Letter to Evie
Set in the alternate future of The Training Commission — their critically acclaimed 2019 novella exploring a post-climate change, post-civil conflict America — Byrne and Burrington’s “Letter to Evie” explores the intersection of climate refugees, NGOs, and Wall Street machinations. Written in the epistolary style of their earlier work, the story springboards off the Obama administration’s 2016 plan to relocate threatened Alaskan villages and weaves a dense set of allusions to biomimicry, blockchain, billionaire doomsday preppers, and a protagonist named for a Maori suffragist. Read on to learn how the ice road to Utqiagvik was paved with good intentions…
From: K Mangakāhia <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: please open now evie
Date: April 01, 2039 6:49 AM PT
To: Evrill McIntyre-Davis <email@example.com>
I think we need to walk from Utqiagvik.
I know, you’ve got a lot to lose here. Last I checked the spreadsheets it was .8 million. 79 people on the payroll, not to mention the contractors out on the BP archipelago. The R&D investment into mycelium “spongy structures” specifically for Permafab Utqiagvik.
But the losses you take now are nothing compared to what you–what we’re–going to be responsible for if we stay on board. We’ve gone from institutional incompetence to unrepentant evil in a series of steps too complex for even me to follow–and it seems like no matter what we do, what I do, nothing will change except maybe the burden on my conscience.
It’s not a climate refugee resettlement, Evie. It’s a privatized enclave for the rich.
It’s my own fault. I thought I’d learned how to get around people like this. The government bureaucrats, the family foundation program officers, all the smug public-private partners who loved the idea of working with Kay Mangakāhia but just wished I’d tone down the actual ideas, the possibility of politics in architecture. After the Smithsonian and the Utah Data Center remediation I thought I could handle a project with the Obama Foundation–who, probably because of some false nostalgia I can’t shake, I somehow still thought of as one of the less awful philanthropies to get in bed with.
And the idea of being part of recovering Utqiagvik was seductive. They must have known that, and how that awful symmetry would play to my ego. A child of the lost burned continent grows up to revive a city sunk into the sea, someone from the first generation of climate refugees building homes for the next generation. And given Utqiagvik’s own storied history–denied the boom of the new Arctic shipping routes by the government moving the town inland, only to end up devoured by the sinkhole it was placed directly on top of–reclaiming and rebuilding the town’s original site was poetic. The new new Utqiagvik was going to be an entirely new town, back on the site of the old Utqiagvik, built for an entirely new group of displaced persons.
Which displaced persons, I didn’t ask. Of course. Why would I? It’s the Obama Foundation. They wouldn’t decimate their reputation by taking the federal RFP to facilitate resettlement development and sell it off to the highest-bidding. I can’t believe I didn’t see this coming.
Callahan contacted me late yesterday letting me know that, as we’re getting closer to Permafab Utqiagvik actually getting built, they’ve finally selected the “cohort” of displaced persons. 75% of said cohort will be buy-in, 25% will be randomized persons selected via some sort of post-Ethereum blockchain nonsense.
This wasn’t over the phone (unusual for Callahan) but in an email that I’ll be forwarding you after this (not to mention Easton over at the New York Times). After I gave up on trying to reach him by phone and started drafting my resignation, I thought of something my mother had told me about the 2022 fires that brought us to America. How there were people who made millions basically betting when and how Australia would burn again. Some intricate trick of financial instruments to basically turn disaster into profit. As if that were some kind of new idea.
They had to know how I’d react, given my family history. They couldn’t be that stupid. So I did some digging. I went through all of my contacts at the Obama Foundation (and some of their contacts), before I found someone willing to tell me what’s really going on: they’re shorting the project. After Chicago flooded even harder than NYC, much of the South Side real estate the foundation invested in during the ‘20s became worthless. They kept their head above water for almost a decade, but now they’re about to go bankrupt. There’s so much liquid capital in their hands for Permafab Utqiagvik right now, that if I walk, they make, between the capital and the insurance package, far more money than they’d make just selling off units. My lawyer was only using a fine-toothed comb on those contracts to protect me, not really paying attention to what happened to capital someone else had raised.
So to save the Obama Foundation, they’re threatening to turn our project, my project, into a Permanent Luxury Zone for millionaires stupid enough not to climate-harden their properties. They hired me because I’m difficult and principled, not in spite of it, and they did it because they knew I’d walk if they did something this disgusting. So while I know I opened this by saying we had to walk, thinking about it now, I’m genuinely torn.
I walk and they make a mint.
I stay and they pervert everything we’ve worked for into just another playground for the rich.
Evie, what the fuck do I do?
Ingrid Burrington & Brendan Byrne
Ingrid Burrington writes, makes maps, and tells jokes about places, politics, and the weird feelings people have about both. She’s the co-author of The Training Commission with Brendan C. Byrne, and the author of Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Internet Infrastructure.
Brendan C. Byrne
Brendan C. Byrne's fiction has appeared in Terraform, Dark Mountain, Imperica, Flapperhouse, and FLURB, his criticism in Motherboard, The Intercept, Arc, New Scientist, The Baffler, and Rhizome. Along with Ingrid Burrington, he received a 2019 Mozilla Creative Media Award for their epistolary newsletter novella The Training Commission.