“I am looking for a way to say I love you that matters. Before there is nothing left to say but I miss you, into the wind.”
–Melissa Febos, “Iowa Bestiary,” from The World as We Knew It
On June 16, 1962, Rachel Carson published, in The New Yorker, the first of three serialized installments, which together would become Silent Spring, perhaps the most important single piece of American environmental writing in the 20th century. “There was once a town in the heart of America,” she begins, “where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings.”
It is an opening famous in the annals of green literary culture. Carson called the introduction “A Fable for Tomorrow,” and its idealized picture of small-town America threw into high relief what was to follow: 16 chapters built from 507 primary sources to establish that a class of 19 pesticides, the organochlorines, had devastating effects not only upon the insects they were invented to destroy, but upon the entire food chain: bumble bees and chickens, cattle and trout, songbirds and the owners of all those small-town homes.
Silent Spring has become part of the myth of mainstream American environmentalism, and the man who claimed to have invented the internet, Al Gore, once wrote that “the publication of Silent Spring can properly be seen as the beginning of the modern environmental movement.” Though this isn’t true—think of Aldo Leopold, and Theodore Roosevelt, and John Muir, and George Perkins Marsh, whose Man and Nature (1864) foreshadowed Silent Spring’s working title, Man Against the Earth—it is more hyperbole than lie, a convenient peg on which to hang an enormously complex history that includes, in Carson’s own time, labor organizers, black activists, student radicals, grass-roots women’s libbers, and the counterculture’s freaks, as historians Adam Rome and Chad Montrie have shown.
What is true is that Silent Spring has helped to establish a certain style of writing. Some call it environmental writing, while others fold it into the older, larger canon of nature writing—the label is less important than how this writing works. Rather than the lone sojourner taking to the woods to pen lyrical thoughts on the simple life, the path Carson’s followers trod take them into the wilderness of statistics, scientific papers, and bureaucratic statutes in order to expose, and, hopefully, to right an environmental wrong. Its register is more often journalistic and empirical than poetic and subjective.
It is confrontational writing, the sort that “takes as its subject the collision between people and the rest of the world,” as Bill McKibben put it in his introduction to the collection he edited, American Earth: Environmental Writing Since Thoreau (2008), and it is often strident, even angry, but also hopeful: writing as fighting, where the weapons are words, honed razor-sharp on the fine-grit of fact, with a livable Earth as the prize.“We used to be a story in nature. Now we are the story.”
For a while, such writing seemed to be changing the world: DDT and a half-dozen other pesticides that Silent Spring profiled were banned, Barry Commoner’s work helped pass the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and Wallace Stegner’s “Wilderness Letter” gave the Wilderness Act of 1964 its soul.
But something is changing in the world of nature/environmental writing, a response to the burning, heating, flooding, drying, and dying that is happening faster than at any other time in human history. Ours is the so-called Anthropocene, the age of humans, when everything—the air, the earth, and the sea—carries our dirty thumbprint.
Carson’s “Fable for Tomorrow” was a warning, but midnight has come around, and tomorrow’s fables have become today’s regret for what we’ve lost. No longer does it seem that the answer to our environmental problems is to be found either in writing about long hikes or reporting on the rate of Arctic ice melt—“We need new stories” is the common refrain. But why? What could such stories possibly hope to do? And what would they look like?
A landmark new volume of 19 essays, edited by Amy Brady and Tajja Isen and released nearly 60-years to the day after Silent Spring was published, called The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate, is among the recent attempts to find the words, forms, styles, syntax, structures, and tropes with which to write the story of the Anthropocene. It is a vital collection, necessarily as tentative as our future, a hinge between the old and a new that has not yet solidified.
“We are among the first—and perhaps one of the last—human populations to have memories of what life was like before,” write Brady and Isen in their introduction, and it is that oddness, that impossible position of being both first and last at the same time, that the collection captures so well.
The book begins, in an oblique way, with Carson. “Summer nights in Kansas used to be so alive with the sounds of insects and animals, that, if you wanted to tell a story, you had to shout to be heard,” runs the first line of the introduction, launching a five-paragraph mini-essay on Brady’s midwestern childhood. It is a brilliant inversion of Carson’s fable, retrospective rather than forward-looking, a testament of life in Carson’s darkly prophesied future, turned inward toward lived experience rather than outward toward empirical fact. In its own way, Brady and Isen’s introduction is both an homage to Silent Spring and a gentle break with it.
For though the canonized story of Silent Spring paints a picture of environmental victory, that picture is based on a convenient distortion. Silent Spring is a masterpiece, but it wasn’t a win: between 1960 and 2008, according to a recent report by the US Department of Agriculture, pesticide use in the US increased by 263 percent. The EPA estimates that more than a billion pounds of pesticides were spread in 2012 alone.
If where you live is anything like any of the places I’ve called home, then spring brings with it, not dandelions, but the little yellow flags warning children, adults, and pets away from the lawns sprayed with sickly sweet-smelling pesticides such as Monsanto’s Roundup and 2,4D (one of the chemicals Carson profiled), both highly toxic, highly profitable chemicals. All our nights now fall still.
That irrefutable fact of loss that opens The World as We Knew It haunts every essay in the collection, and each contributor’s prose struggles to fit itself to this new reality. It is perhaps most obvious in the way that many of the authors choose to drop the subjects of their sentences.
Lydia Millet’s “From This Valley, They Say, You Are Leaving,” an elegy marked by the sweet sadness of the old cowboy song from which it takes its title, is the story of her home on a patch of Arizona desert that hasn’t yet been destroyed, though for 15 years the local utility company has been plotting to bulldoze a path through her yard. “I’d like to think ownership meant something beyond resale value—say, permission to protect a place from harm,” she writes, even as the very sentences of her essay come apart:
I like to believe I won’t have to dwindle into frailty hobbling along a treeless sidewalk in some gray winter in New York, beside garbage cans and parked cars. That instead I may be allowed to grow old in the desert. Maybe even manage to be outside when the moment comes. Slip away under the stars, as the warm wind moves the branches of the trees.
Elizabeth Rush, whose breakout Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore (2018) prominently featured the technique, also drops the subject in her “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Antarctica,” as do Kim Stanley Robinson, Melissa Febos, and Meera Subramanian in theirs.
It is a curious, jarring thing to drop the subject, especially in the sentences that begin with a verb—“Snake up three flights of stairs to aisle 63A,” writes Rush of visiting Brown University’s library—because they are uncomfortably ambiguous: they’re syntactically imperatives, but it is clear the implied subject is not you, the reader, but she, the narrator. Yet, because the subject is lost, these sentences create an odd feeling of powerlessness, as if the predicates have arisen and are taking their revenge upon the subjects by setting them adrift in the text’s swirl.
Isn’t there something about that feeling—of inhabiting a swirling world beyond our control—in the way many of us experience climate change? In the way that no matter what environmentally virtuous actions we may take, CO2 levels tick resolutely upwards, wildfires burn hotter and longer, and plastic continues to infect everything?Most (though certainly not all) nature/travel hybrids involve a white westerner heading off to (for him) exotic lands to meet (for him) exotic people.
Part of that feeling of confusion comes from climate change’s sheer ubiquity. Where, for instance, is it? To point to the skies and oceans and how the permafrost liquifies in Siberia and the soils dry out in the Midwestern US—to say that it is everywhere, all the time and all at once—is to say something unintelligible. To ask when it began and when it will end—nearly impossible questions to answer that nonetheless rage across the academy, from the humanities to the sciences—is to come away with a sense of a lifespan that exists on the geological time scale, which is difficult for us, living our ashes-to-ashes lives in decades, to comprehend.
Climate change is what the philosopher and critic Timothy Morton has called a hyperobject: a thing so massive, both spatially and temporally, that we cannot get outside of it for a clear, objective description—and this presents an enormous problem for the standard mode of environmental writing, which tends to see environmental problems as objective, empirical, quantifiable, and so solvable.
We simply cannot see climate change entirely and clearly, which, I think, accounts for one of the oddest features of climate writing: its reliance on lists. Pick up nearly any essay, article, think piece, or editorial about climate change, and you’ll find a list of facts—CO2 levels, or fossil fuel consumption rates, or the pace of extinction, or average monthly temperatures, or hundreds of other variables one can pick and choose from, usually compressed into a breathless paragraph, all of which illustrate the same point: our world is quickly filling with trash. Morton calls this “ecological information dump mode,” a way of writing in which “at least one factoid—and often a whole plateful—seems to be falling on to our heads. And this falling has an authoritative quality.”
There’s a faith at the heart of such lists that climate change is nothing more than a set of phenomena, nothing more than a problem of information and that to be informed is enough; but there’s also a sense of panic in how quickly and massively these facts pile up, far faster than our ability to lasso them with narrative. Heather Houser calls this version of the list The Catalog of Despair, just one of a number of writing tics she identifies as miring climate writing, and so climate thinking.
There are more than a dozen of these lists in The World as We Knew It, though the best of them are neither tics nor bids for technocratic authority, but something fresher: complex and deliberate reworkings of fact and narrative. Emily Raboteau’s “How Do You Live With Displacement?” is one of these. The entire piece is a list mapping the conjunction of climate change and COVID, and it is introduced by a spare two-paragraph explanation—“the following is a diary of the first three months of 2020… I abandoned my nascent climate activism to homeschool my children under quarantine… The only action I could maintain was writing down what people in my network said about what they were losing, or stood to lose”—which is itself very nearly a list: clipped, declarative sentences with little variation in pacing or rhythm that could as well have been bullet points.
The essay’s flat affect and exhausted tenor persist for the 45 following entries (some of which are themselves lists), as if contagious. There’s not much of a story, no arc or development, just repetition: the unnaturalness of racism, the violence of climate change, loss and fear… but there’s also a bright streak of gallows irreverence. On February 13: “Ryan said it was T-Shirt weather again in Antarctica”; a month later: “Dr. Stephen, an Upper West Side dentist, predicted that when they finally closed the public school in NYC, the looting and chaos would begin. I wanted to argue, but he was drilling into my tooth.”
Raboteau’s essay is a modernist collage, a series of readymades. Her list, a method for layering voices, and with this layering Raboteau turns the list against itself, giving us the sound and fury of a community, signifying that none of us are alone, that all of us are stuck somewhere in the middle of something impossibly big, that even in that stuckness, and despite vast inequality, solidarity and creativity are possible.
There are subtler reworkings of the standard tropes, too, among them Rachel Riederer’s “Walking on Water,” one of the best longform reported essays I’ve read, which, in its first line—“I stared out the window of the Jeep at the spot where the Nile had been halved”—marks hers as one of that oldest hybrids of American nature/environmental writing, the travel essay.
On its surface, “Walking on Water” is the story of how the Bujagali Hydroelectric Dam, on the Nile River, in Uganda, was built. But it takes Riederer only two paragraphs to begin diverting the flow of her narrative—she was really in Uganda, she tells us, to report on a series of environmental issues plaguing Lake Victoria, including the mystery of why the lake’s water level had been dropping. But that’s not really what the essay is about, either.
It is only once the dam is built, the narrator tells us in a flash-forward about half-way through, once the dam floods the Bujagali Falls, which stand at the center of the indigenous Basoga spiritual world, that she, and so we, arrive, through flashback, at the essay’s heart. It is an extremely complex weaving, skillfully done so as to feel natural, that leads to a moment of clarity: “I’d never seen so much water exerting so much force,” Riederer writes of the-yet-to-be flooded Falls.
The air was full of mist, and constantly moving. The ground itself seemed to vibrate the soles of my feet… But all of these elements—the sound, the thrum of the bank, the cool wafts of fog—were peanuts compared to the river itself, an arc of pure force carving its way through stone.
Before the falls can be destroyed, the World Bank, which funds the project and has strict rules about how to appropriate resources from Indigenous peoples, decrees that the local Bagosa spiritual leader, the Nabamba Bujagali, will have to move his people’s spirits from the falls before construction can start.
The trouble is, there are two men who claim to be the legitimate Nabamba Bujagali, each of whom have support from his local faction, each of whom was contracted to move the spirits from the falls, but only one of whom was successful in getting the spirits to go. The other Nabamba Bujagali says that the spirits are cranky, that they want more; perhaps they need more money, or fancier perks; or perhaps they prefer their falls unflooded. It is unclear.
Most (though certainly not all) nature/travel hybrids involve a white westerner heading off to (for him) exotic lands to meet (for him) exotic people, in order to return to his readers with his hard-earned wisdom gleaned from his travels with “them” as bounty. But Riederer’s essay is different, and it refuses to fall into that, by now, generations-old colonial trope.
It instead leaves us with that lack of clarity—in fact the essay is woven from it. Riederer’s essay splits and braids time; the narrator alone inhabits three different moments simultaneously, but there’s also a spiritual time, a colonial time, and the time of capital: which of these is the “right” time? How would we even know? All this against the steadiness of the Nile, the pure natural force carving its way through the stone of the falls, surely an authoritative time-keeper, and the traditional foundation of nature writing—except that the dam flooded the falls, submerging the river’s force. We’re left suspended in irresolution with the ghostly sound of the drowned falls in our ears.
The nature of a hinge is to swing. It can butterfly outward, allowing passage through, or it can fold itself closed, shutting us in. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Moments of Being,” an account of three hiking trips that he and his buddies took in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, is one of those that limits the imagination.
Like many of the essays in The World as We Knew It, it has its literary predecessors, in this case John Muir’s three Sierra books, but it has none of Muir’s famously ekphrastic (or purple, depending on your taste) prose, none of the spirituality or glorying in the thin air of the mountains, not even a hairy-chested joyful barbaric yawping over the roof of the world that is stereotypical of mountaineering tales. Instead, Robinson’s essay plods, flatly. Caught in a major storm, he writes:
The wind relented, then the rain stopped. When the sleepless gray dawn came, we crawled out completely bedraggled. We consulted with each other. We’d all had the same experience, so we didn’t have to describe the particulars, merely marvel at them, pleased we had done as well as we had. We concluded we could maybe use stronger tarps.
The whole essay is like this, one damn thing after another, an account of how three separate hiking trips were soggier, nearly ruined, because of climate change. The conclusion itself is a shrug:
Well, it could be worse. In fact, it will be worse. Drought is worse, and drought is coming; which means that these new extra summer rains in the Sierra might even be considered a good thing for the living biomes under them. In any case, we deal.
We deal? A recent study in the scientific journal Nature Communications estimates that, if current trends continue, climate change will cause 83 million deaths over the next eighty years. So many of the essays in The World as We Know It are alive, even if implicitly, to the inequalities and violence that are integral to the past, present, and future of climate change—this is one of the collection’s many strengths—that an essay, such as Robinson’s, which reinforces the pernicious old stereotype of nature writing as the genre where privileged white men frolic outside feels obscene.
There’s a similar atavism to Meera Subramanian’s “Leap,” which charts her professional rise, from commune-dwelling West Coast gardener to successful New York City writer with a home on Cape Cod. But rather than the Mary Oliver-esque idyll of rising early and walking through the saltmarshes of the Cape, Subramanian’s narrator finds ticks. Deer ticks. The ones that carry Lyme disease, and have become ubiquitous throughout New England in part due to climate change. Et in Arcadia Ego.
At least the deer tick that one day embeds itself in her abdomen brings with it a sort of revelation: “We used to be a story in nature. Now we are the story,” she writes, echoing the human exceptionalism that comes with some of the thinner conceptions of the Anthropocene, as if nature ceases to play any role the moment its purity is sullied by human pollution. And since, according to Subramanian, humans are now the story, all the old stories about how to live good lives in the company of others, or the recent calls, among them Amitav Ghosh’s, to restore nonhuman voices to our stories, no longer apply.
“We need new stories to survive,” Subramanian writes, but the one she lands on—we ought to imagine ourselves as gods—is nothing new at all, the classic siren song of hubris, as familiar to the conquistadors as to the technologist Stewart Brand, whose motto, “we are as gods and have to get good at it,” has become the rallying cry of the geoengineers who would turn the entire planet into a vast terrarium under their control.
“The ‘control of nature’” wrote Carson in the brilliant final paragraph of Silent Spring, “is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.”
Every essay in The World as We Knew It is written in the first-person (except for Rush’s, which is in the second and third). This might seem a solipsistic move, especially in the Anthropocene, when the narrow drive toward private human profit has threatened the very conditions of all life on Earth—except that turning inward lets many of the contributors turn away from the arrogance that Carson identified as the root of the modern ecological crisis and toward something else: toward humility. “The gospel I learned from the forests and the trees, the creeks and the water, the crops and the land, I decided, was that the Earth belonged to itself; none of it belonged to me,” writes Lacy M. Johnson at the end of her stunning essay, “Come Hell.”
Humility is related to the word humus.
To be humble is to be close to the earth, social.
It is also related to the word human.
How should we write about climate change? There is no perfect single answer to that question, just as there is no perfect single way we should live in the world. But a sensitive and nuanced and humble understanding of our place on Earth is, I think, impossible without sensitive and nuanced and humble writing of the sort that Brady and Isen have collected in The World as We Knew It.
In one of the collection’s standout pieces, Gabrielle Bellot’s “Starshift”—a technically maximalist tale of invasive lionfish and colonialism; Dominica and Hurricane Maria; queerness, alienation, and forgiveness—the narrator and the woman she loves lie together in the sand dunes of Senegal. “I want to believe that, even if there is no grand meaning for our lives and our planet has a finite lifespan—as do our art and dreams—that art is worth making and love is worth finding,” she writes.
What many of the essays in The World as We Knew It do is refuse to deliver easy answers, refuse to wave away the terror of our time with a gauzy call for hope. Instead, they stay close with the trouble, down close next to the troubled earth and the troubled lives lived upon it, down where our best dreams and art come from, down where our humanity lies.