Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
How Art Can Help Cultivate Climate Resilience
You can be optimistic without being uncritically positive. This doesn’t mean you don’t allow yourself to think about the range of real climate possibilities that are terrifying. I have those moments. I have those days and weeks. And, well, years. But I have learned to manage my climate grief with a framework that is equal parts optimism and action. Doom and Myopic Hope is a false binary. Optimism laced with truth and anger is simply the operational mindset for a world that requires us to assimilate so much climate tragedy while simultaneously working to prevent so much more.
My friend Rebecca recently elbowed me into reading Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible, a novel that perfectly conveys diverging generational responses to the climate crisis, with wit and beauty and a teensy bit of ageism (the adults are flabby and self-interested and grotesque). It tells the story of Evie, a clear-eyed but loving teen, trapped in a past-its-prime mansion of a summer house with her parents’ college friends and their children. The kids bond out of their mutual contempt for their moms and dads. Also, they have nothing else to do: their tech has been locked away in the safe for a Wet Hot Analog Summer. The young people, ranging in age from Evie’s adorable 9-year-old brother, Jack, to late teens, are repulsed by their perpetually sozzled, climate-window-of-opportunity squandering parents—the generation that failed to solve the crisis when it was manageable. When the apocalypse does indeed materialize, in the form of a storm and floodwaters and plague and downed everything, the children act. The parents take ecstasy.
I’ve written before about how much I cower from climate fiction. The reality of the crisis is so much to bear that, at the end of the day, I just want to dunk my head in a Sally Rooney novel, where the drama plays out in a space no wider than a pint of Guinness. Who am I kidding, I just want to watch Brooklyn Nine-Nine and listen to my kids rank their favorite characters (Gina/Rosa tie at the moment). This is all to say that reading A Children’s Bible took all the strength I had, plus Rebecca is a hard-ass and I didn’t want to disappoint.
I was struck by how similar Millet’s apocalyptic vision was to what I picture on those days where I read too many ominous reports about freshly discovered methane leaks (another one? really?). There’s a comfort in seeing your worst fears committed to paper. What’s more, the novel rather perfectly conveys the two primary modes of climate response: Head in Sand and Get ’Er Done. The parents are hollowed-out creatures, unable to live in a world that requires massive adaptation. The kids take the reins.
Most of us sit somewhere in between. Not as cartoonishly culpable and incapable as the parents, nor as pragmatically efficient and adaptable as the kids. It’s not that the children are optimistic. It’s that they have no choice.
The book spends mercifully little time on guilt and blame. The kids hate their parents because they’re useless Gen Xers, selfish narcissists, and bland hedonists. (And also because they, you know, destroyed the planet.) This is just what is.
For a nonfiction adult caught in the torpors of generational trauma over our inability to act, it’s best to take inspiration from the younger set. Not in a “the kids will save us” way, but in a “the kids remind us to be adults” way. To plow forth with angry optimism and courage and steadfastness. Millet practices what she proses, too—she works at the Center for Biological Diversity. Art and action.
I’m interested in the resilience part of it. If you’ve grown up with climate uncertainty, you have always understood instability and adaptation. If you came to it midlife (like moi), there’s an understandable mourning for a life less existentially fraught. But then, allegro con brio, a get-the-heck-on-board reckoning comes. Millet’s adults are never capable of making that leap. The key to solving the crisis is that we need them to move.
All these ideas are ones I’ve grappled with in bits and bobs, but thinking them through in this deft little story caused me to flip them around in new ways. Which is, I suppose, the point of literature. And yet I’m still not ready for The Overstory. Baby steps.
What earthly lit are you reading? Does it help, inspire, hurt, expire? LMK!
So many great comments. Everyone wants a solarpunk future. Here’s a mathy take from one of the most cleverly quirky brains I know. Writes Josh:
My solarpunk moment is learning about the angle about which many plants rotate their bud placement in order to have leaves coming out at an angle between 137-138 degrees. That means that each leaf is rotated about 137.5 degrees from the one above and below it. Engineers have replicated this convergent number by mechanically looking to see how to maximize sunlight on each leaf.
Basically, to me, this means the tree balconies (and solar panels) of our future buildings should probably embrace 137.5 instead of 90-degree construction.
Math nerds love this because this angle is also represented by the number phi, aka the golden ratio. You can make this ratio at home, such that two numbers a and b satisfy: a/(a+b) = a/b.
More about that on Wikipedia.
Thanks for much for reading. If you’re new here, I’m Sarah Lazarovic. I work on communicating the importance of good climate policy and carbon pricing by day, and this newsletter and my dance moves by night. If you like MVP you can support it by telling all your friends and frogs about it. Let me know when the newsletter is on the right track. Or send me a note when it’s not! And make sure to drag this email into your primary folder so it doesn’t end up in landfill. Have a great weekend!
P.S. This is my newsletter for the week of Jan. 29, 2020, published in partnership with YES! Media. You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com/.
Sarah Lazarovic is an award-winning artist, creative director, freelance animator and filmmaker, and journalist, covering news and cultural events in comic form. She is the author of A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.