Climate Messaging: A Case for Negativity

Nell Zink, Joy Williams, and a different kind of climate skepticism.

Rebecca McCarthy | Longreads | September 2019 | 14 minutes (3,656 words)

An ex-boyfriend once told me that if someone were to make a movie about his life it would begin with a pregnant woman riding a Coke machine out of a hurricane. That woman was his grandmother, pregnant with his dad during Hurricane Audrey, which killed at least 416 people, spawned 23 tornadoes inland, and effectively destroyed Cameron Parish — currently the largest parish in Louisiana and one of the least populated. Cameron was hit again in 2005 by Hurricane Rita, which wiped out my ex-boyfriend’s house, and then again in 2008 by Hurricane Ike. It was in the news more recently when it was revealed the area has the highest percentage of climate change skeptics in the country.

I was indignant, not about the polling but about the way it was presented. The economy down there is heavily reliant on shrimping and oil. Young people generally move forty miles north up to the city of Lake Charles in Calcasieu Parish and the land in Cameron is forecast to be some of the first in the United States to disappear into the sea — a much-cited football field of the state is lost to the Gulf of Mexico every hour and the land is turning to lace. It’s not that people in Cameron are just supernaturally stupid, I said to this ex-boyfriend over the phone, the problem is that most everyone who had the means and believes in climate change has already left. He’s a coastal engineer working on a project to restore the state’s wetlands, so it’s not like he’s indifferent to this, but he told me not to get worked up.

“We are stupid,” he said.

*

Nell Zink’s latest book, Doxology, begins with a marginal punk band at the end of the world. They don’t know the world is ending, of course, not really. Nobody really knew back then except for oil executives, substantial portions of the United States government, and I guess the Unabomber. Doxology begins in the early 90’s — David Dinkins’ New York; post-cold war and financial crisis but pre-substantive gentrification, a city where a floundering business can still get a thirty-five year lease and environmentalism is embarrassing at best. “When the U.S. Army notified Winston Churchill that the first atom bomb had been detonated in New Mexico it chose the code phrase BABIES SATISFACTORILY BORN.” Joy Williams wrote with a snarl, in a 1989 essay for Esquire:

So you entered the age of irony, and the strange double life you’ve been leading with the world ever since. Joyce Carol Oates suggests the reason writers — real writers, one assumes — don’t write about Nature is that it lacks a sense of humor and registers no irony. It just doesn’t seem to be of the times — these slick, sleek, knowing, objective, indulgent times. And the word environment. Such a bloodless word. A flat-footed word with a shrunken heart. A word increasingly disengaged from its association with the natural world.

Zink puts Williams’s point more bluntly. The prevailing zeitgeist of the early-1990’s, she says, was “post-sensitive.”

Nell Zink has made a name for herself as a preeminent chronicler of post-sensitivity and one of the great weirdo writers of our age. Her first book, The Wallcreeper follows a woman who leaves her husband to become an ecoterrorist. In her second, Mislaid, another woman leaves her husband, kidnaps their daughter, and pretends to be black in order to hide from him. In her third, Nicotine, a woman falls in with an anarchist collective of smoker’s rights activists who have been squatting in her dead father’s house in New Jersey. Writing for Full Stop, Jesse Montgomery called her “a powerful American wizard,” which is as good a description as I’ve heard. Zink rose to fame after sending Jonathan Franzen a letter insulting him and “almost ordering him to donate money to Albanian park rangers.” They became friends — Zink is arguably the most endearing thing about Franzen, so if you’re not a fan of his don’t let that put you off — and he encouraged her to write fiction. She was in her late forties at that point and had spent most of her life working fairly menial jobs — as a secretary, a bricklayer, a cocktail waitress, and a technical writer, among other things. In her free time, she was a member of a band called F.E.R.R.E.T., and the editor of a tiny post-punk fanzine called The Animal Review. Put simply, Zink lived a not so extraordinary life for a bright, artistically-inclined, member of the lower middle class, but because her cohort is so underrepresented among writers her backstory seems insane and she dislikes romanticizing it. “I would cheerfully not have experienced much of the last thirty years,” she told Huck Magazine in 2015. “I did so many bad jobs.”

Not to defend bad jobs, but familiarity with them does define Zink’s writing, which is marked by a highly literate attention to the marginal and sympathy that doesn’t preclude mockery. Nell Zink’s books are always funny, sometimes sloppy, and oddly comforting. Nell Zink the person, as one character in Doxology says of another, seems “indestructible. She’s amazing. She doesn’t learn from her mistakes, because she always lands on her feet, like a cat.”

I do legitimately worry about the pressure to stay positive and who it will serve in the long run.

The first half of Doxology follows our heroes Pam, Joe, and Daniel as their band, the horrifically named Marmalade Skye, completely fails to achieve any measure of success and inadvertently launches Joe’s solo career. Pam is a runaway, the only child of uptight WASPS from Washington, D.C., obsessed with Minor Threat to such an extent that she forgoes comfort, college, and even a high school degree to decamp to New York and pursue a career in punk rock. Instead, she lands a programming job. She meets Joe randomly, buying coffee from a Halal cart “at four p.m., because she had been escorted out of Merrill Lynch for calling this one dickhead ‘fuckwad’ in the presence of his subordinates.”

Joe is a professor’s son and “an undiagnosed, high functioning case of William’s syndrome,” which manifests, in Joe’s case, as a kind of absurd friendliness that makes him perfect for the stage. Daniel, a Wisconsin native who works nights as a proofreader at a law firm, is “an eighties hipster…a by-product of the brief, shining moment in American history when the working class went to liberal arts college for free…An eighties hipster couldn’t gentrify a neighborhood. He wasn’t gentry. His presence drove rents down.”

Pam and Daniel get married and have a baby — more or less by accident — and Joe soars to indie rock stardom, but still babysits their daughter, Flora. Life continues fairly happily for awhile until 9/11 — Pam and Daniel flee New York with Flora and Joe dies of a heroin overdose. Flora grows up with Pam’s parents in D.C. and becomes an environmentalist, a career that quickly becomes discouraging. “Sustainability isn’t about defending living things,” she realizes, after a trip to Ethiopia to study soil degradation. “It’s about doing human life in a way that enables scattered ecological islands. You have your climate volatility and your intensive industrialized exploitation of everything, but you also have your islands with totally profitable ecotourism and it’s all great.” Depressed and looking for a job, she joins the 2016 Jill Stein campaign.

*

“With each election there is the possibility that the environment will become a political issue. But it never does,” Joy Williams wrote in that 1989 essay. “You don’t want it to be, preferring instead to continue in your politics of subsidizing and advancing avarice…Your fundamental attitudes toward the earth have become twisted. You have made only brutal contact with Nature; you cannot comprehend its grace.”

The essay, “Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp,” was later compiled in Williams’ 2001 book, Ill Nature — one of the best and most underrated books about the abuse of the natural world I’ve ever read. It is funny and mean and essentially a battle cry, but it is overwhelmingly negative. Understandably so! The environmental movement, up until fairly recently, has been hamstrung by half measures and false promises; gestures towards “sustainability” that amount to no more than the most cynical greenwashing, ribbon parks placed along waterfronts when what’s needed is managed retreat. Mainstream environmentalism has been the province of people like Michael Bloomberg — an exercise in beautification that changes nothing and generally ends up pushing the poor out of their neighborhoods as the air quality improves.

Williams has no patience for any of this. “Safariland” follows the wealthy tourists who travel to a gated area of Northern Botswana, paying exorbitant amounts of money to be immersed in a fantasy of pre-colonization Africa (“The illusion here is that wild animals exist,” she writes). “The Killing Game” tracks the delusional self-justifications of American hunters. “Cabin Cabin” is a short, disturbing essay written from the perspective of the Unabomber’s (suddenly sentient) cabin, sitting in an airplane hanger in Sacramento as he awaits trial. One of her longer pieces, “The Animal People,” explains the rift between the “increasingly corporate environmental community” and animal rights activists. “St. Francis converted the wolf of Gubbio to reason, but he performed this miracle only once and as miracles go, it didn’t seem to capture the public’s fancy,” Williams observes. “Humans don’t want animals to reason with them.” She goes after Greenpeace, The Nature Conservancy, Defenders of Wildlife, the World Wildlife Fund, the Environmental Defense Fund, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Audubon Society — accusing them of hypocrisy and band-aid environmentalism. “ECOWIMPS all, as their duped and disappointed supporters are discovering.”

She was right! But the book was unevenly received and regarded with suspicion by the trade publication Publisher’s Weekly. “At times, the collection falters under the weight of Williams’s anger and moral indignation,” the reviewer wrote. “While it is unlikely that her combative rants will win new converts, some environmentalists may find this book a powerful call to action.” Last year the World Wildlife Fund (one of those ECOWIMPS) released a study that showed sixty percent of the planet’s wildlife had been extinguished since 1970. But combative rants. Sure! Whatever helps you sleep at night.

*

The first half of Doxology is so much fun that it’s a real bummer when we are thrust into 2015, although that isn’t really Zink’s fault. No one likes being thrown out of New York and into the Beltway. While working on the Stein campaign Flora becomes involved with two men; one a union organizer, the other an older Democratic strategist — a friendly but grotesque man by the name of Bull Gooch. “Politics is negative,” he tells Flora, when they first meet. “That’s the problem with your warming issue. It’s not negative. How do you expect people to vote something down when you say it’s everywhere all the time? It’s intangible. You have to attack something people can beat. As in beat with a baseball bat.”


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Gooch is vaguely associated with the left and able to quote Eugene Debs on demand, but fundamentally he believes in nothing and no one but himself. Still, he’s a creature of his environment — picture a muscular eel in a Brooks Brothers blazer— and as such he’s not without insight. Not long after he meets Flora he takes a meeting with the Clinton campaign. Trump, at this point, is gearing up to secure the Republican nomination but Ted Cruz is still in the game. Gooch intuits that the Clinton campaign doesn’t really understand what they’re up against and that the media will not be much help without prodding. “Are we preparing to debate issues with an opposing candidate, or are we noticing the animal in the room?” he says. “Hilary can beat a Republican, but she can’t beat a totemic forest spirit.” He tells them to go negative — really negative, accusing Trump of pedophilia negative. The campaign gives him two minutes to leave the building. Trump, as you all know, wins the election.

*

A few weeks ago Jonathan Franzen, Nell Zink’s much despised friend, wrote a long article on climate change and basically everyone got mad. The article was ponderous, sometimes very inaccurate, and particularly frustrating because Franzen has a tendency to make a good point and then bury it by veering off into the Protestant Reformation (literally, this is not a joke). “You can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope,” he writes, before mocking people who urge him to roll up his sleeves and save the world. Or, “If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing. In fact, it would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all,” butting up against “it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees [of warming].” He cites David Wallace-Wells recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth, but does it a disservice — Wallace-Wells makes very clear that the difference between four and eight degrees of warming would be immense and a matter of life and death for much of the world. Franzen’s article is as much an exercise in despair as Wallace-Wells’ book is a cry of fear — the latter admits that he was not environmentally inclined for most of his life and there are no human stories in The Uninhabitable Earth, just a relentless, beautifully rendered data dump that reads like a howl. But both Wallace-Wells and Franzen caught flak from the same people — for being too grim, for presenting a distant, worst-case scenario as an inevitable future, for frightening people (possibly) to the point of inaction, and for being upper middle class white men who will likely be removed from the worst effects of climate change.

These are all valid criticisms and I have no desire to defend Franzen’s essay. If anything I recognize within it some of my own, less noble qualms around online activism — a distaste for gifs, the question of how to unite against a common enemy when some of your allies are often very corny. The answer is obviously to just get over yourself, but I do legitimately worry about the pressure to stay positive and who it will serve in the long run. The prevailing wisdom has been that environmentalists should avoid getting angry, compromise, don’t make people feel guilty, and whatever you do don’t scare people. But the last year has proven that fear is actually a pretty effective strategy for stirring people to action. Effective when used bluntly, without defeatism or apology. “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope,’” sixteen-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg said at Davos. “But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. And then I want you to act.”

Just as important as hope is retaining the ability to see when someone is lying through their teeth.

In 2011, Columbia Journalism Review and Propublica co-published a long feature by John Sullivan called “True Enough” about the rise of PR professionals and the fall of journalists. In the opening paragraph, a reporter for The New York Times named David Barstow describes going down to Houston to cover the Deepwater Horizon spill and finding, to his horror, “more PR people representing these big players than there were reporters, sometimes by a factor of two or three.” At the time, there were about three PR professionals for every one journalist. Today there are six and the gap between PR and journalism is shrinking rapidly. This is the fault of funding obviously — Facebook and Google have eaten up ad revenue, websites shut down all the time, and everyone is being laid off. Still, it’s not good. “There is the overwhelming sense that void that is created by the collapse of traditional journalism is not being filled by new media,” said Nation correspondent John Nichols, “but by public relations.”

If the Democrats win in 2020 (and that is admittedly a big “if”) a lot of money is going to come pouring into the environmental movement and with money comes compromise and corruption and scumbags. I want the Green New Deal to work very badly, but there is no single Green New Deal — there is a non-binding resolution and a series of policy proposals, not all of which are created equal. Anything is better than what we have now, yes, but under a Democratic president the role of journalism versus PR in the environmental movement will become increasingly tricky. Lying to yourself is a luxury and not so long from now there could be Green New Deal advocates — looking right at you, Sean McElwee — who will be able to afford it. Those people will bargain your hopes away and tell you to stay positive. We all lived through the Obama administration and the earth doesn’t have time for a repeat performance.

Both Zink and Williams are aware of this problem — writers preoccupied not just with gap between intentions and reality, but the extent to which people are willing to delude themselves in order to avoid admitting to that gap. In “Neverglades,” Williams writes about the destruction of the Florida Everglades — her longtime home and an ecosystem ripped apart by the sugar industry. At the end of the essay, the Everglades, or twenty percent of them, are finally “saved” by the Clinton administration’s $8 billion Everglades Restoration Act. “The final solution locks in the ultimate nonsolution,” she writes:

And they couldn’t have done it without us, the children of all ages, naive and hopeful to the bone. Couldn’t have done it without our patience through the many many years…Looking back on it, we might just as well have brought a gallon of water with us when we visited the Park and dumped it on the ground.

We love you Everglades!

We’ll help save the place!

Chumps.

*

Hurricanes are multi-hazard events. The rating system — Categories 1 through 5 — doesn’t explain the scope of the threat. It takes into account wind speed but not rain and storm surge, both of which are likely to increase as climate change progresses. A Category 5 like Hurricane Dorian is an insane storm — it sounds like a freight train, the water moves in with prehistoric violence, the wind beats you senseless. The stories coming out of the Bahamas are so horrifying they are difficult to read even when relayed in the driest language. A man named Adrian Farrington described losing his son in the storm surge and crawling to a church with a broken leg, only for the church to collapse. Escaping the ruined church, he saw another man trying to rescue his kids as the water rose. “The surge was halfway to the door and he couldn’t open the door and I’m watching him and he’s beating on the door,” Farrington said. “His children inside crying and he’s outside crying. After the surge came up and they couldn’t get out, he just stopped swimming. He ain’t even try to climb up on the roof…He just gave up.”

This is going to get worse before it gets better and “doxology,” which is by definition a short hymn to God, is more or less what fighting back against climate change means right now. Franzen compared environmental activists to religious evangelists and he wasn’t all wrong, though it doesn’t have to be framed as an insult. During a brief stint working at the Sierra Club, as Flora is beginning to understand just how lacking the response has been to the ecological crisis, she has a crisis of faith. “To help save the planet, she had to find out who was saving the planet and offer to help,” Zink writes. “Nobody was saving the planet. Was it all just a trick that had been played on her?”

Obviously it’s important to hold onto hope, but negativity does not preclude hope, nor does fury. Just as important as hope is retaining the ability to see when someone is lying through their teeth. Whether it’s for personal gain or to comfort you or because they have sincerely convinced themselves that the shit they are selling is gold doesn’t matter — the end result is the same. Asked about Greta Thunberg in an interview with the Guardian, Zink became emotional. “The question is: how angry is Greta Thunberg going to get, and will they still take her seriously after she is angry?” Zink said. “Right now, she a child warrior character from an anime film. She’s straight out of Miyazaki. What’s she going to be when she is 20, when we are at 500 parts per million [of carbon dioxide]? It’s so out of style to be pessimistic about climate change, I am afraid to do it.”

The Deepwater Horizon spill released an estimated 210 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over a period of five months and remains the largest oil spill in history. Coastal Louisiana was hit the hardest — for years afterwards thousands of pounds of contaminated material were removed from the shoreline. In August of 2010, as the well was still leaking, the Obamas vacationed in Florida and a photo emerged of President Obama swimming in the Gulf of Mexico with his daughter Sasha. No members of the press were present — the photo was taken by then-White House photographer Pete Souza and they were actually swimming in Alligator Cove, not the Gulf. The Daily News ran the photo on their cover with the headline “OIL’S SWELL!” — a clunky play on All’s Well. My ex-boyfriend and I were living in Brooklyn at the time and he tore the picture out and pinned it to our bedroom wall.

“There you go,” he said. “The water’s fine.”

* * *

Rebecca McCarthy is a freelance writer and a bookseller based in Philadelphia. She’s written for The Awl, The Outline, Medium, and others. 

Editor: Dana Snitzky