This interview previously appeared on April 20 in Common Edge.
Two years ago, Nathaniel Rich published “Losing Earth”, his account of the pivotal decade from 1979 to 1989 when the political consensus around climate change somewhat miraculously formed and then collapsed, hardening into an impasse that’s now more than three decades old. Though not explicitly a sequel, Rich’s new book, “Second Nature: Scenes From a World Remade”, is a followup of sorts.
The author has reshaped and reframed previous reporting to create a compelling narrative that poses a number of deep questions: What is the nature of Nature, now that it has been degraded, remade, and faces existential threat? How do we exist with that knowledge? How do we conduct our lives in that reality? These are vexing questions, particularly for residents of New Orleans, the author’s adopted home city. (Rich is also the author of three novels: The “Mayor’s Tongue”, “Odds Against Tomorrow”, and “King Zero”.) Recently I corresponded with Rich about Second Nature, the task of writing—dramatically!—about climate change, and the peculiar nurture of living in the Crescent City in this fraught environmental moment.
You’ve been doing a lot of environmental reporting for almost a decade now. When did you decide that these articles were of a piece, that they’d work together?
I wasn’t drawn to the stories that became “Second Nature” by any “environmental” aspect as much as a sense of the uncanny. These are stories that, upon first encounter, I found deeply unsettling: how the Lower Ninth Ward, post-Katrina, became a highly-prized laboratory for disaster ecologists from all over the world; the billion-dollar effort to mass produce chicken meat in laboratories; efforts to invent man-made species to replace animals we’ve driven to extinction.
It was only after reporting the stories that I began to see the connections between them. I realized that my subject was our changing relationship with the natural world—our understanding that there is no longer anything “natural” about the “natural world.” With this realization come more difficult questions: How can we use our godlike technological powers responsibly, to recreate what we’ve lost, without inviting more chaos? How far should we go? And what kind of ethical guidelines should inform our decisions? A lot of fascinating stories arise from these questions.
Since the source material appeared as separate discrete pieces, how much did you have to rework them so they’d flow as a book?
I rewrote everything substantially. I removed any mention of myself from all of the stories, for instance, to keep the focus on people I write about—and there are some truly fascinating characters, like the lawyer Robert Bilott (most recently played by Mark Ruffalo in the film version) and the bio-artist who designs a glow-in-the-dark rabbit. I wanted to ensure that the book had a consistent tone and a propulsive arc. When you write for magazines you have to make a lot of compromises. But with a book—no compromises! Second Nature tells the story of this transitional era as I believe it demands to be told.
For the older pieces, how much had to be revised in light of time passing and events inevitably changing?
A magazine article should be timely. A book should be timeless. While I did revise some sections to incorporate new information, I also eliminated anything that was tied to a news event or a temporary condition. “Second Nature” is a portrait of this moment, but should not feel stuck in this moment. It was important to me that it never feel dated, no matter whether it is read tomorrow or in 50 years.
You moved to New Orleans in 2010, a year before I did. When you moved here, did you realize that climate change and the story of our challenged ecology would be an increasingly big part of your focus?
Any thinking person who lives in southern Louisiana — or anyone who buys insurance here — is on intimate terms with the perils of climate change and environmental degradation. Though the region, and New Orleans in particular, is often imagined as haunted by its past, in this regard those of us living here already inhabit the future.
The Coastal Master Plan, the world’s largest climate change mitigation project—the subject of the longest story in Second Nature—is a good example. We are already having difficult conversations about how to redesign our coast and how to accommodate those who will suffer from our doing so. The rest of the country will soon find itself in similar debates, but in New Orleans we’ve been doing it for years. For better and worse, we’re on the vanguard when it comes to ecological damage and its proposed remedies.
Given how many coast and climate related stories you’ve done here in Louisiana, how has your perspective changed, as someone who has chosen to live here?
Ever since Bienville, the people who have chosen to live in southern Louisiana have understood that our control of the landscape is temporary and perpetually in peril. Much of the spirit of the place derives from this precariousness. It attracts a kind of wildness, devotion, powerful community bonds, a heightened enthusiasm for individual freedoms; I’m drawn to all that, too. A close brush with death can make you feel more alive.
We’re the proverbial canaries in the coal mine with regard to climate change, sea level rise, land loss. How do Louisania and New Orleans prepare for an inevitable future, whatever that is?
By telling stories about it. I don’t think we can have an honest conversation about the difficult choices we’re up against until we examine the damage we’ve already done, both to the planet and to our local ecosystem in southern Louisiana. I tried to do the same in “Second Nature.”
Often people read about some new proposed intervention — mass-produced test-tube chicken, say — and call it gross or absurd. But our environmental carelessness has been even more grotesque. I’m thinking of the Pacific sea stars tearing off their arms, the poisoned deer with glowing green organs, of the Teflon chemical that has become part of our biological inheritance, passed on from generation to generation in utero. Once you open your eyes to those perversities, the prospect of de-extinction or reconfiguring the Louisiana coast seems much less threatening.
So much environmental reporting is didactic, dense, and preaches to the choir. Your reporting does something that most environmental reporting either fails to do, or chooses not to do, which is to tell narrative stories with human characters, human conflicts. Tell me about that as an active strategy.
Didactic stories don’t interest me. Do they interest anyone, apart from a narrow band of activists who hope reporting can help recruitment? I began writing about these themes in part out of a frustration with the one-dimensionality of environmental writing.
There is plenty of good explanatory scientific journalism, political reporting, and accounts of natural disasters. There has been almost nothing, however, written about the way such vast global crises reshape our own lives. How does the prospect of ecological decline change the way we see our future, our culture, our system of government, ourselves?
Narrative literature has a special genius for making the public personal. What I do is not just undidactic, it’s anti-didactic. That’s because the most dramatic stories are not about good vs. evil, but about people who struggle to navigate moral crises for which they do not have clear answers, for which there might not be clear answers. Those are the stories that interest me.
“Second Nature” is almost a sequel to your last book, “Losing Earth,” which told the story of all of the missed chances when we really could have tackled the problem. “Second Nature” is about the consequences of that failure. So the final questions: Where are we now, and what’s next?
There’s a biological term I love: ecotone. It describes the transitional zone between ecosystems, containing elements of each, often in unexpected combinations, and often in a state of tension. I think we’ve entered a kind of transitional ecosystem ourselves.
We increasingly acknowledge that we’ve reconfigured the planet’s natural systems, but we are not yet comfortable using our powers for more targeted, purposeful interventions. So we remain horrified by the worst of what we’ve done while timid in the face of the radical interventions that are increasingly necessary.
This tension creates a state of bewilderment. We shouldn’t be surprised by unusually active hurricane seasons, and we shouldn’t be surprised that the state of Louisiana is willing to evict people in order to recreate the Louisiana coast. The trajectory of our era runs from naïveté to shock to horror to anger to resolve. Most of us are still somewhere between shock and horror. But we won’t be—we can’t be—for much longer.