Turning the sky white, climate ghosts, slow water and two veteran authors reflect on long careers
In my day job I interview authors; actually environment and science writers about their latest work. And for the most part, I get to choose the author.
It’s one of the more rewarding aspects of my job. How often have you said after finishing a book, if only I could talk with the author. I get to do that.
It’s 30 minutes of Q&A with some casual chatter as a bonus. I posted my last author interview of the year recently and it dawned on me, it’s been a great group this year. They've written in depth on serious topics and shared their learnings, expertise and candor with a bit of wit and whimsy thrown in. Think books with “darkly comic” and “quietly radical” touches.
Following, a brief commentary on the authors and their work. First, I referred to them as environment writers but they are more. Nancy Langston is a university professor and environmental historian. Canada’s Maude Barlow is internationally known for her social justice work that she blends with water activism, and Erica Gies’ travel-for-work resume would rival that of any of her peers.
Dave Dempsey is a prolific author whose resume includes international policy adviser and environmental activist and Elizabeth Kolbert is a Pulitzer Prize winner who is a university fellow.
In chronological order, my 2022 author interviews.
Nancy Langston’s Climate Ghosts: Migratory Species in the Anthropocene, is not the type of book that I would normally gravitate to. Maybe too abstract for a big-city dweller who has spent minimal time in nature. The title refers to species - in this case woodland caribou, common Loons and lake sturgeon - that are still present but who could be approaching the brink of extinction. Langston says we can still restore them but that will require hard choices. When I turned the last page I thought, how could I have been so hesitant.
Canada’s Maude Barlow has been on the frontlines of environmental and social justice activism for decades and is best-known for serving as the adviser to the President of the United Nations on water issues. In Still Hopeful: Lessons from a Lifetime of Activism, Barlow chronicles the wins, losses and the people encountered in those decades. In Still Hopeful, Barlow relays the account of how she stumbled into water activism when she learned that water was viewed as yet one more commodity to be traded. A status it maintains today to her chagrin. But she’s not done yet.
If there was a best title award for environment books, Water Always Wins by Erica Gies should take top prize. In it, Gies asks the pithy question, what does water want? “Figuring out what water wants - and accommodating its desires within our human landscapes - is now a crucial survival strategy,” Gies’ publisher wrote in a description of the book. Gies explains the title saying that we humans have created an us versus them mentality in our attempts to control water. But there’s hope, Gies writes, in the nascent Slow Water movement, emerging groups who want to collaborate with water, not control it. Gies is cautiously optimistic.
A prolific author, Dave Dempsey is best known for books about the big policy issues that the Great Lakes and environs face. In Half Wild: People, Dogs and Environmental Policy, Dempsey takes a U-turn to focus on his 40 year career as an environmentalist, writ large, with an emphasis on the “overlapping planes between humans and the nonhuman world…” My favorite anecdote from the book describes a meeting early in his career that involved a legendary sportsman who described him as a “greenie” and environmental elitist. Thankfully, bourbon was involved and there was a happy ending, sort of. Not all authors can successfully navigate a switch from explaining environmental policy to explaining his career dealing with it. Dempsey does.
Pulitzer Prize winner (The Sixth Extinction) Elizabeth Kolbert strikes again with Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. In it, Kolbert uses human’s reversal of the Chicago River to send its waste elsewhere, then 100 years later the electrification of part of the river to illustrate the perils derived from our “control of the control of nature.” Fast forward to the effects of climate change staring us in the face and now comes a scheme to shoot particles into the sky to partially block the Sun and slow the rise of temperatures. Just one thing, the sky will be white, not blue, thus the title. What else could go wrong? It’s hard to miss when you read Kolbert and she’s spot on with Under a White Sky.
Props to the authors, good work all around. And to the folks at Great Lakes Now for the opportunity to bring them to the region and beyond.
Chicago-based environmental journalist