Sunsetting Sunset Lit
Or, how to keep it ugly beautiful
Hi! I’m Sarah. Minimum Viable Planet is my weeklyish newsletter about climateish stuff, and how to keep it together in a world gone mad. I’m always curious to know what you think.
(The light is Maxfield Parrish pretty right now because of bad, bad things. It’s easy to forget this.)
Last year I devoured Anna Weiner’s book about Silicon Valley in a gulp. Not only was it dishy (did I just use the word dishy? Yes, I did. I am a bubby in a tracksuit eating a bagel on the beach.), but every page seemed to contain a caustic turn of phrase that fairly yet mercilessly reflected the stupidity of the way we live now. Weiner is a fantastic writer. And this piece about the worst things happening in California right now is beautifully observed in so many parts. I mean, they took selfies in the tangerine light.
It doesn’t include climate. Yes, the headline writer tacked on the words ecological crisis, but it’s a piece about a mood, about feelings, and about the air. My worry is that this kind of writing, however lilting, tells the wrong story. Because just as news reports NEED to include climate as a causal force behind extreme and extremer weather, deeply observational writers need to reflect this in their dispatches as well. Conflating all the bad things that have plagued California into a soup of equals is not the story. Writes Weiner:
Some are saying that these crises are too much to bear; that the collision of public-health issues is unsustainable; that California will soon become uninhabitable; that people will flee. But the state has always offered its residents reasons to leave: earthquakes, drought, heat, fires; political and economic cruelties. A certain degree of volatility is part of the pact. It seems just as likely that people will adapt, as they always do, until adaptation, by will or necessity, turns into retreat.
Just as we need Biden to make ambitious climate moves normal, we need to make clear that climate-induced extreme weather is NOT NORMAL. Political cruelties are not the same hurdle as being increasingly on fire, forever.
The reframing reflects our natural human impulse. We this is fine everything. I asked an old friend who lives in California how she was doing, and she said she was fine, except for all the smoke. Another friend relayed that her California pal said they couldn’t go outside, but other than that they’re ‘okay.’ A fire is burning down my state while I fix dinner, but I’m okay. Cool cool cool.
Writes Linda Solomon Wood in the National Observer:
It must be strange to be young in this world. I live with a household with 3 teenagers. Yet I still can't wrap my mind around what it's like to be them, coming of age during a pandemic, explosive wildfires, racially-based murders, rising extremism, polarization, and above all else, to be aware of mass species extinctions and the mounting dangers of climate change. Scary. And normal. And that's the scariest thing of all, how normal it is beginning to seem.
Every piece of writing should subvert or make transparent the normalization and acceptance of climate crisis, even if it seems rote or obvious or repetitive or political. Because it’s actually none of those things. To make vivid this abnormality, you have to ACTUALLY WRITE THE WORD CLIMATE. It’s table stakes. If you don’t give climate the head nod when you enter the room, you’re that dude.
The amazing work of the group End Climate Silence is all about making sure disaster reporting connects to climate. But I’m also deeply worried about the less overt omissions - about writing that just rolls climate into an evitable fog of adaptation, a poetic exploration of our human capacity to just go with it. In a dire list of conceptual traps we may fall into in our effort to eradicate COVID, the Atlantic’s Ed Yong cites one that is a distillation of everything I’ve just written. It even comes with a scary, catchy name: The Habituation of Horror:
The U.S. might stop treating the pandemic as the emergency that it is. Daily tragedy might become ambient noise. The desire for normality might render the unthinkable normal. Like poverty and racism, school shootings and police brutality, mass incarceration and sexual harassment, widespread extinctions and changing climate, COVID-19 might become yet another unacceptable thing that America comes to accept.
Let’s unhabituate the horror. Let it find no place of rest in our normal hearts. This is not the perfectest metaphor but it gets close enough. Do you have a better one? Please send it to me.
Find the stories that need to be connected to climate and gently suggest to editors and writers that this is not fine. You can even suggest stories to End Climate Silence by dropping them a note.
This, from Ben, is me every day -
I’ve been thinking a lot about the things you’ve written in there about balancing the forever climate change with what am I gonna eat for breakfast today.
Hope you are happy and healthy,
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