Extended review of The Deluge by Stephen Markley

Book cover of The Deluge by Stephen Markley showing sunlit blue sky with a few whispy clouds and a big rip running down the top half of the sky.Incredibly well narrated by Corey Brill, Danny Campbell, Gibson Frazier, Stephen Graybill, Soneela Nankani, Joy Osmanski, Melissa Redmond, Aida Reluzco, André Santana, Neil Shah, Aven Shore, Shakira Shute, Pete Simonelli & Shaun Taylor-Corbett

Amazing novel, certainly among the very best I've come across.

The story revolves around climate change, told through the experiences of a fairly large cast of characters who have seven very different points of view, including a climate scientist studying methane emissions being released because of warming; a group of eco-terrorists; a high-level marketing executive catering to the gas, oil, and extraction industries; a poor kid who struggles with addiction and spirals into criminal and extremely degenerate behavior; a brilliant, neurodivergent mathematician, data modeler, and deep thinker; a vibrantly impassioned activist and her cohorts; and a kid who falls in love with the activist.

[Note: Because I knew ahead of time that this quite long story (40 hours, nearly 900 pages) has a large cast of characters, which some reviewers found confusing, I kept the ebook open as well while I listened to the first quarter of the book, during which most of the characters are introduced, and took notes about the significant characters that I could refer to back as the story progressed. This made it much easier for me to keep track of things until I was more familiar with everyone.
See: The Deluge - List of characters⩘ .]

The story begins in 2013 and progresses through the late 2030s, weaving between moments of the mundanity of everyday life, soaring descriptions of exquisite poetic vision, deep explorations of the science of climate change, passages of impassioned activism, sections of stomach churning political machinations, and segments of sheer heart-stopping terror. It paints a bleak, though I think entirely realistic picture of what we are heading toward in the coming years. Even amongst the vividly described devastation of earth-shattering natural calamities, the extreme violence perpetrated by both terrorists and governments, and the dire life threatening climate challenges that all but the very rich are forced to try to cope with, the story ultimately has the hopeful message that even if it looks nearly impossible, it is possible that we can come together and tackle this existential crisis that we have created and continue to cause to accelerate. Or, in Kate Morris' words, that we start to "treat the most important issue in the world like it's actually the most fucking important issue in the world."

Even if we succeed, it'll be generations before the emergency ends. I think we have to be at peace with that.

The story is justifiably scathing in its portrayal of the gas, oil, and extractive industries, as well as the politicians that enable their continued environmental pillage, and the various professionals and financiers who make their obscene fortunes from carbon exploitation. (In case you think anything in this book is exaggerated, take a look at the sampling of news articles I share at the end of this review, which came to my attention during just the few days I was listening to it.)

"'They' are the Carbon Majors, the one hundred companies responsible for over seventy percent of emissions since the eighties. Their own scientists knew what would happen. They knew if they kept burning their reserves they would threaten the future of the human race. They knew, and they built their oil rigs to account for higher sea levels and more intense storms. They knew, and they told us to focus on our consumer behavior while they locked us all into structures of hyper-consumption. They knew, and they waged a propaganda war of denial and delay. They knew, and they're still doing it! There is no other way to put it, they are committing the greatest atrocity in human history and they knew. They knew, and they told us to worry about our fucking carbon footprints."

Through various of his characters, Markley also presents steps that must be urgently considered if we are to avoid extinction. For example, in 2034, the character Dr. Ashir al-Hassan shares with a congresswoman he is working with a summary of a white paper, including steps he thinks the U.S. must take to avoid social chaos stemming from high food prices and growing famines, all things I've already been thinking about even from my own pedestrian observation of the current state of this accelerating crisis. His summary is presented in his characteristically dispassionate tone, used even when he is addressing issues he cares most deeply about:

To summarize the white paper which I will soon deliver to your committee, if the United States is to avoid social chaos stemming from high food prices and growing famines, we must:

  • Deliver all 7 million tons of food to the UN World Food Programme, as is our responsibility.
  • Fully fund SNAP food assistance and expand it to households at 300 percent of the poverty line.
  • Begin a domestic and global campaign to reduce food waste.
  • Immediately pass a new law to curb speculation in the commodities markets. Institutional investors are exacerbating the problem by speculating on food staples, thus driving up prices for US consumers and starving the world’s poor.
  • Immediately end biofuel subsidies and divert that land to food production wherever possible. This is particularly vital in the case of corn ethanol, which has a negligible or net-negative impact on emissions.
  • Tax meat consumption. Two-thirds of the world’s agricultural land is currently used for livestock. To not pay the true environmental cost of the meat and dairy in our diets is simply no longer viable, especially when it comes to dwindling water resources.
  • Do away with trade barriers and subsidies completely. We have a globalized food system and some nations will, environmentally, be better suited for growing than others. Food production is not like other consumer goods; it can be done more efficiently or less efficiently in certain regions, and we must use the planet’s land and water as wisely as possible. Protecting rural farmers out of nostalgia will always be as politically popular as it is foolhardy. The easiest solution is subsidy substitution: If land is no longer competitive to produce commercial food, governments must alter the subsidy to pay impacted farmers to steward water, soil, and biodiversity.
  • There are small pockets of the US where people have access to a wide array of fruits and vegetables. These are the towns and neighborhoods where the organization A Fierce Blue Fire operates widescale urban farming, permaculture, and agroforestry cooperatives. Impressively, they’ve practiced seed diversity, integrated pest management, and other practices that have produced yields where industrial agriculture has declined. Expanding their conservation agriculture model is a worthwhile investment.
  • Federal and state governments should begin to use eminent domain to tear out golf courses, ski resorts, horse farms, and all other recreational lands that utilize scarce water resources and begin growing food immediately, particularly in the American West, where the golf courses use more water than many small nation-states.
  • During World War II victory gardens grown in backyards and vacant lots supplied 40 percent of the country’s vegetables. This can easily be replicated. The simplistic debate between small-acre farming versus agribusiness systems is a false choice. Feeding a mostly urban populace can only be done through high-intensity broadacre farming. Still, the aggregate impact of every home growing a portion of fruits and vegetables would be significant.
  • Water recycling is a virtual necessity, but we should also be separating out urine and human waste. We are currently flushing a bounty of treasure down the toilet. Urban sewage can be harvested and used as fertilizer or for urban horticulture. Cities are already concentrating these nutrients but simply flushing it into the oceans.
  • The US pet industry, mostly consisting of felines, canines, and certain bird species, is a spectacular waste of precious food resources. As the ecology of the planet has shifted drastically, wild animals fade to extinction, replaced by livestock and an estimated 500 million domesticated dogs and 400 million housecats. This has proven an unheralded environmental catastrophe. Cats now eat more fish protein than humans while dogs consume more kilowatt hours of energy than people who eat vegetarian diets (dogs consume double the energy of vegans). In aggregate, pets are responsible for 25 to 30 percent of all meat-based greenhouse gas emissions in the US. I find it bizarre that we ethically countenance a pet culture in which individual animals are vastly outeating the world’s hungriest children. Ending the commercial pet industry and ordering all food earmarked for pets to be diverted to global food aid would alleviate human suffering almost immediately. Furthermore, these pets are as edible as any commercially grown pork or cattle. The cultural taboo against eating dog flesh is only an accident of whose ancestors had access to cheap ruminants. Perhaps it’s unpopular to suggest that we eat all pets rather than letting them starve, but they, along with deer, varmints, and other “low-status” protein, would provide an important source of calories for a nation suddenly lacking in both.
  • Our agricultural systems were developed and propagated in a climatological regime that is now extinct. Research in food production has gone dangerously underfunded. The world spends some $2 trillion on armaments and perhaps 0.0125 percent of that on food research. The ban on GMO seeds in Europe is counterproductive and damaging for the movement of food globally. Drought-tolerant maize will be crucial, as will the beta-carotene-fortified golden banana. Flood-tolerant, salt-tolerant rice has been the only way to keep yields up in the Mekong Delta and other flood-inundated regions, while C4 rice that fixes its own nitrogen remains a holy grail.
  • Peter has pointed me to several aquaculture companies attempting to farm the oceans more effectively. This includes marine fish farms in deep offshore waters and genetically engineered “superfish,” which are enormous, grow quickly, and eat anything. Wild-caught fish should continue, though we must impose strict catch limits. Farming the oceans for kelp, seaweed, and algae should become a policy priority. We could produce more food than traditional livestock with a fraction of the ecological footprint using integrated multitrophic aquaculture.

In case you think we can sleepwalk and shop our way through this crisis, here's a description of what is coming if we don't adequately and urgently address the climate crisis given by the character Dr. Anthony Pietrus, a climate scientist:

    They took two days off for Christmas, which Tony spent holding his granddaughter and thinking about tombstone dominoes. The CryoSat-2 measuring the thickness of polar ice was returning shocking numbers; modeling for the Amazon was looking extremely dire, forewarning that the lungs of the planet could be little more than a fire-scarred wasteland by 2050; the Centre for Arctic Gas Hydrate was finding multiple methane flares that were starting to reach the sea surface; permafrost with its 1.8 trillion tons of carbon was belching out from the Arctic in Siberia, Canada, and Alaska. The Tombstone Domino Theory of feedback loops was, as he'd been telling people for twenty years, probably initiated as soon as the world hit 365 ppm. At the current rate they were going, atmospheric carbon would not peak until 685 ppm, and even if this was the turning point and the global order reached net zero (an improbable miracle), most of the land ice on the planet would end up melting. Sea levels would rise by 230 feet eventually. Earth was on its way to four, five, or possibly six degrees of additional temperature rise. It was an endgame that would push the planet past anything a human could conceive of, and it might happen within the lifetime of his granddaughter. The last of his useless generation would die watching this down payment on chaos unspool. Holly, Catherine, and their peers would witness civilization entering its violent disintegration with a breakdown of the social order, mass starvation, disease, and armed conflict over water and arable land. Hannah Gail Yu's generation would then see firsthand climatological events without precedent. Summer by summer, the planet would warm so quickly that whole nation-states and regions would incinerate in fires and dust storms while walls of water carried by unprecedented typhoons and rain bombs would wash away coasts and the world's major cities would crumble into the sea. People would be assaulted by terrifying phenomena humanity had never before experienced. Hannah would watch these biospheric horrors rise, raze, and slaughter every few months for however long she could survive. There would be very little food production because agriculture would be next to impossible, and the food web would unravel as mass extinction wiped out species after species. She would not grow up to be president or a great ballet dancer or a neuroscientist or a VR influencer. She would be, like most of her generation, a scavenger, likely a part-time cannibal. Her life would be hard and violent. Then the generation after hers—the one that should have been populated by his great-grandchildren—would likely be the human species' last because the surface of the planet would be too hot to sustain life.

This story is going to remain vividly in my consciousness for the rest of my life. I feel indebted to Stephen Markley for bringing the climate crisis and our responsibility to tackle it into such vivid focus.

Simon & Schuster, 2023; audiobook: Simon & Schuster Audio, 2023; IndieBound⩘ 

Here's a sampling of news articles that came to my attention during just the few days I was listening to The Deluge: