The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene, Part I: A Conversation with William T. Vollmann, Chantal Bilodeau, and David Wallace-Wells




CLIMATE CHANGE is no longer a distant possibility. We’re seeing its effects in the here and now, with the world’s most disadvantaged populations experiencing the worst of its impacts. Artists, novelists, and journalists have responded with work that helps bring greater awareness to climate change and many related issues — such as how we talk (and write) about it, whom it’s affecting, and what solutions may or may not be in store.

This spring, Guernica magazine is co-sponsoring a three-panel conversation series with the New York Society Library titled “The Art and Activism of the Anthropocene.” Each panel convenes some of the biggest names in publishing, journalism, and art for a discussion of their work and why it matters in an age of climate change.

The first panel met on April 11, 2018, at the New York Society Library, and included National Book Award–winning novelist William T. Vollmann, playwright Chantal Bilodeau, and New York Magazine journalist David Wallace-Wells. It was moderated by Guernica’s deputy publisher, Amy Brady. What follows is a transcript of the evening. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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AMY BRADY: Welcome, everyone. Thank you for coming. My first question for the panelists tonight is: What drew each of you to the topic of climate change, and what motivates you to continue addressing it in the stories you tell?

CHANTAL BILODEAU: It was a combination of things that made me interested in climate change. I was interested in the environment in my personal life because I like to hike, and my father was a bush pilot hobbyist. I’m originally from Canada, from Quebec, and his favorite thing was to go to lakes that were only accessible by planes. I was used to being outside in nature, and then, in 2007, I heard from a friend who lives in Alaska and runs an air taxi company out of Denali National Park. I hadn’t been in touch with him for about six years, and then my phone rang, and it was him. He asked me to come visit, and I did. That was a year after Al Gore’s movie The Inconvenient Truth came out. The combination of having climate change more present in the public conversation, and then experiencing it firsthand and hearing people in Alaska who were already affected by it, really drew my attention to it. That’s when I started thinking, Oh, maybe this is something I can address in my work, which I had never thought of before.

DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: For me, I think the short answer is basically: fear. As a journalist, I’m always poking around science news and looking at scientific papers, looking at some of the fringier aspects. The more I did that, the more I found these really alarming new findings about climate. At the same time, I ready daily The New York Times and The New Yorker, and other mainstream publications, and began to feel this huge gap between what scientists were saying about what was going to happen to our planet and how that story was actually being told to people.

I’m not an environmentalist. I’ve lived my whole life in New York; I have no special love for nature. My commitment to climate change comes from a concern for human life in a damaged world. The more I learned about what was happening, the more I realized [climate change] was something that was going to transform every aspect of human life everywhere on the planet. At a kind of entrepreneurial, journalistic level, I realized that that story was not at all being told. And as a result I was like, “Let me dive in! Let me tell that story!” As a result, I find myself as sort of an accidental activist/advocate, who feels even more than before that the story is really urgent and overwhelming.

WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN: I have a little girl, and Lisa is now getting big; she’s 19. I was always very, very resistant to and resentful of this issue. I thought, This is not going to affect me. I have so many other things to worry about. Then I went to Fukushima, Japan, shortly after the tsunami reactor disaster, and what I saw was quite horrible. That was the beginning of my thinking. Walking through these red zones, at first they weren’t so bad; they were just very recently abandoned. You might find a potted plant that was just beginning to wilt, or an umbrella leaning up in a doorway.

But, as the years went by, these places got creepier and creepier: with vines growing over the signs, weeds coming up through the sidewalk, snow drifting in through broken windows. And high radiation readings. The more I talked to the utility company TEPCO and the people who were suffering as a result of [the reactor failure], the more opposed to nuclear power I became. So then I thought, Well, what’s better? Which is the worst of these four fuels — nuclear, oil, natural gas, or coal? And, unfortunately, the answer I came to was all of them.

Bill, you write about your trip to Fukushima in your recent two-volume work, Carbon Ideologies. I had the great pleasure of reading that, and I was struck by its narrative shape. It reads like a letter to the future that is part apology and part explanation for why we didn’t do more in the here and now to mitigate climate change. Why that structure?

WTV: Well, for one thing, it’s easier to be calm about the whole thing if we just suppose that it’s already over, that our generation is gone. The second reason is that, unfortunately, there really is very little that any of us in this room can do about [climate change]. It’s not a matter of setting the thermostat a little differently. A lot of greenhouse gases are released through processes such as agriculture. Rice growing in Japan, which seems very innocuous, releases 50 percent of that country’s methane, which is a very dangerous greenhouse gas. Manufacturing, all over the world, is extremely wasteful. When molten metal is turned into sheet metal, about half of the metal has to be re-melted, because we’re not bothering to really think about how to design our sheet metal. There are all these things that need to be worked on, and we can’t do it. All we can do is make a noise, and hope that we get some government officials to notice. I don’t have much hope there.

Speaking of not having much hope, I have a question for you, David. Last summer, you wrote the article “The Uninhabitable Earth” for New York Magazine. It generated a lot of attention; I think it was somebody at Slate who called it The Silent Spring of our time. But it also generated some criticism, even among people in the scientific and journalistic communities. They said that the piece was too scary, that it was actually damaging the conversations that could be happening. In the months since writing that piece, where is your thinking in terms of how we should be talking about climate change? Is fear a useful tool?

DWW: I think so, yes. Very much. After publishing that article, I heard from a lot of people who felt that the piece posed a risk of turning off possible activists or political activity. That it would cause a kind of burnout effect, or that people would give up hope and lose faith that anything could be done. Fear does pose a risk to people who’ve devoted themselves and their lives to this issue. They might give up. But when I look at the country as a whole, it strikes me as so transparently true that the average person is not scared enough about climate change.

It felt to me then and still feels to me now that if the risk is turning off a few activists, but the benefit is turning on many, many, many, many more people to political action, then that’s a trade-off worth making. And on top of that, there’s this argument of, like: What I said is the truth.

As a journalist, I feel if there’s news that’s good enough to publish in Science or Nature, then it should be given to the public and they should be trusted to interpret it and respond to it on their own. The idea that those who know the science best should be editing what they learn in order to protect the public is patronizing and problematic.

Chantal, I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people go to the theater to find escape. But your theater is political, at least in the sense that climate change is a politicized topic — in this country, at least. So, who is your ideal audience member? Somebody who’s already on board with climate change and just wants to see an artistic representation of it? Or are you hoping to change minds?

CB: Theater is such a rarefied art form that I can’t imagine that anybody who is not already concerned about climate change would show up to see a play about it. So it’s not in my best interest to think that I’m going to change minds. But there are some instances where a few audience members didn’t necessarily believe. There was, for example, a play I’d done at Kansas State University with a student whose family didn’t believe in climate change at all, and yet they came and supported their son.

I like to think of the study “The Six Americas” that was done by researchers at Yale and George Mason. They separated Americans into six categories in relation to climate change, from the most alarmed to deniers, with a series of categories in between. Both the very alarmed and the deniers actually make up small percentages — most people are somewhere in between.

So I’ve been thinking that somebody who’s going to come see a play about climate change might already be thinking about it. If that’s the case, then maybe a play can help them take an extra step. One of my personal favorite successes was at an event we did this past fall that features several short plays. There was a conversation afterward, and a man in the audience said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and I think I’m ready to take another step in my life and become more active.” The play was just one more little thing he experienced, but it also happened to be the tipping point for him.

Scientists and other writers have told me that climate change is notoriously difficult to write about because it contains complex data sets and so many different kinds of science, a lot of it difficult to understand if you’re not a specialist. How do you know when you’ve found something that will spark a story?

WTV: I had so much help on this book from experts. And one man who really helped me is a guy named Pieter Tans at the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. He corrected my numbers and told me something that really shocked me. Greenhouse gases are measured in terms of the 100-year global warming potential of carbon dioxide, which is our most prevalent greenhouse gas. Dr. Tans told me that having a 100-year descriptor is ridiculous. He said in 2,000 years that carbon dioxide will warm eight times as much as in that hundred years. If we stopped all of our emissions tomorrow, some of that carbon dioxide is still going to be warming the planet and elevating the oceans for up to seven or eight thousand years. That was something that really sank in with me.

DWW: Yes, I think we’ve been really blinded by how much the reporting and conversation about climate ends at year 2100. The people who study the Arctic ice sheets say that, in the endgame, the oceans are going to be at least 50 meters higher than they are now. And there’s this amazing fact that I learned the other day: the net effect of our non-carbon pollution — all the aerosols that we have in the air, all the other stuff we burn — has been keeping the planet about a degree Celsius cooler than it would be otherwise. Of course, all that is pollution that’s killing literally hundreds of thousands of people each day. But if we took that out of the air, then we’d have a planet that was already at two degrees Celsius, which is the Paris Accord goal.

To your more particular question, I came to the subject as an amateur. As an eager reader, but as an amateur. I mostly tested facts on myself: if there was some bit of news that made me scream, “Holy shit!” while I was reading, then I knew it was an exciting thing to include in my article. The more familiar stuff I tended to leave out.

There’s all this emergent research about the effects of climate change on economic growth, conflict, even mental health. And all of these areas have been basically untouched by most climate writers and climate scientists. There’s a bounty of new exciting research to unload on the reader, and I think one of the reasons that my magazine story was so successful was that it felt new.

CB: As an artist, I feel a bit different in that I don’t feel like I have the same responsibility as journalists or scientists to convey facts. I do want the stories I tell to be accurate, but their success has less to do with faculty details than what it means to be human. Theater is very much about putting people on stage. So I think a lot about how science can be translated into something meaningful in people’s day-to-day lives. Often, at intermission, I’ll see people looking stuff up on their phones. Sometimes they ask me, “Okay, which book should I read? Who should I talk to?” I try to invite people to go deeper.

DWW: Just to pick up on that for a second: As I mentioned earlier, there’s a ton of research being done. But what I think is most missing is the storytelling. Data is already out there. It’s in CNN stories; it’s in The New York Times. It’s just that those stories are so often told in such clinical and segmented ways that you miss the big picture. There’s an incredibly urgent need for great storytelling about climate that really connects the dots for people.

When people talk about the pace of climate change, what they are often referring to is the idea that it’s a slow process, and that we have a hard time grasping it. But in actuality, it’s moving too fast for us. Half of all the carbon that we’ve admitted in the history of humanity has been emitted since Al Gore published his first book on climate — which is since Tiger Woods played his first Masters, since the Notorious B.I.G. released Ready to Die. That is not a long period of time. We’ve done more than half of the damage that we’ve done to the environment in just that 25-year period. That’s incredibly fast and we’ve not done a good enough job of storytelling when it comes to speed.

CB: I think there’s something very hopeful about storytelling, even though the outcome may be very dire. I think of our situation like being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Do you try to live your days with dignity and fight until the end? Or do you spend all your time asking the doctor all the terrible ways in which it’s going to hurt and just give into that? I think the most important thing, if we want to keep our integrity as a species, is to go through this with as much dignity as possible. We need to think about day-to-day life, how to make it better.

The title of this panel is “Art and Activism of the Anthropocene.” Do you think of yourselves as activists?

CB: Yes. I used to say no, and then people would correct me. There’s one project in particular that I’m engaged in that’s very much about activism. It’s called Climate Change Theatre Action, and it happens every other year. We last did it in 2015, and this past fall we commissioned 50 writers from around the world — every continent was represented — to write short plays, each five minutes long, about an aspect of climate change. We then made the plays available to people who want to present them as an event. The plays are free and people can do readings, performances. Some have done radio shows and site-specific presentations. There are people here tonight who did events that involved dancing.

The project is about giving people the tools to have a conversation that is not based in science, necessarily, or in politics, but which allows them to bring all of themselves without feeling afraid. Then, in addition to the theatrical presentation, we asked people to take actions if they could, whether connecting with universities or taking a political step like writing letters to representatives. We gave people artistic tools to become activists.

DWW: I think of myself mostly still as a storyteller rather than an activist, but it’s sort of hard to avoid doing the work of activism when you’re telling this kind of story. I care deeply about the fate of the planet, and if I can do a little bit to help that, then that’s fantastic. But I would say that day to day my main objectives are really still about storytelling. I’m actually especially curious to know what Bill says, because in that beautiful opening to his new book he writes about how he’s not doing enough, and none of us are doing enough.

WTV: I wish I could do something good and important in my life before I die. But even if someone read Carbon Ideologies and said, “Oh, Bill, you know, now I understand climate change,” I would say I still didn’t do enough. Unless it was Mr. Scott Pruitt who called me up and said, “Bill, you really changed my mind.” Then I’d feel pretty good.

In the time you’ve spent reading and writing about climate change, what has surprised you the most?

DWW: For me, the biggest thing is really what I said about speed. It’s amazing to think that this planet was basically stable — climate-wise — when my father was born, but will be in a state of complete climate chaos by the time I die, all because of the way we lived in those intervening generations. Everything that we now do requires this sort of almost mythological scale. We are really taking the planet into our own hands every day as a species, and we now have the responsibility of trying to save it over the course of the next century or so.

This is not an endeavor that humans have ever found themselves engaged in before. I mean, this is really drama at the scale of allegory and parable, but it is real. And we are those actors. We are those gods. And yet we are behaving as though the story is unfolding completely out of our control. We’re just watching it, which is really dispiriting.

CB: The one thing that surprised me recently was in an article by, I think, Elizabeth Kolbert. She said that the models that scientists use to predict where we will be all take into consideration technology, but none of that technology will be able to scale fast enough to achieve anything. When I learned that, I thought, Oh, my god. I mean, we’re really worse off than you would think. There’s still so much that’s banking on technology, and it’s nowhere near close to doing what we need it to do.

DWW: One of the reasons why we have so much faith in technology is that we’ve had this 200-year run of ever-rising incomes, especially in the West, and technological advancement. But that period of economic growth happened because we’re extracting fossil fuels and burning them. Once we stop using carbon, we will be unable to produce meaningful, sustained economic growth going forward, which imperils our trajectories of growth and technological progress.

WTV: I went to interview the retired CEO of Conoco, whom I actually liked very much and who doesn’t believe in climate change. And he said, “You know, Bill, there are all kinds of people in the Third World who want to be able to take a hot shower and don’t want to have to cook over cow dung anymore, and they’re going to head in that direction, and we can’t stop them.” Our tragedy really results from continually increasing demand. You can blame that, if you’d like, on the capitalist system. Although the Soviets were all saying, “Don’t worry, the next five-year plan, we’re going to give so much more to the people.” So, much of this increase in demand is stemming from the legitimate aspirations of very, very poor people who just want to have what we want. And I think that’s what really surprised me when I started thinking about it. We can blame certain people, but, you know, can I blame this old lady in Bangladesh I saw who was carrying shocks of corn by hand and sweating? How nice if she could have gone home to a little air conditioning or had some filter for water, so she wouldn’t get sick, or a little electrical energy help to carry this corn. What can I say to that?

We have time for just one more question. How do you all feel about the future? Are you hopeful or are you despairing?

CB: I’m not despairing. In moments I am, but I don’t think I could get up every day if it were constant. There’s enough going on that’s scary to drive me to do what I do, and it would be hard to sustain it all if I didn’t have some hope. But I don’t know what that hope is exactly, other than making a difference in the world. If somebody asked me on my deathbed, I think I would like to be able to say I did my best.

DWW: I guess for me it depends on what your definition of hopefulness is. Once you’ve wrapped your mind around the fact that the planet could conceivably be made uninhabitable in the next century, then total environmental degradation and devastation start to look like a positive outcome. Personally, I think that we’re much likelier to end up somewhere like three degrees of warming, which is going to be devastating in so many ways, but which will still leave the planet able to support human civilization that’s similar to the one we have now. But with many, many people suffering. We’ve engineered this devastation in the space of a lifetime or two, and we now hold it in our power to slow it down.

I think most indications are that we are not taking nearly as much action as we should, and things therefore just keep getting worse even as we get more scared about what’s possible. The ultimate lesson of climate change — for me, anyway — is that it’s an invention of human hands. And, as a result, you can imagine human action being up to the task of mitigating it. There are a lot of reasons to be not optimistic, but it is conceivably possible. It’s been really interesting to see all these people on the right, the deniers, say that all temperature variations are the result of natural variations and therefore we should be less worried about them. And I’m like, “Well, you know, if it was all out of our control, that’s actually way scarier.” The fact that we’ve engineered [these problems] means that we are on some level in control of them. We don’t have the adequate politics to take control of it. We don’t have adequate energy sources, but on some theoretical level, it is within our control — and, therefore, there’s a reason, I think, for some moderate hope.

WTV: I’ve always loved apocalyptic science fiction, so I couldn’t help but just really enjoy David’s article. I thought, You know, now I’m going to be the hero, at least to myself, of one of these horrible stories. It’s kind of an adventure in a way. I don’t know how many of you have read the book or saw the movie The Road, but that had quite an effect on me. At first I thought, How grim, how terrible, and then I thought, You know, the father’s love for his son, and the desire to have his son live on after him, is so wonderfully ordinary. I hope that my daughter’s going to be around after I’m gone, and I hope the human race is going to live on after I’m gone, and I’ll do what little I can. But I know that at some point I have to be gone, and maybe that’s not so bad.

We now have time for questions from the audience.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Great panel. Thank you very much. I’m curious: If all three of you were wildly successful, and you had just a huge readership, massive — say billions of people suddenly understanding what you understand, on a very practical level — then what would you have them do?

DWW: Elect politicians who make climate a first-order priority, and not, like, a sixth- or seventh-order priority.

CB: Switch to renewable energy. Consumerism in developed countries has to go down.

WTV: Reduce demand; reduce demand for almost everything. You could do that by reducing population, by reducing consumption, or by making manufacturing and agriculture more efficient. None of it may be enough, but that’s what I would have everybody do.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: Talk about how you see climate change interacting with other progressive movements.

WTV: Environmental disasters affect disadvantaged people. In West Virginia, there was a horrible chemical spill in 2014 that affected the drinking water of about 300,000 people. And, you know, they’re “only rednecks from Appalachia,” so who cares? But as more and more of this stuff happens, people who are from these communities are going to start thinking that environmental issues are important to them, too. When I was in college, I was in the anti-nuclear movement, and we went to an occupation blockade in New Hampshire; this was in 1980. And some of the townspeople told me, “Look, you’re just a bunch of privileged white kids. People of color don’t have time for your aesthetic skullduggery; do something useful.” And now I think it’s really nice to see more and more people of all races and creeds seeing that we can work together. This isn’t about just protecting some mountain where some rich person lives. It’s about protecting the air and the climate for all of us.

DWW: As Bill was just saying, the impacts of climate change are going to be felt overwhelmingly by the world’s poor, and that’s tragic on many different levels. Bangladesh is really like ground zero; I mean, the whole country could well be underwater by the end of the century. There are hundreds of millions of people there. Consider the Syrian refugee crisis, which involved several million people. You can just imagine what a refugee crisis that’s one hundred times bigger will do to our global politics.

I think it’s also important to remember that the main drivers of our fate are growth and modernization, especially in India and China. China in particular has been taking huge steps over the last year or two, which is very, very helpful, but they’re not taking those steps for progressive reasons. They’re taking those steps because they want to save their population from the public health disasters that they’ve seen industrialization inflict on the country.

The impact the behavior of the United States — and all of the West — will have on the planet is marginal compared to the impact that India and China will have in the next century or two. I applaud activism that’s being done here for sure, but I’m mostly just crossing my fingers and hoping that leaders in India and China do what is necessary and important. In a kind of perverse way, I actually see the actions that China has taken as being inspired by the evacuation of American moral leadership on the planet. If Hillary Clinton were president and we were still a party to the Paris Accord, still trying to rally the world, I’m not sure that Xi Jinping would have taken such aggressive action. Just think: In a way, we could look back 30 years from now and say, weirdly, the election of Donald Trump was the best thing that happened to the planet.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: The phrase “climate change” sounds very neutral. It doesn’t alarm people. Are there different ways of talking about it?

CB: I know that sometimes people are successful in talking about it when they consider who the audience is and what matters to them. If you talk to farmers, for example, then talk about how their farming has recently been affected. You don’t even have to say the words “climate change.” We need to engage people in a way that bypasses the political charge of climate change.

DWW: I think extreme weather is really useful in this respect, too. It used to be that if you were trying to get people scared about climate change, you’d have to point to some distant future. Now there’s so much horrifying climate disaster going on that you can just point to the news, to meteorological data, and most people understand already that we’re living in an unprecedented time. I think that’s very helpful, even if it’s also terrifying.

AUDIENCE MEMBER: What do you guys think about space exploration as a way to save future generations?

CB: If we haven’t learned from what we’ve done here, I doubt we can do better on another planet.

DWW: The absolute worst-case climate scenario for Earth is that it’s still going to be way, way, way, way, way more habitable than any of the other planets we’re talking about visiting. There’s scientific value in visiting those planets and maybe even in colonizing them, but it’s going to be a lot harder to set up a large-scale colony on Mars than it would be to save a totally degraded Earth. I mean, if you need to build a greenhouse to survive, you could just build a greenhouse here.

WTV: In the end, the number of people who would suffer from space travel might not be much different from the number who survive on Earth.

Bill, David, Chantal, thank you. And thank you, everyone, for being here this evening.

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This series is co-produced by the New York Society Library and Guernica magazine, with additional support from Orion magazine.

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Amy Brady is the deputy publisher of Guernica magazine and the senior editor of the Chicago Review of Books, where she writes a monthly column about how contemporary novelists are thinking about climate change.


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