An Actually Realistic Guide to Sustainability
Nicole Walker in Conversation with Eric LeMay on the New Books Network
The New Books Network is a consortium of author-interview podcast channels dedicated to raising the level of public discourse by introducing serious authors to a wide public via new media. They publish 100 new interviews every month and serve a large, worldwide audience.
If some part of you is groaning at the possibility of hearing another gloom-and-doom sermon about the destruction of the planet and everything you haven’t been doing to prevent it–and if some part of you is inclined to skip this interview because, well, you’re driving down the road by yourself, not carpooling, not in an electric car, with the heater or the air conditioning turned up a little too far–don’t skip it and stop groaning. Walker’s book is not that kind of book. She’s been there and, in some ways, is still there, trying to figure out how to live sustainably when it seems so impossible, when the demands of family and work and everything else press in on us in this great mess that is our lives and, damn, if we didn’t forget our re-useable shopping bags.
In situations ranging from McDonald’s and Sam’s Club to outer space and our inner lives, Walker faces the challenges of sustainability with deep humor, deeper insight, and an abiding sympathy for what it means to be all-too-human in your love for other humans and the struggling earth we all share.
“These little connections, that’s where hope lies.”
Eric LeMay: The default assumption about sustainability is that we see it as a set of practices, a set of protocols—things you should or shouldn’t do—but the way you’re describing it makes it sound like the way we get there is by seeing our relationship with the earth as being as complex as our relationships with one another when we’re in love, when we’re in a familial relationship.
Nicole Walker: There’s this matter of maybe not complicating our relationships enough. Trying to put a label on things or simplifying them so there is a solution is maybe one of the problems. Keeping things as complex as possible gives you a way forward. If you have ten things and nine things are going crappy, at least one of them is something you can fall into and remember that this is one thing that keeps you going or keeps you in love.
I feel like that’s true for thinking about the planet and thinking about nature. If you look at it on this global perspective—climate change is going crush us all—then I don’t feel like we’re going to be able to wrap our minds around it. It’s just too big. But if you think of little things and little changes: there’s a chance that maybe the mycelium that grow mushrooms could absorb carbon. Or there it this great thing that the humpback whales are coming back, and the more humpback whales there are, the more whale poop there is, and the more whale poop there is, the more plankton there is, and the more plankton there is, the more carbon is absorbed.
These little connections, that’s where hope lies. And that’s where I feel like an escape from our worst habits and worst behaviors might also lie.
“I hope people realize there’s this feeling of pulling in, pulling in this whole world.”
EL: I think when readers see a title like Sustainability, they expect a certain kind of narrative. But your book, if you just made a list of the kinds of stuff that shows up in it—wine bottles and Sam’s Club and getting your kids at school and sitting in traffic and suicide and difficulties in marriage and stuff on TV and TED talks—it’s a jumble of material. Yet it all somehow works. It doesn’t keep all the messiness of life out. It seems to say instead, “Here’s the swirl of stuff that we’re in, why not get it in and figure it out?”
NW: I’m not entirely sure if the title doesn’t misrepresent the collectiveness and accretion that happens in the book. I also feel like it might seem too serious and too earnest. I hope people realize there’s this feeling of pulling in, pulling in this whole world. And maybe that’s part of the impetus. Maybe I can get the whole world in here, and you guys will see what I’m talking about. I pull these associations together.
What are the connections between these things? What are the connections between Portland, sand, and Johnny Cash. The minute I can specify and illuminate and bring in numinous things, I’ve got subject, I’ve got stuff here. Now what am I going to do with it? And as the book goes on it returns to these themes. They may not tie perfectly together, but they do repeat . . . Recurrence is the dream. That’s the thing we’re really trying to sustain. The idea that we can return to humpback whales, we can return to plankton, we can return to mushrooms in the forest and they will be there, and they will be there, and they will be there. And that’s why—the more stuff that’s in there, the more stuff you can return to.