Bare trees in Indonesia

Bare trees in Indonesia

Look around, look around, at how lucky we are to be alive right now.

History is happening. We are changing the world.

 

So sings Eliza Schuyler in “Hamilton,” a magical musical set in the late 1700s about the politics, peril and promise of founding a New World.

Now imagine that the same admonition — encouragement? — applied today, to climate change. And not just the latter part, but the first part —  a reminder that we are lucky to be alive right now. Right now.

This is not a thought I would have entertained during the cataclysm of current environmental events. Not as I watched California burn. Not as I casually trawl Zillow for livable land in the Dakotas, where there is water and where the future wet-bulb temperatures will be tolerable for a while yet. Not as I picture Miami underwater, both as a literal possibility and metaphorical shorthand for the radical change I anticipate.

But somehow a sense of luck, and hope, is where Washington Post feature writer Dan Zak sent me this past January with his daring reported essay: “‘Everything is not going to be okay’: How to live with constant reminders that the Earth is in trouble.” Zak opens with a provocative question:

What does it mean to be alive right now? Right now. Right this second, right this epoch, as mankind alters the Earth beyond recognition.

Zak asks that of scientists, poets, farmers, anthropologists, entomologists, members of Congress. They each talk, in their own way, about resilience and fear and inevitability and the slow, weird creep of change. Ultimately, however, the sense is that we should feel lucky to be alive, to be able to deal with it. It is a strangely comforting thought.

“I loved what the poet Alice Major told me: that it’s a privilege to be alive right now, and to have the opportunity to fathom this problem, and to try to solve it,” Zak said when I asked him about his piece. “I think of Alice whenever panic or ennui approaches.”

Zak’s essay zips up and down the “ladder of abstraction,” a term American linguist and U.S. Sen. S. I. Hayakawa coined in 1939. Concrete, tangible details form the ladder’s lower rungs; as you climb, the ideas and language grow more abstract. It’s a useful way to introduce abstract concepts while grounding them in reality, but Zak uses it to heartbreaking effect:

We freak out, but go about our business.

The problem is clear, but it has yet to consume us.

And so there is no crisis, just an accumulation of curiosities and irritants. Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to. The southern pine beetle that once made its home closer to the equator is now boring through trees on Long Island.

As a piece of journalism, the essay is hard to define. It’s part commentary, part feature, and it reads like a conversation between friends. Or maybe between patient and therapist, offering advice on how to cope:

Hold the problem in your mind. Freak out, but don’t put it down. Give it a quarter-turn. See it like a scientist, and as a poet. As a descendant. As an ancestor.

 

Dan Zak

Dan Zak

Indeed.

I wondered why Zak, one of my favorite feature writers, immersed himself so fully into this subject, and whether his reporting changed his views. I spoke with him about panic and ennui, zooming in and out, and how to write compelling narratives about existential threats.

Storyboard’s conversation with Dan Zak has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

 

I loved this piece, and I felt like you captured the kind of hopelessness I have been feeling about climate change. Sometimes, my reptile brain is in panic mode and I want to yell at Twitter and wonder why people aren’t marching in the streets. And sometimes I have this ennui, like we’re already doomed —  we’ve cooked the atmosphere to such a degree that it won’t be fixed. All we can do is batten down the hatches, and try to face it with courage. Where do you fall on that spectrum?

I talked to a bunch of people for this piece — from a North Dakota soybean farmer to a professor of ethics at MIT — and when I finished writing I actually felt weirdly calmed and even encouraged. It felt good to talk it out with an assortment of people, to go beyond science and consider feelings. Their wisdom and commiseration was reassuring. And I loved what the poet Alice Major told me: that it’s a privilege to be alive right now, and to have the opportunity to fathom this problem, and to try to solve it. So I think of Alice whenever panic or ennui approaches.


I have been writing about climate change for more than a decade, and I think I have mostly been preaching to the choir. But I think something’s changed in the past year. I think the
recent bleak IPCC report made an impact, but it’s more than that. There’s something in the air. It doesn’t feel like a “green” concern anymore, or an environmentalist’s lament, but a more existential threat. Do you think that’s true, and why? How long have you been thinking about this and concerned about it?

Something’s definitely in the air, and I think it was sparked by a combination of the Trump administration’s behavior toward the environment, the people and ideas swept into power by the 2018 midterms, and the dire climate reports that all popped in quick succession late last year. The IPCC report inspired a conversation between me and one of my editors; he remarked that there’s really no other story right now if you’re sorting news by magnitude and importance. And he thought there was an opportunity, for a feature writer like me, to extract a line of coverage from the question “What does it mean to be alive at a time when we can see the end?”

An existential threat deserves to be interrogated by the heart and the spirit, not just the mind.

Of course, I don’t mean “the end” as in the end of the world. I mean it as a nickname for what we’re facing and how things are going to change. The year 2100 is no longer abstract, and the future keeps coming into sharper and scarier focus. And what do you do with that, as a thinking, feeling organism? As a small part of a political, planetary whole?

I’ve been thinking about existential threats for a few years now. My book (“Almighty: Courage, Resistance, and Existenial Peril in the Nuclear Age”) is about what it means that our sense of national security rests on our ability to destroy the planet in a matter of minutes, with nuclear weapons. So climate change, when compared to that, seems like a vacation.


What does it mean to you, at a day-to-day level, to survive from one epoch to the next? As one of my friends put it in response to this piece, “It’s so easy to go nuts thinking about what a plastic shampoo bottle means for the planet.” Do you worry about that sort of thing? 

I worry mostly about getting hit by a car on my bike. In terms of the climate, though, I worry less about my own personal choices and more about the government’s bipartisan inability to respond to anything with speed, rigor or regard for the long-term. Dealing with climate change requires a political response. The problem is corporate in nature, and I mean “corporate” in both definitions of the adjective. The inertia of bureaucracy combined with the mania of the news cycle is paralyzing. Our daily attention bops from melodrama to melodrama, farce to farce, while the status quo brakes any genuine ambition. That’s the kind of thing I go a little nuts about.


You have this line about the subtle and yet still noticeable ways in which the climate is shifting. For instance, from your story:

Your basement now floods every year instead of every five or 10 years. Your asthma has gotten worse. You grew up wearing a winter jacket under your Halloween costume in Buffalo, and now your kids don’t have to.

I was born in Buffalo and grew up in Denver, and winter coats were part of our Halloween costumes. So that line really resonated with me. The change is subtle, but when you pause to think back, it becomes more stark. We are a short-sighted species. Have you begun to “think geologically”?

I was born in Buffalo too, and raised there! And I resented having to wear a jacket under my costume, because Peter Venkman (of “Ghostbusters”) was relatively svelte.

The inertia of bureaucracy combined with the mania of the news cycle is paralyzing.

Anyway, for this piece, I interviewed a Stanford history professor named Caroline Winterer and she talked about the notion of “deep time.” It wasn’t until the 1800s — recent, in human history, and moments ago in geologic time —that we began to understand that the Earth was more than a few thousand years old. In just a 100-year span, we reoriented our understanding of time to conceive of billions of years, and then the Industrial Revolution set us on a path of speedy modernity, even simultaneity, and then eventually brought us to this problem we have with the climate. When we started pulling carbon from the earth and putting in the sky, and when we detonated the first nuclear bomb, we became a geologic force.

To put it crudely: We became capable of making deep-time changes in shallower stretches of time. So I think geologically, but I also think anthropogenically, because climate change kind of combines the two.


One thing I really liked about this piece is that it’s not full of science “vitamins” and factoids. It’s much more metaphorical and philosophical. Can you talk about why you approached it that way? Did your editors want you to add any more science facts or numbers? 

An existential threat deserves to be interrogated by the heart and the spirit, not just the mind. I wanted to write something that got beyond the 12-word headlines about how “we’re all going to drown or burn,” and that also stepped around the 1,200-page climate report that’s too dense and disorienting for the average person like myself. Science is why we know what we know, but my editors want me to look at conscience, too, and other intangibles — like why we are how we are, and what we hope to be.


I want to talk about the pace of this piece. It’s full of short, declarative sentences, which hold a lot of power, and which I also try to employ. Did you think about that when you were writing? It’s an interesting contrast in a piece that is inherently about thinking beyond the present, and I wonder if that was intentional. 

My elders at the Post taught me to write big when the material is small, and write small when the material is big. There’s no topic bigger than the fate of the Earth, so I wrote small. It was both natural and intentional, if that makes any sense.


I read “Almighty” a couple years ago when I was researching a story on nuclear tourism, and it occurred to me that there are similar themes of resistance and adaptation in climate change. Do you think there will be agitators like
Sister Megan Rice, but for climate action? A modern-day Monkey Wrench Gang

There already are. Three activists were acquitted last fall of damaging an oil pipeline in Minnesota. The “problem of climate change is so urgent that we have to start shutting down tar sands pipelines down now,” one of the activists told Minnesota Public Radio. Also, don’t forget about the pipeline protests at Standing Rock a few years back.


What’s been your favorite or most interesting response to this piece? Did any of your friends talk to you about it, or have something surprising to say?

I was just happy that it found an audience and resonated with people. I got e-mails thanking me for putting words to a wordless feeling, and that was one of the goals. My friends have been wry about my move from one existential threat (nukes) to the other. I’m super fun at parties.

***

Contributor’s note: In the spirit of full disclosure, one of Zak’s interview subjects — and the source for the headline — is Kate Marvel, a climate scientist at NASA, who is a friend and with whom I record a podcast about bad natural disaster movies. https://www.patreon.com/anthropocinema

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment