Why Write? Toward a Style for Climate Change

It would seem that one of the many by-products of our fossil-fuel economy is books. The atmosphere warms, species are extinguished, the poor are displaced, and publishers publish. There’s not much a person can do about the first three, but reading books is an easy way to feel absolved of guilt. Did you catch the one by Jonathan Safran Foer? Or was it Franzen?

Precisely because we may be aware of the unevenly distributed injustices of the fossil-fuel economy and politically committed to ending them, we require a literary criticism of climate-change writing—a project like that of Rob Nixon, a scholar of the environmental humanities, for example. Which is to say we need writing about writing about climate change that asks: What are the conventions of this coalescing genre? Nixon and other scholars have engaged this question, but a new volume of collected writing on climate change from the New Yorker presents a more focused lens for examining it. What is the value of journalism about climate change addressed, undoubtedly, to this literary magazine’s faithful readers? Why does this volume of repurposed, sometimes outdated reporting really need to exist?

While the book might be dismissed on these grounds, it is an anthology, after all, and anthologies designate a particular historical, intellectual, and aesthetic terrain. The Fragile Earth is an occasion. It announces a new genre and calls out for new criticism. Climate-change writing will not save the world, even if it sometimes seems to think it should, but it is likely to teach us something about how and why we write.

Climate-change writing tends to be characterized by an urgency, with no obvious outlet. It is haunted by its own futility.

The ideal case for environmental writing with both literary and political merit is Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. Although it is not about climate change per se, Carson’s account of the ecological devastation of pesticides is one of the primary models for all subsequent environmental writing for two reasons: first, because it led to actual policy change in the US, which subsequently banned the use of DDT. And second, because it is a moving and even beautiful book. I don’t think these two things are unrelated.

Before it was published in book form, Silent Spring was serialized in three editions of the New Yorker, in 1962. Later, in 1989, the magazine published a long essay by Bill McKibben called “Reflections: The End of Nature,” which described the emerging science and politics of climate change. The previous year, NASA’s James Hansen had testified about the consequences of greenhouse gases before members of the US Senate, earning wide press coverage; the UN had created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; and George H. W. Bush had promised to combat the greenhouse effect with the “White House effect.” It must have seemed possible that McKibben’s essay could be like Carson’s, that “The End of Nature” could movingly lead to genuine political change. Of course, that’s not what happened.

McKibben’s essay is now a classic exemplar of a genre whose canonicity is marked by the publication of this new anthology. In the foreword to The Fragile Earth, which begins with “The End of Nature” and spans the intervening 30 years, David Remnick, the New Yorker’s editor, expresses a hope that the volume will demonstrate “that climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to be considered among a list of others. Rather, it concerns the very preconditions for all species to go on living on this planet.” I realize this is meant to make the project sound heftier, but I can’t help but hear a note of resignation. Climate-change writing tends to be characterized by an urgency, with no obvious outlet. It is haunted by its own futility.

Of course, climate-change writing is a capacious category, and this volume showcases only one of its varieties. The New Yorker essay is a thing all its own. You will not find much radical anti-capitalism, for example, or many theoretical reflections on historical change. In classic New Yorker fashion, many of the contributions consist of rigorous reportage with a prominent authorial presence and a relatively constrained stylistic range.

The writers are always traveling places—from Antarctica to northern Alaska—and writing about what they see. It is a recognizable pattern, often detectable in the opening sentence: “The journey to the Chhota Shigri Glacier, in the Himalayan peaks of northern India … ”; “The town of El Valle de Antón, in central Panama, sits in the middle of a volcanic crater formed about a million years ago”; “Slapout, Oklahoma, at the intersection of a county road and a much used east-west state highway, has a population of five.” On our behalf, the reporters travel far and wide to witness species in the process of becoming extinct, apocalyptic wildfires, drought and famine, the persistent effects of colonialism, including extreme poverty and violent extremism, and a variety of other horrors created or exacerbated by climate change.

Indeed, witnessing is the likeliest justification for this variety of climate-change writing. In theory, at least, it could raise awareness of an issue (but only if it’s actually an issue) and its consequences. In a book about the emergence of the experimental method, the historians of science Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer identify a practice they call “virtual witnessing.” By publishing descriptions and images of “an experimental scene,” society members could “[obviate] the necessity for either direct witness or replication” of the experiment. “Through virtual witnessing,” they continue, “the multiplication of witnesses could be, in principle, unlimited. It was therefore the most powerful technology for constituting matters of fact.” The prevalence of witnessing in The Fragile Earth suggests that it imagines itself to facilitate networks of consensus and solidarity that might not otherwise exist.

Americans are among those most responsible for climate change; is there value in confronting our handiwork?

It seems likely, however, that most people who read climate-change essays and monographs are already convinced of the urgency of the climate crisis. Will anybody not so convinced pay for and read an anthology of New Yorker essays about it? Even in the cases where learning more about climate change will lead to political action, it is not clear why such readers should buy this book, rather than a more up-to-date account of the situation.

This belatedness becomes an especially noticeable problem in the section about climate solutions. In one contribution from 2008, Michael Specter introduces the hope that carbon trading might encourage an end to deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia: “Possessing rights to carbon would grant new power to farmers who, for the first time, would be paid to preserve their forests rather than destroy them.” Specter acknowledges that “such plans are seen by many people as morally unattractive.” Subsequent reporting from outlets like The Atlantic and ProPublica has demonstrated just how right those many people were, showing how carbon trading has become a travesty of climate regulation. This is the clearest instance where out-of-date reporting seems counterproductive and where the liberal response to climate change we might expect from the New Yorker seems least plausible. So-called market solutions are not likely to solve a problem that was, after all, supercharged by the market.

So maybe that’s not what this book is for. It’s not going to offer the likeliest way out of the problem. Are there other justifications for its existence? For example, is there an inherently moral dimension to witnessing? Americans are among those most responsible for climate change; is there value in confronting our handiwork? This moral perspective suggests that even if such writing doesn’t make a difference, we still have a duty to attend to the consequences of our actions. Maybe, but there’s something too navel-gazey in that idea for my taste. Reading about climate change doesn’t really put you on moral high ground. Self-castigation won’t get us anywhere good.

I think this book is good for something else entirely. In announcing and defining a genre, it forces vital questions on those in the business of climate writing and reading: What should climate-change writing be? What is its ambition as it moves forward?

In my experience, climate-change writing is a distinctly unpleasant genre, with an emotional range that encompasses indignation, abjection, and grief, with occasional but diminishing hope. David Owen, one of the contributors to this volume, puts it best: “On a shelf in my office is a small pile of recent books about the environment that I plan to reread obsessively if I’m found to have a terminal illness, because they’re so unsettling that they may make me less upset about being snatched from my life in my prime.” The essays collected in The Fragile Earth are frequently unsettling, and they do not, in general, strive for the status of Literature (though there are moments when scenes of destruction are recounted with evocative and disconcertingly artful metaphor, such as when Christine Kenneally describes the apples hanging from a charred apple tree as “pitch-black round baubles”).

One of the collection’s ironies is that the two most essayistic—which is to say, most exploratory, reflective, and, in my view, captivating—pieces are also the ones in which you will learn the least about climate change: Jonathan Franzen’s “The End of the End of the World” and Kathryn Schulz’s “Writers in the Storm.” Franzen interweaves a sort of travel narrative—recounting his often absurd experience as an amateur birdwatcher on a luxury cruise to Antarctica (shades of David Foster Wallace)—with a family memoir. It is more personal essay than reportage. And Schulz’s contribution is an exceptionally panoptic work of criticism that traces the function of weather across a range of literary texts, from myths to contemporary works of fiction.

This begs a question: Can we judge climate-change writing for its style or its capacity for beauty? Kim Stanley Robinson is brilliant, but not because his Mars trilogy is particularly beautiful. Naomi Klein, too, is heroic, but more for the incisive clarity of thought than for the style of prose. The first salient fact about climate-change writing is that it is about climate change. The second is that it is about writing, and its value has as much to do with the writing part as with the climate part.

Writing, it seems to me, is a strange way to respond to the climate crisis. But then writing is a strange way to respond to anything. Some of the most beautiful and most valuable writing I am aware of is composed in the face of violence and injustice. When I read James Baldwin, John Berger, or Arundhati Roy, I am capable of the conviction that it is necessary to write beautifully about such things, that they are the raison d’être for writing itself, that in a perfectly just world there would be no need for writing. Maybe that is why Plato banished the poets.

If we think that another book about parts per million, degrees Celsius, and glacial melt is going to bring us closer to climate justice, or that the New Yorker will pull off another Silent Spring, then I’m not sure what we’re doing here. Don’t get me wrong: spreading knowledge is vital and will be an important part of any future action, especially in our current dysfunctional information environment. The New Yorker is famously, and commendably, reliable. Its two major climate writers since 1989—McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert, who are both well represented in this volume—have earned widespread admiration and praise. But in asking readers to think about climate-change writing as a genre, this book underscores the fact that spreading knowledge isn’t enough.

Future climate-change writing will be especially useful insofar as, in addition to raising awareness, it rejects the temptation of the techno-fix and market solution and, instead, undertakes the work of reimagining our appallingly unjust and violent economic system. Ideologies are difficult to see because we live inside them. Climate-change writing, like a lot of writing, is valuable if and when it renders visible the violence and injustice of those ideologies and, just as importantly, imagines radical possible futures outside of them. Style and beauty may actually be necessary for such a project.


This article was commissioned by Nicholas Damesicon

Featured image: Gulf of Mexico, Florida, USA (detail) (2019). Photograph by USGS / Unsplash

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