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Denial Futures

by | April 4, 2022

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue. 



‘You’re not from around here, are you?’ 

It is autumn 2020. Wildfires stretching the West Coast paint the skies burnt orange. In various places the hue at noon is blood red. Five of the largest ten wildfires in Californian history burn simultaneously. 

Nobody alive has witnessed such ruin. It has not been so hot since the Eemian interglacial period some 130,000 years ago, when temperatures averaged under a degree warmer, driving our ancestors out of Africa while seas rose a metre every twenty years for several centuries. Between the origins of agriculture along the Tigris and Euphrates to the invention of hydraulic fracturing, indeed in the entire history of civilisation after we left the cave, it has never been so hot. But paleoclimate data is not on the mind of the vigilante barking, ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

He is armed. He points his question at an African-American mother fleeing wildfires. She registers the racial overtones of the inquisition.

She’s stopped at an improvised checkpoint in Corbett, Oregon. Fires threaten communities around Portland, an overwhelmingly white area of the Pacific Northwest. Evacuees take to the roads. 

It is the year of the pandemic, after a summer of mass protests for racial justice in the wake of murders by police. An election approaches; the incumbent praises violence. Police assault countless citizens. Over a hundred reactionaries ram protestors with vehicles; conservative legislatures rush through bills to authorise the manslaughter tactic. Hundreds of thousands die of a virus. America is about to erupt, wallowing in a desire for – what? Not a desire to know anything. 

‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

His eyes dart from her to the other occupants, scanning the vehicle and gauging threats. In the back, her young children stare back at the vigilante and the weapon with which he might dispatch them. No, these are not the targets. He is searching for arsonists, saboteurs, the Right’s hallucinated fixation: antifa.

In nearby Estacada, a journalist is accosted and flees. As he speeds away, a truck intercepts from the front, blocking the highway. Out of the vehicle emerges a gunman aiming his rifle through the journalist’s windshield. 

A few miles southwest in Mollala, three journalists are stopped at another improvised checkpoint, guns raised. A vigilante snaps, ‘Get the fuck out of here’, as he takes photos of their faces and license plate. 

‘It seems like the militants are burning out/up the rural folks closest to the cities’, says one member of a Facebook group organising the counterattack, ‘because the only way they can fight is dirty vs the more conservative/rural folks would hand them their @$$es [sic] in an altercation.’ Another suggests they fight. ‘Most of us can mobilize and bring our arsenal with us.’ The radio reports antifa shooting at firefighters.

Police are alerted to illegal checkpoints but do not intervene. After a school board member organises citizen patrols, a sheriff’s sergeant asks for ‘photos of cars and even license plates’. He advises vigilantes watch out for ‘anything that feels out of place to you, just listen to your gut because nine times out of ten your gut is right’.

A Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy is forced out of his job after a video goes viral in which he erupts at the imaginary culprits. ‘What I’m worried about is that there’s people stashing stuff. It means that they’re gonna go in preparation. And I don’t wanna sound like some doomsdayer, but it’s getting serious, and, I, we need the public’s help on this’. 

Another interjects to say people around Portland will simply stay home and die in the inferno rather than risk evacuating only to encounter anarchists. The deputy blurts, ‘Antifa motherfuckers, okay, are out causing hell. And there’s a lot of lives at stake, and there’s a lot of people’s property at stake, because these guys got some vendetta.’

The next day, this same deputy advises a citizen’s group they must be cautious when using deadly force. When they kill outsiders, he tells them, the courts will demand explanation. He laughs with them, charming the bloodthirsty piglets. ‘Now, you throw a fucking knife in their hand after you shoot ’em, that’s on you.’ More laughter from the crowd. He assures them, ‘I am on your side, people, I am one hundred percent! I wouldn’t let this shit happen in my neighborhood either, but be smart about it.’

Over a weekend in September 2020, illegal checkpoints and armed squads spring up independently in at least three towns near Portland. Fueled on social media rumors and encouraged by police, citizens organically convert latent climate denial, scouting instead for imaginary leftists while pointing weapons at reporters and families. Thankfully there are no reports of lethal violence this time. A near miss. You’re not from around here, are you?



We are, all of us, in denial about what awaits us in the Changes. Not just the conservatives. Liberals and social democrats deny as well; so too does the Left. 

Denial is repression, the putting away of an unpleasant idea. We deny because we are human. We repress. Repression and the return of the repressed are the same. What cannot be confronted converts into stranger commitments and violence.

The easiest path of denial ignores the problem tout court, but denial takes active paths as well. Freud said denial allows the subject to accept what is repressed without disturbing the repressions. ‘You ask who this person in the dream can be’, his patient would say. ‘It’s not my mother.’ Freud translated negations as, ‘This is something which I should prefer to repress.’

Patients expressed two denials, Freud said. One denial tried escaping moral judgment. The other simply denied reality itself. 

With climate change, the conservative denies reality. We mock them for it, but that’s such low-hanging fruit. On the other hand, the liberal who cries ‘Believe the science!’ seeks to escape guilt, vehemently lashing out against what needs to be done. If we need to decarbonise the economy and dislodge capitalism, the liberal says we must be more pragmatic. If the only candidate to propose a marginally decent climate plan is a socialist, the liberal suddenly remembers climate change is not so important. The moralising confesses: this is something that I should prefer to repress.

Moralising is obnoxious but also dangerous. This isn’t a game. Don’t you see what’s on the horizon?



It is the late winter of 2020. Greece announces a plan to erect nets in the Aegean Sea. There are too many Syrians. They flee a civil war resulting from displaced people concentrating in hot cities during a drought. The nets will have flashing lights and rise half a metre out of the water, either to catch or drown Syrians. The crisis owes itself to a warmer climate. Nets don’t discriminate.

It is 1978. Exxon scientists discuss the greenhouse effect and predict the Western Antarctic ice sheet’s collapse. Internal reports soon speak of widespread disaster, including a multimetre sea level rise and the flooding of Florida and Washington DC. An alerted public might force them to strand assets and shutter operations. Exxon launches a misinformation campaign nearly a decade before the public learns the term ‘global warming’.

It is November 2018. A future United States congressperson announces on Facebook her investigation into wildfires. ‘There are too many coincidences to ignore’, she smartly hints. Democrats and Jewish bankers, she says, are colluding to clear the countryside for high speed trains. They are using satellite platforms to beam solar radiation into the forest. ‘Could that cause a fire?’ she asks of culprits she’s outed. ‘Hmmm, I don’t know.’ Once more blaming liberals and Jews for space lasers rather than climate change, she feigns humility. ‘But what do I know? I just like to read a lot.’

It is anytime in the so-called War on Terror. Drones strike wedding parties and school buses, and occasionally they hit a militant resisting imperialists. Regions hit lie on the aridity line, the liminal zone where barely enough rain falls for crops, winding from the African Sahel through the Middle East. The United States and its allies carry out drone strikes along the aridity line in Mali, Libya, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Niger, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. European policies of externalising borders redirect northbound African migrants eastward into neighbouring states, hoping refugees get bogged down and remain in Africa. Heat-stressed and drought-stricken areas pack tighter still. Some rebel. Those who do are labelled terrorists and slated for termination. All for lack of rainfall on an aridity line that is, thanks to warming, moving year by year. Plot the advance of desertification, and one might see where drones will soon lurk. Meanwhile, Westerners nervously whisper of approaching water wars, as if we are not already engaged.

It is the now and the near future. Bangladesh’s Kutupalong camp, the largest refugee camp in the world, is critically full with Rohingya driven out of Myanmar. The location is vulnerable to cyclones and flooding. The government relocates a substantial portion of the population from the current camp in Cox’s Bazar to an island called Bhasan Char. The low-lying island is not twenty years old, formed from silt from the Meghna River. Already, at high tide in a storm the island could be submerged – even before the seas rise, that is. Authorities will move hundreds of thousands of refugees to an island which will be drowned. 

The conversion symptoms proliferate.



Conflicts in the psyche often manifest in the body. This is no longer controversial. One need not be a psychoanalyst to see it; so-called cognitive or evidence-based psychologies say the same thing. But psychoanalysts discovered it as early as they discovered the talking cure.

The conversion symptom is a very old idea worth a hearing again. Freud and his colleague Joseph Breuer studied how the latter’s patient, Anna O, suffered physical symptoms from psychic stress. She dreamt a snake attacked her father, and ever after the sight of a snake caused her arm to stiffen. Her anxiety robbed her of the ability to speak her native tongue, yet she retained use of English. These are conversion symptoms.

The conversion symptom is a return of the repressed, from the psyche to the body. Psychoanalyst Bruce Fink listed ‘minor aches and pains, tightness in the chest, a tingling sensation, a burning sensation, and dizziness to migraines, paralysis, blindness, muteness, and deafness’. Today those resistant to psychoanalytic thought still complain of stress-related irritable bowel disorder.

Of what am I trying to warn? In its protean vectors, climate change and its often violent denial are, in a manner of speaking, conversion symptoms of capitalism’s inability to deal with a carbon dependency. 

People speak of capitalism as if it’s an incidental roadblock obstructing climate mitigation, in the same way conservative and liberal parties slow necessary steps. But this misrepresents the relationship. No, capitalism is not a roadblock: capitalism is the generator. The tendency of profit to follow the path of highest return, the pressure to lure investors with ever-greater profits quarter after quarter, the praise for unlimited expansion in a world of finite resources, labour exploitation and destruction of nature, the allure of cheap energy no matter the cost, and most of all the ability to discount true ecological and social costs which don’t show up yet in the exchange value – in such a deranged machine, climate change is a conversion disorder of capitalism.

If climate change is a conversion disorder of capital, other conversion symptoms follow in denial. ‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence’, as Marx said of the hazy awareness we build burning carbon, ‘but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.’ In the nineties, ExxonMobil paid the New York Times to sow doubt about the human causes a full generation after its own sciences proved anthropogenic warming in the late seventies. In the aughts, BP instructed consumers to fret about a new marketing gimmick called a carbon footprint. In the West, politicians brag of the stock market’s growth and energy independence in the same breath as emissions targets. Senator Elizabeth Warren campaigns on greening the military. Bill Gates brags of purchasing sustainable jet fuel for his private gallivanting. Pundits speak of ‘fighting’ climate change without specifics. The Paris Climate Agreement pretends there is hope for remaining below 1.5°C via non-binding pledges projected to push us over 3°C.

Indeed, the symptoms proliferate. We see them everywhere.



It is September 2018. Buried in a five-hundred-page report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is a proposal to roll back Obama-era regulations on vehicle emissions. The agency acknowledges global temperatures will increase 3.5°C by 2100. What stands out, though, is not so much an agency housed within the executive branch of a climate denier acknowledging mainstream consensus. No, what stuns in an otherwise dry report is a plan to raise temperatures and sea levels further.

‘The amazing thing they’re saying is human activities are going to lead to this rise of carbon dioxide that is disastrous for the environment and society’, explains Michael MacCracken, a senior climate scientist. ‘And then they’re saying they’re not going to do anything about it.’ Old regulations cost money. Warming is inevitable. Better to relax standards and reap rewards today. A machine which cannot think more than a few financial quarters ahead need not worry for the grandchildren of the ghouls reaping rewards now.



Do you want to know why we won’t be limiting warming to that ambitious Paris Agreement goal of 1.5°C or 2°C? Let me show you the math for denial futures.

A carbon budget is used to estimate how much CO2 we can still burn before surpassing a temperature threshold, usually given as 1.5°C or 2°C warming by 2100. Budgets are measured in gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO2). In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set a budget of 420 GtCO2 to limit warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. To limit warming to 2°C, the budget was 1,170 GtCO2. 

We emit 42 GtCO2 per year, so subtract three years to get a remaining budget of 294 GtCO2 for limiting to 1.5°C, and 1,044 for 2°C. The uncertainty is ±400 Gt CO2, so we might have locked in 1.5°C warming even if all emissions ceased today. Fine.

Nobody has an intuitive grasp of what it means to sequester so much carbon. Unfortunately, we have a recent example of winding down emissions. The historic lockdown measures put in place to slow the spread of Covid-19 dropped emissions 2.4 GtCO2 in 2020. Do the maths. The Covid-19 shutdown postponed the apocalyptic threshold by a couple of weeks.

Next, add up reserves of fossil fuels – raw materials, current prices, and carbon dioxide content if burned – in order to see the total cost in dollars and carbon dioxide. Not all crude oil and natural gas is burned, since plastics and lubricants are derived from fossil fuels, but the vast majority is burned. While psychotic energy markets fret over the need to diversify with clean energy for the sake of strong portfolios, the problem is precisely that exhausting non-renewables is so profitable. 

Crude oil’s energy return on investment remains high, slightly outperforming the efficiency of photovoltaic solar. Other renewables such as hydroelectric and wind power vastly outperform all fossil fuels, but they require massive investments. Instead, unconventional extraction techniques such as fracking pull fuel from tar sands with such energy-intensive methods that unconventionals hover just above or dip below the efficiency of burning wood. In fact, unconventional fuel sources provide such a low return on energy investment that they fall well below the minimum threshold of efficiency needed for modern civilisation.

How can that be? How can the supremely wise market – for now – invest in resources that aren’t efficient enough to support civilisation? Because governments charged with protecting us are instead propping up fossil-fuel companies with subsidies, and even low efficiencies still yield profit; even without subsidies, half of new oil-extraction projects would still be profitable enough to continue. The energy return on investment of tar sands is, at most, only one thirtieth as efficient as the oil fields of the mid-nineteenth century. However fake the subsidised numbers, good fossil-fuel reports convert to happy markets, which convert to ghoulish campaign talking points, duped constituents, and threatened ecosystems.

If we burned all fossil fuels, clean-energy alternatives would be a moot point, on account of locking in 9°C warming which would make food production impossible and raise oceans seventy metres.

The fossil-fuel industry keeps close track of reserves, which is their sole respectable contribution to my research interests. The following table is my own, derived from BP’s surprisingly granular reporting on reserves, current fossil fuel prices, and Environmental Protection Agency conversions for CO2 emitted from each source. These numbers are for reserves only, which are deposits profitably extractable with current technology; this does not even count fossil-fuel resources, which could become reserves if extraction technology improves or if government subsidies incentivise further exploration.


Conventional Crude

Current market value: $107.5 trillion (1.73 trillion barrels at $62/barrel)

746 GtCO2 emitted if burned

Unconventional Oil (primarily shale oil and tar sands) 

Unknown resource total, conservatively estimated 7 trillion barrels, 15 per cent of which are recoverable reserves: $68.3 trillion (1.05 trillion at $65/barrel)

514.8 GtCO2 emitted if burned


Current market value: $43 trillion (1.07 trillion tonnes at $40/tonne)

2,135 GtCO2 emitted if burned

Natural Gas

Current market value: $28 trillion (7 quadrillion cubic feet at $4/thousand cubic feet)

384 GtCO2 emitted if burned

Assets to be Stranded in Compliance with IPCC Carbon Budget

Value of conventional oil, coal, natural gas, and unconventional oil: $246.8 trillion

Emissions potential of all fossil fuel reserves: 3,805 GtCO2

Remaining carbon budget to stay under 2°C warming: 1,044 GtCO2

To meet 2°C limit, we need to leave 73 per cent of fuels in the ground, stranding assets worth $179 trillion

Remaining carbon budget to stay under 1.5°C: 294 GtCO2


To meet 1.5°C goal, we need to leave 92 per cent of fuels in the ground, stranding assets worth $227 trillion

What’s the upshot? We’ve emitted approximately 2,200 GtCO2 since the Industrial Revolution, less than half of the carbon dioxide we’ll emit this century if we burn all remaining reserves. To avoid 2°C warming, we must strand 73 per cent of all remaining fossil-fuel reserves, a loss of $179 trillion. If we wish to meet the more ambitious Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C, we must strand 92 per cent of fossil fuels, a staggering loss of $227 trillion. Again, these numbers assume companies already walk away from an additional half quadrillion dollars in unconventional oil resources due to extraction trouble, so the reality might turn out worse.

Feel the gravity of this contradiction. This amount of money is almost certainly not collectable in full due to a range of factors, not the least of which would be economic lag from climate stress. The point of these numbers is to show the incentives today, which all point in the wrong direction. As much as 50 per cent of oil production is already unprofitable without government subsidies provided at the precise moment when higher prices could move the needle in the right direction. Cheap talk of vaguely ‘fighting’ climate change assumes states and companies, all of whom already claim these assets in their portfolios, will voluntarily walk away from mountains of cash. Even as cheaper renewables come online, everyone will want a piece of the remaining mountain. A trillion here, another trillion there. 

We pretend finance austerity, the blowback of decoupling energy from carbon, can be accomplished within pseudo-democracies masking oligarchies, where craven policymakers fear withdrawn support from those who remember more lucrative times. Will the lords voluntarily walk away from hundreds of trillions of dollars without force? Who will force them?



It is a new millennium. British Petroleum rebrands, now using the lower case bp for ‘beyond petroleum’. Nice. Unlike ExxonMobil’s strategy of science denial, BP positions itself as the first green oil company. What a concept! Adopting a new logo of a sunburst in green, yellow, and white, they pioneer a field variously called environmental advertising, greenwashing, or green spin.

‘What size is your carbon footprint?’ asks black text in the ad blitz. Fade to interviews on the streets of London. ‘Ah the carbon footprint, eh’, one respondent pauses, ‘that I don’t know.’ Another reframes the question, ‘How much carbon I produce – is that it?’ A final interviewee in Chicago rounds out the explanation. ‘You mean the effect that my living has on the Earth in terms of the products I consume?’ The ad fades back to white field, black text. ‘We can all do more to emit less.’ 

BP launches a carbon footprint calculator in 2004 as a component of its green rebrand. The term enters the popular lexicon.



Louis Althusser drew two conclusions on ideology. First, ideology represents an imaginary relationship to real conditions, aiding in recognition and misrecognition (denial does the latter).

Secondly, ideology has a material existence. Ideology is housed within apparatuses, allowing people to act out and reproduce an ideology. Althusser listed a few ideological state apparatuses: the church or other religious institutions, schools, family, the legal system (which is both repressive and ideological), political parties, unions, media, literature, arts, sports, etc. That list was drafted a while ago. What apparatuses would we add today?



Visiting BP’s calculator today, you will be offered an opportunity to purchase carbon offsets. Scant details about what counts as an offset hide among jargon about robust industry standards. What matters is, after adding your sins of emission, you may purchase an indulgence. How much would it cost to offset, say, 16 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions, an annual average for an American? A mere seventy-two dollars.

Wall Street now mirrors this scam for big investors. Blackrock CEO Larry Fink champions ESG (environmental, social, governance) investing. As Adrienne Buller explained in Beyond the Ruins, ESG investors and financial products buy shares in companies (or their bonds) based on metrics purporting to measure their carbon emissions intensity, equitable labour practices, transparency, the diversity of their executive boards and so on … [T]he reality is somewhat different. To date, the ESG industry has established no rules for what counts as ‘sustainable’ or ‘ethical’.

 In fact, Buller noticed, Vanguard’s flagship ESG fund invests in Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, and Tesla.

Travel a bit less, cut the carbon footprint. Recycle more. Stop flying. What’s the floor? A study analysing various lifestyles, from children to monks to billionaires, found that the footprint of an American experiencing homelessness is still eight tonnes, roughly twice the global average. There’s only so much one can do. BP would have you believe you can do more, though. Specifically, if we multiplied that fake seventy-two dollars by the number of consumers in America, they’d have us believe we can offset and fix the problem with a mere $24 billion per year. At the same time, investment groups looking to greenwash the petroleum in their portfolios eye ESGs, excusing bad Shell and ExxonMobil with good Amazon and Google.

If you critique these frauds, you will hear, ‘Every little bit helps’, and, ‘Don’t let the best be the enemy of the good.’ What a deal when we feared we’d need to strand a quarter quadrillion! The symptoms proliferate, ever more stupid and violent.



It is 12 October 2018. Numbering one hundred and sixty, they set out from San Pedro Sula in Honduras. They track east through Guatemala and Mexico, then north to the US. In little more than a week, their ranks swell to as many as seven thousand. US media dubs it a ‘migrant caravan’.

Some interpret the movement as a critique of a troubled Honduran government. Others say it is blowback from the coups, death squads, and genocides supported by the US in Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua over the last half century. US VP Harris will later guess migrants are leaving Guatemala because of how it treats LGBT people and communities of colour. 

The truth is, on top of imperialist violence, Central America is increasingly inhospitable to life. Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua sit in the ‘dry corridor’, an area vulnerable to irregular rainfall. In the worst drought in four decades, more than a quarter do not have adequate money for food. ‘If we are going to die anyway’, said Honduran farmer Jorge Reyes in the anguish of hunger, ‘we might as well die trying to get to the United States’.

The UN projects as many as a billion climate refugees displaced by 2050. Oxfam estimates 20 million refugees are already displaced annually by climate-change-fueled ‘natural disasters’, an antiquated term since disasters are no longer purely natural. The UN requests states recognise asylum requests due to climate disasters but does not make this demand binding; indeed, there is no legally binding category for ‘climate refugee’ or ‘climate migrant’, though such refugees outnumber war refugees by as many as ten to one.

On 16 October, President Trump tweets angrily for the first time about the caravan. Following up two days later, he inveighs, ‘Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in.’ Rightwing media paints the families as ISIS insurgents. 

Witness the future of denial in the resurrection of a long-dormant gimmick. After 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security was established with disingenuous claims that Al-Qaeda was pouring over the southern border. Now the president’s mind, flickering in and out of timelines, resurrects the myth. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders lies that 4,000 terrorists were captured by border patrol in a year.

The President retweets an anti-semitic video claiming to show George Soros funding the caravan, Soros being a metonym for ‘Jewish money’ on the Right. Matt Gaetz also blames the caravan on Jewish money. Michael Savage says the caravan could signal ‘the end of America as we know it’. Pat Buchanan warns, ‘Yet far more critical to the future of our civilisation is the ongoing invasion of the West from the Third World.’ A DHS spokesperson backs them up. Newt Gingrich joins in: ‘If you were a terrorist and wanted to get in the United States and you saw 10,000 people trying to get into the United States, how unlikely is it that you might decide to join them?’ 

The caravan reaches the border. They request asylum. The US forces Mexico to settle those who don’t return home. Their stories are harsh and tragic. They offer us a dazzling premonition about climate migration. 

Today’s inchoate or incipient fascisms, as Richard Seymour has rightly qualified this contested term, serve up a vision of the future. What will happen when hundreds of millions move, when the crops fail, when economies plummet? How long until the US and EU police their borders with armed drones, as Israel already does at the edge of Gaza? If the choice is socialism or barbarism, a fossil fascism will lash out nostalgically for a time before the seas swallowed the coasts while sneering at fleeing families: you’re not from around here, are you?



‘What was it like before the Changes?’

It is early in the twenty-second century. The old man doesn’t know how to answer the kid’s question. She knows too much. Her textbooks recall sand covering ground like this everywhere, on every coast of every sea in the world. 

When he was her age he read up on the extinction of the rhinoceros. Of lower Manhattan’s carbon-based traffic before the seawall ruptured. Los Angeles before the fires. Southern Europe before the nets and razor wire. The Sahel and Northern Triangle before the exodus. Oceans before the great dying. Bangladesh before the drowning. Her schoolbooks footnoted the last eagles or the first border sentry drones, sure, but the old man actually remembers things she reads like legends. The world is 4°C warmer.

They are sitting on a beach in northern Michigan. He is my grandchild or yours, keeping watch over his family as best he can. The red sun sets over the lake. In the winter the waves still occasionally freeze like an eerie reminder of a world resisting control. Cold snaps and polar vortexes brutally compete against mass casualty heat waves, now a casual fact of life, like category six hurricanes. 

She asks if it were really true about the sand and smiles skeptically as he replies, ‘Before the jump yes, there were beaches like this everywhere.’

After the greater ice sheets break off the West Antarctic in the late twenty-first century, the world scrambles. A classic theological problem: what kind of gods foresee sin yet refuse to act? Something about free will. No, not satisfying. The first jump raises sea levels a good two metres in fifteen years. 

‘Even on the coasts there was sand?’, she asks. Not accusatory, her tone. She doesn’t know who to indict.

Every port and coastal city in the world is lost. The tide pushes sand up into abandoned streets of desolate cities, swamping estuaries and choking grass and trees in salt. 

Food is already prohibitively expensive as crop yields on previously dependable farmland drop 50 per cent in a world struggling and failing miserably to support 10 billion mouths. Rations could be printed, but subscription fees keep the unemployed starving. 

Capital trudges along, charting new ways to reap from the fires and wars even as economies drop 30 per cent in the West, 90 per cent in developing areas. The beginning of the permanent depression, the normal kind and the frightening.

‘I wish you could have seen it’, he replies. 

The oligarchs close ranks, retreating to their bunkers and walled cities. Building new fiefdoms, amusement parks for their rotting souls. Sometimes the guards turn on the lords.

Communes spring up near fresh water, which is at least somewhat insulated from the melting. Some thrive. Most are suppressed by legal tricks of eminent domain or privatised police. The last undisturbed beaches in North America, along with the fresh water, draw waves of migrants north even as temperatures scorch the Midwest. 

What else is there to say? Nearly everyone is displaced for reasons environmental or economic, to say nothing of war. Nobody but the luckiest live near family. The skies are milky white, never blue anymore, because of the stratospheric aerosols they released to dim the sun. Aside from the birds, most children haven’t even seen a wild animal.

See, the Great Lakes are clustered aftermath of glacial retreat 10,000 years back. Glaciers covered much of North America at one point. When they melted away, they left rich soil deposits. Further back, shallow waters covered the American South during the Cretaceous period. Sea creatures died and their calcium carbonate exoskeletons accumulated. As carbon dioxide dropped and polar ice caps formed, the seas withdrew and left fertile soil. Millions of years later, that fertile soil of the Black Belt would draw slaveholders to plant cotton, tobacco, sugar, you name it. Set off a chain reaction of voracious capitalism and reactionary politics that, by the time climate change was discovered, stood poised and ready to murder every ecosystem locked up with resources, which was all of them. Very lucrative.

‘Could there be beaches again, like on the ocean?’, she asks innocently. Her grandfather weighs whether to wax poetic about the earth’s ability to heal from ruin, the carbon drawdown cycles operating on timelines of thousands and millions of years. What a convoluted, cruel hope. They stole so much.




Tad DeLay PhD teaches philosophy in Baltimore. He is currently writing his fourth book, Denial Futures.

This piece first appeared in print in Salvage 11: Already, Not Yet. Issue 11 is available to buy individually here. Our poetry, fiction and art remains exclusive to the print edition, and our subscribers have exclusive access to some online content, including all audio content. New subscriptions can be taken out here, and start with the next issue.