Photo credit: Michael Lionstar
In southernmost Louisiana, the known world ends. Here where the cypress trees loom like apparitions half-submerged in swampland and the Mississippi River empties itself into the Gulf of Mexico, the water devours the land. Entire roads disappear for seasons at a time, peninsulas become islands, the whole of the coast slowly sinking. Cartography, the language of place, becomes ineffectual, because cartography requires stillness, and every inch of southern Louisiana is moving, thrashing against the rising saltwater. Drowning.
Toward the end of my decade-long career as a journalist for a Canadian newspaper, I travelled to Louisiana in the fall of 2014 to write about what is likely the worst ongoing climate disaster in America. For months, I’d been pleading with my editor to let me go, and finally she relented.
A few months before I arrived in Louisiana, I’d started writing a different kind of story, a novel called American War
. I wrote it in my spare time, usually between the hours of midnight and five in the morning. It’s a story about a second American civil war, fought a half-century from now over a federal fossil fuel ban. Rather than abide by prohibition, some of the southern states secede. The novel follows the life of a young girl named Sarat Chestnut, who grows up amidst the war and is shaped by it.
For more than a year prior, I had lived with Sarat — in my mind and then on paper. I knew this was first and foremost her story, but I had no idea where she came from, where she called home. Then I saw the ragged, thinning strands of southern Louisiana, the place where the stillness of land succumbed to the infinite movement of the sea, and instantly I knew.
Every hour or so, a football field’s worth of Louisiana land disappears into the sea. The causes of this calamity are varied but almost exclusively man-made. For the better part of a century, oil and gas companies have dug thousands of miles of canals and pipelines in this part of the country, weakening the earth and making it more vulnerable to the encroachment of the sea. The Mississippi River, which in its natural state would move from side to side and replenish the land with sediment, has long been locked in place with levees to protect cities such as New Orleans from flooding. Rising sea levels have forced more and more saltwater into places where root systems help hold the earth in place. The saltwater kills the plants; the roots let go.
We are, almost all of us, astoundingly bad at assessing the consequences of anything that takes more than 30 years to run its course.
The first quarter of American War
takes place in Louisiana. But in the novel, the whole of the United States is disfigured by the effects of climate change — the Eastern Seaboard has drowned, Florida is gone, California is parched beyond saving. It’s the sort of stuff that gets a book branded as speculative or science fiction, but I never intended to write a story about the future.
About six months after I visited Louisiana, I travelled to Florida to work on a feature about the state’s effort — or lack thereof — to combat and prepare for rising sea levels. I met small-town mayors at the southern end of the state who have begun telling their constituents that, by the time their grandchildren are old enough to buy houses, this part of the country may no longer be habitable.
Near the end of my trip, I went to see a climate scientist in Miami. For more than 30 years, he’s been sounding the alarm on climate change and its potential to decimate southern Florida. Every now and then, he gets invited to give presentations at town hall meetings and other community gatherings. Sometimes he’ll bring with him an illustration of what a meter or two of sea level rise would do to whichever community he’s visiting — a visual aid to help impress upon his audience the severity of the coming deluge.
But the result, almost always, is the same: after he’s done speaking, he’ll be approached by someone from the community who’ll point to the illustration and say, “Well, at least my house will still be above water.”
Yes, the scientist will counter, but what about the surrounding roads, the schools, all the infrastructure? What good is a dry house perched on a hill, severed from the rest of the world?
But it doesn’t matter. We are, almost all of us, astoundingly bad at assessing the consequences of anything that takes more than 30 years to run its course — the length of a mortgage. We are bounded by the borders of our property lines; geology isn’t.
But you can already see the markers of what’s to come. In Louisiana, the state is building levees further and further upland — a clear warning to everyone south of the levees that their homes, in the long run, probably can’t be saved. Insurance rates for the lavish houses lining the southern Florida coastline are rising. When the drought hit California, some farmers started looking to relocate to Oregon, plotting the earliest steps of future migration paths.
But in the short-term, it is always easier (and in this case, more profitable) to do nothing. Many of the Louisiana parishes where the land is melting fastest are also the places that would suffer the most without the infusion of cash and jobs the oil and gas industry provides. And what big-city Florida mayor in their right mind would block the construction of a new luxury seaside tower, and all the tax revenue that comes with it, because in a few decades’ time the sea might render the area unlivable? As I write this, the newly elected president of the United States is poised to roll back his predecessor’s efforts at combating climate change. It’s a dark age for foresight.
But as with every instance of commercially lucrative but otherwise ruinous activity in human history, one day it’ll be commonplace to say how wrong this was, how we should have known better. It’ll happen later, when we’ve moved on to cleaner, cheaper fuels, when there’s nothing to be lost by condemning a now-obsolete practice that used to power and enrich so much of the world. We will do what we always do: discover conscience in hindsight.
I still think about Louisiana a lot; it’s one of my favorite places on earth. The Kenny Hill sculpture garden in Chauvin is as fine an outsider art installation as exists anywhere in the country; halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans there’s a small museum at the site of the last leper colony in the continental United States, a place alight with a history of mercy and shame. And where else can you find, on virtually every street corner, a drive-thru daiquiri joint, the straw-holes in the cups covered with masking tape so as to avoid running afoul of the state’s open-container laws? There is nowhere else in the world like this.
And one day it will be gone, much of it dissolved into the ocean as a result of an insatiable human addiction. Like so many reefs and islands and coastal towns destined to disappear over the course of the coming century, it will be someone else’s problem. We pass the consequences of our action and inaction on to the future, safe in the knowledge that the future never arrives.
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Omar El Akkad
was born in Cairo, Egypt, and grew up in Doha, Qatar, until he moved to Canada with his family. He is an award-winning journalist and author who has traveled around the world to cover many of the most important news stories of the last decade. His reporting includes dispatches from the NATO-led war in Afghanistan, the military trials at Guantánamo Bay, the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt, and the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri. He is a recipient of Canada’s National Newspaper Award for investigative reporting and the Goff Penny Memorial Prize for Young Canadian Journalists, as well as three National Magazine Award honorable mentions. American War
is his first book. He lives in Portland, Oregon.