Cory Doctorow, THE LOST CAUSE

Cory Doctorow’s latest science fiction novel, THE LOST CAUSE, is a book about both the politics and the technics of responding to climate change. The novel is set in the near future, perhaps thirty years from now, in Burbank, California. Brooks, the narrator and protagonist, is a 19-year-old young white man, a high school graduate, who inherits a private house when his grandfather passes away. The grandfather, who raised Brooks after his parents died when he was 8, was a MAGA climate change denier; the two always argued. Now Brooks is entirely on his own.

The political background to the novel is important. In the time between our actual moment and the present of the novel, global warming has only become much worse than it is now. A progressive US President has passed comprehensive Green New Deal legislation, guaranteeing jobs and a reasonable income for all. The jobs guarantee mostly takes the form of temporary employment involving all sorts of environmental remediation. Brooks and his friends do not worry about long-term careers; they take these short-term jobs one after another, working hard but knowing not only that they are they economically secure, but also that their work offers our only hope for averting worldwide catastrophe.

Things are already really bad, with areas of the United States and other countries rendered uninhabitable due to heat, drought, and chemical pollution, and loads of people forced out of their homes and neighborhoods due to unviable conditions. The only hope these refugees have is to rely upon the goodwill of strangers: people in other regions who agree to take them in. In places like Southern California that are still functional for the time being, a lot of construction work is necessary, both to house these refugees, and to remediate and replace environmentally unviable practices and structures.

Brooks invites refugees into his home (which is the kind of 20th-century private residence that is way too big to house just a single person or small family), and eventually tears his house down in order to build a multiple-residence structure instead (a four-story building with two apartments big enough for a family on each floor). This can be done quickly and cheaply, thanks to advances in building technology: modular, prefabricated parts that are resilient and inexpensive, and easy enough to assemble together that the entire four-story building can be constructed by a crew of 15 people or so in less than a week. Doctorow, as is his wont, goes through all the technical details at almost excruciating length. Such is not my favorite sort of writing; but I think that it is justified here, because Doctorow needs to make the point (and succeeds in making it) that this is not fantasy, but something that will soon (if not quite yet) be realistic on a technological level. He convinces the reader that, in our society today, we have the expertise and the resources (without straining the environment yet further) to do things like this.

Even at best, Doctorow tells us, this is not a quick solution to climate change, nor even a quick fix for immediate emergency problems. It is rather an ongoing process, that Brooks and his friends can expect to continue for their entire lives. We are not given anything like utopia, but Doctorow’s vision is nonetheless hopeful rather than grim. The extensive Green New Deal provisions in the near-future of the novel are what make this sort of vision viable (in a way that “market-based solutions” are not). To avert climate catastrophe will require a lot of hard work, but in a way that involves feelings of satisfaction and solidarity. The alternative (deepening disruption of the climate) is too horrible to consider.

The point of Doctorow’s novel is that there are no technological obstacles to such relative improvement (alleviation and remediation, if not complete reversal of global warming and widespread pollution). Rather, the obstacles are political. Brooks and his cohort in general seem both eager and idealistic. They know that the danger of climate change is undeniable, but that responses are available that are not futile. The problem is that there are way too many people who are trying to stop them.

The plutes (plutocrats) and their allies seek to block the necessary changes, because they don’t want to give up their privileges, their wealth, and their power. They think that they can wait out the climate disasters, with their power and money intact, regardless of what happens to everyone else. We meet them in the novel in the form of the Flotilla, a seasteading enterprise of the sort advocated by extreme libertarians; people live on ships they own, sized from small vessels to aircraft carriers, that remain more than 12 miles from shore in order to escape the juristiction of the US or any other government. This has its attractive side, if you are one of the owners — but not if you are one of the workers keeping those ships running, or one of the multitude who cannot find a place upon them. China Mieville has written at length about these false paradises; Doctorow only gives them a subordinate focus, but shows well enough how they can only be the solution for a small privileged class.

The more immediate danger faced by Brooks and his friends is that of the MAGAs — mostly older white men, middle class and well-to-do. who are embittered about the changes that they see around them, and which threaten their sense of superiority. Brooks’ grandfather dies early in the book; but all his cronies are still around, and they have automobiles (one of the luxuries they refuse to give up), not to mention weapons (AK-15s and the like) to enforce their anger. They obstruct change in any way they can. from swarming political meetings in order to outshout their opponents, to seizing public spaces in order to enforce what they consider to be their property rights, to bombing government buildings, to making “citizens’ arrests” of Brooks and his friends in order to stop them from building a place to house refugees. They are aided behind the scenes by the plutes, who employ lawyers invoking spurious grounds to crack down on new housing construction and other climate alleviation procedures.

The novel has something of a repetitive structure. Each time Brooks and his friends are in the process of doing something useful, the MAGAs show up to stop them. This happens again and again, in nearly every chapter. It is frustrating and perhaps a bit repetitious, but Doctorow is right to compose the novel in this way, because it reinforces his double points: first, that even at the best, climate remediation and rights for climate refugees will involve extensive difficulties; and second, that political divisions in the US are so severe and extreme at this point, that any good faith attempt to actually alleviate climate conditions can easily lead us to the brink of civil war.

Doctorow offers no good solutions for countering the MAGAs; they are almost certainly a minority, but they have money and guns, and backers among the rich and within the media. No matter what we do, they will not go away. Doctorow even bends over backwards to get us to understand that these people are not just somehow intrinsically evil. They have their own desires and demands, which make sense to them; they have their own vision of the good life which they used to have, and which they are not wrong to see as slipping away. (If your sense of a fulfilling life includes an enormous mansion and a gas-guzzling vehicle that allows you to go anywhere and everywhere without obstruction, then you may well find the new environmental constraints to be a limit upon your freedom; and you will probably blame young people and foreigners and people of color for your torment). Brooks, to his credit, tries to understand where they are coming from; and Doctorow pushes the point that, if we simply demonize these people, we run the risk of becoming as vicious and intolerant as they are.

I could probably go on at considerably more length detailing the ins and outs of all these situations, and tracing how thoughtful the novel is in facing them frankly, rather than pushing them under the carpet or simply arguing them away. But I think I have done enough to explain what is at stake. The novel is at once remarkably optimistic, since it shows us ways that we might really be able to alleviate the oncoming disaster of global warming and its accompanying dangers. But at the same time, it also leaves me (or leaves a side of me) in despair, because it refuses to diminish the dangers and near-impossibilities that we face. I will not spoil the novel’s conclusion here, but only say that it powerfully balances the triumph of Brooks and his friends with an ecological disaster that they could never have imagined.