Where the Sidewalk Ends: Four Writers on Climate Change and Understanding the Overarching Crisis of Our Time

Exactly one month ago, the sustainability teams at UO hosted WOHESC, a regional sustainability in higher education conference. Attendees included a mix of professionals and students, spending two days talking about everything from putting social justice into practice to the feasibility of widespread nuclear power in the US.

That conference moment happened right before everything changed, although the signs were present. I set out hand sanitizer next to the snacks at my student event. We all engaged in a combination of elbow bumps and awkward handshakes and hugs (remember hugs, ya’ll?). But we gathered together nonetheless. We were the last major event I know of to not get canceled. The much larger conference on campus right after us canceled. By the next week, events from SXSW to March Madness had been called off. A month ago feels like another world.

During the conference, it was my very great pleasure to moderate a panel of writers, in a conversation about the climate crisis—How do they approach the topic as writers? How does science, culture, injustice, and history factor into their work? What do we do with the paradox of love, how certain human groups are not only raping and pillaging the planet but also loving it to death? How do you make meaning out of something so massive and overwhelming and complex?

In putting the panel together, I deliberately curated a diverse group of writers working in different genres:

  • Memoirist and nature writer Rebecca Lawton writes about water, river rafting, deserts, and more. The panel focused primarily on her collection of essays The Oasis this Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West. This lovely book explores our entanglement with water, and Lawton writes with love and complexity about our relationship with this most vital of resources.
  • Investigative journalist McKenzie Funk looks to uncover stories predicated on power. His book Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming looks at several individuals, groups, companies, and governments setting themselves up to profit from global warming. Several of these efforts are laughable in their ineptitude but the overall portrait Funk paints is of a future not unlike our present: the rich and the rich countries survive while the poor and poor countries suffer and die.
  • M. Jackson is a geologist, glaciologist, and Nat Geo explorer, in addition to being a writer. Her The Secret Lives of Glaciers examines what glaciers mean to the people of Iceland and the varied, complex reactions Icelanders have to their glaciers melting from global warming. She also wrote a memoir, While Glaciers Slept: Being Human in the Time of Climate Change, which compares the grief she experiences after her parents die of separate cancers within a year of each other with the overwhelming grief caused by the climate crisis and its related losses. It’s a lovely book that honors its twinned griefs while making the case for resiliency and hope.
  • Novelist Omar El Akkad understands the present by imagining the possible. His 2017 novel American War takes place over 50 years in the future, in an America and a world where global warming has profoundly shaped the landscape and lifestyles of people but where the fissures of history still run deep. These fissures include, most notably, the American Civil War, structural race and class inequality, and tensions between the US and the Middle East. As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

During the conference panel, these four spoke with passion and eloquence about the crisis of our time. They were of course asked about hope, and Akkad noted that because the climate crisis is a slow crisis—in contrast to, say, a nuclear bomb—it is never too late to start working to solve it, which mean there is always room for hope.

For me, the most fascinating takeaway came in their collective approach to writing. I’ve always thought of writing as like building a house, an act of meaning-making, of bringing order to chaos. But in describing their processes, particularly in wrestling with something as capacious as the climate crisis, these writers described writing as something more akin to a sandbox, a place to play with ideas and possibilities.

Overall, preparing for and moderating this panel—a.k.a, getting to read these people’s books and talk to them about writing and the world—has been the highlight of my year so far. Their work reminds us that we need artists and creators, as well as scientists and activists and policy makers, because they reveal what’s hidden and play with what’s possible. In short, they help us understand ourselves and our world.

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