Storytelling and the Climate Crisis

Contemporary writers and activists have described the climate crisis as, in part, a crisis of the imagination, of culture, and of storytelling. Recorded on March 11, 2024, this panel featured a group of authors and scholars of different genres — science fiction, journalism, history, literary fiction, and comedy — discussing how the climate crisis has impacted their craft and what practices of storytelling have to offer us at this pivotal moment in human history. This panel was co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Department of English, the Department of History, and the Berkeley School of Journalism.


Daniel Gumbiner is a novelist and editor based in Oakland. His first book, The Boatbuilder, was nominated for the National Book Award. His new novel, Fire in the Canyon, was published by Astra House in 2023. He is the Editor of The Believer.


Annalee NewitzAnnalee Newitz is a science fiction writer and science journalist. They are the author of nine books including, most recently, the science fiction novel The Terraformers. They are a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times, a columnist in the The New Scientist, and the co-host of an award-winning podcast, Our Opinions Are Correct.


Aaron Sachs is a professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University. He is the author of several books, most recently, Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight against Climate Change (NYU Press, 2023).


Rebecca SolnitRebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist, and a graduate of the Berkeley School of Journalism. She has written more than twenty books, including Orwell’s RosesHope in the DarkMen Explain Things to MeA Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster; and A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Together with Thelma Young Lutunatabua, Solnit edited the 2023 collection Not too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility.


Rebecca Herman (moderator) is associate professor in the History Department at UC Berkeley and author of Cooperating with the Colossus (Oxford University Press, 2022). She is currently working on a book about the unlikely ban on mining in Antarctica, told through the stories of the military wives and children, artists, writers, activists, soldiers, and scientists who traveled South in growing numbers during the 1970s and 80s.


Podcast and Transcript

Listen to this event below, or on Google Podcasts or Apple Podcasts.


[WOMAN’S VOICE] The Matrix Podcast is a production of Social Science Matrix, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of California, Berkeley.

[JULIA SIZEK] Hello, everyone. Welcome. I’m Julia Sizek. I am the postdoc here at Social Science Matrix. And it is my pleasure to welcome you all today for this lovely panel that we are about to have on storytelling and climate change, which is perhaps not as lovely as a topic as I think the panel will be. So our lovely panelists will hopefully bring us some redeeming hope in this time that is not always as optimistic as we would like.

And on this optimistic note, we would love for you to support our panelists and the books all of them have written. So we have a sampling of some of them up here, if you want to just peruse, but we also have put some QR codes up if you want to support independent bookstores and purchase the books.

Since we are here at Matrix, it is my obligation to tell you about some of our upcoming events that we will be having in the next couple of weeks. So if you are interested in California issues, on Monday we will be having an event about the conservatorship system in California, which as you may know, is a system through which people are conserved and put under court order to basically get their lives together.

But this system is both coercive for many and can also work to help people with issues like drug addiction. For those of you interested in climate change issues, next week we will also be having an event on Greening infrastructure that will be featuring the work of some of our most promising graduate students here.

It’s always a pleasure to have graduate students be an important part of these conversations that we have. And then on next Thursday, the Berkeley journalism school will be hosting an event that will also feature one of our panelists here Rebecca Solnit, on Thursday, March 21.

So those are just some of the upcoming events. You can also find more at our website, which is

So now, without any further ado, I’m going to introduce Rebecca Herman who is one of our Matrix 2023-2024 faculty Fellows, and also an excellent writer in her own right. Her first book Cooperating with the Colossus was published by Oxford University just in 2022 the book is really an interesting look at a topic that we don’t view as being a communitbased History Project, which is about the process of US military basing around Latin America.

More relevant to our topic today, Rebecca is currently working on some environmental issues in Antarctica, and I invite you to ask her about them. They’re very interesting. And so with that, I will hand it over to Rebecca and eventually to our panelists.


[REBECCA HERMAN] Thanks. All right. Thank you all for joining us, especially on this spectacularly sunny day. I always wonder how the sun might impact turnout at an event, no matter how compelling the event is. Thanks also to my panelists for being here. I’ve been really looking forward to this for months.

So in recent years, prominent writers, scholars and activists like Amitav Ghosh, Adrienne Maree Brown, Mary Hegler and Rebecca Solnit, among others, have been calling our attention to the work that storytelling can do in the face of the climate crisis.

If for a long time writers and activists were focused much of their energy on convincing the public that human made climate change was happening, now that they’ve mostly succeeded in that task, narrative and story are freed up to do all sorts of other things. And so part of the question that I’m eager to hear from the writers on this panel about is, what can and should they do?

The panel brings together four writers who work in and across different genres. We’ve got comedy, history, science fiction, science journalism, literary fiction and nonfiction essays, to share with us concretely how climate change has impacted their work and the particular promise and strengths the different narrative forms present for connecting with people around climate.

So the format of today’s event– bless you –will be pretty straightforward. I’ve asked each of the panelists to come up and speak casually for about 10 minutes, and then we’re going to open things up to the question, two questions from the audience. And before we kick off, I’m going to briefly introduce all four of them so that they can come up in succession.

Did my mic just do something? It’s sort of in and out. OK. All right.

So I was saying the format. All right. And then I’m going to introduce them all at once, that’s right. So between the four of them they’ve published over 40 books. So if I gave a really comprehensive introduction, you will be here listening to me all day.

So I’m going to say a little bit about them and then all four of them had a new book come out in 2023 that are all relevant to this topic. So I’m going to say a few words about each of the 2023 books, which you can link to through the QR code up here, and then we also have copies of them that you can check out up here after the panel.

And we decided you’re going to go in the order that you’re sitting right. First up we’re going to have Aaron Sachs, who’s a professor of History and American Studies at Cornell University. And his 2023 book is Stay Cool, Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change. And I suspect we’ll hear more about this book in a minute.

But in the book he observes that the environmental movement has been, quote, “the least funny social movement that’s ever existed,” and he draws on the historical importance of dark comedy for other communities that have faced horrific oppression and dark times, to make a case for why comedy can contribute to the fight against climate change.

After Aaron, we’re going to hear from Rebecca Solnit, who is a writer, historian and activist and a graduate of Berkeley’s Journalism School. She has written more than 20 books, so she did a lot of heavy lifting with that overall book count, including Orwell’s Roses, Hope in the Dark, Men Explain Things to me, A Field Guide to Getting Lost.

Her 2023 book is a co-edited volume with Thelma Young Lutunatabua. Is that correct? Called Not Too Late, Changing the Climate Story From Despair to Possibility, which brings contributions from a number of important voices in this space, including several that I mentioned at the beginning.

Then we’ll have Annalee Newitz, who’s a graduate of Berkeley as well of the English department, a science fiction writer, a science journalist and co-host of the podcast Our Opinions are Correct.

Their the author of nine books. The Four on the website is an unforgivable typo and I publicly apologized. Most recently, the science fiction novel The Terraformers, which is the 2023 book, although they have a book coming out imminently also, but not on display. Not currently on display.

The Terraformers came out in 2023, and that book takes readers to the year 59,006 and beyond, to the planet of Sask-E where the novel’s protagonists are preparing the planet for settlement when the book begins.

My own anxiety about climate change has required me to eliminate dystopian books from my diet. And so The Terraformers is a really, for me was a breath of fresh air to read and a great example of the way science fiction can engage with climate questions.

And then we have Daniel Gumbiner, who’s a novelist based in Oakland and the editor of the magazine The Believer, also a Berkeley grad from the English department. His first book The Boat Builder was nominated for the National Book Award, and his new novel Fire in the Canyon came out in 2023 with Astra House.

The book is about a California family living in the foothills dealing with all sorts of things that California families deal with, including now the ravages of, and perpetual anxiety created by wildfire. So I’m really so thrilled to have these four panelists with us. And I’ll turn it over to Aaron. You’re up first.

[AARON SACHS] Well, thank you so much, Becca, for the invitation and for organizing this. And thanks also to the other panelists. It’s really a privilege to be here with you. I’ve also been very excited about this for months. And thank you all for being here.

So in dark times like I think we’re living through right now, I feel as though we need to draw on all the different coping strategies that human beings have developed over the millennia. I think I’m on this panel and that was just confirmed, because of the work that I’ve done on comedy and I promise that I will get to that.

But first I actually wanted to mention a couple of other forms of storytelling that have been important through the ages and that I have found myself turning to quite a bit over the last several years of my ongoing midlife crisis. And those are music and religion.

I’m very lucky to have been married to someone for almost 25 years now, who is, among other things, a semi-professional singer and for the last decade or so she’s been part of a multiracial choir called The Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers.

Some of you probably know Dorothy Cotton. She was a civil rights activist and educator, worked very closely with Dr. King, and wound up spending the last few decades of her life in Ithaca, where I live. The Jubilee Singers specialize in Negro spirituals and also do some gospel.

And I feel like I can testify, having gone to dozens of their shows at this point, that their audiences and I really think this is true, no matter what is going on in the world or if it’s not too presumptuous to say, no matter what’s going on in their personal lives, they leave the auditorium visibly uplifted.

And this happens to me as well, and it’s kind of shocking every time because I’m a Jew from Boston and never in a million years could I have predicted that I would eventually find solace in songs that are almost entirely about Jesus.

I should acknowledge that I was raised as a reform Jew, which is basically the same as Unitarian. Religion was always somewhat important to me, but really for what I would call secular reasons.

So for instance, Passover was my favorite holiday because it really it was an excuse for our extended family to get together and have a giant feast, and also because it is a holiday that is largely about storytelling.

The Passover Seder exists in order for Jews to take time out every year and repeat, retell the story of the escape from slavery in Egypt. And I found that quite moving, and over time extremely comforting.

And there’s one particular passage. This is from Exodus, chapter 14, for those of you keeping track, that has become particularly important to me in recent times. And I thought– it’s very short, I thought I would just share it with you since it’s almost spring, almost the season of Passover and I really find it to be very powerful storytelling. It goes like this.

“And so in the middle of the night the Jews arose and fled with their unleavened bread and whatever else they could carry. And they continued all the next day and into the night, and began to feel it was safe to rest. But then they came to the shore of the Red Sea and it ran high and fast and they could not cross.

And they looked behind them and saw Pharaoh’s army bearing down for the Lord had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And then the leaders of the Jews looked up at the heavens and said, seriously?” This is the King James version.

“Seriously? What was the point of helping us escape if we were just going to die here in the wilderness. Were there not enough grave sites in Egypt?” that’s actually in the Bible, you can check. Serious.

And of course, the amazing thing as you all know, is that the Lord appreciated the joke, parted the waters and the Jews crossed to safety, which just goes to show, if you’re really good at Gallows humor, you can control sea levels, which could come in handy.

  1. So now we’re at the Comedy part. I started thinking about comedy in connection to climate change mostly because I was depressed and all of my students were depressed. And this was true from the moment I started teaching Environmental History, which is back in 2005.

I had to grapple with the question of how to present this rather difficult material without making all of us in the room feel worse. At the time, my main strategy was to focus on hope. I actually assigned Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark, which had just come out in 2004. On display.

And I talked a lot, as Rebecca also often talks a lot, about the uncertainty and contingency of history, how history shows that nothing is predictable, nothing is inevitable. It all depends on how people choose to act, which means that we always have the power to reshape society through our collective action.

That helped for a little while. Then after a few years, this is when my midlife crisis really kicked in, I really felt I was losing hope, in part because I was dealing with both parents getting Alzheimer’s disease. This is when I really started to appreciate comedy.

Because when you start to lose the people best to something like brain damage, you have to laugh at the ridiculous things that they say. And I think I can say, from my own experience, that your loved ones will respond much better if you laugh than if you look horrified, which you are often tempted to do unfortunately.

It was my friend Jenny Price– and if you don’t know Jenny’s work, she has a book called Stop Saving the Planet! Exclamation Point, which is very fun to check out I would recommend it. Jenny helped me connect the personal and the political in this case and see that the kind of comedy I was relying on to cope with what was happening with my parents could actually also help in the context of the climate crisis.

Her main approach had to do with communication. We could get our message across better if we delivered it with a smile, instead of a sneer or a grimace. And I agreed completely, as did a number of social scientists who were just then beginning to publish studies suggesting that humor was more activating to people than, say, fear mongering. Not a shock, but the studies helped.

These social scientists also tended to emphasize that we should use what they referred to sometimes as good natured humor, so jokes that felt relatively safe and cheerful. And that also made sense to me. Although, I personally felt that what I needed was something a little bit darker.

And in addition to that, by, let’s say the mid-20 teens, it started feeling to me like the real challenge for environmentalists was no longer convincing people that climate change was coming for us, but rather dealing with the overwhelming despair that many people were starting to feel because it had become clear to them that climate change was already here.

So that’s when I started looking more deeply into the history of dark comedy and started realizing how apt gallows humor could be for this current moment. It turns out, and Becca referred to this at the beginning, that people in the Western world have been relying on jokes, and especially people who have experienced oppression, have been relying on jokes for thousands of years to gain some purchase, just a little purchase on their horrifying realities.

One of the great scholars of gallows humor named Antonin Obrdlik, wrote in 1942 that gallows humor should be understood in his words as an index of strength or morale on the part of oppressed peoples. So this was 1942. Maybe you could tell from his last name, which has four consecutive syllables that he’s Czech, so he’s writing as he put it based largely on experiences in Czechoslovakia following the advent of Hitler.

There is actually quite a lot of Holocaust humor, meaning humor from during the Holocaust, which some people today have a hard time fathoming or accepting, but I think it’s a really important thing to know about. And there’s quite a lot in the book. Prisoners in concentration camps organized variety shows and circuses and cabarets.

There was a group of friends at Treblinka who used to say to each other, hey, don’t eat so much because we’re the ones who are going to have to carry your body out of here, which was a very dark joke because, of course, they had hardly anything to eat at all. It’s also well documented that enslaved African-Americans had a very rich dark comedy tradition.

I’ll just quickly give you one of my favorite examples. So Ike comes into the master bedroom with breakfast one morning and the master says, Ike, I had the strangest dream last night. I went to Black person heaven and I found that the buildings were crumbling and the streets were full of potholes and the people were starving, even though it was heaven.

And Ike says, yeah, that is strange. But I’ll tell you, I had an even stranger dream last night. I dreamed that I went to white person heaven and the buildings were beautiful and the streets were paved with gold, but there wasn’t a single person there. Imagine that, nobody made it to white person heaven.

So it makes perfect sense to me that young people are starting to hold up signs at climate marches saying things like “I was hoping for a cooler death.” And elderly celebrities are doing climate comedy videos where they stare at the camera and say my grandkids are spoiled, anyway. They could use a little hardship.

And stand up comedians are coming up with lines like “bringing kids into this world is scary, so I’m thinking about buying my boys a kayak.” I actually bought two kayaks for my family during the pandemic, as many people did, but honestly, they did not really help. I thought my midlife crisis was bad when my parents were in decline, but now I have three teenagers and that turns out to be even worse.

On the plus side, my kids make me so insane that at least I don’t really have time to worry about the climate crisis anymore. Thank you.


[REBECCA SOLNIT] I always feel that break– well, in journalism we were trained to talk about breaking stories, which is always being the first person to tell a story. I also love the phrase in terms of breaking stories that trap us, that stall us out, that point us in the wrong direction, that prevent us from seeing stories that are cages instead of doors.

And I think there’s something on the left that happens a lot, which is the rhetoric, like, “we need to start tomorrow,” which is always assuming it’s not yet– nobody’s doing anything. It’s not happening yet.

We haven’t done a damn thing. And so just because some of you may be slightly left in this crowd, I thought I would just mention that I think my basic premise is we have a lot of new stories that have really evolved in my lifetime, radical transformation from the mainstream stories, even 30 years ago where Indigenous, or 35 years ago, where Indigenous people were almost completely written out.

People used to talk about the nature culture divide, as though there were two co-equal and separate spheres, et cetera. So our new stories are seedlings. They need to be watered and tended and seed collected and promulgated, but they’re here.

Fredric Jameson famously remarked “someone once said it is easier to imagine the end of the world than imagine the end of capitalism.” I’d like to paraphrase that to say that some people find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of the fossil fuel industry,” even though the industry is in real dire straits right now, as my friend Antonio Juhasz, one of the country’s most brilliant oil policy analysts, told me last week.

So every crisis is in part a storytelling crisis, and that’s as true of the climate crisis as anything ever. A lot of people, and this is why we produce the book Not Too Late, the website study guide and et cetera, Thelma and I. So a lot of people don’t know the essential things they should, or should have been told, including that we have the solutions, we know what to do.

The climate movement has achieved a lot, which is not the same thing as enough, obviously, and won many victories, including perhaps the most significant victory of all, awakening the public to the nature of the crisis, its urgency and creating a majority population in this country and across much of the world that is eager to see action in response to climate change money spent, et cetera.

The whole idea that nobody cares is not really there. And to break another story, we’re often told that our job is to convert the climate denialists, which is A, a complete waste of time because it doesn’t work. B, they’re not very large or important. And C, I think the real job is always not to convert our enemies but to motivate our allies.

We have what we need. We just need to activate it, at least in terms of people who agree with us. So some of the storytelling problems are specific to climate, some are larger problems of imagination. By problems of the imagination I mean that the ways a lot of people imagine power and change are, well, disempowering.

We all get handed a version in which power resides in a very few people an elite of officials and the wealthy and highly visible, but change often begins in the shadows and the margins, among people who are not yet known or may never who may also be marginalized or dismissed or low status. This is true of every human rights movement and a lot of environmental and climate movements and campaigns.

It’s also true that ideas are very powerful and they almost always– all the good the progressive ideas, the ideas that have made the world better, begin in the margins in the shadows and move towards the center. People in the center are blinded by the spotlights on them. But we don’t have to be.

And so when it comes to this migration of ideas, I think of it as a reminder that ideas are powerful, which should fortify anybody doing work in the Social Sciences and Humanities at a University, despite the fact that so many departments are being dismantled and we’re so often told what we do doesn’t matter.

But back to power, the easy thing to see is the end of a campaign when a president mouths a new value, a court hands down a constructive decision, a legislative body passes a good law. Change ended there. It didn’t begin there and the news stories often forget the long journey of a good idea.

Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. But whichever way it bends, because it bends and we’ve seen a lot of bending in the other direction lately, whichever way it bends, you have to be able to see the arc. And I’m pretty sure by arc he meant a gradual curve, not a sudden angle as if history took a sharp left. Although, sometimes it does.

So I’m seeing it as sudden because change has been going on all along, but you finally recognize it. The expectation that change will be swift and the failure to perceive it when it’s not, impacts politics and public culture for the worse. A common source of uninformed despair is when a too brief effort doesn’t bring a desired result or when one loss becomes the basis for someone to decide winning is impossible and just quit.

It says that if you tossed a coin once and decided it always comes up tails, so you shouldn’t bother. The best movie I’ve seen about all this is a 2022 documentary called To the End. It traces the creation of the Sunrise Movement, the US climate organization for people under 30 started in 2018, and their launch of the Green New Deal, showing how it influenced the Biden campaign’s climate platform deserves credit for build back better.

And finally, yes, in reduced and compromised form, but still cross the finish line in August of 2022, after most of us have had given up on it as the Inflation Reduction Act. That is by taking only a five year time frame, it shows what ended up as a huge piece of legislation began as young idealists nobody had ever heard of dreaming of change, and by tracing that trajectory shows that young people grassroots campaigns and good new ideas have power.

The short term version gives you politicians giving us nice things. The long term version shows you movements shifting what’s considered possible, reasonable and necessary, setting the stage and creating the pressure for these events offering a truer analysis of power.

There’s a wonderful scene in To the End in which Alex O’Keefe, then creative director of the Sunrise Movement, declares as he unloads a station wagon, “people who do nothing, people who have not even canvassed or anything, they start critiquing your strategy to win. But how are you going to win? What’s your strategy? Is it realistic? Can we win?

Who cares if we win, man? We’re just unpacking boxes. You do things step by step.” His patient commitment to do what comes next, including unpack the car, the next thing and the next thing and the next thing, because that’s how campaigns work. Reminds me of Greta Thunberg’s famous– I guess I’m only reading famous almost cliched statements in this talk, but I put it together this morning.

–of Greta Thunberg’s famous 2019 declaration “avoiding climate breakdown will require cathedral thinking. We must lay the foundation while we may not know exactly how to build the ceiling.” And that encodes a story that tells us two really beautiful important things, as I understand it. One is that addressing the climate crisis is a long term project calling for many kinds of labor, as building a cathedral was. You may only have one brick to contribute to it, but a million people with one brick is a pretty big structure.

The other is that we must work towards a post-fossil fuel world, knowing that the solutions are continuing to evolve. For example, solar and wind were expensive, utterly inadequate technologies at the beginning of this Millennium, but are now cheap, effective and being implemented at a dizzying rate while battery storage and materials are also evolving at an astonishing speed.

A lot of people are still kind of stuck in the early Climate Movement Era where we didn’t really have any solutions, except austerity, energy conservation, fucking compact, fucking fluorescent light bulbs, et cetera. We’ve moved beyond them, thank God.

So people often imagine the future as a version of the present in which something already obvious expands, rather than one in which wholly new actors, movements, ideas, technologies values, may change the rules.

I spent a lot of last year saying that, while it is very hard to imagine the year 2073– and I have to update this, but I’m more familiar with 1973 than 1974, so bear with me. Well, it’s very hard to imagine the year 2073 now, nobody in 1973 could imagine 2023 in all its radical difference, both wonderful and horrible, from where we were then.

But all the good things we’ve gained are because people fought for them, campaigned for them, organized for them for enviornmental protection that was inseparable from the radically bigger, deeper, more widespread environmental knowledge intelligence, awareness since then. Fought as the burgeoning Queer Rights Movements, Indigenous Rights, Latinx Rights, Asian-American Rights and Women’s Rights Movements then.

Even as what those goals should be, what the language should be, what the norms should be, continue to evolve. And the Black Civil Rights Movement served as a model for them all and never stopped. Like them, we must work towards a future we can imagine, but cannot know, and learn along the way. That’s what I think cathedral thinking also means.

And we must learn to tell stories in which some loss is inevitable. Some has already happened with climate chaos, but it does not mean we can give up or that we are going to lose everything. Everything we do matters.

How much time do I have left? OK.

I’ve long found that Americans are so unenthused about uncertainty. They often replace the truth of uncertainty with false certainty, declarations about what is going to happen as though they had the gift of prophecy with a tendency towards doom and gloom and negativity. Optimism, pessimism, cynicism and doomerism, all have this in common.

They assume they know what will happen. And if the future is already decided, then nothing is required of us. Frontline communities facing annihilation don’t generally indulge in this kind of passivity, but the comfortable too often do because it gets us off the hook.

If we already know what’s going to happen, we don’t have to do anything. And for those of us who just go sit on the couch, that’s easy to say if it means your children are going to starve or you’re going to be driven out of your ancestral lands. There’s no sofa there that you can kick back on.

So hope, or my version of it, is just the recognition that the future is unknown because it’s being made in the present by what we do or fail to do. And it’s with a commitment to seize the possibilities, because possibility is another term for uncertainty. You risk failure, but doing nothing is another kind of failure, a nothing ventured, nothing gained kind.

I love the prison abolitionist Mariame Kaba’s aphorism “Hope is a discipline,” because likewise people often confuse hope with confidence and feeling good. There’s a lot of confusion between thought and feeling, particularly around climate, between emotions and ideas, which is why I’ve taken to saying I respect despair as an emotion, but it shouldn’t be confused with an analysis.

You can feel terrible and not surrender as people in desperate circumstances often have and often do. There’s some evidence that the fossil fuel industry loves and supports doomerism and defeatism because it serves their ultimate purposes. So I also want a story of defiance in which we don’t give them what we want. And I want stories that make people spit in their eye and refuse to surrender.

I think here of Timothy Snyder’s admonition in his List of 20 Ways to Resist Authoritarianism, right after Trump was elected. “Do not surrender in advance” was one of them. And I think it’s really important for climate too, do not surrender in advance. And while these are not stories per se, they are the preconditions, the mindsets that make some stories possible to tell or send other stories packing.

Two, we don’t just need technological change crucial, though it is. We need imaginative change. I do not believe we will do what the climate needs us to do out of an abstracted rational analysis.

We will do it out of a heartfelt understanding that everything is connected that burning fossil fuel kills places, species, fellow human beings, social systems, that the world itself is made of systems, not isolated individuals. And to believe that not out of a sense of grim responsibility or obligation, the classic white people guilt way of framing things, but of what Robin Wall Kimmerer describes as reciprocity, a sense of giving back out of gratitude towards the beautiful abundance of what has been given.

The good news is that among, at least some of us, this worldview has been steadily growing the past 30 years, thanks in large part to the people who never lost it, the Indigenous communities whose perspectives have been crucial in the most practical, as well as the most imaginative ways to climate action.

Science itself is now offering aligned stories in which nature is largely socialist, not capitalist, by which I mean it’s driven by mutuality, symbiosis, interdependence and cooperation, not the version of competition so popular with the social Darwinists.

I also believe we’re afflicted by a story pushed hard by right wingers and the fossil fuel industry, that we currently live in an age of abundance. And that doing what the climate requires of us means austerity, sacrifice, renunciation. It definitely means fewer hamburgers, but they’re gross anyway. I get to enter some personal bias here. I have not eaten one in this Millennium. Ew!

There’s a better story to tell in which the great majority of the world’s people live in austerity and poverty now and one in which we’re constantly sacrificing lives, cultures, politics to the deadly literal and political poison that is fossil fuels.

We’ve accepted a dirty smoggy polluted world as so normal it’s hardly perceived. I think of that moment in the pandemic when a huge amount of noise stopped from machines and people suddenly heard birds afresh, and when in Northern India a huge amount of pollution stopped and there were cities seeing the Himalayas in the distance for the first time in decades.

Doing what the climate crisis requires of us could assuage the crisis of hopelessness and despair about the future. Redesigning the world could make a world that’s more accommodating of diverse people, young, old, with disabilities, all income levels. We can make it what we want. We have to radically redesign the world.

If we can lead with good stories, we can redesign it to be a better place for a lot more of us and a more that includes other species and other parts of the world, as well as our own species and our own particular corner of the world.

Rethinking what constitutes wealth could mean shifting from the idea of accumulating wealth and possessions to security in our communities, confidence about our future and a wealth of time, because if we’re not consuming so frantically, we don’t have to produce so frantically. A wealth of time for relationships, including not only social relationships, but relationships to our own interior life and to the natural world and other species.

Finally, I think we need news stories that are not lone individual, rugged manly, hero stories when they’re superhero stories and the hero’s relevant quality, that the Ubermensch quality is the ability to endure and inflict tremendous violence. That’s not actually how the world gets changed.

The world gets changed for the better, largely by people who are patient, tenacious, can inspire others, can draw people together, build alliances, solidarity, find common ground and imagine a better future. Thank you all. I rushed through that because there was a lot.


[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I think the pathway to this podium is part of the dark humor that we’re propagating here. Thank you again for having me. This is really awesome. It’s great to be back in my old academic haunts.

I have kind of a funny career, which requires me to balance between doing science journalism, which is evidence based, where one tries one’s very best to tell the truth and I also write science fiction, where one tries one’s best to lie. And make things up. But I do try to make my science fiction as evidence based as possible as well.

And I want to tell you a little bit about the coming together, but also the clash between those two worlds and the way that we express stories about them. So let me tell you about my summer vacation last summer. I was lucky enough to join a group of environmental scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, which is in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

There’s a couple of Marine Biological labs there actually, the whole town is kind of overrun by scientists. And what we were doing was a group of journalists like myself were joining a team led by the environmental chemist Anne Giblin whose work is terrific. She’s done a lot of investigation of how chemical changes in the tundra in the Arctic are triggering other kinds of cascading effects.

And she also looks at the area around Woods Hole. There’s a Bay there called Waquoit Bay, which has become the subject of a great deal of study of looking at how nitrogen loading in the water leads to deoxygenation, and that leads to fish die-offs. I’m sure those of you who are familiar with environmental crises have heard about this before.

So I go there and I get to tag along with them while they’re doing things that to me are deeply exciting. Like, we get to put on waders, go into the Bay and dig up chunks of algae, and then we put them into a fricking mass spectrometer. I mean, first, we had to dry them out and do a bunch of stuff, you can’t just like throw algae at a mass spectrometer. But I’d never seen a mass spectrometer before. I’d been writing about them for like decades, OK?

And I’m always, like, mass spectrometer, pretty badass. And I saw it, and I literally was freaking out, and the scientists thought that was very cute and they let me kind of stand next to the mass spectrometer. Do not touch. It has a laser in it, so it’s a little bit dangerous.

And to me all of these things were just incredibly exciting. And I kept kind of gushing at them about how this was really amazing. And then somehow it got out among the scientists that I write science fiction, which I had sort of– I had come into this fellowship being like I’m a very serious science journalist. Here are my books that are all science journalism.

And they got so excited and they were, like, we love science fiction. We want to talk to you all about science fiction. And I’m, like, I’m a little embarrassed. I wrote this novel about building ecosystems. It’s quite silly and it’s not what you guys are doing out there with the algae. And they were, like, no, no. Actually science fiction is incredibly important to us.

And in fact, one of the scientists at EMBL, one of the papers he’d published became the basis for Ray Naylor’s novel The Mountain in the Sea. Highly recommend. Great book about octopus cities. And he was just thrilled. He was, like, did you know my article was cited in a fiction book?


It’s, like, that’s not going to get you credit for tenure pal. But they I had a couple of theories about why it was that science fiction got these scientists so excited. And I think part of it is these are environmental scientists who are, of course, constantly thinking about the future. They actually are gathering tons of data and trying to use computer simulations to project into the future how these inputs into the environment are going to continue to change the environment.

That’s their entire job. They’re environmental scientists, so they study change over time, change over long periods of time, as Rebecca was kind of pointing out. These are things that happen on massively long time scales. And so I think that they are in fact, in some ways, engaged in extremely evidence-based acts of science fiction. They’re looking at this sort of speculative future.

The other thing I think that makes environmental scientists interested in science fiction is that environmental science is a very collective practice. You cannot just go out by yourself in one lifetime and study an ecosystem. You have to have someone like Anne Giblin, who’s a chemist. We also had someone with us who studies food webs, so looking at biological relationships between life forms and actually not even just life forms, but also kind of the chemical precursors of life.

And of course, at the Institute itself, there are people who are studying everything from inorganic chemistry to communications, how to communicate with the public. So they’re very used to this idea that tons of people have to come together in order to discover anything. But the problem is that, as a science journalist, and for them I think, as scientists trying to curate their careers, they’re really encouraged to think about great individuals.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to an editor at a major magazine or newspaper and said, I really want to write a story about this group of 10 people who did a thing. And they’re like, yeah, no. Pick a person. There has to be a person who’s like the leader. And hopefully they’ll be hot so we can have a picture of them.

And this is not how anything is done. No such thing as science that’s done by like one hot person and in waders with algae. And so the thing that science fiction can do really well, I think, is actually give us an opportunity to tell stories about collaborations between a number of characters that take place over a long period of time.

And so I want to finish it up in my last couple of minutes here by telling you a tiny bit about my novel The Terraformers, which came out last year, which is about a group of environmental engineers on another planet trying to create novel ecosystems.

There’s a little kink in their plans, which is that they are all, in fact, owned by a interstellar real estate corporation, which develops artisanal handcrafted planets. And they’re developing an Earth like world. So the world is owned by the real estate company, but so are all of the people on the world because they were genetically engineered to be good workers who create these ecosystems.

And the people on this world are not just Homo Sapiens. In fact, Homo Sapiens is kind of a weird identity that you might kind of choose to have, if you have the money. But these are mostly kind of knockoff hominids. And then of course, the major characters in the novel are moose.

There’s a really great moose romance. There’s a romance between a sentient flying train and a cat, who’s an investigative journalist. So this is a world where I did want to have a sense of coziness, cozy humor. It’s not very dark humor, except in some places. But also I wanted to suggest what happens to personhood in the future, if you actually take seriously the idea that our environments and our ecosystems are full of living creatures who all have something to contribute.

And so what I wanted to do with that kind of imaginative world was kind of posed to my reader the question of, what would it look like if you were trying to shepherd an ecosystem and every member of that ecosystem could come to the table and tell you what the fuck they want from you? What if the cows on your farm could say, hey, I’d actually like things to be different?

There is a radical revolutionary cow in my novel, by the way, who does some pretty awesome stuff. And what would happen if we took seriously the requests of moose about where they got to migrate? And so in my novel the basis for this idea of all of these different parts of the ecosystem coming to the table, is a deep seated belief in something that they call the great bargain.

Now remember, this is a novel set in 50,000 years. So there’s a lot of culture that’s happened between now and that future. And the great bargain is the word that they have for the scientific process that has allowed them to speak with non-human animals.

And so there’s all of these non-human animals who are part of this great bargain. And I wanted to allow readers to have that idea in their heads. I mean, I was very deliberate about it. I was like, I want people to think about the great bargain, and how do we get to the great bargain? And how do we think about our relationship with nature or what we call nature? How do we think about our relationship with our ecosystem as a bargain?

Not as us capitulating, not as something capitulating to us, but us entering into a bargain. And it’s a bargain that we keep. And that’s another promise in the novel, is that this bargain is kept, all of the treaties are kept that they make in the book.

And so basically what happens when you write fiction, I’ve found, like The Terraformers, is that I was able to show these communities at work, but also the book takes place over a period of many thousand years. So we’re able to see how an ecosystem evolves, but also how a social movement evolves over time and over the generations, and how the gains made by moose who fall in love in one generation.

How those are passed on to the next generation of people, who set up a fantastic public transit system for the planet and those people pass on their wishes to the next generation, which includes this investigative journalist cay who falls in love with a train and exposes the corruption of the evil corporation that runs their planet.

And maybe that way they’ll have a chance to change things again and seize control of this privately owned nature. Thanks very much for listening.


[DANIEL GUMBINER] Hi, everyone. I’m Daniel. This is so cool. There are so many– I want to talk about so many different points that my fellow panelists have raised, but I’ll try and keep this short, so you guys can ask some questions too. I wanted to talk a little bit about my book Fire in the Canyon, which came out this year and sort of the origins of it and how it came to be.

There are no moose romances, alas. But it’s a contemporary tale about a family living in the Sierra foothills, who are confronting the threat of wildfire. And what happens essentially is that a wildfire moves through their town and it sort of sets in motion this chain of events for these different members of this family, the Hecht family.

And in the book you follow each member of the family and see the way in which the aftermath of the fire affects them. And I think, obviously wildfires are intensely covered in the moment when they occur. There’s lots of journalism. But then in the aftermath it’s a little bit quieter.

And so that to me seemed like the province of a novel, because the story goes on right. People are still there and the story doesn’t stop in the days after the wildfire. So I wanted to explore the emotional experience of what happens after you go through something like that.

And the inspiration really came from returning to California actually. I grew up here, but I was living in Las Vegas for a little while for a job. And when I came back, even in the years that I had been gone, I felt like the shift in the way that wildfires were affecting my friends and family all over the state was so dramatic compared to even like the last few years that I had been gone.

And I was really struck by that, as someone who had grown up here and how different the Summers felt and the Falls. And so I felt a sort of obligation to bear witness to that. And that’s sort of where the impulse to start the story came from. But then, and this is a panel obviously on storytelling, there were these questions that arose and challenges that arose of telling that kind of story.

And I think one of the most difficult things I wrestled with when working on this book was figuring out the lens of it, figuring out how wide the aperture would be essentially, because obviously climate change is a massive subject. It’s a vast subject. It’s sometimes very difficult to even wrap our heads around how much is implicated.

But humans aren’t usually emotionally moved by a sense of vastness they’re usually moved by the particular. We’re hardwired to relate to each other on a personal level. And so I had to figure out a way to tell the story that felt authentic and moving on a personal level, while not feeling like it was also reductive and not taking in the full scope of what the issue actually is.

And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges about writing on Climate Change in any genre, really. And it can be a challenge in nonfiction, but particularly in fiction where you’re often working to try to move the reader and to have them emotionally connect to a story.

And that’s so essential too in fiction, because that’s the work that fiction does, that’s what makes it powerful, is that ability to grab you and emotionally transport you. And so that was one of the challenges. And what I decided to do was to just really zero in on the particular and work from there, and let that expand out into the broader story.

So there’s a very concentrated story in a lot of ways. It’s looking at a very specific thing, but the hope is that it alludes to everything else through that small specific detail. Another one of the challenges was actually thinking about the political in the work. And obviously Climate Change is a highly politicized topic. And in some ways, when I wrote the first draft actually, it didn’t really engage the political that closely.

And there was something about it that felt off to me, which was something that often happens in the process of writing something. There’s something wrong, you don’t know exactly why, but it’s just not sitting right with. You don’t have the answer, but it’s missing something. And for me, it felt like it was sort of coy, in a way, to not engage this the political dimension of this thing, which was so obviously political.

But it also felt like when I tried experiments with incorporating political threads into the story, that it just overwhelmed the personal aspects of it, and kind of drowned it out. And I think that is a particular challenge of writing about climate change, is that balance between letting the political just kind of subsume everything else and still managing to incorporate it in some way.

And so what I ultimately did with regard to that was to basically try to let the political speak through the characters concerns. And that was a really big turning point for me in revising this book, was basically figuring out a way to through the lived concerns of the characters, to speak to some of these issues. And once I did that, it felt like the key had sort of turned in the book and I was seeing it in a different way and it allowed it to feel more honest to me.

The last thing I’ll say is just that I think in writing fiction one of the most important things it can do is create a sense of communion. And I think that’s something that we really, as many of the panelists have alluded to, we really need that sense of neighborliness in this moment.

And I think there’s a way in which we can sometimes feel alienated from our fellow people and feel like we are sort of suffering in isolation with some of these subjects. And it’s so important, I think, in this moment in particular to identify our shared experience with each other.

And so that’s, I think, one of the other things that storytelling can really play a role in this moment, is kind of opening up those conversations, uniting us. One of the most interesting parts of writing this book actually was I did a lot of research for it and that involved talking to a lot of people who had been through different kinds of experiences with wildfire.

And those conversations were so interesting and really varied. But one of the consistent features of them was that everyone really wanted to talk to me. I had sort of gone into it thinking, oh, it’s going to be hard to get people to open up about this. I don’t know if it’s going to be– this might be a challenging research project.

But really the experience was that once people were invited to share, they just really wanted to talk about it. It was on a lot of people’s minds. They didn’t feel like there was a forum for them to express what they had gone through.

And so I think that is something that’s so important in storytelling, to keep our levels up collectively as a group, whether that’s through your own writing storytelling in that regard or whether that’s through private conversations, groups like this. So I think that’s another thing that’s really important and something that storytelling can kind of uniquely– a way in which it can uniquely serve us in this moment. Thanks.


[AUDIENCE MEMBER] How to use one of these things? It sounds like a lot of your exploration on story writing is pushing back against despair.

REBECCA SOLNIT] Are you talking to me or to all of us?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] –a lot of this throughout. No. And I guess I’m thinking of the counterpoint to Aaron’s dark humor, which I love of course. But have we feasted for a long time on stories of despair? Why has despair been our go to disposition? If you have any thoughts on that.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] Do I ever? But I don’t want to hog the time.

That’s a great question.

Say something.

And I think that it serves as status quo, capitalism, commercial culture, et cetera, to tell us we’re consumers, not citizens, that we have very little power, that the power rests in the hands of the mighty, the elite minority to whom we should be very nice to get what we want. I think we don’t have a lot of stuff that familiarizes us with how unpredictable the world is. And I opened with the famous “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.”

And of course, I think, even the end of capitalism frames it as either like everything is capitalism and the only alternative is nothing is capitalism. I think of it more as all of us in our friendships and our passions, if we do volunteer work, donate money to noble causes, et cetera, are doing anti-capitalist things all the time. Gardening is kind of anti-capitalist.

Unless you’re employing a poor person to do it for you. I was just in West Marin where I saw a lot of that. So I think a lot of things work hard against people feeling powerful, confident, relatively at ease with a world. Either people think change is all for the worse or that nothing ever really changes. Usually they believe both of those things at once.

I think, in a sense, it’s like we have bad equipment, equipment that’s poorly adapted to reality and understanding change, understanding power, often understanding how much worse things were. As an old feminist and a longtime climate activist, when Roe versus Wade got overturned, a lot of people were like, oh, feminism is completely rolling backwards.

And it’s like, well, we did have this right for 50 years. I don’t believe we’re never going to get it back. But you broaden the lens to look at Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Ireland, for Catholic countries that all gained abortion rights recently. Or you go back into deep time until the Griswold case came to the Supreme Court and people didn’t have a right to birth control.

The world in which I was born into was so horrifically and brutally unequal for women who were excluded from almost every corridor of power. Marriage was an institution of inequality. So I feel we have a lot of stories where amnesia and despair are closely related, in my view. You can’t know the future, but you can understand patterns and possibilities from the past. So I think that’s a big piece of it.

And the US is a very amnesiac culture. And I read that part of why people are not more anti-Trump, ’cause a lot of them don’t even remember what the world was like 3 and 1/2 years ago. It’s legit for kids who– 18-year-old voters who were 10 when Trump got elected. It’s not so legit for people over 30.

So I think all those things feed despair as well as, when I started talking about hope 20 something years, 21 years ago, I ended up saying “hope is a frilly pink dress nobody wants to show their knees in. Despair is a black leather jacket everyone thinks they look cool in.” So it’s also kind of a style factor.

Those are my top 5,000 explanations. Thank you all.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I wanted to add something really quickly because being in the world of science fiction, we think about these things a lot around, whether people are writing dystopian or Utopian or hopeful science fiction. And one of the things that I’ve found, because The Terraformers is quite a hopeful book in a lot of ways, although it has a lot of dark elements to it as well, is that when you write something dystopian people think it’s quite serious.

They take it as being weighty and literary.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] Black leather jacket.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] Yeah. And actually I thought it was interesting that you described hope as being a frilly pink dress, because I think it is something that is sort of marginalized, feminized, degraded. It’s viewed as unserious. Somebody naive, someone who doesn’t truly understand the world. And so when you try to offer a more hopeful vision, sometimes it can feel like everyone is just shutting you down because it’s just not, it isn’t something that an educated person would believe.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] I heard her.

[REBECCA HERMAN] Yes. I was just saying that this is true in my experience in historical scholarship as well. And certainly was my disposition as a college student, which is when I became more and more interested in history, I wasn’t interested in high school. But it was almost like the more obscene the better. It’s why I study US Foreign Relations in Latin America. It doesn’t get any worse than that.

But this book that I’m working on now is about Antarctica and it ends with a ban on mining. And so of course, that’s not the end of the story. It’s not everything tied up in a bow, but it is weird to be a historian writing a book where the arc actually ends in a place that is sort of a weird happy ending. So I can relate to that across the historical genre as well.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Well, it was a pleasure to listen to you all talk about your work and your books on climate. I have also written a book on climate. So I know how difficult and also how important it is as well. But mine is on artists reimagining the Arctic and Antarctic and it’s called Climate Change and the New Polar Aesthetics.

And it deals with storytelling, but in the context of art and filmmaking specifically on these regions. But I wanted to ask and, I mean, this is something we all grapple with, and I’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s work and had really appreciated it in a lot of ways because, I think, yes, the serious is usually, becomes extremely masculinist and limited.

And I too stay away from the apocalypse and all that kind of fear mongering and thinking in my own writing. But I always have trouble hitting a balance between being furious that we’ve blown through the 1.5 centigrade mark.

But the way people also respond to emergencies in such a sort of short sighted way. And it’s like a balance in our writing in a sense of how to open up conversations and keep the pressure on simultaneously and get people to feel like they can contribute and act as well, and push against passivity.

And so I feel like it’s so interesting how you’re all sort of figuring this out in terms of novel writing. I mean, from my experience, it seems like, once people become part of the first line communities, then they really wake up. And it’s really, to me, depressing that people have to be hit by Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Maria in order to understand the huge stakes here.

So I was just wondering if you could just speak more to, how you think through these different kind of layers, levels, emotions? Whether it’s humor or horror, as the cases in some of the work I write on, the horror genre. And how do you keep this balance and tension going simultaneously?

[AARON SACHS] It seems like maybe the fire angle. I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but just what you were saying about frontline communities, I don’t know, if you were thinking about that.

[DANIEL GUMBINER] Yeah. I think the first thing that came to mind in terms of just balancing these different waves of emotion around frustration and then wanting to remain hopeful to at the same time, is just sort of trying to be honest about that and look at it soberly and not try and make it other than what it is, which is that it is really frustrating.

And there are also hopeful elements, in both of those things are true. And just trying to acknowledge that and continue to work within that seesaw state of mind, because that allows you to see it most clearly. And I think seeing it most clearly is the best way to act in a wise way around it.

I think– actually thinking about the despair question a little bit too. The thing that came to mind for me is that, well, despair and depression often arise when we feel like we don’t have a voice or we are disempowered or our voice is not allowed. And so I think if we are feeling despair, it’s often because we haven’t found a door through which we can imagine, achieving what we feel like we need to achieve.

But those doors do exist in this moment, like many of the panelists discussed them. And so it’s a matter of seeing that clearly and being like present of mind enough to find the frame of mind that works for you.

So I think acknowledging it and being frank about that helps you chart a path forward.

[AARON SACHS] I guess I would also just add very quickly that, for me, part of it is trying to work on multiple fronts at the same time, in multiple ways. So in my contribution today I was really focused on how we, who are activists or engaged in various ways, need to work on our own mentality or mental health,

But also in the book, I talk about how we can use humor through satire to attack the people who are doing things we disapprove of, and also how we can use humor on ourselves to make ourselves sort of less grim and sanctimonious.

Becca was saying history is often dominated by a tragic metanarrative environmental history even more so. I mean, it’s almost like a full embrace of tragedy and despair and just the sort of teleology, the fate of everything going wrong, everything being despoiled. And I think making fun of that tendency in ourselves could also be a useful strategy.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Thank you all. I’ve really enjoyed this. I think each of you have spoken to this a bit but I’m curious whether you can talk more about everyday ways of engaging with storytelling and how we might be more expansive with those.

So specifically for folks who aren’t professional writers where do you see opportunities for us to expand the places in which we’re telling stories the media that we’re using and the ways that we’re engaging with them? Particularly when we live in a culture where often the act of reading is so solitary. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] When I put out Not Too Late, I felt it covers a lot of different aspects of the climate situation, energy, technology, culture, colonialism, et cetera. And then I realized we hadn’t actually given people a practical what-can-I-do guide. So that’s now in the digital book and will be in the next printing, and it’s a free download pinned in my Twitter account.

And on the Not Too Late website and stuff. But I feel like everybody is a storyteller. Some of us have the joy and luck of publishing books. Every conversation is a story conversation. There are stories underlying, oh we’ll never win. Oh, we actually can remember all these times we win.

So I feel like a big part of being a climate activist is just being an informed and constructive participant, whether it means bringing climate up without just being like, oh, I read another really terrible statistic, but kind of like wow, did you know that solar is now the cheapest form of electricity ever known on Earth? Or that.

So I feel like there’s a lot of different pieces as a storyteller. And it’s not necessarily just stories specific to climate. I think our stories about where– as I was saying, I wrote Hope in the Dark 20 years before we put out not too late. Where does power lie? What does change look like? Where do we find our own power?

And again, I think memory is to hope as amnesia is to despair. So I think just equipping yourself to participate in everyday life, because these things– the world really gets changed not by a book, but how a book, whether it’s Silent Spring or whatever becomes how people tell the story about.

Oh, pesticides are not these miracle things that will save us from bad bugs. Pesticides are poisoning us and birds and disrupting the whole system. And so I feel stories need to go, I hate the word viral at this point in history for some reason, but they need to become something that’s everybody’s equipment, not just a few writers.

So that’s how I think about it. I don’t know what the other people here might say.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I’ve been thinking a lot about this article that Astra Taylor wrote. Yeah, we love her. She’s a filmmaker and she helped spearhead The Debt Collective, which is a group devoted to relieving people of their debts. And she talks about this idea of the right to listen. So not the right to speak, but the right to listen.

And she describes how the Debt Collective, as a movement, deployed this idea when they would get together in big groups like this or even bigger, and people would just tell stories about their debt. And this is a hugely taboo subject, especially in the United States. People do not like to talk about money, how much they owe, how much they make.

And just the act of sharing how much they owed, what it had done to their lives, was really transformative. And I think that that to me is how storytelling comes into everyday life.

I think any time you get together, even with just a group of friends informally or a group of people on a Discord server, or if you’re on Mastodon or some social media thing that’s not Facebook or X, you have an opportunity to listen to people and hear their stories and share and realize that you’re not alone.

And a lot of what Rebecca was saying, that we are actually working to change things and it’s very easy to feel isolated from that. But in fact, it’s just a conversation away and it doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to be talking.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hello. Thank you very much for this total panel. I’m a PhD student here in the History Department, and I’ve been trying to grapple with the question of what kind of storyteller I want to be. I’m thinking about the past and the present. And in this process I’ve been told that I need to be eligible to the historians, that I shouldn’t really pay attention to the president.

I should stick to the sources. And so my question is, in your respective fields, either historical scholarship, science journalism or fictional writing, how do you negotiate with your respective fields expectations of what your writing should look like and to bring forth, or perhaps tap into different ways of imagining, different ways of storytelling to get out of this storytelling crisis that Rebecca Solnit highlighted? Thank you.

[REBECCA HERMAN] You’ve thought a lot about this. I wonder if you should.

[AARON SACHS] Sure. I’ll just chime in quickly about that since you are a PhD student, the academic part, I’m glad you already used the word negotiate because that is something you can always do, and that’s in my experience, it’s something that graduate students forget that they have the power to do.

And I think one of the strongest ways you can negotiate, and I mean in the most immediate terms with your advisor or your committee, but also in the broader terms that you were asking about, your intended audience, is to cite models of works that have been successful in your field and do exactly what you most want to do in terms of communicating.

Because I can guarantee that there have been models in whatever field you’re in within history, there have been very, very successful books that have told their stories and including first books, including dissertations, that have told their stories in different ways, that have been published with trade presses, that have appealed to different kinds of audiences, simultaneously academic audiences and, say, activist audiences.

So that’s where I would start.

[REBECCA HERMAN] And I’ll just say in the 40 plus books I didn’t give you summaries of in their entirety, is an edited volume that Aaron co-edited called Artful History. And it is about– it has many, many examples of work that is strong scholarship and beautifully written.

Do any of you want to speak to that, or should we take another question? We have about 10 minutes left.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I would just say super briefly, as a recovering academic, I would say also that if the kind of writing and storytelling you want to do takes you beyond the Academy, that’s OK. Like there’s jobs for people like us outside the Academy too and I used to not think that when I was a grad student, and all I wanted was a tenure track job.

But there are ways to be a public intellectual and to do the kind of work that you want to do beyond the Academy. So if you find that you’re butting your head up against those limitations too much, just remember there’s the big world out there too and we’re here and you’ll survive.

[REBECCA HERMAN] Sure. We could do that and then close it that way.

[AUDIENCE MEMBER] Hi. Thank you so much for your talk. I’m an undergrad in both English and Environmental Science, so I really appreciate the grouping of topics, I guess. You mentioned a lot about how all labor is necessary in the climate crisis and working towards addressing these issues. So I guess, how do you reassure yourself that writing is valuable and especially in a society where scientific discovery is much more valued and talked about?

How do you reassure yourself that your writing is worthwhile and has purpose, and especially before you’re well-read and published that that work is contributing in a meaningful way?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER #2] Yeah. My question is surrounding, I think it’s hard for people who– it’s hard to get people to show up for things, even if it is something that those people want to do. I think that the attendance at this event is a testament to how wonderful you all are, so props for that.

I guess I’m wondering if there has been any through line through what you all have seen success in terms of whether it’s something you want people to physically show up for, something that you’re asking people to do, contacting or representative, those sorts of things. When those kind of campaigns have been successful, what through lines have been for that?

[AUDIENCE MEMBER #3] Hi. Sorry. My question is angled towards, being conscious that we have two journalists in the panel, in the context of losing thousands of jobs, journalist jobs in the US right now. How do we tell, where is the space to tell international stories? I just came back from two years in the Brazilian Amazon. I do journalism. And the stories being told here are really different.

And the stories that I hear from traditional Indigenous peoples are not reaching a national or international level. And I myself am struggling to be able to tell the stories because they don’t seem hopeful or like solutions to journalism.

[REBECCA HERMAN] Great. Who wants to speak to those for concluding?

That’s a lot.

[AARON SACHS] I’ll jump in with one thought in response to the very first question from our undergrad. And thank you very much for coming. It doesn’t matter, writing doesn’t matter.

What I mean is there’s no way of knowing if you’re writing is ever going to matter. And Rebecca has said this many times very much more elegantly than I can say it, but I agree and I have very much lived that, and I think that if you want to write, that is enough.

If you feel that it’s important to you in the moment, that is enough. And then you can hold on to the uncertainty of whether it will matter to anyone as a kind of hope. Everything is uncertain. I asked a similar question when I was in undergrad to one of my mentors and my main concern was, well, how do I say something new?

How can my perspective matter when so many people have said all of these things? Look at this bookstore, look at all of these amazing books. And he was, like, that’s not the problem. You are going to say something completely different because there’s nobody else like you in the world.

The rest is just chance. It’s true there are a lot of books out there, but who could have predicted. And one of Rebecca’s examples that I remember very clearly because I teach Thoreau every year in Environmental History, is there is no way that anyone living in Thoreau’s time would have predicted that we would still be reading Thoreau in the 21st century. You just never know.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] I want to jump on what he said, which was so helpful. I taught at art schools for a while, the San Francisco Art Institute and California College of Arts and Crafts back when it still had its full name. And I really struggled. I started in my 20s with “very few of these people are going to make a living as an artist.” What are we teaching them? What are we giving them?

I think when you enter into any creative act, and writing really hones this, you become a producer of meaning rather than a consumer of meaning. You learn to think for yourself, you gain a capacity to analyze, assess, find a point of view, think deeply. Think that is incredibly valuable whether or not other people see it, it reaches other people.

And so it has an inherent value in what it makes you as a person in the world versus being like a passive consumer or somebody who accepts sort of received opinion.

And then also I write a lot, as was mentioned in the intro, I’m also on the board of Oil Change International Third Act, the advisory board of Dayenu, a Jewish Voice for Climate. And I have the Not Too Late project with Thelma. I kind of hedge my bets by donating, joining actions.

My younger brother who lives in Berkeley is a well known Climate and Human Rights organizer, and I’ve been tagging along with him for world– oh, my God, almost 40 years. And he helps organize, I show up.

So I feel like no matter what else you do in your life, you’re always a citizen, and there’s always other– I don’t want that to just, and I don’t mean citizen in the sense that you have legal status, I mean that you’re a member of the community who can show up in different ways, participate in different ways beyond your profession and that never stops, no matter if you’re an incredibly successful writer or dancer or filmmaker or something like that.

And I have always found that activism feeds my work. I come in touch with remarkable people. I feel over and over with Occupy Wall Street, Indigenous Rights Movements I was part of or supporting in the ’90s. The Women’s Movement, et cetera. I’ve literally seen the world change profoundly in ways if I was disengaged, I wouldn’t.

So it’s incredibly worth doing. You’ll find out why. It’s inherently worth doing, but you’ll find out some of the reasons why by doing it. And oh, my God. We have all these other questions. But it’s great, we have all these other panelists. Passing the ball.

[ANNALEE NEWITZ] I mean, I feel like a lot of these questions do come down to, why should we right when everything is on fire and shouldn’t we be like putting our bodies on the line instead of engaging our minds in this uncertain environment, where we’re told every day that journalists are being fired or being laid off or venues that we love disappeared, nuked their websites overnight? That kind of thing.

I mean, of course, at a time like this, if you’re a writer who wants to write about social change or justice, you are going to be discouraged. Dominant culture is going to tell you that what you do is worthless. Thinking is worthless. Writing something down, what if only one person read it? That’s worthless. Well, I don’t think so because I’m a writer, so I am prone to despair.

And it is a rough profession just like teaching, just like any other profession that you’re going to go into, if you’re interested in the sciences or the humanities. But I think about the fact that so many books and articles and just little things that I’ve read, have come to me from someone who’s obscure, who nobody maybe reads or maybe like one person checked the book out in the last 10 years.

And those things matter to me so much. There are books that I think about almost every day that were never bestsellers, that were never taught in some frickin’ English survey class, but they changed me and they live in me. And I think, honestly, if you write something and one person reads it and they’re like, wow, that was badass, you have succeeded.

And fuck capitalism. Fuck the idea that you need to have a fancy job or some credential. The goal is to be heard and to listen to others. And that’s what you do when you write.

[REBECCA SOLNIT] I would just add very quickly to the last question, is we brought in people from all over the South Pacific, somebody from Pakistan, the Philippines, et cetera, and embattled parts of the US, Navajo, New Mexico, New Orleans, Black New Orleans, et cetera, and we don’t need to tell all the stories. And a lot of what you can do as a journalist is be a conduit for other people’s stories, stories from elsewhere.

And I think becoming an amplifier for stories that aren’t being heard enough Is so much what writers try and do, whether they’re people dealing directly with wildfire or cats having romances with trains, but I digress. And so I feel like that’s a big part of the job. And I love that you brought up Astra and deep listening. Yeah, we need to tell stories. We also need to hear stories or hear people in search of a story to know what’s needed out there.

And now I’m like, what about the middle question?

[DANIEL GUMBINER] I would say that it feels like some of this connects to your question too in terms of just finding a community of people who can support your work, even if there are trials and tribulations with getting it published, but finding that audience, no matter what I mean, I think I love this book called Art and Fear that is about just making art, despite its many challenges.

And one of the principles that the authors talk about is this idea of finding an audience no matter what. Building in an audience to your life, no matter what that looks like to just make it so that you can keep producing. And maybe the editorial tides change, and suddenly the kind of work that you’re doing becomes in Vogue and you’re right there.

And you’ve been doing it in the deepest, most meaningful way for the longest and you’re perfectly positioned. But you’re still producing and you’re still doing the thing that’s important to you, if you have that audience in the first place. Because you can’t really control the editorial tides. That’s sort of not in your power.

All you can do is kind of control the work that you’re doing and make sure you put yourself in a position to do something that’s meaningful to yourself.

[REBECCA HERMAN] All right. Well, thank you all for joining us. And I want to thank the panelists again, if you’ll all give them around of applause.



[WOMAN’S VOICE] Thank you for listening. To learn more about Social Science Matrix, please visit


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