It is still pleasantly warm in the late afternoon. Katherine’s attention is flagging.
“Hell,” she thinks. “I’m 75 years old. I’m ALLOWED to wander a little.”
She sits carefully back in her seat, crosses her legs neatly at the ankle, and puts on her paying attention look. Boffle Three is droning at the podium, using this occasion to drive home his political agenda. She will know when it’s time to resurface by the change in his cadence. So, eyes wide open, lips slightly parted as if ready to comment enthusiastically on the words she’s not hearing, she allows herself to drift away, to think what this 50th anniversary means.
She was 25 in 2025; she had been born on January 1, 2000. Her dad called her Y2Katy, and that was part of the charm the press found in quoting her.
She went to a town hall on climate change, on the desperate need to make change happen NOW. Katherine was a young teacher, and she thought of everything in terms of the earth her students—4th graders, mostly 10 years old—would grow up into.
The first Boffle—Boffle One—had the podium. He was a short man, a round man, and a bald man. He was not much to look at, that Boffle (because it was before Boffle Two and Boffle Three emerged, Katherine just thought of him as Blowhard Boffle), but he did have a way with words. And now he was telling the audience, many of whom were happy to be convinced, that climate change was a hoax. That all the violent storms, all the dying animals, all the forest fires and all the melting, changing landscapes, were due to natural cycles.
“Nothing we can do—we’re just people, folks!” said Boffle One, “is going to make one diddlysquat of difference. We’re at the mercy of nature. But that doesn’t mean we have to give up progress.”
Katherine looked around the town hall, and she saw people wavering. And something propelled her, although she was generally a quiet person, out of her seat.
“Mr. Boffle,” she called politely. “May I ask a question?”
The round man looked over, took her in—a tall, serious young woman, with neatly tied long hair and owl-y glasses, and he smiled.
“Of course, you can ask a question, miss,” he said kindly. And he leaned forward as if to catch her faltering words.
But Katherine, who was never much of a public speaker, didn’t falter this time.
“Well, here it is,” she said. “And I’m sorry if it’s lengthy. But it seems to me that if you’re wrong, and we DON’T pursue immediate changes, we can damage things beyond repair. We could leave the children I teach a world that they can’t live in.
“But if you’re right, and we do pursue immediate changes—well, the world will be better for it, won’t it? And those kids’ lives will still be better for what we’ve done?
“So my question is, Mr. Boffle, when it comes to treating this earth with love and respect—well, what can it hurt?”
In the sudden, sucking silence, the little man stared at her. His look clearly said, “I thought you were one of us. I thought you’d support me.” His betrayal was so abject that Katherine almost felt a pang of remorse.
But then, from the back of the auditorium, a voice rang out. “What can it hurt?”
And Katherine, still standing, turned to look. As she did, other voices took it up. “What can it hurt? WHAT CAN IT HURT?”
They chanted Boffle right off the stage. He was supplanted by a writer who had made protecting the earth his mission, and right then and there, in that middling auditorium in that middling city, they began to plot real change.
It happened because people happened. People said, “I’m not buying single-use plastic,” and they found other ways of living. They took up canning. They composted. They bought in bulk. They hunted down alternatives to plastic packaging.
They shared rides, and they turned off technology for big parts of their days, and they installed solar panels on their houses.
It was a grass roots movement, and each community figured out what they could do to make change happen. Shared gardens sprang up. Rapid transit improved all over, as more and more people traveled on hybrid buses. In one city, everyone pledged to turn off all but essential electricity for an hour every night, and they chalked up the amazing difference caused by that hour. A trend sprang up: blackout parties, they called ‘em.
And Katherine’s words…What can it hurt?…became the catch-call.
People crafted t-shirts that read ‘What can it hurt?’
People painted signs and stuck them in the veggie gardens that grew up in many front yards. ‘What can it hurt?’
At the grocery store, Katherine saw a woman loading her food into brown paper bags that her kids had decorated with pictures of plants and smiling animals. An owl was saying, “What can it hurt?”
The media loved it. They found her and interviewed her; they discovered the Y2Katy moniker, and they wrote about how a girl, born with the century, wanted to ensure that the earth was healthy in the centuries that followed.
She had a flurry of attention, Katherine did, and then it faded.
It faded because things really were changing. People were disconnecting from electronics, slowing down, looking at life a different way.
The amazing thing was that change bubbled from the bottom up, from the people who would be most affected, from that broad base of ordinary folks who wanted the earth to be a healthy, safe, happy place.
The movement simmered and boiled over. There was nothing for government to do, nothing for industry to do, but to get on board.
And Katherine plunged into her teaching and changed her own life.
She saved her money and bought herself a tiny house—a house she still lived in. She installed solar panels, which generated the power she needed for many things, including the air conditioning she only used on the hottest of days (fewer now than they used to be.) She used silicone storage containers and canvas shopping bags, and she mixed up vinegar and salt and a spritz of dish detergent to spray on the weeds that grew in the cracks on her old brick patio. That didn’t kill the weeds entirely, but it tempered them, made them manageable, and didn’t introduce poisons into the ground.
She mended things and she re-used things and she learned to bake and cook from scratch.
One of the best things about the whole movement, Katherine thinks now, was the social change. She began to get to know her neighbors, and they began to share their talents. Her neighbor Brian loved to can things. Rob was a skilled woodworker and his wife Sylvie could sew like a professional. Katherine shared her brownies and soups, the flowers she grew in her cutting garden, and the extra tomatoes that burgeoned despite inquisitive deer. Brian canned those tomatoes for her; Ron made her window boxes. One year, Sylvie gifted her with sturdy rugs that she had made from rags Katherine gave her.
Katherine still uses those rugs.
She still uses, too, the electric car she had bought almost 25 years ago, nurturing and babying it into a very healthy old age.
People had lived differently now for long enough that change was happening; the melt was stopping; the storms becoming less fearful; the animals becoming more healthy.
It looked, after this half a century, like they had chosen the right path.
But there were still Boffles. Of course there were Boffles. This one’s grandfather had left his legacy to his son, who spend a lifetime making speeches imparting wisdom that began with lines like this: “I’ll TELL you what it can hurt!”
But the movement, once begun, seemed mightily unstoppable, Boffle be damned. And ‘it’ didn’t seem to hurt anything, except maybe the bottom line of those who already had enough, away.
She pulls herself back as she hears the current Boffle switch gears.
“I still,” he says, “am not convinced that the change we are seeing would not have happened anyway. But I do agree that, in many ways, life is good. And a lot of that goodness came about because of the words of one woman, a brave little lady who asked my grandpa a question. That was Y2Katy, and here she is, still with us today.”
He sweeps an arm toward Katherine, and she smiles in what she hopes is a gracious way, and she stands up. She is wearing her heels, wearing them for this very reason: she walks over to the podium and she towers over Boffle Three.
“Maybe,” she says wryly, and her grimace is self-deprecating, “not such a LITTLE lady.”
The crowd laughs, and the laughter swells.
Katherine spreads out her remarks on the smooth wood of the podium. She wants to say she loves what her life has become; she loves the visits from her former students, many of who are parents, and some of whom are grandparents.
She wants to say she loves being retired and hanging her sheets out on sunny mornings, loves sleeping on those sun-baked sheets at night. She wants to talk about the rich friendships she discovered after she put her smartphone down back when she was young and started looking into people’s faces, started slowing down to talk, starting bringing bunches of her posies to the elderly lady who lived next door and cookies to the harried young mom on the other side.
She wants to say that, when she started living a life that benefited the earth, her life did not become impoverished or laborious. Her life became richer.
But the crowd does not let her. The laughter simmers down, and a voice calls out, “What can it hurt?” And for the second time in her life, her words are chanted back to her, thrumming and uplifted.
And she realizes she doesn’t have to say a word. Grinning, she thrusts her seventy-five year-old fist into the air, and pumps it. The crowd roars.
She does not stay for the reception after the ceremony. She finds a bench and slips off her heels. She laces up her sneakers and walks the mile to her house, leaving the noise and celebration behind her. The movement would have swelled and happened without her, Katherine knows. But it’s fun that her question became a catch-phrase. It tickles her to be a foot-note to a grand historical happening, to a moment humanity can be proud of.
At home, she brews a small pot of herbal tea, and she wraps herself in a hand knit shawl against the evening’s cool, and takes her steaming mug out onto the little brick patio. She can hear the thumping bass of a band at the reception. And she is glad to be alone, glad to have time and health and community—glad to have a recovering earth to flourish upon—glad to be able to reflect.
She knows she did not cause the movement that led to this day, but she is proud to have been a tiny part of it. And she sips her fragrant tea and she admits that it didn’t have to wind up this way. She pulls the shawl more tightly around her, and she inhales the chilly truth: It could have been very, very different.