Emily Raboteau and Omar El Akkad Tell a Different Kind of Climate Change Story
With Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
In this episode of the Fiction/Non/Fiction podcast, novelists Emily Raboteau and Omar El Akkad discuss telling the stories of climate change with hosts V.V. Ganeshananthan and Whitney Terrell.
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Readings from the Episode
“Climate Signs” by Emily Raboteau, New York Review Daily · The Professor’s Daughter by Emily Raboteau · Searching for Zion by Emily Raboteau · American War by Omar El Akkad · Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins · “Flying Cars Could Save us from Climate Change,” by Jen Christensen, CNN · “Climate Change: European Team to drill for ‘oldest’ ice in Antarctica” by Jonathan Amos, BBC · “Atchafalaya” by John McPhee, The New Yorker · The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells · “There’s so much CO2 in the atmosphere that planting trees can no longer save us” by Rob Ludacer and Jessica Orwig, Business Insider · “Young Readers Ask: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells,” by Geronimo LaValle, Orion Magazine · “As We Approach the City,” by Mik Awake, The Common · “The Climate Museum Launches Pun-Filled Art Installations Across the City” by Katie Brown, Medium/NYU Local · “‘Hand that’s feeding the world is getting bit.’ Farmers cope with floods, trade war” by Crystal Thomas and Bryan Lowery, The Kansas City Star · “Senator uses Star Wars posters, image of Reagan riding a dinosaur to blast Green New Deal,” by Christal Hayes, USA Today · Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton · Horizon, by Barry Lopez · The End of Nature, by Bill McKibben
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So I have this app called Dark Sky, which is a weather app I’m super obsessed with because it uses radar data. And I had never used it on the beach before, and it just had a weather warning that I’d never even seen, and it hadn’t occurred to me—I was right here on the shoreline. The danger is right here. And that’s one of the most interesting things about the piece for me and about Guariglia’s project is the way that it’s essentially marking the space in the way that it wasn’t before. We get to walk around thinking it’s something else, and it’s later, and it’s not here. And the signs are very, “No it’s right here. You don’t get to get away with not talking about it.”
Emily Raboteau: Yeah, I suspected that it was both a work of art and an act of anarchy. I figured an artist was behind the signs, but I couldn’t figure out who let them get away with having put it there. Because those signs are implements of the state—they belong to the Department of Transportation. They tell us when we need to switch lanes or when we need to change our course of action. And it wasn’t saying what we’re used to. It was cutting through the language of the state to say something very terrifying and very true. So it reached me in a different way than news items about climate change hit me. It hit me more like poetry.
Whitney Terrell: So I was thinking about the structure of this piece and your most recent book Searching for Zion and how there are journeys in both of those pieces. Searching for Zion seems to be about searching for a place that feels like home, but in Climate Signs you’re moving through New York and writing about the imminent threat that climate change poses to your home. I’m wondering if you could talk about the relationship between these two projects.
ER: Yeah, so before I had kids I was a travel writer, and that book, Searching for Zion, resulted from ten years of travel to five nations to research Black utopian communities. I was writing about people from the black diaspora who left the Americas out of feelings of displacement, disinheritance, and disillusionment, to find a home elsewhere. And now that I’m a parent, it’s not that my wings are entirely clipped, but I’m more anchored here in New York City, where I got married and bought an apartment and where my children go to school. So I’ve had to learn to turn my traveler’s gaze and my camera on my own surroundings, but I think the impulse behind the two projects is similar in that they’re both ultimately about citizenship and civic engagement. And in “Climate Signs,” I was exploring how climate change is affecting my local habitat and my responsibility as a steward of children in this environment.
VVG: In addition to your work on this, Mik had a companion piece to “Climate Signs,” which was in The Common, and he wrote—I find this quote scary—he wrote, “Climate change is not scary in a way that we recognize as scary. The headlines repeat only at higher frequencies, like an engine gathering speed. Another storm dons a person’s name—Harvey, Michael, Maria. There are no pegs or hooks. Nothing new to grab in the rising ride of consequence.” I was wondering what you thought of that quote and how you think we should change the way that we write about climate change.
ER: It’s a good question, and I think it’s a great quote from Mik, that I agree with. Maybe this is a good juncture—I pulled out a letter that was written to me by Barry Lopez—
WT: Oh, cool.
ER: Yeah, the writer. He has a new book out called Horizon. And I wrote to him during the process of writing this piece, for advice, and he’s one of these old-school writers who doesn’t have email, or he doesn’t respond to email. If you go to his website and try to figure out how to contact him, he gives you his address. So I wrote him an old-fashioned letter and he wrote me an old-fashioned letter in return. And this is what his letter said, because I needed help figuring out what kind of language to give to this issue. This is a quote: “Perhaps one of the problems we’re having as writers around this issue is that we don’t know how to paint a dark enough picture and then follow this with an advocation of humanity’s strengths that empowers or animates people sufficiently to keep them from caving in the face of the dark picture.” And then he went on in the letter to recommend that I read another book called Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, which is a wonderful, very brief, very devastating and powerful book by Roy Scranton, who is a veteran.
WT: Yeah, I’m familiar with his work.
ER: You’re familiar with that book? I was about to say for listeners who aren’t familiar that the author’s position in that work is that the evidence that indicates the collapse of Western culture in the very near future is irrefutable, so the question should be—just as the question should be for someone preparing to die, i.e. in war—“How does one prepare for that eclipse?” And it’s very stark, but I found that book, as well as Barry’s letter, really helpful both as a model of writing and also as a model for living.
WT: Well, there are connections. I have been a war reporter and our next guest was a war reporter, so there are connections between thinking about climate change and war that I think that Roy did a really good job of talking about there, and that people don’t naturally recognize the similarities there. But it’s amazing to hear from Lopez. When you read that quote from his letter, it reminded me of my first experience with what I would call climate change writing, which is the book The End of Nature by Bill McKibben, which I read when I was in college. The effect of the book on me was—I’m not gonna say it was right or wrong—but the effect it had on me was to make me really angry and then to immediately go to Alaska and get a job on a fishing boat. And on the voyage from Seattle to Ketchikan, Alaska—I took the ferry up—I saw these numerable islands that we basically uninhabited, and I thought, “Oh, fuck you, Bill McKibben. There’s still nature.” That was my reaction. I don’t know, that probably wasn’t what he wanted? I don’t know. But it was to look for a solution, right? I mean, that’s what Barry Lopez is talking about. There has to be some sort of way of moving forward.
ER: Your response to that book of Bill McKibben’s interests me because on the one hand you felt angry at him, and on the other hand it sounded like it inspired you to go find nature. So I don’t know that that’s an impulse that these writers who are deeply involved in this issue are trying to suggest solutions necessarily, but I think a natural impulse for somebody who is engaged and disturbed by the information they’re receiving is to be in the world in a more awake way. Is to be more awake to nature while it’s here.
VVG: It seems to me that some of what we’re thinking about is a relationship to mortality and time, which for me are primary questions that I’m using as structures for any kind of narrative writing that I’m doing. But if I’m being asked as a person to reassess my relationship to time and death, and then also the feeling of being awake in the world—I guess I’m wondering how that translates into prose. Because you are also thinking about who gets to avoid some of these questions. And it seems to me in some ways that one of the things that’s scary about climate change is would it be reasonable to think about it in any way as a kind of draft? We’re making these connections between war and climate change and mortality—American war now, we don’t have a draft. But on the other hand—
WT: We should have an ecological draft? That’s a great idea!
VVG: I think we already have an ecological draft. I think it’s already there. That’s essentially the argument. I think that—
ER: That is the argument.
VVG: Everyone is signed up.
ER: I think young people understand that more than older people.
Omar El Akkad
VVG: The Midwest has experienced some serious flooding over the last few months, mainly along the Missouri River, and a recent Kansas City Star article was reporting on farmers being hit by the floods and the millions of dollars of crops and stored crops that are lost, and those aren’t compensated by the government when they’re damaged. And I think that so many people don’t understand the impact that these floods are having. And so, when you’re thinking about asking people to imagine that it’s happening near them, how does the United States care about climate change? Does it only care when it affects the affluent, the cities, and rich parts of the country located on the coast? Or is there some chance that economic devastation—like that caused by the floods—will cause people to be more rational about climate change, to act in a more aggressive way? Or are things, as your book suggests, likely to move in the opposite direction?
Omar El-Akkad: I mean, it’s a really good question, and I think one of the things we need to get away from is the notion of thinking about climate change, or the arc of how climate change is going to play out, as something akin to sliding down a hill, as this kind of progression, this linear kind of progression, and to think of it as akin to falling down a staircase. It’s not going to happen in a rational, linear way. I was down in southern Florida, and I was doing this story about the communities in the southernmost end of the peninsula where mayors are starting to tell their citizens, their residents, that their grandchildren are probably not going to be able to live in these towns. It might become a shipping port of some sort, but the notion of making a community here is probably out the window. And I was talking to this professor, a professor of climate change, who’s been sounding the alarm about this for the better part of 30 years.
And he will go into any community that will have him, any community group, and he will give his presentation. And he said whenever he goes into one of these groups, he’ll bring with him this printout of a relief map of that areas, and he’ll overlay what the community’s going to look like with one meter of sea level rise, two meters of sea level rise, just to give a visual representation. And he said inevitably at the end of every one of these talks, somebody would come up to him afterwards and point to a spot on the map and say, “Oh, my house is gonna be okay.” And he would say, “Yeah, you happen to live on a hill, congratulations. The roads are flooded, you need a canoe to get to the grocery store.” People have a real hard time thinking about problems in terms of space that goes outside their immediate border, and in terms of time that goes beyond 30 years, the lifespan of a mortgage. And climate change is exactly that.
WT: That reminds me of a really wonderful—well, terrifying article maybe also—by John McPhee, and it’s in his book Control of Nature and it’s called Atchafalaya, and it’s a story about how the Mississippi River really shouldn’t be where the Mississippi River is. If it had been allowed to flow in its natural way it would no longer go by Baton Rouge in Louisiana, it would have already jumped to this other riverbed, and the Corps of Engineers has tried to prevent it from doing this because we have the economic need to have it go by Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But that kind of sudden jump, when it happens, is gonna be one of those cataclysmic events, I assume.
OE: Yeah, I mean the thing about Southern Louisiana is that, I mentioned earlier, it’s literally disappearing. One of the things that would have counteracted that is the natural movement of the river. The river left to its own devices is a sidewinder. Over the decades and centuries, it would move left to right, east to west. But in order to save cities like New Orleans, we’ve corseted it in place. And so this thing that was done with the best of intentions has had all of these unintended consequences later on down the line. And that’s a very human thing, right? We are used to developing our societies as a way to survive the natural world, and that means we’ve given very little thought to whether the natural world can survive our societies. That’s not an inversion we’ve spent much time thinking about. And now suddenly we do. And we have to do it very, very quickly, and we’re just not good at it. We don’t know how to think that way.
VVG: Thinking of this discussion, it’s so interesting and troubling that many people in Midwestern and Southern states, they seem especially extra resistant to believing in climate change or doing much about it, and it seems that the representatives and senators who have constituents in those regions, they’re climate change deniers too. And if natural and economic devastation isn’t going to do it…“We’re not good at thinking in this way,” you said. So I wonder, how do we get good at thinking in this way? I want to go work on this myself!
OE: So, that’s a really interesting question. The night that the jury decided not to indict the guy who killed Mike Brown, I ended up flying into Ferguson, Missouri. And so I was there the night that the protests were at their peak, where the police were tear-gassing everybody—I’ve only been tear-gassed twice in my 10 years as a journalist. I was tear-gassed when I was covering the Arab Spring and when I was in Ferguson, Missouri. And so I was in this place where I was trying to understand all of the things that led up to this moment. And one day I’m wandering down Main Street on one end of the city, and I find this pop-up store. It was this store called “I Heart Ferguson,” and it was these exclusively white folks in this place selling these “I Heart Ferguson” shirts as a way to raise money for all the businesses that I guess had been damaged in the protests.
And I walk in and I think of this naively as a good news story. I walk in and I’m interviewing the person running this store, and I tell her, “Look, I’m not from this town, I’m not from this country, so I apologize for the ignorance that I’m coming from here.” And the whole time she’s talking to me she’s saying, “Well, they just don’t understand us. They don’t understand this community, they don’t understand what we’re trying to do, they don’t understand our intentions.”
And the whole time I think she’s talking about outsiders, people like me coming in from other countries, from other parts of the country. And then halfway through, I realize she’s not talking about that at all. She’s talking about the black side of town. She’s talking about her side of town versus the other side of town. And it was this moment of, “I thought I understood this country and clearly I don’t.” But the reason I always come back to this notion is that when I initially thought about climate change and the extent that you can get folks in the Midwestern or Southern states to think about it, I always thought, “Well, here’s a problem that is so universal, that is so global, that we can set aside all of our petty racial issues and class issues and all of these things by which we’ve codified ways of doing injustice to ourselves, and think about something global.” And now I realize that that’s not the case at all—this problem is going to be overlaid onto our existing systems of injustice.
VVG: This reminds me of in 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami affected Sri Lanka among other places, and one of the big things that people in my communities were thinking about, and were worried about, and were asking questions about, and I think many people didn’t get clarification on was where the aid was going, to which areas. There was a lot of concern that it was going to go to certain areas and not others. When the government was getting aid, was it also going to areas that were controlled by Tamil militants? Were all the civilians in different areas getting the help they needed? And it was a pretty harrowing conversation.
OE: Yeah, I mean, we live in a world where certain demographics are always going to be defined by the worst of their actions, and certain demographics are always going to be defined by the best of their intentions. And that doesn’t suddenly change because we have a problem that doesn’t respect borders or national sovereignty. Those are things we’ve done to each other that we need to sort out if we’re ever going to have a chance of fixing this thing that—quite literally—could wipe us all out.
VVG: So what did you say to the woman in the store?
OE: You know, I was really shocked when it first happened, and I had to actually clarify. I had to say, “Wait a minute, are you talking about people like me, who are coming in from other parts of town?” And she got confused at that point because we were two people having two entirely different conversations. Like entirely different.
WT: As a Missourian, I would have been able to help you out with who she was talking about.
OE: I mean, it didn’t occur to me at first, and it should have, right? I’ve lived in this country now for six years. I should be starting to understand this. And it was as a result of that conversation that I changed my reporting entirely. I started looking at things like, there are certain communities in and around St. Louis where they have minimum lot sizes. If you want to buy a house, there’s a minimum lot size. And that’s a way of keeping home prices artificially high, and that’s a way of keeping certain people out of that community.
WT: Late in the book—and I always in my head say “Sa-RAT,” but you’re saying it “SA-rat,” so that’s what I’m gonna say it is. Sarat says, “Fuck the South and everything it stands for.” But she’s a Southern terrorist—why does she say that?
OE: So a lot of the book for me is—and by the way, my pronunciation of that name is no more or less valid than anybody else’s, so please continue using whatever you’re doing. This thing that used to belong to me now belongs to everyone but me, so my opinion no longer matters. That being said, here’s my opinion of that passage: I was thinking a lot about this notion of her circle of trust. A lot of the book’s narrative arc relates to her circle of trust. When we first meet her, she’s this fundamentally decent human being, fundamentally good, curious, but also trusting. She believes everything people tell her about the world. And every time she’s subjected to damage, her circle of trust closes in a little bit. And so at first it encompasses everybody, and then it’s just her family, just certain members of her family and certain close friends, and then by the end of the book the only thing her circle of trust still encompasses is her own sense of revenge. That’s the last thing she trusts anymore.
And so she’s not a partisan anyone, she’s not a patriot, she’s a nihilist. And she’s come to this moment of realization that a lot of what she’s been told about who or what she should stand up for, and who or what is going to stand up for her, was essentially a lie. It was a pragmatic lie told in service of someone else’s cause, of someone else’s interests. And so this is the moment where she rejects that. Where she says, “You know what, this thing that has been overlaid on top of my own sense of injustice is wholly fraudulent. And I’m no longer a person who’s going to be taken in by that.” I think that happens to a lot of people. You are told certain stories about where your allegiance should lie, and I think certain times if you dig down, you find that a lot of those stories are in service of interests that are not your own.