A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World is a monthly column about the future of climate change.
I STAND ACCUSED.
I have long been called a nature writer. I never liked that much, but okay, after all these years, I’ll accept it. I will admit: sometimes there are trees and bugs and squirrels in my books.
And so this question: does nature writing have anything to offer a world that is at once drowning and going up in flames?
OVER THE LAST COUPLE OF YEARS, I have witnessed a western flash flood ripping down a valley in Utah, the largest fire in the American West’s worst fire season ever, and the destructive aftermath of the fifth strongest hurricane to ever make landfall in the United States. The so-called disasters came so fast and furious that there was barely time to take a breath. During my travels, I kept having the strange sense that I was living in the future, the same future that scientists predicted when I was younger, but that arrived much faster than many of us expected. Time is odd, then becomes now. After years of debating climate change, we are inside it.
DURING HURRICANE FLORENCE MY DAUGHTER Hadley’s high school in North Carolina transformed into an emergency shelter for almost a month, but she has nothing on her best friend, Noel, who lives in Louisville, Colorado. They met at art camp during one of our summer visits to Boulder when they were twelve and eleven, respectively, and they have since spent time together each summer. Back at the end of December 2021, Noel visited us and, on New Year’s Eve, we drove to the airport to pick them up. Noel had flown out that morning on what would turn out to be one of the last planes out of Denver that day. That was because one-hundred-mile-an-hour winds were blowing over the mountains from the west. Those winds downed power lines that were originally blamed for sparking the fire that started just south of Boulder in the town of Marshall. Whatever started it, the flames, fed by drought-cured grasses, sped toward Noel’s house. Over the previous six months, Denver and the Front Range had gotten just one inch of precipitation—a record low for the second half of the year—and the area had seen the latest first snowfall in recorded history. With no snow at all and wild winds, southern Boulder County burst into flames.
By the time Hadley and I got to the airport, the fire was closing in on Noel’s home. Five hundred houses had burned by then.
Noel knew about the fire, but whether they knew how close it had gotten to their house we were not sure, nor were we sure how much we should tell them.
“I don’t know if we are equipped for this,” my wife, Nina, said when considering the prospect of telling our daughter’s friend that their house had burned down.
It seemed to me that I don’t know if we are equipped for this is a pretty good mantra for our times.
Beneath the Ice: What will happen to the Earth as glaciers melt?
WE HAVE LONG WRITTEN ABOUT global warming in one way: as a warning. But maybe we should now acknowledge that it is better thought of as a warning unheeded, like Churchill’s warnings about Germany before World War II. It is too late to warn about the coming war: The war has started. The bombs are dropping. We had better arm ourselves.
Speaking of Churchill, those who work in the climate-writing game might consider thinking about a sentence Edward R. Murrow wrote about him after his “We shall fight on the beaches” speech: “He mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Maybe that is what writers need to do when writing about climate. To send our words into battle.
BUT EVEN AS I TYPE THOSE WORDS, they seem too gung-ho, too military. There’s been a lot of talk lately about weaponizing this or that. But climate change is not war, even if the results will eventually be much worse than any war. More modestly I will say this: we need a new way to tell this story.
What to make of the end of the world? That is my guiding question. It is a writer’s question. Another question that I find pressing upon me is: how will people look back on the literature of our time if it does not address our major existential issue?
By literature I don’t mean propaganda, nor do I mean fact-spewing book reports that read like television punditry frozen into print. We know that doom alone doesn’t inspire, despite the many horrors and statistics we could list. In most of the writing about climate, the sentences are not sloppy enough, not complicated enough. They are not BIG enough. The language does not rise to the challenge.
I don’t see a gang of nature writers riding to the rescue. But perhaps the modest and long-scorned genre can help. It is well suited for contemplating the world beyond the human and how we interact with that world. By having first-person encounters, not alone but with other people and animals and habitats in the climate-plagued places that increasingly make up our world, we can help make the larger story personal.
CAN NATURE WRITERS save the world?
How ridiculous, like believing that Hobbits could save Middle-earth.
— WHY WRITE SO MUCH ABOUT this stuff? an old friend says, It’s so depressing. Do you really think it will help?
— I don’t know, I say. Maybe. We all do what we can. Maybe it helps to all do our small parts. Lawyers legislate, activists activate, protesters protest, scientists look for new answers, maybe monkey wrenchers still monkey wrench. Writers write.
— Okay. But we all know climate change is bad. We all know we’re fucked. That’s obvious. What is it you are really trying to say anyway?
I think about that one for a minute.
I try to put it as concisely as I can.
— Wake up.
I FIRST MET ORRIN PILKEY, a geologist and emeritus professor from Duke, not long after I moved to the coast of North Carolina in 2003. We hit it off immediately. Over the next fifteen years we took a series of trips to the Outer Banks, the Jersey Shore and, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, to New York City. Orrin laughed a lot, despite the whole impending doom thing. And throughout it all, he repeated the same message with the consistency and power of a battering ram. The seas are rising, you idiots. Retreat.
It would be tempting to say that Orrin’s language is habitually hyperbolic, but time may make a realist of him. He laughs at all the predictions for our future that end after fifty or a hundred years. As if the world will then stop.
LANGUAGE, FOR ORRIN, IS HOW he has fought back against the idiocy. Sometimes he uses it as a bludgeon. Whatever works.
He once told me he had two basic goals as a writer: 1) fame and glory (“of course”), and 2) Kara Walker, having a cause.
I replied that I was down with the first goal, but not so much with the second. I added, perhaps a little pompously, that my goal as a writer was to present the messy complexity of what I see, not to offer answers.
Orrin didn’t think of writing like that. In fact, he no longer defined himself as a scientist.
“I’m a scientific advocate,” he said.
He pointed to James Hansen, who at the time was the head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, as a model. Like Hansen, Orrin believed that it was now the scientist’s responsibility to speak out politically. Scientists weren’t “objective fact machines,” nor should they be. Many scientists, out of fear and caution and of course careerism, refuse to offer their opinions about the facts they uncover. But who better to offer opinions than those who spend their lives studying a thing?
Until recently, few scientists made bold statements about the climate crisis: make a big statement and you were sure to be met with scurrilous attacks. Orrin’s role, it seemed to me, was to do just that, be bold, without fear, and part of that role was acting as a sort of human shield for other coastal scientists. He didn’t mind criticism. He could take it. Laugh it off. Even like it a little bit. He knew scientists were doing more relevant, and perhaps better, work at the moment. But he was a bit like the coach who deflects criticism from his players.
Scientists are vital of course, and Orrin was once a good one, but in this world where scientific truths are often ignored, someone needs to make them heard. That’s Orrin’s job. A kind of human bullhorn. It’s a job that requires a quick tongue and thick skin. The toughness to sit in a town meeting where everyone is readying their torches, and the wit to appear on The Tonight Show if called upon.
What he could add, but didn’t, is that he had also become, despite a belief in uncertainty, a professional prophet.
Orrin is comfortable with his role as doomsayer. I am not, even if, over the last few years, almost despite myself, my subject as a writer has become the end of the world. I’ll admit that sometimes I find it a troubling beat. As a young man, I wanted to write novels and never imagined myself chronicling the story of rising seas or an overheating earth. Maybe we’ll all eventually be forced out of our comfort zones, though many will cling to what was, an older vision.
IN THE END, I AM NOT A VERY GOOD Jeremiah. I do not have a fiery vision of the future to proclaim for you. I cannot scold you for the way you have squandered our bounty. I have squandered it too. I am very much a part of what a true Jeremiah would scorn. The oldest son of a big family of eaters, drinkers, consumers. A man who uses enough water and gasoline each day to be regarded a criminal in the future.
When the vision does start to come, cobbled together from the replies of scientists I’ve interviewed over the last couple of years, my imagination quails at the picture they paint. How can I really see what Hadley will see when she is my age? They say the air will not just be too hot but thick with particulate poisons. Air that will make the well sick, and cause the sick to die. The heat will be unbearable in cities and inland, where one hundred degrees will be long since left behind, then 120, 130, the numbers creeping higher and higher. Birds, my joy and respite, will fly in low numbers so that our time now will be remembered as we currently remember the great migratory flocks of passenger pigeons. The ocean, devoid of life, will no longer be able to absorb the carbon dioxide we have poured into it, and the fires in the West, fed by drought and lack of snow, will burn year-round. If the glaciers go, then all bets are off: the cautious incremental predictions of scientists past will be laughed at. The doomsayers will seem cautious. Even if they don’t melt, coastal cities and towns will flood, their infrastructure rendered useless. Salt water will be everywhere, but fresh water will no longer be readily available, will no longer flow from the tap, will be something paid for by the gallon or quart. The gap between rich and poor will widen. Those who have will hoard and use. If this proves true, then can violence over water, over all the scarce resources, be avoided?
I know all this, you see, but I can’t really picture it, can’t really feel it, can’t really imagine Hadley walking through it. I am better at describing the world as it was and is than as it will be.
Maybe the life I have lived will be looked back on as if it were a dream. It was a lucky life. I have walked into national parks and forests and really believed I had gotten away—what a concept—before the end of nature was declared, back when I not only splashed creek water on my face but sometimes drank it, and when I did, I felt exhilaration and freedom and joy. I remember seeing flocks of white pelicans flying overhead and humpbacks breach from shore and a grizzly try to rein in its frolicking young and thousands of swallows stage in a great migratory cyclone of birds, and paddling alongside a dozen dolphins and swimming, always swimming, in cold clean water. I remember doing this, in the East and West, in mountain streams and in oceans, oceans that we are told will soon be hot pools of infection but that once were our great respite, our great pleasure. I have been lucky to have these days upon days in nature without worry that the forests will be gone, burned, beetle-ridden.
And even as I type these words describing what will become of this green world, I still can’t quite believe them.
Could this really happen? Could this really be?
Maybe we all remain climate skeptics of a sort. If we really can’t imagine this will happen, if we really can’t picture it, maybe that’s what that makes us.
Because if we really did see this future for what it will be, then we would act in a way that made one thing clear: This is humanity’s greatest priority. This is the most vital thing, the looming thing, the thing we are choosing not to face.
The challenge is to get beyond words. The challenge is to feel the future.