JUNE 30, 2021
OVER THE COURSE of the last decade, climate scientists, advocates, and policymakers occupying the niche called “climate communication” have tried to make us feel something, so that we’ll do something. But to get us moving, they have the daunting task of breaking through the limits of human cognition: our inability to conceive of systems at a global level, to internalize harms perpetrated in the present but suffered in the future, and to grasp the hazards of what we cannot touch, taste, see, or smell.
Feeling the wrong thing, it seems, has consequences. Especially in the narrative sphere, feeling is assumed to be infectious, so expressions of bad feeling — named as “pessimism” or “nihilism,” especially on the left — are tantamount to creating the conditions for malign neglect. Doom-and-gloom not only fails to inspire action, it lets potential actors off the hook. Meanwhile, lamentations of “inevitable” and “collective demise” obfuscate unequal distributions of power, responsibility, and consequences.
Writer Nathaniel Rich has found himself in recent years at the center of debates over the emotional obligations of confronting the climate crisis. “Losing Earth,” his sprawling investigation into failures to act on proof of climate change and the greenhouse effect in the 1980s, took up an entire issue of the New York Times Magazine in August 2018. In the prologue to the 30,000-word-long article, Rich itemizes the disasters waiting for us two, three, four, and five degrees of warming down the line. “Is it a comfort or a curse, the knowledge that we could have avoided all this?” he asks, although he must know the answer. “Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.”
That “we” got Rich into some trouble. Climate scientists and historians accused the journalist of minimizing the role that fossil fuel companies and Republican lawmakers played in obstructing evidence-based intervention. In The Nation, Kate Aronoff suggested Rich had made the whole world culpable for America’s mess. Naomi Klein objected to his characterization of “human nature” as fundamentally passive, pointing to energetic contemporary environmental justice movements. When the article was expanded into a book and published less than a year later, Meehan Crist, writing in The New Republic, summed up the story’s flaws not in points of fact, but of feeling. Rich’s pass at a “classic Aristotelian tragedy,” Crist argued, cast scientists as heroic figures and sought catharsis at the expense of the less dramatically satisfying reality. There were other ways the story Rich told could end.
Rich’s newest book, Second Nature — a collection of reported essays, most first appearing elsewhere — appears to make a sharp turn away from overdetermination. Everything is now uncertain and in flux. And this time, Rich doesn’t confine himself to climate stories. His subject is the Anthropocene itself, a world where humans change everything they touch, where assumptions like the sanctity of the body and categories like “nature” and “society” collapse. Toxins suffuse the air, earth, and bloodstream; genomes and ecosystems distort and evolve.
This landscape is uncanny, but the figures that populate it are by now familiar: heroic scientists, arrogant capitalists, slippery politicians, noble advocates, innocent bystanders. Many of the stories follow an investigative arc ripped from the frames of ’90s environmental dramas and domestic espionage films. (One story was adapted into a thriller, Dark Waters, in 2019; in another, Erin Brockovich herself makes an appearance.) But in the final acts, Rich reveals that this is a different world, where truth may come to light but triumph is far from guaranteed.
Rich is particularly interested in stories that perform a kind of narrative double duty, connecting the particular to the planetary. In “Dark Waters,” perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an industrial surfactant, seeps into the environment through the avarice of DuPont, the archetypical villain corporation. The resulting horrors are visceral and specific. Two-headed frogs ribbit “out of both of their heads”; poisoned cattle have blackened teeth and blood gushing from their mouths and noses; human organs grow cancerous. The reporting closely tracks DuPont’s evasive maneuvers. Faced with a class-action lawsuit, the company attempts “burying [prospective plaintiffs] in paper.” Yet in the end, PFOA is just one of potentially thousands of unknown chemicals lingering in our bodies, at a background concentration far beyond anything considered safe, and the story is a fable about how the perverse becomes “normalized,” and the unbearable becomes our “biological inheritance.”
Later, the largest methane leak in US history erupts from a natural gas well in Aliso Canyon, outside a tranquil Los Angeles suburb. The leak produces nearly two million cars’ worth of global warming, faster than countries like Senegal, Uruguay, Iceland, and Yemen. Residents feel the effects even more acutely, through headaches, nosebleeds, and fatigue. But the contaminant is ephemeral, hard to pin down. Another fable: “We are a show-me species, wired to look for visible evidence of invisible harm,” Rich reminds us, yet, “[t]he most dangerous threats to our species are precisely those that are most difficult to visualize.”
Would-be masters of the universe make for easy allegories. The book is full of failed Faustian biotech capers: resurrecting extinct animals, cloning living artworks, extracting immortality from jellyfish, growing chicken in a lab. With each drop of solution onto a petri dish, scientists remake the world. Capitalists do, too. In Aspen, Colorado, displays of wealth and greenhouse gas emissions accent each other, at once extreme and exemplary. Attempts by the local “environmental playboy” to “save the world from environmental collapse” through one-off renewable energy projects and signage are both singularly laughable and enragingly de rigueur. The hot, dry future Rich prophesies for the mountain town is both emblematic and entirely its own. A few states over, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he describes a rewilded Ninth Ward modeling a broader future when it rejects municipal attempts to reimpose the logics of private property, investment, and order. In the absence of humans, a new, more stable diversity of species establishes itself, growing out of the Mississippi’s rich silt.
The anticlimactic nature of these stories ought to be unsettling. Indeed, by the end of each one, we know exactly what has happened and who is responsible, but there is no accountability. There’s not even, really, an end. There is only the realization of what’s underway, rising up around us like warming water. Yet Rich can’t help but bring this anticlimactic irresolution to a familiar point — to a cliff-hanger that delays comeuppance. His deft craftsmanship notwithstanding, this collection is documentation. The breached boundaries must be identified, analyzed, and recorded, because someday, there will the consequences.
This isn’t wrong, but it’s a little easy. “But what does it matter, all this knowing?” asks documentary filmmaker Brett Story, reflecting on The Hottest August, her own recent survey of the changing landscape. Nominally these works are concerned with the same experience: insidious uncertainty, creeping dread, dawning awareness. But while Rich looks for cautionary tales, Story concerns herself mostly with questions. And where Rich tries to organize ambiguity into a narrative structure, Story dwells in it, fascinated by our endless hung present.
Story’s film has a simple premise: during the month of August 2017, filmmakers traversed the five boroughs of New York City, interviewing strangers — retired steelworkers, investment bankers, bereaved mothers, skater punks — about their hopes and fears for the future. The month was (then) the hottest on record, and the specter of warming hangs over every scene and exchange. Given this frame, The Hottest August has been packaged as a “climate film,” but its real subject is feeling. Throughout the film, literary texts lend a voice to the mood. “There is scientific and ideological language for what is happening to the weather,” murmurs the narrator, quoting Zadie Smith, over a packed but silent subway car, “but there are hardly any intimate words.” To Story, the shadow of awareness that passes over her subject’s faces is a kind of poetry. Through implication and silence, the film evokes what’s missing from other representations of the climate crisis experience. It’s the sensation of coming to grips. “People in mourning tend to use euphemism,” the narrator continues, “the most melancholy of all euphemisms: the new normal.”
Like Rich, Story finds pathos in the human belief in self-determination, despite evidence to the contrary. Rich is inclined to shake his head or finger at his subjects’ quaint naïveté. Story’s approach is gentler. The camera often stands apart, tracking groups as they cluster and connect, or individuals absorbed in odd tasks. They are creatures in their habitat: couples dance on a blacktop; old men chase a rogue umbrella across a stretch of hot beach. In a video-game arcade filmed through thick glass doors, children flock around strobing machines. The narrator, channeling Marx, watches over them: “Capital, in practice, is moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun.” In a laundromat, a wall-mounted television plays coverage of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A car plows into the crowd and protestors on the television scream. Below the screen, washing machines churn and a few women chat quietly to one another, oblivious. Later, people stare into the eclipse. Annie Dillard: “The second before the sun went out we saw a wall of dark shadow come speeding at us.” The narrator’s tone is mild, thoughtful in the bleached heat. “It slammed our hill and knocked us out. It was the monstrous swift shadow cone of the moon, hauling darkness like plague behind it.”
Notably missing from the film are environmental crime scenes and post-apocalyptic landscapes. Even Staten Island, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, is just a place people still want to live. Neither are there scientists. There is one member of the American Littoral Society, who squires the filmmakers around Jamaica Bay in his motorboat, and an investment banker, who proposes to use capitalism to save the planet by making commodities of clean air and water. But to the camera, these men are no more powerful than the skater kids or the dancing couples in the park. All float on the same swelling wave. And if the hopes and fears voiced by the people Story interviews seem small, she does not judge her interlocutors selfish, myopic, or apathetic. She pays attention: this is simply how it feels to abide at the uncertain end of the world.
Lately, for professional climate storytellers, sorting out how we ought to feel about the future is no longer so important. Awareness has been raised; action is on the march. Even as doom impends, movement organizers tell us, optimism is a choice that can be made. Even pessimism has its uses.
And what of our useless feelings? What about the uncertainty that can’t be sorted out or set aside? It doesn’t matter. Or rather, however we feel about it, we still have to live.