Jenny Offill on our Climate in Crisis
An Essay for the #ClimateVisionaries Artists' Project for Greenpeace
by Jenny Offill
Wait, I thought. People have always talked about the end of the world, but you know who hasn't been in that end-timer bunch before? Scientists. Why are the scientists so scared?
Why I Write About Climate Change
For a long time, I let my best friend worry it for the both of us. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in it or wasn’t worried about it, I just had no idea what I should do. And besides I was a hypocrite. I liked to eat meat and drive my car and fly in planes. Who was I to hold forth on any of this?
I also suspected it was dull as dishwater to write about these things. Weren’t most political novels tedious and didactic? I’d written about extinction in my first novel, but that was animals and birds, not some slow-moving, weirdly boring carbon emissions apocalypse.
But my friend, Lydia Millet, who has written twelve novels to my three always wrote about these things and somehow managed to make questions about the fate of the earth and the creatures it contained incredibly interesting. Years ago, she had moved to the Sonoran desert to work at a non-profit devoted to endangered species protection. Because of this she always knew the worst news before anyone else did.
Ok, doom and gloom me, I would say and she’d tell me a little about how the new climate was driving grizzly bears north to mate with polar bears or how thawing permafrost might release long forgotten plagues. It was fascinating but also abstract to me.
Then in I read an article by the well-known Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding who frequently lectures on sustainability. It contained this section describing what it was like to be at an environmental conference with climatologists.
It’s like belonging to a secret society. Conversations held in quiet places, in cafes, bars and academic halls. Conversations held with furrowed brows and worried eyes. Conversations that sometimes give you goose bumps and shivers, and a sense of the surreal — is this conversation really happening? This is what it’s felt like over the past few years, to spend time with some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists on issues around climate change and sustainability. In public this group generally puts a positive, while still urgent interpretation of their views… But in private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self-reinforcing runaway loops and for civilization’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people.
Wait, I thought. People have always talked about the end of the world, but you know who hasn’t been in that end-timer bunch before?
Why are the scientists so scared?
I wanted to know and so I went down the climate change rabbit hole. Seven years later, I’m still trying to get out.
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.