Seeing the Future

A conversation between writers Lisa Wells and Jon Raymond

This interview is from a discussion at Elliot Bay Book Company, edited for concision. 

Jon Raymond: Your book (Believers) is an amazing series of portraits of people who are finding practical ways – but also extremely idealistic ways – of dealing with the climate situation that we’re in right now. Something that I found so wonderful was the kind of measured tone that you take and the equanimity that you bring to the situation. There’s a real feeling like your center of gravity has lowered in this intense way that allows you to take things that are really hard to talk about and think about, in a way that is productive and inspiring and wise.

Lisa Wells: That’s nice to hear. 

JR: I’m wondering how you arrived at that tone? I’m wondering if the writing process brought you to that tone, or if that was something that you had to find before the process began?

LW: If I were to diagnose why, I think part of the book deals with this former fundamentalism, which I mentioned a little bit in the beginning.

JR: Your own.

LW: My own, yes. I was a very angry, politically active kid and really committed to my beliefs such that I completely reorganized my life on a number of fronts in order to kind of live into this belief system. I think if you live long enough with any kind of interest in what motivates your behavior, you end up developing a more nuanced view of yourself and your own motivations. 

JR: But that 17-year-old is a good moral compass sometimes.

LW: Yes, we need the energies of those who are unwilling to compromise to push the banner forward, and we need people who are able to kind of see, not middle ground, but that there’s a whole spectrum between these extremes. Like you, I don’t like feeling like I have to choose either/or. 

JR: Right.

LW: You write in your book (Denial): “Every revolution becomes a bureaucracy in the end.” If you are committed to revolutionary movements, no matter your era, you do discover this. There becomes this kind of grinding. It feels like your protagonist, Jack, is subject to this tempering influence; he’s an almost dispassionate narrator, but we also get images of him in his youth where he’s, like, belligerently drunk and bleeding, having gotten in a fight. I wonder, how did you approach extremism versus sit-on-your-hands-and-give-up?

JR: In this imagined future world, there have been upheavals that involve humanity doing somewhat radical acts collectively in order to maintain life on Earth. He was part of that movement, and I think has in him the kind of radicalism or the revolutionary spark that you’re talking about. But, like any human being, he has lived and understands that a lot of life is made up of the boring parts. That you have to live with the day-to-day responsibilities of society.

We arrive at that sort of moment in his life, speculating about the future. A lot of the bones of it are like a noir book. He is kind of a noir figure in a way, that kind of burned-out middle-aged person. He is definitely not a young firebrand anymore. I wanted him to have that nuanced perspective that you’re talking about – not idealistic, but seasoned with some pragmatism also. For people who are in certain political movements for a long haul, you have to find ways to do the sort of self care and day-to-day stuff that allows you to exist. To me that was the beginning of that character. 

Just leaving it as better than you found it isn’t enough, you actually have to leave it more diverse than you found it.

LW: One of the really interesting things about Denial, I think, is that when you hear about people writing into the future, you expect something else, largely. You expect, like, flying cars and stuff.

JR: Right.

LW: Or just the Earth as a burnt crater and people killing each other in the streets. But one of the remarks people have made about your book – and you’ve talked about this in interviews – is that it’s actually not such a departure from our current world. Can you talk about that choice to keep the real world more grayscale?

JR: I think the motivation of this, a lot like your book, was the idea, in a very practical way, of how to imagine a future. Part of the trauma of the last five to ten years has been this constant upending of any sense of a future. Part of it is COVID, part of it is climate change and the unpredictability of life on Earth. It also has to do with authoritarianism and fascism, and the technique of authoritarianism to constantly upend your sense of what’s going to happen at a certain point.

It became politically important for me to try not to think, like, 2,000 years in the future. Let’s just think, like, 30 years in the future. For myself, although climate change has continued to accelerate, I’m not really that different than I was 30 years ago. I even still have some of the same clothes. That’s sort of an argument I have with science fiction and world-building.

It’s also an argument with the genres of post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels, which have had a sort of moral pulse over the decades. I think over the last fifty years, as we’ve watched artists and writers and directors envision the destruction of the planet in every possible manner, that humanity collectively has just gotten into this weird loop of imagining the catastrophic destruction of itself without ever thinking about it in a specific sense.

Frederic Jameson supposedly said, “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” That has become a mantra in my mind. The more difficult thing to do is what you were doing in your book. How do you actually imagine, graphically and in detail, what is possible?

LW: While Denial does look at people doing concrete things to redress, for example, desertification, deforestation, climate change, most of it’s involved in asking this question: Why is it that we keep imagining this repetitive death loop thing? What is the secret story that’s being told all the time in our culture that is making this way of life seem inevitable to us? If we can get at that premise, then maybe we can find out some of the other premises of the stories that people tell who have lived successfully with their own ecosystems for thousands of years.

JR: I thought that was such an interesting part of the sort of conceptual turn you’re making. To move away from that leave-no-trace idea of environmentalism, or that kind of John Muirish nature-as-cathedral: you enter and you revere and you allow it to be untouched. To move instead into, like, a sense that we actually are in an active relationship. That humans are actually animals who are able to proliferate more diverse life in the ecology. Just leaving it as better than you found it isn’t enough, you actually have to leave it more diverse than you found it.

LW: That human beings could be a keystone species on which all these other lives depend. 

JR: As opposed to an apex predator that just destroys everything.

LW: What you’re talking about is shifting toward a relational view of the world.

JR: Whether we’re aware of the abusive relationship that we’re perpetrating or not.

LW: Which has to do with story.

JR: And metaphor. I felt a recurring metaphor of marriage in Believers, the idea of a kind of relationship that you enter into that has certain boundaries and expectations.

LW: Just for clarity, it’s not like our relationship with the world should be like a monogamous marriage or something. But when we think about what we have to do in order to make the planet habitable, the first thing that comes to mind is extreme sacrifice. This is what people think about, all the stuff they have to give up. The argument of the covenant that these radical Christian environmentalist people talk about is that you’re committing to a place, you’re having a relationship with it. You’re not committing yourself to it in order to be its warden and its servant, but to step down from mountaintop isolation and to feel yourself connected to others. This can be actually a healing experience and a fun experience and can take the pressure off an individual life.

Maybe that’s too intimidating a metaphor for a lot of people, because really what’s underneath it is this idea of seeing and being seen, and that’s hard to do in a relationship with another person.

JR: Right.

LW: Can you talk to me about spectacle? Because there’s a lot of looking in Denial. A lot of surveillance – both casual through social media and we’ve got this undercover reporter.

JR: A funny thing that started happening in the writing, there started to be a lot of orbs in the book. There was a sort of eyeball at the beginning, and there are ball sockets, and there’s an eclipse where planets are moving into different places. I started actually kind of thinking of the book itself as an eyeball. That kind of looking, being engaged in looking, was really part of the logic of the whole thing.

LW: It seems like some of it has to do with culpability, because that’s what we’re trying to decide: who’s to blame for this nightmare? Where do we assign blame? There’s this image of the Toronto trials, which is like a Nuremberg-style trial for carbon criminals and the empty chair. It seems like some of the critique of the book is about the role of the passive observer. If we can sort of project our guilt onto a single criminal…

JR: That is the sort of moral progress of the book, that it begins with this sense of crime and punishment, guilt and innocence. That there are people in the world who have been designated as guilty for this kind of climate crisis, but as the conversations progress, I hope that the sort of binary between the guilty and the innocent kind of erodes. That is the reality of climate as a problem that humanity faces. Everyone is guilty of it. We are all part of the problem merely by living and consuming in the way that we’ve organized things.

I feel annoyed at the kind of grim vision that is given to young people these days about the future, because I don’t think it’s realistic.

It was an interesting thing to go through for myself, to wonder, like, what would I do if I was put in the position of possibly consigning a person to life imprisonment for these particular crimes? I realized I wanted that person to be punished, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it myself. It was nice to get a surrogate. I want someone else to do it, but I don’t want to have to do it.

LW: You and a lot of people.

JR: Both of our books are really about real-life morality in the particular situation we’re in. Trying to not be too theoretical. I found something really interesting emerge in your book, which was, besides the religious model and the sort of conjugal models, there was a kind of a writing model. You’re talking about having a daily practice of something, a daily commitment, something you deal with every day that you don’t do all day long, but that is part of your relationship with your environment. That is something that makes sense to me in writing.

I also felt like there was an interesting sort of primacy placed on revision as a process. You’re not talking about things that are revolutionary or throwing out everything, but about small interventions that can be made that then have wide-ranging ramifications. There are really beautiful examples of people who rehabilitate a meadow by doing really small things, and then eventually life returns. As a writer, that just made so much sense to me. I’ve seen that happen in a text, where you make a small change and it reverberates through the entire thing.

I felt that then also in the idea of biodiversity. You make a book and it sort of enters into this accretion with a bunch of other books.

LW: There’s an ecology.

JR: It’s an ecology of stuff. You’re trying to do something with language that creates more possibilities, and is, like, joining with this whole system.

LW: To increase the available store of reality, I heard someone say. One of the most exciting things about writing the book was meeting these weather maker guys. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of them, but these folks have this very elegant system where they find lands that were formerly fertile that had been desertified, and that, if they are restored, could shift things in the region and beyond. They’ve identified key locations where, if they rehabilitate even a small part of it, it’ll affect weather patterns. The Sinai Peninsula, for example. If they can restore this one lake, it could potentially return moisture to California.

JR: Like planetary acupuncture.

LW: I feel annoyed at the grim vision that is given to young people these days about the future, because I don’t think it’s realistic. It doesn’t mean that the worst forecasts can’t happen, but I don’t think it’s an objective reading of the future. You’re not the center of the universe, you’re standing in a web of relationships. Many generations ago, someone dreamed you would exist and lived their life in service of your future. Now you have the opportunity to live your life in service of many generations in the future. There’s nothing more epic than that.