At the end of September, the 400,000-strong People’s Climate March pulsed through Midtown Manhattan, a dramatic manifestation of popular frustration over political inaction to confront climate change and a chorus of collective engagement and commitment to a better future. Among the masses was Rebecca Solnit, the celebrated writer, historian, and activist that is one of our most cogent and inspiring voices on the relationship between climate change, culture, place, and community.
Climate change is an ultimatum that we all recognize that everything is connected. At the close of Climate Week, Solnit joined a group of historians, designers, developers, architects, and urbanists at 5KL: Land, a symposium organized by The Architectural League to reconsider settlement patterns and competing land uses in new ways given the reality of climate change. The event was part of The Five Thousand Pound Life, an ongoing initiative that convenes scholars, activists, and designers to reimagine the American way of life to address simultaneously the causes of climate change and the limitations of our contemporary economic paradigm.
Solnit’s conversation with UO Editor Cassim Shepard, a video of which is available in full on ArchLeague.org, showcases the same sensibility displayed in her writing: an understanding of contemporary politics and social movements contextualized by a deep sense of history; a sense of current social challenges as intimately entwined with latent and unrecognized cultural attitudes; and a concept of humanity that, rather than accept common narratives of inherent selfishness, accounts for our capacity for great empathy.
Below is an attempt to distill and highlight some particularly interesting threads from a rich interchange, which touched upon the state of the environmental movement, the politics of privatization and communalism, the historic divide between concepts of nature and civilization, and opportunity and hope in the face of climate change.
Running through much of Solnit and Shepard’s conversation was the theme of interconnectivity — that, in Solnit’s words, “Climate change is an ultimatum that we all recognize that everything is connected.”
The interconnections she identifies are not exclusive to environmental issues, but confront a broader “isolationist, individualist problem” that Americans suffer in economic, political, and personal spheres, in part a result of ideas of “rugged individualism” that pervade narratives of American settlement:
I always feel that before you can have economic privatization, you have to have psychological privatization, which is the Thatcher sense that there is no so such thing as society — I owe you nothing, I need nothing from you, you need nothing from me. That withdrawal is totally bogus. … Right-wing philosophy right now is kind of this atomized philosophy that we have no responsibility for each other and nothing is connected to anything — sex education is not connected to lowered teen pregnancy, education is not connected to lowered poverty, … vaccines are not connected to lowered disease rates. Climate denialism says that what 7 billion people do has nothing to do with the health of the planet.
This supposed divide between humans and nature, both in how the former impacts the latter and how environmentalists approach that relationship, is something Solnit is happy to erode.
I became an environmentalist in the mid-1980s, when it was really still the conservation movement. It was still about putting fences around isolated places to protect them in a way that often essentially encouraged everything else to go forward.
You see what I call the virgin-whore dichotomy with the birth of Yosemite, Yellowstone, and things like that. It’s like, this place, nothing will happen to. We imagine nature as static and fragile and separate — this is the virgin. And then this place we’ll just rape and destroy. … Yosemite was protected, and it just turned 150. Abraham Lincoln signed it into being while the Gold Rush was going on to have one place that wasn’t ravaged.
What was really interesting coming of age as an environmentalist in the late ‘80s was that it was actually the rainforest activists who were saying, “Wait a minute. Wilderness is not virgin. We’re looking at the Amazon, at Borneo, at places in Central America, and these are inhabited wildernesses. And it came as the buildup to the Quincentennial [of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas], where Native people basically said, “Fuck Columbus, we weren’t discovered, we were invaded, and we are still here. The story’s not over.”
For Solnit, “Climate change is a social justice issue,” a belief she elaborates on with reference to the fact that “We have climate refugees already, we have climate wars already, and a lot of it is in Africa, where desertification and crop failure impact the poor.” The class stratification of environmental activism is untenable, she argues, because “demonizing” it as a luxury issue assumes that “poor people don’t want nature and clean air and clean water… and a rich and diverse, sustainable environment.” It’s not about luxury, it’s about survival:
Grain production is down 7% already because of climate disruption. That impacts the poor immediately. There are people who are phrasing it in elite ways, but most of the people I’m around absolutely see it as a social justice and a populist issue.
Solnit has seen a new kind of environmentalism centered on greater systemic thinking and social justice arise from the effort to “transcend conservation, individual protection, and nature-culture divides.” And this barrier breakdown speaks to how professionals — ecologists, architects, and urban planners — should approach the intersection of environment and built space in their work by recognizing the interconnectedness of these systems and designing for their mutual benefit. Since there is no such thing as “pristine, untouched nature,” the question shouldn’t be about whether or not we touch the environment, but rather “how do we touch it, how do we impact it?”
Urban systems are narratives; they’re novels of incredibly complex, interrelated, Dickensian character.Solnit is encouraged by new directions in urban design and architecture that respond more fully to what “people want, how they actually live, how they move around — rather than saying, here’s this exciting machine for living that you will now inhabit.” But she warns of the long shadow of the design and planning fields’ legacy of “utopian ideas that turn out not to be how people actually want to live or how they actually use space.”
Preoccupation with experience and what Shepard frames as “the flows — some visible, some invisible — that synthesize to create what we experience as place” is central to much of Solnit’s work, especially so with her atlases of San Francisco, New Orleans, and New York (forthcoming). Her approach to mapping and description of place celebrates the interconnectivity that’s central to a fresh and productive relationship with our surroundings, a perspective that embraces her understanding that “buildings … are like words, but urban systems are narratives; they’re novels of incredibly complex, interrelated, Dickensian character.”
I started doing atlases because I loved maps. I felt like there was a possibility of describing cities as a place of infinite co-existences and overlaps … and to revive what happens with paper maps when they’re beautiful, when they’re imaginative, when they’re unpredictable.
It was partly a revolt against Google Maps. … All they show you is transit, and restaurants. … So it’s a map of getting around and buying shit, which is just so reductive. There are no butterfly migration routes; there are no historic queer sites — things that I put on my maps. … The way people use online mapping is essentially to subjugate themselves to an authoritarian voice. …
But there is this deep desire to be locally grounded and rooted. … Maps and farmers markets and gardens make people really happy. What a lot of people like at farmers markets is not just that you get really good tomatoes, but that you feel like you’re related to the earth, to the farmer. The level of interactions is much higher. It’s friendlier. It’s not alienated. People want that.
Like her recasting of how we view and understand our relationships to place and one another, Solnit advocates a new narrative about where we stand and where we can go as a larger community in order to spur action on climate change. Until now, the story has been “that we’re rich now, and that we’re going to have to be poor.” She urges that “we need to change the story” because, in fact, “we’re very poor now — we’re poor in confidence about the future; we’re poor in community; we’re poor in leisure.”
Look at the ways that we’re poor — that our food is produced in ways that are deeply alienated for both the producers and consumers, that everything is kind of an extractive and exploitive industry. That’s profound poverty. … What would it look like to reframe what wealth is and to see how wealthy we’ll be if we do what we need to do in response to climate change, which is to live in deep relationship to the people around us, to the systems around us, and to play a role in them, whether it’s producing some of our own food, having composting toilets, having long-term relationships with objects rather than disposable ones, being less material-oriented and maybe more social- and creativity-oriented?
With climate specifically, a lot of people are terrified to face it. The analogy for me is, people who won’t face an illness and therefore treat it — how do you get someone to acknowledge that cigarette smoke may lead to cancer, or that now that you have lung cancer, maybe you want to go for some of these harsh but productive treatments that may cause you to survive it.
But I feel like the biggest story we have to tell is that we can change the world profoundly. … We need to tell the story that everything is changing all the time, [that] the world has never been stable … and not to be terrified of change. … We actually get to participate in how it changes, and we can make a change in many ways for the better.
In the same way Solnit sees opportunity in the current specter of climate change, her work documenting how communities respond to disaster, chronicled in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, is illustrative for how capable we may be to confront it.
I did a bunch of research on disaster, and I was really interested in the way the authorities assume we’d revert to barbaric, Hobbesian, each-against-each [behavior] … when in fact, most people are deeply empathic, communicative, resourceful, creative, extremely well-behaved. But it was not just that we behaved nicely, which is often seen as “Oh, we rise to the occasion, and it’s so nice,” but that people deeply yearn for purpose, meaning, solidarity, connection, immediacy. There’s a way a disaster is like a carnival in that it disrupts all ordinary things and draws you into this immediacy. There’s a way in which it reveals everyday life as a disaster of alienation and anomie and meaninglessness for the great majority of people in the industrialized world who essentially make widgets for Widgets Co.
Suddenly, you’re taking care of the seniors, and you’re running the community kitchen, and you’re improvising shelter, or you’re keeping the generators running. … What made me write a book about it was the incredible joy — it was something we don’t even have words for mostly, because we don’t talk about what I call public love. … It was this joy of being engaged in a way that I think hunter-gatherers and villagers often were, and we seldom are, which suggests that if only we can rename where we are now as disaster — and some of the things that need to change as not-disaster (the disaster of not living in such big houses, of not having as nearly as many private commodities) — then we can really start to make those changes. …
Capitalism and Madison Avenue have bombarded us for decades, telling us we’re stupid, selfish, banal animals who just want to get laid and own lots of stuff and maybe kill things in video games, or maybe kill things in real life, that we have lots of enemies and no connection to anything. The fact that people in disaster are not completely like that, and it makes them happy to not be like that, I think is so indicative of something that’s very deeply embedded in who we are and something very deep about who we want to be.
This abiding faith in our ability and desire to embrace interconnectivity, to take responsibility for actions, and to act with empathy, prompted Shepard to end this discussion on climate and societal change with a question unique among so many conversations on the topic: “I think that’s sounding a note of cautious optimism — is that a mischaracterization?”
Solnit responded, “Optimism I see as this kind of passive sense that things will be fine, just as pessimism assumes things will be terrible no matter what we do. Hope. … I think that there’s some hope.”
Jonathan Tarleton is a writer, activist, and urbanist with aspirations to contribute to a more sustainable and inclusive urban environment. He is an assistant editor at The Architectural League and Urban Omnibus and has made his way to Brooklyn from his roots in Georgia and North Carolina. Follow him @jttarleton.