Jamie Quatro on our Climate in Crisis
An Essay for the #ClimateVisionaries Artists' Project for Greenpeace
by Jamie Quatro
And this, I think, is the particular horror of climate change: entire innocent populations are denatured against their will and they don’t know it...only the humans with the power to do something can recognize the fact that all of it is terribly, terrifyingly dénaturé.
Two weeks before Thanksgiving, my friend Alice and I have lunch. Alice immigrated to Quebec from France when she was eighteen, eventually marrying and settling in the U.S. in her thirties. When I ask if she will celebrate Thanksgiving, she says yes, she always hosts a big meal for friends and neighbors who have nowhere else to go.
“Actually, it’s my favorite holiday,” she says.
“Favorite American holiday?” I ask, to clarify.
“Favorite in general,” she says. “A meal with family and friends, no pressure to buy gifts, no commercialization. The other holidays, especially Christmas, are all”— she makes twist-and-tear gesture, as if wresting the pit from a piece of fruit—“dénaturés. Denatured? Is this a word in English?”
“I’m not sure,” I say.
“It means to tarnish or destroy the true nature of something, so the original no longer exists?”
“Maybe adulterated,” I say. “Or denigrated.”
“Yes, but the French implies something more… sinister, perhaps. Like when something is dead but goes on behaving as if it’s alive. But it’s a sham. A false appearance.”
“We might not have a good translation,” I say.
“I think it would be hard to be religious this time of year,” Alice says. “If I were a Christian, I’d be devastated by what Christmas has become.”
On the drive home I can’t stop thinking about Alice’s dénaturé. Something dead that goes on behaving as if it’s alive. Like zombies, I think, or ghosts. Later that evening I check Merriam-Webster and discover it is a word in English, derived from the French dénaturer:
2: to deprive of natural qualities: change the nature of: such as
a: to make (alcohol) unfit for drinking (as by adding an obnoxious substance) without impairing usefulness for other purposes
b: to modify the molecular structure of (something, such as a protein or DNA) especially by heat, acid, alkali, or ultraviolet radiation so as to destroy or diminish some of the original properties and especially the specific biological activity
Despite its primary meaning—dehumanize aligns precisely with Alice’s translation—in English, the word seems to have been hijacked by the scientists. Chemistry, biochemistry. I’m in over my head. The only thing I remember from high school chemistry is a mnemonic I created to remember the chemical symbol for iron, FE: A man behind iron bars, upon his release, runs out into the street and shouts, I’m fee! I find myself relying on narrative to understand denaturation. Here’s the best I can do:
A protein is a long strand of amino acids, like a string of beads. During formation, in a process called “translation,” ribosomes read codons in the genes and arrange the amino acids according to those genetic instructions. The protein then undergoes “post-translational modification,” in which additional molecules or atoms are added to the strand. I imagine a cadre of tiny jewelry-makers arranging a strand of wooden beads until the order is just so, adding bits of crystal and glass for bling.
And then the newly created protein does something mysterious and beautiful: it performs a kind of spontaneous origami, folding in on itself to become a highly-ordered, three-dimensional structure. The molecule’s hydrophobic elements are buried deep inside the structure, while the hydrophilic elements remain on the outside. In its natural state, the protein remains soluble.
Denaturation involves the alteration of this original shape. When an external stress is applied to a protein molecule—heat, say, or acid, or salt—its native state is compromised. The folded structure becomes disordered, uncoiling randomly. The hydrophobic elements are exposed.
Boiled egg whites, I learn, are a classic example of a denatured protein, as is ceviche, and the skin on curdled milk.
Dénaturer: adultérer, falsifier, défigurer, déformer, fausser.
A few days after my lunch with Alice, my daughter calls from her dorm across town. “Have you seen the pictures from Venice? People are wading through churches. Like, St. Mark’s Basilica is underwater.” I hear the throat-catch in her voice that means she’s trying not to cry. She spent May term studying abroad in Italy—Venice was her favorite place.
I haven’t seen the news, but I try to reason with her. “Venice is used to flooding,” I say. “One hundred islands in a giant lagoon! The city has been sinking for years. They’re water-savvy, the Venetians, I’m sure they have systems in place—”
“It doesn’t work yet,” my daughter says. “Google it, you’ll see.”
I do, and learn that, at over six feet, the current acqua alta is the second-highest flood in recorded history. What “doesn’t work yet” is a hydraulic barrier system called MOSE (an acronym that also alludes to Moses), designed to isolate the Venetian lagoon from the rest of the Adriatic Sea. MOSE has been in the works for sixteen years and is nowhere near finished. The design is based on outdated technology, its critics claim: the gates are designed to be closed an average of ten times per year, but rising sea levels mean it will have to be closed more frequently. One estimate says a fifty-centimeter sea level rise would necessitate closing the gates 350 times per year, or an average of once a day.
Currently, the estimated cost of completion is 5.5 billion euros; to maintain the system once it’s completed will cost 100 million euros a year.
The acqua alta photos are lovely, despite the ruin: a priest in black robes stands knee-deep in the crypt of St. Marks, holding a prayer book and rosary over the rising turquoise; a blond woman with water to her mid-thighs wades along the street, smiling, holding the hand of a girl in a bright blue jacket with water up to her waist; a couple sits at a bar, the bottom half of their stools buried in water. One shot in particular captivates me: an empty villa with a heavy gold velvet curtain in the foreground, drawn up gracefully with a magenta cord so that its hem is just above water. The image suggests a woman in Victorian dress at the seaside, lifting her skirts only high enough to feel the water swirl about her ankles.
Videos of the MOSE system show giant yellow skateboarding ramps rising up out of the water in rows—benevolent leviathans rearing their heads to protect the city at high tide. Genius. If any city knows how to keep hydrophilia and hydrophobia in balance, Venice is it.
I write to my friend Meera Subramanian, author of A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis. Meera and I taught together, two summers ago, in the Sewanee School of Letters. Now she’s the Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and Humanities at Princeton University, and the Society of Environmental Journalists Board President.
JQ: When did you realize that climate change was happening now and not in some distant moment?
MS: I was standing before the remains of someone’s home, and it was a spectacularly sunny and calm day in the spring of 2013 and there was sand on the road which ends at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean a few hundred feet away. There was nothing left but the foundation of the house. The rest had been swept hundreds of feet away and dropped in a watery field of phragmites six months earlier, when Hurricane Sandy hit Staten Island, NY, killing 43 people, including people in the neighborhood where I stood next to the empty foundation amid a scattering of objects.
There was a frame without a picture. There was a rake. There was a toy Army truck and a rusted flint fire starter. A woman slack with the knowledge that her father had drowned in his basement, trying to make the sump pump work.
Let me be clear: climate change did not cause Hurricane Sandy, but it amplified its effects. These homes, and the people within them, were always vulnerable to storms, but the storms today are fueled by warmer oceans, a warmer atmosphere, seas that are rising. That story, for Orion, explored the way that we can tap into the power of nature to try to protect ourselves from the changes underway, but there is also the need to recognize that we will have to give up some of the places we love. (Elizabeth Rush explores this beautifully in her book Rising.)
Objets Dénaturés: an incomplete list
- Armadillos in Sewanee
- Underwater Sabal Palm, St. Catherine’s Island, GA
- Decomposing albatross chicks on Midway, abdomens stuffed with plastic bottle caps
- Starving reindeer in arctic Sweden; possible extinction of Sami herding lifestyle
- Camel gastrolith, Arabian desert
- Ground beef in my freezer; plastic boxes of moist wipes on toilet, plastic pen I am currently writing with, plastic iPhone case. Plastic credit cards in plastic sleeve on back of plastic iPhone case. The need to purchase Christmas gifts. The fucking ease of doing it on fucking Amazon Prime
- Amazon deforestation
 Spotted as road kill, summer 2013; spotted ambling past Women’s Center, summer 2015. Live sightings have increased in subsequent summers.
 Tree originally tucked safely behind dunes. Over time, coastal erosion—caused by combination of rising seas, sand-starvation from anthropogenic modification of the shoreline currents, and normal erosion/accretion dynamics—fells tree. Palm is now dozens of meters out to sea. (Tree sounds recorded with hydrophone by George David Haskell, who describes the palm’s “atonal panic, sensory tumult that overwashes all else…Prospero’s rough magic and roaring war.”)
 Guilt unsustainable. Will likely go on purchasing and using plastic. Will likely buy gifts, other than books—commitment to support local independent bookstore remains firm—from Amazon Prime. (NB: ground beef purchased for college-age sons.)
Here is how I imagine a protein molecule in its native state: a strand of glistening spheres twisted up on itself, each sphere covered in tiny hydrophilic figures—cartoon minions in Victorian swimsuits, arms extended, ready to meet the onslaught of waves.
If I knew a biochemist, this is the stupid question I would ask: why do proteins retain their hydrophobic elements, if those elements have to be stashed away inside the folded structures? Why hasn’t evolutionary adaptation simply sloughed them off during the translation process?
What a stupid question, the biochemist would say.
I ask a yogi instead.
Ah, the yogi says. All living things need both—insolubility and solubility—in order to survive. It isn’t a question of either/or, but a question of timing. When to stand firm and repel, and when to soften, open wide the arms, and bid welcome.
JQ: Hi Meera! Can you tell me about any recent developments addressing climate change —new technologies, grass-roots movements, youth organizations, political legislation? What are you excited about?
MS: I’m writing to you as COP25 is underway in Madrid. I am skeptical that some….I almost wrote ground-breaking, but we need to stop breaking ground to extract what’s underneath. How about: I am skeptical that some sky-seeking, enforceable, global contract to truly transform the way we support human life emerges. BUT. Something is happening. There is a waif of a girl turning 17 in the first week of 2020 and she is the tip of a generational iceberg that is speaking up, that will — I hope — vote. There is a McKinsey & Company report framed as a wake-up call to CEOs.
What holds us back is what is within: our own human inability to recognize the scale of the problem, our unwillingness to make substantive changes to how we live. Our reluctance to begin the process of letting go of the familiar. Our gullibility when sowers of doubt spread their seed.
Sowers of doubt. An hour ago my daughter invited a friend over for pizza. They’d just finished finals and turned in their last papers, and the friend looked bemused to see The Mother pecking at her laptop, books and notebooks spread out on the dining table.
“What are you working on?” the friend asked.
“Mom’s a writer,” my daughter said. “She’s trying to raise awareness about climate change.”
“My dad hates that term, climate change,” the friend said. “He says the climate has always been changing and we just don’t know it because no one was recording the weather. He thinks climate scientists are blowing things out of proportion.”
“What would they have to gain, by doing that?” I asked.
“My dad says the Democrats use them to distract people from the more important issues,” the girl said.
“Do you think your dad would say that, as Christians, we should be stewards of the planet?”
“Mom, it’s okay,” my daughter said. She could tell I was about to launch. I had to remind myself this girl was only parroting what her parents told her. I took a break from writing and sat with them. I showed them the decomposed albatross chicks, the flooding in Venice, the MOSE walls rising out of the water. I showed them pictures of bleached coral in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
“Wow,” the friend said. “They need to get a bunch of boats out there and load up all that trash.”
“Yeah, but where would the boats take it?” my daughter said.
“I didn’t think about that,” the friend said.
Giant insects from outer space, ravenous lions, tornados swirling houses into the sky—terrifying, but only behaving according to their natures. The particular horror of ghosts and zombies, I think, lies not in their ability to terrify, but in the fact that they were once human: babies carried and birthed and loved by human mothers. They represent the particular horror of something good gone very, very wrong. They’re dead but don’t know it. They go on acting alive.
And this, I think, is the particular horror of climate change: entire innocent populations are denatured against their will and they don’t know it. Armadillos go on being armadillos and don’t realize they’ve migrated to places they were never meant to live; mother albatrosses go on feeding their babies plastic lids, the babies go on dying, the cycle repeats; camels eat plastic bags and starving reindeer keep searching for grass beneath the ice, and only the humans with the power to do something can recognize the fact that all of it is terribly, terrifyingly dénaturé.
Only the purely good can become dénaturé in the sinister sense.
Aquinas: “It must be said that by the name of evil is signified the absence of good.” (Summa Theologica 1.48.1)
JQ: Meera! In your opinion, what will it take to get white, evangelical, single-issue voters (abortion, same-sex marriage) to make climate change their single issue?
MS: It will take voices, from within the community, speaking up. Many of America’s white evangelical voters inhabit a world that is truly on the frontlines of climate change across rural America, many with livelihoods connected to the land in ways that secular urbanites can’t even begin to understand. Farmers, ranchers, the people that sustain so many others. But, too often, even the phrase climate change remains forbidden in their territories.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents 45,000 local churches, acknowledged climate change and the disproportional impact on the poor and vulnerable years ago with their report, “Loving the Least of These: Addressing a Changing Environment.” What is missing is the message from the pulpit. But as the impacts of climate change are increasingly felt, directly and devastatingly, I imagine the conversations among people of faith will increase. As I worked on the series Finding Middle Ground for InsideClimate News, about perceptions of climate change across conservative America, most everyone recognized the changes underway, but seemed hamstrung about speaking up about it. But one story focused on the young evangelicals who are breaking ranks from their parents’ views and breaking the silence.
And it won’t take that many voices. RepublicEn is an organization working for conservative climate leadership and its managing director Alex Bozmoski estimates that if each congressperson heard from just 100 of their constituents, they’d feel like they could act on climate. “That’s 5000 voters,” he said. “That’s nothing. We can do that.”
Italy’s government declares a state of emergency.
How to engineer a planet that is both hydrophilic and hydrophobic? How will we know when to protect, when to soften? Can we become dénaturés enough to adapt to climate shifts and rising sea levels, but not so much that we dehumanize the populations affected by our longtime failure to act?
How long will it be before the seas rise so high that even Venice is dénaturée?
In December we install an electric fireplace on the first floor of our townhouse in downtown Chattanooga. It’s our first winter in the home. We moved from Lookout Mountain in part to eliminate the constant driving up and down, and to save on utilities. So far we haven’t needed to use the heat on the second or third floors, but the tiny living room on the first floor stays cold. Instead of using the central heat, we decide to try the fireplace, which is really just a space heater. The tiny plug-in unit with its fake LED flames emits barely enough hot air to reach the couch directly across from it.
Yet a week after we install the fireplace, my English Ivy, robust for eight months in its spot near the window, begins to turn brown. Did the slight alteration in temperature—even though we can’t detect it—kill my plant? Would it have died anyway?
The application of heat to protein molecules. Strands uncoiling into random shapes. I keep the soil moist, but each morning I pluck more dead leaves from the dangling strands.
As we begin this critical new year in the fight against climate change, Greenpeace is giving over space on our channels to authors and artists working within the climate crisis. Acclaimed author Lauren Groff prompted artists and thinkers to write essays and art about climate change for us, and so every day this month we’ll have a new piece from that project that addresses, in some form, what it means to create in the midst of this crisis. The forces fueling climate change have the most powerful networks in history pumping out their devastating propaganda at unimaginable scale. It’s going to take everything we have from all of us – imagination equal to the task – to create the climate we’ll need to stop the crisis.
We need these voices and these visions, but they won’t be enough. We need you, too. We encourage you to check back on the Climate Visionaries Artists’ Project every day to see what’s new, and to join the conversation by sharing your work on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram and tagging it #ClimateVisionaries.