Artists and Climate Change

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Culture Shifts Slowly

By Joan Sullivan

For artists interested in the energy transition, I would argue that the three most important words in Bill McKibben’s latest essay in The New Yorker are: “culture shifts slowly.” 

Culture shifts slowly. This maxim applies to all social change, not just energy transitions. But unlike previous energy transitions, the 21st century’s shift away from a culture of consumption towards a culture of stewardship does not have the luxury of time. As McKibben explains, “time is the crucial variable” for the climate: 

As hard as it will be to rewire the planet’s energy system by decade’s end, I think it would be harder – impossible, in fact – to sufficiently rewire social expectations, consumer preferences, and settlement patterns in that short stretch.

Artists, this is where you come in: Enter, stage left and stage right! We need a tsunami of global artists – poets, architects, designers, musicians, playwrights, filmmakers, curators – collectively engaged in “rewiring social expectations” about the current energy transition. A transition that will inevitably shift our gaze from looking down into the bowels of the earth to looking up at our star. A transition that will liberate us from an unconscious, unsustainable, and unethical addiction to fossilized sunlight controlled by the few. Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine is just the most recent example.

As I mentioned in a series of posts last year, Barry Lord’s book, Art & Energy: How Culture Changes, is an excellent place for artists to start. It succinctly weaves together the history of the reciprocal relationship between art, artists, and energy transitions over the millennia. This book provides valuable insights for contemporary artists about the historical precedent where previous generations of artists contributed, in various ways, to earlier energy transitions by influencing the perception of and the cultural values associated with the incipient (“alternative”) energy source. 

Image downloaded from Early Modern Literary Studies

Shakespeare, who witnessed the transition from the age of wood to the age of coal between the end of the 16th and the beginning of the 17th centuries, mentioned coal disparagingly in the opening line of Romeo and Juliet: “Gregory, o’ my word, we’ll not carry coals.” According to Shakespearean scholar Marianne KimuraRomeo and Juliet was written as an allegory against coal. For example, she suggests that in Act 2, Scene 2, when Romeo compares Juliet to “the sun”, this is Shakespeare’s not-so-subtle reference to coal’s thick black smoke belching from unfiltered chimneys that literally blotted out the sunlight in crowded Elizabethan London. 

Four centuries later, our “modern” transition away from fuels (coal, oil and gas) back to non-fuels (sun, wind, water) offers artists a unique gift: the chance to express themselves through a medium that is invisible as well as infinite, i.e., non-fuels produce energy that is mostly electrons.

In the 21st century, the main incipient source of these invisible electrons is the Sun. McKibben describes the Sun as:

… a great ball of burning gas about ninety-three million miles away, whose energy can be collected in photovoltaic panels, and which differentially heats the Earth, driving winds whose energy can now be harnessed with great efficiency by turbines. The electricity they produce can warm and cool our homes, cook our food, and power our cars and bikes and buses. The sun burns, so we don’t need to.

Photo by Joan Sullivan, 2017

The sun burns so we don’t need to. Kudos, Mr. McKibben! To which I will add my favorite solar quote from the French philosopher Georges Bataille in his essay The Accursed Share (La part maudite): “The sun gives without ever receiving.” 

I hope these two quotes may inspire artists around the world to re-imagine our relationship with the Sun – the central character in an unfolding drama that has yet to be written. A homecoming story, perhaps, since this energy transition involves shifting our gaze and our allegiance back to the ultimate source of light and warmth for all life on Earth: a radiant star that gives without demanding anything in return. Only artists can help us to “see” the light. 

Between now and the end of this decade, if enough artists commit to writing / illustrating / singing a million different versions of this modern transition story – a return to our roots, a return to non-fuels – then maybe we can prove Mr. McKibben wrong about how slowly culture shifts. Together, we can redream society as the poet Ben Okri implored artists to do in his urgent call to arms on the last day of COP26. Together, we can unleash an avalanche of cultural and social change so rapid and profound that wars for oil will become a thing of the past. Imagine what a beautiful world that will be. 


(Top image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a new member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Keeper of the Waters

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

For the last 50+ years, eco-artist and environmental activist Betsy Damon has devoted herself to community building – the coming together of individuals to achieve a common purpose. Since the 1980s, after a decade of engaging the public through public performances in New York City, she has worked at the intersection of art and science, focusing on the topic of water and on creating models for communities in the United States and China to know and become stewards of their own water sources. The brief descriptions below, highlighting four of Damon’s many exhibitions, ecological and sustainable design projects, publications, and organizations are only a brief glimpse into her prolific and important body of work.

Damon’s first major project on water came about after a cross-country camping trip with her children in 1983, during which she observed a number of dry riverbeds whose once flowing waters had been dammed and redirected. As a result of this experience and a growing reconnection to the natural world, she conceived of a project that would bring attention to the environmental loss that the dry riverbeds represented and serve as a living memory of the missing water. Damon was able to realize the project, called A Memory of Clean Water, when she brought together a group of master papermakers and local artists to create a paper casting covering 250 feet of a dry riverbed in Castle Rock, Utah. The stunning and powerful piece was installed in seven venues across the country from 1986 through 1991, including at the Danforth Museum in Framingham, Massachusetts; the University of Wisconsin at Madison; Everhart Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania; MoMA PS1 in New York City; and others.  

A Memory of Clean Water was pivotal to the evolution of Damon’s practice. During its creationas she was working on her hands and knees placing paper pulp over rocks, she looked up and realized that the patterns of stars in the sky mirrored the patterns in the riverbed. Profoundly moved by this personal epiphany, she promised herself to learn as much as she could about water and has spent the rest of her life since then fulfilling that promise. 

Documentary on A Memory of Clean Water, 1987

In 1990, Damon moved from New York to Minnesota to teach art and activism classes at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. One year later, she founded and directed Keepers of the Waters, a non-profit organization dedicated to encouraging and supporting community-based water projects. Under the auspices of the Hubert Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minneapolis, Damon and her colleagues held community meetings in Duluth, Minnesota, focusing on local water concerns, including wastewater treatment, toxic sites, and the condition of lakes and rivers. They developed performances, exhibitions, community workshops, clean-up efforts, lectures, and classes in order to inform community members about their waters and to promote activism. 

As a result of her work with Keepers of the Waters, Damon was invited in 1993 to San Antonio, Texas to teach a class called Art and Activism at Trinity University. One of her students there created a project to clean up a neglected park beside the San Antonio River. Her initial effort to improve the area has morphed into an annual cleanup event. 

While she was in San Antonio, Damon also attended meetings of a citizen’s group that had been organized to address issues impacting the Edwards Aquifer, the source of water for most of southcentral Texas. Her participation in the group inspired them to create an organization called Save the Edwards Aquifer to monitor real estate development encroaching on the water system. Looking back on this effort and on all of her projects since she began her work as an eco-artist and activist, Damon acknowledges that her “primary role throughout her practice has been to ignite activism, to get people to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do.”

 A Living Water Garden, flow forms, Chengdu, China, 1998

During a trip to China in 1995 to conduct a Keepers of the Waters project in Chengdu, Damon was invited by the Chengdu City Government to see their plans for establishing a series of parks on both sides of the polluted Jin Jiang River. After reviewing the plans, she suggested that they create a park that would teach their citizens how nature cleans water naturally. In 1996, impressed by the spirit of the events that Damon produced with her colleagues, the government officials invited her to design the park she had conceived. 

The Living Water Garden, completed in 1998was visited by governors and mayors from every province in China, and serves as a teaching model to this day. Zhu Rong Ji, the Premier of China, praised the project as “the best thing to happen in China that year.” Yu Guang Yuan, economic advisor to Deng Xiaoping, told Damon that unlike most people who had come to China to make money, “you came and gave us a future.” Of the many design projects she has developed throughout her career, she regards the Living Water Garden as the most effective in influencing a community’s relationship to water. 

Wetlands Section of A Living Water Garden

Over the years, Damon thought about writing a book that would document her work with water and community. In 2017, at a board meeting of Keepers of the Water, the idea resurfaced and became a reality. As she usually does when she has a project to develop, she gathered a group of colleagues and friends together to create the framework for the book. Part memoir, part scientific and spiritual exploration of water, and part manual on how to organize and energize communities to understand and protect their own water sources, Water Talks will be released by Steiner Books on April 5, 2022. 

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, British primatologist, anthropologist, and the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees, wrote the preface for Water Talks. In it, she describes the book as “based on science but filled with the spirit of the artist… containing inspiring moments and successes of people and communities that have organized around saving a water place.” In her introduction, Damon explains her fundamental belief that water should be a communal resource, immune to privatization: 

Every place, community and country needs to be in charge of its water. This means making bodies of water the common property of all who live near it, which will require policies and practices generated from an understanding of our dependence on one another and nature… the movement to grant personhood for nature is one of the most effective movements, reflecting the reality of our complete dependence on water, air and soil.

Damon has many plans for future projects, including expanding the reach of Keepers of the Waters by encouraging individuals and organizations everywhere to develop living water gardens. As has been the case in all of her endeavors, she will most likely achieve her goal.

(Top image: A Living Water Garden, Chengdu, China)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a Connecticut-based painter, eco-artist and arts writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. She recently participated in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she focused on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change. 


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Landscape Deconstructed at the Hammond: Linda Stillman

By Jennifer McGregor

Landscape Deconstructed: Mimi Czajka Graminski and Linda Stillman is a virtual exhibition on view at the Hammond Museum and Japanese Stroll Garden website until June 2022. It is curated by Bibiana Huang Matheis. The opening on September 11, 2021, included a virtual conversation with Mimi Czajka Graminski and Linda Stillman, moderated by Jennifer McGregor, which has been distilled and reformatted for individual interviews with each artist.

The Hudson Valley artists met in 2011 and were immediately struck by the similarities in their work – and they have continued a dialogue since then. Landscape Deconstructed is the first time their artwork is presented in tandem and it underscores the way that both artists discover elements of their surroundings and reassemble them in ingenious ways. Through distinct processes, they each preserve fleeting moments of beauty in nature while documenting a particular time and place.

Daily Skies: 2020, February 15, 2020 focus, archival pigment print on paper, 19 x 13 inches, 2021

In your Daily Skies series, you’ve been documenting the sky every day since 2005. Since time is such an important element in all of your work, how has this project evolved?

I started out making paintings of a section of the sky on a little panel. To keep the project fresh, I changed the format each year, mounting the panels in different ways. The paintings in Landscape Deconstructed are from 2011. They are mounted by month in the form of a calendar on shaped panels that float away from the wall to create shadows, that give physicality to each month.

After many years of painting on panels, I turned to various media – drawing, painting on paper, collaging, and then photography. This year, I’ve been taking a square photo of the sky with my phone, facing North at noon each day. I then post it on a dedicated Instagram account along with a photo of the ground.

While the format has changed over the years, the desire to have a daily practice and record a fleeting moment remains the same. Taking time to look up at the sky each day is my way to honor and celebrate nature.

Daily Paintings: March 2011, acrylic on paper on panels, 15 x 14 x 3/4 inches, 2011/2014

Collaborating with nature is part of all of your work but in the ‘August’ Gardenproject, you created a calendar with garden beds and photographed them over time. What did you learn from this collaboration?

To combine my love of gardening with my desire to make art, I embarked on a project to plant a calendar of flowers and herbs in my garden and to document it over time. The project concerns the passage of time in nature: how flowers grow and die, and how we try to preserve the memory of fleeting moments of beauty.

The artificial format of the monthly calendar provided a design format, and I used the month of August since that is when gardens are at their peak. I planted annuals in the sequence of the color spectrum, a different color for each day of the week. Sundays were planted with all white flowers, then Mondays with yellow, Tuesdays with orange, Wednesdays with red, Thursdays with violet, Fridays were blue, and Saturdays, the biggest cooking day of the week for me, were planted with herbs. Many of the flowers I purchased didn’t conform to the color on their tag or didn’t hold up to the full sun and had to be replanted with a different variety. The unruly plants soon outgrew their plots and obliterated the carefully placed grid of paving stones.

I photographed the garden from high above in a cherry picker in July, September, November, and the following May to show the passage of time. Seeing the progress from seedling to full growth to death reified my interest in time in nature.

From this project, I learned that it’s impossible to control nature and that you have to be open to failure. Gardening is similar to making art: you have an initial vision, but it often has to be adjusted along the way.

Since March 2020, you’ve been spending much time in your upstate New York studio. How does place inform your work and have there been any surprises since spending so much more time in nature?

Living here in the country full-time since the onset of COVID has been transformative. While I always loved and appreciated nature, my relationship with the outdoors has deepened greatly. I feel part of my surroundings and want to learn more about the flora around me.

On my daily walks down our street, I have been learning the names of the plants. Many of them are invasive and threaten our environment by robbing native plants of light, water, and nutrients, which leads to a loss of biodiversity. Identifying, naming, and distinguishing invasives from similar benign species has led to a new body of work.

Now when visiting New York City, I am amazed by how disconnected I feel from nature and the weather. Looking up at the sky is a conscious effort and finding a patch of earth is a struggle.

There is a distinct form or arrangement in your work. The geometric patterns in your ‘August’ Garden project and in the leaf collages make me think of the simplicity of Shaker patterns. What are the influences in your work?

Multiple influences combine in my work. I love Shaker art and have always been interested in folk art in general, but most especially quilts. I’m attracted to the geometric patterns and use of discarded materials.

My first career as a graphic designer working with grids had a profound influence on my art. I have a need to create order and am attracted to the work of artists who use the grid, like Agnes Martin. I am fascinated by the graphic woodcut illustrations in antique herbals, and by botanical herbaria and the way they order and preserve nature.

My favorite painting is Moss Roses in a Vase by Edouard Manet. I always have a postcard reproduction of it with me in my studio. It has been a talisman and a conceptual inspiration for my work.

Hillsdale Sampler (Verbena-Angelonia), flower stains, graphite, and ink on paper, 12.5 x 9.5 inches, 2019

What goes on in your studio? What aspects of your process come from your relationship to nature, such as the flower stain samplers and the leaf collages?

I discovered the technique of flower staining when I was documenting the ‘August’ Garden project and have been using it ever since. The stain drawings are made from flower petals, rubbed onto paper, creating traces of ephemeral color while containing small remnants of the flowers. Over the years, I’ve learned which flowers create the most vibrant, long-lasting stains and I plant those varieties in my garden. Verbenas are my favorites. The Hillsdale Sampler records what was flowering in my gardens in 2019. I incorporate the names of the flowers in this and other pieces. Naming is important to me as a way to know and remember something.

For years I have gathered and preserved leaves in the fall to use later. I put them in a professional plant press or old phone books to dry. When I’m in rush, I microwave them. When dried, I glue fragments of leaves on paper or panels, contrasting the biomorphic forms of nature with geometric forms in an attempt to create order.

I consider the flower stains and the leaf collages a collaboration with nature. They embed the idea of the fleeting nature of time.

Tree Tree Tree, ink and collaged leaves on paper, 30 x 22 inches, 2020

(Top image: ‘August’ Garden – in July, archival pigment print of photograph of land art installation, 8 x 12 inches on 11 x 14-inch paper, 2001/2008. All images courtesy of the artist.)

This interview is part of a content collaboration between Art Spiel and Artists & Climate Change. It was originally published on Art Spiel on February 14, 2022 as part of an ongoing interview series with contemporary artists.


Jennifer McGregor is a curator and arts planner who brings expertise in ecological art, curating/programing, and public art planning to artist-centered work. For over two decades, she conceived place-based exhibitions at Wave Hill. There, she activated connections to the environment by producing adventurous projects that explored nature, culture, and site. Through McGregor Consulting, she works with clients and collaborators to develop strategies that engage non-traditional public spaces, diverse audiences, and dynamic artists.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Authors: Cynthia Zhang

By Mary Woodbury

This month we head to Beijing, China, as we talk with Cynthia Zhang, a Ph.D. student in Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture at the University of Southern California, about her newest novel After the Dragons (Stelliform Press, 2021).


Dragons were fire and terror to the Western world, but in the East they brought life-giving rain… Now, no longer hailed as gods and struggling in the overheated pollution of Beijing, only the Eastern dragons survive. As drought plagues the aquatic creatures, a mysterious disease – shaolong, or “burnt lung” – afflicts the city’s human inhabitants.

Jaded college student Xiang Kaifei scours Beijing streets for abandoned dragons, distracting himself from his diagnosis. Elijah Ahmed, a biracial American medical researcher, is drawn to Beijing by the memory of his grandmother and her death by shaolong. Interest in Beijing’s dragons leads Kai and Eli into an unlikely partnership. With the resources of Kai’s dragon rescue and Eli’s immunology research, can the pair find a cure for shaolong and safety for the dragons? Eli and Kai must confront old ghosts and hard truths if there is any hope for themselves or the dragons they love.

After the Dragons is a tender story, for readers interested in the effects of climate change on environments and people, but who don’t want a grim, hopeless read. Beautiful and challenging, focused on hope and care, this novel navigates the nuances of changing culture in a changing world.

Zhang’s portrayal of Beijing is rich with intimate details and subtle commentary on climate change, while the delightfully distinct dragons are seamlessly integrated. Despite being a slim novel, Zhang’s introspective fantasy has enormous heart and astonishing depth.

—Krista Hutley for Booklist

This is a slim, beautiful jewel-box of a novel. It is vividly atmospheric and feels real as if tiny flocks of dragons might sit on telephone lines in modern-day Beijing. It explores falling in love in the wake of grief and the ways in which we try to exert control over our lives. Its quiet intimacy will break your heart and give you hope – and also dragons. Perfect, beautifully drawn dragons. It’s a lovely debut and I look forward to seeing what Cynthia Zhang does next. 

—Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of The Calculating Stars

The cover art for After the Dragons is by Wang Xulin, with typography and design by Yu-Lobbenberg Rachel.


I love discovering new publishers and people whose voices are active in the field of what I like to think of as “rewilding our stories.” I follow Stelliform Press, the publisher of After the Dragons, on Twitter. That’s how I have become so taken by what they’re publishing and their environmental ethics. Can you tell us what it’s like to publish with Stelliform?

As someone who has only published one book, I obviously can’t speak much about the industry, but I personally really enjoyed publishing with Stelliform! While small presses don’t necessarily have the same brand recognition as a bigger press, I think if you’re looking for an intimate, hands-on process when publishing, it’s definitely a route you should consider.

I found Stelliform through social media as well, and I was really impressed with the individual support they give to their authors – at that point, I think they’d only put out two novellas and were in the process of putting out a third, so I was drawn to the idea of being part of this growing community of writers. Selena, my editor, has been very generous in terms of communication and support. As someone who previously felt a little disconnected from the wider writing community (ah, grad school), I’ve really appreciated that.

Like you, I was also drawn to Stelliform by their strong sense of ethics – my books (at least the copies I received) were published on recycled paper, and I really appreciate that all the book launches I’ve attended open with land acknowledgements and links to resources for people to learn more. In the grand scheme of things, these might seem like small changes when billionaires are taking joy rides to space every other week, but as socially conscious writers and activists, I think it’s still important to do what we can when we can.

I listened to an interview with you and Lovis Geier, vlogger at Ecofictology, and that drew me in more because I have often talked with her about books we love, and she’s definitely over the moon about After the Dragons! Can you let the readers know what’s going on in the book?

Definitely! So, After the Dragons is broadly about the relationship between two characters: Eli, who’s mixed-race Chinese and visiting Beijing for a summer research program, and Kai, a college student who spends his time taking care of Beijing’s abandoned dragons. They’re connected by a number of factors, with the primary one being shaolong, a respiratory disease caused by exposure to high levels of pollution. Eli’s grandmother died of the disease and his visit to Beijing is, in many ways, an attempt to understand her love for the city that killed her. When he learns that Kai also has shaolong, Eli is determined to do something to help. However, as a kid who grew up gay and highly self-sufficient, Kai bristles at the idea of outside help and only gives in when Eli comes up with a plan that also helps Kai’s dragons. Despite their differences, these two characters forge a friendship that gradually becomes something more.

Overall, there aren’t any big, dramatic moments in After the Dragons – no one discovers a miracle cure for shaolong or fights a corrupt government official, even if they really want to. Eli and Kai enact change, but they don’t solve the world’s problems or even Beijing’s. But as two young people trying to make a positive difference in a precarious world, I think Eli and Kai are characters who very much reflect the dilemma of living in the era of climate change.

One of the things you talked about with Lovis was the difference between Western and Eastern dragon myths. What is it about Chinese dragon mythology that attracted you?

When discussing Eastern versus Western dragons, two of the major distinctions people often ring up are that a) Eastern dragons are more commonly associated with water, not fire, meaning that b) they’re generally seen as a lot more benevolent. I was drawn to dragons partially because of the stark contrast in depiction between European and East Asian myths, but also because of the way that contrast echoes a lot of the ways people talk about Asian countries, China especially. You know how it goes: it’s communism versus capitalism, totalitarianism versus democracy, collectivism versus individualism, etc.

Some of the emphasis on these binaries is obviously kind of essentialist and Orientalist, but I’ve always been struck by the ways in which the history of modern China has revolved around the attempt to balance Westernization with tradition. It’s the question a lot of non-Western countries, especially formerly colonized ones, have had to grapple with: how do we reap the benefits of modernization (guns, industrialization, new political systems) without losing our sense of who we are? In After the Dragons, the rumors of huolong – Eastern dragons that have developed the ability to breathe fire – are very much a metaphor for this ideal of a perfect East-West synthesis, one that would combine the best of both sides without any of the downfalls. That hasn’t quite worked out in reality; economic development in China has led to massive environmental issues and a vast wealth gap, but the ideal of perfect balance is one that haunts the novel.

That’s the broad, theoretical answer. In terms of specifics, I like how there’s such a close connection between dragons and humans in Chinese mythology – the legendary first emperor of China, the Yellow Emperor, could turn into a dragon in some myths, and there are a lot of other stories about dragon emperors who rule the seas or heavens. While these dragons are overall benevolent, they’re not perfect – like Greek gods, their human qualities include very human flaws. As someone who’s interested in animal welfare, I’ve always been struck by the way our stories about animals don’t always match our treatment of those animals. Americans love dogs, but that doesn’t stop people from overbreeding and abandoning them once they become inconvenient. When creating the dragons for this book, I wanted to capture that sense of contrast, the ways in which the myth of dragons might not necessarily translate into our treatment of them in actuality.

In the story, there are animals and people who seem to be marginalized. These are always my favorite stories because I think a lot of readers gravitate toward characters who are not status quo nor fit some idea of how we need to be. Can you describe Kai and Eli in terms of who they are and how you created them?

In writing both Eli and Kai, I was acutely aware that I was writing slightly outside of my personal experience. Even as I share Chinese heritage with these characters, there are a lot of elements of their experiences that I don’t have access to – I don’t live in China as a gay man the way Kai does, and I’m neither mixed-race nor Blasian the way Eli is. Without reducing these characters to one element of their identity, I was very much aware of the ways in which I would never fully understand some of their lived experiences. That’s something Eli and Kai also have to learn to navigate in their interactions with each other, especially since they’re both stubborn young men with strong ideas of right and wrong. They get better, but I think listening to each other is something we all have to work at from time to time.

In terms of marginality, I see both Eli and Kai as characters who are drawn towards each other because they’re outsiders, people who don’t quite fit in. As a Chinese-American, I’m struck by the way people in the US often talk about China, and the ways in which that discussion tends to conflate the Chinese government with the Chinese people. For all that nationalism and the CCP wants those two categories to be inseparable – the Chinese government represents its people perfectly, and no true Chinese person has any reason to criticize it, nope, none at all – gaps between them continue to exist. Ethnic and religious minorities live in China! Queer people live in China! And for those who don’t have the money or opportunity to emigrate, pushing for change can be incredibly risky. Activists still exist, of course, but living in the PRC means people have to get very creative about how they live. In terms of LGBT+ rights specifically, support is rising, especially among young people, but it’s still not an ideal situation – there’s a lot of societal pressure, especially with regards to familial obligation and Confucian ideals. With Kai, I wanted to explore what it might mean to be incorrectly “Chinese” in China – to be someone who loves his mother dearly, but who also knows that being fully himself might disappoint her. Kai knows his country is flawed, but he can’t escape it; even if he had the money and means to leave, growing up and living in China has inexorably shaped who he is.

In writing Eli, I noticed that a lot of discussion of mixed-race kids (at least Asian-American ones) in popular culture focuses on the idea of passing – of being neither American nor Asian enough depending on where you are. That’s an important issue, of course, but I was really struck by the way “American” is often taken to mean “white American.” What would happen to a character for whom passing is never quite an option? There’s a fair amount of anti-Blackness in many non-Black immigrant communities, Chinese communities included, but there’s also a history of Afro-Asian solidarity that runs counter to it. Because I’m not Black, I didn’t feel fully qualified to talk about some of the issues Eli would face in terms of that element of his identity – which is why we don’t really see Eli’s dad in the novel (but it’s also because I find father-son relationships tricky to write). At the same time, one of my best friends is Barbadian-Japanese-Norwegian, and with Eli’s character, I wanted to open more space for mixed-race kids like them. Even though Asian-American is inherently a broad term, we tend to have a narrow idea of what Asian-Americans look like. With Eli, I wanted to nudge the boundaries of what “Asian” or “Asian-American” means – to imagine what the term could mean in all its plurality and coalition-building potential.

The worldbuilding is magnificent. It’s a futurized – or maybe more accurately – a different version of Beijing. It’s also polluted and too hot, and “burnt lung,” or “shaolong,” is a disease that’s killing people and dragons. Were you thinking of climate change when you began to write the book, or do you think it just became an obvious force later because it’s all around us?

I haven’t been back to China since 2016, but I hear that the air quality in Beijing is getting better – which, if so, is very encouraging news! But when I was a child and visiting family in China, Beijing was notorious for its pollution. When I was initially pulling together the threads for After the Dragons, it felt quite natural that pollution would be a major theme in the novel. And if the water and air are heavily polluted, how will that affect dragons as a species that’s strongly tied to water and nature in Chinese mythology? So I suppose the answer to your question is that climate change was probably always a core element of this book, just as it’s become a core problem of contemporary life.

Even as climate change is now perhaps more visible than ever, I think it’s been a part of our world for a long time. Silent Spring was published in the 1960s and in the 19th century, we were already seeing species like bison and passenger pigeons being hunted to extinction or near-extinction. Recent weather events like the California fires and the Texas storms have brought renewed attention to the inescapability of climate change, but I think it’s also important to remember that many people in the Global South and in rural communities have never had the luxury of ignoring climate change. The signs have been there for a very long time – it’s just a matter of whether the people in power are willing to do something about it. And if the politicians and corporations aren’t going to look out for our best interests (as they so often aren’t), then it’s all the more important that ordinary people use what resources they have to support each other and push for change.

The novel is genre-busting. Part eco-fiction, part romance, part science fiction, part fantasy. I often think that tales that cross genre boundaries are more interesting because the world today seems weirder than ever and there is not always a neat little genre that could possibly include it all. Or maybe, it was always that way and as an adult, I think more in terms of metadata than single classifications. What are your thoughts on where literature is headed as we combine more genres together like this?

This is going to sound like a bit of a cop-out answer, but despite writing primarily speculative fiction, I don’t actually think a lot about genre when I’m working. Usually, I set out with one or two concepts I want to explore – what if these characters did X, or lived in a world where X was real? – and then the rest of the story evolves from there, accruing bits of pieces from various genres as it goes online.

Overall, I see genre as a descriptive tool, not a prescriptive one. It’s sort of like the term “sandwich:” some things are undeniably sandwiches – grilled cheeses, PB&Js, a Reuben – but there are also a lot of liminal spaces. Is a hot dog a sandwich? Is a burrito? What about a sushi burrito, or sushi itself? This is a very silly example that people online love to debate (is a Pop-Tart a sandwich?), but I think it’s indicative of how all genre terms are kind of provisional and ever-evolving.

I definitely think that in recent years, as the world gets stranger, we’re seeing an influx of work that blends traditional genre boundaries, especially when it comes to so-called literary fiction. So many things that used to be sci-fi – virtual reality, robot housekeepers, etc. – are becoming parts of our reality in the form of Roombas and smarthomes and VR headsets. At the same time, as our understanding of science becomes more advanced, we see just how strange the world really is. Just think of how fantastical things like quantum entanglement or wormholes sound to people who know nothing about physics! If we’re getting more traditionally literary authors dabbling in speculative fiction (whether or not they want to use that term), I think it speaks to an ever-changing sense of what terms like “reality” and “literary” mean more broadly.

I totally agree about genres! Thanks so much, Cynthia. I found your book and answers fascinating!

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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An Interview with Roy Scranton

By Amy Brady

This month, I have for you an interview with Roy Scranton, the award-winning author of five books, including Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, the monograph Total Mobilization: World War II and American Literature, and the novel War Porn. Roy, who is also an associate professor of English at Notre Dame, has published in more magazines and newspapers than I can count. In the interview below, we discuss one of his most recent projects, the “climate crisis” issue of the Massachusetts Review, which he co-edited with Noy Holland. 

The issue contains original work from such luminaries as Shailja Patel, Omar El Akkad, Rick Bass, Alex Kuo, Laura Dassow Walls, CAConrad, Maryam Haidari, Lisa Olstein, Amitav Ghosh, Sarah E. Vaughn, Eugene Lim, Rob Nixon, Gina Apostol, and many others. It also includes a previously unpublished essay by Barry Lopez.

In your introduction to the Massachusetts Review Climate Issue, you write: “Our dilemma: that we must see without sight, imagine without vision, hope without hope, and somehow persist even as we are consumed with grief and terror.” Would you expand on what you mean by this?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about this line from Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

What this speaks to for me is the apophatic quality of our relation to the future, the fact that we do not know, cannot know what will happen, and indeed have only an obscure sense of what is happening now, in our own time, and yet are nevertheless compelled to act out of our ignorance. We can’t know if we’ve found our mission, if it’s the right one, or whether any particular act will lead to its fulfillment or betrayal. History is too grimly ironic to comfort the complacent or offer cheer to the zealous. And this is just the human condition, under quote-unquote normal circumstances of contingency and uncertainty.

Our situation today is even more precarious: the stakes are the greatest imaginable, on par with nuclear annihilation, while our obscurity is deepened and compounded by the utter novelty of our predicament. It’s all too easy to forget, even or maybe especially for those of us who spend a lot of time thinking about climate change, that we are in totally uncharted territory. I often go back to The Great Acceleration, by historians J.R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, who articulate the point well:

The entire life experience of almost everyone living now has taken place within the eccentric historical moment of the Great Acceleration, during what is certainly the most anomalous and unrepresentative period in the 200,000-year-long history of relations between our species and the biosphere. That should make us all skeptical of expectations that any particular current trends will last for long.” (my italics)

And they’re not even talking about climate change, but rather the human techno-social matrix that has emerged globally over the past eighty years. Climate change is even more of a wild card, a fact which is often obscured by too-credulous reliance on speculative computer models. Notwithstanding the tremendous richness and complexity of contemporary earth systems research, scientists don’t really know what’s happening, or what will happen, in any but the broadest and crudest sense. This is in part because of various challenges when it comes to data collection, in part because our knowledge of similar climatological transitions in the paleoclimate record remains fairly coarse, and in part because there is simply no analogy for the high-speed, high-volume transfer of subterranean carbon into the atmosphere we’ve witnessed in recent decades.

On that point, it’s worth noting again the often noted fact that more than half of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions have occurred since the IPCC was founded, in 1988 – which is to say, after world leaders knew about the threat carbon emissions and climate change pose.

So here we are. Climate activism and progressive climate politics have failed and continue to fail. The US political situation is schizophrenically sliding toward further crises, while the global situation is unstable and deteriorating. Each new year offers another sequence of climate-related disasters, another series of political catastrophes, another round of slow violence against the poor, and we may choose our sorrows from an ever-growing banquet of grief. Yet as Fanon reminds us, we go on, even in our obscurity. We go on, even in our despair. We go on, even in our pessimism and hopelessness and rage, fulfilling or betraying our mission.

To crib a line from King Lear, “The worst is not, so long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”

How to go on – what is the mission? – that remains the question.

In addition to essays and other works, this issue contains several works of poetry. What role might poetry in particular play in our collective thinking about climate change?

There is an argument one hears today that the roots of our predicament lie in extractive Western rationality, that the original sin of modernity lies in the malignant collusion of science, empire, and white supremacy, and thus salvation can be found by turning to indigenous epistemologies or neo-animist thought. This argument sometimes takes form as slapdash anti-scientific primitivism, but in more sophisticated hands it emerges as a robust, thoughtful, deeply historicist articulation of the inextricably entwined genealogies of racial capitalism, colonialism, imperialism, Baconian rationality, and progressivist optimism – as we can see in the work of Sylvia Wynter, Achille Mbembe, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and Amitav Ghosh (who has a piece in this issue).

But whatever the analytic power of such genealogical critique, which is significant, in practical terms it comes up against the granular technological and conceptual affordances of the lifeworld “we moderns” inhabit, with our screens and our drugs and our cars, perhaps the most important of which (and yet one of the least examined) is universal compulsory literacy. As argued by anthropologist Jack Goody, historian Walter Ong, classicist Eric Havelock, philosopher David Abram, and poet Anne Carson, among others, learning to read alienates us from our environment, deforms our evolved sensory-cognitive matrix, and transforms how humans experience spatial, ontological, and temporal relations. Alphabetic literacy may be particularly crippling, but I’m not sure that enough work has been done in comparative literacy studies to make any strong claims about that. In any case, there can be no question, as Walter Mignolo, David Wallace Adams, Chinua Achebe, and others have shown, that enforced literacy in the colonial world, for instance in the American Indian Residential Schools, was one of the most disruptive and destructive forms of cultural genocide unleashed by European conquest. As Caliban says to Miranda and Prospero in The Tempest, “You taught me language; and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”
The danger this understanding poses lies in the wish that it might be otherwise: the primitivist hope that we could “go back” to a pre-industrial, pre-agricultural, pre-literate mode of life. Without foreclosing the possibility that some future humans may, in the ruins of our present, develop post-literate, post-civilizational cultures, which I find a rather cheerful alternative to extinction, it must be recognized that there is no clear path we can take from here to there, no way to truly “decolonize” ourselves without in actual fact destroying the human world we live in, because doing so is not a matter of changing our ideas or even our “narrative,” but totally dismantling how those ideas are embedded in practices, institutions, habits, structures, and material relations. As Tuck and Yang famously argue, “Decolonization is not a metaphor.” We would literally need to burn it all down and start over. But while such apocalyptic violence may appeal to some, on the right and the left, I’ve seen what it looks like when a society gets wrecked – in Baghdad, circa 2003-2004 – and I would not wish that future on anyone.
But here’s where poetry comes in, with all respect to the poets from whom I’ve learned so much: from Sappho to Chatterton to Amiri Baraka, from Sharon Mesmer to Lisa Robertson to Tan Lin. Poetry is a return to the fount of language: a return to the oral, the mythic, the inchoate: a return to the undifferentiated stream, the unconceptualized relation, the primordial matrix of being grounding both the human and the nonhuman, both ontology and alterity. In my view, which admittedly may be idiosyncratic, all poetry is “nature poetry” insofar as all poetry recapitulates the emergence of relational being in speech prior to the appearance of anything we might begin to conceive as a subject, and indeed recapitulates the traumatic, ecstatic emergence of subjectivity as such in relation to the world and the word, physis and logos, again and again and again, always anew. And thus poetry – poiesis, or making, if you’ll grant me the Greek – is the ever-renewing spring of what Hannah Arendt identified as natality, or our capacity to begin again, to create new meaning.
Of course, the Massachusetts Review published poetry every issue, and it was a pleasure working with the journal’s regular poetry editors, Franny Choi and Nathan McClain, in bringing together the work of poets from around the world, including Khairani Barokka, CA Conrad, Jeanine Hall Gailey, Johannes Goransson, Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, Soheil Najm, Lisa Olstein, Alexis Orgera, Shailja Patel, Craig Santos Perez, Vanessa Place, Derek Sheffield, and Joseph Earl Thomas.

Front Cover by Mercedes Dorame, Smoke to Water, Chyaar Paar ‘Apuuchen 2013

The issue contains a never-before-published 1996 lecture by the late Barry Lopez, author of Horizon and other works of deeply affecting nature writing. What themes are present in this piece, and how do they speak to the issue as a whole?

We were phenomenally lucky to be able to publish this piece, which came to us via my colleague Laura Dassow Walls, the eminent Thoreau scholar who is currently working on a biography of Lopez. Laura has her own essay in the issue, sketching out moments in Lopez’s intellectual development, particularly his time as an undergraduate at Notre Dame in the 1960s and his encounter with Trappist monk Thomas Merton. What’s most striking to me about the work Laura does in her essay is in showing how little influence Thoreau and what we think of as the canon of American nature writing had on Barry, how in fact his striving toward the “horizon” was a spiritual striving, shaped significantly by the teaching of theologian John S. Dunne. Laura Walls describes Dunne as “a sort of Catholic Transcendentalist, someone who urged on his students the need for a sympathetic entering into the lives of others, what [he] called ‘passing over.’”

This “passing over,” it seems to me, is at the very heart of Lopez’s work: an effort to reach across the horizon of being toward sympathetic interrelation, while remaining assiduously, painfully open to the impress of the world upon oneself, and painfully alert of the perpetual risk of moral error. For me this too is a kind of poetry, a poiesis, precisely through its effort to complicate, dissolve, and reach across the boundaries that separate us. The question here is less whether one writes in lines and stanzas or in paragraphs, but rather how one uses language to restage the drama of our undeniable oneness with the world in tension with its inescapable individuation. This dynamic is what I think of his magnum opus Horizon as being “about,” if that’s the right word, but it subsists throughout, and emerges powerfully in the 1996 Three Rivers lecture we published in this issue.

In that lecture, Lopez begins by questioning and complicating the city-nature binary we tend to operate within, to make the point that what we should seek in turning to the nonhuman isn’t actually “nature,” which in fact is all around us even in the densest urban environment, not least since we too are natural beings, but precisely an encounter with nonhuman alterity that affords the opportunity to re-experience being in scales that escape and transcend human value, whether through eons of rock or the transient, swirling coalescence of a flock of pigeons.

As Lopez writes, in speaking of himself and fellow so-called “nature writers”:

All of us are concerned with the fate of human society and have examined that question in the context of natural landscapes in order to get at pervasive truths. It is my conceit, I suppose, that what each of us is doing is bringing to bear a kind of inner landscape of ideas, trying those ideas out, consciously or unconsciously, on an outer or exterior landscape of weather and landforms, of migrating birds and stalking polar bears, of silent desert playas and wild orchids. In bringing the interior landscape of the individual mind together with the shared, exterior landscape of the physical earth, it is possible to create a useful and enduring pattern of factual or emotional truth – what we call a story.  

You could say this is merely anthropocentric projection, but in doing so you’d be missing the most vital element, which is opening one’s inner landscape to the outside, submitting to the impress and projection of the other, and humbling oneself before the world, which is only possible through being willing to undertake the kind of communion he discusses (and which indeed he not only dramatizes but occasions in his work).

Today, in a world of frightening, ungrounding change, amidst an all-too-silent planet-wide extinction, such openness means being open to grief, terror, anger, impotent regret, and even despair. I can’t help but think of Leopold: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” We do indeed live in a world of wounds – catastrophic wounds – mortal wounds – but we are not alone. And that is just what this special issue of Massachusetts Review hopes to demonstrate: that even in our grief, even in our error, even in our pessimism and sorrow and division, we are going through this together. Being open to that, and to the potential for collective meaning that poetry and fiction create, can be just as painful as the grief it seeks to assuage, yet in sharing this pain we might begin to find a way to live through it.

“Why does tragedy exist?,” writes Anne Carson. “Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief.” 

Let’s turn from grief to pessimism. In a recent talk on “the virtues of pessimism,” you write that “focusing on a future that could be rather than on the actual history that got us where we are” fosters “a dangerous complacency.” Would you elaborate on what you mean here?

In one respect, this goes back to my previous point about apophatic futurism, or the idea that we are committed existentially to a future we not only don’t know, but we cannot know. We act necessarily with incomplete knowledge of our situation, and in total ignorance of the consequences of our actions – and yet we act on the world, and indeed cannot escape acting this side of death – withdrawal, silence, and forgetting are not the opposite of actions but actions themselves, which cannot help but affect reality – even suicide, as anyone who’s had a friend or family member do it can tell you, is an action with consequences.

The question then is what, in our obscurity, should inform our decisions? Is the mere possibility of an event sufficient to make it worthy of attention, and if so, what kind of possibility, under what conditions, and what kind of attention? Take for instance the idea of rapid and systemic decarbonization of the global economy, which is certainly imaginable and could even conceivably be planned, but which is so unlikely in the framework of contemporary national and international politics that it should be grouped with the kinds of dreams we categorize as utopian, like the end of war, poverty, or hunger. If mere possibility is insufficient for convincing us to take such a desideratum seriously as a factor in our decision making, as I believe is the case here, then we need some kind of evaluative mechanism for considering the likely probability of different possible future events, which in the old days they called judgment, or wisdom. This is, I take it, the core value of historical, cultural, and philosophical reflection, or what we call “the humanities”: abstracting general principles of action and ethics from the accumulated salvage of the past. So my point is more or less the banal one that we should be making our decisions based on likely outcomes, arrived at by careful consideration of historical evidence, rather than by clinging desperately to the outcomes we’d prefer without regard for their actual likelihood.

On the other hand, sometimes mere possibility is enough to warrant significant attention: the possibility of nuclear war, for instance, or the chance that rapid permafrost melt could trigger catastrophic methane release. While the latter event is currently considered unlikely by many leading scientists, and indeed often denounced with an insistence bordering on the pathological, there is enough evidence to suggest that it cannot be ranked as wholly impossible. Since the possible consequences of such an event, however unlikely, include the extinction of the human species, any responsible consideration demands we take it into account. This point is made very well by the philosopher Hans Jonas, who called for a “heuristics of fear.” As Jonas writes in his opus The Ethic of Responsibility:

Even at its best… an extrapolation from presently available data will always, in certainty and completeness of prediction, fall short of the causal pregnancy of our technological deeds. Consequently, an imaginative “heuristics of fear,” replacing the former projections of hope, must tell us what is possibly at stake and what we must beware of. The magnitude of those stakes, taken together with the insufficiency of our predictive knowledge, leads to the pragmatic rule to give the prophecy of doom priority over the prophecy of bliss.

In your talk, you bring this up in a wider context of philosophy and the fact that climate change “is hard to talk about.” Would you expand on this as well?  How would “the virtues of pessimism” change climate discourse?

Pessimism is a form of heresy in a country which insists with childish stubbornness that it deserves a happy ending. Even more than the market, even more than the flag, even more than their own eternal innocence, middle- and upper-class white Americans believe in optimism: the faith that things can get better, indeed that they will get better, and that the right combination of hard work, reason, and moral outrage can solve any problem – whether its Making America Great Again or Building Back Better, it’s the same fatuous bullshit. As W.E.B. DuBois wrote in his 1940 “autobiography of a race concept,” Dusk of Dawn, “The greatest and most immediate danger of white culture, perhaps least sensed, is its fear of the Truth, its childish belief in the efficacy of lies as a method of human uplift.” And since the United States has been a white supremacist culture for so long, this fear and belief – this cruel optimism – is baked into the ideological framework of major cultural institutions, largely through narratives of progress, the notion that we live in a meritocracy, and a mawkish tendency toward salvific moral fables (which I’ve critiqued elsewhere). As a consequence, pessimism tends to be derided and confused with nihilism, a “counsel of despair,” hopelessness, and fatalism.

But when we look closely at the histories of these conceptual schema, which we tend to naturalize as “dispositions” but which in fact are fairly modern phenomena, emerging only in the 18th century, we find that they are distinct and contrasting philosophical approaches to modern ideas of time, suffering, and progress. In the words of political philosopher Joshua Foa Dienstag,

The optimistic account of the human condition is both linear and progressive. Liberalism, socialism, and pragmatism may all be termed optimistic in the sense that they are all premised on the idea that the application of reason to human social and political conditions will ultimately result in the melioration of these conditions. Pessimism… denies this premise, or (more cautiously) finds no evidence for it and asks us to philosophize in its absence.

Progressivist optimism is deeply entwined with the histories of racialized expropriation, instrumentalized rationality, and imperial expansion that I talked about before, and indeed cannot be extricated from them: it is the moral and teleological axis that sustains the transformation of European Christian universalist metaphysics into secularized liberalism: a faith in the power of rational human free will to overcome “brute” matter. Pessimism, which emerges first out of the rigorous skepticism of Pierre Bayle and Voltaire, then develops through the anti-progressivist ethics of Thomas Malthus, Schopenhauer’s encounter with Buddhism, and Nietzsche’s attempts to synthesize the philosophical implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory – and can be seen more recently in the work of Sylvia Wynter, Saidiya Hartman, Frank Wilderson, Jared Sexton, and Achille Mbembe, to name just a few examples – is a fundamentally empirical rejection of such self-serving narratives.

When it comes to climate change, there are good empirical reasons for being pessimistic about our prospects: on top of the science, which seems to be consistently warning us that things are moving faster than predicted, we can point to more than forty years of total failure from climate change politics and communication; fossil fuel industry capture of ruling elites (indeed, the idea of capture may be redundant here); complacency among voters; genuine structural difficulties in narrating climate change as a salient threat; moralizing and divisive tone policing from overzealous activists; competition between states; a refusal to reckon with the real costs of decarbonizing the global economy; and the probability that as the planet’s transition to a warmer climate system speeds up, it will only exacerbate existing political challenges, increase political pressure to deal with short-term crises rather than long-term transformation, and motivate elites to shore up their fortresses of wealth and privilege, leading to what Daniel Aldana Cohen and others have called “eco-apartheid.”

Recognizing these challenges may lead some to despair. Fine. That’s better than a false or complacent optimism. And maybe despair is where some of us need to go in order to realize how profound the problem is, how deep we’re in it, and how immense are the stakes. But more importantly, I believe pessimism can, through its very negativity, open up new ways forward, new ways to think into our future, new possibilities for imagining what it means to live in the new world that fossil capitalism has unleashed.

Moreover, consciously choosing to consider the worst case helps us prepare for it, and if the worst doesn’t happen, so much the better. As Jonas put it, “The prophecy of doom is made to avert its coming, and it would be the height of injustice later to deride the ‘alarmists’ because ‘it did not turn out so bad after all.’ To have been wrong may be their merit.”

But if the worst does happen and we’re prepared, then we’ll be ready to act, rather than being paralyzed by our shock and disbelief, as so many liberal optimists were for so long after Trump’s election in 2016, for instance. Indeed, as I talked about earlier with Fanon, a pessimistic approach demands that one conceive of the future as a realm of action, even if that action must necessarily be taken in ignorance and obscurity, since one can in no sense depend on hope, a complacent optimism, or the arc of history to create a just world for us.          

What action is next for you, then, either as a writer or teacher?

I’ve got a cli-fi novel with my agent. It’s about a young woman who’s displaced by a hurricane, and how she survives and copes with her trauma. The manuscript is titled Pilgrim, and it’s more narrative than my other novels – it’s kind of an adventure story, but I also tried to squeeze in what philosophy I could. I think of it in the tradition of Camus, maybe, though I tried pitching it as Jane Eyre meets The Road Warrior. I’m also working on a book about eco-pessimism, climate change, and narrative, which goes more deeply into a lot of the things we’ve talked about here.

The writing is going slowly, though, because much of my time is taken up with trying to build institutional structures at Notre Dame, where I teach, to help address the climate crisis. I’ve started an Environmental Humanities Initiative, and am working with other folks at the Environmental Change Initiative, the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, and the Keough School of Global Affairs to establish some kind of center on campus in the spirit of Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’. Despite being one of the leading Catholic universities in the country, if not the leading Catholic university, Notre Dame has been slow to respond to the ethical and intellectual mandate in Laudato Si’, and has so far rather shamefully shirked its responsibilities on the issue.

Institutional inertia is paralyzing, but there are motivated people across campus working to roll that boulder up the hill, and I’m glad to be working with them. Part of my effort, related to that, is developing a new, large, writing-intensive course on “Witnessing Climate Change,” which I hope will inculcate wave after wave of Notre Dame undergrads in heretical strains of ecological thought, ethical adaptation, action-oriented pessimism, and the techniques of creative nonfiction.

I’m not hopeful that any institution is going to save us, but I do believe we can carve out spaces and build structures that might actually help people, and I’m not without hope that we can embed ideas within institutions in ways that may turn out to offer ethically transformative possibilities. I realize that’s not as sexy as blowing up pipelines, but frankly I’ve seen enough dudes saying we need to blow shit up – and have seen enough real explosions – to last me a lifetime. In any case, the real work isn’t tearing the system down. Any teenager can start a fire, and the system is going to collapse on its own soon enough. The real work we need to do is to prepare for that collapse, work to mitigate human suffering, and plant seeds that might grow in the ruins.

This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.


Amy Brady is the Executive Director of Orion Magazine, and the former Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books. She is also the co-editor of The World As We Knew It: Dispatches from a Changing Climate (Catapult) and author of Ice: An American Obsession (GP Putnam’s Sons). Every month she edits the newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. Amy holds a PhD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Rise Up, Dissent, and Disassemble

By Claude Schryer

This essay is about art and activism in the context of my participation on February 16, 2022 in a panel titled “Art Uprising: Creative Dissent in the 21st Century” presented at Arts Ahead 2022 – Reawakenings: Art as a Catalyst, an annual student-run symposium that addresses the “biggest disruption of our lifetime,” organized by the Arts Management post-graduate cohort at Centennial College in Toronto.

“Reawakening through art” is a timely topic and I warmly applaud the organizers for their efforts and courage.

My participation on this panel is pursuant to having been a guest at Centennial College’s Art Policy, Equity and Activism class taught by Robin Sokoloski and Janis Monture in November 2021. The class was published as e86 of my podcast conscient. I am grateful for both opportunities to share and learn.

From conscient podcast e86, November 23, 2021, Toronto

The organizers of Reawakenings are about to graduate from an arts management program. Some of them are already working in the cultural sector, while others are looking for their first job. I wish them well, but I must admit that I am terrified about the world we have left for them. I think that an awakening (or reawakening) through art is a critical first step. However, being woke will not be enough, and nor will activism if it is framed as the incremental greening of our current way of life. What we need is radical, unprecedented, and transformative change at a massive scale.

Climate science tells us that in the coming years, this cohort will be leading an arts sector in constant emergency mode due to rapid and uncontrollable environmental degradation. Their challenge will be to ensure that the arts remain relevant and resilient in relation to addressing societal needs and crises, such as threats to shelter, food, and security, and to regeneration efforts. The upside is that the arts sector has the capacity to shift people’s hearts and minds, and will be central to a transformation agenda. We need to rise up, dissent, and disassemble.


An uprising is an “act of resistance or rebellion.”

For me, an artistic uprising is an urgent but peaceful mobilization of the arts sector to address an imminent threat. For example, in March 2021, with other colleagues in Canada I co-founded SCALE – LeSAUT, a “national hub to develop strategy, align activities, and activate the leadership of Canada’s arts and culture sector in the climate emergency.” SCALE – LeSAUT hopes to see an uprising of the arts sector that is

driven by the conviction that inclusive, comprehensive, and far-reaching collaboration, both within and beyond the arts sector, will elevate artistic work towards the crucial transformational tipping points needed to fundamentally shift societal cultural norms from consumerism to stewardship, and from extraction to regeneration, in this critical decade of action.

A catalyst like SCALE – LeSAUT will help, but is not enough. We also need to learn how to decolonize and engage in reconcili-action, as proposed by Elwood Jimmy and Vanessa Andreotti in Towards Braiding. The book puts forward several modes of relational engagement with Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists, scholars, and communities, including visits, gatherings, and consultations, with the goal of addressing the following compass questions:

  • What are the conditions that make possible ethical and rigorous engagement across communities in historical dissonance that can help us move together towards improved relationships and yet-unimaginable wiser futures, as we face unprecedented global challenges?
  • What are the guidelines and practices for ethical and respectful engagement with Indigenous senses and sensibilities (being, knowing, relationships, trauma, place, space, and time) that can help us to work together in holding space for the possibility of “braiding” work?
  • How do we learn together to enliven these guidelines with (self-)compassion, generosity, humility, flexibility, and rigor, and without turning our back to (or burning out with) the complexities, paradoxes, difficulties, and pain of this process of healing?
  • What kind of socially engaged and community anchored Indigenous-led arts-based program can support this process in the long term?
  • What are the expectations in terms of responsibilities of the organization to the place/land and her traditional ancestral custodians from the perspective of the local Indigenous communities?

For an audio excerpt of Towards Braiding, I invite you to listen to e67 wanna be an ally. I also strongly recommend Vanessa Andreotti’s book Hospicing Modernity.

From conscient podcast e67, September 14, 2021, Duhamel, Québec

This type of fundamental rethink of our assumptions is the only form of artistic uprising that has the potential to be transformational. With all due respect, anything less is a waste of precious time and an assault to future generations.


Dissent is the “holding of opinions at variance with those previously, commonly, or officially held.”

To me, creative dissent is about finding aesthetically provocative ways of conveying new perspectives and potential solutions to complex issues, using imagination and invention. There are certainly many precedents in the history of art of works that present strong dissenting views with provocative aesthetics. The work of the great Indigenous performance artist Rebecca Belmore comes to mind.

Another great example of creative dissent is the British Columbia-based theatre company The Only Animal and their Artist Brigade, a “leaderless, national movement whose goal is to bring imagination, vision, and the heart of artists into the telling of the climate story in order to mobilize a society paralyzed by climate anxiety and grief.” I admire the work of artistic director Kendra Fanconi (also see e76) and the Artist Brigade because it engages in cross-sector partnerships with environmental organizations, activists, scientists, journalists, and scholars, and includes voices of dissent on a range of issues, framed by strong ethical and moral values that ensure lasting impact and credibility with the public.

I’m also a fan of Dr. Danielle Boutet’s thought about art. Here is an excerpt from my conversation with her in é60 (in French, translation below):

I hear a lot of people calling for artists to intervene and artists also saying that something must be done, etc. I think that art is not a good vehicle for activism. I’m really sorry for all the people who are interested in this. I don’t want to shock anyone, but sometimes it can risk falling into propaganda or ideology or a kind of facility that I am sorry about, in the sense that I think art can do so much more than that and go so much deeper than that. Art can help humans to evolve. It is at this level that I think that we can really have action, but I think that we have always had this action, and it is a question of doing it over and over and over again.


An oppressive structure is one that “maintains a hierarchy that allows the privileges associated with the dominant group and the disadvantages associated with the oppressed, targeted, or marginalized group to endure and adapt over time.”

Does art have the capacity to address structural or systemic oppression, and how would we know if it did? One challenge for the arts sector is the lack of tools to measure the impact of artistic practice on social policy and systematic inequities. Fortunately, this is beginning to change as various standards and methodologies are being developed to evaluate how art affects public policy (such as the Green Resilience project below).

From conscient podcast e05, October 19, 2019, Ottawa

Here is an example of how an artwork affected an environmental issue from e05 of my podcast with arts researcher Beth Carruthers, who speaks about the impact of Witness Project (condensed from our interview) :

The Uts’am Witness Project was a collaboration with the Squamish nation. It centered around aggressive, clear-cut logging of an intact old-growth forest in unceded Squamish territory in British Columbia, some of it sacred land. This was a 10-year socially engaged art project with many activities and workshops where people were invited to camp for a weekend in the area where the logging was taking place. At this location, they would experience Squamish tradition and ceremony and become part of the process. Over 10 years, 5,000 to 10,000 people participated. They were invited to be formally involved by becoming witnesses through ceremony. It was the strength of these witnesses that, in the end, stopped the forest company from logging. Much of the area has now been set aside as a wild spirit place. The Squamish nation is sustainably logging a section of it and using the land as part of a revival of their cultural traditions.

Another example is from episode e82 washable paint, an unedited, 20-minute soundscape recording of a climate emergency rally on Friday, November 12, 2021, in Vancouver.

From conscient podcast e82 washable paint, November 12, 2021, Vancouver

My wife Sabrina and I decided to attend a protest in solidarity with the Fridays for Future movement. My intention was to record the soundscape of the protest for my podcast (singing, chanting, speeches, marching, etc). However, what we witnessed was the Vancouver Police arresting a group of young people who were doing an artwork with washable red paint onto the windows of the federal Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change building to protest climate change. The protest leaders requested the release of the arrested persons and decided to remain with them in solidarity instead of continuing with the march towards the banking sector of downtown Vancouver and CBC Vancouver. The protest was then redirected towards the municipal courthouse where detained persons were being held.

Beth Carruther’s Witness is a slow-moving form of art activism and decolonization thorough a process of solidarity. Washable Paint is a fast-moving form of art activism that emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis through civil disobedience. Both are actively engaged in social change. Both address “hierarchies of privileges associated with the domination of one group over another,” which brings me to…


I would like to end with another story. A personal one, in the spirit of “walking one’s talk.”

I participated in an arts sector consultation hosted by the Green Resilience project on January 30, 2022, about linkages between climate change, income security, and community resilience. This is important cross-sectoral research. I was impressed by a statement (used with permission) by consultant Chesline Pierre-Paul, one of the guest speakers at the event, made during a chat exchange about some of the underlying causes of social inequities:

Asking who within the art sector gets to opt out of this conversation is telling of the economy of privileges that keep us socialized within white supremacy even as we present ourselves as part of the solution.

Chesline’s statement reminded me that one of the challenges in art practice in Canada today is acknowledging that one of the root causes of exploitation and oppression is the culture of white supremacy. This topic tends to be uncomfortable for the white majority to address but its recognition is key to moving forward with a new vision.

I was shaken, but also uplifted by Chesline’s statement, and I came to the following answers to her questions:

  • Have I opted out of the conversation? No. I’m gradually re-educating and decolonizing myself. However, I am aware of the risk of complacency and the force of habit.
  • Am I part of an economy of privileges? Yes. I was born into privilege and bear the responsibility of countering the effects of white socialization. I need to check my assumptions at every moment and be willing to give things up, as suggested in the “Wanna be an Ally” poem.
  • Do I present myself as part of the solution? Yes. But I’m aware of the dangers of falling into white savior mode and unconsciously causing more harm than good.

(Top image: From conscient podcast e82 washable paint, November 12, 2021, Vancouver)


Claude Schryer is a franco-ontarian sound and media artist, arts administrator, and facilitator who holds a MM in composition from McGill University. From 2000 to 2020, he worked in management at Canada Council for the Arts. He produces the bilingual conscient podcast and was a founding member of the coordination circle of the Sectoral Climate Art Leadership for the Emergency (SCALE-LeSAUT) from March 2021 to March 2022. He is currently working through the exercises in Hospicing Modernity.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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On Salt, Seaweed, and Disappearing Places

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

California-based artist, writer, and researcher Christina Conklin grew up spending summers along the coast of Oregon where she first developed a relationship with and understanding of the ocean as “an infinite vessel” of ever-changing and interconnected living systems. For the last 12 years, her artwork has explored the intersection of art, science, and spirituality as it relates to the sea. 

Conklin’s career path prior to her current focus as an artist and writer on the ocean in the context of the climate crisis, included work in the publishing and non-profit sectors, after which she became a full-time textile artist and freelance writer. Acknowledging her background in textiles, she admits that all of her artwork has what she calls “textility,” an inherent textural quality. It also incorporates her long-time interest in spirituality and philosophy, which she attributes to her background as an undergraduate religious studies major at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

Apophacy, glass vessel, hanging wire, 12 gallons of water, 8 pounds of salt, 13 ft. diameter, 2014

From 2012-2014, during her MFA program at California College of the Arts, Conklin created process-based, ephemeral works that combined scientific experimentation with artmaking and contemplative practice. For these pieces, she used salt and water as her primary media, which she applied directly onto the floor. In Apophacy (see photo above), for example, the salt and water mixture created a rough, almost bubbly surface, like a primordial mix, thick in some areas and thin in others. From above, the floor-based installation had a globe-like appearance, suggesting bodies of water and land formations. Its title references a theological term for â€œthe ineffable nature of that which could be called sacred and the unsaying of all the words that so often fail to approach its description.”

Included as part of Conklin’s work is a social practice component, consisting of guided walks for students and adults titled Tideline as Timeline, and other public engagement projects. The walks speak to the tideline as a fluctuating border, documenting the geological, social, and historical changes that have occurred over thousands of years. In one of these projects, Conklin collaborated with sustainability expert and writer Marina Psaros, who has worked on sea level rise planning for decades. When Psaros was approached by The New Press to write a book on the oceans and climate change, she suggested that Conklin partner with her, a process which ultimately occupied the next four years of their lives and resulted in the publication in 2021 of The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis.” In addition to researching and writing 12 of its 20 chapters, Conklin created all of the book’s numerous maps and illustrations.

From the beginning, Conklin imagined that The Atlas of Disappearing Places would include both science and art, and would take a systemic look at the impact of the climate crisis on our coasts and oceans all over the world. Prior to writing, Conklin conducted extensive research on such topics as deep-sea mining, the micro-chemistry of the ocean, marine biology, ocean currents and flow patterns, and numerous other factors causing changes in ocean life and behavior. 

Using an atlas format, which traditionally contains a collection of maps as well as relevant cultural, geographical, and historical facts about specific areas, countries, or continents, the co-authors organized their information into four parts representing the four major categories of ocean changes: stronger storms, warmer waters, chemical changes, and higher sea levels. Under each category, they selected five places around the globe where these changes are impacting ocean species, human life, and local geography. Although some of the twenty case studies address cities that are very familiar to readers, such as New York and Shanghai, others are less well-known and less urban places like Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh; Hampton Roads, Virginia; and Ben Tre, Vietnam. 

Spilhaus Projection, ink on algae, 43” x 32,” 2021

Conklin used sea lettuce (as seaweed from the genus Ulva is commonly called) and a unique process to create the stunning maps appearing throughout the book, which illustrate how specific changes in the climate are affecting particular areas. Living close to the sea as she does and with a history of making ephemeral works, she had already started using local sea lettuce in her own work and thought that utilizing a product of the sea as a way of illustrating sea change would be especially powerful. She ultimately developed a time-consuming and delicate process that enabled her to paint maps onto dried seaweed. 

To begin with, Conklin harvested forty pounds of wet, slimy seaweed and dragged it back to her studio, where she washed it and lay out each individual sheet to dry. When bleached by the sun, the green seaweed was transformed into thin, translucent, highly brittle parchment. Using water soluble ink, she painted land formations and/or data sets onto the dried seaweed, letting the pooling and puddling effect of the ink occur naturally. Conklin called the process “a conversation with the material.” Once the painting was complete, most of the maps were digitally layered onto a Google Earth image to provide geographical reference points. By using the dried seaweed as the original surface of the artwork, the resulting maps take on Conklin’s own preference for “textility.” 

Sample map from The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis, “Toxins in San Francisco Bay,” digital image, 8” x 10,” 2021

One of the most intriguing maps in the Atlas is modeled after the famous Spilhaus Projection (see image below), originally published in 1979 by South African geophysicist and oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus. Spilhaus’ map of the world places the Earth’s axis through China and Argentina, enabling the oceans to be entirely contiguous with just a small “cut” across the shallow Bering Straits. The Spilhaus Projection provides a view of the sea that emphasizes its omnipresence and global importance. 

The Spilhaus Projection map showing the blue oceans as contiguous. 

The Atlas of Disappearing Places has been well received as a creative and accessible reference book on climate change that is particularly appropriate for schools and libraries. Now that her four-year “calling to get the word out” is complete, Conklin has turned to another natural material for art-making – she is creating algae mono-prints in a way that “allows the material to have the loudest voice,” in much the same way that her seaweed paintings did. Most importantly to her, however, is her continued spiritual search with like-minded individuals and groups for a systemic transformation of our collective thinking, a new paradigm that will put us back in sync with the natural environment and all of its living beings. 

(Top image: Skin #9, algae, insect pins, 60” x 62,” 2021)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.


Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. She recently participated in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she focused on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change. 


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Caroline S. Roberts Artfully Fills a Space with Data

By Peterson Toscano

How can we help people embrace the science that reveals our climate has been changing dramatically and very quickly? And more than that, how do we invite them to feel and experience the data so profoundly that it causes them to respond?

These are the questions UK-born artist Caroline S. Roberts brought to her piece the present of my life looks different under trees, an immersive installation of cyanotypes that has been exhibited at BOX13 ArtSpace and HCC Southwest in Houston, TX.

Caroline moved to Houston 18 years ago. A story about a drowned forest from thousands of years ago along with recent flooding in her city, inspired and informed her work.

The installation consists of sixty 11-foot high panels, each one representing a year of Houston weather data and encircling the Back BOX like a grove of trees. Each varies in width based on the rainfall intensity, as measured by the number of days on which the total rainfall was greater than 3 inches: the point at which street flooding occurs. The panel color, from ice-blue to blue-black, represents the average nighttime temperature for that year.

At first glance the immersive nature of this cyanotype installation provides a cool environment as Houston temperatures fall into Fall. However, a closer look gives the bigger picture: more shocking than any graph, this forest-like environment shows the story of rising temperatures and intensifying rain events.

For more information on the data behind this installation please continue to the story and data page.

Next month: Krista Hiser is back with another installment of the Ultimate Cli-Fi Book Club. This time, she looks at a book that hits very close to home. She dives into the pandemic and climate change in Emily St. John Mandel’s novel, Stations Eleven.

If you like what you hear, you can listen to full episodes of Citizens’ Climate Radio on iTunesStitcher Radio, Spotify, SoundCloudPodbeanNorthern Spirit RadioGoogle PlayPlayerFM, and TuneIn Radio. Also, feel free to connect with other listeners, suggest program ideas, and respond to programs in the Citizens’ Climate Radio Facebook group or on Twitter at @CitizensCRadio.

This article is part of The Art House series.


As host of Citizens’ Climate Radio, Peterson Toscano regularly features artists who address climate change in their work. The Art House section of his program includes singer/songwriters, visual artists, comics, creative writers, and playwrights. Through a collaboration with Artists and Climate Change and Citizens’ Climate Education, each month Peterson reissues The Art House for this blog. If you have an idea for The Art House, contact Peterson: radio @


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Wild Author: Erica Ferencik

By Mary Woodbury

This month we travel to the Arctic – Greenland, specifically – with author Erica Ferencik, via her novel Girl in Ice (March 2022, Scout Press/S&S). I’m absolutely floored after chatting with Erica about her firsthand experiences when writing.

Erica throws herself wholeheartedly into the dangerous environments where her novels are set. She ventured deep into the remote forests of the Allagash Territory in northern Maine for The River at Night, rafted the Amazon River in the jungles of Peru for Into the Jungle, and for her new book, Girl in Ice, out by Scout Press/S&S in March 2022, she spent several weeks exploring the desolate iceberg-packed fjords of Greenland.  

She recalls,

The thin metal skin of the helicopter was the only thing between me and a thousand-foot plummet into the mile-deep fjord. Around our encampment on the ice, a flimsy-looking electric fence was the sole discouragement to hungry, roving polar bears. I received casual instructions to ‘turn toward the noise’ while kayaking among stories-high bergs in case they were to split and roll, creating tsunami-sized waves.


Valerie “Val” Chesterfield is a linguist trained in the most esoteric of disciplines: dead Nordic languages. Despite her successful career, she leads a sheltered life and languishes in the shadow of her twin brother, Andy, an accomplished climate scientist stationed on a remote island off Greenland’s barren coast. But Andy is gone: a victim of suicide, who willfully ventured unprotected into 50-degree-below-zero weather. Val is inconsolable – and disbelieving. She suspects foul play.

When Wyatt, Andy’s fellow researcher in the Arctic, discovers a scientific impossibility­ – a young girl frozen in the ice who thaws out alive, speaking a language no one understands – Val is his first call. Will she travel to the frozen North to meet this girl, and try to comprehend what she is so passionately trying to communicate? Under the auspices of helping Wyatt interpret the girl’s speech, Val musters every ounce of her courage and journeys to the Arctic to solve the mystery of her brother’s death.

The moment she steps off the plane, her fear threatens to overwhelm her. The landscape is fierce, and Wyatt, brilliant but difficult, is an enigma. But the girl is special, and Val’s connection with her is profound. Only, something is terribly wrong; the child is sick, maybe dying, and the key to saving her lies in discovering the truth about Wyatt’s research. Can his data be trusted? And does it have anything to do with how and why Val’s brother died? With time running out, Val embarks on an incredible frozen odyssey – led by the unlikeliest of guides – to rescue the new family she has found in the most unexpected of places.


I am amazed by the types of novels you’re writing. They take place in interesting places (a jungle, a remote forest, and now an icecap). Your research is hands-on, and you travel places ahead of time. What’s that like? What’s your favorite experience in the beautiful but isolated landscapes you have visited?

No matter how much I read or google, I can’t possibly bring these worlds alive for myself – never mind the reader – without going there first. I absolutely love every minute of these trips, no matter how cold, hot, scared, freaked out, and lost I may be. This is our world and, as troubled as it is, it is still full of wonders!

That said, I have a tendency to get mired – okay, lost â€“ in research. The way I see it, once you open one of these fascinating doors, in the case of Girl in Ice, animals that can thaw out alive, the Little Ice Age, ancient Arctic civilizations, Greenlandic wildlife, Nordic languages, glaciology, climate science, where do you stop? The answer for me is: know my story first. Otherwise, I will fall into the black hole of research and never emerge.

Before leaving for my trip to Greenland in August of 2019, I made sure to wrap up a comprehensive outline for Girl in Ice. As much as I intended to keep myself open to any and all experiences on the trip, I needed to keep a special eye out for any aspect of the place – people, culture, landscape, animals – that would figure heavily in the story. In addition to the trip, I read dozens of books on Arctic exploration, Greenlandic history, and linguistics.

This sort of preparation was true for all my books. I knew my story intimately before embarking on my research trip to the Allagash Territory in Northern Maine for The River at Night, and certainly for my one-month immersive trip to the Peruvian jungle for Into the Jungle.

One of my favorite experiences was camping near the ice sheet in Greenland near a bay packed with giant (think five-story building) icebergs. For whatever reason, we hadn’t seen much of the northern lights, but on our last night there, something amazing happened. An explosion woke us at three in the morning. We all stumbled out of our tents in our long johns, hoping that the world hadn’t come to end.

Not this time. A cruise-ship-sized iceberg had broken in two in the bay. Waves pounded the shore; seafoam glowed in the moonlight.

Seconds later, as if the two events were related, the northern lights flickered across the sky: mad swaths of purple, green, orange and yellow. We gathered sleeping bags and pillows to lie out on slabs of rock near the bay. Colors flashed and danced; speech failed us. My hands and feet were numb with cold, but escaping into my warm tent was out of the question. Never had I felt more like stardust, never more like part of this gorgeous world. I kept asking myself, how can this be more beautiful, and in the space of a breath, it was.

That’s amazing (and my dream to see). What got you on the road to thinking about and writing Girl in Ice, and what do you want readers to know about the background experience?

One bitterly cold morning in the winter of 2018, I was walking in the woods near my home, and came upon what looked like juvenile painted turtles frozen mid-stroke in the ice along the shallow edge of a pond. They didn’t look alive, but they didn’t look dead either.

It turns out there are some animals (and plants too!) that have this freezing-and-coming-back-to-life thing down. Painted turtle hatchlings, some species of beetle, wood frogs, certain alligators, even an adorable one-millimeter length creature called a Tardigrade or “water bear” that can be frozen to minus 359C and thaw out just fine. Most of these creatures possess a certain cryo-protein that protects their cells from bursting when they freeze.

A protein that… we don’t possess. Still, the image of a young girl frozen in a glacier in the Arctic popped into my head. From there, I asked myself: How did she get there? What was her story? 

That’s a cool start! You stated in an interview, “I’d say never stop learning your craft, whether that’s through reading what you admire or writing.” What have you learned from prior novels that shaped some of Girl in Ice?

Every time I write a book it’s as if I’ve never written one before. I have to learn all over again how in the world to construct something so daunting and overwhelming. It’s like climbing Everest with barely enough oxygen, without a sherpa, in business casual.

But this time I learned, or re-learned to love the research, but be careful! Don’t get mired in it. The story comes first. Concoct a small, knowable world. Create fewer characters, better fleshed out. Don’t shy away from painful situations or emotions. Love or at least have empathy for all of your characters. Embrace your weird. Keep the dread going. Vet every sentence, paragraph, scene. Make every word count. And it’s fine to make your reader laugh, cry, or cower in fear, but most of all, you’ve got to make them wait.

Your website states “My passion is to create unputdownable novels set in some of the most inhospitable regions on earth, places most of us don’t get a chance to experience in person in our lifetimes.” How did that passion originate?

I love any great story no matter where it’s set; however, I’ve got a real soft spot for any novel or film set in a forbidding place. I could speculate all kinds of deep psychological reasons for my love of survival stories. Let me put it this way: like so many others, I survived an extremely challenging childhood, and so I have ready access to dread, to feeling trapped, to planning creative ways to survive. In short, my fight or flight hormones are quite close to the surface.

How did you approach creating the language the girl in the ice uses?

I immersed myself in the sounds and cadences of the living Nordic languages, among them Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Finnish, Icelandic, and of course Greenlandic, in order to get a feel for inflection and tone. I also dove into recordings of Old Norse, the main language of the Vikings, in order to create morphemes, or units of meaning that sounded Nordic, but that were just slightly distinct from known languages, so I could create Sigrid’s unique tongue.

What I had to grapple with next was: How would Val be able to interpret Sigrid’s speech if there was no correlation to any living or even dead language? I consulted some linguist friends who said that without any remnants of written language or cultural clues from a society that spoke the language – with nothing to go on, basically – you’d have to start with simple nouns, verbs, and concepts, almost like a baby pieces together her language.

The plot touches upon deadly ice storms; are these a real current threat stemming from global warming?

There are such things as katabatic winds. In Greenland, they’re called piteraqs: brutally strong winds generated by radically different air temperatures, often barreling down the slopes of mountains or glaciers. I’m not a climate scientist or meteorologist. But climate change strengthens hurricanes, tornadoes, wind events in general, as well as prompting dramatic swings in temperature, so I thought it wasn’t too far of a reach – for story purposes – to say that deadly ice storms are in our future and might have been in our past.

What was the most challenging part of the field research you did for this book?

Leaving Greenland, just when I was getting a feel for the place, was the worst part of a mostly smooth trip. A profoundly melancholic feeling of when will I ever be here again? I could have stayed weeks longer kayaking the fjords, interviewing townspeople, trying to pick up at least some of the language, scouting for wildlife. I couldn’t get enough of city-block long icebergs, carved into incredibly bizarre shapes by sun and sea, the blow of fin whales in the bay, the northern lights, and our Greenlandic guide’s hair-raising tales of hunting and survival.

The most surprising thing you learned from that research?

This is going to sound silly, but the fact that Greenland is so big, just so vast, and yet so few people live there was hard to wrap my mind around. Only 57,000 people – one tenth the residents in all of Wyoming – call this island, the largest in the world at about a third the size of Canada, home. Most live in Nuuk, the capital; the rest live in towns often with fewer than 500 inhabitants along a three-thousand-mile coastline, mostly on the west side. The ice sheet measures fifteen hundred miles north to south, is two miles deep at its thickest, covers nearly 80% of Greenland, and has been frozen for three million years.

The second thing that shocked me was how close Greenland is to pre-history. As recently as 1950, people lived in sod huts: low, square dwellings built by digging a hole in the ground during the short summer season – plus or minus fifty days – then creating a supporting structure for a roof out of whale ribs or driftwood, finally sealing it with skins, peat and rocks.

And it’s one thing to read that the economy is mostly subsistence hunting and fishing; it’s another to witness it, read about quotas for narwhal and minke whale, learn what happens when a polar bear is spotted (it’s not gentle), understand that sled dogs are seen as possessions, not pets, that need to be fed. And, sad as it is to witness for someone unaccustomed to this life, it’s cheaper to hunt seal than cough up five dollars for a can of imported dog food.

Most shocking of all? There are no penguins.

How did it differ, apart from the climate, from your field research in Northern Maine, and Peru?

For a month in the winter of 2014, I was on my own in the Allagash Territory in Northern Maine conducting research for The River at Night. No guide, no touring company. By making dozens of someone-who-knows-someone phone calls, I cobbled together interviews with people who had disappeared themselves from society. It got dicey at times. One guy would only agree to an interview if I met him at a certain mile marker along a logging road where he arrived on horseback. I vetted everyone and always had my mace.

In the Peruvian jungle doing research for Into the Jungle, I had my own guide, a native and lifelong hunter armed with a machete and a masterful knowledge of the rainforest. I was frankly terrified to get on the plane. I’d prepared myself by reading everything I could about the jungle and didn’t think I would survive it; there is such a thing as knowing too much! But by the time I left Peru, four weeks later, I felt confident and calm, even with piranha I’d caught for dinner snapping at my toes and flipping around in the bottom of my dugout canoe.

In Greenland, my fellow explorers and myself had access to a native guide and hunter who also served as translator. We were able to interview a mayor of a Greenlandic town, as well as several residents, including other hunters. We explored by small plane, helicopter, kayak, small boat, and on foot, camping just a stone’s throw from the ice cap.

This series features authors who tackle environmental issues or include natural beauty as a strong element in their story. How does your novel fit into this thread?

Settings including natural beauty are wonderful, but the human story, and all the emotions we experience, are what we all crave and ultimately respond to. In constructing a novel, for me, story comes first, but for each novel I’ve written over the last decade (closing in on number four), the climate emergency looms larger and larger in my thoughts, emotions, and ultimately in my stories.

Climate- or eco-fiction, or any story involving the environment can be set anywhere, since climate change impacts us worldwide, in small and large ways. It could be a thriller set in the near future about water wars or mass emigration, or it could be a more intimate story set on a smaller canvas, perhaps something about someone who has to abandon a beloved family home along a coast due to the encroaching tide.

Readers want to think, but more than anything else they want to feel, they want a deeper understanding of life. This is best done through story. I believe that Girl in Ice is a solid story that deals with the impending ravages of climate change in both a speculative and realistic way, in broad strokes but also revealing the deep trauma that – unfortunately – we are all just beginning to understand and experience.

I believe so too. Are there ways in which your decade doing standup and sketch comedy has influenced your writing of fiction?

They say that comedy is the angry art. And it’s true. As long as you’re funny, you get to go up there and rail against what you perceive as unfair, wrong, absurd, and so on. There is a lot of darkness in comedy. In fact, I defy you to tell me an actually funny grownup joke without a dark, or tragic, or sad kernel. Jokes about happy things aren’t funny. This is why people love comedy: someone, up there onstage, is calling out things that have bothered them or pissed them off for decades, but they didn’t know how to put it into words.

When I was doing stand-up or sketch comedy, I was a frustrated writer with several terrible novels in my drawer, but with a hunger to be seen and heard. Getting up on stage and letting it rip was instant publication: immediate feedback. It taught me to think on my feet. It taught me discipline: you had to come up with new jokes all the time.

Comedy demands keen powers of observation. It you’re not paying attention, taking notes about what you see, hear, feel, then take the second step and ask yourself, why is this funny, how can you come up with material? Never mind asking yourself how can I process this through the lens of who am I as a comic? But the first step is always: observe.

Which is also a crucial skill for a novelist.

Bravery is a muscle we all exercise every day, especially these days, but doing stand-up was where I practiced bravery, night after night, for years. It took me a while to really grok that comedy isn’t one-way – you’re not just dumping jokes on people – it’s a conversation with the audience. After every joke, you must give your audience a chance to react. If you don’t, they will sense your fear and eat you alive.

So many people ask me these days: Weren’t you frightened, kayaking between massive icebergs, knowing if they calved or split, waves could hurl you into thirty-degree water? What about the giant anacondas coiled in the trees over your canoe as you threaded through the floating forest by moonlight? I would say that for all those scenarios you can lower your risk: you can find a great guide, wear the right gear, pack a machete of your own. But try standing in front of five hundred people waiting for them to laugh at a joke that seemed hilarious in the shower that morning. That has to be the scariest journey of all.

What won’t we find on any PR or publicity material?

I think this book has been lurking somewhere deep in my subconscious since the day I saw a film version of Frankenstein. In one of the final scenes, Frankenstein’s monster, hunted, beaten and bloodied, has given up on mankind and is heading north into the great Arctic wilderness. I will never forget that devastatingly sad and eerie image. Girl in Ice is not Frankenstein, but I think that’s where my fascination with Nordic stories began.

Are you working on anything else?

In the next novel, a thriller called The Intelligence, nature finally takes a stand and attempts to destroy us as we have been annihilating it, posing for us the impossible paradox, How do you defeat an enemy you desperately need for your own survival?

Well, I’m intrigued by your life, your research, your experience in beautiful but also dangerous areas. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me, and I’m looking forward to The Intelligence!

This article is part of our Wild Authors series. It was originally published on


Mary Woodbury, a graduate of Purdue University, runs, a site that explores ecology in literature, including works about climate change. She writes fiction under pen name Clara Hume. Her novel Back to the Garden has been discussed in Dissent Magazine, Ethnobiology for the Future: Linking Cultural and Ecological Diversity (University of Arizona Press), and Uncertainty and the Philosophy of Climate Change (Routledge). Mary lives in Nova Scotia and enjoys hiking, writing, and reading.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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Solar Sisters

By Joan Sullivan

In the future, we may well look back on 2022 as a watershed year in the global energy transition. The year when we finally realized that “technological infrastructure alone does not an energy transition make.” The year when we finally understood that all previous energy transitions (yes, there have been several) overlapped with and were influenced by concurrent shifts in cultural and aesthetic values.

The 21st century’s version of an energy transition is no different. As we transition from extracting fossil fuels out of the ground to harvesting multiple sources of clean energy from the sun, wind, and water, our values are shifting from a “culture of consumption” to a “culture of stewardship.” As Barry Lord explains in his book Art & Energy: How Culture Changes:

When an energy source is incipient, the cultural values that it engenders are seen as innovative and open to dispute, just like cutting-edge art. Once the new energy source becomes dominant, the values that it brought with it become mainstream. With the renewable energy culture of stewardship, that process is happening in our own time. 

As in the past, it will be the artists, poets, architects, and designers who shine a light on the way forward.

Two revolutionary solar designers from The Netherlands are already doing so. Marjan van Aubel and Pauline van Dongen have spent the past decade – independently of each other – experimenting with harvesting solar energy from objects in our everyday lives: furniture, textiles, windows, clothing, and accessories.

As just one example from dozens of their innovative projects, van Aubel’s design for a table that generates electricity from diffused indoor lighting (see video below) provides a beautiful and concrete example of the important role that solar designers will play in the second Copernican revolution.

In a strange twist of fate, the two Dutch solar designers did not meet until quite recently. The infamous meeting took place in a Saint Petersburg bar, while drinking White Russians (true story). They immediately bonded and, ever since, have considered themselves Solar Sisters.

This is the power of collaboration. Within a year of their first meeting, van Aubel and van Dongen had laid the groundwork for the world’s first design biennale inspired by solar energy. As co-founders of this global event, they share a vision to create space for an alternative “solar movement” that shifts the conversation from the glorification of technology to a new perspective about the cultural, social, and aesthetic values of a post-fossil future powered by the infinite energy of our star.

The Solar Biënnale will be held in The Netherlands from September 9 to October 30, 2022. The host city of the inaugural biennale is Rotterdam, with tandem activities programmed for Eindhoven, Maastricht, and Amsterdam throughout the seven-week event. The main venue for The Solar Biënnale is Rotterdam’s Het Nieuwe Institute, which will host a central retrospective exhibition “about designing with, for and under the sun” curated by Matylda Krzykowski. Closing week of the biennale will take place in Eindhoven during Dutch Design Week.

The organizers hope that future solar biennales will rotate between other countries and other continents. A detailed calendar of events will be released soon. You can sign up for email alerts here.

In the months leading up to the official launch of The Solar Biënnale 2022, I will update readers of this Renewable Energy series with occasional posts about the cultural importance of this global event as well as information about some of its warm-up activities such as a lecture series and side-programming at festivals. COVID-permitting, I hope to participate in person and to finally meet the two Solar Sisters.

Here comes the sun…

(Top image by Joan Sullivan)

This article is part of the Renewable Energy series.


Joan Sullivan is a Canadian photographer and writer focused on the energy transition. She is a new member of Women Photograph. In her monthly column for Artists and Climate Change, Joan explores the intersection of art and the energy transition. She is currently experimenting with abstract photography as a new language to express her eco-anxiety about climate breakdown and our collective silence. You can find Joan on Twitter and Visura.


Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

Go to the Artists and Climate Change Blog

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