The underpass

Joseph Cohn updates our visions of biblical floods.

The storm raged all night. The refugees trembled as the wind howled beneath the bridge. Soon the water rose. For two hours it roared through the underpass. Along the concrete walls black shapes writhed in the primordial darkness. The underpass became a vault of screams to echo the agony of the dying earth. By dawn the flooding had ended and thirty-three people had died.

In the morning the refugees climbed down to scavenge and search for the dead. They cleared the ground and sent the dead into the sea, and then they gathered to eat out of cold, dented cans. Afterward they rested against the walls and watched the world with mute eyes. Their figures faded into the gloom, until they were no more than shadows of anguish. No one spoke, and no children ran at play. The last child living beneath the bridge had died three weeks ago.

Around midday a wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair stood at the center of the underpass. From a ragged book he read to the refugees of prophets and dead kings and a time when the earth burned. But above all else he spoke of an empire called Babylon. Of how it fell at the height of glory, its towers and walls crumbling to the earth. The refugees heard him, but they did not listen.

A month later the underpass was silent and the people were gone. Whether they fled to some distant Elysian field or perished beneath the bridge was unknown. Their fates like their origins were lost, their existences forgotten. All was still but for the ocean. It loomed just beyond the bridge, gray and calm and ever shifting. A mercurial plain beneath whose surface lay the ruins of Babylon. A sepulcher fit to house all human folly.


Joseph Cohn [email] is a high school student from Southern California. Growing up close to the ocean, he has seen how all human activities —ranging from fishing to littering — can have harm our oceans.

A family farm in the future

Kai Olson-Sawyer channels a farmer’s experience in adaptation.

NB: Bill Mattson, a Minnesota farm owner-operator, sent this letter to his children when he passed along the family farm.

September 6, 2052

Dear Liz, Dean and Mary,

As I near retirement in my 74th year (not soon enough for you worrying about Dad’s old bones), I wanted to offer a brief history of Mattson Acres Farm. Although you always laugh at me when I do it, I dusted off my trusty keyboard to give you a sense of the changes that have befallen our farm over the last 40 years. While I know that Dean is wavering on farming and Mary is off to other things, I want you all, not just Liz, to understand this land’s past because it’s also our family’s past. You also know how much I love keeping records for posterity’s sake (and to tell a good story).

It starts in 2011 when your mom and I were able to save the money to buy that parcel of Nordinger’s land and make it our own after leasing it for years. Besides marrying your mom and witnessing your births, that was the proudest day of my life. Mom always said that Good Thunder was a good luck place to farm.

The first 451 acres was about split between corn and soybean. We were fairly profitable with the high commodity prices in the years before and after acquiring that land. Although prices softened later in the teens, the Big Dry really hurt.

I’m sure you all remember how stressful that time was with record-low rain and unbearable heat from 2021-2025. Those wilted fields left us just eking out an existence with terrible yields that put us in the red. Mom was wise to keep pushing us towards more crop insurance. We also decided to adjust our crop mix, which was our first step down that road.

We were hoping for rain, and eventually it arrived. Once that rain began to fall in February 2026, it never seemed to stop. At first the Big Wet was a boon and made up for the moisture loss and increased crop yields. That year was decent, but the problems were soon rising with the Cobb River. Never will I forget when the Cobb and Maple Rivers met on our land. In all, we saw a record 70 inches of rain in 2027. Over half of our crops were lost to flood and much of the rest succumbed to root rot and fungus.

sunk_tractor_usdaThe amount of water we saw on our land was staggering and something I never could have imagined. The nub of it is that we’re lucky our farm survived. With insurance, your mom’s job at the library and a little luck, we made it.

Water is always a problem, but we knew we had to act in a big way. After all those years of loading up our soil with fertilizers, baked in by the Big Dry, the torrential runoff from our fields picked up that pollution and put it right back into the rivers and groundwater. Good thing I’ve always been adamant about regularly testing our well water because in 2028 and 2029 the nitrate levels were sky high. If we weren’t aware of those toxins and fortunate to afford that reverse osmosis filtration, who knows how badly we could’ve been sickened.

Between our fouled water and the erratic weather, we knew we had to act on what Charlie at extension services called “drought and deluge.” Even though the weather is always changing, it was evident that we couldn’t count on the past for any indication of the extreme weather or precipitation that could strike. Climate change was tearing us up and we decided we were going to fight back (and hard).

Despite uncertainty, we worked with extension to come up with a solid plan. At the time we bought our final thousand acres I’d been playing with different crop mixes. I made a commitment then to see it through. Corn, yellow pea, alfalfa, soy, lentil—I tried it all and more to varying success. Continuous tinkering with the mix and rotation of the crops became so integrated into the health and well-being of our crop yields, our soil’s water and nutrient retention, and the farm’s economic viability, that it’s of the utmost importance for the farm’s resilience. Not only does this fine-tuning concern our cash crops, but it turns out that finding the right mix for our cover crops is just as essential. The diversity of crops that we produce has enabled our farm to withstand the higher temperatures, pests and the whipsaw dry and wet times we experience. Our farm has worked with Mother Nature to adapt to whatever is thrown our way.

The other major undertaking on our farm was taking the land out of production through buffers and the conservation easement in the early 2030s. It was a hard choice and a burden even with USDA grants, but preserving those 300 acres for wetlands helped clean up nitrate pollution from our water and our neighbors’ water downstream. We had the foresight to head off the federal 2041 Green Waters Act and get a handle on our pollution numbers before we had to report them, and as you know, we’ve always beat the nutrient diet standards. It was heartening when the Garcia’s joined our easement, which really started a trend around here. (We’re trendsetters!) Opening that land to duck hunting with assistance from the Waterfowl Association has been a real economic win.

All I can say is that we’ve worked hard to sustain this farm now and into the future. To keep the farm going under constantly changing conditions, we need to watch, learn, act, repeat: It never ends. That’s all we can do to deliver the best possible outcomes. I hope you keep farming to the end of the century.

Love always,
Dad


beach4_twt Kai Olson-Sawyer [email twitter] is a writer and senior research and policy analyst for GRACE Communications Foundation.

Jakarta’s sinking, filthy future

Roanne van Voorst looks deeper into Jakarta’s “revitalization”.

According to the politicians working in Jakarta, Indonesia’s megacity capital, this city is turning into `the place to be’. By 2018, they promise that a city known for its slums, floods and garbage will be `100% slum free, flood free and garbage free’. It will thus be clean, modern and attractive for both inhabitants and visitors, who might especially enjoy the green running tracks that will have been developed alongside formarly clogged rivers, and the seaside residential neighbourhoods in the North, where one can shop and live in style. Ideally, Jakarta’s great transformation will be complete by 2018 (when the Asia Games take place in the city), but there may be some work left to do.

As unrealistic as these announcements may seem to people who have visited Jakarta, they should by no means be considered hollow phrases. The current generation of politicians in Jakarta don’t just talk; they are actually getting things done. Everybody who has recently visited the city will have noticed that politicians, advisors and developers are making  enormous efforts to change Jakarta’s negative image. Slums have been torn down; roads have been constructed; Dutch water experts are building a 32 km-long wall to protect the Northern coast from a rising sea;  programmes have been initiated to dredge garbage from canals; parks have been created; and run-down colonial houses are being demolished and replaced by Grande Plazas.

So the problem is not that nothing happens in Jakarta. The problem is that what is happening is of no use because none of these programs address the root causes of Jakarta’s challenges. The sad fact is that Jakarta’s future is more likely to include more, larger floods, deeper poverty for slum residents, and tides of feces flowing past seaside villas. The impacts of climate changes — more rainfall and rising sea levels — might make you think of Jakarta as `the city you definitely want to avoid’ in the future.

Let me give some context to that rather gloomy vision. Jakarta’s already serious flooding problems are caused by multiple factors, of which urban mismanagament is perhaps most important. For decades, politicians have prioritized commercial developments over public services. The lack of an effective garbage collection system means that most households dump their rubbish in the rivers. Affordable housing shortages have led the city’s poor to build their houses in the river’s flood plains. Only half of households receive piped water, so everyone else pumps groundwater. The resulting land subsidence means the city is sinking by 3 to 20 cm per year — a problematic trend even before considering the additional danger of sea  levels that are rising by 6 mm per year in Jakarta Bay. Finally, remember that falling groundwater and land elevations are damaging the city’s drainage, drinking water and sewerage systems.

The current trend towards short-term, superficial solutions might seem to be improving the city’s livability, but they are merely sweeping real problems under the carpet. These problems can be solved, but solutions demand long-term political commitments to providing piped water, sewerage, and social housing.

Building a wall to protect from sea level rise will not help if the land continues to subside. Dredging canals will not protect the city from  flooding if people continue to live where the river needs to flood and dump their garbage in canals. New villas will not provide safe and glamorous lifestyles if rising rivers dump faeces and garbage on their lawns.


marijn-smuldersRoanne van Voorst is a postdoctoral researcher at the International Institute of Social Sciences, Erasmus University, The Hague, the Netherlands. In 2014 she obtained her PhD (with distinction) at the Amsterdam Institute of Social Science Research on responses of slum dwellers in Jakarta, Indonesia to the risks of recurrent floods and evictions. She has also done research on the social effects of climate changes in Greenland. Currently Roanne is involved in the research project ”When disaster meets conflict. Disaster response of humanitarian aid and local state and non-state institutions in different conflict scenarios”.

Addendum (8 June 2017): “Understanding the allure of big infrastructure: Jakarta’s Great Garuda Sea Wall Project

Manhattan Pirates

Luna Lovewell’s future still benefits from seaborne trade.

From nearby balconies, the men manning the guns cheered as The Stork came sailing down 7th Avenue loaded with new cargo. Children scrambled across the makeshift bridges and ropeways to follow the boat heading towards the docks over what used to be Washington Square Park. Captain Andrews was one of the few men old enough to remember what it had looked like before the floods. The lively mix of tourists, intoxicated college students, and wealthy yuppies. The blaring taxi horns, live music, and just the general hustle and bustle of life in New York city. Now it was silent except for the waves lapping against crumbling buildings and the call of gulls from overhead.

As soon as the ship was tied up, the forlorn docks sprang to life. Men who’d been desperate for work seemed to just materialize out of thin air until there was a whole horde of them helping to unload each and every box. There had once been a pretty stable trade in salvaged goods around here, but the slowly dying industry had fallen from its last leg over the past year or so. The most easily accessible parts of the city had been pretty much picked clean of everything useful, and the new cities on dry land had begun to manufacture their own goods again. So traders with no goods and no market were forced to find a new career in piracy.

“Where’d you go?” One of the boys called. Captain Andrews recognized the young Robinson boy; that face full of freckles was unmistakeable. “You go to the Mississippi Bay?” Though it was a long trip from New York, it was a popular destination for the other crews due to the booming trade between the Appalachian and Rocky cities. Trade ships were plentiful, but so were naval ships ready to blow pirates out of the water.

Andrews shook his head and grinned. “East, my boy! The settlements in the Pyrenees are producing like you wouldn’t believe!”

“Any fruit?” called out a woman from the docks. “Citrus?” A whole chorus of other women clustered around, eager to also hear the answer. They’d managed to start growing beans and a few other crops on some of the skyscraper roofs, but anything with a decent amount of Vitamin C refused to grow here. Scurvy affected nearly every family.

“Sorry, no citrus. But lots of other foodstuffs, including some fresh meat!” That got a rousing cheer from the men scrambling across the docks with heavy boxes; livestock wasn’t a common sight in NYC nowadays, and as a former fishing vessel, The Stork was one of the few ships left in the city with a refrigerated cargo hold.

Captain Andrews turned to his first mate. “Make sure it all gets accounted for,” he said. What kind of pirate would he be if the dock crew was able to steal the same goods that he’d already stolen. “And get it to market as soon as possible. I’m going home.”

“Ay, sir.” He would have liked to return to his wife too, but that’s the benefit of being captain and not first mate.

Captain Andrews made his way toward Midtown, through the markets of vendors all selling the same rusted appliances and useless knick-knacks. He stopped to chat a few times, having gotten to know most of the city’s merchants through various dealings over the years. But they lost interest in the conversation with him when they learned that the first mate would be distributing the cargo. Just as well; he had better things to do than talk to them.

Finally Captain Andrews arrived home. After nearly 2 months at sea, he was eager to stretch his legs and bolted up the concrete stairs toward the apartment. It was a posh penthouse that overlooked the flat square of water that used to be Central Park. Someone very wealthy had once owned this place, and they’d no doubt evacuated to their second home in Vail or Gstaad or some other mountain destination when the floods came. But it served well for Captain Andrews and his family.

His wife rushed to put her arms around his neck, and his daughter came toddling into the atrium shortly after. He scooped the little girl up in a hug and held them both tight. “I’ve missed you both so much.” And from his pocket, he withdrew the prize that he’d hidden even from his own crew. A perfect, fat, juicy orange that he’d taken off of the captain of the ship they’d robbed off the coast of what used to be France. Just the smell of it had nearly driven Captain Andrews mad on the way back across the Atlantic, but it was totally worth it to see both of their faces light up. “This is for you.”


Luna Lovewell (aka W.P. Kimball) writes often on reddit/writingprompts, where this piece originally appeared. She has published a collection of her stories as [Prompt Me].

Last man in England

Sarah Dixon writes of a man’s desire for home.

‘Confirmation from the PharmaCo Court today, that judges have not yet made a determination in the case of Mr Ronald Balcock, the so called ‘last man in England’. A decision is expected before close of business today as to whether Mr Balcock will be forcibly evacuated, or allowed to remain to face the incoming tide.’

Ty sighed. His parents were glued to the viewscreen, like all the older generation. He didn’t get it. Why were they still so obsessed with what happened on Old Earth? They should move on, look to the future. That’s why they’d left, after all: So there was a future.

The tablet computer in his lap showed the same footage as the viewscreen on two thirds of its display, the remaining third showed thumbnails of related vids with more information. He clicked on the top one, turning up the volume so he could hear the narration over the noise of the room.

‘The PharmaCo Fleet left Old Earth on June 30th, 2045, transporting colonists from the polluted and dangerous conditions of their home world and out, to create a better life. When National and Global Government failed, the Corporations stepped in, funding the development of space craft and the colonisation of new planet-’

Ty rolled his eyes. Yes, he’d heard all that before. He glanced up and checked the room, making sure his Grandparents hadn’t heard the voice over. The last thing he needed was his Grandad going off on one about how the Corporations had them over a barrel; how they were all slaves now, bought and sold. His Dad would only get angry, shouting about how freedom didn’t mean a thing if you were dead.

Ty didn’t get why they all got so upset about Old Earth. He knew it had been a nice place once, he’d seen Vids of the animals and their habitats. He especially liked Tigers and Lions, and all the other big cats. The thing was though, Old Earth wasn’t like that anymore. There wasn’t even much left of it now, the water levels were so high. Grandad had come from England, and now there was barely enough of that left for one man to live on. Ty tapped the screen to start the next Vid.

‘Who is Ronald Balcock, and why won’t he leave?’ a slick woman presenter said, as a picture of the old man who was the cause of all the fuss appeared on the screen.

Ty thought he looked quite nice, not a stubborn old fool like his Mum always called him. The presenter was talking about how Balcock came from a family of farmers who had always lived in the same place. That he felt a tie to the land. Fidgeting, Ty looked back up to the main screen, just in case anything had changed.

It hadn’t. The cameras still showed a derelict looking farm house on the top of a hill, surrounded on all sides by water. There were evac copters circling, waiting on the order to take the man from his property. Ty huffed, sending a strand of hair puffing away from his face. Boring.

On his personal screen, the presenter was talking over some of the reasons people had given in the past for staying on Old Earth. There were a few groups who had been given permission to stay. Lunatics, Dad called them. Grandad agreed with him for some, the ones who were staying because they thought it was God’s will, but not for others. The ones who agreed with him that colony life was nothing but slavery.

Ty didn’t think it was slavery. They had a nice life here, a good home and plenty of food. He went to school, and he had a job all lined up for when he left too. He was contracted to work for the company, so were his kids if they didn’t pay off the debt the family owed for being brought here. What was wrong with that though? They wouldn’t have got here without the help from the Corporations!

The population of Old Earth was now just a few thousand people. Cranks and crazies, clinging on to the past in the high places, his Mum said. She always sounded sad about it, though.

A noise alerted Ty to a change on the main screen, and he tapped pause on his own device to give it his full attention. One of the evac copters had flown down and landed outside of Balcock’s house. The old man came out of his front door, waving his arm in a clear gesture that he wanted them to leave but the uniformed officers of Corporate Enforcement didn’t take the hint.

The screen cleared without warning, the camera view changed to a first person perspective; the camera of the officer approaching the house. The wind sounded fierce through his microphone, and Ty leaned forward on his seat as he got a close up view of the terrible conditions of Old Earth.

‘Get away! Leave me alone!’ Balcock was shouting.

‘Mr Balcock, The PharmaCo Court has instructed me to ask you a series of questions. Your answers will be live broadcast to the court and serve as your testimony where it will be used to determine whether you may remain on their property.’

‘It’s not their property!’ Balcock argued. ‘It’s mine, my families! Always has been.’

The officer ignored him and carried on, ‘Mr Balcock, do you believe that it is the plan of a higher power that you remain here?’

‘No!’

‘Mr Balcock, do you believe that humanity is a contagion that should be confined to earth?’

‘No!’

‘Mr Balcock, are you a member of any group which has been granted legal permission to remain on Old Earth?’

‘No!’

‘Mr Balcock, do you identify yourself with the group FirstEarth?’

Ty pricked up his ears at that question. FirstEarth were a group of terrorists, they carried out attacks in the colonies because they were so angry about the Corporations helping people get away.

‘No, you bloody idiot! Why don’t you stop asking questions and just…go away?’

‘Mr Balcock, do you have any comments for the court to support your decision to remain here in the light of the clear and present danger to your life by the rising water levels and atmospheric pollution?’

The old man switched in a moment from being angry and aggressive to a slump shouldered rag doll.

‘Fights gone out of him,’ Grandma said quietly.

The whole family fell silent, all other screens muted as they watched the drama unfolding on the main viewscreen.

‘This is my home,’ Balcock said, his voice breaking. ‘A man should have the right to remain in his home, to die there if he wants to. You don’t have a right to just take me away from the place I love. My heart’s here.’

‘Your heart?’ the officer asked, puzzled.

‘My whole life, my memories…’ tears formed in the old man’s eyes, his voice breaking. ‘My wife. My wife is buried in the back garden. Please…please don’t make me leave her. I just want to stay here. I’m not bothering anyone.’

Ty watched, frozen, as the old man fell to his knees and sobbed. He’d never seen a grown up cry like that before. It made him feel uneasy. He looked around the room for comfort from his family, and saw tears were rolling down all their cheeks too.

‘I think that concludes Mr Balcock’s testimony,’ the officer snapped, and the camera cut back to the long view. The old man appeared tiny, knelt before the large man in his bulky uniform.

‘And now we wait for the Court’s decision,’ the news presenter said smoothly. ‘Balcock has received invitations from all of the groups legally allowed to remain on Old Earth but he has refused them all. He has made no statement as to why, but we presume it is because of this man’s extraordinary attachment to his native land.’

Silence fell then, only the whirring noise of the evac copters as they continued to circle the building. Ty wriggled over on the sofa to sit closer to his Mum who wrapped an arm around him and pulled him in tight.

‘And the Court’s decision is in! Mr Balcock will be forcibly evacuated from his property for his own safety.’

His Grandparents exploded into angry words, his Father immediately arguing with them. They all spoke at once so Ty couldn’t make out what was being said, but in any case, his attention was focused on the screen.

The Corporate Enforcement Officer seemed to be speaking to Mr Balcock, but the old man was still knelt down and shaking his head. The Officer pulled a weapon from its holster at his waist, checked a setting and then leveled it at the old man. He said something else, and Ty wondered why they weren’t playing the audio this time. Then there was a dull, popping noise and the old man slumped to the ground.

Immediately the officer moved towards him, checking his pulse and then signalling to the copter. More officers came out with a stretcher, loading Balcock onto it and carrying him back towards their craft.

‘Well, that’s it then,’ said Grandpa. His voice was cracked; his cheeks damp with tears. ‘Last man in England, and he’s gone.’

‘God bless him,’ muttered Grandma.

Ty rested his head against his mother and watched, hearing her let out her own sad sigh. She kissed him on the top of the head and gave him a squeeze as she whispered, ‘Last man in England…’


DixonSarah Dixon is a prolific writer of short stories, usually Science Fiction or Fantasy but always with a hint of wonder. After spending her life wanting to write, but never reaching her own lofty standards she read the advice ‘Finish first, edit later’ and finally made it to the end of a chapter. She hasn’t stopped since. A wife and mother of two, it was the desire to write stories that challenged the lure of video games that led her to write her first children’s novel. Alfie Slider vs the Shape Shifter is an action adventure for 9-12-year-olds, coming late 2016 from SilverWood books. When not writing, Sarah enjoys working with schools to engage children with creative writing including delivering her workshop about social commentary in Sci-Fi titled ‘How Aliens Changed the World.’