Listening at the Water’s Edge




“WE TELL OURSELVES stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes at the opening of “The White Album,” her famous essay that tries and fails to make sense of how the idealism of the ’60s and California’s “golden dream” gave way to the Manson murders and a kind of unrelenting cynicism. Storytelling works as a sense-making practice — until it doesn’t. There are moments in time and phenomena that test our ability to arrive at a narrative line.

Certainly, climate change is among them. And yet we keep trying to tell the story in a straightforward manner, with a limited set of narrative techniques and news reporting that tends unhelpfully toward the sensational. When I started writing about sea-level rise in 2012, the majority of climate change narratives were apocalyptic, with movies like The Day After Tomorrow depicting a New York City simultaneously struck by a gigantic tidal wave and the sudden onset of a new ice age. Meanwhile, the news posts a never-ending set of “record-breaking” statistics (record-breaking storms, record-breaking heat waves, record-breaking rain) each year smashing the previous year’s record-breaking record. The discourse could be reduced to: “If we hype the urgency, if we make climate change sound as horrifying as possible people will have to start paying attention.”

But climate change isn’t going to plunge us into a planet-wide hellscape overnight. And it isn’t just a problem for the future. It is with us now in the present tense. It slow moving and place-based. It is about the late arrival of ice on the lake and the sap running early in the veins of the maple tree; things one can only really notice if their lives are tuned toward the land.

Candis Callison writes about the gulf between local and national vernaculars of climate change in her book How Climate Change Comes to Matter: The Communal Life of Facts. Recalling her time in an Indigenous fishing village in Alaska, she writes, “I experienced not an explicit questioning of climate change but a flat-out rejection of it as a term that described what direct experience with climatic change feels like and how it is that such changes are understood and discussed.” The Inuit will be the first to tell you that winters are warmer, that the sea ice is breaking up, and that many precious species are disappearing. They just don’t like the term “climate change,” and who can blame them? In their ears, “climate change” sounds like a phrase that a government agency might employ to justify new fishing regulations or a phenomenon a scholar from outside the community might study. The words themselves ring as too political, too cold, too loaded to map onto everyday life, and they suggest a limited set of pathways forward, pathways that are too often dreamt up elsewhere and do not take residents’ lived experience and local knowledge into consideration.

Since I finished writing my own narrative nonfiction book on climate change, entitled Rising, five different “record-breaking hurricanes­­” — Harvey, Maria, Irma, Florence, and Michael — have unsettled coastal communities all around the United States. Meanwhile wildfires rage from California to Washington and heat waves kill countless citizens in our cities. Many now ask: “Is this the new normal?” But there is nothing normal about a single species setting in motion the largest geologic shift in the history of humankind. Every time we write or talk about climate change and employ the same tired vernacular we dull readers to the dynamism at the heart of such a moment of transformation.

Put another way, we have plenty of climate change news, but too often this reporting tells the story straight, and so we think the conclusion is foregone. By writing about climate change in this manner, we steal from the phenomenon some of its mystery, or uncanniness. And in so doing we also steal from ourselves the possibility that we might be transformed, and not just for the worst, by this disruptive force. Often those communities directly impacted by climate change today are also those long made vulnerable by existing structural inequalities. By showing the ways in which so many of us are exposed in any given moment, climate change has the power to awaken in us the awareness that our vulnerability is shared. Our power therein lies in our ability to form coalitions among and between these communities that can, through collective action, create pathways toward economic, social, and environmental justice.

I recently heard Zoe Nyssa, of Purdue University, give an excellent presentation in which she traced how the words we use to describe the environment and our relationship to it have shifted over time. In the 1980s, we often described the environment with words like “landscape,” “sustainable,” “natural,” and “endangered.” During the same time period we would describe human beings with words like “man,” “youth,” and “citizen.” Much has changed in the intervening four decades. Nyssa’s research shows that today we often describe both people and the environment with the word “resilient.”

In recent years, our use of this word has increased significantly. But what do we mean exactly when we call someone or something resilient? It means different things in different places. In Manhattan sea-level rise resilience means, and here I am quoting from the plan for the Big U, a landscape-based design solution meant to shield the city from stormwater, that won the Rebuild by Design competition after Sandy: “[L]andscaped berms with sea grass and habitat supports, levees that doubled as skate parks and amphitheaters, sea walls that support pop-up cafés and passive recreation.”

I am not inherently against these things, but I think it is very important to note that resilience, for instance, in lower-income communities of color in New Orleans means something else entirely. Ten years after Katrina only 37 percent of the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had returned to a neighborhood that once had one of the highest rates of black homeownership in the city. There, property values were long suppressed as a result of redlining, which meant that recovery funding based on the home’s market value often did not cover the basic cost of rebuilding. Resilience in this case meant not getting enough money to recover in place and having to start over somewhere else. Many residents would head to Houston, only to be displaced by Hurricane Harvey.

Tracie Washington of the Louisiana Justice Institute spoke at the Rockefeller Foundation’s launch of their “Resilient New Orleans” initiative, saying, “Stop calling me resilient, because every time you say, ‘Oh, they’re so resilient’ that means you can do something else to me.” Local activists would print her words on posters and hang them publicly to mark the 10th anniversary of the storm. The proliferation of this straightforward statement, the depth to which it was embraced in lower-income communities of color and around the country, speaks directly to the inequality of New Orleans’s “revival.”

All too often climate change impacts and environmental injustice overlap, further deepening the distances between those communities that will receive institutional support to weather the storms to come and those that will not. And yet Washington does not invoke the language of either of these discourses. Instead she speaks from lived experience, and this makes her words doubly potent. Like the Inuit in Alaska, Tracie Washington is deeply distrustful of the language we use to talk about climate change because she suspects it contains a violence all its own: a violence carried over from and deeply derivative of the historical oppression of people of color throughout the country, a violence that led them to be among the most vulnerable to climate change in the first place.

By refusing to be written out of the future-city by a forward-looking discourse that peddles further displacement as the “rebirth” of New Orleans, she is arguing against the idea that the Rockefeller Foundation can or ought to be in charge of the story of New Orleans’s recovery. She seems to be saying: quit telling us what we need, quit telling us the best way forward, quit rebuilding at our expense and profiting from our “resilience.” Why don’t you try listening to us instead?

The more I steeped myself in sea-level rise research and its early impacts on coastal residents around the country, the more profoundly I understood that we needed new climate change narratives. I understood that those whose regular lives have been fundamentally upended by higher tides and stronger storms must tell their own story. No amount of essaying on my part would make their words more powerful.

I recorded my interviews, transcribed them, and then pared down the text until what had been a conversation over a cup of sweet tea became a testimony bearing witness to the earth and its changes. Each chapter in my most recent book is augmented by one of these testimonies where a local resident speaks about their flood experience and its aftermath. In this way, I hoped to invite readers into the experience that most transformed me while at work on Rising: that of sitting in a stranger’s living room and listening to how the water worked its way in, up the driveway and under the door, soon to warp the family photos.

When residents spoke of the way flooding was dismantling their homes, they spoke in poetry. Nicole Montalto described the process of searching for her father after Sandy this way: “I went down to the basement and began screaming. I was hoping that I would hear him but at the same time I wasn’t.” On the surface it is contradictory and yet both sides are true and the music is what holds it together. I suppose that is what I was and am still searching for — the stories that will bind us to one another as our homeplaces change irrevocably right under our feet. The stories that, as Amitav Ghosh writes, “acknowledge the magnitude and interconnectedness of the transformations that are now underway.”

Whose voices or perspectives have been left out? For too long, environmental concerns in the United States have largely been the domain of those who can afford to visit nature on the weekends, who have the privilege to choose where and how they want to live, whose expeditions amount to adventure travel. But the front lines are populated with working-class people and communities of color, whose relationships with the more-than-human world, often go unaccounted for in the “official story” of environmentalism we tell in this country.

I suspect fewer people will resist the term “climate change” not just when the floodwaters arrive at their doorstep but when the words they alight upon, excavate, and share become part of the vernacular we use to describe these uncanny days. As the language around climate change loosens, becomes more democratic, our ability to seize this moment as an opportunity for coalition building will grow.

During a Rising event at a San Francisco bookstore, a middle-aged white man in a brown leather jacket and an Earth Day ballcap asked, “But what do non-believers say when you show them the charts that illustrate temperature change over time? How can they deny the climate science?”

I was discomfited, but not surprised, by his question, given the particularly divisive moment we occupy. “I don’t go into my interviews with charts that illustrate how the earth is warming,” I responded. “I leave my discourse at the door and instead ask residents to tell me their flood stories. I am there to listen.”

When a conversation has long been dominated by a select few, listening can be a surprisingly powerful act, upending historic power imbalances. Thinking back to that Joan Didion line, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” my work reminded me that the right to speak about one’s own shifting relationship with the environment ought to be extended equally to all. As the seas rise, those long exposed to flooding have knowledge that the rest of us do not.

Climate change — or whatever you want to call it — has drawn them to the water’s edge to ask whether there is, or ever really was, anything that separates us from the environment.

¤

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore; she teaches creative non-fiction at Brown University.


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