Chapter 5 of my in-progress climate fiction novel Carbon Run focuses on Martin Scribb, a lay monk in the Penitents of St. Francis order, as he begins his journey to the Arctic on a special mission to find a woman, Molly Bain. A trucker gives him a ride to a dusty ghost town called “Electric City” near the Canadian border. Scribb finds an abandoned church, enters a confessional, and reveals a portion of his story.
We were so committed, almost fanatic. Young men and women. Engineers, financiers and academics. Full of themselves. Arrogant. With Martin as the “visionary.” Everyone knew where the energy sat, untapped, but no one knew how to get it out so it could be used. But Martin and the Project Algid team had figured it out, solving the extraction problems. Enough clean energy for a hundred years. He’d make sure it was safe for the earth, that it wouldn’t affect the climate already damaged by the Warming.Then he’d step back, the job done, the earth carbon free, easy as pie. Everything was ready. All over the globe, Martin’s friends waited for his go signal. Stations on every continental shelf watched him. The whole world waited. What a show it would be, a moment unsurpassed in history. A word at a news loop, a push of a key, and the New Era would begin.
A new era alright, but not what Martin imagined.
The painful memories pressed against Martin’s temples in the confessional, an agony worse than the ache in his legs during that hour on his knees. He lifted his head and gazed at the dark screen. “Father, I ask God’s forgiveness for all I’ve done.”
No sound came out of the darkness behind the screen.
If Hell is a place of utter hopelessness, I am in it now. I do not exist, after all.
But the husk of Martin’s body demanded attention. He wiped his tears and crossed himself before leaving the confessional. Then the hissing sound, the one he heard when the truck driver dropped him off, broke through his self-pity, and he departed the church, squinting in the baking sunshine.
The hiss blossomed into a muffled roar as he approached the east end of town. He came to a concrete platform, with the floor area of a large living room in an upper-middle-class house. It jutted out into space at the edge of a cliff, and the rusted remnants of a railing ringed the outside edge. The railings had been cut at the base, maybe by the same scavengers that took the letters and door frames on the post office. Even though the concrete was cracked and unstable, he edged across the slab and peered down into a canyon.
Stretched from one wall of the canyon to the other, maybe a full mile, was the remains of a gigantic stone or concrete structure. The masonry was relatively recent; it didn’t have the pits and scars of the ancient buildings in Egypt he had seen when he was a college student on field research. But something had happened to the structure. It had been cut, cleanly, in a step-like fashion on each end, like the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, down to the river bed, leaving a thousand-foot gap in the center. Millions of gallons of water flowed freely and smoothly through the cut, the spring snow melt pouring through it as if pouring over the spout of a giant pitcher. A huge eddy received the water, which churned white for several hundred feet downstream.
Then Martin remembered. The structure was once an huge dam, one of the biggest in the world, built during an economic disaster in the 20th century.
Why was it built? Martin’s memory failed him—something about electricity. Electric City! The dam generated electric current before the Warming, before the wind farms and solar arrays. The people who worked at the dam lived in the town. In their ignorance, Martin thought, the builders had destroyed an ecosystem. It wasn’t until the salmon disappeared that people decided to redeem their mistake. All the dams on the Columbia River were removed, what, sixty, seventy years ago? Martin couldn’t remember the name of this dam. The fish never returned. The people abandoned the town—no reason to stay—judging by the empty stores and houses, now reclaimed by the desert.
Can you identify the hydroelectric dam I had in mind?