Can great writing help us confront the global climate crisis before it’s too late? Pulitzer Prize winner and New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History) reports on what is at stake as well as efforts to turn the tide in her new book, Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. In her recently published debut, The Inland Sea, author Madeleine Watts parses the anxieties of living in a constant state of emergency and provides a glimpse of what comfort and refuge might look like in a land besieged by the climate crisis.
Author Leslie Jamison (Make It Scream, Make It Burn: Essays) moderated this discussion to examine the ways that climate fiction and journalism might help connect science and the lived experience to the will for change.
Under a White Sky
By Elizabeth Kolbert
Published by Crown Publishing
That man should have dominion “over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth” is a prophecy that has hardened into fact. So pervasive are human impacts on the planet that it’s said we live in a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene.
In Under a White Sky, Elizabeth Kolbert takes a hard look at the new world we are creating. She meets scientists who are trying to preserve the world’s rarest fish, which lives in a single, tiny pool in the middle of the Mojave. She visits a lava field in Iceland, where engineers are turning carbon emissions to stone; an aquarium in Australia, where researchers are trying to develop “super coral” that can survive on a hotter globe; and a lab at Harvard, where physicists are contemplating shooting tiny diamonds into the stratosphere in order to reflect sunlight back to space and cool the earth.
One way to look at human civilization, says Kolbert, is as a ten-thousand-year exercise in defying nature. In The Sixth Extinction, she explored the ways in which our capacity for destruction has reshaped the natural world. Now she examines how the very sorts of interventions that have imperiled our planet are increasingly seen as the only hope for its salvation. By turns inspiring, terrifying, and darkly comic, Under a White Sky is an utterly original examination of the challenges we face.
The Inland Sea
By Madeleine Watts
Published by Catapult
Drifting after her final year in college, a young writer begins working part-time as an emergency dispatch operator in Sydney. Over the course of an eight-hour shift, she is dropped into hundreds of crises, hearing only pieces of each. Callers report car accidents and violent spouses and homes caught up in flame.
The work becomes monotonous: answer, transfer, repeat. And yet the stress of listening to far-off disasters seeps into her personal life, and she begins walking home with keys in hand, ready to fight off men disappointed by what they find in neighboring bars. During her free time, she gets black-out drunk, hooks up with strangers, and navigates an affair with an ex-lover whose girlfriend is in their circle of friends.
Two centuries earlier, her great-great-great-great-grandfather—the British explorer John Oxley—traversed the wilderness of Australia in search of water. Oxley never found the inland sea, but the myth was taken up by other men, and over the years, search parties walked out into the desert, dying as they tried to find it.
Interweaving a woman’s self-destructive unraveling with the gradual worsening of the climate crisis, The Inland Sea is charged with unflinching insight into our age of anxiety. At a time when wildfires have swept an entire continent, this novel asks what refuge and comfort looks like in a constant state of emergency..