by Tobias Thornes
‘Global warming? There ain’t no such thing! Didn’t y’ hear? That’s just a conspiracy cooked up by the Chinese. An’ the leftists. You’re a leftist, ain’t ye? Now you listen to me, mister. You leave all that clap-trap out o’ here. We’re done with commies, we’re done with Obama, now we’re goanna take America back to bein’ the great nation it once was, an’ you can sling your hook if you dun’ like it, ‘cos we ain’t lettin’ nobody stand in our way.’
I was beginning to regret broaching the subject of climate change with this burly bartender, who, as he towered over me, looked somewhat more than my match. He must have a gun, I thought – everyone around here has a gun – and perhaps he wouldn’t turn down the chance to chase me out of town with bullets at my heels, or worse. Certainly, I didn’t fancy my chances in an old-style showdown. But then he just chuckled, and the other patrons – two well-built gentlemen who’d been quietly sipping sodas at the far end of the bar – chuckled with him. Evidently, they saw me more as a joke than a threat. ‘You got yourself a crazy one there, Bill,’ said one. ‘I’d keep your crazy ideas to yourself, if I were you,’ he laughed. ‘No-one’s listenin’, anyhow.’
How right he was, in this latter observation. At least the idea of climate change had reached here, I thought, grasping for consolation – even into the middle of the oil belt. But, for certain, nobody was listening. Though I was newly arrived in town, so much was already clear. Outside on the river-wide, ruler-straight highway, thousands of petrol-powered wagons, each as big as five horses, proudly purred. Inside, the air-conditioning hissed and sighed, taking the heat of half a dozen diners chomping stakes almost too big to bite. This was not a place of abstinence or climate-conscious constraint.
I’d already seen the oil wells, relentlessly-churning and dotted across the desert like an insatiable swarm of mosquitos. But oil was not what frightened me in this dusty Texan town. That black gold was nothing more than liquid – mindless, formless, a trickling treacle flowing where it could regardless of what flowers of beauty were swallowed beneath its sickly stain. What frightened me was the heedless contentment of the people who so blithely pumped it out. This wasn’t the America I’d seen in Hawaii, nor even that I’d arrived to on the parched Pacific coast. This wasn’t the Texas of the great thinkers of enlightened science, who’d even launched men to the Moon. What I saw here was the most tangible example of a state of opinionated, anti-science stubbornness, suspicious of anything foreign in concept or in substance, that has sadly begun to slink across the whole industrialised world. A people that saw the grim reality of climatic change ahead, and simply laughed and turned its back. This was America in denial. This was the America of President Trump.
The clapped-out old bus that jolted me into the deepest South of this southerly state was shared with Texans of an entirely different sort to the well-off white males who’d given me such short shrift. Here, I met a pantheon of wonderful diversity only observable amidst the poorer classes in such a country built upon migration. We were composed of a spectrum of skin-colours and ethnicities; to my ears came a medley of American twang and Spanish scintillation, suffusing the hot air like an undulating undercurrent. But many of the passengers remained silent, staring out into the wide, dry landscape beyond the molten metal shimmer of this baking grey road. Texas was in the midst of another painful drought, the latest in a succession that has dogged this country, returning like a biting invasive insect that refuses to be brushed away, since the turn of the millennium.
This was the land where the devastating effects of human interference were made so chokingly clear in the dust-bowl years of the 1930s, when the conversion of great swathes of grassland to ploughed fields literally blew up in the farmers’ faces. When the rains fell slack, the unprotected soil was stripped away by rust-red wind storms, leaving only desert. And yet despite Texas’ deepening droughts it’s a state still in denial: still the country’s biggest beef producer; still the sixth-largest extractor of oil in the world when ranked alongside entire countries; still guzzling the fifth most energy per person in the United States, generating more electricity than the whole United Kingdom. They say ‘everything is bigger in Texas’. From what I saw, everything – from waistlines to the rich list’s wallets, from pollution to poverty – was still expanding.
But as we made our way down from the vast agricultural acreages and colossal colonies of corn-fed cattle belching out their planet-warming methane, and slipped into the lush landscape of the breath-taking Rio Grande River, I was abruptly reminded that there was one thing in Texas that certainly wasn’t expanding any more, immigration. There, beyond the rippling waters of the wide water-course that carved its stunning cascade through this red, rocky region so many millennia ago, I saw for myself the modern-day enhancement of what was evidently not a punishing enough natural barrier – miles of desert and a magnificent but treacherous river – to deter travellers from the south. ‘Trump’s Wall’. A thousand miles of breachable, haphazard metal fencing that already scarred across America’s rusty base in an attempt to plug the leaks, was now being replaced by a supposedly impenetrable span of solid concrete. Whether the billions of dollars required to complete it would ever be found I couldn’t know, but already the finished sections had seen migration rates go the same way as America’s climate change pledges and Texas’ renewables industry. Migrant population levels were now as static as the blades on the Texan wind turbines that once supplied ten per cent of its electricity. But in time, of course, the cracks were bound to show.
Looking at the ugly structure ascending across this ruined paradise, it was clear that the president’s promise that the wall would be ‘beautiful’ had turned out to be no more than a ‘Donald Trump fact’. But the isolationism that the wall represents is sadly all too real. Cutting itself off from the needs of its neighbours; responding to the calls of climate scientists and the needy poor by simply shouting louder until they can’t be heard; carrying on regardless to churn out the gaseous effluent of its luridly lavish lifestyle while the rest of the world burns: Trump’s America was trying with all its might to shut out the truth. But it was designing for itself a prison from which there could be be no release.