Photo: Benedicte Gyldenstierne Sehested
‘Camp Zero’ Invents a Dystopian Future for American Climate Refugees Who Flee to Canada
Michelle Min Sterling's debut novel paints a bleak picture, but the Canadian author wants readers to think about their responsibility to protect the planet / BY Dene Moore / April 13th, 2023
It’s 2049, and wildfires have reduced forests to ash, drought parches the land and violent storms have torn through the world, leaving devastation in their wake. In the United States, the rich have taken refuge in high-tech floating cities, while the rest of the population ekes out an existence in a ravaged country where everyone is implanted with a ‘Flick’ at birth, which constantly streams information and entertainment into their brain.
In an abandoned former oil town in the Canadian north, a group of climate refugees gathers in one of the few remaining cold places on Earth to build a new society. Or are they? There are many competing agendas at play in Camp Zero, the debut novel from Canadian author Michelle Min Sterling.
“It’s not some distant future. It is a tangible, close future,” says Sterling, who grew up on Vancouver Island and studied in Montreal before moving to the United States, where she lives in Cambridge, Mass., and teaches creative writing at the Berklee College of Music in Boston. “Wildfires, record temperatures, hurricanes, flooding — this is the reality we live in right now. We are living in an ongoing climate crisis.”
Her bleak vision of the Earth’s future was inspired by a train journey across Canada about a decade ago, when she made a side trip to visit a cousin working in the northern Alberta oil fields. The industry and the oil-dependent communities were booming at the time, and it made Sterling think about a future without oil.
One of several storylines in the book focuses on a team female scientists tasked with tracking the upheaval from a research base in the North.
“Her findings since arriving in the station confirmed what her colleagues already knew — the troposphere was warming, which meant the change wasn’t limited to the Earth’s surface. Large patches of sea ice had disappeared, and animals were searching longer for food, causing their migration patterns to become erratic and dangerous. The South already suffered through these ecological changes in the form of blistering summers, less precipitation and significant periods of drought. The changes would only accelerate and continue. Wildfires, unprecedented storms, crop failure, and pervasive heat would render large sections of our country uninhabitable.”
A compelling climate thriller — a fast-growing and popular new genre — Camp Zero is also an exploration of the role technology plays in our lives, as well as the class system in North America, where those of lower socio-economic status stand to experience the impacts of climate change more acutely. For many women in the book, the climate collapse forces them into subservient survival roles of old. The camp’s founding crew includes a group of women called Blooms, who are sex workers brought in to service the wealthy men who are building the project.
“They stand in an empty parking lot and wait to be checked in. Snow has scrubbed the landscape clean, capped the roof of the run-down mall that is one of the few buildings still standing on this frozen stretch of highway,” Sterling writes. “The Bloom last in line pauses to appreciate the freeze. It’s colder in the North than she had expected, and the snow is more delicate. She takes off a glove and watches a flake vanish in the palm of her hand. She’s never seen snow before, and the snowflake feels refreshing on her skin, like a cool cloth pressed to a feverish forehead.”
Like draft dodgers during the Vietnam War and, more recently, Liberals during the Trump presidency, Americans see Canada as a safe haven in Camp Zero, something Sterling witnessed after living in the U.S. for more than a decade.
“Their Canada is seen as a place to potentially flee to in times of political turmoil,” she says. “My interest was in what that would potentially look like in the future. Would Canada be conceived of as a more viable option for just living?”
She wanted to subvert that perception, so the residents of Camp Zero may migrate North for a better future, but find many unforeseen challenges beyond the climate crisis.
While Camp Zero paints a bleak picture of the future, it’s not a prediction.
“I do hope that readers will think about the choices and challenges we have today and the possibility of collective movement, of a just transition, and about the fact that what we do today will impact the future in 27 years,” Sterling says. “And that’s an extraordinary responsibility.”