberly. And if a group of scientists was in fact assembled to attempt such an enterprise, would Andrea be willing to head the team? The answer to that question was also yes. And that was how, on April 14, 2014, the Human Photosynthesis Project officially came into being.”
The boy shifted in his seat as the first hint of light entered the skydome. His father continued.
“SKALO had been very fortunate indeed to catch the attention of Ms. Schilling. Although Andrea was only 24 and six months away from earning her doctorate, she already was recognized as a brilliant young researcher, one of the up-and-comers in her field. With the charismatic David Wotherspoon appointed to oversee the release of research funds, Andrea quickly assembled her team. For the most part the team was made up of bright young scientists like Andrea herself, PhD candidates or recent graduates from more than a dozen disciplines, all eager to make their mark in a dramatic way.
“From the beginning, there were obstacles. To start, the fruitarians who were underwriting the project were adamant that they didn’t want plants or animals to be used in laboratory experiments or tests. The whole thing should have fallen apart right there, but by this point both David and Andrea were absolutely committed to the project. Together they managed to convince SKALO that in this one case the ends truly did justify the means. The Society lost a number of its more principled members, but the project was saved.
“Initially the team worked in secret, in labs scattered across the country. Nothing like the Human Photosynthesis Project had ever been attempted; this was more ambitious even than splitting the atom. Both the team’s scientists and the remaining members of SKALO agreed that the project would be best served if it was kept out of the public and academic spotlight — at least until a major breakthrough had been achieved.
“And breakthroughs did occur before long, as scientists succeeded in grafting chloroplasts, the plant cells used in photosynthesis, onto the skin of first worms and then more complex animals. The team issued its first press release after successfully grafting chloroplasts onto a chameleon. They nicknamed the photosynthetic lizard ‘Freddy.’ The press lapped it up. David and Andrea were in high demand on the talk show circuit, and granted scores of interviews to scientific journals and mainstream magazines alike. As they had anticipated, all this media attention generated a lot of controversy. The labs, whose locations had been revealed by the disgruntled ex-SKALO members, were picketed by animal rights activists and threatened with acts of terrorism. But the research went on nonetheless, with the team members more energized and committed than ever, now that the world was watching.
“While the scientists had succeeded in grafting chloroplasts onto Freddy’s skin, they were still a long way away from true animal photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is an extremely complicated process — I won’t bore you with the details, son — but the team had always been aware that it would take a lot more than skin grafts to allow an animal to get its energy directly from the sun. Extensive genetic engineering and surgical enhancements would be required for an animal to truly photosynthesise.
“Eighteen months later, as a greenhouse lab full of scientists, technicians, SKALO members, dignitaries, and journalists looked on, Freddy’s daughter Frieda successfully converted sunlight into a simple sugar. In truth, there was nothing to see. The assembled guests had to take the scientists at their word as the excited men and women described the complicated, but invisible, chemical reaction taking place. It was a strange, anti-climactic event, which prompted more than one media pundit to wonder aloud if everyone wasn’t simply ‘admiring the emperor’s new clothes.’
“Now forty-two million dollars may sound like a lot to you or me, but it’s really just a drop in the bucket for a project of this magnitude. By the time Frieda had demonstrated that animal photosynthesis was possible, the research team was operating on credit. But cash flow, or absence of it, was only a temporary problem. With its outrageous ambitions, the Human Photosynthesis Project had captured the undivided attention of the entire scientific community, and grant money was soon pouring in from all over the world. Its financial problems resolved, the project carried on at breakneck speed.
“The next hurdle that the team faced was without a doubt its greatest. It was not enough that an animal could photosynthesise a little of its energy, the goal of the project was to produce an animal, ultimately a human, who would meet all of its energy needs through photosynthesis. It was the success or failure of this next step that would make or break the project.
“Meanwhile, photosynthesis fever was rising throughout the Western world. All of the major Internetworks had shows that featured sentient plants. Hollywood broke all previous box office records when it released a 3-D thriller set in a jungle of giant, man-eating Venus flytraps, and the ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ made a comeback on Broadway. In the fashion world, designers were going crazy with clinging leaf- and vine-inspired ensembles, and young college students were actually painting their entire bodies green. ‘Pansy and the Petunias’ released a single called ‘Chlorophyll’ that topped the charts for months. Glass manufacturers couldn’t keep up with the demand from consumers who were building greenhouses in their backyards and solariums on their roofs.
“On January 7, 2021, the Human Photosynthesis Project called a press conference to announce that they believed they had solved the problem of adapting an animal to get all of its energy directly from the sun. The problem had essentially been one of metabolism, they explained. Animals moved, and required a great deal of energy. With the incidental exception of Venus flytraps and one or two others, plants did not move, and therefore required much less energy. But after years of experimentation and research, they believed they had engineered a truly and exclusively photosynthetic animal.
“As the world sat glued to their video screens, Andrea Schilling lifted a black cover to reveal another lizard, a gecko named Gilbert, perfectly self-contained in his own sealed terrarium. Unlike Freddy and Frieda before him, some of Gilbert’s modifications were actually visible. Leaf-like flaps of skin, designed to increase the surface area exposed to light, protruded from all over his body. There was very little in the terrarium beside Gilbert himself: just a few rocks and a pool of mineral-enriched water. Andrea explained that Gilbert needed nothing more than sunlight, the air in the terrarium, and the water in the small pool. In the sealed environment, both the air and the water would be cycled and recycled indefinitely. Gilbert was like a plant in a sealed, self-contained mini-biosphere, requiring no extra nourishment.
“’This is all truly amazing,’ commented one reporter when the floor was finally opened for questions. ‘But when will human photosynthesis be possible, Dr. Schilling?’
“’It won’t be long now,’ Andrea promised. ‘In just six months time, we believe, surgical enhancements will allow my colleague, Mr. Wotherspoon here, to photosynthesise a small part of the energy he needs to survive. Of course, exclusive photosynthesis will be possible only for humans who have undergone both extensive genetic modification in utero, and post-natal surgical enhancement. I’m afraid full photosynthesis will only be possible for the next generation.’
“’What will a fully photosynthetic child look like?’ asked another reporter.
“’Well,’ said Andrea, ‘you have to understand that photosynthetic children will be very different from ordinary human children. They’ll have green skin as a result of the chlorophyll in their skin cells, and like Gilbert here, they’ll have leaf-like flaps of skin all over their bodies to maximize their exposure to sunlight. They’ll also have very different metabolisms, and move much more slowly when they need to move at all.’
“’And do you really believe human photosynthesis is worth all the sacrifices involved?’ the reporter continued.
“’Of course!’ said Andrea. ‘Imagine. Photosynthetic children won’t have to worry about hunger or obesity, or any diet-related diseases. They’ll never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from. They won’t need to work for their daily bread.’
“’And would you put your own unborn children through this procedure?’ asked a reporter at the back of the room.
“’Absolutely,’ said Andrea. The quick smile she cast in David Wotherspoon’s direction, and the supposedly surreptitious pat she gave her lower abdomen did not go unnoticed by the world press.
“As promised, David Wotherspoon successfully made it through his final surgical procedure six months later, thereby becoming the first partially photosynthetic human being. A mere three weeks after that, newborn Violet Schilling-Wotherspoon became the first fully photosynthetic child.
“In anticipation of the demand, SKALO had established a website to allow individuals to put their names on a waiting list for the expensive surgeries. While the world remained fascinated, at first it was only the fruitarians themselves who actually wanted to undergo the transformation. Strict vegans were the next to jump on the bandwagon, and their close cousins the vegetarians weren’t long to follow. Then came the environmentalists and the social activists. They were soon joined by anarchists, university students, and radicals of all stripes and colors.
“And then suddenly the whole world wanted to photosynthesise, to bear photosynthetic babies. Rallies were held in capital cities around the globe. Carrying placards calling for the ‘Green Revolution,’ the marchers demanded publicly funded access to the surgeries that would allow them and their offspring to ‘eat sunlight.’ ‘De-volution,’ becoming more plant-like, was seen as the answer to everything. No one would ever starve again. War would be obsolete. Original skin color would be irrelevant. Everyone would live in peace and harmony. Even some religious leaders got swept up in the hype. After all, they had always preached that the meek would inherit the Earth, and what could possibly be meeker than a plant?
“Of course not all of us wanted to give up the joys of food, and not all of us wanted to give birth to slow-moving green babies. Some argued that tampering with life on this scale was dangerous; others argued that it was immoral. But the campaign for human photosynthesis continued, gaining momentum as it went. Soon opponents like your mother and I were being painted as freeloaders, parasites choosing to live off other organisms, reactionaries from the Stone Age. The tide was turning, and the tide was green.
“Over the next decade, millions and then billions of ‘transformations’ were performed. As less and less food was required by its green citizens, the world’s agricultural infrastructure was slowly dismantled. The entire topography of the world changed and the balance of power shifted. Relations between the growing majority of photosynthesising humans and those of us who still refused to undergo the transformation procedures became more and more strained. The photosynthesisers came to fear what they called the ‘savage and cannibalistic behaviors’ of their un-green neighbors, while those of us who remained untransformed believed that the photosynthesisers had become scientific freaks.
“The conflict finally reached a head during the riots of ‘39, with representatives from both sides of the community agreeing that we were no longer compatible races. Those of us who resisted the green revolution were given an ultimatum: photosynthesise, or leave. It was futile to resist. They outnumbered us more than ten to one. The old and infirm among us were allowed to stay, to live out the rest of their lives in peace. The rest of us assembled what we needed and left quietly.
“And that, my son,” said the boy’s father, “is why we are here. We are exiles from the beautiful blue planet that used to be our home. The Earth is now a colony of plant-people spinning just beyond our reach in the sky, while we scratch out our existence inside this dome on the surface of the Moon.
“But the story isn’t over yet. We’re not going to remain here forever. We’re simply biding our time, waiting patiently until the green revolution is complete. We’re waiting until all the partial photosynthesisers have aged or passed on to the great compost heap, and only slow-moving, full photosynthesisers remain. And then, my son, your generation will go back to reclaim what our generation lost. The Earth will belong to us again!
“After all, what kind of fight are a bunch of plants going to put up?” *
About the Author: Rachel Dunstan Muller lives and writes and gardens on Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. If Rachel were a plant, she’d be a sunflower.
(c) 2004 Rachel Dunstan Muller firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Artist: Romeo Esparrago lives on a magnificent moon of his own making.
(c) 2004 Romeo Esparrago http://www.romedome.com