A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, Orion’s reviews editor Kerri Arsenault spoke virtually with The New Yorker’s David Remnick and Henry Finder, editor and editorial director, respectively, about nature and storytelling. Their anthology of climate reporting, The Fragile Earth (Ecco), was published in October, and collects some of the best voices in the field, including many who are familiar to Orion readers, like Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Kerri Arsenault: Do we agree the climate crisis is the biggest crisis of our time?
David Remnick: I don’t want to stint any other crisis we face, whether it’s income inequality or systemic racism or any number of crises that pain both the country and the world, but it’s hard for me to see there’s a greater and more encompassing crisis than climate change.
KA: I want to talk to you about environmental storytelling and a little about your new climate change anthology, The Fragile Earth. Climate change and environmental disasters are slow and ambiguous processes in nature and reach, which makes such stories hard to tell and hard to digest. How can writers tell and editors publish more digestible environmental stories?
DR: I have to say, it’s not just a good question, but as an editor, it’s the question. It is not lost on me, as a reader and as an editor and also as a human being, that there is a tendency to encounter this subject and run for the hills. Whether selecting what to watch on Netflix, or am I investing in reading a book that’s going give me pleasure and relatability? Or is it going to be something that’s going leave me a wreck because I now have a deeper understanding of all the ramifications of climate change?
When Bill McKibben’s piece came out in The New Yorker on September 11, 1989, it was not greeted with universal hosannas. Very few people had wrapped their minds around climate change. This was not long after James Hansen had given that testimony in front of a Senate committee about the warming of the Earth. Along comes McKibben and he writes this very long piece called “The End of Nature.” And somebody as smart as Lewis Lapham at Harper’s pronounced it sanctimonious and doom-ridden and the great phrase “tear-stained.” Now, I don’t want to pick on Lewis Lapham, who is a very smart guy, but I think his reaction was not a lonely one. There is still a tendency to say, “I can’t do this today.” And the slow-moving, or seeming slow-moving-ness of the crisis itself, allowed that psychology, just as it allowed people to make terrible decisions about policy. Everybody—unless you are Bill McKibben or someone like him—in some way was complicit. “I can’t think about this today—maybe tomorrow.”
Henry Finder: The most important story of our time just isn’t ultimately a story. How do you narrate something that is inherently nonnarrative? It’s a challenge every writer has to figure out, a code that’s endlessly being cracked in one form or another. It reminds me of a friend who was a screenwriter—he wanted to do a story about a severe drought. The difficulty was that drought is not a thing. It’s not an event, it’s not an earthquake, it’s not a storm, it’s not a towering inferno. How can you possibly make vivid and concrete a drought?
KA: Or interesting.
HF: Or interesting. And climate change? Talk about watching paint dry. It’s like watching paint slowly increase its temperature with lots of knock-on effects that are very complex and endless patterns of perturbation, but it’s too big and slow to lend itself to the usual way that we cover things like a two-car crash, a political scandal, or things that are easier to get our arms around.
DR: Storytelling is essential. You have to reach people in a way that gets into the mind and into the heart as only storytelling can. So, the demands are incredibly high. What’s not going to flip the switch, probably, is a barrage of op-eds with words like should and must and hence and therefore.
HF: Then, there’s always difficulties with science writing. How do you establish a kind of rhythm of exposition and scene that’s compelling? One way of doing it journalistically, and Elizabeth Kolbert has discussed this, is you have somebody in a scene talking about these things: “Here we are, walking on a glacier in Greenland, and we’re having a conversation about albedo, about ice, about the complexities of thermal absorption, and so on.” These are part of the storytellers’ armamentarium, and all of these things have to be used in inventive ways in order to get a piece that people will actually start and finish and ideally be a little bit changed by. It has to be an experience not simply of illumination but also of something effective, something emotional where we experience a sense of the costs and the perils.
DR: Ronald Reagan (of all people) was profoundly affected by the movie, The Day After, with Jason Robards, where a nuclear attack occurs in the United States and many, many people are killed. It affected the way he went about enacting policy with Mikhail Gorbachev.
I’m not under the illusion that a given piece in The New Yorker is going to change everybody in the world, but it is true that John Hersey’s Hiroshima changed the way many, many people regarded nuclear weapons, and my hope is, at least cumulatively, that kind of work in The New Yorker, in Orion, can penetrate in ways that are absolutely necessary. If consciousness is not changed, if people don’t recognize this as a consuming, existential threat to our lives, to the lives of countless species, to the shape of the economy, we’re in deep—no, we’re already in deep, deep trouble.
HF: In putting this anthology together, of course, we wanted to not just scare the bejesus out of the reader but also to leave the reader with some sense of resolve, some sense that we could still reach a less bad place. Right now, the option set is between really dire scenarios and somewhat less dire scenarios. There’s no unwinding the clock. But less bad can be a hugely important achievement. It’s something that we can no longer avert our eyes to.
The most important story of our time just isn’t ultimately a story. How do you narrate something that is inherently nonnarrative?
KA: To publish or write stories that are different to different people at different times is trying to hit a moving target. At The New Yorker, are you seeing new modes of storytelling?
HF: Some of the greatest American prose is the prose written by naturalists, right? And going back many generations. Bill McKibben, John McPhee, David Quammen, that amazing witch hazel cocktail that is Betsy Kolbert’s prose. So, environmental storytelling has certainly drawn people who work at the highest echelon of the craft.
DR: I don’t think any one story can move the ball in something as far-ranging as climate change. There’s no shortage of books, but sometimes there’s a shortage of apprehending readers. It’s very difficult to reach people on climate crisis because of the nature of the way it progresses and the way, until very recently, it appeared to be unseen.
KA: Is there value in or space today for the purely observational, sensory “Ode to a Tree” or “Leaves of Grass” kind of writing?
DR: Yes! Yes! Men and women on the ground observing and accumulating evidence and trying to make sense of it and warning us and doing all the things that one should do? That’s part of the picture.
HF: The role of the observational mode is not just cherishing something that is profoundly perishable, but I think also helping us see how things had been, [which] allows us to see how things are changing.
DR: Different writers are going to come at it in different ways. If we only had poets, that wouldn’t work out. But if we only had op-ed writers, our souls would be poorer.
KA: I wonder what transformed the transition from cave art to commentary? Or was there always commentary within the cave art? There must have been a moment when the responsibility of literature changed from documentation to judgment.
HF: There was an obsession with the ruin as a form of art that you certainly see in the eighteenth century. At the same time, you have a lot of people focusing on the sublime and the natural sublime: the resurrection of Longinus, Edmund Burke, and into Wordsworth and so on. Wordsworth, however we think of him, was in his day regarded as a nature poet, among other things, and that obsession with the natural sublime, the view of Shelley on the Swiss Alp. And that went hand in hand with a certain mistrust of how industrialism was transforming the landscape, right?
KA: Thoreau did that, too.
HF: Absolutely. And The Ramblers and the people who like to literally walk the landscape—people like when John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor would go out on walks in the Alps—and it produced some kind of a repository of resistance against heedless industrialism and deforestation. There are obviously different modes of that. So, when Teju Cole goes back to Nigeria and writes about what’s going on in a country where he was in part raised, he is extremely alert to the abuses that stem from natural resources and the ecological damage that is done through heedlessness abetted by corruption and so on. So, there are now many, many forms of observation, many gazes that we spend on the despoliation of the natural world.
KA: Words are the basic unit of storytelling, and human networks are made from language, but right now, it doesn’t feel like we’re experiencing a shared language . . . or even a shared reality. I’m wondering how you publish stories where we people do not agree on these basic concepts.
DR: We’re living in Upside Down World, a world in which the most powerful person in the country has gone to tremendous efforts to undermine the truth and create an alternate informational universe of propaganda and untruths. We have now wasted four years battling this, and where climate catastrophe is concerned, tick-tock.
KA: Back to what I was asking. Is there a collective “we” in, say, environmental storytelling?
HF: In a kind of King Kong versus Godzilla way, there’s always been tension between the coalitional argument for embrace of “we” and the argument for specificity for the fractal, smaller and smaller “we.” But it is important to build a large “we” even when we recognize the kind of specificity that is effaced by those presumptions.
Now, there’s also an endless war of who gets to be counted in that. Who is perhaps excluded by the “we”? Who is the normative element in the “we”? And so, you have to be conscious. In some form, you’re talking about we human beings on this one planet living our own lives together. We have to look for common ground. Yes, there is a crevasse between the conversation about greenhouse gases and the conversation about nature preserves. But at least it gives you something to start the conversation off. We need to find rungs that we can climb together. We need to find the basis of a shared conversation. If it’s just, “My team is gonna beat your team,” things will not end well. We see many evangelicals have also taken seriously the notion of stewardship, that these are the assets we should be shepherding. If that helps you get there, then go with God.
KA: Who’s The New Yorker writing stories for in such a siloed world?
DR: The old answer would’ve been less chagrined and less self-aware. Twenty years ago somebody in my job would say something like, anyone is free to read it. And of course, that’s still true and, of course, I know our readers are as varied as human beings are varied. But you have a much greater sense now of who you’re not going to reach, who you’re shut out from. We are drawn more and more into our own informational ecosystems.
There is no question that the old world of three networks and other seemingly hegemonic systems had their drawbacks. I don’t have to read Noam Chomsky to know that. But what we now have untended, the dangers are just so evident. When I was much younger, of course there were conspiracy theorists, science deniers, believers in little green men in weird parts of the Southwest, or whatever. But now, it’s a force of mainstream politics. Now, the instruments are there to gather those people, to deepen those impressions, to create dangerous means and alternative consciousnesses that are, if not killing us, then at least they are doing immense damage to all of us.
I don’t profess to know the answer on every level of how to reverse this. The quandaries are deeper for somebody like me, who had always thought of himself as a First Amendment—if not absolutist, then close. I don’t deny the legality [and] legitimacy of publishing something as damaging as, I don’t know, Breitbart. But the damage is just tremendous.
KA: Can stories prepare us for the real horror to come?
DR: These things have a way of being effective if they are casting a wider net than one might imagine. The effect of John Hersey’s Hiroshima was much wider than its readership. It leaks out into consciousness. The New York Times is read by a finite number of people, but the effect of those stories, if they’re big enough, has a way of distributing. Somehow, many, many, many more people know that Trump paid $750 in taxes than the audience for the actual piece in the Times.
KA: Do The New Yorker’s stories leak out in the same way?
DR: Well, I think Harvey Weinstein would think so.
HF: We need to realize the degree to which, as Betsy [Kolbert] would say, the climate crisis is already a hidden hand of history. Like, everyone knows about the civil war in Syria and its knock-on effects, including massive waves of refugees, which can have political consequences in terms of European populace, the emergence of right-wing groups in Germany, and so on and so on. The story that we tell is freedom-loving rebels. What we don’t tell is [that] the Syrian civil war emerged amid a super drought where farmers across the country were having to slaughter livestock because they could not keep their herds alive. For so many people, this was more about food than freedom. People were going hungry. That’s why they would do anything. And the reason for that was immense drought. Now, why do we never mention the super drought? Because it doesn’t fit into the neat little allegories that we want to pervade? That’s crazy. That’s bad history.
I don’t want to be monocausal. These things have many factors. But if we don’t acknowledge the hidden hand of modern history as involving the climate crisis, we’re missing a big part of the picture.
Different writers are going to come at it in different ways. If we only had poets, that wouldn’t work out. But if we only had op-ed writers, our souls would be poorer.
KA: Can stories really activate policy change or help solve the gravy train of environmental disaster or climate crisis?
DR: Leaders have to think that their constituents care. If constituents don’t make their demands known, then all too often other interests are able to keep them in check. If I’m in Washington and I’m a senator and I’m enjoying the favor of and funding of lobbyists from an oil company, and at the same time my constituents are not pressuring me to pay closer to climate change, well, really, how many heroes of conscience are there? How many politicians are willing to fuck their own immediate electoral self-interest in order to make a stand on conscience and the greater good?
KA: Ed Muskie had somewhat of a conscience when it came to the environment, no?
DR: I’m not saying that politicians are incapable of stance of conscience, but they weigh them against the consequences at the ballot box. Susan Collins at her kitchen table may think one thing about Donald Trump, but her willingness to buck Donald Trump when she gets out into public is a much different fact. More typically, people of conscience are impinging on power if they can manage, and that’s what writers need to do on subjects like this.
HF: And if you look at political ecology, there are two things to keep track of. One is the headcount—how many people are in favor of Paris Agreement and so on. But there’s also preference intensity. What we’ve seen in the politics of this country is that smaller groups with really intense preferences can have an inordinate influence on policy. It matters if you care greatly about something. Most people might rather have normalized relations with Cuba, but do they really care? Do they wake up in the morning and think about it?
DR: Right, people face many other legitimate concerns. We’re preoccupied with feeding our family or health insurance. Your kid is sick, your mother is dying—there are troubles everywhere. To have to worry about a potential apocalypse decades from now, I mean, who’s capable of doing that?
KA: Books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle helped enact legislative change, but some writers argue this kind of change can’t happen anymore.
DR: I’m sorry, I don’t agree. I just don’t agree. Look, Susan Brownmiller published Against Our Will—I think I read that when I was 18. As a kid from New Jersey, what did I know about feminist literature? A lot of what we’ve been talking about during the #MeToo period, that literature existed, but you never know when the change in consciousness is going to come. Ronan Farrow’s stories and Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s stories were not the first to take on #MeToo, even in show business—Gabe Sherman was breaking story after story in New York magazine, in particular about Fox News and what was going on in those offices. But sometimes, something happens that flips the switch.
The word Holocaust wasn’t used until years after it was over. So, it may be the spectacle of that orange sky over Northern California at ten o’clock in the morning penetrates consciousness in a way we hadn’t anticipated. Or it may be the futurist photographs of what Miami’s beach is going to look like in a very short time. John McPhee and Edward Hoagland and I could name I-don’t-know-how-many writers that had environmental concerns decades ago. You read them and you enjoyed them and you learned from them, but the sense of alarm was never quite adequate. O