An easy trip
I left Thibodaux, Louisiana at 9 a.m. on July 27, 2022. An hour later, I arrived at Isle de Jean Charles where I had a vision of the world a hundred years in the future.
Thibodaux is a handsome town — a sort-of miniature New Orleans, but without the music, art, architecture, or sophistication of the city 60 miles to the east. What it has is a tight grid of streets, canopied sidewalks, two or three Creole restaurants, and a welcoming scale. Parking is easy and a walk through downtown takes about 15 minutes.
Heading south on Highway 24, I passed the chain stores, car dealers, banks, funeral homes, fast food joints, and emergency clinics characteristic of the American strip. They disappeared by the time I reached Shrieverer (pop. 5,700), distinguished by its looming water tank. Next is Gray (pop. 7,900), discretely announced by a small, green sign at the town’s entrance. After that comes unincorporated, but aspirationally named Bayou Blue. The song “Blue Bayou” was written by Texans Joe Melson and the great Roy Orbison, and first recorded by Orbison in 1973. But it was Linda Ronstadt – from Arizona — who made the tune transcendent. Judging by the lyrics, Blue Bayou is a veritable Land of Cockayne:
I’m going back some day
Come what may to Blue Bayou
Where you sleep all day
And the catfish play on Blue Bayou…
I’ll never be blue, my dreams come true on Blue Bayou
Bayou Blue however, is an unlikely candidate for utopia. It’s visually indistinguishable from the awkward, urban-rural mix surrounding it; and far from being famous for playful catfish, it’s notorious for grisly crimes. In 1981, a man from there set fire to a local discotheque, killing five people. In an age with fewer mass murders, the story made the NYTimes. Bayou Blue was also the last home of Ronald Dominique, who between 1997 and 2006, bound, raped, and killed 23 young men, nearly all of them poor and Black. This was no criminal mastermind. He made little effort to cover-up his crimes and left evidence everywhere. And yet it took police nine years and 15 victims before they concluded there was a serial killer loose. Dominique was only identified as a suspect in the summer of 2006 after a man escaped his clutches and ran straight to the police. It was another six months before the he was finally arrested. He quickly confessed his crimes.
Continuing south, I passed through Presquile, crossed and re-crossed several bayous, and saw idle shrimp boats and fishing boats. A single-lane bridge under repair in Bourg forced a detour; my satnav sputtered, but so long as I was going south, I was fine. The sun was shining, traffic was light, and the landscape – big sky, low horizon, canals, bayous, dikes, and bridges – remined me of the Netherlands. I uselessly remembered my only sentence of Dutch: “Kijk voor fietsen!” (“Watch out for bicycles!”)
Past Montegut, Terrebonne Parish, (elevation 7 feet), the houses become fewer in number and further apart. Many are ruined — crushed and twisted with beams poking out like a sculpture by Mark di Suvero. They are the product however of tropical storms intensified by global warming. Hurricane Ida, which came ashore last year at nearby Port Fourchon, had sustained winds of almost 150 miles per hour. The year before, it was Laura, another Category 4 storm. Parts of the parish still haven’t recovered from Katrina back in 2005.
A few miles later, I crossed a causeway called Island Road, protected on both sides by riprap, but nevertheless partly submerged. On my way to Isle de Jean Charles, a derrick was dredging sand and water from the west side of the causeway and depositing it on the east. On my way back, it was the other way around.
“This is the way the world ends…”
Finally, I arrived on Isle de Jean Charles. The island is the ancestral home of the Isle de Jean Charles Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw. They arrived here in the 1830s following the Indian Removal Act which forcibly displaced Indigenous Americans from the southeast U.S. to territories west of the Mississippi River. The population on the island was initially quite small, just a few dozen. They subsisted on fishing, hunting, harvesting of native plants, and limited cultivation. By the early 20th Century, they numbered in the low hundreds, barely increasing in subsequent decades. They suffered the usual indignities of Native Americans: suppression of Indigenous and creole languages, discrimination, political disenfranchisement, educational segregation, poverty, and denial of infrastructure investment.
Worst of all was the disappearance of the land itself. The growth of the oil industry beginning in the 19-teens meant the digging of canals, dredging of bayous, and building of levees, all of which prevented the deposition of silt from the Mississippi River. Without it, there was no way to replenish marsh land lost to natural compaction. Even more consequential was the continued extraction of oil and natural gas, which caused still more subsidence. On top of everything, global warming – which has recently accelerated — led to sea level rise, stronger hurricanes, and bigger storm surges. The elevation of Isle de Jean Charles, now just two feet above sea-level, is sinking 0.5 inches per year. Formerly 22,000 acres, the settlement is now 320 acres. Within a generation or less, Isle de Jean Charles will disappear, like Atlantis, beneath the waves.
At land’s end, the view south is at once sublime and restful: Water and grass, grass and water, as far as the eye can see. I felt unmoored, as if I might drift out to sea at any moment. But I also experienced a surcease of pressure, a pleasurable calm. Maybe the end of civilization wouldn’t be so bad? T.S. Eliot’s verse came to mind:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
But then I reconsidered. In 100 years — if we remain on our current trajectory — tipping point after tipping point will have been passed. The global average temperatures will be 10 degrees hotter than now, and sea level 10 meters higher. The Gulf Coast will begin at the former 1-10 freeway; the Atlantic Coast at the I-95.
In fact, this “hothouse earth” scenario, or something similar, may arrive sooner. There is already evidence that five key, climate regulators have been compromised: the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, the Atlantic Meridional ocean current, the Amazon rainforest, global permafrost, and the oscillating weather pattern called El Niño and La Niña. The destruction of these would be catastrophic – much more like a bang than a whimper. If that happens, the end of capitalist civilization will resemble the harrowing dystopia of J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) more than the “epoch of rest” in William Morris’s News From Nowhere (1890). In Ballard’s novel, climate refugees, pirates, and scientists struggle over increasingly scarce resources. They rarely venture out in daytime when temperatures reach 130 degrees, and they struggle to find fuel sufficient to keep the air conditioners running. London and other cities are submerged deep under water, and non-human animals quickly evolve to dominate hothouse Earth:
“The alligators, [many of them over 25 feet long], congregated like hounds around their master, the wheeling cry of the sentinel birds overhead, Nile plover and stone curlew, piercing the morning air. More and more of the alligators joined the pack, cruising shoulder to shoulder in a clockwise spiral, until at least two thousand were present, a massive group incarnation of reptilian evil.”
On my way off the Isle de Jean Charles, just before reaching the causeway, I saw one of the two hurricane survival pods on the island. As their name suggests, they are last-chance escapes for when the water rises faster than people can flee. They’re obviously designed to float, and their bright orange color makes them visible against the blue-gray sea. But the color was also chosen, I think, to make them seem modern in a mid-century sort of way. The pods are a cross between
comic book flying saucers and the Gemini space capsules, with a dash of 2001 – A Space Odyssey thrown in. The climate refugees who clamber aboard will thus be tethered to a fantasy of the very capitalist modernity that drowned their homes and destroyed their way of life.
Fossil fuel refugees
The residents of Isle de Jean Charles are fortunate in a way most others threatened by flooding are not. In 2016, the Louisiana Department of Community Development received a grant of $48 million from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to resettle current and former residents of the island on a 515-acre former sugar-cane field in Schrieverer (of water tower fame) 25 miles to the north. The goal was to ensure the long-term viability of the historic band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaws.
It hasn’t worked out entirely as planned. The houses at “New Isle” as it’s called – handsome, cracker-style ranches — are mostly finished now and residents have moved it, but the community hasn’t been restored. When I spoke to tribal chief Albert Naquin, he told me why. “The state got the money and wasted lots of it on useless engineering studies and other projects.” He continued: “That meant they didn’t have enough to pay for the homes of the people who left the island before the most recent hurricanes. The idea was to reunite the band, but they didn’t.” It’s also unclear if the promised enhancements – a tribal cultural center, nature trails, and other recreational facilities — will ever be completed. And even if they are, how do you re-create on a landlocked former sugar plantation, the lifeways of a foraging people who for generations lived beside the sea or on boats, and whose daily horizon was marshland and water?
Chief Naquin was also disturbed that government promises to forbid future development on the island have been broken. Rather than a nature or marine reserve, the island is now a place where non-indigenous people come to fish off newly built piers on Island Road. There are also plans for lavish, new, recreational fishing camps for executives and other well-paid employees of ConocoPhillips, Apache Corporation, and the Continental Land & Fur Company, owners of the wetlands surrounding Isle de Jean Charles. Chief Naquin takes little comfort from the fact that any such edifices will also eventually be washed away by the rising tides.
How much longer?
On the way back from Louisiana, my wife Harriet and I stopped in Pascagoula, Mississippi to meet with Cherokee Concerned Citizens (CCC), led by Barbara Weckeser, assisted by a great community organizer named Jennifer Crosslin. They are a diverse, mostly low-income community threatened by toxic waste, air pollution and flooding. They share a fence line with VT Halter Marine shipbuilding, (a subdivision of Singapore Technologies Engineering Ltd) which was fined in 2014 by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality for allowing sandblasting particles, motor oil and toxic paint into the air and into Bayou Casotte.
The penalty is especially significant since the MDEQ is not known for regulatory zeal.
Also nearby is a major Superfund site, the former Mississippi Phosphates Corporation, where 700 million gallons of radium contaminated gypsum and wastewater is buried beneath miles of plastic sheeting, astroturf, and dirt. And across the road from that is Chevron Oil. In addition to gasoline and motor oil, the Chevron plant manufactures benzene and xylene. Both are highly volatile and extremely toxic. Benzene has a sweet, aromatic, gasoline odor regularly detected by residents and recorded by air quality sensors. I smelled it when I got out of the car to take photographs near the entrance to the plant. Guards rushed out to chase me away; a pair of Chevron security trucks followed us closely to ensure I didn’t repeat my documentation. Jennifer who was driving, is used to this response; I was searching my phone for the number of an attorney.
The eight CCC residents we met with were middle-aged and older. Several were afflicted by auto-immune and other diseases that may have been caused by the toxins in the local air and water. One resident, a conservatively dressed, late middle age white guy named Mike Divine, said to me that he’d worked in the petrochemical industry for decades, and helped his company make a lot of money. “How much longer,” he asked, “should they be allowed to operate while my grandchild is subject to poisonous air and water? There are days when the small is so bad I have to send him inside. And even then, I don’t know if it’s safe.” These residents want their homes bought out so they can move some place safer.
There are thousands of communities, in addition to those on Isle de Jean Charles and Pascagoula, that need to move out of harm’s way. And as the seas rise, there will be many thousands more. However, there is currently no agency of the U.S. government solely focused on climate and environmental migration, though there are halting and underfunded efforts by FEMA and HUD. Nor is there any EPA administrator, Attorney General, or congressional committee focused on making the fossil fuel companies pay for the land submerged, lives upended, and health destroyed by their businesses. These companies have made an average profit of $3 billion per day for the last 50 years while ruining the climate. As Mike Divine said to me: “How much longer” will we let it continue?”