Literary Hub

How Do We Bring More Urgency to the Climate Crisis? Emma Sloley and Emily Raboteau in Conversation

On January 1st, 2019, the writer Emily Raboteau began a thread on her Twitter feed, linking to a story on the erosion of the Dead Sea with the words: “At last night’s New Year’s Eve party, Nim said that when he used to visit his family in Israel, he could see the Dead Sea from the side of the road, but on his most recent trip, it was a lengthy walk to reach the water, which is evaporating.”

Since then, she has been adding, sometimes daily, to the thread, reporting short, prosaic, yet strangely intimate stories of the climate crisis and its far-reaching effects on ordinary people. Emma Sloley, whose debut novel Disaster’s Children is set on a utopian ranch among wealthy survivalists fleeing the effects of climate change, has been following the thread since its inception. In this conversation, Raboteau and Sloley talk eco-anxiety, resource hoarding, and the importance of finding the small stories with which to illuminate this moment in time.


Emma Sloley: I find your Twitter thread about climate change fascinating: It’s like this very humanizing catalog of the many environmental and human catastrophes happening around the globe. What was the impetus to start the project? Did you wake up on New Year’s Day and think, this is what I’m going to do, or was it more organic than that?

Emily Raboteau: I’d made a New Year’s resolution to talk more about the climate emergency among friends and family, having learned that many climate scientists agree this is one of the best things we can do to combat the crisis. I didn’t initially know I’d be transcribing those conversations into a Twitter thread. But when we had a New Year’s party at our apartment in New York City one of our guests commented upon the evaporation of the Dead Sea. Another guest replied that the beaches are eroding in Jamaica, where she’s from, because of sea level rise. The next morning, I tweeted their connected observations, linking to news items, in case anyone wanted to learn more.

The formulation struck a nerve, I think because we’d shared a personal conversation instead of simply sharing apocalyptic headlines out of context. The structure of recording personal experience of climate change as it’s being lived in real time then announced itself. I continued breaking climate silence in my own network both at dinner parties and online by asking people how they’re feeling the effects of the crisis in their bodies and local habitats. I’ve been capturing their answers in the thread. Because I’m blessed with an international friend group that cuts across class, the story has taken on a global scale.

By now, ten months into the project, I understand that it’s become a time capsule of the mounting psychological toll of the climate collapse in the year 2019. I’m codifying the thread into a poetic book-length essay/elegy. In that form, it will be called The Last Supper. I’m considering making it a Decalogue, actually, running for ten years. Like Knausgaard’s My Struggle, but “our struggle.”

How about you? How has your work as a travel writer impacted your understanding of the climate crisis and why did you decide to write about it through fiction? What books did you use as models and for research?

ES: It’s interesting, so much of travel writing is predicated on creating a kind of fantasy about what is happening in the world. Years ago, I joined an expedition cruise to the Arctic Circle, and one of the on-board naturalists mentioned that the clientele (which skewed older, wealthy and relatively conservative) tended to be hostile towards lectures that mentioned climate change and human-caused environmental disasters, so the guides had learned to skirt around those issues.

It was astonishing to me that people who were fortunate enough to witness first-hand these incredible wild places of the earth were also completely averse to hearing about the threats facing them. The year we were there, the ice had melted completely around an island that was usually inaccessible to the ships, an unprecedented event! I think I understood for the first time how much of climate change denial relies on cognitive dissonance.

There are so many wonderful writers whose work grapples either directly or indirectly with the climate crisis. I love the speculative, almost dreamy worlds that Jeff VanderMeer creates—he’s so skilled at blending awe and horror in exploring humankind’s impact on the natural world. Lacy M. Johnson’s writing on climate is always great, like this beautiful, melancholy ode to the death of a glacier called Okjökull.

Claire Vaye Watkins writes powerfully about the drought-ravaged landscapes of California in her speculative novel Gold Fame Citrus, and Jesmyn Ward’s masterful Salvage the Bones, about a poor black family in Mississippi in the path of hurricane Katrina, provided an instructive and eloquent lesson in how poor communities will always be at the front lines of the coming global disasters.

As I wrote my novel, I kept needing to update the various catastrophes that are happening in the outside world (which my characters call “The Disaster”) as events in the real world caught up with or surpassed the crises I was describing. How do you keep up with the sheer number of updates required to document the massive problems facing humankind? It can feel so overwhelming.

ER: I can’t keep pace. None of us can. It’s staggering, heartbreaking. Though, when you consider how few media outlets were giving space to the subject even a year ago, it feels like progress to be flooded with so much bad information now. Time feels so slow to me right now even as the clock is ticking fast and our carbon budget is dwindling.

Dead dolphins on the beach. A third of North American birds, vanished. Hurricane Dorian. Typhoon Hagibis. Disappearing fireflies. Record setting temperatures. Sweeping forest fires. As far as my project goes, Twitter’s algorithms have figured out that I’m interested in news of climate change, and so that’s nearly all I’m fed. I realize not all of us are being fed the same catastrophic diet, nor connecting dots in the same way.

ES: As self-appointed storytellers, do you think writers are in a good position to help provide a balance between the personal and the political? Obviously political action is super-important right now—through pressuring corporations and politicians to address climate change and the many natural and humanitarian crises it is unleashing—but people often need smaller, more relatable human stories in order to become motivated or to envision change.

ER: Yes, I really admire the work of science and environmental writer Meera Subramanian toward this end—human stories. And the personal climate essays of Mary Annaise Heglar appearing in Medium and elsewhere, are stellar because they’re so relatable. Covering Climate Now is an important global journalism initiative “committed to bringing more and better coverage to the defining story of our time.”

One of the most effective stories I read recently was this one in the Boston Globe about Climate Change on Cape Cod. Beautiful, multi-media narrative reporting. It makes the story personal. I do believe creative writers, and artists in general, can humanize crises in unique ways that may invite audiences to lean in (as opposed to tune out) and sometimes act. Eco-poet Camille Dungy has written important interventions on environmental writing and who gets to be an environmental writer. We all live in environments, even those of us in cities. Her essay “Is All Writing Environmental Writing?” is essential reading.

I myself was radicalized by an installation about climate change by environmental artist Justin Guariglia in New York City, where I live. Writers and artists are key players in the climate movement. But do you know what psychologists tell us really motivates action? Personal pain. Like we’re seeing with all those people who lost power in the Bay Area when PG&E recently made a preemptive strike against wildfires by forcing a blackout—a lot of folks were suddenly forced to start researching alternative power sources and question their attachment to the grid. Are you hoping that your novel might motivate change?

ES: Ha, even in my wildest dreams I can’t imagine my fiction as a catalyst for change. Although of course there’s no reason something created for entertainment or escapism can’t also be enlightening. As you mentioned, it’s heartening to see so many artists, activists, and even news organizations starting to coalesce around this conversation about the urgency of the climate crisis. This is no longer fringe stuff.

Still, call me a pessimist, but I find myself often these days trying to anticipate the worst ways in which governments and citizens might react to climate change-adjacent issues like mass forced migration. (Everything from citizen militias patrolling borders to outright genocide.) It’s hard not to think of the crisis in narrative terms, as an epic quest to save the world complete with protagonists, villains, and—let’s hope—some heroes. Do you think it’s helpful to frame the struggle in that way?

ER: That is the frame of our world as it is right now. It’s not fiction. Climate apartheid; climate gentrification; climate refugees. Not in the future but now. Mass migrations and anti-immigrant violence is already occurring. It’s crucial to recognize and understand how and why things are as they are so that we can do better taking care of each other, and the earth. Seven million people were displaced from their homes by disasters in the first half of 2019 alone.

That’s before Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas. The International Organization for Migration projects that as many as 1.5 billion people will have to leave their homes by 2050 because of climate change. I admire the cautionary work of journalist Ben Ehrenreich, and novelist Omar el Akkad on this topic. We need to pay vigilant attention to what Arwa Mahdawi has written.

Can you talk about how your valid and appropriate concerns about resource hoarding drove your project? I like it as a critique of the land hoarding and prepper mentality we’re already seeing happen among the super wealthy as they prepare to inoculate themselves against social upheaval.

ES: Oh, it was a huge spark for the story. A few years ago, I started reading in the news about billionaires who were buying up these vast tracts of land in remote, temperate, largely pristine places like New Zealand, and that gave rise to the idea of writing about a community of wealthy survivalists who had decided to cloister themselves away from the growing crisis outside. Doomsday prepping has always been around: the difference now is that it’s spread to an elite stratum of society.

What strategies do you have for dealing with the bombardment of bad news? There are only so many times you can see images of floating garbage islands, the Amazon Forest aflame, poor people who’ve lost everything after cascading natural disasters, emaciated polar bears huddled on the shrinking ice floes, before they bring on a kind of numbness.

I keep seeing terms like climate despair, crisis fatigue, extinction horror, to describe how many people feel helpless in the face of the challenges we’re collectively facing.

ER: Social media saturates us with this news, and it’s very triggering. I’m mother to two kids, so while my eco-anxiety is attached to my concern about their future, they also force me to be present and unplug. I deal with the bombardment of bad news by enjoying being in the world with them, going to the park, exploring the city, appreciating their love of animals and playing in the water. I relish talking about books and ideas with my spouse, who is also a writer. I find it calms and inspires me, too, to spend time at the kitchen tables of other women. And you, how do you manage?

ES: I absolutely agree that one way to cope with eco-anxiety is to double down on the things that give you joy: for me, spending time in nature as often as possible, and similarly talking about ideas and writing with my husband, who is also a writer! Joy and wonder are so important, even when the news is constantly bad—maybe more so then.

I’ve sometimes described my novel as being “pre-apocalyptic” because I like that it leaves a space for hope. Do you think there are positive, uplifting ways to tell the story of climate change through fiction or nonfiction? How do you think we can tell the story of the Anthropocene in a way that engages readers instead of making them switch off?

ER: Barry Lopez wrote me a letter about this—the challenge of truth-telling while offering hope. I’d asked him how to manage this balance while writing this essay “Climate Signs” for the New York Review of Books. He had no easy answer. Some writers whom I respect, like Roy Scranton, argue against the impulse to offer hope.

Lately, I’ve been more of a scribe than anything else. I think we need all approaches, all voices in the chorus. My approach in The Last Supper is just to record what I’m hearing; narrative testimony. That feels like the right approach to me at the moment. Will it turn readers off? I don’t know. Maybe some. Maybe a lot. But people are reading it, more than I would have expected.

ES: OK, we’re all depressed now. Tell me something good!

ER: Well, as I write this, Eliud Kipcoge just made history by being the first person ever to run a marathon in under two hours.  People are comparing it to the moon landing.  He said he would do the seemingly impossible, and he did it. What the human body is capable of through sheer will and relentless drive . . . astounding. Inspiring, too.


Emma Sloley’s novel Disaster’s Children is available now from Little A.

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