“It’s going to be Mad Max out there,” a friend recently told me upon returning from drought-ridden California.
But he said it with a twinkle; Mad Max channels our fantasies as much as our fears. We don’t know how to clean up our extractive-capitalism-fueled economic and climate messes, so we sit back and wait for the world to self destruct, after which — following a period of requisite suffering — a band of survivors will set out to create a new promised land, as they do at the end of the last three Mad Max films.
The truth, however, is that apocalyptic visions like these have not kept up with the times. As the cauterizing bang of nuclear war has given way to the slow fry of climate change, who’s to say capitalism won’t survive and thrive, accelerating scarcity for the many and plenty for the few?
With The Water Knife, decorated science-fiction novelist Paolo Bacigalupi offers an unflinching look at what happens if we stay on course. In a near-future West devastated by climate change, the Rockies are nearly bare of snow, the Colorado River tapped dry long before it reaches Mexico. California is buying up upstream water rights as Nevada and Arizona battle it out for the remaining trickle. The wicked witch of this West is Catherine Case, head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, who sends helicopter shock troops (commanded by “water knife” Angel Velasquez) to bomb a small city’s water treatment plant. The city is doomed in a single stroke, the water diverted to Case’s fantastical Las Vegas “arcologies.” These Chinese designed, terrarium-like skyscrapers for the 1% recycle water so efficiently, through ingenious microbe and algae filters, that they can support koi ponds and jungles and still self-sustain for three months. This is a story of what happens when the market runs things: The rich and powerful silo themselves and leave everyone else to rot.
Phoenix, a city that never had any ecological right to exist, has clung on through a “straw” of water from Lake Havasu, but it is dying a slow and gruesome death. Here we meet Lucy, a journalist who came to Phoenix to peddle disaster porn to the “blood rag” tabloids, but finds herself invested, writing Pulitzer-nominated stories no one reads on what is happening to the losers in the West’s water wars.
Those losers are mostly Texans, who found themselves on the wrong side of a border on land made unlivable by drought, and are scrambling to get north. Texans are the “dirty” who can’t afford even a sponge bath; the refugees huddled around the trickle of the charity water pumps (operated by Aquafina, CamelBak and Pure Life so they can boast, “your purchase helps us mitigate the effects of climate change on vulnerable populations around the world”); the prostitutes who cater to Chinese developers; the dead bodies left by narcos in swimming pools or strung up on border fences by Nevada militias. Like the displaced of today, they pay their life savings to walk hundreds of miles across a desert. In one chilling scene, hundreds of Texan bodies turn up in the desert — coyotes had been taking their money and leaving them to die.
This book is about what people will do to survive. With a few exceptions (like Lucy) the characters are soulless scrabblers for advantage. You root for them anyway, because you root for survival. Bacigalupi has crafted an addictive, noir-ish plot around the hunt for an ancient deed to water rights, but the real question is whether the characters will make it to the end of the book alive.
Maria, a teenage Texan refugee, is the survival instinct personified. She pities those with “old eyes,” like Lucy, who “thinks the world is supposed to be one way, but it’s not.” A small fish in this merciless world, her plans are undercut at every turn and her body brutalized by the narcos and other sharks. She hardens, eventually shooting someone in the back to get to Vegas. Looking at her victim, she finds she cannot bring herself to care, wondering “if something was broken inside her now, with all the things she’d seen and done.” When we say we are dooming future generations by letting climate change go unchecked, what we don’t mean, but maybe should, is that our offspring will be Marias — children of a scarce new world, dull to the suffering of others, compassion having become an unaffordable luxury.
Bacigalupi makes clear, however, that we still have choices. The characters think back bitterly to what could have been done differently. The arcologies serve a twofold purpose: symbols of the 1%’s cockroach-like self-preservation, and also of what could have been built sooner, for everyone.
Bacigalupi has no crystal ball; he is merely intensifying the scarcity, displacement, stratification and ecological devastation that are already underway. Between 2012 and 2014, the group Texas Border Volunteers counted 259 dead migrant bodies in the desert of a single Texas county. “They’re all homicides,” volunteer Mike ‘Doc’ Vickers told The Daily Mail. “The coyotes, a lot of times, by the time they get to the checkpoint, or even north of the checkpoint, run off and leave them [to die].”
It’s not so much the specter of extreme water scarcity that U.S. readers will find unsettling — although this book makes you crave water like Mad Men makes you crave whiskey — as the way The Water Knife flips our scripts of who deserves basic security and who doesn’t. The tragedies it chronicles are already happening today; they’re just not happening to us—yet.
Jessica Stites is Editorial Director of In These Times, where she runs the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and edits stories on labor, neoliberalism, Wall Street, immigration, mass incarceration and racial justice, among other topics. Before joining ITT, she worked at Ms. magazine and George Lakoff’s Rockridge Institute. Her writing has been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Ms., Bitch, Jezebel, The Advocate and AlterNet. She is board secretary of the Chicago Reader and a former Chicago Sun-Times board member.