Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A writer’s climate

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Elizabeth Kolbert

Note: I’m away at the World Science Fiction Convention for the rest of the week, so I’ll be republishing a few of my favorite posts from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally ran, in a slightly different form, on April 21, 2015.

Last year, the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction was awarded to Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent, sobering book The Sixth Extinction. I had finished reading it shortly beforehand, which may be the first time I’ve ever gotten in on a Pulitzer winner on the ground floor. It was the high point of a month in which I worked my way through a stack of books on climate change, including This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, Windfall by McKenzie Funk, and Don’t Even Think About It by George Marshall. I also read Jonathan Franzen’s infamous article in The New Yorker, of course. And for a while, these works provided a lens through which I saw almost everything else. There was the New York Times piece on Royal Dutch Shell’s acquisition of BG Group, for instance, which doesn’t mention climate change once; or their writeup, a few days later, on the imposition of new rules for offshore oil and gas exploration, even as the Atlantic Coast is being opened up for drilling. The Times describes this latter development as “a decision that has infuriated environmentalists”—which, when you think about it, is an odd statement. Climate change affects everybody, and if you believe, as many do, that the problem starts at the wellhead, pigeonholing it as an environmental issue only makes it easier to ignore.

I don’t mean to turn this into a post on the problem of climate change itself, which is a topic on which my own thoughts are still evolving. But like any great social issue—and it’s hard to see it as anything else—the way in which we choose to talk about it inevitably affects our responses. Franzen touches on this in his essay, in which he contrasts the “novelistic” challenge of conservation with the tweetable logic, terrifying in its vast simplicity, of global warming. I happen to think he’s wrong, but it’s still crucial for writers in general, and journalists especially, to think hard about how to cover an issue that might be simple in its outlines but dauntingly complex in its particulars. It may be the only thing we’re qualified to do. And Kolbert’s approach feels a lot like one that both Franzen and I can agree is necessary: novelistic, detailed, with deeply reported chapters on the author’s own visits to locations from Panama to Iceland to the Great Barrier Reef. Reading her book, we’re painlessly educated and entertained on a wide range of material, and while its message may be bleak, her portraits of the scientists she encounters leave us with a sense of possibility, however qualified it may be. (It helps that Kolbert has a nice dry sense of humor, as when she describes one researcher’s work as performing “handjobs on crows.”)

Naomi Klein

And in its focus on the author’s firsthand experiences, I suspect that it will live longer in my imagination than a work like Klein’s This Changes Everything, which I read around the same time. Klein’s book is worthy and important, but it suffers a little in its determination to get everything in, sometimes to the detriment of the argument itself. Nuclear power, for instance, deserves to be at the center of any conversation about our response to climate change, whether or not you see it as a viable part of the solution, but Klein dismisses it in a footnote. And occasionally, as in her discussion of agroecology—or the use of small, diverse farms as an alternative to industrial agriculture—it feels as if she’s basing her opinion on a single article from National Geographic. (It doesn’t help that she quotes one expert as saying that the Green Revolution didn’t really save the world from hunger, since starvation still exists, which is a little like saying that modern medicine has failed because disease hasn’t been totally eradicated. There’s also no discussion of the possibility that industrial agriculture has substantially decreased greenhouse emissions by reducing the total land area that needs to be converted to farming. Whatever your feelings on the subject, these issues can’t simply be swept aside.)

But there’s no one right way to write about climate change, and Klein’s global perspective, as a means of organizing our thoughts on the subject, is useful, even if it needs to be supplemented by more nuanced takes. (I particularly loved Funk’s book Windfall, which is loaded with as many fascinating stories as Kolbert’s—and one chapter ended up inspiring my upcoming novella “The Proving Ground.”) Writers, as I’ve said elsewhere, tend to despair over how little value their work seems to hold in the face of such challenges. But if these books demonstrate one thing, it’s that the first step toward meaningful action, whatever form it assumes, lies in describing the world with the specificity, clarity, and diligence it demands. It doesn’t always call for jeremiads or grand plans, and it’s revealing that Kolbert’s book is both the best and the least political of the bunch. And it’s safe to say that talented writers will continue to be drawn to the subject: truly ambitious authors will always be tempted to tackle the largest themes possible, if only out of the “real egotism” that Albert Szent-Györgyi identifies as a chief characteristic of a great researcher. Writers, in fact, are the least likely of any of us to avoid confronting the unthinkable, simply because they have a vested interest in shaping the conversation about our most difficult issues. It’s fine for them to dream big; we need people who will. But they’ll make the greatest impact by telling one story at a time.

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