Three years ago, Claire Vaye Watkins published Gold Fame Citrus, a novel that envisions a dystopian Southern California parched by extreme drought and smothered by paranormally fast-moving sand dunes that rapidly transform the region into a new Dust Bowl.
Watkins’ novel vividly depicts the tribulations of millions of displaced people, but it already feels quaint to her.
It was only in one brief chapter, exactly three-quarters of the way into the 354-page book, that she dwelled on the fate of Latino immigrants in this dark, resource-strapped future. One of the main characters finds himself locked up in a secret prison located in an old desert mine, where he meets “los detenidos fantasmas” ― ghost detainees, some of whom have spent their entire lives behind bars.
It’s only then that the narrator recalls that counts of evacuees from the desertified zone found a 31 percent drop in the number of Latinos in California before and after the evacuation. State officials said migrant farm workers had “self-deported” to their countries of origin when the drought hit ― but at that moment, it becomes clear they were disappeared and incarcerated.
Now, seeing images of caged children, reading reports of authorities abusing imprisoned asylum-seekers and separating families at the border over the past few months, reality seems even crueler than the dystopia of her fiction, Watkins says.
“This seems like another level to me right now,” she told HuffPost by phone. “I didn’t seriously consider the possibility of these nightmarish, Holocaust-like events.”
Around the world, there are 68.5 million people who have fled their homes; 40 million of those people have been displaced within their own country, according to the United Nations.
It’s hard to know how many migrants are driven by environmental crises, as there is nearly no legal framework for designating climate change as the reason someone has been uprooted. But in many parts of the world, the links are clear.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans fled to Florida, New York and other mainland states after Hurricane Maria, the kind of Category 5 storm expected to become more frequent as the oceans warm. The seven-year civil war that scattered 5.6 million Syrian refugees from their home began with a historic drought, leading many to call it the “first climate war,” despite some research claiming otherwise.
Surging sea levels, extreme storms and drought-diminished food and water resources are projected to displace more than 1 billion people globally by 2050, and 2 billion by 2100. The displacement will be particularly severe in tropical regions, where many of the roughly 20,000 to 40,000 migrants who crossed the U.S. southern border each month in the past year came from, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s statistics.
That’s just a fraction of the 1 million to 1.6 million foreigners who illegally entered the country annually from the 1980s to the mid-2000s. But already, the Trump administration is pursuing the kind of ruthless border policies writers like Watkins thought would only come in response to massive waves of climate migrants. Reality has outstripped some of the gnarliest dystopias of a genre premised on the idea of casting the reader forward into a recognizable but still remote future.
“It’s happening a lot sooner,” Watkins said. “I never say when Gold Fame Citrus is, but I thought it would be ... not now.”
I didn’t seriously consider the possibility of these nightmarish, Holocaust-like events. Claire Vaye Watkins
Even for writers of the bleakest climate fiction, it’s difficult to extrapolate what a White House already willing to enact such draconian policies would do to millions of climate refugees. Omar El-Akkad, the Egyptian-Canadian author of American War, said he finished writing his debut novel just three weeks before Trump declared his candidacy for president.
The 352-page book chronicles a gory sequel to the Civil War in 2074, when a band of Southern states rebels against the federal government ― which, with Washington, D.C., underwater, is based now in Cleveland ― after the passage of a fossil fuel ban. The death tolls from suicide bombings, marauding militias and armed drones that slaughter civilians pale in comparison to the lethal plagues unleashed in biological attacks in the final chapters.
But the milieu of American War is a world ravaged by risen, acidified seas and sweltering heat waves ― and a nation whose brutality is born of environmental strife.
“What’s happening on the southern border in the United States right now, besides being an act of outright inhumanity and fascism, is a made-up response to a made-up problem,” he said.
“The United States does not have an immigration crisis,” El-Akkad added. “Jordan has an immigration crisis. Lebanon has an immigration crisis. The countries that have a million or so refugees from war-torn Syria have an immigration crisis.”
Writing American War today would be impossible, the Portland, Oregon-based author said.
“Every day, I wake up in this country and I’m bombarded with a new and borderline-surreal scandal or moment of strangeness or cruelty that makes it incredibly difficult to write about this particular moment,” said El-Akkad. “Right now, everything is just very, very loud, and very fast-moving.”
He’s not alone. Few books in the nascent “cli-fi” genre ― the term first appeared in Google searches in 2009 and started becoming popular around 2014 ― deal directly with climate refugees and migrants, according to Amy Brady, who writes a column on climate fiction for the Chicago Review of Books. Part of the problem is that books about immigration tend to focus on the struggles of leaving one’s home rather than the environmental catalyst for doing so.
“Immigration is such a large and multifaceted issue that once a novel starts addressing it, it becomes a novel about immigration,” she said.
The genre is also dominated by white writers from rich, northern countries, who focus on how environmental catastrophe might affect things they care about. The fixations, Brady said, include: “What’s it going to do to our capitalism? What’s it going to do to our telecommunications systems?”
“That’s a real blind spot when it comes to the genre as a whole,” she said.
Watkins self-diagnosed that as a problem with Gold Fame Citrus: “The characters are privileged people.”
El-Akkad agreed that the genre is dominated by white writers who don’t often conceptualize the experience of the black and brown people who are most vulnerable to climate change.
“One of the things with climate change, in particular, is that the universality of the problem might give some authors the thought that it could be represented outside issues of race, gender or ethnicity,” he said. “But we don’t supersede these issues ― every issue in the United States is tangled up with issues of race and gender and those forms of discrimination. Climate change isn’t going to be any different.”
Every issue in the United States is tangled up with issues of race and gender and those forms of discrimination. Climate change isn’t going to be any different. Omar El-Akkad
Kim Stanley Robinson, the godfather of the cli-fi genre, takes a more optimistic view. His acclaimed 2017 novel New York 2140 depicts life in a flooded, Venice-like metropolis where New Yorkers traverse Lower Manhattan by nautical hovercraft and skybridges, Central Park is a refugee camp and the Upper East Side is home to Dubai-like megatowers. But even as American capitalism prevails, with Wall Street honchos trading on tide-based derivatives, the peons of that system ultimately revolt, propelling a revolutionary plot Robinson describes as utopian.
Smaller countries with strong ethnocultural identities may turn away climate refugees with violence, he said. “Think about Hungary,” he said. “There’s only 5 million Hungarians that speak that language and have that culture. If they took on more than a couple million refugees, then they’ve got a situation where they can feel their entire culture and language are going to go away.”
But the United States is an ethnic patchwork, constantly absorbing and adapting once-foreign cultures and customs, he said. The growing progressive movement in favor of open borders could make the country “so multicultural that it stays the place people can move when they’re desperate.”
Watkins, in the meantime, has turned her attention to writing a new novel about a utopia where borders don’t exist.
“For some people, the idea of a border is so obvious,” she said. “They can’t think of what it would be like to not have ICE or not have a border at all.”
Science fiction, she said, could help propel that conversation into reality.
“It sounds corny as fuck,” she said. “But one thing novelists are good at is imagining.”