David Remnick: We spoke earlier about the heat waves facing much of the world this summer, and in even the most optimistic scenarios, climate change will continue to worsen for years to come. Unless you're truly committed to denying reality, you may be asking, "How are we going to live with this? How can we live with this?" Daniel Sherrell has been wrestling with these questions for most of his life. He's a climate activist and an author, a millennial born in 1990. Sherrell's recent book is called Warmth: Coming of Age at the End of the World. He talked with our producer, Ngofeen Mputubwele.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I came across Daniel Sherrell's book Warmth last year, and the premise of the book is this, he's a climate activist, and so he's writing a book to his future potential child, like a lot of people that I know, he's like, "Is it ethical to have a kid when they're going to grow up in a climate disaster?" This book is a letter to that future kid talking about the present that we live in now. Somehow, I feel like the book creates space for me to think about the state of the planet emotionally in a way that I normally wouldn't. Here's an excerpt from his book.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: It was in the early 2010s that the storms began to feel like more than just weather. They'd become semi-routinized by now, another way to mark out the time. When a storm made landfall, footage would flash for days across every screen in the country. The more catastrophes I witnessed, the more a pattern began to reveal itself. Maybe by the time you read this, Hurricane Maria will have become a footnote. Its importance, diluted by the accelerating chain of subsequent storms that as of now have yet to occur.
Daniel Sherrell: I grew up in the '90s. It was the end of history. Francis Fukuyama had declared we would all work 9:00 to 5:00 and go shopping and die, and that state of affairs would be basically stable forever. My father who is an oceanographer and did a lot of research in Antarctica when I was growing up, would come back and share with me there was this thing happening down in Antarctica that would eventually come for the rest of us where the planet that we'd assumed was a stable premise of our short little lifespans, was, in fact, going through pretty fundamental upheavals.
That was a strange thing to learn about as a small child, eight or nine, to be like, "Okay, that seems like quite a big deal, but I don't see anybody around me talking about it, let alone emoting about it, and so I guess it's just not that big of a deal after all," and I'll sublimate it or bury it.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Yes, I definitely hear what you're saying, and I think when you do start to take on the emotion, in my experience, that can feel super overwhelming, and that makes me think of the story of Noah with the flood and how it increases little by little, the rains and the waters are rising from the deeps and all of that. I think of that when I start to allow myself to emote about everything that's going on, the sheer number of things going on in the world around me.
Daniel Sherrell: The metaphor you spoke about the beginning of Noah and the water's descending from the heavens and rising up from the earth, and I went to Jewish day school K-8, so I'm familiar with the legends of Noah. What that really reminded me, I spent a few weeks in 2019 running creative writing workshops at the university in Tuvalu, which is a tiny, tiny nation in the Pacific, one of the lowest lying island nations in the world, and they are experiencing right now exactly what Noah did.
On the one hand, the seas are percolating up through the ground level so that the freshwater lens on which they rely for their agriculture, for their drinking water is slowly getting more and more saline and, basically, undrinkable. You used to be able to grow fields of taro on these islands and you just can't grow that anymore. It's essentially a food desert. They have to ship in everything from Fiji, and then, on the other hand, storms in the Pacific are getting worse, and so the rain is lashing down from above and they're being squeezed.
The emotional technologies they develop to deal with this, this humor, the grit, the sarcasm, the ennui, the pure hedonistic, that pleasure-seeking, the mixture that they'd arrived at, I think is something that we've yet to develop. I think there's sometimes this fantasy with the climate crisis with racial injustice, with economic injustice, that there's going to be an end, some final catharsis and the credits role, and we've either won or we lost, and that various people with various crystal balls, they make a career out of telling you it's going to go one way or another.
I think that relieves us of the burden of having to grapple with the weight and the uncertainty every day, which I find to be one of the hardest things about this. Yet, walking that tight rope between those two poles of despair and optimism is, to me, part of my life's work as a climate organizer, is staying on that tightrope that I would call reality.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Here is an important piece of context, something I'd like you to know upfront. Occasionally, amid all the storms, I'd feel grief. The grief had its own weather. It could come down like a squall momentary and encompassing impervious to forecast. This was a weight I kept private, mostly, unsure of whether or how to share it, but alone, it rose up in me like a whale from a depth, almost invisible until the moment it breached. Water streaming from its flanks, the most powerful thing in the world, and like with a whale, the breaches seemed to come at random when I least expected them. I cried about it in line at the grocery store and in the bathroom at parties, and by myself in the shower. Never loudly, just a few tears, messy and quickly stifled.
Daniel Sherrell: I wrote a deeply anti-fatalistic book and I'm not a fatalist, but we know that it's going to get worse before it gets better, and probably, at least, for the duration of my lifetime, it will continue to get worse. If it gets better, it might be a few generations, hence. How do you sustain yourself over those coming decades, the roller coaster that we know we're already on?
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I'm going to say this before I forget. I think that one of the things that you said that just is stuck in my brain is emotional technology because it does feel a little bit like the technology of our emotions as to the moment, and in the era that we live in, particularly, for our age, feels basic, right?
Daniel Sherrell: Totally. That's why I wrote this book. I didn't set out to write a book. I set out first to read a book. I love literature and it's a major means of processing reality for me, and I set out to look for a book that could countenance the weight of the climate crisis in the present. Rather there was a whole body of science fiction. Some of it very good that displaced the climate crisis as a futuristic dystopian premise from which the narrative could unspool. I wondered, "What does it feel like to live with it now? It's happening now."
It made me feel lonely and it was the same loneliness I felt, even as recently as five years ago. If I had told somebody, "I can't get out of bed today because the enormity of the climate crisis is sitting on my chest," it just would've been not really legible. I felt like the kinds of conversations I wanted to be having about this, which would've been a mechanism for sharing that weight that were vulnerable and honest and commiserative and confused, and maybe even hopeful, they weren't the cultural avenues to have those conversations, and so I just spoke to myself. That's what the book is, in a way.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I often describe it this way to people is that climate has never been one of my things, is often the language that I use. The reason is that, I think, that the thing that's interesting and the thing that was interesting about reading your book is because whenever it's come up, I've just been like, "I don't even have a framework to deal with this in any way that's not just-- I guess it's too late. I don't even have basic vocab. I don't have subject and verb." To me, it just reiterates that idea of the ability to conceptual, metaphysical, whatever ability to grasp a thing or to grapple with a thing.
Daniel Sherrell: Yes, totally. I think that's part of what I was trying to do with this book because I realized also that I didn't have the words, and then in some ways, words themselves were inadequate vessels, but I was trying to use them to arrive at a place beyond language, that would essentially be like a new feeling inside myself that could accommodate what seemed like an unaccountable reality of the climate crisis. It's funny and I can imagine the response in my head, whatever, like the Tucker Carl, since the world, just when they hear millennial despair, it's like, "Okay, go cry about it, snowflake." [laughs] Which is, honestly, hilarious.
It's also wild to me to cast us as the children here, as the immature ones here. When, in fact, we are trying desperately to figure out how to accommodate new realities and learn to survive while they are marching blindly into oblivion. I'm going to choose to treat this huge swath of people and this huge swath of the literal, actual physical substrate on which we live, as essentially ignorable. It turns out, you just can't do that without risking the whole thing.
It's like you have to actually see reality, and so part of what the climate movement, I think, is set out to do much like the Black Lives Matter movement is to force the polity to actually live in reality and see the full picture, and see the full humanity of everybody, and see the full tangibility of all ecosystems. It's an ontological reorientation because I feel like capitalism has been built on this, like narrowing of the aperture which is what allows you to create immense violence and sacrifice zones beyond the boundaries of the aperture, and so we're just like trying to force it wide, again, but it's really hard.
Daniel: My dear friend, Emily and I, who's featuring the book, we've been talking recently about, especially in the wake of the Glasgow cop, about the horror crux model of climate change for all the--
Daniel: Just to flip us back to middle school for a second. Bear with me. There is a huge swath of outcomes, between 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming and 3 degrees Celsius of warming, which is what we're currently on track for. When I was growing up in the '90s, when nobody gave a shit about the climate crisis, we were on track for 4 or 5 degrees of warming. That's basically like Mad Max. It would've led to mass human die-off, and we still might be heading in that direction, but we have bent the curve of emissions down somewhat. There's this vast array of outcomes. Between 1.5 and 3, and for every tick of the thermometer between those two poles, you are saving or consigning millions of people to life and death. Emily and I are like, "Okay, there are 1.5 of a degree, between 1.5 and 3 degrees Celsius.
Much like the horror cruxes, each one of those things is going to involve an almost impossible seeming political mission, and that the rest of our lives is going to be spent on, probably,-- All of my work for the rest of my life will maybe be some small part of shaving off one of those 1.5, but when I imagine myself behind a veil of ignorance, not having been born yet, and somebody were to tell me, "You would be born in 1990, the year the first popular book on global warming would be released. You'll see it as you come of age. It'll transition from a niche research topic to an ongoing global catastrophe."
Obviously, I would've felt grief about that, and I do feel grief about that, but also, if somebody had, likewise, told me that, "You're going to spend the rest of your life coming together with people who share your values to try to create a polity and economy that actually traits everybody with dignity." I can't think of a more meaningful way to spend a human life.
Ngofeen: Where is it that you land in your book? Tell me about psychic, spiritual, whatever ending of that you land on.
Daniel: Oh, gosh. [laughs].
Ngofeen: Give the [unintelligible 00:14:27].
Daniel: I don't know if I arrive at like a pithy piece of advice by the end of the book, but one of the thoughts I had as I was concluding writing it, it clarified for me what seemed to be the chief ethical and political responsibility of being alive in the 21st century, which was to pay active attention to the huge swaths of the natural and human world, that the stories I was fed as a child and taught me to ignore.
That stretching those boundaries of attention, outward, political attention, economic attention, cultural attention, organizing attention is the only way we're going to survive.
When I'm feeling hopeless, which I still am often, it's always something I'll be moving through. It's never something I'm going to have left behind, I think, because there's never going to be that conclusive credit role where we've either won or lost a climate crisis. I think it's going to be appall over my life, for the rest of my life, but the fact that the path to collective survival runs through expanding our notion of who is a person and who is deserving of love, even beyond the human species, I'm sometimes overwhelmed by the beauty of that and honored to be a part of that project. Even if I don't, I have no assurances it won't end in tragedy.
David: Daniel Sherrell's recent book is called Warmth and he spoke last year with Ngofeen Mputubwele, a producer for our program.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.