From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
There is no indication, at first, that climate change has affected the world of The Private Eye. Brian K. Vaughan’s brilliant 2015 comic series first mentions a “Great Flood” not in the context of the rising oceans, but the internet. The story begins in 2076, when cars levitate but there is no World Wide Web. Way back in ‘16, we are told, the digital cloud burst wide open, spilling out all those deleted party photos, angry DMs, late-night “U up?” texts, and embarrassing web searches to the entire world. Since everything about every identity was exposed, people hide their faces in public. Anyone leaving the house wears some type of disguise — whether holographic camouflage reserved for those willing to pay top dollar, a false epidermis, or simply a shoddy mask smelling of three-day-old sweat. Think cosplay, every day.
Vaughan's story is set in a futuristic Los Angeles, so no matter what they’re wearing, it has to be hot outside. Very hot. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, predicted five years ago that by 2100, it’ll be between 2 and 9.7 degrees warmer worldwide than it is today — and we’re already breaking temperature records every year. But there is no sign that the characters in The Private Eye are living in a noticeably warmer climate. That is, until about halfway through, when we finally see the “Wonderwall.”
I'm not talking about that awful Oasis song from the ‘90s. The Wonderwall is a gargantuan dam standing right on top of the Santa Monica beach. It shields Southern California from being swallowed whole by a Pacific Ocean expanded by melted glaciers. Elsewhere in the world, famine and chaos followed the rising waters. But in America, surely in anticipation of the crisis to come, the Wonderwall was completed around 2051 to shield us.
There are a lot of disturbing elements in The Private Eye, including the conceit of journalists replacing law enforcement. But, dystopian as it is, it didn’t foresee a President Donald Trump, who, two months into his term, seems hell-bent on doing everything within his power to fuck up the environment. He’s a big reason why that wall is the only thing in The Private Eye that truly scared me. That part of the plot didn’t just seem prophetic — it felt like something we’ll actually need.
Why? Let’s start with the fact that the seas are already full, brimming on the edge of the tub and threatening to spill over. Nature’s own defenses against rising waters, marshes in places like Louisiana and the Everglades, are eroding at exponential rates due to a warming planet. “A football field of land, on average,” wrote CNN columnist John D. Sutter last year, “falls into the Gulf each hour.” Miami, which has a low sea level and sits on a bed of porous limestone, may be the first big city to be subsumed. Last summer, the Miami Herald reported heavy concern from those investing in real estate along the southern Florida coast. “Right here in Miami Beach, buyers see evidence of all the projects that are in progress to address potential flooding and other sea-level-rise issues,” local realtor Jill Hertzberg told the paper, which reported that “as much as $500 million” will be spent to install pumps, raise roads, and, yes, build seawalls across Miami Beach. Now, take that amount (or something close to it) and apply it to every city that sits on or near a coastline.
Trump, instead, is busy trying to build the most unnecessary wall in American history. The 30-foot-high barrier along the southern border of the United States was perhaps his central campaign promise, along with the fantasy that he could stick Mexico with the tab. However, reality is beginning to intrude now that he is in office. According to Trump’s own budget proposal, his monument to xenophobia would cost $2.6 billion in the 2018 fiscal year. The total bill will come to more than $21 billion, according to the Department of Homeland Security, and would take nearly his entire term to build if they started tomorrow. And no, Mexico isn’t paying. American taxpayers are, to the tune of $120 per household.
To make up for spending that much money on his vanity project, Trump has proposed budget cuts that are Dickensian in their brutality. The arts, the humanities, and even Big Bird would suffer greatly. Possibly Meals on Wheels, too. Many of those reductions would primarily screw those who voted for him. But even though Trump is a cartoon version of a “coastal elite,” the environmental cuts in his budget come off like a middle finger to those Americans facing the most danger from climate change. States like California and Oregon will continue doing their best to fight climate change in spite of him. But it is almost as if his budget, detailing his moral priorities, says, “Let them drown.”
Trump proposes to kill most, if not all, of the climate programs at the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency. He’d make cuts at NASA, NOAA, and several other federal entities charged with studying climate science. The decreases in funding say, quite clearly, that it isn’t enough that we don’t do anything to stop climate change. He’d rather we remain ignorant about it and unprepared for its effects. This matters because Trump doesn’t govern like a true climate change denier. Sure, he has entertained denier rhetoric, dismissing climate change as a “Chinese hoax” and “bullshit.” But the way his administration has approached the greatest dilemma and challenge of our time is to say it’s no big deal. Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, said last week that they won’t be spending money to research or fight climate change: “We consider that to be a waste of your money.”
Add all this to Trump’s talk about pulling us out of the Paris climate agreement and his executive orders targeting the environment, and the president’s treatment of the environment goes far beyond benign neglect. This is a choice Trump is making, to push the planet further toward extinction. If there is such a thing as a malignant dereliction of duty, a combination of evil intentions and lazy governance in one White House, this is it. Making this worse is his misguided approach to immigration. Ignoring the drastic effects that climate change has on global migration, Trump tells his voters that discriminatory bans on Muslims and refugees is the answer. That, and the border wall. Just keep them out. That will be a neat trick when people in the Philippines and other nations in the South Pacific, submerged by the swelling seas, start looking for a new place to live. Climate change exacerbates all the forces — war, famine, land shortages, you name it — that create a migrant crisis. The one going on now in Europe will look like a small family gathering by comparison.
So what to do? Build Wonderwalls on our coastlines? Why not? After all, Trump petitioned, in vain, to protect his own Ireland golf course from the effects of climate change. (How was he going to do it? Guess.) With this president, walls to block the climate change disaster to which he’s contributing might be the best we could ever expect. It feels smart, at least until the internet’s cloud bursts and all of the president’s impeachable secrets leak out, to put whatever passion he feels for building massive structures to better use than spending billions on one that isolates us from the rest of the world.
But walls to protect our coasts instead of our borders could still cut us off from the world. I’m not ruining any part of The Private Eye’s story when I mention that we do eventually get to see the other side of the Wonderwall. It’s the globalist villain who shows it to us. “I doubt you care what happens outside your own borders any more than the rest of your country does,” he says to a young American. “The rising tides, the famine, the chaos ... better to glance at the world through the narrow slits of a Halloween mask than to open your eyes wide to the truth.” Perhaps that's the problem with walls: Even when you think they're protecting you from some calamity, they never truly solve the problem at hand.