Orion Blog

Nine Questions for the Author: Krista Schlyer, “Sacrificial Land”

With the partial federal government shutdown reaching into its second month, we contacted journalist and photographer Krista Schlyer to learn more about the ecological realities along the US-Mexico border. In the current issue of Orion, Schlyer’s photo essay “Sacrificial Land” captures much of what’s at stake along the borderlands—the animate beauty, biodiversity, and shared habitat.

Krista Schlyer is a conservation photographer and writer living in the Washington D.C. area. Her work has been published by the BBC, Orion, The Nature Conservancy, High Country News, Newsweek and others. She is the author of three books: Continental Divide: Wildlife, People and the Border Wall, winner of the National Outdoor Book Award and Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, Almost Anywhere, and her latest book, River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia, released in November 2018. Krista is currently working on a documentary film called Ay Mariposa, which tells a story of butterflies and resistance in the US-Mexico borderlands.

NT: How you were you first drawn into border policy and its intersection with wildlife? 

KS:  I worked for Defenders of Wildlife in 2004. At the time, anti-immigrant forces were pushing for a US-Mexico border wall and escalating militarization, and Defenders was advocating for wildlife and ecosystems impacted by such policies. 

I started working as a freelancer shortly after that, and was reporting on a herd of bison living on the border of Chihuahua, Mexico and New Mexico. I was in a small Cessna plane about five hundred feet above the Chihuahuan grasslands, searching for this bison herd with a scientist from Mexico City, Rurik List. We spotted a few members of the herd just as they were leaping over the border barrier at the time, a broken down barbed wire fence.

Later, Rurik and I went to visit the landowners on both sides of the border. In Mexico, the rancher said the bison came to his land almost every day to drink from a pond, one of the only year-round water resources in the area. On the U.S. side, the rancher said the bison came almost every day to eat in a particular pasture, where a nutritious species of grass grew. The herd’s food and water were split by the border.

This was in 2008, shortly after the Secure Fence Act was passed, and the US government was planning to build seven hundred miles of enhanced border barrier. I was struck deeply by the enormity of this moment for wildlife and ecosystems, how thousands of species along this two-thousand-mile border were going to be facing a major (and deadly) transformation of their homeland. My world and work changed in an instant.

NT: What species are most critically affected by a US-Mexico border wall expansion?

KS: It is a long, long list. Environmental groups have stated that about one hundred threatened and endangered species are impacted by border wall. I would say the list of species that will be critically impacted is much longer. There are direct impacts to endangered species that rely on migration corridors like jaguars, ocelots, jaguarundis—three tropical cat species that can be found nowhere else in the United States. They have all been hunted to near extinction and have lost too much habitat, but they are hanging on to existence here, and that existence is tied to migration pathways to healthier populations in Mexico.

Similar threats are posed to Mexican gray wolves, bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, and others. But there is also a grave threat of direct habitat destruction and fragmentation. In the Lower Rio Grande Valley, less than five percent of the native habitat remains. The entire ecosystem along the Rio Grande is critically endangered, existing only in fragmented remnants. This remnant ecosystem is essential habitat for a mind-blowing diversity of species. Two of North America’s major avian flyways funnel through this region at the overlap of the temperate and tropical world. More than five hundred species of birds rely on this landscape, as do more than three hundred species of butterflies, imperiled reptiles like the Texas tortoise, and Texas indigo snake.

NT: Have you ever felt endangered while on assignment along the border? What are some of the main environmental challenges to your work?

KS: My fears working on the border have been few; I have always felt safe there. I have been afraid at times of the Border Patrol, because they have a long record of abuses and can be very threatening. But many in Border Patrol are kind and helpful as well. I have had encounters with human migrants, but they posed no threat. They needed my help and I was glad to be there to give it to them. As for wildlife, I’ve had encounters with bears, cats, coyotes, and venomous snakes, but I’ve studied how best to respond and afford them the distance and respect they deserve.

Only once have I ever felt afraid. I was hiking by myself in a remote place and came upon a cave formation in some rock. It smelled strongly of cat musk, what I took to be a cougar but couldn’t be sure because I never saw the animal. The hair on my arms stood up and I felt it was best to move on. I doubt I was ever in any danger, but I trusted my animal instincts. We evolved with predators like big cats. I assume that somewhere in my DNA is a prey instinct, and that’s an instinct worth listening to.

NT: Are mainstream debates on the physical barrier construction deflecting us from the more invisible walls of bureaucracy and policy already being erected behind the scenes?

KS: Absolutely. Our immigration system is broken. Has been for decades. Rather than try to fix it, politicians take the expeditious route and point to the border. They say: “look, over there, let’s do something about that,” when really there is nothing wrong with the border that couldn’t be alleviated with a realistic immigration system and more thoughtful trade policies with our international neighbors.

NT: What other specific examples around the world have borderlands impacted wildlife?

KS: In 2015 the Washington Post ran a story on border wall construction worldwide. By their count some sixty-eight walls were being built that year, more than any other time in human history. Each of these barriers will impact wild species and ecosystems, along with the people who desperately need to migrate.

In an era of changing climates, when migration is an essential survival and adaptation strategy, this will be devastating to countless species. Barriers can be long-lasting, even after the walls come down. There is a species of red deer in Europe, for example, whose migration patterns are still affected by the Iron Curtain, which came down almost three decades ago.



NT: Passage. Freedom of movement. Migration. These should be basic rights. What does a wall, at its core, symbolize to you?

KS: Fear. A need to control what we don’t understand, what we’re afraid to confront with an open mind and heart. Hubris. A cage we impose on ourselves because we don’t have courage to see that this world doesn’t belong to us. We are only creatures living within it, no more or less important than any other.

NT: You’ve been doing this work for over ten years. What keeps you coming back?

KS: Love. Responsibility. Connection. I have photos of so many faces from the borderlands. I look at them periodically—jackrabbits, foxes, butterflies, people. They are all a part of my life. The vulnerability they face at the hands of the U.S. government is my vulnerability, too. Their lives and futures are on the line, and I feel a desperate need to help them.

NT: At end of your essay you ask: “Where will this end?” In your opinion, where will this end?

KS: I would like to say that we will realize what we are doing and change course. In the end, I hold out hope that this will happen. But I’ve seen too much about the way politics works, the way our power structures in Washington D.C. work, and the way our national news media works. I think it will be a long time before we truly change the course we are on.

If every person who cared about wildlife and the natural world picked up the phone and called their members of Congress every day saying no more walls and militarization of the border, we could turn this ship around in an instant. Barring that, it will take decades, and we may have walled off the entire border by then. So then it becomes a project of tearing that wall down. Whatever happens, I’m not giving up, even if I’m chipping at it with a pickaxe when I’m ninety years old.

NT: What is the most important takeaway for concerned readers from all your work?

KS: Consider the lives of those who do not have a voice in our society but depend on the land. This is not only true in the borderlands, but everywhere. I recently published a book called River of Redemption: Almanac of Life on the Anacostia. It’s about a river in the heart of Washington D.C., but fundamentally it’s about seeing all those who live in what Aldo Leopold called the “land community,” and honoring their need for home and habitat.

All my work is geared toward growing an awareness that we are not alone on the land, that everything we do to alter the world has ripples of implications—which can be negative or positive—on a vast community of other creatures.

New to Orion? First-time subscribers get an on-sale rate: One year (4 issues) for only $29.   

Five Questions with the Author: Elizabeth Rush, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore

I first met Elizabeth Rush when we were roommates for a Metcalf fellowship that got us to a Climate Adaptation Workshop in Missouri in 2015. We quickly realized how much our histories and interests overlapped, from once living amid the big trees of Oregon right down to tromping down the same flood-ravaged streets of Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy with reporter’s notebooks in hand. It’s with great interest that I’ve followed her progress in turning the Staten Island story, and so many others across the country, into her new book RISING: Dispatches from the New American Shore. In it, she gives voice to the people in communities most vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise as they wrestle with how to respond. 

On a hike this spring through a New England forest, we picked up our ongoing conversation about journalism, storytelling, and what it means for people to remake their lives when the shores they inhabit are transforming around them.

MS: How did the book Rising come about? What were you thinking about professionally and personally, and how did that answer the question of why you should write this book now?

ER: Back in early 2012, Le Monde Diplomatique sent me to India and Bangladesh to report on the completion of the world’s longest border fence. As it turned out the fence was more of a technicality. Sea level rise and water sharing were much more pressing concerns. While my article mentioned this briefly, the work itself continued to haunt me. When I returned to the United States I felt I could see what those whose lives were not dependent upon coastal land could not––that the very shape of our shore was changing. I went in search of someplace in the United States where sea level rise was playing out in the present moment, which is how I ended up in Louisiana.

At that very moment, my life was sort of falling apart. I had just broken off an engagement to the man I was supposed to marry. I moved out and was living in a rented room in Crown Heights. All of my things were in storage. Often I think this helped me to see the transformation of coastal land and those living atop it from a deeply personal lens. I became interested in the question of how a person can stay in a place, even when the place itself is changing irrevocably and how, when the time comes, they learn to let go of the places they love. In Louisiana I realized that erosion, saline inundation, and land loss, these very scientific phenomenon, were deeply transforming both the land and the inner worlds of those who had lived there for centuries.

MS: In Rising you regularly cross the climate divide to report from frontline communities that question human-made climate change even as they witness accelerating environmental change. Can you talk about this part of your reporting process?  

ER: In Rising I wanted to draw close to the places where climate change is being felt now, in the present moment. More often than not, along the coast, these are communities that are not being buffered by big-budget infrastructure projects. They are rural communities where residents have long made a living off their relationship with the land itself. These are communities that have not traditionally been directly engaged by environmental writers and thinkers, though I do think this is certainly changing, thanks in part to the election and columns like yours, “Middle Ground” at Inside Climate News.

Many in the communities I worked in were not keen to use the words “climate change” to talk about their particular experiences. They were happy to talk about changes in the environment but “climate change” felt too politically loaded. They would admit that winters were getting warmer and that they were flooding worse, year after year. Some would say they did think humans were causing it, while others would demur, saying something like, “I am not a scientist so I don’t know what is causing the flooding.”

To be honest, I met very few people who denied the phenomenon outright. Instead they refused to use the terminology. And who can blame them? The words “climate change” are so entrenched in political discourse at this point that they fail to describe what direct experience with climate change feels like. The term itself does not describe how difficult it is, for instance, to watch the land where your father grazed cattle fall into the sea.

MS: What changes or surprises did you or your sources witness over the five years of writing Rising?

ER: During the time it took me to write this book many of the predictions of how high sea levels could rise by 2100 have doubled. Put another way: it is not just that sea levels are rising, but the rate at which they are rising is speeding up too. Significantly. Back in 2011, when I really started to dig into the subject, most reports I were modeling three scenarios: a low rate of rise, a middle rate, and a high rate of rise. Usually the high rates of rise would max out at about plus three feet predicted by 2100 and today the higher rate scenarios often max out at about six feet of rise by 2100.

A recent study published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, which is based not on predictive models but on observational data, confirm this fact. It states: “if sea level continues to change at this [new] rate and acceleration, sea-level rise by 2100 will be more than double the amount if the rate was constant.” And some scientists think that even six feet by 2100 is a fairly conservative estimate, given what we know about how fast seas have risen in the historic past: often in rapid surges, jumping as much as fifty feet in three short centuries.

The people I interviewed for this book bear witness to these changes. They have watched many of their beloved coastal communities begin to be transformed by higher tides and stronger storms. “Our area has been flooding progressively worse year after year: more frequently, more often,” Frank Moszczynski of the Staten Island Alliance told me. “Before Sandy, which was the five hundred year storm, there was Irene, which was a two hundred year storm. The year before that we had a three hundred year storm. In less than three years we got over one thousand years of wild weather.”

That weather has increased flooding so mightily in his neighborhood that Frank and his neighbors banded together to petition the State to purchase and demolish their homes. And you know what? The citizens won. That little community in Staten Island is now participating in one of the most progressive climate change adaptation strategies known as “managed retreat.”

MS: Tell me more about these more radical approaches towards conservation and adaptation, especially given the recent findings that suggest that, for instance, the West Coast’s tidal wetlands will drown by 2110 if human communities don’t move up and in.

ER: In the past, when sea levels dropped, the marsh dropped down too, and when they rose the marsh rose with them. If you were to take an aerial time-lapse photo of the process of marsh migration, it would look as if the tidal wetlands and the ocean were moving in and out together, the way desire follows the desired. But today so many of our human communities are sited right up against the farthest inland edges of these marshes, impeding their ability to migrate. This means that, as sea levels rise, these tidal marshes will, unless we relocate, drown in place. Nearly fifty percent of the endangered species in the United States are wetland dependent, which is one of the biggest reasons why I would like to see conversation around managed retreat, like what is taking place in those communities in Staten Island, gain traction in the public debate.

One newer approach to conservation is called “conserving the stage,” and it suggests that if we want to keep a diversity of plant and animal life thriving on our changing planet, we need to begin to set aside areas that are rich in geophysical variation. That’s because, as the earth warms, species are on the move, many relocating up in elevation or poleward at a respective rate of thirty vertical feet and eleven miles every decade.

The idea behind “conserving the stage” is that we need to create arenas where evolution can continue to unfold. Instead of setting aside selected areas (a particular national park) or ecosystem types (wetlands refuges) as monuments to an idea of nature that is no longer tenable, we need to think about working on behalf of the physical factors that foster biodiversity in the first place: soil types, hydrology, landform variation, and, above all else, topography.

MS: John Holdren, Obama’s science advisor, famously said, “We basically have three choices: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering.” Which of these felt most dominant to you as you wrote this book?

National efforts toward mitigation are dwindling. Today many of the battles are being taken up at the state and local level. But Rising itself doesn’t really take on mitigation. Again, I wanted to think about what human and more-than-human communities living in and around wetlands do when there are not a lot of resources being made available.

This leaves us with few options: retreat or perish in place. I personally think of human retreat as a radical form of resilience. Not only does it allow more-than-human wetland communities the chance to move in, it is also proof of how adaptable we humans really are. We can learn to let go of the places we love. We can remake our lives in different locations. We will have to.

Often while writing I came back to something John Bear Mitchell, a Penobscot scholar and member of the Penobscot Nation, told my students back in 2015. He said, “Within a single human existence things are disappearing from the earth, never to be seen again. In Passamaquoddy [Maine] our sacred petroglyphs—those carvings in rock that were put there thousands of years ago—are now being put under water by the rising seas. We’ve seen this happen for a long time—this diminishing of our natural resources—through climate change and invasive species. The losses have been slow and multigenerational. We have narrowed our spiritual palettes and our physical palettes to take what we have. But the stories, the old stories that still contain a lot of these elements, hold on to the traditional. For example, our ceremonies and language still include the caribou, even though they don’t live here anymore. Similarly, we know the petroglyphs still exist, but now they’re underwater. The change is in how we acknowledge them.”

Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harpers, Guernica, Granta, Orion, and the New Republic, among others. In 2019 she will deploy to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica as the National Science Foundation’s Artist and Writer in Residence. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University, and teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University. Read more of her work on Orion.  

Meera Subramanian is a contributing editor of Orion, award-winning journalist, former MIT Knight Science Journalism fellow, and author of A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis. She just completed Finding Middle Ground, a series exploring perceptions of climate change across America for InsideClimate News. You can find her at www.meerasub.org

Twelve Years is Nothing. And Everything.

Think for a moment about the number twelve. One dozen. Twelve brown eggs in a white carton. The approximate number of full moons that mark a year. The pairs of curved ribs found in the human body.

Ten plus two. A single decade, plus two years.

That’s barely any time to launch a massive global effort that would be the most important ever undertaken in human history. If we can pull it off. Twelve years is all we’ve got to dramatically change our ways – this according to ninety-one scientists from forty nations who analyzed more than six thousand scientific studies and just issued a landmark report containing that small, seemingly insignificant number: twelve.

According to this new report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we have only twelve years to slash greenhouse gas emissions by forty to fifty percent. One dozen. That’s not much time when it’s already twelve midnight, and the ticking has grown loud. Do we hear it? Will we act in time? If not, we will suffer the consequences: more climate refugees, stronger hurricanes, longer droughts, higher flooding, and more deadly wildfires like the one in Paradise, California. If we do act, we’ll rediscover the power and potential of the human community galvanizing for a global cause, as we’ve done in the past.

To succeed, we need a moonshot for this millennium aimed at eliminating emissions. A moonshot greater than the Apollo 11 space project that landed the first person on the moon in 1969, when it was widely considered impossible. But our species pulled it off, and a human being left footprints on the moon’s surface.

To succeed, we need to inspire a new type of personal sacrifice for the climate – something akin to the eighteen million backyard Victory Gardens during World War II that produced one-third of the vegetables in the United States. People grabbed shovels and rakes and pulled together to grow food for a nation at war. Today, we need Climate Gardens that grow solar panels and wind turbines, as well as food and trees.

To succeed, we need a campaign to eradicate climate change like the global response that wiped out polio – a disease that once paralyzed hundreds of thousands of children annually. During the 1950s and 1960s, effective vaccines eliminated polio in the West, and in 1988 the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was launched. Today, thanks to twenty million volunteers in two hundred countries, and an international investment of more than $11 billion, the global incidence of polio has been slashed by ninety-nine percent.

History shows that humanity has the potential to mobilize masses to achieve success. But can we do this to heal the climate in a mere twelve years? Can we rally billions of people against something we cannot see, smell, or taste? Can we go after an enemy, even if that enemy is us? How much sacrifice can we inspire every person to make? Because this is what it will take, and more: Setting thermostats to a cool sixty degrees in winter and pulling on sweaters and hats indoors. Cutting industrial meat consumption in half. Ending food waste. Insulating all buildings. Slashing plastics production. Taking buses, bicycles, and the balls of our feet. And the big one: cutting our consumption of stuff by a whopping fifty percent, or more. Those who are most impacted by climate change are already living with very little. Now, it is our turn.

Yes, we will be cold at times. Yes, we will have to reuse almost everything. Yes, we will lose weight. Yes, we will make do with less. It will not be easy. It will seem impossible. But in the doing, we will also build community and share resources and strengthen our social fabric. We will make music and art. We will dance in the streets to stay warm. We will hold hands and stick together.

In the end, if we pull off another moonshot, a new form of Victory Gardens, a retooled polio eradication campaign aimed at emissions, we might well save our kids and the generations to come. Aren’t they worth the sacrifices this moonshot will require?

The babies born last week and this week and next week are waiting for us. And when they turn twelve – if we succeed – the world will be a better place. But we have only a dozen years. That fleeting window of time between birth and becoming a teen. One hundred and forty-odd full moons (more than one has already passed since the report was published). Twelve years. The pairs of ribs protecting our hearts and lungs. Take a breath. Now act.

We put a human on the moon. We grew vast amounts of produce. We stopped polio from killing our kids. We can do this, too. But we must start today. Turn down the thermostat. Put on a sweater. Call two coworkers and carpool tomorrow. Invite a neighbor over to dinner. Share your story. Breathe. Twelve years is nothing. And it is everything.

Gregg Kleiner is the author of the novel, Where River Turns to Sky (HarperCollins), and a book about climate change for kids (and their grownups), Please Don’t Paint Our Planet Pink!, which asks what might happen if we could see CO2? He lives near the confluence of the Marys and Willamette rivers in western Oregon and is on Twitter at @greggkleiner

Music and Climate Action: An Interview with Kathleen Dean Moore


With all the impending despair of climate catastrophe these days, we locate wellsprings of hope in new emergences and creative responses, like the recent collaboration between writer and environmental philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore and concert pianist Rachelle McCabe. Their project, “A Call to Life,” pairs two leading artists and thinkers into a unified sound of possibility and action. I connected with Kathleen Dean Moore to learn about the project.

NT: What is your new project, “A Call to Life”?

KDM: “A Call to Life” is a concert performance that uses music and the spoken word to call people to action on the global extinction crisis. Words alone are not enough to express the enormity of the losses the planet faces – or the tragedy. So I’m collaborating with Rachelle McCabe, a concert pianist, to link the power of music and the power of prose, so that people can feel the moral urgency of action in both their hearts and minds.

We have been taking the performance on the road. The next performance (closest to Orion’s headquarters) is at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts on Friday, November 2, 2018, 5:30pm at the Razzo Hall at the Traina Center for the Arts.. I hope people will come. Or if they can’t, they can find a studio recording of the performance on our website, along with a calendar of our coming performances.

We can promise people an experience that will shake them to the core. Not another talk about statistics and doom, but, as Orion writer Mitch Thomashow wrote, an emotional connection:

“I was deeply moved by the power, eloquence, wisdom, urgency, and insight of the presentation…
an emotional connection to the planetary emergency.”

NT: What inspired “A Call to Life”?

KDM: Rachelle was in the audience when I gave a talk urging climate action. As I walked off the stage, she stopped me in the aisle and said, “When I listen to you speak, I hear Rachmaninoff.” When you have a brilliant friend who says something like that, and when your friend is a renowned concert pianist, you follow up.

In her studio a couple days later, Rachelle played me Rachmaninoff’s “Variations on a Theme of Corelli.”  Its connection to the extinction crisis made me shiver – on the verge of madness, its strong and resolute heart; in the depths of grief, its moral courage. “A formidable piece of music,” Rachelle said, “for a formidable challenge.”

NT: How did you fuse your writing/speaking with Rachelle’s music?

KDM: Rachelle played the Rachmaninoff Variations over and over, telling me about the “hollow chords of despair, the augmented fourth of yearning, the perilous transitions from dissonance to consonance.” We both cried. As she played the piece, the narrative arc of the music – from sorrow and terror to bewilderment to resolute courage – caught me up and I began to write. My words weave into the silences between the variations or spill on top of the music.

NT: Where has “A Call to Life” taken you? What is the audience response?

KDM: We have performed in a wild variety of venues, from the World Congress for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature in Hawaii, to the community hall of an Alaskan hamlet half-drowned by the tide. Geographically, we have ranged north to south, from Calgary to Arizona, and east to west, from Wisconsin to Hawaii. We are headed for New York City now, and next year, we will be in Scotland – wherever people invite us to perform.


NT: Why is the fusion of science and art so important in inspiring conservation?

KDM: The truths that science tells us are terrifying. Let’s be honest about that — so terrifying and sorrowful that a natural response is to close your heart against them, to turn away to deflect the blow. So the challenge is to deliver those truths in such a way that they open people’s hearts without breaking them. That is the power of art – it goes directly to the places where we grieve, rejoice, and find courage.

NT: How does this relate to the work of Orion magazine?

KDM: People often ask me: What can one person do to protect this lovely, reeling planet? I always answer, Stop being one person. To join in common cause with people with widely varying expertise, but all with the same creative energy and moral courage, all with the same passion for the planet – that is hugely empowering. That’s what Orion’s fusion of ideas about art, nature, and culture does – it creates a community of caring.

And I would say, a community of courage.  Orion says it straight and strong. It has found, in art and literature, what Rebecca Solnit calls the “joy of insurrection.”


NT: What’s planned for the future of “A Call to Life”?

KDM: We are fully committed to taking this call wherever an organizer can put together a piano and a couple hundred people. We want to carry our message everywhere: The cosmic going-out-of-business sale that we call an economy is a moral outrage, a betrayal of the young ones of all species – and we must stand against it.

Rachelle and I are also expanding our efforts, about to create a new performance focused on bird extinction, using, among other pieces, Sibelius’ Impromptu No. 5. Oh, such music — it will send you out the door, stumbling with grief and resolution, to do what needs to be done to save the winged ones.

As for me, I am working on two new books. One is Breaking Bedrock, a co-edited work on fracking’s impact on human rights. The other is a book of personal essays about ferocious love in a time of dreadful loss on a planetary scale. As for Rachelle, she is in China now, to teach and perform. But we will be back in your area for three performances at the end of October. Then Mesa Refuge in California, the Oregon coast, probably Fairbanks, and others.

Stay updated by following “A Call to Life,” a collaboration of climate action by Kathleen Dean Moore and Rachelle McCabe, on their website here.

Four Questions for the Author: Timothy Morton, Being Ecological

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He is the author of Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence; Nothing: Three Inquiries in Buddhism (with Marcus Boon and Eric Cazdyn); Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, and other books.

His most recent book, Being Ecological (MIT Press), is “a book about ecology without information dumping, guilt inducing, or preaching to the choir.” I caught up with the author to learn more:

NT: Imagine I’m twelve years old. Explain your book Being Ecological to me in terms I understand.

TM: All of us—all life on Earth, including humans—are going through this horrible event called global warming. The way we talk to each other about it is also pretty horrible. We yell facts thinking that this will inspire and persuade people. We need an ecological language that doesn’t make the person who served me at my local fast food place feel stupid or evil.

Guilt is about individuals. Global warming is a billions-of-people scale problem. Let’s have a conversation about being responsible instead. If you can understand something, then you’re responsible for it. Instead of yelling about evil, let’s help people try on what it feels like to be a scientist: that sense of wonder and weirdness. I hope my book gives you the feeling of having accepted global warming without making you believe in factoids and yelling that we’re doomed.

NT: Your term hyperobjects references entities such as climate change “of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place.” Can you connect the dots between your ideas in Being Ecological and hyperobjects?

TM: I hear a lot from people that they like this word, and so do I, because I think it’s very empowering. It’s nice to have a word for something, you know? For example, mass extinction, which is what I sometimes like to call global warming (climate change is way too much of a euphemism for me). You wouldn’t believe how hard it is even for advanced biologists to point to mass extinction because it’s everywhere, because it’s so vast.

Isn’t that amazing? The most horrifying event ever and we can hardly see it. Hyperobjects are physically big and scary but they’re like titans, not gods. You can defeat them. There’s only one global warming.

The human species itself is a hyperobject: a massive heap of things including humans, computers, fields, ideas about humans, interviews in Orion. This heap is vague and can overlap with other heaps. “Hyperobject” is a relative term. To an electron, a glass of water is a hyperobject.

NT: You say that, as a species, we are going through the initial phases of trauma, that we are living in a catastrophic moment in history brought forth, in large part, by our very own species. What does that do to tear us away from gaining a more ecological understanding of our place in the world?

TM: Well, maybe it’s kind of the other way around. I don’t think there’s a fall from grace going on. I think trauma is what ecological awareness feels like, at least at first, if you’re part of some kind of post-Neolithic type “civilization.” How do we go from tragedy mode to comedy mode? Comedy doesn’t mean this is funny. Comedy means you allow all the emotions, not just fear and pity, to coexist, kind of like an emotional equivalent of biodiversity. I think comedy is deeper than tragedy. When you can laugh, you can cry. This is grief work.  

NT: “Parts are Greater Than the Whole.” This is a central thrust of your book. Can you explain how this relates to our understanding of ecology?

TM: The funny thing is, it’s childishly simple to understand, but every time I talk about it I see people getting ready to hit an invisible delete button. We’ve become addicted to this idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and we say it to ourselves and sound all clever. But have you ever seen a proof of it?

And what does it really mean?

If you’re just a droplet in an ocean, and that ocean is more real than the droplet, well—poor little droplet. You totally don’t matter. I’m sorry to say this evil-sounding thing in an ecology magazine, but quite a lot of how we talk about the Gaia concept means, when you strip the nice, leafy imagery away, you’re just a component in a gigantic machine, and so are polar bears, and so polar bears are replaceable. Who cares if they go extinct? Mother Nature will evolve something else, another component. The normal holism is very often a form of mechanism.

But you have to be a holist to be interested in ecological beings such as meadows and coral. A meadow is a whole with lots of parts. Coral has lots of things in it that aren’t coral, like DNA and little striped fish. If you say there’s no whole, or that parts are more real than whole, then you’re agreeing with Margaret Thatcher that “society does not exist, it’s just individuals.” There is no biosphere. There is no Mother Earth. That’s not such a great pathway.

For me, if a thing exists, it exists in the same way as another thing. If there are such things as football teams, they exist in the same way as football players. They’re not more or less real than football players. So, there’s one football team. There’s lots of players on that team. Therefore, the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

This is so empowering once you accept it. For example, weather is so obviously a symptom of climate. There’s no point at all in wondering whether this or that storm was caused by global warming. Everything is being caused by global warming. But that doesn’t mean that being a symptom of global warming is everything that your local weather is. Weather is this delicious sensation on my arm. Weather is an example of how the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.

Neoliberal capitalism now covers most of Earth’s surface and is pretty horrid for most people. But there’s only one of it. This means that the famous line of Shelley, “We are many, they are few,” which Gandhi and King really loved (the poem it’s from is a beautiful hymn of nonviolent direct action) is not only historically accurate, but it’s ontologically true. Deep in the structure of being, not just at this moment in history, there’s so much more “down here” than up there. That’s good, right?