COVID-19, civil strife, climate change: Omar El Akkad is living in the dystopia he described in his 2017 book
These events illustrate 'how much we've tailored our society to individual self-interest,' says author
First came the pandemic.
Then, the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police, which sparked protests that are still ongoing.
Now massive and deadly wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington.
Every corner of the United States is impacted by at least one of these events. But Canadian author Omar El Akkad, an Oregon resident, is living in the midst of all three — mirroring the climate disaster, disease and political disruption he depicted in his 2017 novel, American War.
He spoke to The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhay from his home in the woods of Oregon about how addressing any of these issues will require American society to set aside self-interest.
Here is part of their conversation.
Tell me more about how the last week has been like for you and your family.
We live in Clackamas County. Most of the county is under a level three evacuation notice — the highest one. It basically means "go now, don't pack." We've been fortunate in that we are in the very northern end of the county, so level three never got to us. But it's a situation where we have a 10-day old son, who showed up two days before the fires really got going. Other than medical professionals, he hasn't seen anybody. We haven't left the house except for medical emergencies. When you step outside, there's a fine layer of dust over the car. The ash is just incredibly evident everywhere… And it felt very apocalyptic.
It must just be scary no matter how old you are.
It's terrifying because it's one of those events that's going to be much more common in the coming years. And [it has] stripped you of any individual agency. There's literally nothing I can do about this situation to make it any better. ...This might be remembered as one of the relatively small ones compared to what's coming. The summers are constantly getting hotter. The catalyst's are getting worse. So there's two avenues of fear. The first is just the sheer magnitude of what's happening and our complete inability to mitigate it. And the other is knowing that this is not an anomaly. This is the start of something that I think is scarier than the actual mechanics of any individual fire.
You're repeatedly shown in these crises how much we've tailored our society to individual self-interest and as a result, how poorly we do as a society when we're faced with a problem that requires the setting aside of self-interest.- Omar El Akkad
You are in the midst of other crises. For months now, people in Portland have been protesting police brutality and anti-Black racism. What is it like experiencing each of these events from such a close vantage point?
It's been surreal. All three phenomenons here are very different in terms of their individual mechanics. So [for] COVID, we and everyone we knew thought we would be in this kind of semi-lockdown for a few weeks. And we're getting to the six-month mark now.
The anti-racist protests in downtown Portland from up close started out as these very joyful events — people from all different walks of life, all different groups, coming out in a common cause. And suddenly you had police lobbing tear gas. Then you had the federal cops showing up from the Department of Homeland Security. It became very ugly, very quickly.
And the fires have a sort of natural phenomenon aspect to them, even though they're exacerbated by so much of what we do and don't do as a society. But one overriding commonality is this idea that you're repeatedly shown in these crises how much we've tailored our society to individual self-interest and as a result, how poorly we do as a society when we're faced with a problem that requires the setting aside of self-interest. It started with COVID. If you can stay home, please stay home. Please wear a mask so you can help someone else.
These things are not particularly difficult, either as individual issues or as public policy issues. But because we're in the situation where we have tailored everything to individual self-interest, we get this place where all of this stuff just feels so hard to do. Same thing with protests against police brutality. Same thing with wildfires that are affecting people literally 20 minutes down the road from where I live … That to me, has been the defining thesis of 2020 — just realizing how badly we had done at preserving the common good. And each one of these crises is showing that over and over again.
A lot of people share your despondency, especially this year. We can take personal responsibility to protect one another. But as you said with some of these other issues, it feels like the individual doesn't have as much agency as some of us would like to.
Here, almost every day on the news, there's always a story of: look at this person who walked into a Target store without a mask. And then they were caught on camera being belligerent about it. These stories come at us with depressing frequency. It's partly because it's easy to focus on this one individual ... they're tantalizing stories and it's easy to get angry at the person.
It's like focusing on the faucet and whether the faucet is rotten, when the well is poisoned. At a public policy level and an infrastructure level, we, especially in the United States, have done a miserable job. There is no federal mask mandate. There's no federal anything, really. The president has made it clear that COVID deaths in blue states don't count. So as easy as it is to focus on individual action or inaction … at a public policy level this has been a complete failure.
Your book American War painted a dystopian vision of an America wrenched apart by civil strife, climate change, a plague. It was pretty prophetic. What did you see when you were writing this book back in 2015 that made you draw these strands together?
When I was writing the book, I never thought of it as a book about America. It was concerned with things America had done in the world. But certainly nothing in the book is an attempt to prophesize.
All I was trying to do was take things that have happened to people on the other side of the planet and can be easily ignored and make them happen in the heart of the superpower. I can't really tell you whether what's in the book is somebody's future. But I can tell you that it's very much predicated on somebody else's present and somebody else's past.
How is this moment changing how Americans view each other and their place in the world?
One of the things that's really difficult to pass about this country right now is the massive chasm between ideological silos here; how easy it is to just exist in your own ideological silo. For example, down the road from where I live, the fires have gotten really bad. Now we have these vigilante groups that are setting up checkpoints on the highway because they believe that these fires were secretly started by anti-fascists and this cabal of arsonists. All of it is complete lunacy. It's delusion. But they believe it and they have a community of belief. It's now manifested into a physical checkpoint with someone with a gun standing in the middle of the highway because they believe that so strongly.
That for me is probably the most dangerous thing. It's easy to look at somebody like Trump, how clownish and cartoonish he is, and his maliciousness, and think of him as an anomaly. But he is symptomatic of this idea that no matter how ridiculous, malicious or patently untrue the thing you believe is, there is now an infrastructure of support for you and people who will support whatever belief you hold. And it will work its way all the way down to a guy with a rifle standing on the highway looking for an anti-fascist or arsonist who don't exist.
You spoke about that, the right side of the spectrum. What do you see as the challenges for the left side of the spectrum?
Part of it is that the definition of left in this country is very bizarre. One of the easy and clearly false ways of defining the political spectrum in America is to say that there are two major market parties: one on the left and one on the right. But that's not entirely true. The Democratic Party would be centre-right in most Western countries and every democracy, essentially. In recent years, there has been a progressive wing of the Democratic Party that started to gain traction, but for the most part, you're talking about a centre-right party. It would be really comforting for me to say, the liberals in this country have their own extremists and the conservatives have their own extremists and everybody needs to deal with the extremists in their party and everything is equal and offsetting. That would be really nice for me to say because it would make me feel like a referee in an evenly matched sort of game. But the truth is that it is very asymmetrical here.
Your book was set in the 2070s. Many of us will still be alive then, certainly, our kids will be. How confident are you that people will learn the lessons of 2020 to try and avoid another pandemic and a catastrophic climate disaster?
I'm naturally pretty pessimistic. So I'm tempted to say no, which would put my book in pretty good company. People didn't listen to 1984. They didn't listen to The Handmaid's Tale. Most dystopian books kind of lead that depressing existence where nobody listens.
Increasingly, it's becoming more difficult to look away, which is usually the first step towards getting something done. I am made more optimistic by what I see in the younger generations and the extent to which they view something like climate change as a truly existential issue, as an issue of survival, because they are going to be the generation that sets the stage for my kids. The issue is not so much whether we're going to do something. We will do what needs to be done. The question is whether we have waited too long. We've already wasted the four years of the Trump administration where for an entire term, you've had a federal government that not only didn't care about climate change, but effectively did everything in its power to stunt any of the action. So it's an issue where we know what we need to do. We are eventually going to have no choice but to do it. The question is whether by the time we get around to implementing the policies that need to be implemented, is it going to be too late? I don't know the answer to that.
It's not shocking to hear you say that politics and partisanship are intertwined with the current wildfires. What's surprising is the extent to which the politics are overlaid on all of this. Does that surprise you at all?
It used to. Not so much anymore. Any issue that pits individual self-interest against the communal good is very quickly going to become politicized because there is a measure of self-interest involved. On its own, an issue like climate change becoming politicized would have surprised me because it's an existential issue that doesn't care about borders or political outlook … But in the context of the kind of society we've created, it doesn't surprise me at all.
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Interview produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby.